Island of Rodarea I

Chapter 1: Ominous Rumblings

 

It all began just two afternoons ago. The dream was the same, almost as if a machine was repeatedly playing it day after day. And this was the third day. And again the dream came. Again, the man dressed in the purest of whites stood in front of him. Prothal was in a place of the brightest of lights. He was standing on…nothing. All about him stretched forth a vast expanse of nothingness, all brighter than the sun.

The man bowed to him, and spoke, “Greetings, oh appointed one of the One-Who-Cannot-Be-Named!” He looked up – his eight-foot stature looming over Prothal. He looked serious as he continued, “I have seen great terrors and great evil coming from the north, my brother – look yonder!”

It seemed like the place about him was transformed into a different land. It was ominous and dark. Lightning flashed across the sky at regular intervals, and the landscape was parched and rocky, seemingly devoid of life. Then he heard rumblings. Rumblings as of an earthquake, of a powerful force that shook it apart – except the earth was not moving.

Then he saw them. The clouds of dust appeared first on the horizon. Dimly, from the within the clouds came thousands upon thousands of creatures. Orcs, goblins, and all manner of fantastic beasts Prothal had never seen in his life. They were charging with the madness of one possessed by evil.

“Worst is to come, brother – behold the skies!” The man pointed to the sky. The creatures that flew seemed to blot out the sun completely, so great were their number. Dragons, all manner of dragons, gargoyles, and many more unrecognisable beasts. Fear came over Prothal as they swooped past him. Turning to see where they went, he recognised the body of water. The Great Lake.

But surely, they have to stop at the water! But they did not stop – they simply walked on top of the waters and moved on towards Frelandia! Prothal was aware of spells of water-walking, but the sheer number of priests of such power needed to cast enough of that spell on the unnumbered horde would be too much to even imagine!

Then he saw something that made him wanted to weep. Destruction, destruction, everywhere. Villages burning, the lands defiled, the churches desecrated – all these he saw. Bodies lay one upon another, as the crows and ravens picked over choice morsels – such were the amount given them to pick. He saw children being made slaves, to perform all sorts of horrible things. And the women – he could not bear to look at the atrocities being performed on them.

At that point, as he would the other two afternoons, he would wake up inside his tent. Something was wrong there. He could just feel it in his heart. Could it be that the Eternal One was showing him something? Who was the man? Why did the man call him the ‘Appointed One’? Many questions burnt in his heart, but his prayers yielded nothing. Would his friends need to know? Would they laugh at him – especially knowing the worldly attitudes of Ky’Thand and Hannibal’s friend Xavier? Or maybe it just might be better to keep these visions a secret until he found out more?

Rain was something very bad for morale. It turned the ground muddy, and limited visibility. Worse of all was the constant pelting of raindrops upon the face and body. It could make anybody feel terribly lonely, even with his comrades huddled next to him.

From the watchtower at Nomad’s Crossing, the two friends looked across the vast expanses of the Great Lake. “Well Hannibal nice weather you called up, no invading army worth their dry boots would wander around in that muck outside. I think some warm mead and a look at that map of yours, is a good thing to do with such inclement weather.” Ky’Thand looked to see what Hannibal was doing.

Although it was late summer, the reduced visibility had increased the tension in the camp. Already, Lieutenant Taro had to discipline three of his men, caught fighting. He turned, with a wearied look, and acknowledged the entry of Prothal into the tower with a salute. Although technically having no rank, Prothal was given the greatest respect by the soldiers. Prothal had to attend to some soldiers who had suffered some injuries during their practice. Even now, Prothal felt uneasy over the increased tension in the camp.

Besides Lt Taro, Remora was in the tower too. A cleric of Mystari serving in the army for six years, she was the only member in the SAS Battlefield Resources, before Prothal had come in. Ky’Thand and Hannibal had rubbed shoulders with her before, and knew her to be a proud person, eager to prove herself to Hannibal. And even at thirty, she still looked beautiful and charming.

Her plate mail armour clinked as she turned to look towards the Great Lake, without even a word of greetings to Prothal. Covering the armour was the robes all the priests of Mystari wear – with the emblem of the open book on the front. Her Holy Symbol dangled prominently, resting in between her breasts. She patted her mace absent-mindedly as she peered through the misty skies. Resting in one corner was her shield.

“Well, Hannibal…” Xavier spoke up as Prothal walked in. Ky’Thand could not help but notice Lt Taro frown as Xavier called Hannibal by name. Even until this day, Lt Taro had always ticked Xavier off for not calling an officer by rank, but he did it anyway – perhaps just to spite him.

Xavier grinned as he noticed Lt Taro’s reactions, and he continued, “I am getting a little bored cooped up here. I think I will get some of my guys and look around the place. Better than being here looking at the rain! See you later Hannibal!” Without waiting for an answer, he began walking towards the spiral staircase leading to the three floors below.

Feeling the tension within the watchtower, Prothal cringed at the bristling reactions from his companions. It could have been the sarcasm emphasised in Xavier’s communication with Hannibal, as Lt. Taro listened with disgust or it could have been Remora. Her lack of acknowledgement to his mere presence only furthered his suspicions of her jealousy to his presence. A knife could cut the tension of the camp and if his visions were reliable, they were soon to get much worse.

As Xavier prepared to leave the tower, Hannibal turned with a small smile at the man’s back and a shake of his head. When Xavier’s foot hit the first step, Hannibal spoke in the voice of command. “Xavier my friend, don’t ‘find’ anything on the Frelandia side of town. With this weather, your guys could look around across the river. See if you can find something to amuse the troops that won’t land me in the stockade.”

Xavier turned about, gave a mock salute, and said, “Aye, sir!” He smiled and continued down the stairs.

Hannibal turned back to looking into the rain-swept mists adjusting his green beret and felt cloak. He wasn’t wearing armour, but was in a work outfit of leather pants and vest over a comfortable homespun shirt. With his hand on a military issue long sword, and a very non-standard sword pommel sticking up over one shoulder, Hannibal was definitely armed for trouble if it should find him. However, morale seemed to improve when the troops see their commander’s confidence in their ability to protect him so, except for a shield Hannibal had stayed out of armour during the rains.

“Lieutenant Taro,” Hannibal spoke to his second in command and probable successor, “The men are edgy and this damned rain makes our lookouts less than useful. Step up the foot patrols and get our horses patrolling closer to the lake. The rain will wash out any signs of movement through the woods so our best chance will be to spot them coming ashore.”

Prothal’s arrival caused Hannibal to cut short his orders to Taro, but all pertinent information had already been passed on. Lt Taro also knew when he was not wanted. He gave a smart salute and turned to go down the stairs. He paused for a while and turned about, saying, “Sir, Lt Taro thinks it best for you to wear some armour. We do not have much time to react in the case of the attack – our searchlights can’t see much in this rain!” He saluted again, and turned to continue downstairs.

Extending a hand to the priest, the two men’s blades pulsed their own greeting or challenge, something neither had yet to figure out. “Friend, Glad you could come. The men are always heartened when those of the faith are with us. What brings you to this far corner of our empire?”

Moving closer to Hannibal and Ky’Thand, Prothal spoke in a hushed tone to both, “We need to speak in private. I have information that could be VERY important.”

Hannibal’s eyes narrowed in calculation at Prothal’s greeting, a decision was made with a slight nod to Prothal.

“Come Prothal, Ky’thand and I were just admiring the weather!” Hannibal exclaimed while rainwater dripped off his cap and cloak, “We need towers like this all along the perimeter, though this weather still means we need patrols.

“Well, we’re not seeing anything out here. Come to my quarters downstairs and we can talk where it is dry!”

As the trio moved downstairs, Hannibal turned to Remora, “Priestess, thank you for your company. When you leave please summon the standard watch. We can talk later at night watch.” Hannibal smiled as the ritual the two had gone through for years continued. Hannibal flirted and they had spent time in semi-public places, but there it had always ended. Except this time she did not respond with her customary return smile, but continued to gaze towards the waters.

As the men entered Hannibal’s office, he shook the water off cloak and beret and casually flipped them both onto hooks set into the walls, placing his two swords on a sword rack between a polished suit of plate and a duller but serviceable suit of chain mail.

Knickknacks and battlefield mementoes were displayed here and there in no particular order. Besides these, scrolls and parchments were stuffed into box shaped shelves, and a full backpack sat behind the door. The general chaos of the room ended at Hannibal’s desk, however. This massive 6×3-foot desk was completely bare save for an oil lamp, ink, and quill.

Tapping a large rolled-up vellum map of the region in his hand Hannibal spoke to his good friends, “I need to speak with Ky’thand about his ideas for shoring up our defences, but it can wait. Prothal what news causes even YOU to act so secretive?”

As the men looked around they noticed the office had no chairs, just fairly uncomfortable campaign stools. Hannibal liked his meetings short (though they both knew there was a more comfortable private office behind this one) so no one, not even himself, had a comfortable seat.

Tossing the map onto his desk, Hannibal waited for Prothal’s explanation.

Looking to Ky’Thand and Hannibal each in turn, with a wrinkle of concern in his brow Prothal began to speak, “First I must apologise for this secrecy, but I think this information is best shared in private and kept so. The men are already on the edge and we would not want to cause unnecessary panic.” He paused to gather his thoughts before continuing, choosing his words carefully.

“I fear a great evil will soon be descending upon us all…” His two friends noticed an uncharacteristic tone of trepidation within his voice, “Over the past several days I have been experiencing the same reoccurring vision, and it disturbs me so.” Shifting in his armour Prothal stared at the floor, it seemed obvious that he was having some sort of internal struggle. “I have received visions in the past, they have helped shape my faith and focus my resolve. Except none before, have been quite like these.”

“Each time it is the same. It always begins with me floating up in the heavens within the brightest light I have ever seen. I was looking down at the northern reaches of the Great Lake, the unimaginable scene sprawling before my eyes.

“A vast horde of evil was descending from the Darklands. Their numbers were staggering, as they flowed like thick blood over the lands as far as the eye could see. Vast numbers of Orcs, Goblins and vile beasts of every description, all ready to spill blood. Many of the creatures were so horrid that they defy even the most basic descriptions. When the sordid creatures reached the shores of the Great Lake, they continued across without hesitation. They were all walking on the water as if it were a solid piece of ice but it was NOT even winter!”

Stopping his description briefly, he judged the expressions of his friends as he removed a stunning silver amulet of the Eternal One from under his purple surcoat. He gripped its soothing shape firmly in his left hand and mumbled a silent prayer to His Grace.

“The mystical powers that would be required to achieve such a feat are beyond comprehension.” He continued.

“In shock, I¹m directed to look up into the sky and I become even more horrified with what I see. I¹m now floating in the middle of MANY flights of huge dragons of all sorts, gargoyles and many other unfamiliar flying creatures, all thundering by me. Just like the hoard on the ground, there also were too many to count and they could be seen approaching far into the northern horizon.” With a small quiver in his voice, “One has not felt true terror, until one witnessed such a sight.”

“Then I saw something that made me want to weep. Destruction, destruction, everywhere. Villages burning, the lands defiled, the churches desecrated. Bodies lay one upon another, as the crows and ravens picked over choice morsels. Children were being made into slaves, to perform all sorts of horrible things. And the women – I could not bear to look at the atrocities being performed on them.”

Silence filled the room for several moments as the details began to sink in. Releasing the amulet from his clenched fist, he felt subtle pain as the blood began flowing back into his fingers. Prothal kissed its cool surface lightly and carefully tucked it back under his surcoat.

Ky’Thand broke the moment, “Well Prothal, that was a pretty scary vision you had, explains the slightly red eyes. So before I ask a really dumb question like have you been sniffing the wrong type of incense – did your god show anything good, or positive which we may use in the defence against such large odds?”

Hannibal listened grimly to the priest’s vision. Thinking of Taro’s comment Hannibal moved to his plate mail and put it on while Prothal was relating the story.

When Prothal had finished, Hannibal moved to his desk. “Friend, this is dire news indeed. Did your vision give any sense of the time or location of this attack? Can you remember the angle of the sun, or the sensation of time passing? I know it is hard to recall but your God is giving us at least some time to prepare!”

After hearing Prothal’s comments Hannibal unrolled the map of his command and looked at the Great Lake. “We can’t stop such a horde alone, and have no way to stop such a large number of flying beasts.” Hannibal stated as he looked at the map, “Ky’Thand has the right of it. Did you have any indication of where this mystical power was coming from or a way to cancel it? Drowning the horde in the lake would make our task much easier. And I doubt if many of the creatures you saw could fly the whole 1000 miles across the lake without rest.”

As Prothal stopped to gather his thoughts, Hannibal moved to the door of his office. Shouting to the men at arms nearby, he commanded. “Soldier Jones, tell the messengers to prepare to ride. I will have a message for Colonel Bluestar in a short while.”

Turning back to Prothal, Hannibal assured his friend. “These are visions of the future. They haven’t occurred yet and we are now granted at least some time to prepare. Do you have anything more to add?”

A small smile spread across Prothal’s face as he finally reached across the table to clasp hands with both of his long time friends, a more typical greeting, “It does my heart well to see you both again. I am sorry for my lack of greetings upon the watchtower. My mind has been rather… well, preoccupied and I am weary from ministering.

“My vision, while very useful, only indicated a direct assault against Frelandia from over the Great Lake with a massive strength of evil by land and air.” Thinking carefully he offered, “The landscape of the northern shore appeared parched and rocky, seemingly devoid of life. The lands were also dark and foreboding with lightning flashing at alarmingly regular intervals. The sun was totally obscured by dark clouds. But it was definitely day time.” Placing both of his hands on Hannibal’s map, he slid his fingers across, “That could describe either the Gorbi Desert or even the smaller shoreline of the Darklands.”

Ky’Thand remained quiet – direct military things were not his realm. If the vision is a true future, I had better find a good cellar to hide in, He thought to himself. If my beloved were still alive we would have balls of fire and bolts of lightning to pluck the flying creatures from the sky. I have none of those potent magics yet, maybe one day soon.

Ky’Thand stared at the map, but did see it, although his train of thought was elsewhere.

“Unfortunately, MANY questions remain unanswered.” Prothal continued, “The biggest in my mind, is WHEN? The only clue was that of the lake not being frozen, so it clearly was not winter. I am also not sure how relative time was to the events that unfolded before my eyes. After all, the total destruction I witnessed would not have taken place until after their timely crossing of the vast Great Lake.”

“Perhaps this is a vision of just one possible future and that it can still be prevented…” Shaking his head Prothal indicated, “I just don’t know.”

“I feel deep in my heart that these images are true. However, we should take caution before repositioning all of the troops within our great nation against such an evil assault. Prudence dictates that we prepare for the worst, while we must try and learn more. Who can we speak with, that knows the ebb and flow of the Darklands these days?” Pointing to another section of the map, Prothal said, “Perhaps a commander in my home land of Philia, where the lake meets Philia and the Dark Peaks? This is always an area of evil conflict.”

Hearing some more details of Prothal’s story, Hannibal made his decision. Taking pen and ink he wrote the following message to Colonel Bluestar.

Sir, our senior cleric assigned to SAS, Priest Prothal, has had a disturbing portent given to him by the gods. On close questioning, I have no reason to disbelieve him though I wish I could.

A huge horde, an emptying of the Dark Lands, may be occurring as you are reading this. A powerful magic is letting them walk across the Great Lake and they are accompanied by all manner of flying creatures. This horde may be travelling along the east edge of the lake but this is simply conjecture at this time.

My troops remain on alert, but we need some way to probe into the Great Lake.

Major Hannibal

Sanding the message, Hannibal then rolled it and placed it into a scroll case. Handing it to the waiting messenger, he ordered, “See that this gets to Colonel Bluestar as soon as possible”. The man saluted him and quickly ran out of the office.

“Well that task is done. Now the difficult part; how to verify your story.” Hannibal stated sitting behind his desk with Ky’thand and Prothal looking over the map, “Going to the Dark Peaks is possible but if we are wrong, we waste a lot of time. Yolanda’s father in the desert may be able to help; but he is very secretive as to the abilities granted to the desert shaman. Or the army releases some magic that allows us to travel quickly across the great lake to examine what is going on first hand.

Only a small number should go. The horde you described would not even be slowed by 500 men and they will be needed if we fail. If we must go by horse, I would suggest the desert coast of the lake.” Hannibal sat back and examined the map, hoping for some revelation.

KyThand thought about the options, “Hannibal, for a wizard of such power in Frelandia, you will doubtfully get an audience to. I believe the best option is to save as many troops for a counterattack at supply lines, etc. A guerrilla type war, if we are against such odds, is the best alternative. Your desire to go into Gorbi desert and ask Scorpion tribe’s shaman for the answers is a novel one and may be the answer to the above items I have just noted.” He looked at his companions for a response.

Looking at the map, Prothal realised that he could remember no more about the area in his vision. “We do not have adequate knowledge that this evil force is under a current march. It is quite possible that this vision will not go into fruition for some time. We should definitely explore our options and learn as much as possible about the latest happenings within the Darklands. Perhaps we need to capture a few evil creatures from this region to gain information.”

Hannibal looked up in slight shock at Prothal’s suggestion of capturing some of the evil ones. “Um… You do realise that gaining that type of information is hard on the creature being asked? Otherwise it is a good idea and one that may save many lives. I have gathered information in that way in the past.”

Pausing to recollect his thoughts, Prothal continued, “We must go to a rather forward area to learn such information. If your relations with this barbarian tribe present an opportunity then that is what we should do. My suggestion of the Dark Peaks could be very treacherous because of the mountains and I do not have such a direct contact as yours.

“However, our path would entail travelling along the shores of the Great Lake to the Gorbi Desert and that will pose an additional opportunity. I have relations with a small village on the shores of the lake and close to the boundaries of the Gorbi Desert. We could possibly learn additional information from this group as well.

“Perhaps by this time, my vision will have evolved into something more, or I will be insane from the same endlessly repeating vision of DOOM!”

Hannibal nodded at Prothal’s words and considered their options. “I agree with you that we need to determine what is going on. I also prefer to keep closer to my command so I can return if a major battle is a foot.”

Running a battle-callused hand up the east edge of the great lake, Hannibal seemed to be considering the terrain. Hannibal nodded at the comment about the path being along the great lake. “You are right. Damn,” Hannibal exclaimed to Ky’thand, “I wish we had the time to build those boats of yours for a Great Lake navy. They would make travel much easier, and scouting as well.

“But a small patrol, I will need to get permission from my ‘counterpart’ in Sharilan…” Everybody got the impression that Hannibal wasn’t too impressed with the Sharilan military – it was quite obvious in the way he spoke, “For a small patrol. We can at least have an escort to the borders of the desert. They can also report back to Colonel Bluestar if we find anything.”

Smiling fondly, Hannibal finished, “I will also get a chance to see Yolonda, assuming her training doesn’t take her away.”

Hannibal’s mind began turning to the details of the journey, as he spoke to Prothal, “Good thing you are with us, taking Remora with us into the desert would not be healthy!” He chuckled to himself and shook his head, “My counterpart in Sharilan wouldn’t be up till morning, the fool, so I will need to get at least some sleep. We should plan on leaving on the following morning. If the need is great, I could just ride up with the patrol tomorrow and tell him we pursuing a rumour of a large raid.”

There was a loud sound of a horn going on throughout the camp. It came from the watchtower itself! The party knew what this meant – it was the call to alert. A call of an invasion emergency!

Chapter 2: The Probe

 

Prothal’s face suddenly changed to that of alarm as he heard the blaring horn blast of an invasion. Turning to the door of Hannibal’s quarters he rushed out, back to the watchtower to witness for himself what was afoot.

His heart began to pound within his own chest as a cold sweat beaded across his brow. While moving very quickly, he spouted a prayer to the Eternal One, “Oh Your Grace, the One-Who-Cannot-Be-Named, protect us all from the evil doings of others. Guide our hands to protect all that we love and all that is truly good!” Silently, he was thinking, hoping against hope that this could not possibly the invasion from his dream. If it is…may the Eternal One help us all! He thought grimly to himself.

Picking up his great helm as he left his office, Hannibal shouted to Prothal, “Pray to your god that this is only a ‘normal’ invasion and not the precursor to the doom you foretold!” He turned to the guards, “Get Fleetfoot prepared for war. I will lead the heavy horse”

Moving towards the front, Hannibal looked for any of his lieutenants or scouts. “What’s going on out there? What is coming our way?” As he moved towards his forward command post, the watchtower, he told Ky’Thand and Prothal, “Any news will go there first, then to my office. I want to be at the front directing my men.”

As he moved Hannibal began to think about the deployment of his troops. Lt. Stonewall and 40 dragoons should be about, as would 20 heavy horsemen. Lt. Taro and 20 of his alpine troops were there, as well as Lt. Rock and 100 infantry. 20 archers were scattered about the defence areas. Xavier was nowhere to be found, but he should be with some scouts (about 10?). Some light horsemen (20?) and the nearest patrol reporting in on sighting should round up the troops.

He decided to put the Dragoons in plate in the centre of the line, 1/2 the infantry to each side. The light horse would be acting as a screen pacing the enemies advance; harassing; and most importantly bringing in information. The Heavy horse would be committed behind the left flank where they could make a sweeping charge around one end of the line (where Fleetfoot was waiting). The archers would be spread out along the line to provide harassing fire at standard bearers, messengers, or targets of opportunity. Lt. Taro and his alpine troops were in reserve and were positioned right of centre.

Reaching the watch tower Hannibal turned to Ky’Thand, “My friend. Will you accept a dangerous task? Xavier has taken some scouts across the river unless I miss my guess; but he is resourceful and will cause what trouble he can. I need you to lead the other scouts that are here and not engage in combat but try to capture leaders that we may question them when the battle is done.

“Usually, I would just order kill on sight; but with Prothal’s portent we need information even if it costs some of my men.” This last was said with obvious pain in Hannibal’s voice. He cared about his troops.

His men would follow him to the Darklands itself. In shiny plate and helm he looked the martial ideal. A Frelandian issued longsword in one hand and medium shield on the other arm Hannibal was prepared. The purple pulsing glow of his other long sword sheathed on his back and the hilts of 4 knives in his foot greaves showed his readiness for bloody battle. A combat dagger at his belt completed his weaponry.

“Prothal,” Hannibal continued his deployment as he began receiving information, “Can you minister to the dragoon’s at the centre. I will have Remora do the same on the right. As we engage, provide light for them to battle by! I will hope my presence does the same on the left when we engage.”

Ky’Thand shivered, “In this weather everyone will become lost and tracks hard to find. Are you sure this isn’t a false alarm? Either way I suppose we will not know till someone checks it. Give me 2 people who know this area well some scouts and two crack archers and I will do this task Hannibal. Which way do you believe the force will come and how far back with the command element be? And do you wish me to find Xavier?”

Ky’Thand awaited Hannibal’s answers then headed for the barracks and then the stables. First to get his detachment of men and then the horses needed.

“It may be a false alarm,” Hannibal shrugged, “The light horse will let us know soon enough. However, we must prepare as if it is the real thing.”

Nodding at Ky’Thand’s request for troops, Hannibal passed orders to the sergeant in charge of the archers in town to detail two to Ky’Thand’s command and to meet the SAS scouts at the stables. Hannibal also attached the first two of Xavier’s scouts he saw to Ky’Thand as well.

“No need for more. Xavier’s scouts are very familiar with the surrounding area and should be all the assistance you need. The archers will meet you at the stable, you don’t have to stop at the barracks first.”

“There commanders don’t lead but drive their troops,” Hannibal commented with disdain, “Thus, you shall find the leaders behind the troops; and the commander at the very rear. I shall be behind the Dragoons at the start of the battle but will lead the heavy horse in a charge into the rear when the opportunity presents itself.”

Chuckling grimly he continued, “When the leaders fall in their army, there is no thought of vengeance; the command crumbles and the army breaks into small groups.”

“That rogue will find his own trouble,” Hannibal stated shaking his head, in response to Ky’Thand’s question about Xavier, “If you do meet use him and his men to help out. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t see him sniping behind the enemy lines.”

“I would be honoured to set the example of valour within the light of His Grace, the Eternal One! Our spirit ALONE shall drive these evil beasts back into the Hell from which they came!” A noticeable change replaced Prothal’s typical calm presence, as his jaw became set with strength and determination. He almost seemed to stand a bit taller as the thoughts of squelching evil in its own tracks flashed through his mind.

Catching the soldier Hannibal sent to the stables by the arm he indicated, “My son, please instruct Keif, one of the young stable hands, to prepare my steed Knickerbocker for the coming battle as well. I shall be down very shortly.”

The three friends hurried to the command post, climbing up the stairs quickly, seasoned warriors of the battle. The plans were fixed in their minds, and they would execute it with the swiftness of mind of one who had fought alongside each other many a times.

Lt Stonewall was already there, as was Lt Taro. Xavier was nowhere to be seen, as was Lt Rock. Both officers gave a crisp salute to the three friends as they entered. Lt Taro moved towards Hannibal and spoke, “The watchtower guards sounded the alarm, sir – look!” He pointed towards the waters.

Normally, by the light of the half moon, things should be easily seen in the featureless expanse of the Great Lake. The searchlights too had a range of eighty yards, but the relentless rain was making it difficult for the searchlights to penetrate the darkness. But the friends saw them. And they realised why the guards had sounded the invasion alarm.

By the dim light of the searchlights, just a hundred yards away, the friends could see shadowy figures. Ky’Thand quickly realised that these should be boats of some sort. From what they could see at the moment, there were probably about ten of them spread out over a 40-yard front. Then slowly, they saw the second line of boats, and then the third came into view. Within the shadowy outline of the last boat, the friends could make out a sail of some sort.

There must be at least twenty to thirty boats out there! Ky’Thand made a quick calculation – each of these boats should be able to take up to 6 man-sized creatures. Which would mean an invasion force of – one hundred and twenty to one hundred and eighty men. Definitely not very good odds.

Lt Taro said grimly even as everybody watched, “The infantry are getting ready near the sands to repel the invaders, sir. Lt Rock is with them. The rain is making it difficult for our mounted troops.” Hannibal could see what he meant. The ground was already turning somewhat muddy from the rain. Which meant his mounted troops probably could not charge. Things could not be worse.

There was a sound of somebody running up the stairs. Remora ran up, eyes blazing with sheer exhilaration. She ran straight to the viewing point, and gasped. She turned back to Hannibal with a determined look, “Yes, it is time for battle once again, sir.” She looked at Prothal and made a bow, saying, “And today we shall at last see if the Eternal One be stronger, or Mystari.”

At the speed the boats were travelling, they should reach the shore in another two to three minutes.

Seeing the field of battle, Hannibal swiftly modified his initial thrust. “Ky’Thand my friend. Your orders stand, they are much more difficult now; but your mission is just as critical. I will see if we can lure that last boat ashore.”

“Lt. Taro,” Hannibal called to his second, “You must believe me when I say the stakes are higher than repelling this one raid. We MUST lure all the boats ashore.

“Have Rock deploy his men at the tree line with the light horse behind making harassing fire with their bows. Meet the enemies’ front at about 40 yards.

“Take the alpine troops and archers you have available and set up a strongpoint in the centre of the line, back 20 yards. Rock must slowly give ground back to your position and form the north and south wing, with you holding the centre. The Dragoons must hold the south end of the line and not let any troops flow around that end.

“Remora, right now I don’t really care which god is more powerful – just that they can help Frelandia weather this storm. Support the northern half of Rock’s troops, Prothal the south half. Use your judgement if the Dragoon’s need your help holding.”

Looking over the situation one more time, Hannibal came to his final decision. “This rain will not have affected the beach sand nearly as much as the dirt and mud beyond. When the command ship beaches, I will charge from north to south along the beach 5 horse four deep to rip the guts out of the command unit. We may lose some horses, but it should even the odds.”

“Comments?” Hannibal looked each commander in the eye, “We have a few moments before all hell breaks loose. Use that time wisely!” And with that, Hannibal headed for Fleetfoot and the heavy horse.

As the battle plans began to take shape, Prothal spoke up, “We should also send runners both to our north and south, ensuring that these are the ONLY forces landing on our beaches this evening. Surely this enemy would not place all of its assaulting forces right before of our eyes? Perhaps this is only a piece of a larger invasion. We should be careful to watch our own backs for additional forces of evil.

“We could also gather our heavy crossbows and long bows for firing long range missiles off into the waters. The targets are fairly large and moving at a reasonable pace. We can use these weapons to send flaming arrows, perhaps even with glass vials of Greek fire or oil attached. The flames would spread very quickly and reduce their numbers before landing on our beach head.”

Towards the end of this conversation, Prothal removed his long bow and fired a test shot at the farthest visible boat and judged the distance and feasibility of his plan. The arrow flew far but was lost in the distance – the friends could not judge if it had hit anything, so bad was the visibility. The searchlights could probably illuminate at about 40 yards clearly from the watchtower. With a beam radius of about 30 yards, the two searchlights trained together could probably light up the entire battlefield.

Watching the arrow fade away into the wet air, Hannibal shook his head as he turned to Prothal, “It is pretty wet for fire arrows to be much use however your shot does give me an idea.” Turning to the Searchlight operators, Hannibal commanded, “When the first wave of ships beaches, train all the lights onto the beach. Hopefully it will make our men more difficult to see; but our archers and horsemen will see just fine.”

“If it comes to siege,” Hannibal spoke again to Prothal, “Then we may be able to break out these weapons. Save for the archers, my troops are not equipped with heavy missile weapons. We do have this one light ballista with us in the watchtower. We may get one or two shots at each wave as they land.”

“Sadly, I have no Greek fire on hand but there is oil for the lights? But you are right about the scouts, we need to send at least a pair along the beach south; both to warn the next command and to ensure that other landings are not occurring.” Turning to the Lt. Taro, Hannibal modified his orders, “Have 2 pair of light horse scout the beach south for other landings, one pair should continue on to report to the next command.”

Chuckling grimly he said as an aside to Prothal, “Any boats that land north will be the Sharilin’s to deal with first. They should slow them and we can block an army at the bridge if necessary.”

Looking at the mass of men and women positioning themselves for battle, the horses preparing for their charge; and the listening to the warning klaxons, Hannibal concluded, “Even those Sharilan troops should be waking up by now.”

Ky’Thand looks at Hannibal after he finished with the orders, “You must believe I can do miracles! Currently I don’t walk on water to get behind the current forces attacking. To tell the truth I am afraid of water especially deep water. And under the circumstances I would be best helping to guard the light ballista or something similar. The spells I currently have will certainly slow a charging group who wishes to overwhelm the crew. Commander I wish reassignment of task.”

“But, Hannibal, I do have a few flasks I brewed before coming out to this post.” Ky’Thand replied as he took out the surprise, a look of surprise from everyone present for such rare items.

Listening to Ky’Thand’s objections, Hannibal’s face hardened as he looked again at the approaching boats. When he took a moment to calculate the task Ky’Thand was to attempt, he replied, “I don’t like it. But you are right, there is no way to reach that command boat. And I forgot your fear of water.”

Smiling grimly Hannibal continued, “There is consolation though. You are crazy enough to cart around Greek fire with you and I think the gods must be smiling on us. By all means man the ballista, I ask that you save one shot with Greek Fire for that sailing ship if it approaches close enough! Use your judgement, but it might be best to let the first wave land. Officers and spell casters would probably be in the second and third waves.”

Hannibal looked around at the men and women in the tower, and if there were no other suggestions, he would prepare to lead the heavy horse in their charge.

Ky’Thand stood his ground when Hannibal’s face hardened. When he changed his plans Ky’Thand breathed, “I hope your ballista crew is good, the Greek Fire I carry is worth good coin which I am gonna charge the treasury for.

“We will start aiming for the ship as soon as possible a sinking ship full of officers is better than some on shore. Who is the ballista crew sergeant? Otherwise I will report to the artillery and have them organise some softening up of the opposition…”

Ky’Thand headed immediately for the ballista crew. It was just downstairs, near the base of the tower, and Ky’Thand had to run all it was worth to get there. The ballista platform was manned by four men and a Sergeant in charge. On reaching the platform, he called out, “Sergeant I am here to help you, and give you some defence as well. I also bring a few unpleasant surprises for the opposition we face today.”

Pulling from his vest’s inner pocket 3 flasks of Greek fire, “Yep Greek fire lads, you know how dangerous it is, and how effective it can be. Hannibal wants it on the ship supplying these troops so peel yer eyes we are to soften the target first then dance the firing pattern out to the second wave boats and then onto the ship.

“Have you been supplied with the expensive tracer rounds with the light spell on them? Sergeant what munitions have you here now to use?” Ky’Thand awaited an answer.

The Sergeant’s mouth must have opened wider than the biggest sea monster when he saw Ky’Thand produce the Greek Fire! He hastily snapped to attention, gave a salute and said in as calm a voice as he could. Ky’Thand could tell the excitement in his voice.

“We have probably two more of such things on special issue, sir! These are very expensive – your most obedient soldier does not know how Mr Ky’Thand was able to get that, but this is great!” His eyes danced with excitement, “We have about 18 bolts with us, sir – we can kill a few boats with the fire you have given us!”

His thoughts returned to what Ky’Thand asked in the first place, and he said puzzledly, “The power of sorceries are not ours to command, sir. We fear we have no such light bolts you speak of. But it would be good if we have them. We can hardly see anything in this rain!”

As if reminded of something, he shook his head and asked, “Sir, if you be a man of sorcery, perhaps you can do something to help light the Greek Fire?” He asked as the rain continued to pelt about them.

Prothal finished his brief prayer to the Eternal One and rose to his feet, seeing his companions exiting the tower. He took one last glance down over the battle field to be and headed down to the stable to locate his steed and Lt. Stonewall.

Seeing that everything was as well planned as it could be, Hannibal watched the various people scatter to their commands, “Remember, after the charge; take the opportunity to push these creatures back into the sea.”

“Prothal,” Hannibal reminded the priest, “The Dragoons are our other strength. If my charge bogs down march the dragoons up the beach to meet up with me.”

“Everyone, good luck”

With that Hannibal hurried down from the watchtower to the waiting heavy horse. Saying a silent prayer to Mysteria and to the Eternal One for good measure. Saluting the men who were sitting in their horses about 200 yards north of where the landing was taking place, Hannibal addressed the men.

“Men, we are about to face our ancient enemies once again. Ride with me this night to crush them beneath the iron shod hooves of our valiant steeds. Impale them with the lance, then knock them senseless with your flail. With this blade,” Hannibal drew the black sword, “Spoils from another such raid; I will lead you to victory.”

The roar of his troops confirmed their allegiance and faith in his ability. Sounds of metal being draw and horses being prepared were music to his ears. With his speech ended, Hannibal mounted Fleetfoot and took up position in the first rank nearest the water, where the footing was the most treacherous.

Upon locating Knickerbocker and the assembling Dragoons, Prothal approached Lt. Stonewall and informed him of Hannibal’s plan for the assault and of his own intention to joining his fine men into battle. The men cheered wildly upon hearing that a holy man was joining them in battle. They cheered even louder when Remora’s form appeared, her robes flying about in the wind. Now they had two gods on their side – what could go wrong?

After the response he continued, “I also have one request for you and your exceptional group of defenders. When we ride into battle to secure the southern front we must take a brief moment just before the battle ensues to pray for the Eternal Ones strength to be channelled through our bodies. The glory of His Grace will guide our way! After we dismount and send the horses away I will need every Dragoon to huddle in tight for the prayer and then we will attack, each of us with the hand of The-One-Who-Has-No-Name by our side!”

Remora smirked as she heard him finish his speech. She did not speak, or rebut him, but turned her attention towards the sea. Her plate mail armour was crafted well, and did not hide her good figure. A medium shield on the left and a footman’s mace completed her armoury. She did not make an effort to get out of the spell radius. It seemed like her mind was elsewhere.

Mounting his powerful stead Prothal slapped Kinckerbocker on the side with a sign of affection and removed his mace from its saddle location and attached it to its proper place at his side. Calling upon the name of the Power he served, Prothal asked for the invisible hand of the Eternal One to strengthen and guide the troops. The troops fell silent as the exhilarating power of Prothal’s prayer worked its way through the troops. When all were ready they rode out swiftly.

Chapter 3: Repelling the Invasion

 

The tense atmosphere gave way to grim determination as the men waited for an enemy they could see, an enemy steel could cleave. The first wave of boats had by then reached the beach, and the three friends could see what could only be their worst fears. Orcs, all armed and ready for battle. Wearing studded leather armour and carrying small shields, they shrieked as the lights of the searchlights were trained on them, some raising up their shields to cover themselves from the offensive glare, before raising their weapons.

The glint of metal from their weapons certainly spoke a lot of the invasion force – this was no raiding group. It looked more like a war party. There were certainly more than 70 orcs in the first wave. With precision, about half of them started forming a perimeter line of pikes and halberds. The other half readied their crossbows. The second wave, about 30 yards behind, would probably land in another one minute.

About 50 yards away from the beach, the last vessel began to come into view. Something else became clearer too. What the friends had thought was a sail was something more sinister. It was a huge standard, with the symbol of an arrow striking a bloody eye. Nothing much could be seen but a huge vaguely waving form was on the boat. As was another big bunch of human sized creatures, again too faint to see clearly.

The Sergeant barked an order to the men about him, “Hurry up and try to light this damn thing! We are going to burn up the orcs!” One of the soldiers looked back at him and replied, “We are trying, Sergeant! It is not easy to light this thing with the rain coming down on us!” With great skill, the men began to attempt to coax a spark out of the tinderboxes they carry.

Arrows began to fly upon the beachhead as the line of pikes moved forward. The archers, taken from the fighting men of the north, were true to their legend. Hannibal had heard boasts that they could hit a moving rabbit from 40 yards at the age of seven. He had always marvelled at their precision and skill, and still do – many orcs were quickly decimated, crossbow and pole-arm bearers alike. On their parts, the bolts fired from their crossbows had managed to get some of Lt Rock’s men.

Suddenly, darkness descended upon the battlefield – it seemed like the searchlights were suddenly extinguished. The invisible raindrops continued pelting on the faces of the troops.

By that time, Prothal and the dragoons had nearly reached the southern line of the advancing line of orcs. The darkness caused some consternation within the troops but they did not break ranks, trusting in the prayers made by Prothal on behalf of them. But Prothal could sense the fear in their hearts. Lt Stonewall was next to Prothal, shouting out, “All troops keep your fighting distance! The Eternal One will fight for us!”

Prothal could not help but hear a tremble in the officer’s voice as the first sounds of battle began. The front rank had already connected with the enemy – and the screams of pain and death were from the dragoons.

“Damn it – this is no ordinary raiding party! Wave your weapons – don’t let them thrust effectively! Close the distance as much as possible! Try not to hit your own men!” Lt Stonewall barked.

“Sir – may the Eternal One see you through – I am going in.” The invisible Lt Stonewall shouted reassuredly to Prothal, his voice fading away as he moved in front of Prothal. The officer seemed to have begun to overcome his fear in the face of almost certain death. There was a sinking feeling in Prothal’s heart as he understood why – orcs could see in the dark.

Lt Rock’s troops had done what was asked of him, to move back slowly, drawing the enemies to Lt Taro’s centre line. The last Hannibal saw them, they were about 20 yards away from the enemy. He had by now lost sight of everyone, however, as the battlefield was covered in darkness.

Hannibal heard the familiar swooshing sounds of the sheaf arrows from his archers, and the cries of more deaths from the orcish army. He dared not charge at the moment, as the troops could not see where the pikes were pointed.

Things were looking grim right then. The archers could only aim their arrows at the general direction of the beachhead. They will hit only if the enemy was foolish enough to land in the same exact spot. If the enemy did what he feared the most and charged, they would surely decimate the troops at the centre line.

Prothal held back on his initial charge as he cried out, “May His Grace’s light shine brightly upon us!” As the warm comforting glow of sunshine spread from the top of his own helm, he surged forward with his mighty sword held high and attacked with the others, shining the way.

The Dragoons cheered as the first lines of their enemies suddenly returned to view, and they all surged forward into battle, encouraged by the presence of the Eternal One among them. The orcs shrieked in terror, as the light of day shone upon them, hurting their eyes.

The distance was closed quickly with a wall of steel, making the orc missiles almost useless, unless they cared not about hitting their own men. Even the archers had stopped firing, afraid to hit their own men. From the orcs’ perspective all that could be seen was layer upon layer of shining plate mail and a wall of shields with mighty swords held high raining down upon them.

Two orcs immediately headed for Prothal. He could see the rage in their eyes, as they growled in their tongue and began to hack at him with battleaxes. Swinging Lightbringer, he fell one with a mighty blow. The battleaxe of the other glanced off his armour. Another swing from Prothal cut a major wound into the other orc. He was quickly despatched by a sword thrust from a soldier.

“Be careful, sir! You are attracting all of them!” The soldier cried out as he locked his weapon with an incoming orc, obviously heading for Prothal.

Hannibal saw the light shining brightly from the helm of Prothal. His heart felt a slight flutter as he realised one thing – Prothal’s move, while tactically powerful, might just cost him his life – all the magic and bolts, as well as fighting arms of the orcs, were definitely going to be concentrated on him.

Hannibal raised his sword to signal the charge. Although he could not see the ships coming in, he was quite sure they should be landing soon. Strapping his shield to his back he reached his hand into his belt pouch while sending his love out to Yolanda. Dear, he thought, your father’s wedding gift will come in handy after all!

“OK LADS,” Hannibal roared to the waiting troops, “Their infravision is only good out 20 yards and we’ll be on top of them before they see us. Our archers took out a lot of the first wave and the rest are being pressed from the south. It’s our job to take care of the second wave. I’ve still got some tricks up my sleeve.”

Grasping the light stone in its pouch, Hannibal signalled the charge. The troops moved off, trusting their commander, though they would be engaging an enemy they could not see. The hoofs thundered upon the beach. He tried to judge the distance to 30 yards of the orcs. Slowly he began counting in his mind as the horses paced the familiar beach – now in pitch darkness except for the light source from Prothal’s helm.

“Now!” He cried out as he pulled out the light stone. It looked as if the sun had broken through the clouds. With Fleetfoot charging with all the speed that Hannibal could manage, they crashed through the thin line of pikes before the dazzled orcs could shift back to normal vision.

With the magical light gleaming from the plates of his and Fleetfoot’s armour, Hannibal was an engine of death amongst the orcs attempting to rally. Wheeling and dodging with Fleetfoot, Hannibal did not stay in one space for enough time for the remaining crossbowmen to take aim. While Hannibal slashed, Fleetfoot crushed orcs with his forefeet and bowled others over with his body.

Three orcs stepped in, trying to stop him. The first met with a quick death by the dark blade, the blow cutting through the armour it wore as if it were not there. The other managed to connect with him, but its blows were stopped by his skilful use of his shield. A return swing from Hannibal despatched him as easily as the first.

From Hannibal’s experience, normally the third orc should have begun beating a retreat upon facing such a powerful enemy. But instead, it continued to hack at him, its crazed filled eyes aiming for its trophy. Another swing from the dark blade lobbed off its head, sending it rolling.

Aiming for the centre of the orc formation, Hannibal chopped down at the orcs, attempting to destroy totally the beachhead. Once the beachhead was gone, the remaining orcs were going to have a very, very hard time coming in. With the combined light of Prothal and Hannibal, the soldiers should be able to stand off the orcs at the beach itself.

From off to the east, Ky’Thand could see another globe of light in the air immediately above, as the centre continued to rain arrows upon the now visible orcs. Remora was in the midst of the battle herself, her mace smashing up one skull after another.

Hannibal was sure the second wave would have beached. And sure enough, by the light cast by the light stone, within the centre of the beachhead, he saw the boats ground onto the beach. Then suddenly, pitch darkness covered the battlefield again, as his light stone was seemingly extinguished.

Prothal was shocked to see a shimmer of a cloak of darkness that cancelled off part of the radius of his light, returning the light to ambient conditions. He realised with trepidation, that there were probably another spell-caster, serving the forces of darkness itself.

Having felt no magic on himself, Hannibal quickly assumed that the magical darkness was cast on an area and could not move. “To me,” Hannibal cried to the fighting horseman, “Keep riding down anything between here and the Dragoons to the south, We’ll join up there.” Guided by the light of Prothal, Hannibal steadily moved towards the light, ready to kill all in his path.

Ky’Thand looked at the soldiers still attempting to light the ballista in dismay, “Why isn’t there a covered brazier which a lit brand could be used rather than tinderboxes?” Shaking his head, “Load that bolt sergeant our troops need covering fire.”

Ky’Thand summoned an old thought of how his beloved first taught him how to produce fire from his finger. Snapping back Ky’Thand gestured briefly, making sure to cover the tiny flame from the rain with his other hand. His light lit up his face, casting shadows as he proceeded to light the flaming head. The flaming pitch burst into flame, providing enough light to light up the entire ballista, and the crew.

He pointed to the lad who usually lighted the bolts, “Get a brazier now, in fact if you see the fire brigade teams, get them to find a proper covered brazier out here prompto or our men will be lost.”

“Don’t walk, RUN!”

Tomorrow there would be some changes if they survived, Ky’Thand vowed as the soldier ran up the stairs, tripping over in the darkness of the battlefield. Now that he had a chance to take a look at the tower, he observed something odd. Then he realised why – the little bit of shimmer he could just barely make out told him everything. The tower was enveloped in magical darkness.

He heard a commotion in the tower as a few voices started to curse and swear. Then in the dim light of his flaming bolt, he saw one of the tower searchlights operator run towards him. Panting, he paused for a while to catch his breath, before saying, “Sir, we thought the flames in the beacons were extinguished, but – look!” He showed his badly burnt hand to Ky’Thand, shaking in fear, “There is foul sorcery afoot in the tower!”

“Fear not it be only a cloaking magic of darkness. Bring more light and you will dispel it.” The words of Ky’Thand were confident. The soldier nodded his head and announced, “Sir, I will see if I can get some torches lit, to be brought into the tower. Perhaps the greater amount of light will destroy the darkness, as you’ve said.”

Meanwhile, thinking quickly before the next wave assault was upon them, Prothal selected three dragoons, “Cover me, while I call additional light from his Grace, the Eternal One!” The three valiant soldiers formed a defensive shield in front of the holy man, determined to protect Prothal from harm, as they fell back a few steps from the front fighting ranks. “When I give the word! We will press into the darkness and shed light upon their weak, pale faces. We must keep our ranks as tight as possible and stay within the light”

The dragoon’s position remained stationary, at the edges of darkness. A short buffer of darkness existed where the two spells overlapped in the centre. The dragoons were taking their fight relatively well, making sure they stayed in the light. The orcs in the lighted area began to retreat into the darkness, and the pikes began to poke again from the midst of the darkness.

Taking advantage of the pocket of protection provided by his fellow warriors, Prothal began casting a spell. His arms danced complex patterns in the moist air as his deep voice rumbled in a low unrecognisable chant. Yet he remained unheard to most, because of the constant din of battle. The Appointed One called upon the great power of the Eternal One, to let there be light, so the forces of good would prevail in this time of great need.

The helm of the dragoon in front was instantly lit by a magical light over his head. Briefly, the light began to penetrate dimly into the neutral area. All he could see were still pikes poking at the dragoons, but he was also beginning to see dimly more of the shafts of the pikes. The formation kept their space, as they began a withdrawal, pulling back the injured.

The second light burst into being from the head of the second dragoon, when suddenly a deadly silence enveloped the battlefield. The silence was ringing in Prothal’s ears, an eerie contrast to the expected din of battle.

Ky’Thand could also see the same moves made by the orcs, fighting with Remora. They also made a withdrawal into the darkness, poking at the troops from the darkness using their long pole-arms. He was glad there were few of them. The archers, fearful of firing in the darkness, had stopped firing some time ago. He could see Lt Taro beginning to join in the battle on foot.

A call from the Sergeant put his mind back to the ballista. “Sir,” He said, his frown clearly seen by the light being cast, “I am thinking of firing off into the sea, so we can have a dim light to see the incoming boats. I dare not aim at the darkness – Major Hannibal is still inside the darkness.”

“Ok sergeant lets place those bolts over their heads and into the water behind them. Let’s remove some of their reinforcements.” Ky’Thand replied calmly.

A sudden shutter and cold chill ran through Prothal’s body, as the heavy weight of total silence fell upon the battlefield. Determined to stay with his troops he surged forward with the dragoon’s as two globes of light from the Eternal One began to illuminate the darkness before them. Feeling the press of movement from behind, the dragoon’s began attacking. The others wondered, “How could I have missed Prothal’s word of attack?” It didn’t matter they were moving on anyway.

The two illuminated soldiers came together at the front lines until the light areas slightly overlapped each other. Dragoon’s formed in front and behind the glorious light and made the best use possible of the existing light. Armour, shields and blades reflected light as the distance was closed and the fighting ensued again.

Holding back on the press, Prothal’s mind calculated as he contemplated his next move. I must stay within range of our newfound light, or this new light would also fail under the weight of darkness, he thought. But, if I do not move the magical silence will render my spells useless for some time. The silence spell could also be cast upon my person and I would not be able to escape its deafening hush.

Then a thought came too him, as he searched for a dragoon close at hand with a helm and head size about the same as his own.

If the silence spell was cast upon him directly, it must be upon his helm. His helm was the only visible and targetable part of his body from across the battlefield, and it was shedding the “daylight” spell. Finding an intelligent young dragoon that he had counselled before, Prothal removed his helm and gestured for him to do the same.

A look of slight fear was apparent in the young man’s eyes, but it was quickly dispelled upon looking into the confident comforting eyes of Brother Prothal. They switched helms in silence. Prothal pointed to one of the men with the new “light” spell upon them and gave the warrior, wearing his helm, a hand sign of fingers wrapping together. “Stay close to him,” Went the silent communication, and Prothal prodded the warrior in that direction.

With the newfound autonomy of his unlighted and hopeful unsilenced helm, Prothal made a path to the edge of the dragoons. With every step, he prayed to the Eternal One that the deafening din of battle would soon return to him.

Seeing the intensification of the light around Prothal, Hannibal continued to shout encouragement to his troops, “To me men. Ride down anything blocking the light. Let’s get out of this dark!”

As he steered a course towards the clumps of walking bodies he wielded sword and shield, hoping to increase the carnage caused by Fleetfoot. Well, Hannibal thought to himself. At least a duel of light vs. dark is better than having magical energies flying at my troops.

“Alright, boys – let it go!” The Sergeant cried out as the flaming bolt flew on its way through the skies. Almost immediately, Ky’Thand saw the shadow of what must be a crossbow bolt flying past the Sergeant. Another one flew past him, the whooshing sound reminding him of how close it was.

The bolt impacted on the waters, spreading out its deadly payload with tiny flickers of light. As his eyes gazed across the dim light, Ky’Thand realised something with horror – the third ship, with the huge standard, was missing! It was no longer on the waters just off the beach!

“Hurry up with the second bolt!” The Sergeant screamed out as he struggled with his men. He was visibly excited by the battle, but was otherwise cool. He turned towards Ky’Thand and shouted out, “Sir – take cover nearer the structure of the ballista! It may not be much, but your flame is lighting up the place for their snipers!”

The orcs began their retreat as the new globes of light began to penetrate into the darkness. The deafening silence did not turn away from Prothal as he had hoped, following him into the frontlines. The dragoons made easy work of the orcs in the frontline, hampered as they were by the length of their weapons.

One of the orcs sallied forth from the thinning ranks and went for Prothal. His battleaxe smashed into his armour, but the plates held their ground. Lightbringer was no longer shining, it being far away from Hannibal’s weapon. Prothal brought it crashing through the studded leather of the orc. Prothal seemed to feel the sheer energy of conviction and faith as his heart and soul fought with the sword as one.

The orc backed a little, its greenish blood flowing freely from the wound at its side. It raised its weapon again, but Prothal was quicker. A mighty blow from Lightbringer smashed through its shield, the shield arm, and cut deeply into the chest of the creature. It collapsed, its body unable to muster enough energy to support its own weight.

Prothal looked about and realised something. At least one or two of the orcs had crossbow bolts on their back. They were shooting their own men! The line was thinning. Very soon, the snipers would have open targets…

His worst fears were realised as many of the dragoons fell, crossbow bolts screaming from the darkness beyond. Many of the orcs were dead – the first wave should be mostly defeated. Could it be that the second wave had already readied itself? How much time had passed? Prothal could not judge exactly, but it seemed like an eternity had gone by.

One crossbow bolt smashed into him. Again, the plates held their place. But as fate would had it, the second bolt smashed in near where the previous bolt had damaged the armour slightly. Prothal felt a slight prick of pain as the bolt poked into his flesh. It was probably only a minor wound, but Prothal realised that the enemy probably had organised themselves.

Hannibal pressed on, Fleetfoot finding difficulty treading over the masses of bodies. Fleetfoot was quite a cautious horse actually – it stamped on any body it came across, just to make sure they were not lying in wait. Hannibal could feel its tremble as it struggled in the dark, but it was a brave horse, seeking to serve its master to the death.

Fleetfoot suddenly lurched a little to the side – Hannibal could hear and feel the thud of the pikes upon Fleetfoot. His heart sank as he realised that they were aiming for the horse! The whoosh of a bolt sailing past his ear was heard, and he raised his shield instinctively to block the next one. He was too slow, however – a bolt struck him on the sword arm. His armour, however, held, even as the bolt pierced him. It was not a deep wound, but he could feel the warmth of blood trickling within his armour.

The cries of pain and death among his troops were bad news. Once again, they were attacked by an unseen enemy. The enemy was to his side, but he had to continue on with his move. He shouted to the troops to follow him as he continued on to join Prothal.

As the archers began to rain down arrows upon the thin line of pikes just beyond Remora’s light, Ky’Thand saw Remora began to look about the battlefield. She had retreated from the fighting to look at the situation. She saw Prothal’s position and pointed her fingers at him.

The silence suddenly lifted but it was not the roar of fighting that greeted Prothal. It was the sounds of the wounded lying on the battlefield. It was the sounds of death as many of the dragoons fell from the fresh assault of the enemy.

Prothal realised that someone must have used a dispelling magic about his person. But the battlefield seemed dimmer. One of the lights he had cried out to the Eternal One for had been extinguished. It must have been affected by the dispelling magic as well. What was left was the magic of the Daylight spell on the young soldier, and the light on the other.

A realisation hit Prothal – they would be natural targets next, and the young man just might die. Prothal could not remember his name, but he had remembered the young man happily telling him the day before that he would be on leave in another week’s time, to marry his childhood sweetheart.

Hannibal pressed Fleetfoot fearlessly to meet up with Prothal. He saw the rain of bolts upon his men lit by the light of Prothal’s light as they fell, and he knew those behind him must be suffering a similar fate. Suddenly, the light stone burst into the light of day as he met up with Prothal. From the dim light, he could see the reflections from off the pikes closing in.

“Sir, be careful, come down from the horse – they will be aiming for you!” Lt Stonewall cried out to him as he hurriedly ran over to protect Hannibal, “Men, guard the major!” Two more men hurriedly ran to his side. Hannibal could see a big bandage about the lieutenant’s head, blood still flowing as he bravely stood his ground with the two men he summoned.

Hannibal looked around at the carnage about him. At least half of his men must have been dead or badly wounded. Dead orcs littered the place, some piling on top of each other. He was quite sure of his assessment – the fresh attack must have come from the second wave. They must have finished organising themselves. This was unbelievable – he had never remembered even Frelandian troops, the best in the Theophilia, organise themselves that fast.

Chapter 4: Clash of the Titans

 

Ky’Thand saw Remora looking about the battlefield. There was a smile on her face, a smile of triumph perhaps, that her god had bested the god of Prothal? She looked up at the watchtower, the cloud of darkness still hovering over the place. She pointed at the tower and seemed to mumble something.

Many parts of the battlefield were suddenly illuminated! The orcs screamed as the light tore into their eyes. Hannibal could most of them now. The same formation – a thin line of pikes protecting the crossbow wielders at the back. The many bodies, both of his heavy horsemen, and of the first line of orcs, weighted heavily upon Hannibal’s heart. Many mothers and wives would weep for their men were he to survive to write the letters to their kinsmen.

Ky’Thand looked up to see the searchlights shining brightly upon the battlefield. He also saw one man hurriedly running upstairs with a torch, to man his station no doubt. He returned his gaze to the waters. His eyes confirmed what he had first seen – the third ship was no longer in the waters.

“The baby is ready to go sir! Give us the fire and we will give it to them!” The Sergeant cried out to Ky’Thand as he finished putting the Greek Fire on the bolt.

“Sergeant, I want a flaming bolt as far up the beach but on the water as possible, both sides of the battle. Get the two sniper archers down here, now I have a job for them.” Ky’Thand spoke calming as he lit the Greek Fire.

The Sergeant looked incredulously at the confident Ky’Thand still standing exposed in where he was. He quickly ran over to Ky’Thand. A crossbow bolt went wide, over the Sergeant’s head. Ky’Thand felt a pain in his thigh as something sharp slammed into it. There was a loud clap of thunder as his Armour spell tried to hold on but failed.

His concentration went off, and the flame on his finger disappeared. Dropping down instinctively on one knee, he heard the whooshing sound of another bolt over to his left.

“Sir, what are you still standing around for? For goodness sake, go to somewhere safe!” He cried out, as he dragged the half-stumbling Ky’Thand over to the safety of the ballista structure. Upon reaching the ballista, he screamed out a string of obscenities and shouted to his soldiers, “What are you waiting for? The light is lighting us up – let the baby go!”

The two men struggled with the lever, and the bolt flew on its way to the waters. It landed way off its target, splashing itself about 30 yards off the beach, creating several dim light-points over the waters. The waters off the beach looked beautiful – the lights looking like stars upon the darkness of the waters. The third ship was still nowhere to be seen.

The pain in his thigh woke Ky’Thand from his thoughts. He thought he heard the sounds of the men working at the ballista, in the darkness. His right hand went over to his thigh – it was a crossbow bolt no doubt. He heard the Sergeant shouting at one of them, in the darkness, “Soldier – go and get two of the archers hiding in the woods! Damn! They are hiding there and we are out in the open! Next time remind me to apply for a different position in the army!”

There was a shuffling sound as an invisible soldier began to run off. “Hurry up soldier! We haven’t got all day! Load the next bolt!” The Sergeant shouted out to the only member left of his crew.


“Everyone make a note of your position,” Prothal shouted. “In a few moments the immediate area will be enclosed in a heavy fog, protecting our southern front from the missile fire of these evil beasts. Even these creatures’ night vision will not be able to see through it.”

Hannibal cleared the carnage and broke into the light of Prothal’s god. He was greeted by troops being tormented by crossbows from the now visible second wave of orcs. He spent little time worrying about what he could not save and prepared to save the heavy fighting force.

Alarmed by the renewed missile fire upon the already battered dragoon’s, Prothal moved about 10 feet towards the water and squatted low behind several soldiers. Nearly silent words escaped his lips as he traced a simple pattern in the night air. The whooshing sounds of another wave of crossbow bolts were heard, and the men in front of him fell, dying to protect an officer. Within moments a dense fog began to form around the surrounding area.

Hearing Prothal’s command Hannibal scanned the battlefield as Prothal called up the fog to block the sight of the orc crossbowmen. Smiling with satisfaction, Hannibal sat his horse much more calmly and tried to fix the positions of the enemy in his mind as they vanished from sight. He was just in time to see the renewed arrows raining down on the orcish positions as the archers began their fire again.

“We can either continue to fight within this thick fog or fall back just out side its area of effect. Either way all of the dragoon’s should be protected from further missile fire.” Prothal shouted to his immediate companions, “I say we fall back to the south and wait for them to move from their dug in positions.”

“OK men, ” Hannibal roared over the battle, using the confusion of the light, and now the fog, to organise the battered troops. Realising he may take an arrow but needing to rally the troops he sat his horse with his shield between him and the orc arrows. Trusting in the heavy plate to protect Fleetfoot as well from any random arrows, he continued, “Form up in the hedgehog A front of 6 and 6 deep, wounded in the centre. Calvary dismount and use your lances from the second rank. Shields up and make ‘em come to us. We’ll form up just behind the fog and slaughter any who come stumbling out into the light.”

“Understood, sir!” Shouted Lt Stonewall as he quickly barked to the troops, “Sound a general retreat, get the men to the south, and form up there!” Through the fog, Hannibal could see shadowy figures making a move to the south.

I will have the formation formed off-centre of the fog closer to the waters edge, thought Hannibal. He trusted that random shots would be fired through the fog and that the orcs would assume that they would stay centred on it. With that formation they could use the water as protection from one side.

The ‘turtle’ should be very effective against the crossbowmen, Hannibal reasoned. Since they fire on a flat trajectory, overhead protection was not terribly critical and with overlapping shields to the front and the lances to fend off attackers, it should limit casualties – at the expense of mobility. This defence would give Taro and the others a very clear field of fire to take out the rest of the orcs.

Prothal proceeded to exit the fog to the south and link up with the young man he had switched helms with. In a matter of seconds his vision returned to normal as he exited the spell’s area of affect. Since the orcs were not advancing, he took that moment as an opportunity to assess the dragoon’s status and view the carnage before the formation Hannibal ordered was complete.

He could not see the orcs’ positions, due to the fog. But it had brought the troops the respite they needed. He took position in their third rank and prepared for another assault. His heart sank as the remnants of the troops began to form up. He could easily count them – about 16 lightly wounded, and another 8 seriously wounded. They had probably lost another 5-7 men during the moments it took him to raise the fog of war.

He had completely ignored the short protruding shaft from his shoulder, just above the coverage of his buckler… until then. The pain was constant and felt as if a burning brand was being poked into his flesh. The pain brought an unexpected advantage of clear focus to the task at hand.

Seeing his men follow his orders, and not a few quickly dragging wounded comrades to the centre or dead orcs to the front as a rampart, Hannibal nodded, scanned the battlefield and dismounted quickly from Fleetfoot. He could not see the orcish positions but he trusted his archers. They would make short work of the orcs at the beach.

Detailing the walking wounded to take the heavy horses out of combat, Hannibal nevertheless kept Fleetfoot with him as he spoke with Prothal.

“Good work with the light. Now just keep them alive long enough for the main body to crush them. I don’t think they know just how many men we have in the trees. That large boat seems to have disappeared. I hope Ky’Thand can see it from the watchtower. I need to get back to the main body and manage the battle from there. Don’t advance any more as it appears the second wave has already formed up; the men just need to keep it from moving south”

“Lt. Stonewall, ” Hannibal called to the Dragoon’s leader, “I must ride to the eastern front of this battle. But your men are to know that I trust in you to hold the south and keep the orc bottled up tight.” Hannibal continued to raise his voice so all those about could hear.

“Take this light,” Hannibal handed the light-stone to Stonewall, “And know that I trust you and your men to return it to me after the battle.”

The officer looked at him, a respect in his eyes, “I promise I will bring it back to you safely, sir. With my life I will.” Saluting Hannibal, he formed up with his men behind the wall of shields and dead bodies they had erected as cover. Lances protruded over the dense wall of flesh and metal as the troops waited for any enemy to come out of the already clearing fog.

Prothal approached Hannibal before entering their noble ranks, “May the hand of the Eternal One be with you as well, my friend. We will need every edge we can muster against these foul beasts.”

Prothal produced his holy symbol of the Eternal One and reached high, pressing it firmly against Hannibal’s hip and began a soft chant that seemed like another language to the surrounding soldiers. He finished by drawing the sign of His Grace, three interlocking rings, upon Hannibal’s armour plating. Hannibal felt a powerful strength surge through him as Prothal completed his prayer.

Feeling invigorated by Prothal’s blessing by the Eternal One, Hannibal would like this battle to end quickly. As he left the priest, he called out, “If the way clears, maybe you could take the boats? If they have mages with them that would be where they are cowering. However, for now just keep the troops alive!”

With that Hannibal mounted Fleetfoot and with great urging rode him at the fringe of battle at all the speed he can muster. Not taking any chances Hannibal hooked one leg over the saddle and rode with Fleetfoot and his armour between him and the orcish horde. Though it was hard on the horse, Hannibal rode him with random turns and bursts of speed or slowing up to throw off the aim of the crossbowmen.

Fleetfoot whinnied a little but held his pace as two crossbow bolts smashed into its side, before falling of as its armour held firm. Some orcs must have locked on him again, determined to fell his horse.

Feeling the two bolts hit Fleetfoot’s plate, Hannibal knew that the remaining orcs could still draw blood even as they were being defeated. It was a fair trade though, for it gave the Dragoons that much more time to form their defences.


“The bolt is ready, sir!” Shouted the Sergeant as Ky’Thand waited in the safety of the ballista for the two archers to arrive. He had chanced a look at the orcish formation. It was a sight that amazed him. The orcish formation had begun its advance to the east, towards Lt Rock’s position. Arrows continued to rain upon them, felling orc after orc.

Their positions looked quite loose then, as they attempted to spread out to reduce the carnage caused by the arrows. They were not charging, but were moving in disciplined lines. It was amazing – the most elite of Frelandian troops would have begun their retreat by then, but their lines still held.

Suddenly, his ears picked up two blood-curling howls of animal rage. He heard the screams from the soldier loading the bolt. Then he heard the sounds of another body falling. He realised then that the Sergeant had fallen too. Somebody, something was attacking them from behind the lines!


As Hannibal reached the southern arm of Rock’s troops he took a while to locate the Sergeant in charge in the dim light, “Move your line a bit north and forward 5 yards. Pour arrow fire into the orcs, also to loose a volley of spears into the massed ranks of the second wave. If an opportunity presents itself, volley the second spear as well”

Hannibal ordered the Sergeant to detail a runner to send similar orders to Taro, except since the alpine troops did not have spears, just to use the light crossbows. He had the runner inform Taro that Hannibal would be with Remora and the Northern wing of the army.

With that Hannibal hurried north, reaching Rock and Remora of the northern wing. As he looked over the situation, Hannibal considered his next move. The orcs were still moving on – their numbers dwindling away as the arrows poured into their positions. He estimated not more than 30 of them at the moment, about evenly divided between pikes wielders and crossbow wielders. Their pikes were pointed east, but some crossbow wielders were aiming off to Lt Stonewall’s position.

He realised that the arrows had stopped raining down on the orcish positions even as he attempted to search for Remora and Lt Rock. He could not be too sure of their positions, but he was quite sure they would not be far away from Remora’s light globe, hanging in the air. By now, all of Taro’s troops had moved off of the light, to get away from the orcish crossbowmen.

He bumped into something in the dim light. “Hey, careful there!” It was the voice of Remora! He took a chance look and realised that a major portion of the orcs had marched into the areas of magical darkness. And his own longbowmen seemed to have stopped firing, for some unknown reasons. Only Lt Rock’s troops were still firing. He began to see the light gleaming off in the air as some spears were being thrown at their extreme range.


Lt Stonewall ducked as a bolt flew over him. He turned to look at Prothal, smiling through his blood soaked face, “Anymore light for us over there, sir?” He pointed over to the orcs’ position as they began to disappear into the darkness.

He laughed a hearty laugh to himself and said somewhat jokingly, “If we win this battle tonight, sir, I will visit your great temple and vow to pay a tithe of my income to the Eternal One! And Stonewall never lies!” He winked at Prothal as he said that.

Grasping firmly the protruding bolt in his left shoulder, Prothal broke the shaft about an inch or two from his plate with a slight grimace. He managed a broad genuine smile focused upon the Lieutenant, “I’m confident that your generous contribution is already known to his Grace and it will surely come to pass, my friend. The hand of the Eternal One is already with you and will not turn away from such an oath.” He finished by dropping the remains of the feathered shaft to the ground.

Looking into the Lieutenant’s eyes and at the lines of blood upon his face, Prothal made a judgement of Stonewall’s physical condition. He knew what the answer would be, if he was to ask the proud officer of his condition. He based his decision upon the clarity of the warrior’s eyes, the amount, colour and the speed of blood that was flowing from the warrior’s head. Prothal’s experience with battle wounds allowed him to come to a quick and accurate evaluation.

Prothal spoke firmly to the Lieutenant, “Our men need you upon your feet to lead them into this next battle. If you were to collapse upon these killing fields, I fear for the morale of our men. We need you at your best!” Pressing Soothenglaac to Stonewall’s forehead he began a prayer, “Your Grace, grant me the power to heal this courageous warrior, so we may drive back these wretched forces of evil!”

Before Prothal could even finished his prayer, soldier’s from all around the battlefield witnessed a flash of perfectly clean light. It felt like the heavens themselves had opened for a brief moment. The blood upon the Lieutenant’s face slowly faded away as the wounds seemed to close of their own accord. Only slight grazes and nicks were left on his body. A hush seemed to fall upon the men as they witnessed the very power that separated the priesthood from sorcery – healing.

A clash of metal striking metal rang through the air, as Prothal gave Stonewall an encouraging and bonding slap on the shoulder with his own heavily clad forearm, before he turned away and entered the throng of men.

Lt Stonewall’s face looked like he had seen the Eternal One himself. He turned to his troops and cried out with great confidence, “The moment I call for the charge, the able bodied ones go with me. Let us catch them by surprise!” He looked out to the battlefield expectantly.

Prothal glanced at the young man wearing his helm. It was a relief to see him safe, though injured with a bolt stuck in his armour. He did not have the nervous look then, but looked like one who was already in the makings of a veteran soldier. Making his way to the young warrior wearing his own helm glowing, Prothal stood before him.

“You have honoured yourself and your unit by showing such valour in taking the helm of light and showing the way for all. Let us now switch them back, for your helm is a bit to snug upon my watermelon sized head”

Prothal indicated with a wide and confident smile, while switching helms. Many of the men also chuckled and appeared to welcome the moment of levity before their next skirmish. “May the hand of the Eternal One stay with you all.”

Closing his eyes after donning his own helm once again he spoke silent words and traced the three rings of the Eternal One upon the courageous young soldier’s chest. Again, the power of the Eternal One seemed to fill the young man with courage as he gripped his weapon with a fierce determination in his eyes.

Opening his eyes Prothal continued, “Continue your exceptional valour by setting the example for others to follow.” Another clash of metal rang through the air as Prothal struck the young man upon the shoulder like he had done to Stonewall. This time, he heard the same sound again and again, as it echoed all around him. Each of the dragoons followed suit with their immediate companions and each yelled a voracious cry of enthusiasm.

Prothal beamed, he was pleased that the moral of the men was returning to their advantage as he made his way back to Lt. Stonewall. Raising Lightbringer high over his glowing head, he yelled with a scream of enthusiasm as the next round of battle was about to ensue. The officer next to him yelled out a battle cry as he began the charge. The men followed. There were only thirteen men in the charge, including Prothal. According to Sharilan folklore, this was an inauspicious number.


Seeing the second wave of orcs being dealt with, Hannibal felt something was very wrong. The orcs should have broken off by now, either in fear or at least the enemy commander should call them off to fight another day. They were being defeated in detail! Even though the losses of the heavy fighters was high, and many more would be long recovering; it was not worth the force of orcs being destroyed before them.

Hannibal had to admire their persistence – they were being slaughtered but still kept formation. What were they trying not to have us see? Hannibal asked himself.

Suddenly, his ears picked up two blood-curling howls of animal rage. Only knowing that they seemed to be coming from the tower, Hannibal cursed and wondered how they got troops behind them so fast. He also cursed, as the troops did not sound human!

“Remora, Mystari be praised; your quick thinking has swung the battle our way. Can you cast one more light spell to illuminate our foe?” Hannibal pointed to an area where the magical darkness still holds sway, “Then I need you to come with me and see what that sound to our rear is! Something is keeping our archers from firing.”

Remora’s face could not be seen clearly against the darkness – only the metallic clinks of her armour, and the occasional reflection off the metal, assured Hannibal it was her. The voice cried out, “You will not get much light against the darkness, Hannibal. My spells are not strong enough to overcome a darkness of that magnitude. But I will send it over anyway.”

Hannibal noticed the light source beginning to shift as Prothal and the rest of the dragoons began to charge at the orcish positions. The magical darkness seemed to shrink as the combined light of his lightstone and Prothal’s magical light began to push back its hold.

Hannibal looked about for 5 men to accompany him and Remora to go see what was going on. It was not easy to find the men and co-ordinate them in the darkness, but it was done. Remora, in the meantime, had finished chanting. A globe of light hung in the air above the darkness. A section of the orcs came into view.

The rain continued to pelt mercilessly – Hannibal could not help but hear noises and cries of confusion over Lt Rock’s units to the south. Perhaps it was his imagination but he could not help chancing a look. As the light from Prothal and his lightstone began to illuminate the battlefield, he saw something in the light that made him hold his breath.

Dead bodies of his infantry soldiers. Now that the light was illuminating the area, the soldiers could start to see who they were fighting against. Hannibal wished they had not seen. It was a terrifying image indeed. A minotaur, branding an axe easily the size of a poleaxe, cleaving away soldiers with each merciless stroke.

Hannibal also noticed two orcs, dressed identically, quickly breaking off the engagement and disappearing into the darkness, now that the light had taken away their cloak of darkness. The orcs must have struck through the forest. Which might mean his longbowmen were probably taken care of already. They were fast. Almost too fast to be believable.


Prothal did not see any orc that looked like it was a spell-caster. He saw something else in the light that sent a shiver down his spine though. He could also tell that Lt Stonewall had seen it. The officer waved for the troops to press their attack on the orcish formation. He was going to ignore it. Prothal’s attention was drawn to that creature, however.

It was an abomination the elders had spoken about in the lands of Philia. Prothal had remembered tales of how the minotaurs were among the most handsome and strongest of men in the days of the Dark Years. Desiring greater power, they had dared challenge a great archmage in his tower, to rob him of a potion that were rumoured to grant great strength to those who imbibed it.

But their pride had blinded them. They were no match for the archmage, and he cursed them with an eternal curse – they shall have great strength, but they shall be shunned by all men. They knew the reason they would be shunned the moment they gained their strength – their heads were hideously transformed to that of a bull. But worst still, they would not taste of any meat save those of sentient beings.

Chapter 5: The Enemy from Behind

 

Ky’Thand shouted, “Turn the light they are behind us! Damned incompetent darn soldiers, should have stayed home.” The lights remained stayed on the battle at the beach, continuing to light up the orcs in the formation.

Ky’Thand crouched behind the ballista and looked back trying to see any orcish forms. The area was very dark – he could hardly see a thing, with all the searchlights being focused on the battle area, and not a single light source about.

Then he saw the glint of metal from a weapon just to his left, and prepared his spell – a stunning spray of colours he had used many times before. His mind began its focus, and his fingers began to feel the tendrils of the mana about the land as he chanted the mystic syllables.

A loud clap of thunder was heard, as a sharp pain assaulted him from behind. A weapon had cut into his shoulder from slightly above him – probably from an enemy that had climbed on top of the ballista structure. The mana he was trying to draw from dissipated as quickly as he had been drawing them.

Instinctively, he rolled away – and was kicked in the face. A little stunned, he twisted away as another unseen blade cut into his abdomen. This time there was no loud clap of thunder.

Ky’Thand felt the world reeling about him in confusion. He could feel the warmth of his blood spurting out from his abdomen and his shoulder. He realised with fear that his Armour spell had failed him. In the darkness, fighting an unseen enemy. Things could not be worse. But his ears picked up faint sounds of fighting up in the tower.

A body thudded near to him. It was an impact of one that fell from at least three floors. One of the men up in the tower was already dead. There should still be one left.


Prothal saw it against the light of his helm. The soldiers would have no chance against it. Already, the troops had broken up, some withdrawing, some simply fleeing in terror. He counted at least two dozens on the ground, some with body parts strewn all over the place. It must be the hand of the Eternal One that had moved them just in time to catch the creature in the light, before it created greater carnage.

Seeing the powerful minotaur caught in the light of the Eternal one, Prothal’s stomach rolled with a feeling of horror, the light reflected from its mighty battle-axe swinging high. He thought that he could see blood covering its surface and dripping onto the even bloodier ground below. That was the blood of many proud warriors, he thought, dying an unseen death in the dark night. Suddenly his thoughts seemed to be split, his primary objective no longer clear.

He must stay with Lt. Stonewall, so the way would be lit on their renewed assault into the magical darkness. Prothal also knew that as the dragoons continued their charge, the glow of light would once again plunge the axe wielding beast back into its coveted cloak of darkness. These thoughts and more flashed through his mind in the instant he saw the foul beast. I must work toward both ends, he thought as he moved to the outskirts of the dragoons and began casting a spell.

The fine young warrior that he had just aided with the touch of the Eternal One, saw Prothal step to the side of the dragoons and followed him with a friend or two. They were determined to protect the ambitious priest from harms way.

Mumbling a brief prayer, Prothal looked as if he was rubbing a crystal ball that was not even there. In one fluid movement, he appeared to throw the unseen object in the direction of the now visible minotaur and pointed his finger straight as if in a guiding motion.

In an instant a bright flash of light ignited behind the face of the vile beast, as soldiers nearby shielded their eyes from the sudden flash. Prothal turned back a second later and ran back to Lt. Stonewall’s side, to rejoin the enthusiastic warriors. Luckily Lt. Stonewall had seen his quick exit and slowed their momentum.

Holding Lightbringer poised and ready before him, Prothal attacked with a fiery passion for spilling orcish blood. All in the name of the Eternal One.


Ky’Thand sat next to the ballista, feeling his lifeblood ooze between his fingers. He said to himself as his mind started to clear up, “Got to do something, or we are all dead.”

Ky’Thand mumbled what could be his last incantation. “WEB”, he called out, as he focused upon the tower supports and the ballista. With a sign of effort a huge mass of webbing appeared. He was caught amongst the huge sticky web. But if he was correct, so were his attackers.


Hannibal’s face turned rock hard at the sight of the Minotaur’s carnage but his voice still sounded completely in control if tight with anticipation of the battle to come. Now the battle really begins, he thought to himself. More than 150 orcs, simply a decoy to let these abominations land on our shore! Now I must earn my right to command once again.

Hannibal had little time to make a decision. He felt something was wrong in the watchtower. The ballista was silent and the searchlights were not moving. The minotaur was massacring his troops in the open. Orders were swiftly given.

To the 5 men with him, Hannibal barked out, “Men, hand me your longest spear!” Hannibal was swiftly handed a spear from one of the men.

“Now, get to Taro and tell him to volley one round of bolts into the Minotaur. Form an open square, and most importantly – place his 3 fastest swordsmen facing INTO the centre of the square. The enemy seemed to appear in the spot where the most damage can be caused. Move the square into the light and link up with Stonewall and make sure the orcs don’t get back to their boats.”

Hannibal took enough time to hand one of them, still in the darkness, his personal seal ring, saying. “These orders are strange but there is no time to argue. Show him this.”

Watching the men move off, Hannibal hoped this tactic could keep the alpine troops alive. If any troops could keep discipline, Taro’s crack troops would. Hannibal also realise he was betting these troops on the swords of three unknown men. If those orcs somehow appeared where they want, those swordsmen must dispatch them before they cause panic in the square.

Hannibal suddenly saw a bright blossom of light bloom about the area of the minotaur. Weaker than the light of the lightstone, and even that of Prothal’s light, it seemed to hang about it like a beacon. Its light however, had illuminated some areas he could not see at first. And he saw the two orcs!

Strings of bolts began to snake towards the two orcs, and towards the minotaur as it began its advance. Hannibal knew he could trust Taro to take the initiative in times like these. He remembered a northerner’s proverb – A Good General Is Worth More Than A Thousand Soldiers. He had a good one indeed.

Taking the spear in hand and sheathing the ebony blade, Hannibal vaulted into Fleetfoot’s saddle. Patting his armoured side, Hannibal calmed the horse, “Well good friend. I’ll need one more charge out of you tonight. There will be no time for caution on this run.”

Wheeling Fleetfoot, Hannibal shouted to Rock, “Rally your men at the watchtower and get those searchlights working. Find out what that rogue Ky’Thand is up to and see if he can make any sense out of what is going on. Beware, I fear the enemy may already be at the tower.” A shout of affirmation was heard from his Lieutenant.

Looking down on Remora, Hannibal smiled fondly, “Priestess, may Mystari smile on you. Fight with Rock and counter any enemy magic. I must go to save what men I can from that beast.”

Handling the spear as a makeshift lance, Hannibal wheeled Fleetfoot and raced him around behind Taro’s men as they began forming their square. Hannibal made no attempt to hide but made a point to ride through the eastern-most light on his way to the Minotaur. Upon reaching due east of the monster, he turned Fleetfoot around.

From Hannibal’s position, he could see something like 6 crossbow bolts sticking out of the creature’s hide. It roared with a bloodcurdling howl of anger and raced towards Taro’s troops. The two orcs seemed to be fallen on the battlefield, lying with pools of greenish blood on the ground.

Taro seemed to have ignored his orders and formed up into a loose formation inverted ‘C’ formation. With no spears or pikes, Taro’s troops could not stop its charge but the formation would still form a good defence against an enemy larger than themselves. It would enable them to probably attack from all sides. With perhaps heavy casualties for those in the middle of the ‘C’. Taro himself was there.


Ky’Thand heard grunts in a strange tongue. Sounded like curses. He tried to move his arms to get at his potion but he was held fast in the webbing. Talk about being caught in a trap of one’s own making.

Ky’Thand looked up at the tower. The noises of fighting seemed to have ceased. Suddenly, one of the searchlights dimmed and flickered, and then went off. Only one searchlight was shining from the tower.

From the volume and the exchange, Ky’Thand could estimate there were about two of them. The sources of the grunts seemed not to have moved. Which meant they were probably held just like he was. There had better not be any reinforcements, or he would be in big trouble…


Riding tall in the saddle and presenting an excellent target for the poleaxe of the minotaur, Hannibal lowered the spear and readied his shield. Urging Fleetfoot for all the speed he could muster, the two foes rushed together with massive speed. Over 600 pounds of horse and armour riding headlong to meet the 8 foot frame of the Minotaur.

Hannibal’s posture on the steed invited attack, but he sat tall in the saddle, seeming to be relying on his shield alone to stop the minotaur’s blow. Taro’s troops had by then stopped firing, fearing to hit their commander.

As the two foes approached to within 5 yards of each other Hannibal shouted, “For the Archmage!” And threw the spear at the Minotaur, hoping to throw off its blow or charge. Without seeing if the spear had struck, Hannibal guided Fleetfoot into the beast and rolled out of the saddle over the rump of the horse. As he landed on the ground he drew the ebony blade.

As Hannibal rolled the massive axe described an arc through the area where Hannibal’s head was but moments before! Hannibal hit the ground with a thunderous crash as Fleetfoot and the wounded Minotaur collided. The whinnying of Fleetfoot could be heard as its 600-pound frame smashed into the creature. The creature staggered a few steps back, and fell. Fleetfoot, too, had lost its footing under the force of the charge.

Hannibal gracefully landed and turned to face the stunned Minotaur. He drew his ebony blade and quickly slashed at the beast across its midsection. Still disoriented from his landing, his swing went wide, missing easily. The beast swung its axe down and smashed the floor where Hannibal was. It was probably as disoriented as Hannibal was.

After the first exchange of blows, Hannibal used shield and speed to quickly strike under the massive polearm. The ebony blade cut into his hide, drawing greenish blood – which quickly disappeared into the blade itself. Hannibal retreated quickly as the beast struck a blow that was deflected by Hannibal’s dancing shield.

Hannibal’s blows seemed to be causing little damage, his sword remaining untainted by blood. However, the Minotaur seemed to weaken and stagger as the blows piled up. Precise and guided by a skill unmatched in his command, Hannibal pressed his attack. Piercing and slashing blows, meant to weaken and confuse rained down on the beast’s legs, torso, and groin.

The beast began to reel a little from his repeated attacks. Hannibal saw his chance and jumped inside the creature’s axe arc. He delivered the coup de grace, burying the blade deep within the beast’s chest. The creature gave a weak roar, its eyes full of hatred as they stared into Hannibal’s own. It dropped its axe and tried to push Hannibal away, but Hannibal held on, pushing the sword even deeper.

The minotaur fell to its knees, its eyes desperately trying to remain open. Slowly they began to close, as it fell down to the ground.

As the minotaur fell, Hannibal remained convinced that more foes would appear. They probably would not wait for the battle to end before engaging. Hannibal listened around for that booming sound again, the one that seemed to precede the battle sounds at the tower base, but it was nowhere to be heard.

Keeping a sense of the battleground, Hannibal was careful to not be forced away from the magical light. The minotaur’s breathing seemed to cease, and its muscles twitched, signifying its final death. Hannibal had won another victory.


The distance closed quickly between the charging troops and the orcs. Some of the orcs quickly turned and attempted to engage the new quarter, but Lt Rock’s troops had closed in on the lighted orcs. They were caught in a pincer movement, pinned between two charging foes.

The leading orc’s pike glanced off Prothal’s shield as Prothal charged him down. He cleaved down Lightbringer upon his opponent. It stepped to the side, avoiding the blow. Dropping its pike, it smashed at Prothal with its bare fists!

The sound of bone meeting metal was heard as the orc winced in pain. But it was still clear headed enough to avoid another blow from Prothal. But it ran into the sword of another soldier instead. Smiling at Prothal through his open helm, the soldier shouted to Prothal, “Looks like this one is mine, sir!” He proceeded to lock blades with another orc.

Prothal could see that the remaining troops were making short work of the orcs. But the lines were not breaking. They must be mad or something. Any general faced with such carnage would have broken off the engagement. Prothal could not help but notice something – where was the general? There was no noticeable leader directly the troops.

Another orc came after Prothal with a battleaxe. Swinging Lightbringer down, Prothal cut into the shoulder of the orc. The orc returned a weak blow with the axe, which Prothal easily sidestepped. Prothal swept the orc off its feet with his legs, and finished it off with a drive from his sword right into his neck. Greenish blood spurted out from its ruptured artery, splashing all over the Prothal’s robes.


Ky’Thand heard the sounds of approaching men. He heard a curse – in Common! This was followed by another, before a voice he recognised as Remora’s shouted out, “Stop! There is magic here! Don’t move further or you will be entangled as well!”

“Men, ready formation for defence! Damn – next time remind me not to depend on the light of the search-tower. We should get our own torches! Sergeant, get your tinderboxes and burn this thing down!”

Ky’Thand could see, from his position, the second searchlight dimming and going out as well. Somehow he was glad of the magical light from Prothal. Without it, the battlefield would have been plunged into darkness again. But other pressing matters were at hand right then.


Hannibal shook his shoulders to relieve the stress of single combat and looked over the battlefield. Many of his men were dead or wounded but Taro’s unit still seemed pretty much intact. With a mighty blow, Hannibal cleaved the head from the minotaur and held it up to Taro’s men.

“Well, this shows that the men of Frelandia are more than a match for whatever the Darklands can throw at us. Hoist this on our standard and strike fear in the remaining foe!”

Hannibal took called out to Fleetfoot, which was looking at the body of the minotaur. There were slight dents on the horse’s armour where it had smashed into the minotaur. These dents would require a day of work from the armourer to hammer back, but it had protected Fleetfoot well. Perhaps some salves, and maybe a lump of sugar would be in order for the gallant horse.

He moved to where Taro was forming his men, wheeling them to face the orcs. He was preparing to move off and join in the action when he saw Hannibal approach. The troops cheered, but it seemed like a half-hearted cheer. Signalling the 5 men he originally sent with orders to Taro, he gave the one man back his spear, “Thank you for the use of your weapon. You and these men stick with me. There were two orcs cut down by the Alpine troops as they shot at the Minotaur, a pair to go out to each one and make sure they are dead. Anything you find on them, bring back to me.”

“You,” Hannibal said, pointing to the man whose spear he borrowed, “Please look after Fleetfoot. The gallant beast staggered the Minotaur giving me time to engage.”

As his men did as he asked, Hannibal turned to Taro. “Well met Lieutenant. Your men are handling themselves well, as always.” Hannibal looked out over the beach battleground, “Stonewall and Rock look to be finishing off the orcs at the beach. We’ve lost a lot of men tonight, no need to spend more men looking for stragglers that got through to the woods. Wait for me to finish here and we’ll fall back with your men to the tower and regroup.”

Taro nodded, “Yes, sir.” He looked visibly distressed, and it seemed to be affecting his men as well. He looked up at Hannibal and asked, “Sir, Taro understands why the Major has placed us in the holding position. But somehow, Taro wished that he had been more in the fighting. His men too, saw most of the battle but our weapons drew little blood today.”

Taro looked towards the fighting, and remarked, “It would be over soon, sir. The gallant men out there will get their honours and decorations, while my troops had very little of any kills in their blood, sir. Look – none of my troops had injuries other than small bruises! What will others say? That the Alpine troops, flower of the border guards, are cowards?” He shook his head again but kept his peace.

Hannibal searched the Minotaur body for clues and waited for the men to do the same with the orcs that were near by. The minotaur had nothing on itself except for a loincloth and its weapon. The weapon looked relatively unremarkable – an axehead and a spear point on the end of a long shaft. Probably just an infantry halberd used by the minotaur.

Green and smelly blood continued to ooze out of the minotaur’s neck and chest where the ebony blade had cut through it. Hannibal looked at his weapon. It was not glowing, and it still maintained its pristine condition. No trace of blood. No nicks and chips on the blade. Hannibal remembered again the battle with the orcs, when the weapon had smashed through their armour as if they were but pieces of paper. What manner of weapon could this be?

The four men searching the two orcs jogged over to Hannibal. The atmosphere was noticeably less tense now, though the soldiers still watched carefully in case unknown creatures might suddenly pop out. The four stopped and saluted. One of them reported, “Nothing on them except their weapons, sir. The chainmail armour they wore could be used by the troops. The shield and the weapons they carry look serviceable, too. We could commission them into the army with your permission, sir.” The four stood awaiting their orders.

As Taro led his men, with the grisly war trophy impaled on a captured pike, off to the tower, Hannibal surveyed the field of battle and pondered what it all could mean.


Ky’Thand called out, “Remora, don’t destroy the web till you have encircled the tower, there are at least two saboteurs still here and I want them alive. Call me once you have the tower covered, I will drop the spell.”

The sounds of shuffling in the silence were heard as the troops readied their positions. It seemed to take quite a while as the troops stumbled into the darkness, trying to move as quickly as they could in the poor lighting conditions. The glint of metal reflected from the troops by the light of the battle over in the west enabled the troops to see enough not to bump into each other, but another curse was heard as one soldier got himself trapped in the webbing again.

Waiting for the signal Ky’Thand closed his eyes. A whistle from a soldier near him was the signal he awaited. Ky’Thand tried to use a Firefinger cantrip to light the web, but his hands were held fast by the webs. Try as he might, he could not get the hands to trace the pattern required of the cantrip.

Ky’Thand looked up at the tower – he could see a sudden burst of light and the shadows of fighting forms within. He heard the voices of Remora, and another soldier – and orcs! He was right. There were enemy troops attacking the tower itself after all.

Chapter 6: Victory

 

Ignoring the vile contamination of his fine purple cloak of faith, Prothal removed Lightbringer from the still form of the dying orc. Quickly surveying the situation and seeing their impending victory, he sought out another creature of evil. The berserk-looking eyes of the orc stared into his own. He raised up his battleaxe but Prothal cut him down in short order.

The carnage of battle was foul and seemed to stick in the young priest’s nose with a stench of death. What could have possessed these creatures? The few remaining orcs refused to yield to the flow of defeat, and the last few were dispatched with deadly precision.

It was over! At least for now. It appeared that Hannibal was successful in repelling the Minotaur and that was very good. The cost in lives was daunting, as he walked the blood stained grounds looking for survivors in the carnage. Lightbringer hung loosely from his grasp, almost dragging the ground with its tip.

Its considerable weight seemed almost too much to bear, as his knuckles tingled with pain from grasping its surface tightly for far too long. He absently slid the weapon into its sheath as he bent down to examine a fallen comrade.

Gently rolling the injured form onto his back, he looked for the telltale signs of major wounds. Locating a large wound inflicted upon the chest area, he unbuckled the breastplate of the now unconscious warrior and viewed the damage. Tears began to fill Prothal’s eyes as he began to staunch the flow of blood with the warrior’s own cloak.

“Get help!” He screamed to a soldier standing by dazed. “We need all available hands searching for and treating our wounded. They didn’t fight by our sides only to die after the battle was won!” Grief etched his face as he tied the man’s own cloak firmly around the wound and then proceeded on to the next soldier in need.

Prothal lost track of time as he proceeded to organise the wounded and the dead. Soldiers joined him and followed his every word. Many were dead, but others could still be saved from this untimely death. The wounded able to be moved, were carried into the infirmary for further treatment. The more serious cases were made comfortable where they lay. By this time, other soldiers, trained as battlefield medics, began arriving to save the more seriously wounded cases.

Looking towards the tower, Prothal’s thoughts turned to those of his close friends, and with a harsh whistle, he called his steed to his side. Had Knickerbocker survived the bloody assault? The powerful moves of the horse as it galloped over confirmed his question. He had seen Hannibal earlier and knew that he was alive and well, but what about Ky’Thand?


The light from Prothal to where Ky’Thand was, revealing the position he was in. He was held fast in the webs, and so were three of the soldiers. More interestingly, however, were the two orcs caught in the same webs as he was. They were wearing chainmail armour, and carried broadswords. Held fast, they glared and tried to bring immobile hands to cover their faces from the intruding light.

Another body felt down into the webs from above the tower, to join a dead soldier. It was an orc, its skull smashed up, no doubt by Remora’s mace. He heard the voice of Remora call up from the tower, “Everything secured here. They have put out the fires – the men are trying to clear the sand, to relight the beacons again!”

Lieutenant Rock chuckled at Ky’Thand from a safe position, “Sir, I am afraid you are quite stuck here! I will get my strongest men to clear the webs.” He turned to three big brutes of men standing next to him, “Clear the webs – and capture these two alive!”

The men nodded and began to clear up the webs with the swords. Ky’Thand noticed a few stuck weapons in the web as well – no doubt the result of some misguided effort to clear the webs. In just a few minutes, they had cleared enough of the webs to free him and the two orcs. They struggled for a while, but wrestling manoeuvres by several soldiers held them fast.

Then Ky’Thand saw and heard something interesting. Choking and gurgling sounds were heard from the orcs as they tried in vain to bring their hands to their throats. The soldiers held them in a vice-like grip. Their eyes rolled frantically as some unseen force began to choke them. The soldiers quickly released them and rolled off a distance, immediately drawing their weapons in anticipation of attack.

Their frantic movements, clawing at their throats, were most pitiful. Foam appeared at their mouth, and mucus dripped from their noses. One dropped down to his knees and collapsed on his face. Another struggled to stay on its feet, before he too, collapsed.

“Get me a bucket of water now.” Screamed Ky’Thand in vain. An old story of a mage who used a water breathing spell to kill air breathers rang in his mind. A darn spectral hand and water breathing spell combo, Ky’Thand rapidly thought.

“Damn, I am just about sick and tired of this darkness and its fetid rubbish it comes with.” Ky’Thand looked about for a bucket but none was found. Ky’Thand stood and shouted into the darkness, “I now know your work wizard and I will come for you when I please.”

The still bodies lay for quite some time before Lieutenant Rock gave the orders for the soldiers to check on them. Remora had by then came down, the searchlights having returned and scanning the beach. Her eyes narrowed at the orcs lying down. The two soldiers checking on them looked towards Lieutenant Rock. Their eyes told Ky’Thand everything – they were dead.

Ky’Thand turned and scooped up his remaining Greek Fire flasks and put them away. He had only used up one of his own. The other had been army issue. He then called upon a flame to burn the remaining web in anger, knowing he had been out manoeuvred this time completely.

The soldiers who were near the web jumped out of the way as the sticky strands started to burn. As the flame burnt, lighting up the area about the watchtower, Ky’Thand saw the bodies of the loyal troops who were manning the ballista. The bodies of the dead orcs lay near to them. The flames soon died down, leaving only the charred bodies, and the slightly blackened exterior of the tower, and the slightly burnt structure of the ballista. The flames were not hot enough to cremate them.

Lieutenant Rock turned towards Ky’Thand, and spoke coolly, “I hope you have vented enough of your anger, sir? If you do not mind, I would like to retrieve their bodies and gave them a burial. I am still wondering how I would explain to their parents and wives as to the state of their bodies. Am I supposed to say ‘friendly fire’?”

Ky’Thand looked at Lt Rock, straight into his eyes. “That was frustration, you never wish to see me angry.” That was spoken with an underlying menace. Calming slightly, he continued, “Those two that died last, I wish them taken back to the fort. Leave everything intact on them, I suspect they will be elite soldiers and Hannibal will wish to examine them.”

Rock shook his head and ordered some soldiers to carry the bodies away. Some of them walked carefully past Ky’Thand, as if afraid to incur his ire. Ky’Thand was used to it – many of the soldiers were very jittery about sorcerers. A few carried away the orcs towards what looked like a pile of dead bodies. They would probably build a funeral pyre to burn up all the orcs.

The watchtower itself became brighter as several torches were lit. Remora was obviously very smug with her achievements during the battle. Her shield and armour showed splashes and spots of greenish blood that had spilt on her. It really made Ky’Thand wonder about the law on the church against the drawing of blood. Even cracked and smashed skulls could draw blood.

Her beautiful face seemed to carry a sneer as she came near to Ky’Thand. She looked at the injuries on him and said, “I think you can still walk. You don’t need healing. After all, what did you do? Hide away in the tower and wait for the enemy to fall into your lap?” She gave a haughty laugh and moved towards the troops. She called for a few of them to follow her into the woods.

Ky’Thand had heard stories being told about this woman. One reason why Prothal was so much more popular and ‘worshipped’ among them was the fact that he was a humble man, willing to listen to their woes. Not only that – but Remora had never used the healing gifts on anyone save herself. Prothal had always been the one who ministered to the troops. Sometimes he wondered if the gods were fair – a woman like her should be ugly, and not beautiful.

Ky’Thand glared, not saying a thing, knowing anything said would just make her laugh more.


Prothal mounted his powerful steed and became comfortable within the worn saddle. Holding Lightbringer in a ready position he called to Lt. Stonewall, “We must secure the parameter and be sure that the enemy is gone. We do not want a secret pocket of orcs or, the Eternal One forbid, another minotaur walking our immediate territory. Imagine the damage they could cause.”

While Knickerbocker danced anxiously back and fourth he continued, “But first follow me with Hannibal’s light stone and we will find the centre of this magical darkness”.

Spurring the spirited horse gently into motion, they walked towards the water’s edge revealing the full area of magical darkness. Each remained ready for the unexpected as they explored the beach front and looked onto the dark waters.

The area of magical darkness was full of dead bodies. Bodies mostly of orcs, but also of the fallen dragoons and horsemen. Already, soldiers were helping out to carrying to the bodies into a heap near the beach. Prothal knew the procedure. Enemy soldiers were disposed of by fire. Their generals would be given a proper burial, or sent back to their lands. Except there was no visible general in this invasion.

The darkness should take some time to go off. The rain seemed to have stopped by then, slowing to a drizzle. The areas off the Great Lake, however, seemed to be covered with a deep mist. It really made him wonder if perhaps the enemy had been able to call upon the weather itself. If so, Theophilia was going to be in big trouble.

Prothal turned to Stonewall and said, “I will take the southern beach area and scout out the parameter. If you and several of your men could take the light stone and do the same to the north, we will meet up at the watchtower. If either of us encounter a disturbance whistle two short blasts and the other will come their aid.”

Stonewall nodded and called out to a Sergeant nearby. There were precious few of them left after the night’s encounter. The soldier jogged over and gave a salute to the Lieutenant. He returned the salute and said, “Call off the disposal of the bodies here first. We will check up the areas north first before returning here.” The soldier nodded, gave a salute, and began to organise the men in the area to follow the young officer.

Stonewall turned to look at Prothal. His fingers absentmindedly touched the areas where his wounds had closed. There was a renewed respect in his eyes as he said, “The Eternal One is truly different from Mystari, sir. Stonewall shall honour his pledge. Perhaps one day, the One-Who-Has-No-Name shall make it possible for me to take a pilgrimage to the great temple in Philia.” He bowed and turned around to gather his men for the search up north.

Prothal nudged Knockerbocker into a smooth trot and headed to the south along the waterfront. His helm shed light all around and revealed the carnage of battle. Prepared for an attack, if an enemy came into sight or to come to the aid of the injured if need be.

Riding upon his old friend’s back, he felt a bit renewed and offered thanks to The-One-Who-Has-No-Name for allowing their painful victory and instilling in him with the power of his light. Soon his heart began to sink again after seeing the scattered bodies of fine warriors and even more orcs.

How ill prepared we are for such a dark future that seems to lie before us, he thought silently as he remembered his foreboding vision.

Finishing up his evening ride at the watchtower and not hearing any whistles of alarm from Stonewall, Prothal headed for the tower to talk with his companions. He saw an interesting sight before him – a flame of multicoloured hues that must have burnt hotter before, but was dying down. He saw Rock talking to Ky’Thand, and then Remora.

Remora. She was a beautiful woman, definitely beyond many women he had seen in his life. But she did not have a spirit to match her beauty. Prothal had encountered the people who worshipped Mystari many times. Humility was never in their lexicon. But Remora had a pride within her that outstripped many of the worshippers of Mystari he had encountered.

He dismounted and walked towards Ky’Thand, to talk with him.


Quietly to Taro, Hannibal conceded, “You are right Lt, your men do deserve a chance for glory. I was going to wait till morning but your troops are fresh, but probably down to a dozen bolts apiece. I will begin the hunt for the enemy leaders tonight. We will have a 6-hour headstart and they would imagine that we would regroup before pursuing them. Prepare your men to follow the trail of the Minotaur back to its origins.”

Looking over Taro and his men, Hannibal frowned at the troops’ lack of enthusiasm and disappointment at not being involved in the action.

“Men,” Hannibal decided on his next course of action, “My original plan had you as the anvil these troops broke on but it didn’t work out that way. Now I need you as the most able bodied and skilled force at my disposal to track down where that minotaur came from and find the leaders of this force as they flee our might! Are you with me?”

As the men cheered loudly and began to bring up their arms in anticipation of action, Hannibal turned to the 5 men that had been travelling with him. “Men, you two,” Hannibal pointed to two of the men, “Find Prothal and Stonewall and have them join me here. If Stonewall is staying with his men, I would need Prothal’s holy helmet of light or my light gem or both.

“You two head over to the watch tower and wake Ky’Thand up. I need him with me on this hunt. Have him bring torches or lanterns. And you,” He pointed to the man holding Fleetfoot, “Take Fleetfoot to the stables and return here with any of the scouts you see between here and there. Also, bring the bullseye lantern from my quarters.

“Thank you for holding my ring,” Hannibal concluded as he slipped the seal back over his finger. The men saluted and quickly went about their tasks.

Before Fleetfoot was returned to the stables, Hannibal reached into his pouch and pulled out some leftover bits of apple that he had, “Here you go. You proved your noble heritage tonight.” With a pat on his head, Hannibal turned to the task at hand.

As the battlefield was looted (an age old army tradition) Hannibal issued the standard orders. All finds were to be turned into the armoury where they would be assessed for any intelligence gathered and then used by the army or melted down for raw materials. Coins belonged to the finders, though 20 percent should be contributed to the widows’ fund. All other finds would be paid out at the standard 40 percent (an additional 20 percent went to the widows’ fund from these as well). Hannibal ordered the Minotaur’s ‘axe’ to be placed in his quarters as a battle trophy.

The boats were to be guarded and pulled up farther on shore. The scouts would go over them with a fine toothcomb in the morning to see what could be found.

While his orders were being carried out, Hannibal looked over the battlefield with the eyes of a tracker, not just a commander. Having found little of value in the way of clues on the dead, he now looked as to their course and path through the battlefield. The trails criss-crossed and turned, making it difficult to find the track. He waited for the lights, and some scouts, to arrive.

From his position, he could see that Lt Stonewall seemed to have stumbled upon something at the north. Just 50 yards away from the beachhead was the last boat. It was really big, big enough to probably carry 8-10 minotaurs, if necessary. And yet shallow enough of draught to beach. The standard was no longer there. The soldiers seemed to have begun their search of the boat as the messenger Hannibal sent reached the Lieutenant.


The two friends had met up again after the battle. Ky’Thand did not look too good a state, blood still flowing from a wound he seemed to have forgotten about, so intent was he on something else that must have occurred while Prothal was still searching the south.

A messenger arrived and saluted both Prothal and Ky’Thand. He spoke in a ‘this-is-important’ kind of tone. He must be very excited at being a messenger to Hannibal. “Sirs, Major Hannibal requests that you meet up with him to search for the rest of the enemy troops.” He waited patiently for their answers.

At the same time, excited sounds were heard from the other side of the tower. As Ky’Thand and Prothal turned to look, they saw Xavier with another two men with him. One was badly wounded, and unconscious. The other assisted Xavier with carrying him. Xavier himself also did not look too good.

Seeing Prothal and Ky’Thand, he quickly handed over the man to another waiting soldier, and ran over to them. “Where is Hannibal, damn it! We stumbled upon a few of them over in the darkness of the forests! They seemed to be heading towards Nomad’s crossing!”

Hearing the dire news, Prothal pointed to the messenger with news of Hannibal’s request, “Go back to Hannibal as fast as you can and tell him of this dire news from the area near Nomad’s Crossing! Tell him that Ky’Thand and I are en route to this same area. Move out. Now!” Prothal propelled him in Hannibal’s direction with a push. The soldier stumbled a little and hurriedly ran off to look for Hannibal.

Turning to Xavier, he asked, “Tell me exactly what you have encountered. Were they minotaurs or a horde of orcs? And how many did you see?” Prothal waited impatiently for a response from Xavier.

“See?” He rolled his eyes up incredulously, before continuing, “Have I ever been known to get myself beat up? Hey, I know when to run! But it is hard to avoid an enemy you could not see! By Mystari – the three of us must have been really unlucky – we can even run into such skilful orcs near the woods!”

He looked about and continued, “But I guess they were not interested in us. They disappeared off into the forests, but they seemed to be headed towards the town. I could not guess how many there were, but there should be at least three of them – and highly skilled to boot. And I am no fool to fight an enemy on their home territory – the woods at night!”

“Get on your horse Prothal, I will climb up behind, we have little time.” Ky’Thand groaned a bit climbing up, fresh blood running free. He held onto Prothal.

Hearing the news of what they were up against, Prothal’s visage became dire. Twisting in his saddle to face the obviously passionate Ky’Thand who had just gained his grips onto his armour plates, he asked, “Are you sure that you are up to this challenge my friend? It appears you are in dire need of medical attention. I would place the healing hand of the Eternal One upon you, but my abilities are nearly depleted. I feel that I have only one such opportunity remaining this evening.”

Prothal looked about for the remnants of the cavalry. They were still combing the beach and searching for stragglers, and none were nearby. Several torches were already being passed around as the drizzle slowed and stopped. The thick mist still hung over the lake.

Xavier looked up at Ky’Thand with some doubt in his voice. “My dear Ky’Thand, maybe you really should get yourself patched up or something before you go running off on any errands of your own! Please don’t tell me you are trying to be a hero or something – because I am not so stupid as to go orc hunting at night! And no one, not even Hannibal, will be able to persuade me! You all can be the hero if you want to!” He shook his head muttering something, as he moved towards the relative safety of the tower barracks.


Hannibal searching the battlefield realised that it would be necessary to find the last boat to determine the course the final foes had taken. With a smile he saw that Stonewall, policing the north end of the battle had found the last boat. As Stonewall turned and looked towards Hannibal, Hannibal signalled for him to stay by the boat and that he would join him.

Telling Taro his plans Hannibal said, “Lt, have your men check where the archers were stationed then report just east of that final boat Stonewall found. Once there, we will form up for pursuit through the woods. I want to hit whatever we find with the full force of your men.” Taking the standard bearer with him, Hannibal hurried to Stonewall’s find.

Chapter 7: Those that Got Through

 

Moving with a quickness only a warrior could muster, Hannibal soon reached where Stonewall was. Several men seemed to have already finished looking over the boat. From up close, Hannibal could see that it was not really very remarkable. It was a plain large flat-bottomed boat, with a mast in the middle for either a sail or a standard. There were 8 oars left in the boat, oars probably requiring only 2 men-sized creatures each to man. Or one minotaur.

Hannibal looked over the boat trying to get an idea of how many creatures and what type, were on board. He did not know if orcs and minotaurs took baths, but he was quite sure the rain would have washed whatever stench was on them. Which was a pity, or it would have helped him to identify quite a few things.

Lt Stonewall spoke up, “Sir, first, your light-stone.” He handed the stone back to Hannibal. Hannibal smiled as Stonewall returned his crystal. “I knew I could count on you and your men to win the day. I shall see the company standard reflecting your efforts in this battle. Let me know of any promising men who have distinguished themselves above and beyond in the morning!”

Looking over the boat Hannibal asked, “Do you think there is enough room for more than those manning the oars? No matter right now. We know that at least 10 foes are behind us. Taro and I will take care of them, your men must keep our watchtower and surrounding area secure.”

Stonewall seemed to hesitate a little, before continuing, “The men have gone through the boat twice, sir. Nothing interesting or of value within, except…” He paused a little, as if weighing whether to tell his officer. He took out what seemed like a scroll of some sort from a pouch and handed it over to Hannibal.

Waiting patiently, but a bit puzzled at Stonewall’s hesitancy, Hannibal frowned at the blank parchment. “What is this?”

Hannibal looked carefully at the scroll given to him. It was a scroll of extreme good quality, and he had never handled such good scrolls before. Interestingly, it was blank. Nothing, absolutely no feature, marked the scroll. Lt Stonewall’s face seemed to scrounge up a little when he saw Hannibal looking through the scroll.

“I know it really sounds stupid, sir, to show you a piece of empty paper, but I thought you would like to know. If there is nothing else, sir, I think I will get the men to see if we can commission this boat into our service.” He waited for Hannibal’s response.

“You have done what you should, Lieutenant. I’ll give it to Ky’Thand, maybe he can make some sense out of it. About the boat, I think it is a good idea. We need a navy. Have the men get all the boats ashore and post a guard. I will send for seamen in the morning. Tomorrow canvas the men to see if any has any skill with boats, or building them.” Hannibal’s answer seemed to put him more at ease.

As Hannibal pondered over the scroll, the man he sent to find Ky’Thand came back without anybody with him. With anger flashing in his eyes, Hannibal asked in a cold voice, “Where are the men I sent you to find?”

As he explained, Hannibal relented, saying, “Yes they always have been headstrong. Lt. Taro,” Hannibal shouted across the still beach in his battlefield voice, “Form your men up. We must force our march to Nomad’s Crossing. Our foe is behind us!” He could swear he heard a loud cheer from where Taro’s troops were.

Holding the light crystal up to light the soldiers’ way, Hannibal prepared to set a gruelling trot towards Nomad’s Crossing, 10 miles away. He saw Ky’Thand on Prothal’s horse. Prothal seemed to be speaking something to him. He decided to hurry up to the tower.

Nearing the tower, he could see another soldier getting his lantern ready. Xavier had just stepped into the barracks. Xavier was one of the best scouts about, but he was not one well known for liking plenty of action. Perhaps he felt that he had done his job by informing him of the incursion.

As Hannibal led Taro’s men to the barrack, he signalled Taro. “Keep the men moving. Xavier!” Hannibal barked out in his best field commander’s voice, as he saw Xavier moving towards the barracks, “Where do you think you are going, my FRIEND. We just fought a major battle and the foe is marching on a town we are sworn to defend. You have your choice of two orders. One, stay on the beach and work ALL night, policing the area, carrying dead orcs to be burned, and pulling boats up the beach. There is little of value on these creatures. Or two, You and all your scouts can go with Taro and lead them to the remaining foe. This foe contains the leaders who must have ALL the VALUABLES a force of 200 would carry.”

Xavier seemed to halt in his tracks when he heard that. He turned around and stared at Hannibal, seeming to consider his words carefully. Something must have really tickled his fancy. And somehow Hannibal knew enough of his childhood friend to grasp at what that might have been.

” In either case you won’t be expected to engage the enemy blade to blade, though the right to plunder is only given to those in combat,” Hannibal continued, ” So which orders will you follow from the commander of the army you voluntarily joined?” Hannibal looked at him with no compassion on his face though he doubted the chance at plunder would be put aside. He also knew Xavier – while he did his best to avoid open combat, he could be deadly in his element.

While Xavier was pondering his decision, Hannibal sent the two brave warriors to the stable to ready Hamish. Hannibal needed to at least ride so he could direct the troops and get to the battle somewhat rested.

While his riding horse was being prepared, another of the five passed him his lantern and bow. Smiling at the man, Hannibal took the bow and sheathed his sword, putting his shield over his shoulder. “Thank you my good man. Stay with me. I will have more orders for you and your friends to carry. You can bear the lantern as needed.

“Both of you, see if you can find any of the light horses still around. We need them ready to ride in 10 minutes.” These five men had really been of great help this night. He really must get to know their names. Hannibal would have an interesting dilemma the next few weeks. The men fought well, but he could not promote all of them – only those with outstanding leadership and fighting skills. The plunder was not much, which was why the border guards were never very popular among the Frelandian troops. The only things that kept men on the border guards were the higher pay and the action.

His own men from the border troops had also taken quite a beating. It may take as long as several weeks to months before fresh troops arrive from the capital, with all the official red tape going on about the place. Hannibal’s orders sent, he turned to his two friends.

Prothal saw Hannibal approaching, holding his glowing stone high. “Thank the Eternal One that you have arrived when you did!” Prothal briefly looked up into the heavens obviously giving thanks to an answered prayer.

“Well met, friends. We have survived the initial onslaught but the leaders are proceeding to Nomad’s Crossing.” Hannibal greeted his friends with a smile.

Ky’Thand slid off Prothal’s horse, realising a few minutes would be spent in organising the chase. Pulling his vest then shirt off Ky’Thand revealed his wound. The blade had glanced off a rib and followed a irregular groove around to his side. It had been almost a textbook backstab but for the last moment movement of the victim. Another deep gash ran across his abdomen. Blood oozed from the wounds.

Prothal took advantage of the few minutes as everyone prepared for the ride. He stepped inside the tower and located his worn leather satchel and slung it diagonally across his shoulder and over his head. He felt a little more comfortable with his normal gear on. He felt better prepared for life’s little adventures. Positioning the satchel to his side he returned to his friends and steed.

Smiling to Prothal, Ky’Thand said, “You don’t have a needle and thread perhaps?” Reaching down to his vest Ky’Thand pulled a bandage of clean linen out, a skin of fine red wine and a flask marked “Extra strength healing”

Lifting the flat of his newly obtained satchel, Prothal said, “I do have a fishing hook and catgut line, but unfortunately no regular needles. They will not make pretty sutures, However they will work quite well in binding your wounds closed” Prothal withdrew a spool of thread and fishing hook, waiting for Ky’Thand’s response.

Ky’Thand nodded his head, trusting in the healing skills of his friend. Prothal took the fishing hook between two fingers and filed the barb smooth on the stone wall of the tower wall. The scratching of steel against stone set a shiver up the spines of the companions.

“Pour more alcohol inside the wound and then flush it out with water.” Prothal commanded a soldier waiting on them. While the wound was being cleansed he removed a spare leather pouch from his satchel and placed it in Ky’Thand’s jaws. Smoothly he cut a few feet of catgut and threaded the makeshift suture needle.

“This WILL hurt but you MUST remain still.” Seeing the set of Ky’Thand’s jaw, he did not hesitate. Carefully he proceeded to stitch up the gaping wound in his friend’s side and back. Each time he pushed the needle through the flesh he felt a slight wince and jerk, but not a sound escaped his patient’s lips.

Prothal tried to remember what he had seen some of the healers did at the temple. He was quite sure that was the way to stitch it. The blood that flowed from the wound reminded him of the carnage that had come about. His thoughts drifted to his vision – the blood that flowed freely from the bodies, and the creatures that fed on them.

The pain was really terrible for Ky’Thand. He felt like the pain could kill him. But he knew the skill of Prothal. He had ministered to the men often and Ky’Thand had known him as a skilled healer. Surely he would not make a mistake!

The blood flowed quicker as the stitch tore up some of the flesh. Something was wrong. Prothal realised that he had been dreaming and not concentrating on his task at hand! The muffled screams coming from Ky’Thand told him everything. He had made the wound worse. He did what he could to prevent the wounds from worsening, his shaking hands trying to tie up the bindings securely. It must have hurt Ky’Thand a lot.

Passing the linen to a nearby person and the skin of wine for all to cleanse their mouths from battle. Ky’Thand then washed the wound with some wine and wrapped the linen around to keep it clean. He unscrewed the metal cap of the flask and sighed.

“Three gulps or one slug. A gulp tonight I think.” He drank from the potion, and the loss of blood seemed to abate. But the he could still feel the pain from his wounds. Ugly and red, it seemed like the blood was pushing against his wounds, threatening to open them any moment.

Ky’Thand returned the cap to the flask and the near empty skin to his vest pocket. Quickly replacing his shirt and vest Ky’Thand smiled, “I believe there is a wizard who has lived a night too long, and his minions too. Time to make amends I think my friends.”

“I believe you are more injured than you think my friend” Prothal indicated while looking at his wounds and seeing them begin to magically heal from the elixir. “Perhaps you should utilise the remainder of your potion while you have the opportunity. It could be a long night ahead of us.”

“Taro is forming his men to begin pursuit. I see you are ready as well. I will have Xavier and the scouts track them for us. Ky’Thand will you be travelling with those rogues?” Hannibal spoke in a friendly voice.

“I suppose I can keep up to them and give them some help.” Ky’Thand replied.

Looking with some concern at Ky’Thand, Hannibal said, “How fared you during the battle? The enemy seemed to target the watchtower and ballista. Neither played a decisive part in this battle. Later, I will need your skills in remedying that situation.”

“That is tomorrow’s problem, let’s finish tonight’s Captain.” Ky’Thand seemed to find it difficult to speak much under the weight of his wounds. Now that the adrenaline of battle had gone off, the wounds felt worse than at first.

Seeing Ky’Thand sway with his wounds as the friends spoke, Hannibal spoke to Prothal, “I feel the next phase of this battle will require our mage at his full potential. Prothal, can you call on the nameless one to heal Ky’Thand?”

“Save yer spell for another, I feel later we will need that spell for others.” Was what Ky’Thand could utter.

“Yes, it would be wise to save my rather limited remaining spell potential for a more dire situation. Though I have a strong feeling, that my final healing of this evening will be cast upon you. Watch your back when you are out there this evening…” Prothal replied with a wry grin.

He turned around looking for Remora, “Where is Remora? We could use her hand on this journey into darkness. Perhaps she still retains the power to heal?”

“Heal? Remora? Please, Prothal – don’t give me any more stories of people who can change when given the chance! Remora could be zapped by lighting by your god for all I care!” Xavier’s voice at last pierced the air, after what seemed like some time. He seemed to be getting ready to move off too – no doubt the result of some ‘persuasion’ by Hannibal. He sneered and continued, “I dare to bet my whole week’s wage that Remora will not heal anyone but herself!”

Hannibal turned to Ky’Thand and asked, “Friend mage, What do you make of this?” Hannibal handed him the blank parchment. “This was all that was found in the large boat by Stonewall.”

The scroll felt smooth and good in his hands. Ky’Thand was surprised that a scroll of such good quality could be found in the hands of the orcs. His encounters with them had always showed him that they were relatively barbaric and primitive creatures, without a high level of civilisation. All the wizards in the Institute used this type of material, called paper, to inscribe their scrolls. The making of paper was an art form zealously guarded by Eyondan artisans, and wizards paid heavy prices to get them.

“This is a serious problem Hannibal, it means the orcs we have believed to be barbaric are no longer, someone or something has rapidly increased their level of technology. The crafting of such paper is a zealously guarded secret, like the Greek Fire. It is something even you don’t get access to. I don’t even have a book of this quality paper.” Ky’Thand told Hannibal.

“Tomorrow I will investigate it further, maybe an imprint can be found.” Pulling a empty scroll case from his pocket Ky’Thand rolled it and slipped it within.

“Hannibal, Prothal, a moment please, our devious enemy has shown levels of deception which are unusually high. I suggest we make sure our tower here is defended well and also the fort. They have the capacity to turn, Nomad’s Crossing may not be their next target. The problem is I know not of any other possible target they may try to strike at apart from a forest ambush to take out the leaders. Bear this in mind when we chase our fox.” Ky’Thand mounted a secured horse with the scouts.

“Perhaps we need to speak with Lt. Stonewall,” Prothal suggested to Hannibal, “And have him take everyone inside and post a heavy guard against additional assaults. Ky’Thand has a very good point. After that we must make haste! I fear for the innocent people of Nomad’s Crossing and we are wasting time!”

Remounting his fresh warhorse Prothal grabbed the reigns and prepared to ride. While waiting in the saddle he examined his own wounded shoulder by lifting one of the plates of steel and seeing his flesh wound. It was a light wound, and the bleeding had already stopped. It was a reminder of the battle of the night.

Hannibal looked about him. Taro’s men were ready, with torches being carried. The men’s morale was definitely much better now that the dampening rain had lifted. At least they could carry torches. Hopefully the rain did not wipe off any tracks.

Xavier came up and looked at the troops being gathered with a frown. He looked up at Hannibal sitting on the horse. “Hannibal,” He said in a concerned voice, “The orcs could see in the dark. They could see us with all the light before we could see them. The last we encountered them, they went off into the forests. They could be travelling along the dark forests for all we know. What would you want me to get the scouts to do – hunt for orcs in the forests at night?”

His grin could be seen clearly by the friends by the light of the lightstone. He shook his head and continued, “If you intend to do that, each of us are going to need escorts of three to four men! And they will always have the jump on us! But for the plunder…just give us the escorts and the light – I don’t care if I don’t find them, just make sure we can hit them when they decide to hit us!” He winked.

“Mr Xavier – this is the military. You should address Major Hannibal by rank, or at least by title.” Taro’s voice could be heard as the troops began to form up in anticipation of more fighting. “Sir, Taro thinks it good if the cavalry goes on straight to the villages and the town to augment the local troops. My men will travel as fast as we can to the various villages and Nomad’s Crossing to prepare to fight. Some of my troops will carry out escort duties for Mr Xavier, as requested.”

“Oh come on, Taro – don’t give me all those rubbish! I would think Stonewall’s men make better candidates for protecting the scouts – after all, they are the true fighters! Hey, look at your men – they look like they have been sleeping while Stonewall’s men were fighting!” It was a nasty verbal hit below the belt but Xavier did not seem to care.

“Xavier, Lt.. Taro, that is enough!” Hannibal snapped at the war of words taking place. “Xavier, this is a military operation, try to remember it. Lt. Taro, Xavier isn’t in the normal chain of command so allowances must be made. See to your troops, they shall be guarding me tonight.”

If there were any reaction to what Hannibal said to Taro, he did not display it. He nodded his head, saluted Hannibal and went about giving orders to his men, with the professionalism of a fine soldier. Hannibal turned to Xavier.

“Xavier, you will be forward with me – making sure we keep to the tracks of these creatures. The rest of the scouts will work the perimeter of the light, acting as an ambush in return for any that engages the alpine troops. Forward of Lt.. Taro’s square will be you, these five infantrymen, and me. They have performed admirably tonight and will stay with me. The creatures we chase can only see in the dark if light isn’t present to ruin their night vision.”

Xavier shrugged his shoulders calling out to about 7 men who were sitting about near the barracks. Those were former criminals like Ky’Thand. Choosing the King’s Service in preference to a jail sentence, they had skills beyond ordinary people. Those seven had been with Xavier for about half a year already, and showed some signs of starting to fit into the army. But their undisciplined behaviour had always been a bone of contention from the officers. They huddled about in the circle as Xavier began to brief them on their tasks.

Ky’Thand walked over and joined them, speaking to their leader Xavier, “Just a quick pep talk so you know what to expect. Huddle in lads”

Xavier nodded and gave a signal to the men, and all of them huddled together about Ky’Thand, to listen to the former expert thief speak, “These guys we are chasing are good, they like to backstab and are wearing light mail. They were fast and stealthy, a fragging nightmare basically.

“The good part is they are going to be tired, after a hell boat ride and a lightning attack, the majority of the troops running should be tired enough to make firstly noise and leave a trail second. They are away from home, this is our turf we know it better, so use it. They have a mage but leave that problem to me, we have unfinished business.”

“The best part is they have but a ten minute head start.” Ky’Thand looked about him. He thought for a while, before beginning to use the hand signals that all scouts know so well. He signed for ‘parallel run to main force’ and ‘main force contact and draw the enemy’, followed by ‘flank and finish them’. All nodded their heads at the silent communication.

“So loose anything that makes noise, our weapon is our stealth and we will be lightly running. Remember lads, this is our turf, our speciality, lets give the hell they deserve.” Ky’Thand finished off on a rousing note. The wounds stitched by Prothal really hurt.

Ky’Thand had but one visible weapon, a dagger on his belt. Before they moved off, Ky’Thand took a second swig from his potion bottle leaving the last third for an emergency. Ky’Thand briefly stopped to cover himself with the cloak of Invisibility. Again he spoke the mystical tongues wielding the mana of the air, letting it cover his body with an illusion of unseeing.

Smiling to himself he thought, no point in letting the enemy know all our hidden assets. The men were used to his disappearing tricks. They knew what it meant. Ky’Thand would no longer be about to guide them, but they already knew what to do, as many started to meld into the forest cover, hunting for an enemy they too could not see. They tried to keep to the edge of the torchlight, so that Taro’s troops could protect them should they make contact with the enemy.

Through the forest Ky’Thand and the gang of rogues glided, shadow to shadow no sound but the clanging and jingle of harness off to the left. On contact the rogues will circle around and attack from the flank and rear, Ky’Thand thought to himself. I will search only for the mage. Or mages.

Chapter 8: The Hunt Begins

 

“Scouting or hunting these creatures through the dark forest should not be our current focus.” Prothal stated while Knickerbocker pranced about anxiously, “Either we ride like the wind now, or stay on the road, all the way to Nomad’s Crossing. Perhaps we can even beat them to the town of basically unarmed civilians. If we do not beat them, they will have just arrived and be very winded.

“Or we wait until first light and then ride into town and track them down on our own terms. 10 miles is a long way to travel on foot, even these foul beasts will need their rest before raising arms against us again.”

“I will not have these evil ones raising havoc in the lands I protect.” Hannibal claimed, “However, Prothal is right – we must protect what we have and the town of Nomad’s Crossing. Prothal, will you ride with the cavalry to Nomad Crossing or accompany me on the hunt? The priests in town should be able to heal some of you this night and the rest in the morning. Remember, there can not be that many from the last boat, 20 at most. I feel that they are not here to fight and fear to give them time to accomplish what they are after.”

Hannibal thought to himself. Well we should have a good force at either location. The losses were heavy but the enemy had quite a few tricks up their sleeves. Hopefully they are as exhausted as the men are that bore the brunt of the original attack.

Hannibal then issued new orders to Rock and the men remaining. “Lt. Rock. Secure the fort and watchtower. Your men are to defend these from further attack. Have the medics see to the most seriously wounded and rotate the rest.” That should be approximately 70 fighting men, thought Hannibal to himself.

“The battle ready Dragoons, heavy horse, and light cavalry will ride to warn the villages and outposts. You will be under the command of Lt. Stonewall. Get to Nomad’s Crossing to stiffen the militia that is in town. Get the priests in town to heal the most seriously wounded and wait for the rest of us to arrive.” That would be approximately 25 fighting men. His mind was churning out the figures fast.

“Prothal, I would ask for your helm of light. We are of similar builds and with it the orcs may see us coming, but we will have the light of day well around us. Between it and my gem, I doubt they will be able to quell it.” There was no answer from Prothal.

“Lt. Taro, Xavier – your men are with me. We shall play the most dangerous game! The night may be the element of our enemies, but we shall be on familiar terrain and have the light of our gods with us. The beasts’ ability to see in the dark will be hampered accordingly. I want to force them to keep moving so they cannot cause other mischief.” That would take up 20 alpine troops, 7 scouts, taro, Xavier, Hannibal, Ky’Thand, Prothal and the 5 infantrymen.

“I don’t necessarily want to engage them by surprise, just follow them and give them no time to regroup. Taro’s men are expert fighting these guerrilla actions and the nameless one smiled on me by sparing them from the initial combat, sparing them for this crucial role.” Hannibal finished, his voice firm and carrying so that the troops around could hear his praise.

While Hannibal was issuing his orders, he quickly worked the one bolt that pierced his armour out and flexed his arm to ensure that he was still effective. Smiling as Hamish his riding horse was brought out, he mounted and called out the order of march to the troops with him.

“The scouts should fan out, just outside the effectiveness of the helm and look sharp. Remember the orcs can see in the dark but this light will ruin their night vision, just use the cover you have. Xavier you and I will follow their tracks. They had to be in a hurry and the rain has stopped. Unless I lose the trail, you can drop back and watch over your scouts.

“Taro, your troops will march in an open square. This should provide immediate defence if they should attack, and allow your men to use their crossbows effectively. You shall carry my gem to use if you need additional light.”

Hannibal mounted Hamish and prepared to move the troops out. He knew that the foe had already grievously wounded his command. However, it was his duty to protect the farmers and villagers in this region and waiting till first light would give his foe too much time to wreck havoc on the surrounding area.

Sitting tall as an inspiration he had to chuckle at Xavier’s transparent lust for coin. Well, the scouts could earn their keep tonight by keeping the troops on the right track.

Prothal listened to his companions as they discussed the next plan of action. Despite Hannibal’s orders, Ky’Thand seemed determined to follow this “Mage” into the bush and quite possibly to his own death. Being a man of honour and one with a strong sense to aid and protect his friends in times of need, he came to a decision.

“May the One-Who-Has-No-Name watch over us all!” The young cleric continued to spout with a bit of sarcasm as he looked into the now clear heavens, “It appears that my headstrong friends are determined to draw even more blood yet this evening. I only hope that this blood is that of our foe’s and not our own.” Lightly kissing his symbol pendant of the Eternal One, he slid it back under his breastplate for safe keeping, to a location near his flesh.

Looking back down from the heavens he focused upon his friends. “Hannibal, I believe that I will be keeping my helm for the remainder of this evening. However, I will accompany you on this journey into darkness, and fight by your side, until we have seen this evil totally squelched. Our strength is most effective when wielded as one. We should not divide our efforts so easily.

“Hannibal and I should be in the decoy group wielding the light. After all, we have no hope of stealth, within these great suits of steel.” Prothal looked almost saintly as he spoke with a deep tone from high upon his mount’s back. His back was straight and proud with the warm glow of hope radiating from his helm. Someone unfamiliar with the abilities of a priest, would quite possibly fall to their knees thinking that they were witnessing a vision of some sort.

Prothal was prepared to follow Hannibal’s lead and be ready for action. He would not be talked out of accompanying his friends into this situation of folly. One soldier loaded his horse with two torches, as ordered. Just in case something happened to knock out his magical light.

With the orders issued and the men prepared, Hannibal and Prothal rode in front of the alpine fighting force. They quickly travelled along the road to where Xavier encountered the orcs, about 500 yards away from the watchtower, and tried picking up the trail in the dense forest. With Prothal’s helm lighting the way, the trackers set out.

Hannibal looked about, joining the scouts in looking for signs of passage of the orcs. Heavy forests tended to leave signs of movement. But the rain tended to erase marks and destruction, replacing them with anonymity. One of the scouts signalled that he had found something. The troops began their cautious move into the forest.

The undergrowth was very difficult to traverse. Both Prothal and Hannibal’s horses kept tripping over unseen roots and vines. It must have been the blessings of the Eternal One that none of the horses were injured. Already, Prothal’s arms had snagged on branches once or twice, making noises that would have alerted any enemy.

Hannibal himself was nearly knocked off his horse by a branch. He stopped Hamish just in time to prevent any injuries. Ky’Thand was not much better off. His body disturbed the undergrowth, although he did his best to minimise the effects. Anybody who could see in the dark would have seen the grass moving by themselves. Any intelligent being could probably guess what moved them.

Progress was really laborious. After four hours, and about one and a half miles of travel, the lead scout who had found the trail raised his hand and slowly moved in. The troops prepared for fighting if necessary. He turned about and looked at Hannibal sheepishly. The light of Hannibal’s light stone showed clearly the target of their tracking efforts – a wild swine gazing angrily at the light disturbing it from its night foraging.

Seeing the quarry that they had been searching, Hannibal was furious. Four hours gone and nothing to show for it except a wild pig. Turning to Xavier he snapped, “Get your scouts out around this area, see if our enemy is extremely smart or we’ve used up our luck for one night!”

As the scouts looked for the outside chance that the enemy used this swine to hide their tracks, Hannibal checked the stars and the moon and tried to determine the quickest route back to the main road. His keen sense of direction told him that the party had probably been heading south-east.

The scouts reported back in. Taro listened patiently with a grim face. He had always been patient with his men, never seeming to show anger in his life. He nodded, dismissed the scouts to their positions, and reported back to Hannibal.

“Sir, The scouts reported no signs of tracks that looked like they were made by orcs. Two of the scouts had conflicting reports as well – one said the party had been heading north-west, the other that the party had been heading north to north-east. And both sounded equally confident of their assessments.”

One of the outstanding men that fought by Hannibal snapped to attention immediately, and called out, “Permission to speak, sir!” Taro looked at him and nodded. Taro had learnt well from Hannibal – to give the soldiers plenty of autonomy, to contribute and to speak their mind.

“I have followed my father hunting since my youth, sir. My assessment indicates that we should have been heading north to north-east for the past 4 hours, sir – though I cannot ascertain how far deep into the forest we have travelled.” He saluted and returned to his position.

Hannibal gave the orders to return to the main road. Taro nodded and spoke, “Sir, though it be good that we make haste and cut across the forest back to the road, we chance getting lost. My troops are still fresh – perhaps we can march quickly and retrace our steps back to the main road instead? It will give our foes more time, but if we get lost we may use up even more time.”

Gazing at the light stone that Hannibal held high, Taro continued, “Taro have also told the men to keep the torches quite some time ago, sir. He thinks we would need them were there to be magical battles of light and darkness again, though he fears our torches may be woefully inadequate when it comes to magical darkness.” Hannibal had noticed that actually – the men had not renewed their torches when their first had burnt out. Taro had the making of a general. Perhaps one day he might become one.

The forests at night were not an easy place to travel. Many a times, the trees would hide the moon and the stars, navigational landmarks, for some time, making navigation difficult. It was a good thing the party had stopped there – Hannibal had forgotten how easily it was to get lost even in daytime, without a definite trail to follow. Turning to Prothal, Hannibal asked in a quiet voice, “Is there any way your god can give us any guidance as to where these orcs went?”

Hannibal sat tall in his saddle, and the few closest to him realised that he seethed with anger at losing the last of his foes. His section of the border had been successfully secured against dozens of raids and at least one major push. Never had he had the foe rampaging behind the lines. He did not want to start having that happen now.

“When I get to Nomad’s Crossing,” Hannibal thought to himself, “I will be looking up the local trappers and wisemen. I want to know what this enemy mage may be looking for other than general mayhem!”

Ky’Thand’s voice spoke out amidst the cloak of unseeing. The scouts were used to that already, but the alpine troops shifted uneasily. “Maybe we should set an ambush just within the forest edge at the Nomad’s Crossing side of the Forest. Either way the lads and I will shadow your movements. Any other orders?”

The men shifted about, their eyes alert for possible enemy movements. All eyes were peeled on Hannibal, especially Taro’s. Prothal could tell that Taro was not very comfortable with cutting a straight path through the forest.

Swearing under his breath about the wasted time tracking a pig, Hannibal nodded to Taro. “You are right. Turn the men around. We’ll keep the same formation until we get back to the road. Let’s move at the fastest speed we can.”

Ky’Thand too began to make plans to move off to the town at full speed. He thought over in his minds the layout of the ambush in case the enemy made his move.

While the plans were being made, Prothal began to chant a quiet prayer to the Eternal One and wiggled the fingers of his right hand as he held them facing outwards from his own mouth. Then he spoke, and a series of snorts and grunts come off his lips. In the next few moments, he began receiving many strange looks from the soldiers. By the stars! He appeared to be speaking with the wild swine!

“Good evening fine Sir. I must apologise for our rude interruption of your rooting and foraging for food,” Prothal glanced about at the massive areas of overturned earth that the beast had disturbed while digging for food with its powerful nose and tusks. “Perhaps you would care for a bit of well preserved biscuit, dried meat or even a chunk of cheese?” The young priest crooned in his most comforting tone as he produced some of his iron rations from a saddlebag. He tossed a few items onto the ground, in front of the beast, without waiting for a response.

The creature looked up at the young priest talking to him, and snorted. Warily, it looked at the rest of the party, seemingly talking among themselves and making plans to move off. It moved towards the iron rations that the young priest had just tossed in front of it.

It sniffed at the food offered and gobbled it down, without even taking the effort to chew at it. It looked up again at the young priest, and finally began to spoke, “Two-legs food bad food, but two-legs friends with swine-kind.” Or at least that was what Prothal thought he said.

“Would you be so kind as to tell me,” he leaned down from his saddle as to talk more personally with the creature, “Did you see or hear any others pass this way earlier this evening?” Then he appeared to be waiting for a reply.

Its eyes seemed to carry a dreamy kind of look as it replied, “Other moving kind? Many – swine-kind saw flying-kind on the trees, small-kind with tree-food, and also many, many crawling-kind. Swine-kind hungry, ate plenty of crawling-kind just now.” It snorted with pleasure and blenched out a horrible stench from its mouth. It began sniffing at Prothal.

Taking his glowing long sword from its sheath, Prothal smiled at the beast and split a dead log open with one carefully placed slice of his sharp weapon. The chopping blow exposed the rotten centre of a log, with a small swarm of insects and grubs for the boar to gorge on. Waiting patiently for the creature to devour the exposed bugs, he watched for a few moments.

“Have you seen, smelled or heard any bigger creatures this evening, besides us that is? Perhaps other beings about the same size of these other men?” He indicated with a gesture towards a lone soldier. “We are looking for several man-creatures, that were headed this way some time ago. Perhaps you might still smell their scent?” He indicated with a crude sniffing motion into the night air. “They would have had a much stronger odour than we do.” Again indicating to their small group. “Won’t you help us find our missing folk? I’m sure we could find many nests of these crawling-kind along the way.”

The boar looked up and snorted, “Man-creatures no strong odour. No man-creature at night, only night creatures.” It went back to feeding on the grubs crawling desperately out of its reach. It was an ugly sight, and the sounds and smell of the grubs being crushed by its mouth could make anyone retch.

It looked back to Prothal again, still crunching on the grubs, one or two of them crawling on the tusks, trying to escape the inevitable. It snorted again, “Many smells of night creatures this night. Never so many smells before. But no man-creatures.” It dug its nose into the tree again, emerging with another mouthful of grubs.

Seeing Prothal absorbed with the pig, Hannibal growled his impatience under his breath to Prothal, “I hope this is leading somewhere! I want that mage out from my territory!”

Raising his voice to his command, he commanded, “Hold your positions, scouts forward. Our priest is attempting to gather information for us. We shall wait.”

Distracted for a moment, Prothal looked sideways at Hannibal and saw his hostile impatience bubbling behind his eyes. The young priest glanced about at the nearly exhausted men. “Dear Hannibal… I know that you are very anxious and deeply disturbed about these elusive creatures. However, a brief moment to catch our breath and explore a possibility, remote it may be, seems very logical at this juncture. Not to mention, you asked if the Eternal One could assist in our currently…” he paused for a moment and seemed to choose his next words very carefully, “…unfortunate position.” Prothal finished and returned his attention to the pig.

Crooning to the filthy pig, Prothal continued, “Perhaps they were not man-creatures, but more like one of your kin a pig-man.” He finished with his eyebrows raised in anticipation. “When and where did you smell the strong smell of an unusual amount night-creatures this night? Were they close by to this place?” Prothal’s arm moved up and down gently as Knickerbocker gave a subtle “breeaaaa” with dry lips and shook its head slightly. Absently the young priest scratched the spot between his mount’s eyes, to soothe his friend and waited for a response from the wild pig as it foraged for grubs.

Prothal had heard that pigs could eat even when their stomachs were full – if they were ever full! Of course it was an exaggeration but one could not help but wonder if that might be a remote possibility with this pig. It continued digging its nose and crunching the grubs hungrily. After a while, it gave a reply to Prothal.

“Pig-man not kin. But smells of them many, yes. Many long walk away, all the time smelling close. But not here, no – no pig-man here.” It grunted and looked at Knickerbocker. Sniffing in the air, it came closer to Prothal and sniffed at him, before turning its attention again at Knickerbocker. Obviously, the horse did not like the close proximity to a wild creature. It shifted, not with nervousness, but with a kind of combat readiness, awaiting the signal from its master to strike at any moment.

Ky’Thand could see Taro walk over to Hannibal from his position. The Lieutenant had settled his men into a guarding position, well spread out and ready for battle. It was a pity, but it would seem like the men would not see any more action this night. Still, the elite Alpine Troops of the border guards kept their professionalism with them.

Taro gave the impatient Hannibal a salute, before continuing, “Sir, Taro feels a sense of evil in the battle we had won. He does not feel comfortable with the victory…the cost was too high, and yet we know not the objectives of the enemy.”

He looked at Prothal, speaking with the wild boar, and returned his gaze to his commander. “That was no raiding party, sir. Taro had never fought orcs as well organised and with such great battlefield skills as the ones we faced in the evening. And we had yet to capture the commander. Taro fears there may be more than meet the eye. He just hopes that those orcs represent all the best soldiers they have, and that we have vanquished them all.”

Hannibal nodded at the wise insight of his second in command. “Lieutenant, you are correct. Something is very strange. The enemy sent disciplined and elite troops to die on the beach so a few can penetrate the shore. I was hoping to engage them before they could accomplish whatever it is they are here to do. Now we must go on the defensive, at least until first light.

“Now that our priest is done with the pig, we shall make all haste back to the path and see if we can pick up their trail again. If not, we shall force our march to Nomad’s Crossing and do our duty defending the King’s subjects until Dawn.”

Taro was a stalwart soldier. If truly he felt any fear in his heart, he hid it well, and his voice did not betray a single bit of the emotion that broke soldiers. Ky’Thand knew that he came from the distant island nation of Eyonda, a nation constantly embroiled in civil wars. The Sociology Department of the Institute claimed that all men and women beyond the age of twelve could fight. And a quarter of all vocations was related to the soldier.

Interestingly, he had never heard much about how Taro came to be with the Frelandian army. With his fighting skills and his good leadership qualities, he could have been a good soldier back in his homeland. He would not have needed to face all the discrimination the Frelandian officers had against all non-native troops. He had observed much. Stonewall and Rock had stood with Taro many a times when Striker and Hood had spoken against him. But he could tell that even Stonewall and Rock were not too happy when Taro was given command of the Alpine Troops. Potential trouble and flashpoints.

Prothal began to thank the filthy creature for its candour in the matter, when he realised that further communication was futile. Moving himself between the pig and his mount he grunted a departure greeting and directed it away from his suddenly defensive mount. A sideways kick toppled over another dead stump and revealed a new cash of grubs to occupy the beast’s attention.

Turning to face the group Prothal looked rather worn down and found another stump to rest upon. “Our friend there,” indicating the rustling brush, “has smelt many unusual creatures moving through the forest this evening. Many of them were pig-men…but they are nowhere close to here. Apparently he smelt their presence many hours ago and far from this location.

“Communicating with the pig was not a great success, but at least we can turn back knowing that they are nowhere near this location.” Silently he took a long draw from his wineskin and prepared to depart. “My vote is we go out the same track we came in, we cannot afford to get lost in the forest yet this evening.”

As Prothal related his conversation, Hannibal had to chuckle. “Even a pig is smart enough not to answer until he’s paid, in food this time. Well, little time is wasted. Let’s lead our men and horses back to the road.

Maybe we’ll get lucky now.”

Chapter 9: To the Towns and Villages

 

It took just about an hour this time to backtrack to the road. Ky’Thand could hear one scout muttering to another as they moved as quickly as they could back to the road, “At this rate we are travelling, even if we manage to find their trail at again, we would be in no shape to engage them! And who knows where they could be? Perhaps burning the towns or something! We should be moving off to the towns right now, instead of running through the forests.”

The other voice replied, “Yeah…I wonder what the commander is thinking…” He was interrupted by the voice of Xavier. “Hey, that’s my friend you are talking about! I know him since childhood. I know what he is doing. Don’t worry. Hey, money is on the way, OK?”

The soldiers quickly took up their positions, easily occupying a large portion of the road. If they were tired, they did not show it. They were indeed the elite troops, living up to their name. Taro looked about as the scouts began to search for the trail again. Hannibal could tell, now that he did not join in the search, that the scouts were obviously much, much less skilled than he himself.

Xavier came to Hannibal, and spoke, “Han…” His eyes shifted and caught the gaze of Taro, “…Sir, I think it is really ridiculous to continue searching for their tracks. Even if we can find it, we will travel much, much slower than them. I will give an estimate of half their speed. They could have reached the various towns by now, if they had actually emerged from the forest and followed the road somewhere else.”

Xavier was very frank, and used language not acceptable by soldiers in speaking to their superiors. But Taro held his peace. He nodded and spoke up, “Sir, Taro would agree with Mr Xavier here too, that it might be…not too strategically sound to continue searching for their tracks. Taro suggests we hurry up to the various towns and villages and augment their defences.

“The troops should be able to hold their vigil until the morning. While orcs do move and fight in the daytime, they have always preferred to fight at night, sir. Though…” he paused for a while, “Taro could not ascertain as to whether these orcs would be different. Taro awaits whatever decision you may make, sir.” The Lieutenant held his proud gaze towards Hannibal.

Seeing that the scouts were not having much luck at finding the foe, Hannibal shook his head in exasperation and signalled the men to move out towards Nomad’s Crossing. Hoping that the enemy had no way to move more swiftly through unknown forest than his troops, Hannibal decided to lead his troops through the checkpoints and villages.

“Taro and Xavier, I gambled that I could catch them in the woods before they can do more damage. Well, the gods didn’t smile on me this time. We shall now make speed to Nomad’s Crossing and hope we are not too late.”

Once again riding Hamish, Hannibal stayed to the front with the alpine troops. The scouts fanned out ahead checking the road and nearby trees for ambush. By the time the troops had reached the first guard post, Prothal’s light had already gone off. There was a slight consternation among the ranks but the flower of the Frelandian army stood firm. At each checkpoint and hamlet, Hannibal talked to the guard asking about anything strange. None of them had anything to report.

As he rode through the night, Hannibal tried to converse with Ky’Thand and Prothal about what they should do in the morning if he was unsuccessful in bringing the foe to battle. But they were silent, perhaps in contemplation of the events of the day before. Perhaps in exhaustion. In any case Hannibal could not be absolutely sure of the position of the invisible Ky’Thand.

Dawn was already breaking when the troops were marching along the road between Jameson Vineyard and Nomad’s Crossing. The rays of light brought warmth to the troops who had spent much time through the night searching for an elusive enemy. It took another hour and a half before the army marched into the town, in the early morning.

The town was already prepared for fighting, being reinforced by the cavalry the night before. The situation was tense but the townspeople actually smiled and cheered in the streets when the troops arrived. Hannibal immediately went about reassuring the townspeople with a display of troop movements. Taro had already detailed the men to deploy in watches, allowing two thirds of the troops to rest. The men of the militia returned to their jobs, and the men on duty the entire night before were relieved.

Hannibal had wanted to ask the trappers and the woodcutters about unusual activity the night before, but was reminded by Xavier that the trappers and woodcutters did not work at night even in normal conditions. None would probably have anything useful. “But it is up to you, I guess,” he shrugged. Relieved of his duties and being in more civilised places, Xavier immediately went to the taverns for a drink with his scouts. It seemed like no amount of sleep could ever substitute for a good drink.

A Sergeant from the local town guard was at hand to usher the three friends to the Sheriff’s Office. Ky’Thand had by now turned visible as it was safer than having a spear point accidentally strike him. Before meeting the Sheriff, Ky’Thand told the lads, “Get some rest and a hot meal, later today we are likely to be busy.”

The Sheriff’s Office was a fine building, two storeys tall, with its own watchtower. The Sheriff greeted them as they entered the building, and moved with them into the War Room. This was a room with the maps of Frelandia and of the areas about Nomad’s Crossing, drawn by Eyondan cartographers, the best in Theophilia. It was said their charges were so exorbitant that taxes had to be raised for that year to finance the mapping effort.

The Sheriff was a man of many years, perhaps in his late forties. His features were battle-hardened, and big hands shook the hands of the three friends, pausing to assess Ky’Thand a little. Already in office for two years, Sheriff Igora Shudermine was still as fit and combat ready as he was in his prime as Major in the Central Plains Regiments. Hannibal remembered nothing especially remarkable about the man, except that he did his job fighting the goblins and the orcs in the forests well.

Ky’Thand shook the Sheriff’s hand as firmly as he could, not wishing to look weak and vulnerable. “I am the special services assigned to Hannibal, call me Ky’Thand or mage, title is but another name to me.” The Sheriff nodded and actually broke into a half-smile.

Prothal clasped hands with the distinguished lawgiver, giving a firm grasp and curt nod of acknowledgement before entering the impressive chambers. His eyes danced across the interior of the room as if judging the man’s worth based solely upon his surroundings. A well-kept office was a sure sign of a crisp, disciplined mind.

Placing his seemingly lifeless helm carefully upon a side table, he briefly admired its surface made of a fine specimen of polished rare wood. Unbuckling his breastplate and sleeves, he allowed them to slump coldly upon the stone floor with a muffled clang.

The Sheriff was friendly, but he wasted no time in getting to business. Motioning for the three friends to sit in the cosy room, with beautiful furnishings and comfortable chairs, he began to enquire about the events of the night.

“Hannibal, I have already asked the troops that arrived last night about the happenings, but I would like to hear from you the situation as well. Is it really true that we actually had an attempted invasion by an enemy the likes of which we have never seen before? Is it true that many had escaped into the forests, as I have heard?”

The Sheriff’s tone was one of concern. Ky’Thand noted that the higher ranked Sheriff had used Hannibal’s name without his rank. This seemed to imply that he wanted to preserve an informality about the entire proceedings. His bearings tended to indicate that he was not one who viewed rank very highly as well, unlike many of the officers Ky’Thand had come across in his short career in the army.

“Before Hannibal starts to give you a full rundown of the night’s excursion, I need to ask a few questions, in the forest or nearby are there any ruins we should know about? Also any chance of some hot food, a pot of tea and some fresh bandages?” Ky’Thand examined the map intently, especially from the battle site to Nomad’s crossing, wondering what they could be after.

“I’ve already told the men, Ky’Thand. A healer is already on the standby outside. He will attend to you after the meeting is over.” The Sheriff seemed to be a person very focused on his job. Perhaps the results of the years of training in the army, Ky’Thand noted.

Hannibal looked with interest at the detailed map of the surrounding area. He scrutinised it especially for any indications on the map of what the enemy might be looking for. It was similar to the war map he had in his office – an indication of the major fairways, and the forestation round about.

A few red crosses marked in some areas of the forest drew his eye. Hannibal realised that Ky’Thand must have seen them too, even as he glanced at his intelligent and observant friend. There were also similar crosses drawn on one or two spots on the road. Hannibal recognised the two spots on the road as reports of skirmishes between patrols and orcish raiders. He had heard about them from his troops just two weeks ago. Nothing remarkable about them then, since these clashes were relatively common throughout Frelandia. But anything about orcs right now would arouse suspicions.

The Sheriff noticed the interest paid by Hannibal and Ky’Thand to the map. He looked briefly at the map, and spoke, “I use that as a war map. Recently, we have lost quite a few trappers in the periphery of the forest. My troops investigating the place came across goblin raiders inside the forest areas where the trappers normally get their squirrels. It seems to me that orc and goblin activities have been on the increase recently, but I have no concrete proof. The trappers are still carrying on their work as usual.”

Hannibal had remembered requests for stepped-up patrols in the area just two weeks ago. His officers did report increased skirmishes between the patrols and orcs, even goblins. Hannibal sank gratefully into a seat by the map table. “Well, sir, Ky’Thand has asked the important questions; though I’ll report before you answer him if you like.” The Sheriff waved for Hannibal to go ahead.

Pulling his sheathed combat dagger from his belt to use as a pointer, Hannibal began.

“Well, three waves of boats hit the shore of the Great Lake here,” Hannibal pointed to the battlefield with his dagger as he said, “The weather was perfect from their viewpoint, cloudy and rainy hampering the effectiveness of the searchlights. I wonder now if they didn’t control the weather as well.

“I mustered the heavy horse to charge their lines as they disembarked expecting to send the first wave into disarray. It would have worked except they must have had a wizard that kept casting darkness spells over the battlefield. Chaos reigned. The short of it is that we destroyed 100% of the first two waves, over 100 orcs. The last boat was the one that got away.

“I killed a Minotaur in single combat, and Ky’Thand captured 3 orcs that moved faster than humanly possible. Those we captured committed suicide or were killed at a distance before answering any questions.

“I estimated that the force that passed us numbered the wizard, and up to 20 orcs or 6 minotaurs, or some combination of the above. We searched the last boat and only found one blank page of fine parchment.

“In pursuit, I took a calculated risk and tried to track them in the night. It failed. We lost nearly 5 hours in the woods; then came here.” Hannibal’s dagger circled in the area where they had tracked the pig, then followed the road back to Nomad’s Crossing on the map.

Bitterness and anger were mixed in Hannibal’s voice, though a hint of pride showed through as well. “My men took heavy casualties, not from lack of leadership but the chaos the mage threw over the battlefield. Still, they performed superbly. I would ask that any healers in town be sent back to the outpost immediately to help the seriously wounded.”

“Now, sir. Do you know of any destination that the enemy would sacrifice elite troops simply to gain access to?”

The Sheriff listened to Hannibal, especially at the edge to his voice near the end of his briefing. He nodded and said in a calm voice, “Yes, I understand it is not your fault, Hannibal. Nobody said it is yours. Or your officers. A sorcerer in the equation does make things a little more complicated.”

The Sheriff paused a while, deep in thought, before continuing, “In my years fighting orcs, I have never come across one that does sorcery. I have a few questions to ask, too. When you say ‘elite troops’, what do you mean? How good were their elite troops? And did we manage to capture or kill the enemy sorcerer? Did we manage to capture or kill their commander? How serious were our casualties? Will we be able to hold off another assault like this?”

“The troops disembarked faster than I have seen even our elite troops prepare,” Hannibal answered, “Literally in minutes, they disembarked from their craft and had formed a skirmish line. The heavy horse decimated the first rank, but with the casualties caused by the darkness could not form in time for the second wave. The orcs held formation to the last man. None broke, even when defeat was certain.

“We didn’t capture, or even see, the enemy spell caster though his presence was felt. And none carried a standard so if we killed a commander, there was nothing on the body to distinguish him.

“Our casualties were heavy but not debilitating. We lost 15 of the 20 heavy horse, 30 of 40 dragoons, and most of the 20 archers stationed with us. We can call in some of the patrols to replace those either recuperating or dead. As to holding off another assault, yes we’ll hold. However, the tally will be grim if we have no magical assistance to support the men. Prothal and Ky’Thand were able to counteract the worst of the magic thrown against us this time.

“Sir,” Hannibal asked as his report wound down, “My troops are ready. However, I feel that we must find this party that made it through the lines. However, I have no indication of what they are after. They did not engage the outposts or hamlets, so they must have travelled into the wilderness.”

The Sheriff paced about the room, nodding grimly even as he heard Hannibal report on the battle. He paused in thought for a moment, before he spoke up, “I fear for what these troops mean. If they are elite troops, out patrols may be at a tremendous disadvantage when we engage them. While not all our troops are green, they have never really experienced a battle with enemies that could hold up to them.

The Sheriff stopped at his chair, and continued, “I will give you all the help I can get concerning intelligence. I will get the men to check out for you, to see if we can more information about orcish movements last night. I do not know of any ruins or whatever that the orcs may be after, but I believe there is a possibility they may be relaying messages to the orcish tribes in the forests.

“In which case we may find ourselves asking what sort of message would need elite troops to deliver? I wonder if these troops may be assassins as well. I will despatch a messenger to the capital and the outlying towns with the news.

“On your part, Major Hannibal, I would ask that you step up the patrols until we could at least be certain that the orcs were not a threat. I hear the Colonel will be here in another week. With the messenger you despatched to him, I think he may just be here within the next few days. Hopefully, he can be of help, and can send some troops still in training in the reserves.” The Sheriff sat down on his chair, still deep in thought.

Ky’Thand listened to the report Hannibal gave along with the Sheriff’s assessment. When mention of reserves were made, Ky’Thand piped in, “We should also ask for replacement to certain supplies, Greek fire and heavy weapons, one ballista isn’t a threat a trio is a threat, especially once some darn earthworks are down at camp. If you need I will add a letter to add importance to our needs. Sheriff, if you could organise a few of the trappers to drop by in say 8 hours so Hannibal and I can have a chat to them.”

Hannibal nodded at his friend’s assessment of the defences. “I was glad to have Ky’Thand arrive and had planned on him assessing the defences with an engineer’s eye. Unfortunately, he only got to see them under combat conditions.

“I would ask that you listen to the mage’s suggestions and implement those that you are able. Ky’Thand is very resourceful.” Hannibal recommended to the sheriff.

“Also, Taro will be able to see to the disposition of the men I brought with me to defend Nomad Crossing and some of the outlying areas. If you have not done so already, I will detail a squad of cavalry to ride to Zon-Zor to inform the duke of the potential threat.”

Hannibal was still in his plate, dented though it was from combat. Years of military discipline and patrol now show as he wore it with little consideration of the weight or bulk. However, his steps were now careful and movements more thought out as fatigue started to set in after a long night of battle, pursuit, and riding.

“In a few hours, Ky’Thand and I would like to talk to the trappers to see if anything unusual has been seen. Especially around the area of these skirmishes.”

Prothal’s mood was dark as he stood silently by while Hannibal recapped the events of the evening past. Echoes of fine men screaming in their last moment of life floated aimlessly through his mind. He mumbled an age-old prayer for the dead. How many children had lost their fathers in the past night’s horrors?

After studying the map of the surrounding territory he made a mental note of the small cluster of skirmishes in the nearby forest. Prothal moved to Ky’Thand’s side and placed a single hand of companionship upon his shoulder as the conversations continued. His thought went to his grossly inadequate job of stitching the mage’s gaping flesh wound. Prothal could feel his masked pain, though it was not evident upon his stern face.

“It will not be so easy to get the things, mage,” the Sheriff held up his hand as he replied, “It takes money and time to make these things. Unless you are talking about simple catapults, ballistas are going to take time. Remember – yours is not the only unit requisitioning for equipment. The entire Frelandia is asking for more! There is only that certain amount the Crown will pay without raising the taxes again.

“Already, the people of Zon-Zor are being taxed like crazy to feed and equip the Duke’s troops. And Zon-Zor is rich! We risk a revolt if we raise the taxes again. But I guess that is beyond my jurisdiction. We will make the requisition, though I think we may have to wait.

“I think the troops could easily get the earthworks done with your supervision, mage. But do not press them too hard – it is hard and tense being in the Border Defence. I don’t think the troops would particularly love to be working on such mundane tasks. You must understand our constraints, mage. Money do not grow on trees, and morale is not built in a day.”

Looking to Ky’Thand, Hannibal filled in for the Sheriff, “My troops will be patrolling and won’t have time to dig ditches. I know defences are important, but now the enemy can strike at will and we don’t have time to build defences everywhere. If we knew where the next blow was to land, I would divert some of our might to defending it. But we DON’T.” Hannibal ended in exasperation.

When Hannibal mentioned the earthworks, Ky’Thand replied, “Bah, they will have to wait till we have this area secure again. It would be common sense Hannibal.”

Ky’Thand then turned to Prothal and asked, “Would the local church have records of any ruins nearby in the forest of times gone by?”

“It is possible that an archive of data could exist,” Prothal replied, “Most temples have a rather extensive library and historical records of there surrounding areas. Adam the Pious’ house was going to be my next stop after a bit of rest and prayer.” Looking to their host he indicated, “Where may we rest our weary bone for a few hours? I fear that our minds must rest before a clear solution will present itself.”

The Sheriff nodded and replied, “If you do not mind, you may rest at my place. I have guestrooms for you. You will rest this morning, while I wait for the trappers to finish their work. Hopefully they can tell you something. I will also get the men to report to you what they have discovered. I fear there is not much time for them to work on, but I hope they will have something useful.”

Hannibal looked at the skirmish indicators on the map hoping to see any pattern or area that these battles might indicate. The skirmishes occurred along the road leading to Nomad’s Crossing, within three miles of each other. They did not seem to be related or patterned in a certain way. There was too little information to work on anyway. Shaking his head, he turned to the sheriff. “Well, if there is nothing more, I will get some sleep. It has been a long night. Wake me if I am needed.”

He looked at Hannibal again, and continued, “I will send some of my healers over to the outposts, Hannibal. Your soldiers will be well taken care of, though it may take quite some time. Especially if I suspect they may have to resume duties soon.” He smiled to himself and continued, “We know how long it takes for Paridon to hear about and send fresh troops. Yes, I will have to inform the Duke of Zon-Zor. It would be good for his troops to be ready in case the Kings’ troops take some time.”

His eyes narrowed as he looked at the map again, tracing the coastline. “Let us just hope that in the two weeks it takes for the fresh troops to arrive, the enemy will not be moving in against us.”

The Sheriff paused a while, deep in thought, and then returned his gaze to the companions. “I think you are all a little tired, I have a healer outside to attend to your wounds, and rooms readied for you.”

Chapter 10: The Briefing

 

Ky’Thand headed out to the waiting healer, who dared not stitch him. He looked shocked but did not say anything when he heard of what Ky’Thand had suggested Prothal do. He applied some herbs on Ky’Thand’s wound and bandaged it up properly again. He did the same for Hannibal and Prothal, before he retired to his own residence.

Back in his room, Hannibal removed his armour and weapons. Tumbling into his bunk he slept, trying to determine what to do next.

Ky’Thand slept a good sleep. He was so tired and his wounds ached. Six hours later he woke up, to study his spell books for new spells. He quickly wove a spell of protection about him again.

Prothal’s sleep was interrupted by his dream again. Again he saw the carnage, the evil, the abominations that were running and flying all over the place. The killings and the terrible destruction that haunted his sleep for three days and now in its fourth day. Again he woke up in cold sweat. Mercifully, the dream only interrupted his sleep once. Each and every night it only occurred once.

The companions were greeted by the Sheriff’s servants and given refreshments and a hot bath in the residence’s central bath. The two serving ladies were obviously fascinated by the three friends, especially at Prothal’s Holy Symbol. Nothing indiscreet was done, however, and the companions were greeted by the Sheriff, now visibly tired. Unlike the Border Defence, the people of the towns kept to their normal lifestyle. The battle last night must have taken his sleep away from him.

Hannibal felt much refreshed with the bath and the ability to flirt briefly with the serving ladies, much to the disapproval of Prothal. Though nothing much came from it, it did renew the warrior’s spirits. The chaos and death from the night before were not forgotten, but it was now not a crushing weight but simply something to avenge.

“The trappers would be here soon, as will my intelligence. You may find it interesting that certain aspects of the reports from the two parties were similar, but I will want to hear from you what you think when we reach the briefing room.” The Sheriff spoke as he waited for the companions to get dressed.

There seemed to be some sort of noise outside but it was too muffled to be intelligible. Someone seemed to be shouting outside. A soldier stopped outside the bathroom, and saluted the Sheriff. He spoke up when the Sheriff returned his salute and motioned for him to go ahead and speak.

“Sir, it is Adam the Pious again. He is shouting outside something about the end of the world in three more days, and is demanding to see Brother Prothal, sir.” He spoke, obviously flustered.

“Well, soldier, you should know what my view of people who go about prophecies of doom are. Get him out of the place. Brother Prothal have more important affairs to attend to than some idiots shouting some ridiculous stuff.” The Sheriff replied impatiently.

“But, sir, he is an old man…”

“I say, get him out of here! I don’t care if he is an old man!” The Sheriff made his point emphatically. “Now I would appreciate if you go about your duties soldier! I have mine and you have yours. Dismissed!”

The soldier looked first to Prothal, then to the Sheriff. He gave a smart salute and proceeded out of the bathroom. The Sheriff turned to Prothal and the companions and smiled. He said, “I apologise for all the disturbances received. Especially for Brother Prothal. Now perhaps we can go to the briefing?”

Before going to the meeting with the Sheriff, Hannibal asked for Taro. The soldier waiting on Hannibal nodded and immediately ran off to get his officer over. Apparently, Taro was not in the vicinity, and the Sheriff hurried them to the briefing room.

Upon hearing the report on Adam the Pious and the sheriff’s views of prophecy, Hannibal looked questioningly at Prothal. “Sir,” Hannibal addressed the Sheriff, “Ky’Thand and I can probably handle the military briefing. Prothal’s wisdom might be better used calming down this ‘prophet’. It would do the morale of the town good to see a man of the lord with Prothal’s stature at least listening wouldn’t it?”

Hannibal’s reasoning studiously avoided mentioning that the ranting of Adam sounded very similar to the ‘dream’ that Prothal had been having for the past three days. Prothal nodded his assent and quickly went out of the room, after putting on his clothes and his Holy Symbol.

Watching Prothal go to calm this Brother Adam, Hannibal wondered what information the priest would find. He turned to the Sheriff.

“Sir, I will have Lt. Taro working on the troop deployments right now. By tonight the patrols will be stronger and more frequent. However, with the men I have; they will need to be relieved after a week or two for some rest.”

“Well, let’s hear what the men have found out. Maybe they can shed some light on what is happening.” With that Hannibal, wearing a green silk shirt over black pantaloons and his beret at an angle to cover his bald head, twirled his moustache absent-mindedly as his sharp mind began thinking about what he knew and what he would ask the trappers.

On the way to the briefing Ky’Thand stretched the muscles torn and healed, finding a slight restriction to his normal fluid movement. Cursing the dark hearts of the orcs that wounded him made him feel no better. He wanted that mage; it burnt like bad bile in his throat that it got away the previous night. The next time they meet Ky’Thand intended to give the mage something to seriously think about as he thrashed on the end of his blade.

“Lets get these trappers in so we can find out some useful information.” Ky’Thand agreed with Hannibal as they both continued with the Sheriff to his room.

Three men were already waiting for the Hannibal and Ky’Thand in the Briefing Room. Two of them looked like simple townsfolk, and they were shifting nervously as they stood behind the high-backed chairs they would be seated in later. The third was dressed in a soldier’s uniform, the sky blue vest and slacks with the emblem of Frelandia at the front. This should be the intelligence man the Sheriff was talking about.

The Sheriff motioned for all to take a seat. Looking at the three men summoned, he spoke, “Gentlemen, I have already heard what you have spoken to me. What you are going to say now is for the benefit of these brave defenders of this town. Do not leave out anything, do you understand?” The three men nodded. The soldier stood up to speak first.

“Major Hannibal, and Mr Ky’Thand sir, as requested, I have checked through the townsfolk in general, and got the reports from interviews with the soldiers about. We were given short notices and I hope the information will be useful to you.” Now that Hannibal and Ky’Thand had a chance to look at him further, they realised he was looking somewhat tired. He must have worked through the night as well.

“Apparently, there were legends in this town of some ruins deep within the forests to the north-west of this town. Several of the trappers had heard about them, but no one had actually seen them. Nobody knows where these ruins are exactly, and no one is crazy enough to explore the deep forests teeming with goblins and orcs.

“Interestingly, a young man had remembered his late father mentioning that the ruins were the remains of the stronghold of a powerful sorcerer who had sold out on the secrets of magic to the orcs. His father claimed to have heard this story from his father, who had heard it from his father, who had heard it from a man who claimed to have heard this from this sorcerer’s apprentice.”

“North-west?” Hannibal asked the intelligence officer, “Were these ruins across the river in Sharilin, or on the Frelandia side of the Long River? While they may not know even the general location, it seems a landmark that divides the land like the river does, would be mentioned.”

The officer shrugged and replied, “That was all I could find out, sir.” He paused a while and looked around at the people gathered before him. Somehow Ky’Thand could feel that he was uncomfortable, wondering if he should continue – it would sound ridiculous to be pursuing wild rumours. Especially before ranked men like the Sheriff and Hannibal.

“According to the story then,” the soldier continued, “The sorcerer who sold out on the secrets were punished by Mystari, and he lost his ability to speak. Without the ability to speak, he could not perform any magic, and so were overwhelmed by the orcs that later over-ran his stronghold. Even until today, the young man’s father remained convinced that the orcs were quartered in these ruins, but he had died just a few days ago, killed by a wild animal while he was out trapping squirrels. His remains, and that of his companion, were found by another pair of trappers the next day.”

The soldier looked at the Sheriff, then at the two men before him, before he concluded, “And that is my report on what the Sheriff wanted – information on ruins in the vicinity. I hope that my report has been useful, sirs.”

The Sheriff nodded, and motioned for the man to sit down. He looked at the two trappers, obviously nervous, and said, “Don’t worry, just tell us what you have heard and seen.”

Hannibal was not deterred and pressed on with the soldier. “So, the Mystari may know more? Where would such records of the punishment be kept? Thank you for the information, it gives us a cause for the events of the last night, if only an indistinct goal.”

The soldier nodded and replied, “It just might be conceivable that the Temple of the Wisdom of Mystari in Nomad’s Crossing might have the records. I have already sent men to check with the Priest on the possibilities of there being such records. We should receive the reports quite soon, sir.” The soldier looked pleased to have foreseen the question by Hannibal.

Both of the trappers waited for the officer to finish, all the time staring at the Sheriff. When he motioned for them to continue, they stood up and looked at each other nervously. One of them, obviously the bolder one, spoke out first. “Sirs, I understand you want us to tell you of anything unusual we have seen or heard. Well…just this morning, while we were trapping, we heard some noises, and we hurriedly hid ourselves – the noises sounded guttural, and from experience, you know these sounds should be the language of goblins, orcs or one of these races. And we don’t want any problems with orcs right then.”

He looked guiltily at those in the room as he continued, “We saw something that absolutely amazed us! Two goblins, their eyes obviously hurting, were conversing with an orc! We don’t know what they were talking about, but the there seemed to be some disagreement, and the orc ended up killing both the goblins.”

As the trappers began, Hannibal was thinking about the supplies to requisite from the armoury and his own personal goods for such a journey. Horses would not be much use in the deep woods, other than pack animals. Also, plate was good for day, but for sleeping and off watch, his expeditionary leathers would be needed. Food, tent, weapons, the list got long in a hurry. Before a detailed list of equipment could be thought of, Hannibal’s attention was drawn to talk of encounters with orcs and goblins!

“This morning! Where were you when you saw this? Can you lead us back to that location? Your encounter was uncomfortably close to Nomad Crossing, were you in the forest or on the lands cleared for farming?”

Hannibal thought that maybe this could be the break needed to find the ruins, either the orc could be tracked or the goblins in the area could be persuaded to lead him to it!

The men were startled by the sudden speech of Hannibal, and for a moment all was silent as they stood petrified. Slowly, with a slight stutter, the trapper replied, “Well…sir…we were just two miles north-west of town, at the outskirts of the forests…nobody is foolish enough to go deeper, though they say there are more squirrels there…”

He took a deep breath, to quieten down his apparently pounding heart, before continuing, “Yes, we can lead you back to the location, sir.”

His companion seemed to have found the courage to speak up then, for he said, “We were absolutely terrified of the fighting going on, but we could not sneak away, lest we be found. The orc was very highly skilled in fighting, and killed the two goblins easily.”

The other nodded and continued, “It was amazing enough to see orcs conversing with goblins, since the tribes here were not well known for their amiability with each other. Then the orc did something absolutely amazing! The orc took out a scroll and began to speak some words of what must be magic! Then he just, well, disappeared!”

His companion nodded his head vigorously as he chipped in, “We were horrified, and were so worried he might be coming after us, but our feet refused to move! After half an hour, when we were sure he was gone, we came out of hiding. I happened to notice something interesting the orc must have dropped…here it is!”

He proudly took out something from his pocket and showed it to the Sheriff. It seemed to be a scroll of high quality, which was what both Ky’Thand and Hannibal could make out. The Sheriff nodded and motioned for both of them to sit down. He looked at Ky’Thand and passed it to him, saying, “I think our mage may be able to make something out of it?”

A highly skilled orc! And one that had some understanding of magic as well. Could this be the mage he pursued the night before? Hannibal began to appear eager to take up the hunt for vengeance once again.

Ky’Thand’s suspicions were confirmed the moment he handled the scroll. There was no doubt about it. This was paper – used only for magical writings, so good was their quality, and so expensive were they. Again, this one was blank.

Ky’Thand stood up and spoke, “I have a few questions before the trappers are dismissed. When the encounter occurred, did you see how the orc killed them? With a blade? Or magic? How long have you had this scroll? How far in the past have you entered the forest and do you know where the goblin camps are? Could you point the spot on the map?”

Again silence filled the room as the trappers stood rooted to the spot. Ky’Thand noticed they were eyeing the jewellery on his neck. Normally it was the more educated ones who were aware that jewellery might signify more than just a rich man. But there were the occasional common folk who had encounters with wizards that left lasting impressions.

These trappers must have encountered wizards before – the fear was evident in their eyes. Ky’Thand wondered what must be going on in their head now. Fear that he might turn them into a frog? The common folk had plain distorted the true power of magic. To do that required a level of magic use that he had never seen any mage perform before. At least not publicly.

The second trapper finally found back his courage to speak. “Sir Wizard…the orc killed them both with a sword…the kind hanging up there…” He pointed to the longsword hung vertically on a stand, at the back of the room. “We took the scroll about half an hour after the orc left, sir…like we said just now. That should be at the second hour of the morning, when your troops began to come in, sir.”

His companion continued, “We have never been more than several hundred yards deep into the forest, sir. And we do not know of any goblin camps. Nobody knows of any goblin camps, sir.”

After the trappers had answered all the queries, Ky’Thand said, “Sheriff, I commend you on your resources. Trappers feel free to go.”

The Sheriff raised his hand up and looked hard at Ky’Thand. For a moment, there was silence. He smiled at Ky’Thand confidently and said, “Mr Ky’Thand, if you do not mind, I will do the dismissal here, not you.”

His eyes turned to his officer and the trappers, and he waved them off with his hand, saying, “You are free to go back now. Please escort the two gentlemen out, soldier.” The soldier saluted and led the two trappers out.

Ky’Thand excused himself and left with the trappers, the Sheriff watching him as he moved out. With the soldier had escorted them to the doorsteps and left them alone, Ky’Thand placed 2 platinum coins in each of their hands.

“Gents, never feel stupid giving information like that ever in my presence. If you find anything out further get this information to me either by the Sheriff or seek me out directly. Also, who is the most experienced pair of trapper woodsmen in this town? I think it is time I speak to them as well. Could you find them and send them to me in half an hour if you can find them? I would appreciate you keeping this conversation to yourselves, I wish no panic in the townsfolk. Lastly, if you pair ever have a problem which I may help with, call me.”

The two of them looked at each other. One of them seemed reluctant to take the money, but the other eagerly put the coins in his pocket. Two platinum pieces was a lot of money – at least four months to half a year’s worth of work. He nudged the other to accept the money. He then smiled at Ky’Thand and said, “Sir Wizard – we both are the most experienced pair of trappers in this town. If you need to speak to us, we can be found at the Woodsbridge Inn!” With that said, he pulled the other man away, smiling at his lucky stars.

As the four left the briefing, Hannibal turned to the Sheriff. “I expect to be looking for that ruin very shortly with only Ky’Thand, Prothal, and Scout Xavier with me since it would be foolish to diminish our fighting force much more at this time. I will need to requisition some weapons from the military arsenal.

The Sheriff turned to Hannibal, still deep in thoughts. Whether he had heard what Hannibal had said or not, Hannibal could not tell, but he looked obviously displeased. “Major, I am not too sure how you handle your men, but I hope they will understand that while they are in this town, I make the decisions. I am already having trouble with your soldiers sometimes starting fights in my town, and it would be bad for both of us if I have to limit access to your soldiers.”

Hannibal responded tactfully to the Sheriff’s comment on his troops, undoubtedly inspired by his brush with Ky’Thand, “I will have Lt. Taro designate a police squad to help keep trouble to a minimum. I doubt that my men will have much time to cause trouble with the increased patrols. However, as you know, when men are given leave, some trouble is expected. I will try to keep it contained to the bars and brothels.”

“Also,” Hannibal continued, “Taro will co-ordinate his troops with your police as well.”

The Sheriff did not respond to Hannibal’s speech, but stared at the doorway, and continued, “I would not like to offend a mage, but if the proper respect is not shown, I have no choice but to risk it. You are a military man yourself, Major. I believe you will understand that an officer who loses his men’s trust and respect cannot lead.”

At the comments about Ky’Thand, Hannibal nodded in a knowing fashion. “Ky’Thand is trying isn’t he? I’ve known him since we were both raw recruits and he never did quite figure out rank and showing respect. I’ve always figured it was being a scout, then moving into the mage corps.”

With a shrug, Hannibal continued, “Among my men, he is trusted but is given some slack when the protocols aren’t met since he’s a mage. I’ll talk to him but he isn’t officially under my command. If it’s any consolation, sir. I would say he does respect you; he is just impatient.”

The Sheriff wanted to say something, but Ky’Thand re-entered the office. He tried not to show his displeasure as Ky’Thand entered.

“I have several things both of you should be aware of, first thing is, the RUIN, we need to find, it seems the key to this darn mystery. The gathering of that sheet of vellum is a stroke of luck, my friends, as it tells me several things and may give us the edge we need.

“Let me tell you a small story. A lecturer of mine used a spell that locates objects. In a murder investigation, he used this spell to locate an unknown assassin through the use of a handful of hair the dead victim had pulled from the assassin’s head during the struggle. He cast the spell at three spots inside the township and on a map drawn in the directions, eventually narrowing it down to a cluster of four cottages. The cottages were raided and the assassin caught, all because he dismissed the clump of hair left behind at the scene of the murder.

“This vellum scroll should be able to be used the same way, this time we search for the scroll case it rested on until used earlier today. I personally have not the spell, but I have heard similar things done by priests and with the graces of Prothal’s god, maybe he can get it for us.

“Also Sheriff you need some rest, we will act for you while you sleep. Have a quad of guards outside your sleeping quarters. This group of orcs smell like trained assassins. Something our military has not had to deal with before.”

At Ky’Thand’s mention of assassin’s, Hannibal interjected, “Well, the Sheriff or I could be the target of an assassin though we both only command small areas. If they know the movement of our leaders, Captain Bluestar would be the logical target. His security forces should be informed as soon as possible.”

The Sheriff looked coolly at Ky’Thand and Hannibal as they spoke. He shook his head, and gave a sigh, before saying, “I will decide for myself if I would need rest, Mr Ky’Thand. I believe you have your investigations to do, and I have my running of the town too. I wish you all good luck on your investigations. I will send a messenger to inform Colonel Bluestar of the possible security threats. I would be pleased too, Major Hannibal, if you would report to me the results of your findings and your expeditions. That will be all, gentlemen. Dismissed.” He waved them off.

As Ky’Thand and Hannibal left the Sheriff’s office, Hannibal turned to the Sheriff one last time. “Sir, thank you for an amazing amount of information in a very short time. I will keep you informed as to what we find out. I will leave it to you and Colonel Bluestar to determine who else needs to know what we find.” With a semi-formal salute, since the briefing was never really official, Hannibal left the Sheriff, intending to see what the Temple of Mystari had to offer.

When the two had walked out of their room, Hannibal asked Ky’Thand, “I take it you told those men to report anything else they find to us? Do you think we can convince them to take us back to the site where they witnessed the orc?”

Ky’Thand replied as they continued back to their rooms, “Yes, they said they would be at the Woodsbridge Inn, if we needed them. I asked who are the best two trackers or trappers in the area, and they happened to be the ones, lucky huh? And yes, they will lead us back there, but will most likely not go much farther, not with the other deaths in the forest lately.”

“Ky’Thand,” Hannibal continued to make a comment, before making a turn round the corner, “You need to temper your eagerness to exact vengeance. You didn’t win any friends with the Sheriff this morning. You can’t go around usurping a commander’s prerogatives, especially in the presence of his men.”

“That may be true Hannibal, but you didn’t get caught by surprise, humbled and then when you thought you had two of the nasty little buggers they die, before any questions could be asked. That all does not sit well in my stomach, my friend.” Ky’Thand replied.

“As for the sheriff, he should have listened to my words, these orcs currently could breeze in, assassinate him and be gone. Losing a figurehead like him in this village would destroy morale. Admittedly, Bluestar is another possible target, but I would place money on the sheriff’s head. Especially when he is staggering around due to lack of sleep. You saw how fatigued he was, you just didn’t wish to upset his feelings. The truth is often a bitter pill.”

Island of Rodarea III

Chapter 21: The Power of the Eternal One

 

“Xavier, it’s good to see you,” Valena winced in pain at the arrows protruding from her. “Prothal has gone to aid Hannibal. They’re at the walls of some old stronghold, heavily guarded by goblins.” Her eyes teared in pain as she snapped the arrow shaft from one of her thighs.

“I don’t know where Ky’Thand is. Will you help me with these arrows?”

“Well toots,” Xavier smiled at Valena as he helped get the arrows out of her, his hand brushing by a little longer on her thigh, using it as a brace to pull the other arrow out. “I see the great warrior is in there swinging again. Now it’s up to me to get the heat off him.”

As he mentioned heat a decidedly mischievous light came into his eye. “Well, yer not gonna like this but shooting arrows isn’t working. The forest is dry and well there is enough wind to keep a fire going.”

Without asking Valena’s permission or such, Xavier got out a pair of torches and began looking for oil on Hamish. Finding none, he took a tent from Hamish’s pack, and began ripping it into strips. He took out the pitch from the torch and began to smear it on the strips of cloth. “You need to start firing fire arrows into the goblin compound. Doesn’t matter where. Goblins are messy, with luck you could hit a real flammable piece of garbage, or at least the huts. Fire and move toots. They’ll be busy watching me.”

With that, Xavier lit another pair of torches from Hamish’s pack and immediately threw one onto a pile of grass and twigs. The reaction from Hamish was immediate – Xavier had forgotten how much horses hated fire. Hamish was a war-horse, and was accustomed to campfires, but a bush-fire would still frighten it! It began bucking like crazy, and Xavier tried hanging holding on to it, tried using whatever skill he could summon at horse handling, but to no avail.

Xavier ignored Hamish, handing over the reigns to the ranger. “Stupid beast. I don’t know what Hannibal sees in them. Anyway, they say yer good with animals.”

With calm, soothing words, Valena approached Hamish, trying to lead him away from the fire. It was to no avail – the great creature kicked at her, and she had to move away to avoid being struck by the panicking horse. It quickly bounded away, pack and all, before she could do anything else to it. She turned back to face Xavier, who had started doing what he wanted to do.

With the horse out of his hair, Xavier had continued to setting fires. As the forest began to crackle and spit with the heat, Xavier moved faster and faster to stay in front of the blaze where the flames would not backlight him for the goblin archers.

Valena decided to quickly followed suit. She made a quick assessment – this fire, if not taken care of, could well burn up a substantial amount of the forest, and perhaps the fauna within as well. But it would most definitely threaten the goblin fortress she had encountered.


The wolves began their attack again. Hannibal swung his sword as a wolf prepared to attack, and forced it to quickly retreat. He met the other with another swing of his sword. It met the flesh of the wolf, and sunk deeply, and immediately Hannibal knew something was really wrong.

It seemed almost like his mind had gone blank within him. The sounds of battle retreated from him. He felt a presence. A strong presence of evil that sent chills down his spine. Its claws reached out towards him in the inky blackness, and slowly he felt himself drifting away. His thoughts strayed to his friends, to his men waiting for him to lead them, to…Yolanda his love, waiting for him in the desert.

No! His mind had cried out, as he reached for his weapon, and cut at his unseen adversary, and suddenly it was twilight again, and the familiar sounds of the wolves snarling at them. His weapon had no blood on it, but it was obvious he had struck another wolf…for the wolf he had struck earlier lay down at his feet.

Prothal took a quick look at Hannibal – it seemed for a moment he was struggling with something, but that moment was quickly gone. He raised his sword up to ward off a wolf that had sneaked up. He quickly followed by twisting it to one side, to cut into another wolf that had sneaked up from the other angle. It howled in pain, and for a moment Prothal thought it was abandoning its attack.

He should have known the craftiness of his adversary. It made a quick comeback, to close its jaws at his knee! The pain struck him again, as he realised the wolf had penetrated his armour. He gritted his teeth at the pain, and swung the weapon at it, as it bounded away.

The goblin war party had not approached them, but had stayed at their position. Then Hannibal and Prothal saw it. A goblin, wearing an elaborate headdress, and leather armour. Prothal seemed to see what looked like a wand of some sort tucked into its belt. It stepped through the crowd that thronged it, and began speaking…in the Common tongue!

“Human now prisoner of the Great Chief. Human drop everything, and surrender now, and Great Chief make human slave. Or else…” There was a great uproar and murmuring as another goblin, bigger in size than any other, and in fact bigger than any Hannibal had ever seen, moved up. It wore chainmail armour, and brandished a short sword and small shield. At its belt hung what seemed like a flask. It roared out something unintelligible, and the goblins cheered.

The goblin spokesman nodded reverently and continued, “Or else Great Chief will eat human for hretan tonight!” There was another loud round of cheering as the goblins brandished their spears. The wolves around them snarled threateningly again – they would have to be real quick in killing to break through the wolves, and from the last few minutes fighting with them, somehow Hannibal and Prothal wondered how likely this was going to be.

Whispering to Hannibal, Prothal said, “We don’t seem to have any choice right now but to surrender….” Still facing the wolves, Prothal continued, “Hopefully they are not smart enough to search us. If we had enough time to heal, we could probably escape during the day when they sleep.”

Hannibal shook his head instead, and suddenly laughed at the little creature! “It is not that easy.” As he spoke he turned slightly so he could see Prothal. He then said in almost a whisper, “Prepare your sword. Hold it in front of you with all your strength and be prepared!”

Turning back to the chief, Hannibal nodded at the champion next to him, saying, “My friend leaves,” Hannibal indicated at Prothal, “And I fight your bed friend for my freedom! Otherwise, many wolves and goblins die on my blade!” Hannibal could see the incensed look on the eyes of the goblin speaking to him, and it prepared to speak something to the big goblin next to it.

With no other indication, Hannibal whirled and struck the ebony blade cutting edge to cutting edge against Prothal’s sword of light, wondering if the two would be pulled elsewhere as he felt moments before. In any case, he thought to himself, the vile beasts won’t get the powerful blades!

What happened was beyond the expectation of Hannibal and Prothal. The two blades, locked together in an unholy embrace, were visible in the their eyes only for a split second – and then a blinding flash of light of pure white, so powerful, so strong, it had to be divine in original, emanated from the blades that had become one. Everything turned white.

Prothal could not see anything, but he could hear the screams of the goblins and the pained barking of the wolves. He could feel the trembling of his weapon as it seemed to rise to combat some evil, drawing on an unknown power, an unknown strength. This was Lightbringer? The holy weapon so ancient, nobody really knew its origin? Just what weapon was he wielding? But he could not really dwell on that, for he heard another scream, a more chilling, blood-curling one.

Hannibal heard that too, amidst the cries of pain around him. He could not see, but his weapon felt funny in his hand – its balance was just…wrong. On a hunch, he moved his hand to where the blade was – and felt nothing. His hand moved down, and he realised his weapon had only about an inch of blade left, and him holding on to its haft. His weapon must have been broken by his actions.

Strangely, Hannibal felt within him a kind of pain, pain at losing a kindred as the scream faded away. It felt almost like a part of him was gone forever. His other senses quickly picked up movements about him, and his warrior instincts took over again. He seemed to sense a confusion about him, as a cacophony of goblin shouts and wolf barks seemed to suddenly swirl around him.

Prothal sensed it too, a confusion around him – he was very sure the goblins and wolves were in the same state as they were, blinded and in shock at what happened. He was not sure where exactly the goblins and wolves were. In fact, he could not be sure even where Hannibal was, but he should be near.

Then both of them smelt it and felt it. A strong heat wave coming from the north, and the smell of smoke. Thick choking smoke. There was a fire from the north!


Ky’Thand was moving about the perimeter when a blinding flash of light surrounded him, causing him to quickly clutch a nearby branch to steady himself, as he quickly closed his eyes to avoid blinding himself. It was all bright and blurry even after he opened his eyes. But he was sure the light came from the clearing, where the fortress was!

Quickly clearing his eyes, he tried to focus again, but it was difficult. All he could make out was blurry shadows. But his keen hearing picked up something interesting. The battle sounds, the sounds of goblins marching that he heard – they had changed into cries and scream of desperation and chaos! Ky’Thand moved closer to the edge, to try to see what had happened.

Although his vision was still not at its premium, he could still make out what was happening. He was peeping at the corner where the northern wall and the western wall meet. The goblins and wolves were swarming about in disorder, seemingly hacking at each other as they bumped in confusion at each other!

He tried looking out for more prominent figures, and could just make out two figures, about forty yards away, in some bright shiny armour, outlined by some form of light source. They were against the northern wall, but were not moving. Another figure in some form of shiny armour was also easily spotted, hacking away at goblins, and getting closer to the two figures on the wall. And finally, just about twenty yards away, he spotted another figure with a colourful headdress. It too, was hacking at goblins, but seemed not to be moving in a particular direction.

The situation was similar inside the courtyard, with goblins milling about, bumping into piles of rubble, and occasionally wrestling each other to the ground when they met. It seemed like their vision was affected even worse than his. He wished he could see clearer – his vision was still not focusing very well, and all he could really make out clearly was movement.

Then he smelt it. Fire. He turned to look to the north, where thick smoke was starting to form up, and patches of red were waving their hands. It did not take him long to realise what had happened – there was a forest fire!


It just came all of a sudden – a blinding flash of light that came from the clearing itself. It overtook both Xavier and Valena, and they quickly closed their eyes and turned away to avoid it. And a good thing too – when they opened their eyes, all they could see was a big patch of fading white before them, and blurred images of the grass and trees around them.

But they must hurry on, for the blaze was already billowing out thick clouds of smoke from the forest, recently watered by the rain just a few days ago. The leaves were not very wet, and it would take a while to really burn, but when it did, the air would be too poisonous, too suffocating, to breathe. As carefully as they could, they half stumbled over the roots that occasionally stretched out from the trees, and moved clumsily out to the clearing.

And what a sight they saw! The images were blurry indeed, and not many details could be made out, but Valena and Xavier saw the goblins and wolves screaming and cursing, hacking away at each other! They also saw two figures in shiny armour, just twenty yards away from them, backed against a wall, and they seemed to be the only ones not fighting.

They also saw another figure with a colourful headdress, also about twenty yards away, near a corner where the northern wall and the western wall met. But more urgently, they saw a figure in metallic armour moving towards the two backed against the wall, hacking at goblins as it approached.

Behind them, they could feel the heat of the fire as it began to develop into a blaze. The smoke was starting to really smell horrible, and they resisted the urge to choke as they feel the air beginning to thicken about them.


Smelling the smoky air, Prothal could feel the wind blowing slightly into his face. Hoping that Hannibal should still be in the same position, Prothal said, “The wind is blowing from the north-west. We should try to get out of here!

“The goblins and wolves should be as blind as we are, if not worse. This will be a good chance to escape back into the woods my friend.” Prothal whispered hastily. Sheathing his weapon and grabbing his medallion, Prothal started praying, “Great Nameless One, please accept thanks from your servant for giving us this chance of survival. Your servant have yet another request that he hoped will be fulfilled.”

Prothal paused a slight moment then continued, “His Grace, please heal your servant if you deemed him worthy and you still have more to ask of him. Please bestow your blessing on him.”

The powerful reassuring warmth of the hand of the Eternal One moved through his body once again, in response to his faithful cries. Soothenglaace seemed to shudder in his hands, pulsating with the flow of the power of the One he had called upon many times. Prothal sighed as he felt his wounds closing again. But he had never felt so hurt before – his hand was still wet with the blood of the many wounds upon his body. It would take more than a simple spell to put him back in full strength again.


“Xavier! Guard my back!” Valena quickly drew her long and short sword, and charged into the fray, avoiding most of the battle as possible, and keeping a pace that Xavier can follow her with. “We must find Hannibal and Prothal!”

Valena slashed at a goblin that drew too close to her, but as luck would have it, her blow was blocked by the creature. Sensing someone near, it swung out its spear and blocked her follow-up attack with her shortsword. She saw it began its reverse swing of the spear somewhat late, but her armour held as it absorbed the impact of the butt. Airlyne jerked in her hand, and carved itself into the goblin, cutting its head straight off, releasing a stream of greenish blood. She continued to move towards the shiny-armoured figures against the wall as quickly as she could manage.

“Hannibal! Prothal!” Valena yelled as she drew nearer, hoping that it was her friends, and not more enemies.

Hannibal and Prothal could hear the welcoming voice of Valena as she shouted amidst the battle noise. They could not see her, but could tell the voice was coming from the north, and was probably quite near. Just where exactly they could not be sure – the battle noise was loud and around them. The goblins must be somehow fighting an enemy they could not see.

Upon hearing the voice of Valena, hope lit up within Prothal’s heart. He just prayed that she would reach them in time before the fire did. The goblins and the wolves seemed to be in confusion – the battle sounds were confusing. Did they have an unexpected ally even now battling the goblins? Feeling worried for Hannibal, Prothal said, “My friend, this predicament that we are in is worse then I feared. Are you all right? Any idea how we can get out of here?”

Hannibal stumbled back into Prothal as he realised he was blind too. Instinctively he sheathed the remains of the dark blade and drew forth the common blade that he carried. With the blade before him, he ran his shield along the ruin’s wall and called to Prothal, “Hang on to me, I am going to back along the wall away from the goblins, to the opening where the leader and wolves formed up from. If we can move a few feet we can try to move back to the forest, however it smells like someone set it on fire. I guess Ky’Thand got the Greek fire to work this time. It should provide a good distraction. However, as we are blinded we can’t risk the woods.”

With that Hannibal moved along the wall away from the goblins’ original position. Hannibal figured that the goblins must be in as desperate a plight as they have not attacked yet. “Keep moving, I hear Valena coming; but let’s put some distance between us and the goblins first!”

He seemed to bump into something. Something that growled at him. His warrior instincts took over again as he realised a wolf was next to him. Quickly pushing Prothal away from him so that he would not be struck by his weapon, Hannibal prepared to engage. His wild swing did not connect with anything. The growl from his enemy also indicated to him that it probably did not strike anything too.

Prothal bumped into the wall, and pain shot through him again as he felt his wounds reopening. It really looked like the Eternal One is going to need to channel a lot more through his vessel this time. He picked up the medallion again, and began to call upon the Nameless One once more. His wounds began to close up further. Panting, his hand strayed to the hilt but he resisted the urge to draw his weapon. He knew Hannibal was near, and so was Valena. He did not want to risk hitting any of his friends.


Xavier was having a grand time lighting the forest on fire and skipping ahead of the flames. He looked to see Valena heading off after the two figures, whom he assumed to be Hannibal and Prothal. Now taking time to look out over the smoke-filled grass, he noticed that the chaos from the light blast seemed to reign everywhere.

Watching Valena from behind, Xavier figured the view of her was worth the effort to follow her into the crazed goblins. However, Xavier moved with the lightness of a thief in the night. And night indeed it would be, for he could see that the light is beginning to fail – it would soon be night. One unlucky goblin drew too near to him, and he dispatched it easily with his weapon. Another unfortunate one got gutted when it made the mistake of stumbling into him.

As the pair neared the wall, Xavier’s eyes fell on the one with a headdress. Watching to see that Valena was okay, save from random swipes, Xavier’s eyes locked on to the ornate headdress and obvious wealth the goblin displayed. Still carrying the burning torch, a mischievous smile came to Xavier’s lips.

Using it like a goad, he began poking at goblins, leading them towards the target goblin, attacking from the direction he wanted them to go then getting out of the way. He was amazed at what blindness, combined with the fog of war, could do. Whereas any normal creature would feel the heat, the danger, and backed off instinctively, the heat of battle combined with the blindness resulted in serious burn injuries to the first goblin.

The second backed off after suffering a minor burn, and he did not bother to pursue, for he was already near to his target. As Xavier neared, he prepared to backstab the goblin in the headdress. As he struck he called out in his best imitation command voice, “Big boy, I’m over here. You’re marching the wrong way.”

The goblin struggled as his blade found its mark, deep within the bowels of the creature. It collapsed immediately, and Xavier quickly drew his blade from the creature. He glanced about his position – the goblins were still flailing about, and even if they did not go specifically for him, he was in as much danger from stray blades.


Valena hacked at another goblin that had got into her way. It fell under the thrust of her shortsword, even as it managed to somehow block off the blade of her main weapon. She saw Xavier, a short distance away, burning at goblins with his torch. She also saw him striking at the goblin in the headdress, felling it.

Her eyes focused on her target – the goblin dressed in metallic armour, now identifiable as chainmail at this distance. It was still heading towards Hannibal and Prothal, now also identifiable. Hannibal was busy fighting a wolf, and Prothal was praying. The goblin was closing in.

“Hannibal, Prothal – look out!” Valena shouted a warning and attacked. Her warning probably saved her friends, for the goblin turned around to face her, waving its weapons threateningly. She would have the advantage, for she could see from its motions that it probably could not see. At least she could still see a blurred-looking goblin.

Its quick swing of its blade took her by surprise, for she had expected her attack to take it down quickly. Her shortsword quickly moved itself to interpose. Her blade has cut into its chest deeply through the chainmail. She could tell the goblin was desperate, but it seemed to know it had no choice but to fight on.

It quickly took out a vial and gobbled it down. She could tell it was some form of magical healing potion, for its wounds began to close quickly. How it got into possession of such an item was a mystery to her, but she was not going to let it enjoy its advantage for long. Airlyne found its mark again, even as it raised up its shield to block off her off-hand weapon. Another huge gash opened up over the partially healed wound.

Valena pressed her attack. Her shortsword again blocked off the clumsy attack, but this time it was her off-hand weapon’s feint that did the trick, as she slid it along the goblin’s weapon, cutting into its arm, into its neck, probably bursting an artery. She watched as it collapsed to the floor, twitching as the life began to flow out of it.

While Valena was fighting the goblin, Hannibal had problems of his own. The problem was soon solved as Hannibal took a gamble with a step forward and a thrust – a manoeuvre usually reserved for the battlefield, with soldiers. Not with animals. But it worked, for Hannibal could feel the wolf shudder and collapse, his weapon being pulled under by the weight.

He turned to bump into another creature, which snarled at him. His swing struck something hard – it probably glanced off its hide. He stepped to the side, and felt something move past him. He swung his weapon – and connected. The creature shuddered and gave a weak yelp, and he felt, too, its weight as it collapsed.

Valena was close by, he was sure of it, but he had lost Prothal. Just where was he? Hannibal hated the patch of white he was looking at right now. White, white and all white. No shadows, nothing distinctive. Just a patch of white was all he could see. But even the white seemed to be darkening. Soon night would fall.

Chapter 22: Inside the Goblin Warren

 

Although Ky’Thand dearly wanted to shoot at the leader of the goblins, he knew he needed to be further around the fort as soon as possible so he could penetrate the fort’s defences. So he continued onward slowly.

The blinding light however picked at the back of his brain, an old memory of a night drinking when Ky’Thand had asked Hannibal and Prothal, what would happen should the two blades strike each other in battle or in anger. That night he received a perplexed look of wonderment from both. Ky’Thand’s mind snapped back to the present as his foot slipped a little, grasping a nearby branch to stop his slide. He berated himself for loss of focus. Onward he slipped through the branches like a shadow.

It took quite a while to get used to moving on an unfocused eyesight. It seemed like an eternity before Ky’Thand was sure he had reached his destination, the southern wall of the fortress. He peered out from the trees. The goblins within the compound seemed to be milling in confusion. He counted probably about two scores of them. The gate was closed, but it looked unguarded. It should be easy to climb over.

He looked over to the north. The fire is slowly spreading. Good thing the weather was not too dry, or the flames would have burnt everything even faster. It would seem like the stone buildings, or the underground complex of the goblins would be the safest place to be right now. He could not see his few friends, and he hoped everything was well – it would be sad indeed to have won a victory, but had his friends fall in battle.

Ky’Thand’s observed the traffic carefully. When he was sure they would not go near to the gate, he quickly climbed down the tree. Like a thief in the night, the night lit only by the forest fire with light the intensity of a beacon, he tried to keep within the shadows as he moved, trying not to draw attention to himself.

He realised he would need more than just the shadows. He stopped and began chanting the mystic syllables he had learnt over the years, drawing upon the natural energies of the land, the mana that so filled it with power. Slowly but surely, his body, and his possessions, began to disappear. He opened his eyes and noted with satisfaction that he could not be seen – either with human eyes or with goblinsight.

He sneaked quickly, climbing easily over the wooden stakes they had set over the entrance. He noted with satisfaction that were he to wear heavy armour, there would have been no way he could have climbed over that thing. The goblins had indeed defended their homes very well. But he remembered someone mentioning that nothing could stop a determined thief. How true that would be!

He noted the layout of the ruins. There were rubble everywhere, some piled high up to provide cover for the archers firing out to any foolish enough to wander near their domain. The walls stretched up to a hundred feet in some parts, but many areas had already crumbled into rubble. His eyes caught sight of many goblins, huddled together in defensive positions at various parts of the fortress. His stayed far away from them, and watched out especially for the wolves. So far, there were none of them about.

He moved nearer the centre of the complex. There was a twenty-feet wide hole there, and a set of stairs equally wide descended down from it. There was a good chance of an underground complex being there, as he saw nothing here at this level which looked like sleeping quarters or such. He quickly moved closer for a look.

It was as he expected, a tunnel complex within, from what he could see with the light from the forest fire streaming in. If the complex were not far in, he should still get enough light to see by. But if the complex were to stretch further, even the strong light from the entrance of the tunnel would not be able to shine in.

Ky’Thand did a quick calculation, based on the things that he had learnt from the great dwarven master Doral. If the tunnels were to really house the goblins, it definitely would be a big complex, and the light would definitely not be enough. He might need to find an alternative light source if he were to explore further.

Silently like the wind KT moved down the stairs hoping the goblin would at least place the odd torch around to light the way. Moving down into the bowels of the warren he kept near a wall and hoped his nose would draw him to the food preparation area. This would be his first stop. He hoped to place the herbs that the old herbalist gave him into the stew so it would cause sleepiness in the creatures that would consume it. His second concern was to find a storeroom along with a few unlit torches or lantern with oil so he could restudy his spells and sleep.

The horrible stench of goblin warrens greeted Ky’Thand as he looked about the room he was in. He had almost forgotten how unhygienic the goblins were. It was a wonder there were no disease among them. Most of the slums Ky’Thand had been among were in better condition than this place, and the death rates from disease had been astounding.

The forest fire had provided enough light for him to see, although not clearly, within this room. It was big, about ten thousand feet square, if not larger. He quietly moved away from the stairs, to the right, and looked carefully again. There was a glimmer of light off in the distance, from a passageway ten feet wide, to the north, but it was a very faint glimmer, definitely not produced by a torch. It was not enough to light up the passageway, and he would have to grope about in the dark.

To his right was a bigger passageway, about twenty feet wide. There was no light at all there, and the light from above did not penetrate into the passage. His eyes caught sight of a pile of weaponry to his right, behind him, at a corner. It looked like a pile of leather armours, spears, and plenty of arrows. There were also a few bows scattered about. It looked like he was in the barracks of the goblins. From the size of the tunnel, he surmised there could be at least a hundred or so warriors that could have occupied this space comfortably – and goblin warrens were never built with comfort in mind anyway.

He tried to smell if there was any cooking taking place, but the stench of the place was simply overwhelming – all he could smell was goblin excrement and rotting food. He choked and tried to stop himself from coughing, trying not to give himself away, for the tunnels could carry noises far off. His self-control was sorely tested but he managed to gag himself with his sleeve. He had to make a decision where to go based on whatever his instincts told him was right.

He decided to move on ahead of him, over to the glimmer of light in the distance. As he moved through the stench he kept reminding himself that this was just like sewer hopping to avoid the bluecoats, ignoring the sweet smell of excrement and rotting effluent, for it would mask him as well as the others, no wolf could track down here.

He smiled at the thought. A stray thought wandered past his consciousness, a story his beloved had told him of a mage who had given himself great powers through permanent magic, the power to see in the dark was but one, another was a shield of protection turning away all arrows. One day he would control such great magic if he could survive a day and night in this warren. With some luck he might find the room of the general or the shaman and gain some useful trinkets from them. His mind snapped back to real time. Must find the kitchens.

Ky’Thand felt his way through the darkness, along the wall on his left, as he moved through the corridor. His hand felt empty air after moving for less than a minute – there was probably a passageway leading him to the left. The glimmer of light beckoned him forward, and he was about to move forward when he heard some noise coming from there. It was a loud scream, followed by excited shouts that sounded like they could have come from goblins. Ky’Thand tried to peep over the corner – only darkness greeted him.

Ky’Thand looked again at the glimmer of light ahead of him – and decided to continue ahead. The goblins over there would have to wait, as would whatever made that scream. He took a few hesitant steps forward in the darkness, and his hands touched a wall again. Using that as his new reference, he continued on.

Again another slow minute of agonising movement, before he turned to the left again, to the source of the light. He could not be sure whether the corridor actually bent, or that he was in a junction, but he would worry about that another day. Onwards he moved, towards the light that seemed to be getting brighter…but still not bright enough to shed a good light at this distance. From the look of it, it could be a small campfire or something. He could feel the warmth, and was quite sure his judgement of the source of the light had been correct.

He could hear sounds too. Voices from just ahead of him, and from the light streaming out, a room or something. The voices were harsh, like the language of all goblins, but it sounded different from what he had been accustomed to hearing. They seemed less loud, less excited than the war cries and war-banter he had heard whenever he fought them. Ky’Thand took a breath, and prepared to move in closer.

What he saw took his breath away. The room he was in was huge – the seeing radius of the small fire in the centre, about forty feet or less away, was insufficient to illuminate and show the walls of the room. Many goblins, female ones he believed (from the way their mammaries had bounced around within the crude clothing they were wearing), were sitting around it. Around the small campfire was a big cooking pot, tended by two small goblins. Occasionally, one of the female goblins would pick up a skewer and pick up something from the pot to eat. Ky’Thand nearly wanted to throw up – it was an arm of some small humanoid being.

On closer look, Ky’Thand could determine that the two small goblins were actually human. Human children. With shackles of bronze clamped onto their feet, they sat about glumly, cutting the firewood. Ky’Thand noted with interest that there were little smoke about the place, and the air was still fresh, though hot from the fire. A source of ventilation must be nearby.

Moving slowly towards the pot, Ky’Thand cleared his mind of the horrors he had seen. He took each step with caution, ever careful of his footing and the movement of those about him. He knew he had to get the powdered herb into the pot before the goblins returned from the battle. Moving carefully forward, he tried to note the flow of the goblin traffic in the room, particularly if they brought in any new supplies. He needed to find a storeroom too to hide in and rest after placing the large dose of herbal sleep agent in the stew.

Must also find out where the ventilation goes, it could be a second exit. As he got closer, Ky’Thand’s mind worked overtime assessing the goblin fortress, noting its weakness which he would exploit. He could see nothing beyond the light cast by the pot, and might have to stumble around in the darkness of the rest of the cave.

Ky’Thand finally reached the pot, and nearly gagged as a small hand bobbed near the surface, globules of fat swirling with the bubbles. Summoning the packet of herbs to his hand, Ky’Thand had one last look to make sure no one would see his piece of sleight of hand into the pot. He placed the herbs in and slowly moved away, letting the bubbling action mix the brew together.

Ky’Thand groped about slowly, to the side of the room, looking for an exit. His instinct told him to move aside twice, and the breathing he heard as he took a detour told him he had been right to trust his instincts. His hands soon touched a wall.

With his back to a wall Ky’Thand breathed a sigh of relief slowly. He had not stepped on anything or anybody along the way, although he was close to bumping into some. He checked the room again now his eyes were getting used to the gloom. Was there a hole in the ceiling for air to circulate? Was there a nice exit KT needed? He wished now he knew the goblin tongue, damn fool academics thinking it would not be useful.

The light was just insufficient to light up the entire area beyond the weak radius of about thirty or so feet of the cooking fire – the size probably of a campfire. The edge of the effective lighting radius was about five feet ahead of him, and he was sure the entrance he had used to enter the area was on the other end. The ceiling just could not be seen. It must be way beyond the light generated by the fire. It really made him wonder what kind of condition these goblins must live in.

KT slowly navigated his way back out of the room. He treaded carefully across, watching with satisfaction some of the female goblins eating from the pot of stew. He looked carefully at his path, being sure not to bump into anything or step on anything that would give away his position. Invisible he might be, but the spell could not give him silence. Only his ‘feet of a cat’, as the great dwarven master had spoken of in jest many a times, enabled him to move without detection from the denizens of the room.

He crept across the main chamber to the entrance, and groped his way on a wall again, this time of the left, instead of the right, using the other wall this time. And he was rewarded with a find – the wall had turned a corner to the left, instead of to the right. It was just as he had initially suspected. The ‘turn’ to the left was actually a junction. If only it was not so dark – he would have found it much easier to navigate around.

Ky’Thand paused for while to gain his bearings. His hands reached out to draw a tiny amount of mana about him, to weave a simple spell he had learnt as an apprentice years ago. A tiny moving firefly, obviously magical in nature, began moving about just in front of him. It might draw curious onlookers, and it would be a poor illuminator, but at least he could see whether he was facing a passageway, a junction, or a door – however likely they would have them in goblin warrens.

His eyes adjusted quickly to the light, equivalent to the candles he had used as he studied late into the nights preparing his spells. He moved about a little in the area he was in, and was able to make a conclusion – he really was in a junction, a T-junction to be exact. With his back against a wall, he continued on the journey, towards the tunnel he had yet to explore.

His movements became quicker and more confident, with the light he had, but he was careful, as the light could only show what was just ahead of him, no more than three to five feet. He followed along the wall and was surprised that nobody had come to investigate the source of the light, easily visible a distance away. There were noises about in the caverns, echoed no doubt from the other sections of the warren, but none that seemed close. He soon reached what seemed like another junction.

Closer investigations and some triangular about the place he was in convinced him that he was not in a junction, but in a room – what size he could not tell unless he decided to move on, either against the walls, to his left, or straight in.

KT checked the wall closely for an identifying mark. The wall was relatively featureless, but there was one section that had several sharp jutting rocks. Hopefully that was a unique feature of the wall. With a hand on the left wall he entered the room and followed the wall around.

As he moved on the more positive he became about finding the storeroom to hide within. All he needed was a little luck. He would definitely wring that little piece of luck for all it was worth. His mind was already adding items to his personal list needed for survival. He also vowed to learn Goblin and a few other tongues – he was sick and tired of not knowing what the goblins were up to.

He had probably moved about thirty feet, judging from his pace, when the wall took a right turn – this was probably a corner. He continued on for probably another thirty when the firefly light showed what seemed like animal hides hanging, acting as a sort of curtain to cover the room behind, to his left. The room he was in right now was probably somewhat bigger than he thought, and the light of the firefly could only show the walls, nothing much.

He was about to step in when his keen ears picked up the sounds of goblin chatter. He froze, but remembered the spell cast upon him. The goblins probably could not see him. He was glad the mana weave for the spell was easy – the spell could probably last him a whole day if he did nothing to destroy the mana weave. But, seeing or not, goblins are always dangerous. Especially if he could not see them at all. The chatter came even closer. The goblins were in the room. Two of them, from what he could hear.

Ky’Thand decided to let them go by. He stood against the wall away from the opening he entered, so as not to get in the way of the pair of goblins. They seemed to be chattering excitedly about something, but he could not quite make out what they were saying. He heard the voices coming closer, until they were so close he could see their features against the light cast by the firefly. They seemed to be attracted to the firefly, and began to play with it, trying to catch it.

Obviously the magical powers of the firefly made it somewhat elusive, and the goblins were getting really irritated at that. After a few minutes (it seemed to Ky’Thand), they seemed to have given up. They then fell silent and began to look around them, as if looking out for someone or something. Satisfied that nobody seemed to be in the room, they quietly pushed aside the curtain of animal hides and moved into the room the Ky’Thand was thinking of entering. They looked very cautious, as if they were not supposed to be there in the first place.

Ky’Thand waited and watched, unseen from his position just next to the curtain of skins. They seemed to be chattering very excitedly about something. The minutes ticked by, although Ky’Thand could not be sure of how many. He waited, his training having taught him the value of patience in out-waiting his target. They emerged from the room, and by the light of the firefly, it seemed to Ky’Thand they no longer had that cautious look – but more confident, like they were sure of certain things.

They moved off into the darkness, after shooting another look at the firefly hovering about Ky’Thand. More noises seemed to be entering the cavern Ky’Thand was in, however. He paused and tried to listen, but could not ascertain much about the sounds. It was highly likely there were many of them, and he could not be sure if they were approaching – the reverberations made it difficult for him to find out. However, it seemed highly likely the goblins above the warrens had returned to their underground haven.

Ky’Thand continued to wait, to bid his time. He remembered how he had hid himself among the city refuse while the guards searched, waiting for the guards to give up, to be overcome by the horrible smell, before he did. He remembered how his stomach felt like throwing up, but he had continued to wait. And the guards did finally give up. The smell in the cavern really reminded him of those days.

The excited chattering came nearer. It was very obvious there were more of them entering the cavern. One or two goblins came nearer, looking with interest at the firefly around Ky’Thand. They were so close he had to hold his breath, in case they could detect him. After apparently ascertaining that nothing was out of the ordinary, they moved off. Even more noise was coming into the cavern. It was obvious there was going to be a gathering or meeting of sorts.

Ky’Thand was starting to wonder something too. He was sure goblins were not stupid. Twice they had come to investigate the obviously magical firefly, and twice they had decided not to pursue the matter. Any human would have thought something was up, but the goblins seemed not to worry too much about it.

The din of goblins gathering in the room increased – the cavern must be real big, he could not see them, but could only hear them. And they were obviously in the same room as he was! Suddenly, there was a loud shout – a strong commanding shout – from somewhere off one end of the cavern, opposite the entrance he had taken to be in the cavern. The din quietened down, and the voice spoke again. It was a squeaky voice, and at times it quivered a little, but it tried to appear brave.

There were some shouts of disapproval somewhere, and some more voices echoed. This was followed by a scream of pain, and the horrible sounds a creature always made before dying. The shouts of disapproval died down, and another voice spoke up again, seemingly silencing the protests. The squeaky voice spoke again, this time seemingly with more bravado. There were no shouts of disapproval this time.

One less goblin for me to dispatch later, Ky’Thand thought to himself. Best to let the firefly go, it is attracting too much attention. He wandered what nightmare he had stepped into, the whole goblin force seemed to have returned. Staying in his little niche KT listened, cursing inwards that the darn goblin would not change to common for his benefit.

Time went by as the monologue by the lone goblin continued. He could not be sure how long it must have taken – he was quite surprised goblins were capable of carrying on a long conversation! It really looked like a lot of assumptions about them being stupid and backward would probably need to be challenge.

His thoughts were interrupted by the shouts and choruses of cheers, probably for their new-found leader, no doubt. Quite a bit of the shouts sounded somewhat half-hearted, he observed. These were followed by the sounds of shuffling feet. The assembly seemed to be moving away, he noted with relief. Staying in his place by the opening covered by the animal skins, Ky’Thand waited until there were silence.

With a sigh of relief, Ky’Thand summoned the firefly again. He looked away, then looked carefully around him, to get his eyes quickly adjusted to the candlelight, form the pitch darkness of before. He parted the animal skins and entered the room.

It took him quite a while to explore the room. It was about forty feet by forty – he could not be sure. The cavern did not have the smell of the rest of the warrens, and seemed quite well kept. So well kept he was surprised actually. No bones littered the floor, the cavern was quite dry. And soon he found the reason why this cavern was different.

A huge pile of coins, copper and silver, lay in one corner of the room, opposite where the curtain of animal skins was. He thought he also saw some gems amidst the treasure pile. This must be the tribal treasure room, perhaps under the control of the chieftain. He made a quick estimate – there could be more than two thousand coins in that pile, enough fortune for a person to eat and sleep for years without working. The goblins must have been inspecting the treasure he would probably take over as the new chieftain.

Ky’Thand rummaged through pile, looking for anything else that might be of value besides the gems and the silver. His search revealed a few pieces of platinum – coins no longer being minted by any land these days, although still being circulated around. Satisfied with his search, Ky’Thand decided to take a rest, sleep and regain his energies. He would need them to tap into new mana sources. Quietly, Ky’Thand dismissed the firefly, and tried to sleep. At least the room smelled like a place a human could live in.

Chapter 23: The Companions at the Surface

 

Leaning against the wall, Prothal decided that using a sword right there and then is out of the question. Gripping hold of his medallion, he stretched out his hand to waist level and swing it back and fore in a wide arch. Anything that is below human height will be the enemy. Prothal thought. That will make sure that any harmful spell I call upon will not harm my friends.

Valena looked quickly around, making sure to keep Xavier in her sights. The forest is ablaze, was all that Valena could think about. Why did she even bother travelling with Hannibal, and Prothal, and Ky’Thand…

Ky’Thand…

Valena was worried for her friend, and the haze and the bloodshed and death was more than she could stand. “We need to leave this accursed place!

“Xavier!” Valena screamed, “Head towards the east. The fire hasn’t reached that far yet!” She was not sure if he heard her or not, she just needed to get to Hannibal and Prothal, and get out of there! She quickly moved towards the two warriors, hoping to clear a path to the east for them. Five goblins fell as she began to clear the path, cleaving through them like a butcher cutting at meat. Another five fell as many scurried to get out of the path of the killing machine. Soon she was just in front of Hannibal, making sure she stayed out of range of his weapon.

Xavier chuckled quietly to himself as he quickly stripped the goblin leader of anything of value. His quick hands moved from body part to body part, patting the armour and clothing quickly. It carried a shortsword, a dagger, and an interesting item – looked like wand of some sort. He kept the three items, feeling their weight, and looked about him.

Xavier could see the big goblin drop, felled by Valena’s blade, and heard what she shouted over, although not too clearly. One goblin, a big mean one, bumped into him, and slashed out with its shortsword. It was a clumsy blow Xavier easily side-stepped. He drew his weapon and faced the goblin. His first blow was clumsy too, as his backpack suddenly slipped. Xavier quickly adjusted his backpack, taking a step away as the goblin slashed where he was standing. His follow-up thrust quickly despatched the goblin.

Standing with his back to the wall, Xavier slowly moved towards where Prothal and Hannibal were fighting. Xavier took his time and made sure that his hide was safe from blinded goblins. But what kind of luck would he be having to have a wolf catch hold of his scent? It growled, and squared off against him. Xavier gripped his weapon – if it was really fighting by scent, he would not be able to throw it off so easily.

He took a quick step back as the wolf snapped at him, missing only by inches. His wild swing did not connect with the wolf, but his quick snap of the wrists caught it on one of its legs. It tried to bite Xavier, but its injured leg hampered its movement. Xavier moved in again, and cut at another leg, but the wolf was ready. Xavier had to jump back to nurse a bite across his shoulder, even as he managed to cripple it some more. He moved in again and hacked at its midsection – it was already too tired to dodge his blows, and its weak attack was easily avoided. It gave a bark of desperation.

And desperation indeed it was, for it was clear it could not fight anymore. Xavier closed in for the kill, and despatched it with a quick thrust through its midsection. The wolf shuddered, and fell down on the grassy floor, its life fading quickly. Xavier continued on.

When he got to the big goblin that Valena felled, he quickly looked him over for more flasks or any other interesting items. Except for its weapons, a shortsword and a dagger, there was nothing else of value on it. Thinking a while, Xavier decided not to take its weapon, to avoid adding on more weight, slowing him down. He moved quickly through the path of destruction Valena had created. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorn, Xavier recalled a passage from a renowned bard. Who he was he could not quite remember, but he mentally reminded himself to make sure her hand was far from her blade should he decide one day that she had grown up to be a woman, and was no longer a girl.

“Hannibal,” Xavier called out while he was still out of sword range of his good friend, “I’m almost to you. Hold up swinging near the wall, I’m coming along the wall and will be with you shortly.”

Hannibal had been waving his sword, making any creature think twice about coming near, when he heard Valena and Xavier’s calls. Nodding, he stepped back to touch the wall. As he reached it, he put his back to it and defended himself, only worrying about threats from in front of him. If he was right, with Prothal to one side and Xavier to the other, he might strike either of them if he gave his weapon full swing.

“Prothal, all we can see is light. The sun was nearly down when we attacked and a fire would be orange. Maybe you should cast darkness on our eyes. That might clear our vision!”

After Hannibal spoke he slashed in front of him to discourage any creature that might be homing in on his voice. Something bumped against him on his left. It yelped and quickly ran away from him before he could swing his weapon at it. Something was wrong. Xavier was not there.

Hearing Hannibal’s voice close to him, Prothal stopped his chanting for fear of hurting him. Trying to judge how far Hannibal was from him, Prothal felt the wall and travelled along the wall towards the general direction of his friend’s voice.

Hannibal should not be to far away from where I am, thought Prothal. Casting darkness when Valena and Xavier are so close might cause them to be blinded too. I would rather die than to put them in danger.

With that in mind, Prothal fingered the hilt of Lightbringer while leaning against the wall, edging his way towards Hannibal. After a while, he bumped into somebody encased in metal. Hannibal felt it too, at his right, and somehow he felt in his heart that it was his friend.

Xavier saw the goblin that had bumped into Hannibal making the wise move of running away, only to move into Valena’s quick blade. He realised what Hannibal was trying to do and quickly moved in to fill up the position Hannibal had left vacant. He realised from his actions that his two friends by the wall were like the wolves and goblins – totally blinded. He quickly shouted out for Hannibal to stop swinging. One of these days, Hannibal was really going to find him dead in his arms if he continued to do all these crazy things for him. Sometimes he really wondered why in the gods’ names had he continued to stick to this crazy friend.

Valena took a quick look over at her friends. Hannibal stood poised, his blade held in a defensive position, his back against a wall. To his left was Xavier, and to his right Hannibal. She too could see that her two armoured friends were blinded. Xavier was only a scout – so that left it to her to clear a path for her friends.

The fire lit up the night sky with its orange-red flames, even as the thick billowy smoke threatened to darken it. Even though the sun had set, plunging the forest into night, the huge bonfire created light as good as a beacon any time. Not that it would make much of a difference anyway. Most of the combatants were blinded by whatever created that powerful flash of light. Another five goblins fell to her blade. It was senseless slaughter at its very worst. But she was succeeding in creating a path for her friends to follow, over to the east where the fire was not spreading.

Why were they here again? Valena could not remember. All of the smoke and pain were clouding her thoughts. The smell of blood and death was staggering, but the threat from the goblins and wolves was even worse. She only hoped that Xavier would watch her friends’ sides and backs, and be able to follow quickly to the forest edge. With a little luck, they could skirt the back edge of the forest near the old fortress, and go around towards the back.

Valena turned back to her companions, watching and guarding from any threat. Watching closely for any goblin brave or foolish enough to come nearer, Valena spoke, “Is everyone all right? Anyone seriously hurt?”

Valena looked around her and her companions, and called out, “Xavier, lead Hannibal and Prothal along the edge of the forest, and try to go around the back side of the old fortress wall. I’ll watch your back, and keep anyone from following.”

She gritted her teeth at the pain from her wounds. “We can’t let this be all for naught. Perhaps some kind of an answer lies inside the old fortress, but that will have to wait until everyone can see.”

Hannibal continued to hold his position next to the wall. As he heard Valena calling he held his position. Squeezing his eyes shut he tried to begin seeing something again, but to no avail. As Xavier tried to move him in the direction of Valena, Hannibal let himself be slowly led away from the wall.

Xavier shook his head as he stood next to Hannibal. “Hannibal,” the thief called out, “I’m putting my hand on your shoulder. I’ll guide you out and let you know when to swing. Anything in front of you is an enemy.”

As Xavier got to Hannibal and slowly pushed the warrior away from the wall, he walked behind with one hand on Hannibal’s shoulder. Xavier called out to Prothal as he began to move, “Stop swinging your sword, I am reaching out to you with my hand, grab a hold when you feel my grip.”

Xavier sheathed his dagger and reached out with his sword hand to grip Prothal’s shield arm. “Prothal, anything behind you is an enemy so swing behind you.” Moving off the wall, Xavier brought the train near to Valena. He looked about him, and realised that the goblins were starting to regroup. Now that the fog of war was more had lifted from him, he could easily count the numbers.

But Xavier was distracted momentarily by Prothal drawing Lightbringer with his right hand and swinging behind him. He had gripped hold of Xavier’s hand for dear life, knowing that he was his only
hope to get out of this mess.

“Hey! You are crushing my hand!” Xavier exclaimed. Muttering a quick apology, Prothal continued swinging away. It would have been an amusing sight, if not for their perilous situation, to see an armoured priest swinging away at empty air. A tighter grip on his hand, from Xavier, gave him the signal, that there were no enemies there, and Prothal stopped. There must have been a miscommunication somewhere.

The goblins that were left were only about ten, grouped together into two groups of five. They were huddled together in a circle within their own groups, weapon facing outward in a defensive posture. Many of them were injured, and they were not moving but seemed to be shouting at each other, to gain their bearings – or to warn their comrades within the compound. But the goblins were not the threats, the wolves were. Three of them, approaching them, their noses sniffing away. Blinded, yes, but definitely not without ability to sense their presence.

Valena knew the danger her friends were in – these wolves must have caught hold of their scent. She moved in to engage. The wolves quickly jumped at her, all four together. It was too much for her defences, as she felt something gripped her at her calf. Her two weapons caught something amidst the crowd of fur, and the blood splattered upon her face. The wolves jumped back, and she saw two – the other two must have already moved on. She hoped her two friends were able to deal with them, as she quickly shouted a warning.

Xavier had heard it, and spun his two armoured friends to the front to face the two wolves that bounded towards them. He knew the risks involved with his two blinded friends fighting in such close quarters, but he figured their suits of steel would protect them from each other anyway. He decided it was a better idea to keep his hands on them. Hopefully, they would watch their weapons, and would not clip him!

Valena took a step forward on a wolf, slowed by the grievous wounds she had inflicted upon it. Her weapon found its mark again, and the wolf collapsed. Her shortsword swung out at a wolf that had sprung onto her, and cut a deep gash on its underbelly. But its bite had latched on to her left thigh, before bounding away in pain as it suddenly felt the effects of her blow. She took another step and finished off the creature. She turned around to check on her friends, her wounds burning painfully. She saw the wolves closing in, and cried out, charging at one of them.

Hannibal had felt the ground tremble at the approach of the wolf, and had lashed out. His weapon must have struck something, and it was not metallic, to his relief. Prothal’s swing had struck at empty air. Xavier saw the wolf abandoning its attack due to Prothal’s swing. Hannibal tried to take a step forward to strike but Xavier’s restraining hand made it difficult, and he lost his footing. Lightbringer quickly followed as Prothal felt the wolf’s movement towards him, over to his right. He struck something – hard. The yelps of the wolf were music to his ears.

Until he felt the pain of a mouthful of sharp teeth on his left ankle. It had penetrated his armour! He swung at it, and felt it release, probably stepping back to continue its attack routine. He heard it yelp again, and also a war cry from Valena. She was near them.

Meanwhile, Xavier found himself dodging a sword that had swung just over his head, as Hannibal unconsciously took a swing to strike at a wolf that had jumped out of reach. It was a close shave, and Xavier gave Hannibal a kick, to remind him he was near.

Valena moved in on the wolf she had just struck, and killed it with Airlyne. She took a half step to the side, and struck the one battling Hannibal. Hannibal took another swing – and struck Prothal. His armour had held however. And held just good enough for Xavier to see him give a finishing blow to the wolf facing him.

The warriors panted as the wolves lay dead about them. The entire battlefield was strewn with dead goblins and wolves. Valena took a look at the two groups of goblins huddled together in a defensive pose and noted with pleasure that they were probably too terrified to move out against them. These were creatures that probably had never experienced being blinded – for they could see in the dark as well. She was more worried about the noises from the goblins within the compound. It was a good thing the forest fire was providing enough light, for the sun had already set way before the fight with the wolves was over.

“Xavier, let’s move along the edge of the fortress wall, and out of the sight of the goblins. I’m hurt…” Valena trailed off as she looked around the forest edge, hoping against all hope, to see Hamish and Ky’Thand. It was useless, whatever fleeting shadows she could see by the light of the raging forest fire did not look like they were anything other than trees.

Valena moved towards the forest edge, then turned to speak with Hannibal and Prothal. “Whatever you guys did was very effective. Is the blindness temporary? Perhaps Prothal can ask the Eternal One for some help in being able to see again? It is dark now, and we need to get to a safe vantage point, and…” Valena’s voice shook a little, “We need to find Ky’Thand and Hamish…”

“I have no idea how long the blindness will last. Neither do I have the ability to ask the Eternal One to aid us in this matter at this moment, for my faith is not strong enough until I have rested and spent some more time in prayer. Let’s just hope that the effect will wear off soon,” replied Prothal as he continued to hold on to Xavier’s hand.

Xavier ignored Valena’s lead and continued to lead Prothal and Hannibal back along the wall of the Goblin stronghold.

“So Val?” He asked the ranger, “How do you propose we travel in the woods with that fire raging? With all the goblins blind, wouldn’t it be better to stay in the open till the fire burns out?”

Valena looked at Xavier with a weary glance. “We only need to be out of sight of the goblins that remain living. I think we should go along the wall, away from the main entrance, and out of sight. The forest may be ablaze, but it won’t burn forever, and those goblins won’t be happy to see us intruding in their domain.”

She could feel the weariness in her muscles, and the pain from her wounds. “We can hopefully rest for a short time, and prepare for any goblins that may try to pursue us. And hopefully,” Valena looked at her friends with care in her eyes, “Ky’Thand will find his way to us. Somehow…”

With that he kept leading the pair along the wall, to find a place of safety for at least a few moments. With Xavier’s guiding hand on his shoulder, about all Hannibal could do was to proceed as directed. As the situation wore on, he began to think of at least modifying his tactics to take into consideration his blindness. When asked to swing he would swing first low, then high, probing for an adversary that should be nearby.

From what he could hear, there should be no new sorties coming out to get them. Perhaps the goblins within the fortress were in their state as well. The possibility was there, though from experience he knew better than to assume things about these cunning creatures.

As he heard the discussion, he added, “If we can get our sight back, now is the time to finish off the goblins! This sector would be safe for years. How big is that fire? Maybe the troops will see it and send in some scouts?” He really hoped so. The Frelandian army had vast areas to patrol, and the standard operating procedure for a forest fire was to build fire blocks to contain it, and hope for the wind to reverse direction to let the fire burn itself out. But who knows if there would be someone with the initiative to do something about it? Someone like…Taro.

Hannibal began thinking about his troops again. He had not been with them for a day, and he hoped they would be fine with his trusted lieutenant taking charge. The only worry he had was his other lieutenants. He wished they would be more open-minded. Taro was a rare talent, and officer who could think and command troops – but the fact that he was not Frelandian always worked against him. But his thoughts were interrupted when he realised they had stopped. Valena and Xavier must have had differences in opinions again. It looked like he had to make a decision before the headstrong woman and the happy-go-lucky rogue turned to verbal blows again. That would be bad in their situation now.

“If we could find a place to rest for a few hours, I am sure I will be able to cure us of this blindness,” Prothal said in response to new information given by Valena and Hannibal. “With some luck, the goblins may still be blind and we can clear this fortress out.”

Xavier nodded to Valena, and to Prothal’s comment, and continued to guide the blinded companions along the goblin wall. “I’m not moving into the forest until the fire burns out!” was the thief’s main comment to Valena. “If we can cure this blindness we may be able to loot this place before the goblins become a threat again.”

Xavier continued to move along the wall, looking for a place where the wall was tumbled down. Hannibal could not do much but go along with Xavier and Valena. He did not say much as Xavier wanted to do pretty much what Hannibal would like to do, though for very different reasons.

The party moved cautiously along the western wall, Valena scanning the area for any signs of pursuit. The night was becoming very hot, no doubt the result of the huge bonfire blazing away. The wall seemed to continue on without any breaks for hundreds of feet when Xavier caught sight of what looked like an opening just in front.

Xavier smiled and called out, “A break in the wall, maybe we can find a place to rest inside.”

Hannibal, sensing the heat and noise of the fire, asked, “Will we be safe from the flames? It feels as if the forest is still burning. However, if there is any chance that we can rest long enough for Prothal to pray for assistance, we should chance it.”

Hannibal continued with his sword before him, waiting to swing on Xavier’s command. Xavier looked to Valena in all seriousness and asked, “You are wounded as well. If we can rest in here maybe I can disguise the opening with brush or something. I’d hate to have to try to get out of here with you unconscious and the others blind”

With that Xavier moved forward to observe the opening more closely – it was big, probably about thirty feet across, probably the result of a section of the wall that had crumbled to rubble. Chancing a closer peep, he could see just across, at the other end, blocked by another long section of wall, what looked like barricades. These barricades were probably placed by the goblins, and looked like they could possibly be the main entrance. From where he was, they were only about fifty to sixty feet away, assuming he got there by travelling within the compound, rather than around the walls.

He listened at the opening for sounds of a current occupant. There were the occasional sounds of goblin shouts. He was sure there were some goblins within, no, quite a few actually. The confused shouts of the previous minutes were gone, but he was quite sure even if they could organise themselves, it would not be along the scale of what it was before they killed off their leaders.

It seemed to Prothal like they had found a refuge at last. “Come to me Valena, I will try to heal your wounds if I can.” With that, Prothal sheathed his sword, stretched out his left hand to grip his medallion with his right, and patiently awaited Valena. “Guide my hand to your wounds,” smiled Prothal as he waited for the hand of the young lass, ready to prepare the spell.

Valena looked at her friend with warmth in her eyes, yet she knew he could not see that affection. She slowly took Prothal’s hand and placed it where she still bled. “Here is where it still hurts, Prothal.”

Gently placing his hands upon Valena’s wound, Prothal could feel warm blood flowing from it. “The wound seems deep. This might hurt a little, but I will do what I can.” Prothal started to concentrate, ignoring his own aching and fatigue body, and began his prayers. A warm blue light started to form round him as he called upon the god whom he had devoted his life to serving.

The words from the priest spoken forth were words of faith, words she had heard spoken so many times, but never failing to feel awe for each time she saw the power of the Eternal One.

The protectors of travellers had often spoken of the Eternal One as being the god who watched over all of Theophilia, even the forests. Though they had not had the need to call upon his name, as Prothal had many times, they still maintain that reverence of this great power in their lives and in their calling. Perhaps one day, as she grew more in tune with her surroundings, as she got to know this deity more, she would call upon him as well.

“The wound have closed. You should feel better in no time,” smiled Prothal as he withdrew his hand. The reassuring words snapped her out of her thoughts. Indeed most of the wounds had closed, and that indeed was a somewhat longer prayer than normal too. She must have been wounded real badly – it might take more than that to bring her back to normal shape again. That, or probably several weeks of bed-rest.

Valena leant next to Prothal’s cheek and gave him a slight peck. She was unaccustomed to showing such affection to her friends, but she wanted to assure him that she truly appreciated the gift from The Eternal One. “May the Eternal One continue to watch over us, and Ky’Thand…” She whispered as she quickly moved away, like a breeze through the trees.

When Xavier noted that the crack in the wall led directly into the lair, and not just part way through where the group could hide out, he shook his head.

“Hannibal,” he called quietly, “We can’t continue along the wall much longer or we’ll get to the main gate. And the opening in the wall seems to lead all the way into the goblin lair. There is nothing along here. You want to rest?”

Xavier did not need to mention that the forest fire effectively blocked them from retreating that way – Hannibal understood the implied meaning of his words as he would a close friend of many years.

Hannibal turned his head from side to side to see if the blindness was lifting. It still had not. He answered, “Well, I’m not much good in battle if I can’t see. This spot will have to do. Prothal. If you have any healing left, try casting it directly on your or my eyes. This blindness is caused by the physical damage the light caused our eyes, not magic. Maybe simply curing the eye damage will restore some of our sight.”

Hearing Hannibal’s suggestion, Prothal placed his medallion upon his right eye and started concentrating upon his prayers to the Eternal One once again. Upon completing his prayers, Prothal tried squinting his eyes, hoping that his sight had returned. It had not. He should have known – the Eternal One would have given him a specific spell to heal his eyes, not one that healed wounds. But it was worth a try, Prothal reasoned to himself.

Valena, meanwhile, had moved next to Xavier, a very serious look in her eye. “I’ll be fine. But…” Valena hesitated, “thank you. Just make sure that Prothal and Hannibal live to see another day.”

Before Xavier could spit out a retort, Valena moved to a vantage point where she could see inside the compound. She scanned intently all around, looking for anything out of the ordinary, and checked the ground for any sign of scuffed dirt, or tracks. She remembered some of the pit traps goblins had used on a caravan route, before she and a few others tracked the small group. Many lives were lost before they were found.

Xavier noted Valena’s actions and commented nervously, “Hey, he just healed you. I wouldn’t be bringing the goblins down on us again. Our priest won’t be able to keep your pretty face, pretty forever.”

Valena observed from her hiding place, trying to see the movement of the goblins within the compound. The goblins inside looked like they were beginning to organise themselves, but it was very obvious to her they were blinded as well – as badly as her other two friends were, at the very least. What worried her was the fact that they looked like they were patrolling the compound, and beginning to communicate. Still, in their state – leaderless and blinded – she did not think they would be in a condition to begin sending out search parties.

Her eyes caught sight, amidst the big piles of rubble all over the place, of what seemed like an entrance to an underground area in the middle of the compound. Goblins were starting to move inside. She tried gauging the distance from the opening to the entrance – should be about a hundred feet or so. It was possible that the entrance was the real goblin warren, and the ruins probably served as a defence for their home.

Something she saw intrigued her though. Despite several sections of the walls that had crumbled down, like the one in the west wall she was using as an observation post, there was still a gate made of wooden stakes just fifty or so feet away from her to the south. Obviously the goblins expected that to be the only entrance and exit to and from the fortress.

She tried searching the area for tracks. It would require her to expose herself. She decided to take the risk and began using her keen senses to look about the area. It was interesting. There were fresh tracks where she and her friends were, indicating movement in the area – possibly the posse that had attacked them just now. Then there was a section of about thirty feet by ten feet wide where there were no tracks. And finally along the perimeter of the section, inside the compound, there were more tracks. These moved in unison, almost like they were a patrol. Interesting indeed.

Hannibal nodded as he leant against the wall, “We may as well rest here for a moment.” Xavier looked over the stuff he lifted from the goblin leader as Valena searched the compound with her sharp eyes. He was especially interested in the stick that he picked up. It looked like some sort of a wand to him – fashioned with good wood, and handcrafted finely with great attention paid to details getting the dimensions right.

He turned to the priest, “Look at what I picked up from that stinky creature I gave a surgical strike to.” He spoke rather cheerfully, knowing full well that his companions knew what he did. While Prothal took up the wand, and tried feeling it carefully for anything in its smooth surface, Xavier took a look again at the short sword and dagger he took from the goblin. They looked pretty unremarkable, but Xavier knew that not all magical enchantments require weapons of the best make. Some of the best weapons he heard of in legends looked pretty unremarkable too. If Ky’Thand was around, he might perhaps be able to make some sense out of the weapons.

Valena, having surveyed what she needed to see, quickly retreated from her position, and back to Xavier and the others.

“It looks like they’re still in the same condition as Hannibal and Prothal. Blind. Xavier, come with me for a moment. I noticed that the goblins seem to defend the front portion of these ruins. There’s some kind of entrance leading underground near the centre of this fortress. There are goblins going in and out of this.”

Valena led Xavier to her vantage point, to let him assess what the compound looked like on the inside. She said to Xavier, “There are some organised tracks throughout the compound, from a patrol, I am guessing, and one patch that doesn’t have any tracks at all. Probably a pit trap, if I know these creatures at all.”

Now that Xavier was there, both of them noticed that the compound seemed to be somewhat devoid of goblins. It looked like they had all retreated into the underground section of their lair. But knowing them, it seemed likely that they were setting a trap as well. Which would it be?

“I want this to end, Xavier. I want to find whatever it is we are looking for, and leave. I want to find Hamish, and Ky’Thand…”

Valena looked at him, the sparkle of her eye glistening softly in the waning light. “Do you think we could trap the goblins underground, and explore the grounds closer? Or should we try to set a trap for them, luring them into their own pit trap?” She shifted from her position, and gazed at the goblin entrance intently, awaiting his response.

Without answering her, Xavier carefully stepped into the walls. He inspected the grounds carefully, but could not find anything unusual. He looked again at what seemed like an entrance to an underground complex of some sort. Probably where the goblins stored their treasure! Gingerly, he took a careful first step on the ground. Seemed solid enough. He took his second step and quickly stepped back.

His instincts were correct. The ground around him collapsed into a deep pit, which for the looks of it, probably extended further on, covering perhaps the entire section of the opening into the fortress complex. The goblins were crafty indeed, but they had failed to reckon with a master thief. Xavier grinned to himself even as his heart beat away at the narrow escape.

He looked back at Valena, and at his other two companions who had heard the noise of the collapsing pit. He hoped the goblins were all below ground – anyone aboveground would have heard the commotion. With a wink to tell them everything was well with him, Xavier took another look again. It looked like he would either have to negotiate the high walls, or enter by the stockade further down. Rather risky both ways, and right now things looked calm, which was good for the situation they were in now. It would not be good to disturb the status quo.

Hannibal called out quietly, “You all right?” Hearing Xavier’s grunt of affirmation, he said with relief, “Well we might as well rest here. With that pit to our back, the goblins can’t come that way.”

Xavier nodded, but he was not about to let it go at that. He took out the coil of rope from Hannibal’s pack and spoke as quietly as he could, “You guys rest. Those goblins have to have some way to get what falls into the pit. I’ll check it out while Valena watches.”

Xavier looked about him for a place to secure the rope, but could not find any nearby. The nearest tree was some sixty feet away, and the rope was not even long enough to reach there. Just inside the compound, about twenty feet away, was the pile of rubble, two feet high that the goblins must have used as their shooting position. A lasso would probably do the trick, but a rope hanging about the place was a sure sign of their presence, and Xavier was not too sure he wanted to do that unless he intended to be within the compound. And that was another crazy idea only Hannibal would think of. Xavier was sure he was saner than that friend of his.

With a sigh, Xavier decided to give up on the idea. There must be plenty of treasure, or perhaps even an underground tunnel! There must be – otherwise how would the goblins get their victims out? Xavier shrugged his shoulders and walked back to take his place as first watch. With Hannibal blinded, and Prothal requiring rest, it looked like both Valena and he would have to take three-hour watches. This was going to be a long night.

Chapter 24: Recovery and Preparations

 

Ky’Thand awoke, refreshed. He could not be sure how much time had passed by, but whatever it was, his tired body and mind were glad of it. He flexed his fingers again, and felt the familiar touch of the mana about him again as he tried some of the simple exercises all apprentices need to know. Yes, he definitely was ready to weave a few more spells.

He paused and wondered if he should prepare some other spells he might have need of. His intelligent mind pondered the various ramifications and decided what he had prepared was good enough – he should continue on. He rose up in the darkness. He just could not resist fingering a handful of the treasure pile just next to him, tucking them into his pouch.

His hand touched a wall again, and he continued on, out of the room he was in, to the room where hours before had been a meeting place for the goblins. Snores could be heard within the room. There were probably sleeping goblins here.


Prothal hated falling asleep ever since the visions began. Each time he closed his eyes to rest, the visions would return, and replay, each time reminding him of the horrors he would face if he did not stop the horde in time. He awoke with his heart pumping hard, and he began to cry out with all his heart as he prayed to the Eternal One. This was the fifth day, and if Adam’s prophecy was true, they had only two more days.

As the group woke from its rest, Hannibal sighed as he realised he still could not see. His mind returned to the events of the hours that must had passed by before tiredness overcome his body and he decided to take a rest. He heard the sound of moving plates next to him. That must be Prothal.

“Prothal, can your god grant you the ability to cure blindness? It seems the only way we will be able to continue. Also, we shall need at least one spell to silent our armour so the two of us can move without being heard. It’s not perfect, but if we cast it on something that we can carry with us, we can then move away from it so to speak. Maybe the hilt of my blade would be most effective?”

All he heard was the sound of the early morning prayers that Prothal spoke each time he woke up. Except it sounded more desperate. Hannibal knew of the burden Prothal carried in his heart. He knew better than to disturb him then – but Hannibal knew Prothal had heard him and would do something about it. Hannibal could do little besides waiting for Prothal’s prayers to be answered. He asked with, “Is there any food around? There is some food and water in my pack.” Nobody answered him. It seemed like everybody was in a world of his own.

Xavier woke up and stretched. He looked about him, in the distance, and smelled the air around him. The smoke was thicker and the heat still there, but the smell of burning was no longer that strong. The wind must have changed direction last night, causing the fire to burn itself out. Nature indeed had its own way to redeem itself. That was the words Valena has once spoken, he realised with a grin. He noted with pleasure that there were still some weak light from the smothers that were still burning. He turned to the rest.

“What a pleasant night, three hours sleep between a forest fire and a goblin pit. I certainly hope Ky’Thand slept as well. Where is that mage anyway? I feel he may get good use from this wand. Hannibal, you want the goblin champion’s short sword?”

Hannibal shook his head and answered, “I still have my issue longsword. It will be good enough. I have a couple of daggers, I think, to back me up if I need them.”

Nodding, Xavier slipped the sword in with his belongings and rose, taking the rope from Hannibal’s pack and handing out the rations within. “I’m going to scout around. There should be a way into that pit. The goblins have to have a way in!”

Xavier began probing with the short sword for large blocks that he could tie the rope to. He looked for rough edges or blocks jutting out of the crack in the wall, or a place where he could wedge a blade into the rocks, with the blade in the direction of the forces on the rope. His efforts were frustrated again, as they were a few hours ago when the light was even better.

“The gods of Theophilia must like goblins more than humans,” Xavier quietly muttered an oath as he contemplated his next move.

“Xavier!” Valena scowled as she called out, “Don’t try to use that short sword for such a task. Hold on. Keep an eye on the goblins for a minute.”

Valena moved from her vantage, and took the end of the rope from Xavier. “Hannibal, Prothal. We need you to hold on to the end of this rope for Xavier. He wants to explore this pit we discovered. Prothal, I need you to stand in front of Hannibal, and hold onto this rope. When I tell you to, brace yourself for some additional weight, namely Xavier’s.”

Hannibal nodded, but Prothal was still lost in a world of his own. She realised he was making supplications to the Eternal One. She bit her lips and waited – it seemed just so irreverent to stop him right now. She motioned to Xavier to wait a while.

“Hear me now, O Great One! Show us your grace once again, and grant your servant the faith to see once again!”

The companions could have swore they saw a beam of light coming from the heavens striking Prothal, bathing him in an aura of light. It just happened so fast, they just could not be sure their eyes were playing tricks on them.

Prothal, too, felt the power of the Eternal One engulfing him once again – a power greater than any of the healing spells he had ever called upon. It seemed like scales in his eyes were falling off, like that of a fish being descaled. He blinked his eyes and saw an awe-struck Valena and a disbelieving Xavier looking at him. The Eternal One had remembered him. He could see now.

He gave an assuring smile and moved towards Hannibal. “Your turn now, my friend – remember the power of the Eternal One, and may he cause you one day to worship him even as I do, my friend.” His hands seemed to glow with an unearthly light as he placed them over the eyes of Hannibal.

Hannibal was sure he was struck by lightning, so intense was the power that seemed to course through him. He had become accustomed to the healing touch of Prothal, but this was ten times more powerful than what he had ever experienced. The brightness that covered his eyes seemed to turn brighter, and then suddenly there was darkness. He instinctively opened his eyes, and saw Prothal smiling at him. He realised with a start that he, too, could now see.

Prothal turned towards Valena and said, “Well, where is the rope?” Valena quietly began to tie the rope around Hannibal and Prothal. She made sure that Hannibal and Prothal were ready before moving back to Xavier. “All right Xavier. Hannibal and Prothal have the rope. As soon as you’re ready to descend, I will warn Hannibal and Prothal to expect your weight to pull on them.”

Xavier nodded to Valena then quietly announced, “I’m ready. Let’s see what those little buggers are hiding down there. Here, keep this thing,”

Xavier handed Valena the wand, and said, “Maybe you can use it.” With that Xavier descended the rope. Even without the rope, it was an easy descent. With the rope – it seemed almost too easy. It was only a twenty feet drop into the pit. Xavier looked around him. The light from the smothers was somewhat dim – he would probably need a light to help him explore the pit.

Now that Hannibal was able to see, he took a quick look around him, trying to see within his mind their strategical and tactical situation. He realised the pit in front of him was dug in the same style as the one he nearly stumbled into when he first charged the position. He also noticed, from his position, what seemed like a series of wooden stakes forming a mobile barricade at the southern section of the crumbling fortress walls. These barricades were heavy, and would require a few men to move them, but they could actually be moved.

It was a simple yet effective defensive array indeed, and he was surprised that goblins could actually come up with such an idea. The walls that were still standing contained the area. The sections of the walls that had collapsed were not repaired – instead, pit traps were dug to lull the foolish into charging what seemed like easy accesses into the compound. Once the charging army had its first ranks hit the pit, it would have been peppered with arrows from the archers firing from the protection of the piles of rubble within the compound – probably piled up for precisely that purpose.

He silently berated himself for not having the presence of mind to perform a complete reconnaissance before charging. If he had spotted the barricades, he would have realised without much thought that these were controlling perhaps the only real entrance into the compound. All the collapsed sections of the walls must have been riddled with pits! He grinned as he realised that Xavier’s dreams of finding treasure within the pit would most likely end in a disappointment – the only treasure he would find would be sand, sand and more sand.


Ky’Thand carefully moved towards the direction of the snores within the room, leaving the safety of the walls which he had taken his bearings from. His job was quick and deadly, giving no chances. He counted four snores in all silenced by the dagger hidden within the recesses of his vest. He searched the last one for any weapons, and could find nothing. Hoping that all goblins slept with snores, Ky’Thand tried backtracking, hoping to bump into a wall. Now that he no longer had the snores to guide him, it was somewhat difficult to navigate around in the dark.

There was a sound as Ky’Thand kicked something. A sound which he quickly silenced by holding on to the object. It felt like a spear, no doubt the weapon of one of the goblins he had killed. Ky’Thand froze and prepared himself for any sentry that might be awakened by the sound of the spear being kicked. There was no other indication that any goblin had discovered him. Carefully, he inched his way until he reached a wall.

Ky’Thand wished he could see in the dark. With a wall guiding him, he could simply trace its outlines and be out – assuming there was only two entryways, those he had discovered hours before. If there were to be another entryway, he might find himself in a different place altogether. But he could give a better estimate of the size of the cave now at least – it should be about fifty by fifty feet. Facing the wall, with his right hand on it, he paused to make a decision on where to go.

He concentrated, trying to use his instincts to recall the direction. He remembered how, many a times, he had been spot on whenever he relied on his uncanny instinct in deciding direction. He would have to rely on his heart again, instead of his sharp mind. Ky’Thand smiled – it would seem that no matter how intelligent man could be, there always come a time when he had no choice but to rely on the same instincts that lower order animals have.

He took his step of faith and decided to go left. Tracing his steps was easy. He felt the curtain of animal skins and got the reference he needed. He moved on, passing by the side passages again, where he could faintly hear the sounds of snores. His little pouch of wonders must have worked. He decided against killing them in their sleep – the risk was too much. There were too many of them, and he had stayed in the place long enough.

He thought of his friend Hannibal, and Prothal, and Valena. There was no news of what had happened to them, but if they had been captured or killed he was sure he would have seen something within the warren. Yet there were no sounds of battle. There was a good possibility they had fled the place, perhaps even with grave injuries.

Ky’Thand bit his lips and moved on. His friends would need him around. He stopped as he realised he was in the place where the stairs were. The light streaming in was dim – the forest fire must have died out, for the light should be from the moon, and perhaps even the embers still smothering in the forest.

He heard snores. A few of them. The risk here was lesser. He summoned the dagger from his vest again and moved on his sleeping victims. With satisfaction, he noted mentally another four goblins joining the rest of their kin in death. Ky’Thand could not smile at this thought, however. One more dead goblin made no difference to the evil in this world – somewhere else in Theophilia, he was sure another ten had been raised to take his place. Listening around to make sure he had killed all goblins he was supposed to, he took the steps up carefully.


Hannibal listened to Xavier’s curses about not finding anything in the pit, then looked through the wall one more time.

“Looks to me like they don’t have anyone manning the front gate. We killed the chief, from your description, so maybe they are still confused. Let’s go through the front and get rid of this problem before they get organised.”

As Hannibal stood, he turned and thanked Prothal once again for his vision. “Well my friend, the Eternal One has certainly smiled on us this day. It is amazing how much one depends on sight. I am glad to see again.”

Prothal nodded with a smile, and looked at his friend as he said, “Truly we are all blind and unseeing, my dear friend. Perhaps one day, when all of Theophilia acknowledges his power and sovereignty, then shall we all see him in his splendour and glory!”

The topic seemed to be somewhat unrelated to what Hannibal said, but he was already used to that from Prothal. After being with two priests of two different religions for some time, he had come to be very used to such tangents of topics from men and women of religion.

Casting the thoughts aside, Hannibal pulled out his army-issued longsword and moved towards the front entrance, carefully testing the ground in front of him as he slowly stepped on the grass at the perimeter of the compound. When he reached the barricade he called out, “Xavier, can you check these out? They must be warned somehow if they are moved!”

Muttering under his breath, still vexed about the effort of looking into the pit, Xavier moved up next to Hannibal. “Okay, Okay. Let me look them over. Maybe we can just climb over them and leave them alone?”

A look of warning from Hannibal, and the sight of two heavily armoured warriors among the party convinced Xavier that he must have mentioned something that he should not have. No way the two would be able to climb up the structure without much effort. Xavier shook his head and began checking the huge structure for any possible traps or alarms.

“I’ll keep an eye out for any other goblins that may try to sneak up on us,” Valena started. “I would hate to find a sword stuck in my back because I didn’t see it coming.”

Prothal nodded, and spoke to Hannibal, “I agree we should keep a close watch while Xavier look through the structure. I will watch out for the main tunnel entrance, while you watch for the areas behind us. Any goblin that sticks its head out of the tunnel gets my arrow!”

With that he readied his bow and arrow, pointing it at the tunnel entrance. The light provided by the burning embers of the forest, and the moon, was not as good as daylight, but they most definitely could spot any creature coming out at this distance – about thirty-five over yards from where they were. And given time, they too would be spotted. They would have to kill the inquisitive goblin before it even knew what hit it.

Xavier took his time with the structure. He sighed as he checked carefully, looking for anything that might point to a trap or alarm. The structure was simple – he could have climbed over it with ease, although someone like Hannibal, loaded down with armour, might find it impossible. It would take the combined strength of three men to move it, though.

He noted with satisfaction that there should be nothing on it, and was about to turn to tell Hannibal when he heard the sound of an arrow leaving its bow. A hiss from Prothal came and Xavier realised that he must have spotted something. Another arrow left its bow. He turned to look, to see a head darting into the tunnels again. He turned, to see Hannibal’s grip tightened on his sword. He must have seen it too.


Ky’Thand sensed something wrong even as he climbed, and quickly put himself prone onto the steps of the stairs even as two arrows struck the ground just ahead of him. He quickly rolled down the steps, down the stairs. It was a trap! Someone had been prepared to shoot at him as he came out!


Prothal gritted his teeth as he saw both his arrows missing the head of the scout, striking off the ground next to the opening. He had to fire before it turned its head to look at him. But the target was so small, protected by the natural outcropping of the tunnel, that he had missed. Now it would probably go about warning the rest of the goblins that they were still around!


Ky’Thand rolled away, his heart pounding rapidly, his eyes dilated, ears pricked to hear sounds before the sword or arrow could strike. His eyes searched for the pair of arrows that had been fired at him. Quickly picking one up, he checked the fletching. It did not look like it was goblin make to him, although he was not too sure – only a fletcher could tell with great certainty. But it really looked primitive to him.

He stayed next to the wall and listened. There seemed to be no sounds coming from outside. After a minute of waiting, he decided to make a sound of a hunting owl, to see if there was any reaction from outside. Ky’Thand could not be sure if they were friend or foe, but he was not taking any chances.

The sound of the owl echoed inside the chamber even as he called it out. In the silence of the night, with sleeping goblins around, he could not be sure how far it had echoed within. It was wise of him to have at least despatched the goblins within this chamber. Hopefully, the sound was not loud enough to disturb the sleeping goblins way inside the tunnel complex


“Damn!” Valena muttered under her breath. “Well, we should have company arriving at any time now. I hope you’re ready for all of this.”

Valena kept looking along the forest edge, hoping against hope, that she would see Ky’Thand or Hamish. They would need all the mage around! She knew she looked a fright, smelling of smoke and blood, black smeared into her skin and clothing. She hoped that Ky’Thand fared better, and was well.

“I say we let them come to us everyone! We don’t know what kind of traps they may have set up in their underground lair. We can get a better vantage on the entrance, and slay any with our bows before they get out. What say you all?”

“Too late now, get over here and move the barricade!” Hannibal made the decision, calling urgently over to Prothal, before turning to his other friend, “Xavier, over you go and heave from the other side. Let’s get in before they arrive to fight with this to defend from!”

With that Hannibal moved forward along the same path Xavier had trod and put his shoulder into the barricade.

Xavier shook his head and quickly climbed over the structure. He did not even break a sweat – with such abundant handholds, he was sure it could not stop someone like him. It was obviously meant to stop bigger and heavier opponents like the two ironclad men with him.

“Push! I don’t want an arrow in my butt for my efforts!” Xavier grunted as he pulled at the structure. Prothal had by then came next to Hannibal and braced himself against the structure. He nodded at Hannibal.

“Valena, shoot anything coming out of that hole!” Hannibal called to the ranger. He turned to Prothal and began to shove himself against the structure as well.

Valena nodded, and called out, “If you have any oil…”

Even as Valena spoke, the sound of a hunting owl rang across the compound, from the direction of the entrance into the underground complex. Any ordinary person would have thought nothing of it, but it triggered Valena’s interest. Hunting owls did not have the habit of hunting underground, from her experience in the woods. They did not have the curiosity to enter into underground dwellings, unlike some other hunting birds she knew of.

The barrier had begun to move, the sound breaking the silence of the night. It seemed to move at an agonisingly slow pace, but Hannibal just needed the barrier to move wide enough for both Prothal and him to fight side by side if necessary. A few more grunts from the three men, and soon the barrier was opened wide enough. He quickly slipped in and readied his longsword and shield, prepared to stem the expected rush of goblins from the tunnel. Prothal followed and stood next to him.

Xavier readied his short sword as well, but prudently found himself behind
Hannibal and Prothal. No use being a target when there are two armoured men in front to protect you, he thought to himself. Valena got readied her bow, fixing an arrow to it. Right now she would love to put an arrow straight through its heart. The darkness made things difficult though, and the structure of the stairs would provide a measure of cover for whatever lurked behind, waiting for them.

Chapter 25: The New Assault

 

Ky’Thand retreated a few more steps, and crouched down to concentrate. The mystical words rolled neatly from his tongue at barely a whisper. The raw energy of creation moved around him as he wove it into the energy necessary to power his spell. For a moment he thought he heard something, but he forced himself to concentrate, to ignore any distractions. By the time he had finished his body was becoming invisible once again.

Silently drawing his longsword, KT crept up the stairs. He looked carefully before stepping forward for any ropes, or powder upon the ground, which might betray his presence. There were none, and he moved on, stepping carefully outside. No arrows greeted him this time. The advantage of not being able to be seen was great. No wonder the goblins and orcs were so difficult to take care of. The night was truly their battleground.

He looked around from where he was, trying hard to see in the limited light. As he had suspected, the forest fire had about died out, leaving behind embers. It was the light of the moon that allowed him to see anything at all right now. He moved behind a pile of rubble, just in case, and observed from there. He realised that the barricade at the south, about forty yards away, which he had climbed over hours ago, had been moved. Four shadowy figures were moving about. At this distance, he was not able to tell who they were, but they were definitely human-sized.

He could see the reflections of the moonlight off two of the figures. And also hear the noise of metal plates striking each other. Armour – they were wearing heavy armour! He knew of only two persons right now who would be wearing that – Hannibal and Prothal! He wished he could see in the dark. While he was quite sure, he could not identify them positively. Then he realised they were moving towards the entrance. No, not all – one still stayed behind near the barricade. Covering fire, he thought as he realised those were definitely military trained.


Hannibal and Prothal quickly advanced, trying to move to a position where they could engage in melee combat, where their superior armour and combat strength would quickly destroy any goblin foolish enough to engage them. Xavier followed, trying to stay as close behind them as possible. Valena stayed where the barricade was, providing covering fire, and watching for possible ambushes.

Valena looked on, a little surprised there were no flurry of activity, no goblin defending party coming after them. She noticed that the three were already near the entrance, and pulled her bow harder. The arrow strained against her hand. It would go the moment any thing moved out of the entrance.

Hannibal and Prothal moved in cautiously, Hannibal peering down the entrance first. The steps led down to the darkness below. The moonlight could hardly penetrate down below. It seemed like nobody was going to meet them for battle. Hannibal did not like this. A lull often meant a powerful storm was on its way.


The three had by now reached the entrance, just twenty or so feet from where Ky’Thand stood. He smiled as he recognised them by the light of the moon. Hannibal, Prothal and that coward Xavier. The figure at the barricade must be Valena then.

Ky’Thand moved near to Hannibal and Prothal and spoke with a whisper, “So the king to be arrives with his blade-mate. Your mage has scouted below and drugged the stew to prolong their sleep. If you wish to deal the goblins their deathblow continue, bring the archer in so she may help with the slaughter.

“So does speak the one who went before but also guards the back of the king to be. You will need light to see your way, for below is the ally of darkness most black.”

Hannibal, Prothal and Xavier froze at the voice that came up from nowhere. But they recognised it – it was Ky’Thand, their friend. For a moment they wondered, and even Hannibal was thinking how strange he sounded. The way he spoke seemed different from how he would in the past. But it was definitely his voice. Hannibal thought a while, and finally attributed it to some magic that his friend must have woven upon himself.

“So what’s wrong with you?” Xavier finally spoke up after the silence. “You sound like one of those prissy bards that play for the rich folk.”

“Hey, maybe you can tell me what this is worth,” Xavier whispered as he took out the wand he had acquired from the ‘chieftain’, “The big cheese was waving this around and I figured it would do me more good than him. Besides, he didn’t need it any more.”

Ky’Thand laughed at Xavier, “Spend a few hours during night-time skulking around goblins and you too would be a changed man, Xavier. Your toy I will look at later.”

Hannibal smiled and said, “Good to know you are around again. So what is it like below? I want to be through with this and clean this den out before they threaten the villages nearby again.”

Looking back over the burning forest, he continued, “I think we can manage a torch or two. Or my crystal will light the way.” Hannibal then took out the light stone that he had faithfully kept, from his father-in-law. “Lead the way. Can we take them by surprise?”

Ky’Thand replied, “Below there is no light at all bar a cooking fire which is in a room off the main one. The goblins will mostly be off guard as their stew was doctored with herbs which promote sleep, so if you do it smart and quietly, most of the goblins will not know what hit them. Also a new leader has emerged from the pack, I heard his speech, it was poor and uninspired. Their morale is poor so to strike now is a wise move Hannibal.

“Light below will be your ally, lose it and the goblins will win this day. Continue in, I will be nearby to warn and support your actions, as always. Bring the ranger closer to the group and I will be awaiting below. Oh, and no traps are in the entry passage, in case you wondered.

“The chamber below opens up into a large cavern with several tunnels. The main one goes to the kitchen and spouses area, the other spots some guards slumber, some are dead. The path of the dead leads to the treasure chamber which is most bare and lacking of anything of major interest.”

Hannibal nodded and turned to Valena, waving her over. Silently through the ground she moved, until she was next to her three friends. Hannibal said to Valena, “We can’t see him, but it’s Ky’Thand. Seems we have a way to rid this warren of goblins once and for all. Remember that we’re looking for what that orc mage may have wanted here. We might have to delve deeper than the goblin warren.”

He looked at Prothal, then at Valena, and finally at Xavier, before attempting to take the first step into the underground complex.

But Prothal felt strange, as if there was something not right, something that should not be. His hand instinctively reached out to Prothal, and pulled him back as a tongue of flame roared from the entrance! Valena and Xavier quickly moved aside, throwing themselves onto the ground. Even Ky’Thand had to move aside, so hot was the blast of flame that shot up.

On the ground, the companions looked up at the jet of flame that roared into the sky, momentarily stunned by the sudden turn of events. The ground beneath them began to shake violently, and the remaining walls of the fortress began to crumble and fall. The pits collapsed all around the perimeter of the fortress, revealing themselves. It was as Hannibal had guessed. They were dug all around the complex except for the gate.

Valena realised Xavier was on top of her – either she must have pulled him towards her, or he must have landed on her when they jumped away from the blast. She also realised he had a cheeky grin on his face. He winked at her and said with a tint of mischief, “Did I ever tell you that you’ve got a really great bosom, pretty?”

Many parts of the ground began to crumble, and Ky’Thand recognised some of them as the tunnels and rooms. He realised that the underground complex was probably collapsing upon itself, for some reason. And he bet the agent behind the blast of fire had something to do with it.

Through the smoke and dust being kicked up by the earthquake, the companions saw a strange sight. A huge black altar, easily the size of a small inn’s bed, rose from amidst the rubble of one collapsed area. Ky’Thand frowned – that looked like somewhere near the room where the meeting had taken place. He must have missed while he was there.

The altar, seemingly carried by no man, moved eerily through the air just one feet above the ground, until it rested on a spot just outside the fortress – or what remained of it – near the gate. It had also collapsed, unable to support its own weight when the ground had moved so violently around it. Valena quickly made her judgement – there should be no problem moving to the exit, and the altar, without stumbling into the collapsed parts of the ground. The route would be a little indirect, but safe nevertheless.

It seemed almost as soon as it had begun, the ground had stopped shaking. And a voice called out, sure and powerful. It seemed to have come from all directions, and the companions looked around them, and could see nothing by the light of the moon.

“I do not need the worship of weaklings! They shall die for their weakness!”

A laugh, evil and chilling rang throughout the now silent forest. Even the animals and the crickets were keeping still.

“I can sense the strength among the four of you. Today you have seen the power of Dnahkrad. Surely you are not fools to struggle against one of such great power! The same power is yours to use as you will, if you were to bow down, worship and serve me!”

As if to agree with the voice, the altar suddenly burst into flames – a ghostly green flame dancing upon the altar, seemingly waiting for a sacrifice.

“And to show me that you wish to serve me – choose among yourselves one to be burnt on the altar of sacrifice!”

Another laughter roared through the forest. The companions could not help it but feel a chill down their spine, so strong, so convincing was the voice. It was almost as if a divine being had spoken to them. It took almost all of their strength, their mental fortitude, just to keep their sanity.

Hannibal gritted his teeth as he felt within himself a power similar to that which was destroyed in his blade. He whispered to Prothal, “Your blade, drive it into the altar! It is an evil we can’t let stay.”

Hannibal then drew forth his crystal of light and his longsword to protect Prothal from anything that might attempt to keep him from the altar. Prothal nodded at him, and drew Lightbringer. Without Hannibal’s other weapon, its glow did not function. Both of them moved quickly but cautiously. It would take them quite a while to reach the altar, but both were ready to die to defend what they both believed in.

“No!!” Valena screamed at Prothal and Hannibal. She drew her blade and moved to them. There was probably a power greater than what Prothal alone could do – and Valena would make sure she at least stood by her friends. For she knew, in her heart, that Airlyne was also created for such a time as this.

Ky’Thand, however, looked mighty unhappy, his plans to loot and search below shattered by the some mad god’s gamble. He thought of the small pile of coins now lost. It was a good thing he swiped a few handfuls of the mixed coins and gems.

He shook his head and called out, even as Hannibal and Prothal began their move towards the altar, “Why the tacky bow down and serve thee rubbish? Gods are there to be worshipped and the gods are there to be useful to mankind, like give hope, prosperity, doom and glory, even to do a miracle once in a while.”

Dnahkrad would be a name Ky’Thand burnt into his mind, the beast behind the problem, the one which needed a hideous fall from grace, so Ky’Thand’s world would finally return to some order. KT did admire his engineering work of marvels in causing the collapse of the tunnels and caverns. It was most neat and quickly done. Hopefully he could still salvage something from the collapsed tunnels. But for now he stood back and watched, waiting to see what was sprung.

A sinister laughter broke the air.

“You fools! Though my power not be in the fullness of its might, I shall show you today the power you have foolishly denied!”

A wave of heat seemed to emanate from the altar – and the companions could not help gasping as they saw the heat wave moving towards them. Prothal, Hannibal and Valena quickly planted their swords into the ground and turned their face away from the source, caught as they were in open ground. Ky’Thand and Xavier jumped behind a pile of rubble close to them.

The companions looked towards the altar as the heat wave passed by, and saw an terrible sight indeed. A huge nine-foot tall bear stood just before the altar, its eyes keenly surveying the ground before it. Or at least it was as close to a bear as Valena knew it, for this bear had the horns of rams protruding from its forehead, and for hands it had the talons of an eagle. She had never seen any creature like this in her life, and she was sure, none of her companions had too.

“What manner of creature is this?” Valena find herself speaking aloud to Prothal and Hannibal, her eyes never leaving the beast before them.”

Xavier muttered to himself as he prepared to engage the new threat, “Great, where’s the holy one now!” With quick hands, he flipped off one of his knives at the creature, at extreme range. It was no surprise to him that he would miss the creature entirely. His weapon, however, fell upon the altar, and exploded with a flash of purplish light.

Xavier decided there and then that firing knives at this range was not exactly his cup of tea, and moved off to get into the shadows where he would try to circle around behind the creature. I’m just along for the job, the thief thought to himself as he attempted to get his skin out of the way of the mayhem that he felt would soon occur. A wise man lives to fight another day, he thought, remembering the ancient military proverb.

The creature was just barely forty feet away from the three warriors in front, Ky’Thand noted. Though the piles of rubble all over the place meant that the warriors would need about another minute to reach the creature.

“Puny humans! You are a fool to refuse my master! Come and attack, and I shall taste of your blood and your flesh today!” It said as it licked its lips. It made no movement, its talons withdrawn and arms folded, confident of besting whatever the companions could come up with. Its eyes, however, seemed to be focused upon Hannibal.

And Hannibal felt it, felt the presence in his head. “Your companion is evil indeed – destroy him, and join me! We are the true forces of good! Destroy him, and together we shall rule Theophilia!” Hannibal fought hard, but he felt his mind slipping, losing control, and agreeing with what the creature said. His hand gripped his weapon hard.

“Hannibal, this thing seems to be speaking to you. Perhaps it’s drawn to your sword!” Valena moved to put herself between Prothal and Hannibal. “Perhaps the fates are against us,” she whispered, but Hannibal did not seem to be listening. His mind seemed to be elsewhere, as if he was in a world of his own.

Ky’Thand shook his head as he saw his friends approach the creature, “So much for doing something rational for once.” He pulled his bow out, aimed for the head of the creature carefully and let fire the arrow. At about a hundred feet, his arrow should not have a problem, unlike the fool Xavier who used a knife. The fragile dweomer about him was shattered by that move, however, and his form became seen by all.

The arrow flew true, but simply bounded off the hide of the creature. This was going to be harder than he thought.

The warrior seemed to hesitate as Valena shouted. His steps paused and he shook his head as the others continued forward. It seemed so crystal clear now. He had tried to change him for years, but it seemed all his hard work and forbearance was for naught. His childhood friend had sided with evil. With a shout of “Xavier!” Hannibal turned from the task at hand and saw his friend threw his weapon towards his new ally. It was so obvious – how could he be so blinded by his friendship that he had not seen justice done?

With all speed, Hannibal moved towards Xavier with his sword at the ready. “Your time is at hand foul one. You’re going back to face military justice, then hang!”

“What the…” Hannibal’s voice was so loud, so commanding, that it caught Xavier off guard for a while. He noticed Hannibal charge towards him, and was quickly thinking through his head whether this was a joke or some kind of unusual combat manoeuvre. But the charging mass of metal going for him was definitely no joke. Hannibal would be upon him soon.

Prothal, too, was caught off-guard by the actions of Hannibal. For a moment, he wondered, as Hannibal began moving off in the other direction, what had happened. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. “Xavier! Watch out!” There was an enemy in the other direction, and he could not afford to let his friends down at this juncture. He moved resolutely in the direction of the creature.

Valena, too, had hesitated, but followed him as they closed the final distance between the creature and themselves. She noticed the same kind of look upon the creature’s eyes upon Prothal as she had first seen upon Hannibal. Her gripped closed on her weapon as she came face to face with a creature of a level of power she had yet to encounter in her life.

Prothal heard the voice within his head, calling out to him, promising him great things, “Do not be foolish, my friend! Stop this woman, and together we shall rule Theophilia!” He found himself agreeing with the strange words, found himself gripping his weapon tighter.

“Valena! Stop where you are now, and move off, or you shall face cold steel!” The words from Prothal shocked Valena. She stopped and turned slightly, keeping the corner of her eyes on the creature. She was caught in between, Prothal to one side, only a few feet away, and the creature and dark altar on the other, also only a few feet away. She could not see Prothal’s eyes, neither could she tell the expression on his face, his helmet covering everything. But the words sounded serious, and Prothal seemed to be backing his words up, advancing towards her, weapon poised for attack.

“You try to keep me from aiding my friends when they are in need? Even you are wiser than that, old friend. Hannibal has been affected somehow by that beast…” Valena started.

A loud laughter rang through the night forests as the light source began to move away from Valena and Prothal, moving together with its owner Hannibal. They had only the light of the moon to battle the creature, and for once, Valena could not be sure at this moment if her companion was on her side. Or on the enemies’ side.

Ky’Thand swore as Hannibal moved ever closer to them, “This demon thing is a master at its arts, what a terrible time to meet it!” He glanced about, and realised the forest edge was the best hope. In fact, losing the creature as far as Ky’Thand thought was the only hope to survive this encounter.

With gusto and the edge of terror fuelling his legs Ky’Thand sprang from hiding spot and darted directly for the tree line. “Xavier follow me, now! We must retreat!” He shouted at his companion, still rooted to the ground in disbelief.

Valena heard Ky’Thand’s cry a short distance from her. “Yes! Xavier! Ky’Thand! Flee into the woods! We can’t fight this creature as we are.” Valena shouted, then kept her blade drawn and glancing at the nine-foot bear beast just next to her with hatred. It seemed to make no move at her, confident that it had the situation under control. For a moment, she thought it had an amused look on its face, like a cat toying around with its prey before consuming it.

“Prothal, you don’t want to harm me. I’m your friend, not that hideous beast! Isn’t it strange that Hannibal wants to kill Xavier now?” She looked at him with a pleading look in her eyes. “Ask the Eternal One for aid against this creature. If you don’t, we’re all lost!”

If there was any answer from Prothal, it was lost in the clang of steel as Prothal’s blade met hers. Their blades glowed, hers with a light as blue as the morning sky, and his as white as snow. “Nay, I know what I am doing, woman! With me ruling Theophilia, all of the land will hear of the greatness of the Eternal One!” Prothal answered through the helmet that covered his face, “If truly you are my friend, back off from here, and leave this place! I see no reason to harm you – just leave the place!” Valena could feel the seriousness in his words. But she was shocked over one thing. Prothal had never talked of ruling. He had always been a humble man. What had come over him?

Her thoughts though, were interrupted by something. She noticed a hissing sound, and smoke, from the hilt of Prothal’s sword. There was a cry of pain from Prothal, but he held on to the weapon. It almost seemed like his weapon was burning his hand!

“Most interesting…a holy weapon…” Valena could hear the words just two feet away from her. The bear-demon had not attacked, even though Valena was helpless, blade locked in with Prothal in combat.

Ky’Thand rushed quickly for the tree line, and he could hear Xavier behind him, scrambling to get away from the armoured juggernaut. Hannibal was surprisingly fast even in his armour, and Ky’Thand, loaded down with his gear, could only just keep his distance of about thirty feet from him.

“Xavier, stop running away and surrender now, you evil coward! Or I will make sure they starve you before they hang you!” Ky’Thand could hear the swearing from Hannibal as he attempted to catch up with them.

It was not easy navigating the piles of rubble and the gaping holes in the ground. Xavier was faster than him, moving in front and heading for the trees. The coward. He would probably reach the trees in probably another few more seconds of running. If Hannibal kept the speed, Xavier could outrun him, but definitely not Ky’Thand. Not that it really mattered, anyway. It seemed like Hannibal was more bent on taking Xavier to military court than in taking a slice off him.

Valena knew that she was quicker than her friend, as she was not as encumbered in metal armour, and deftly side-stepped around Prothal. She still could not understand why Prothal would press an attack on her, unless…his mind was somehow ensorcelled by that creature!

“Prothal, you are not a man who wants to rule anything! This demon has ensorcelled your mind! Fight it! For the love of all that you hold dear, for the love of the Eternal One, for the love of your friends, fight! Fight this demon with me!”

She looked for his eyes, striving to see something. “Because I am your friend, I will stay by your side. Would you leave me here, with this creature, alone? Fight this madness! I cannot leave here without you!”

And so here ends the Island of Rodarea campaign, another casualty in pbem play, struck by the combined pincer movements of real life and table-top gaming. It has gone on for a year and a half. Whether it will be resurrected again or not is in doubt. Who knows, when the 5 of us have retired and have tons of time on our hands? Perhaps then we will continue the saga? Until then, this campaign remains in the arms of Death…

Island of Rodarea II

Chapter 11: The Prophecy of Adam

 

Prothal was waiting for the two outside their rooms. He looked quietly at both of them as they came in, before telling them, “Adam spoke of dreams that he had been having these four nights. He said he saw a messenger from the Eternal One, and the visions he saw,” Prothal paused to take a deep breath, “was the same one that I had but he claimed that a messenger from the Eternal One had told him something else. Theophilia will become ashes in seven days. Four have passed by, and three days are left.”

Ky’Thand shook his head, “Well nothing like a good omen before going back into uncertain battle. I bet the sheriff would just love to hear this forecast.”

Prothal looked at his two friends, noting Ky’Thand’s reaction, before continuing, “Everybody knows Adam the Pious is one man who followed whole-heartedly after the Eternal One, but he tends to spout prophecies that never came true. But his daughter told me today, while he was rambling on how the Eternal One was judging Theophilia because of our sinfulness, that recently half of the prophecies he made had been coming true.

“Now I would normally not believe this old man, but the fact that he has been having the same dreams as I speaks something else. He insisted on having me over to his place for dinner tonight, and to call on my friends as well in case the Eternal One has a prophecy for them. I promised him I will go, but I told him I would not say the same for my friends. Just in case you have got other plans.”

Prothal looked at his two friends again as he finished his speech. The warm sun of the late afternoon had begun to shine in through a window facing south-west, outlining his face, and seeming to paint it an angelic shine. Although not in armour, his weapon was beside him.

Ky’Thand happened to turn his head behind him to the window, and noticed a man coming back from another part of town. The intelligence officer that was present at the briefing was just outside to meet him.

Ky’Thand slipped out to meet him. The man the intelligence officer was talking to had already left by then. He asked the intelligence officer, “What news do you have?”

“Sir, if you don’t mind, I will speak directly to Major Hannibal and the Sheriff concerning the reports requested by them. I hope you will understand my situation. I have a soldier’s orders to follow, sir.” The soldier looked genuinely apologetic.

Ky’Thand then asked, speaking with the unique tone and slang used only by those of the shady underworld, “Are there any Lucky Members of the Silent Hand?” The officer’s blank face told Ky’Thand that he probably did not know what he was saying.


After hearing what Prothal had to say and relating to his friends his intention to visit the local Temple of Mystari, Hannibal commented. “Well I will see you all at Brother Adam’s then for dinner? We can relate all we know then.”

Hannibal wanted to say something to Ky’Thand, but by the time he turned around, Ky’Thand was already gone. Looking down the window, Hannibal could see him talking to the intelligence officer. Remembering back to the Sheriff’s comment about men’s trust, Hannibal walked down to see what the intelligence officer had found out at the temple.


Ky’Thand was not deterred by the soldier’s obvious ignorance of the Cant. He asked the question again, this time in plain language, “Are there any guild members of the local thieves’ guild?”

The soldier smiled and replied, “If there is, sir, they are pretty much hidden from our intelligence. We are aware of the possibilities of an organised thieves’ guild – but our investigations have not showed us anything other than possibilities, sir. If you don’t mind, sir, I will have to go about my duties.”

Ky’Thand watched the soldier moving into the building he had just quietly slipped out of. He saw Hannibal waving the soldier over and knew that he would report to Hannibal the things he wanted to know. Perhaps he could find the answer from Hannibal later. Mentally, he reminded himself that he needed to stock up on some dry or iron rations and couple of wine and waterskins.

Ky’Thand dropped over to the Woodsbridge Inn, the place where he probably could get the supplies. It is amazing what a good businessman the proprietor was. Besides the inn, he had adjoining shops selling all kinds of supplies for travellers. As he entered, he saw the two trappers and proceeded to ask them if they could tomorrow morning just after sunrise guide them back to the site of the orc encounter.


“Soldier, good work this morning,” Hannibal told the soldier, “I was just wondering if you had heard back from your men on what the temple of Mystari may know of the sorcerer and the ruins?”

The soldier shot one look back at the departing Ky’Thand, before answering, “Yes, sir. I was about to brief the Sheriff as well. Apparently, the temple had no such records. So what the man had told us of what he had heard from his late father could probably just be a local story circulating around. We had no way of verifying the story.

“But you may like to know that I had done a little thought on this story, sir. When this man told the story to me, I took a mental note of the fact that orcs were involved. Perhaps the orcs are using the ruins as their stronghold? While I cannot be sure of anything, but if somehow we can capture or track down an orc, we may just be able to find the ruins. If it really exist that is. I understand, sir, that right now we are basing a lot of our work on stories and rumours. Not exactly the best source to look for, if you understand me, sir.”

“Your idea to capture orcs is a good one. Do you know of anyone who could interrogate them in orcish if we did bring them back alive?” Hannibal asked.

The soldier looked a little sheepish as he answered, “I fear not, sir. Nobody has a chance to live among them long enough to learn their language. I just hope that the language of the hands is something universal, sir.”

The soldier looked on behind Hannibal. He saluted him and said, “The Sheriff is waiting for me, sir. If you do not mind, I will have to report to him now, sir.” Hannibal saw from the soldier’s gaze that the Sheriff was probably already waiting for the soldier at the gate.

Hannibal listened carefully to the man’s report and thanked him saying, “Your sheriff picks good men. I commend you on your thoroughness in such a short time.” The soldier smiled, saluted again and walked on after Hannibal returned his salute.

Hannibal had other business too. He returned to his living quarters upstairs, found a spare writing desk and wrote to the Institute of Arcane Studies back in the capital.

Well, the blade has seen major combat one more time. This time on the beaches of the great lake. I was caught in magical darkness but the blade seemed to perform no differently. Against orcs, it killed with each blow and when I fought a Minotaur, it took three or four strokes. However, with the Minotaur each blow tended not to produce any gore, as if the blade was ‘drinking’ it.

Myself, I felt no different than I have in combat in the past. The same fear, excitement, and boost of energy that all men feel as they prepare to kill or be killed. I was not near Brother Prothal’s blade for much of the battle so I can not tell you how his blade interacted with mine.

Leaving the message to go south in the military pouch, Hannibal decided to pop by the Woodsbridge Inn to check on the local happenings. Hannibal carried his weapons, bundled up his plate armour and on his way to the inn stopped at the armourer’s shop to have it repaired.

He spent some time talking with the armourer. The armourer was a friendly old man, who politely chatted with Hannibal, swapping stories of glorious battles and legendary armours. When the armourer assured him that the minor dents and scratches could be easily hammered out and polished in three hours’ time, Hannibal moved on to get more answers to the mysteries before him. Hannibal soon arrived at the inn.

Well, he thought to himself, I might have an opportunity to see what other tale these trappers may have to tell. As he entered, he noticed Ky’Thand talking to the two trappers. He decided to leave them alone for the time being.

At the inn, Hannibal was his normal self. He flirted a bit with the three bar maids, who always seemed to love to serve him, to the general exclusion of everybody else. Hannibal remembered Sam ‘Smasher’ Wayreth, the proprietor, making a jest that if Hannibal came everyday, he would lose all his customers. Still he kept his eyes opened, and generally just listened to what is going on.

While Hannibal ate, he ordered up the supplies he would need for his trip into the wild. “Girls,” he addressed the barmaids, “can you let Smasher know that I’ll be needing some supplies. Two weeks dried rations, including cheese and travel bread; 2 skins of cheap wine and a bottle of his ‘good’ stuff. Also, since I will be taking a horse, a 20 pound bag of oats will be needed.”

Smiling at the maids, he continued, “I’ll be by in the morning to pick it all up, probably while he is serving breakfast to the trappers at sunrise.”


The two trappers were obviously pleased to have a chance to earn what seemed like more money. “Of course, of course, Sir Wizard. We would gladly bring you to the place again,” the bolder one said, “But of course…uh…we would lose some of our day’s earning the next day bringing you to the place, so…uh…”

Ky’Thand smiled at the attempt at asking for coin. “Lads, you will be paid well for your work tomorrow and the squirrels and such will be there the next day for your traps.”


Both Hannibal and Ky’Thand’s attention were somehow inexplicably drawn to the lone patron by a table at an inner corner of the inn. He had chosen a table with the back against the wall, and he was slowly sipping at the wine placed before him. Two dishes of food lay before him, and he would occasionally pick at it.

There were three things that really pickled the attention of the two friends. The first was the man’s feature. He was Eyondan. And Eyondans, already very rare in Frelandia, were nearly impossible to find in this part of the kingdom. Some patrons stared at him, but most generally ignored him, staying clear of him.

The second thing to amaze them was the implements he was holding in his hand. He had ignored the knife and fork placed before him, and was using two thin straight pieces of wood to pick up the food. He used it so expertly that even Ky’Thand was amazed. It would take him quick some time to use that as expertly as he did.

And the last, of course, was the longsword that lay on the table. Or at least it looked like a longsword. It was a beautiful weapon, curved on one end, with a scabbard made of fine wood and leather. Carvings of dragons and phoenixes ran all over the scabbard. The weapon, interestingly, seemed to have no pommel. Now that he had a chance to look further, Hannibal realised he had seen Taro use this weapon before. It was an Eyondan warrior’s sword.

As Hannibal continued eating his late lunch, he watched and listened to the other patrons. Noticing the Eyondan as he thought about what he had learnt this morning, Hannibal noted that he must be a warrior (which Eyondan was not?) and that to be so far from home he must have a good reason.

Not wanting the barmaids to giggle and probably point at the man, Hannibal smiled to the girls saying, “Hold my table for me will you? I am expecting Brother Prothal shortly. If he comes in while I’m gone, don’t go testing his vows again.” The barmaids giggled at the extra attention given to them by Hannibal. One of them stuck out her tongue at him, in a girlish gesture.

As he rose, there was no disguising Hannibal’s profession to the Eyondan. With a longsword in its black sheath, sword and dagger on his belt, and hilts of throwing daggers in his boot tops, Hannibal was definitely a warrior. Though he wore no armour in town, he walked with the confidence of a man who was formidable in combat armoured or not.

Hannibal got up and went to talk with Smasher at the bar. “Smasher you old war-horse, I see business is still good. A mug of Long River Ale.”

Hannibal traded lies, friendly insults, and gossip with the man for a while then asked the question that brought him to the bar, “I’ve been coming here my whole tour of duty and never seen an Eyondan other than Taro. Have you heard anything about the man in the corner?”

Smasher shook his head, still drying the glass he was holding with a new cloth. Hannibal had noted this practice of his long ago. He must be obsessed with cleanliness, for he used a new piece of cloth for every batch of glassware, before throwing it into the wash. Then he would pick up another piece again for the next batch.

“He just came in yesterday night, sir. He must be a brave traveller, and a good warrior to boot, too. I mean, which Eyondan can’t fight? But to travel through orc infested lands at night – he must be crazy. He left the inn early this morning, and he had just returned. He never talked much except to order food and get the room, but he did pay for his lodgings and food. Oh…he had paid for three days’ stay in the inn – in advance!”

Hannibal tried to make eye contact with the Eyondan, but he did not look up from his eating. Hannibal finished his conversation with Smasher, reminding him of the supplies needed and tipping him the one silver for the ale, made his way back to his table. The Eyondan’s eyes seemed to shift a little to the entrance. Hannibal and Ky’Thand saw Prothal waving to them, and approaching Hannibal to join him at his table.

Hannibal was just sitting down as the maids came back to see if he needed anything when Prothal entered the inn. Swatting them playfully on the behind, Hannibal laughed saying, “Wait till Brother Prothal and Ky’Thand join us.”

Ky’Thand excused himself from the trappers. “Dawn tomorrow, we will be right to go.” Ambling over to the Eyondan, he said, “Welcome stranger, I hope you have found the inn acceptable. My friend over there was marvelling at your blade, I see it is similar to Lieutenant Taro’s.”

If the Eyondan had heard Ky’Thand, he did not show it. He continued picking at the food. The skill at which he used the sticks was amazing. He paused a while to wash down his food with the wine. There was no response from him to Ky’Thand’s words at all.

Shaking his head, Hannibal raised his voice over the nearly empty inn. “Ky’Thand, won’t you join me?”

Then thinking that maybe he could get some answers directly from the other warrior, he called formally, “Great Warrior of Eyonda, would you honour us by bringing your sword and yourself to join us at my table?”

The man did not reply. He continued with his eating, seemingly oblivious to Ky’Thand standing next to him, and to Hannibal’s call to him. Meanwhile, Prothal had already taken a seat with Hannibal. He was obviously a little uncomfortable with the three barmaids around him, all dressed in somewhat low-cut dresses, their bosom seeming to overflow within the confines of their corsets. They continued to giggle as he started to turn red-faced.

Prothal took a look at the Eyondan when Hannibal called out to him, relieved to have to look elsewhere for once. Shaking his head at the Eyondan, Prothal whispered to Hannibal, “Who is he? Is he deaf or something?”

Ky’Thand, getting no response from him, sat down opposite the warrior, a twinkle of mischief in his eye. “It is custom in these parts to answer or at least ask the person to leave.”

Seeing no reaction, Ky’Thand pulled a long slender pipe with a corncob end from his pocket, then a small pack of aromatic herbs. Carefully packing the pipe, he placed it in his mouth, clicking his fingers twice and a small flame lighted the dried herbs, producing a pepper-mint smelling bluish smoke.

After two puffs away, the warrior was still picking at his food, completing ignoring the wizard sitting before him. Ky’Thand said, “Nubnub green grub” between puffs and a juicy fat green lettuce grub popped its head from the underside of a piece of greenery on the plate. Obviously he was enjoying himself.

The Eyondan paused for a while and looked coolly at the grub moving about on the plate. He proceeded to pick it up with his pair of wooden sticks. The grub went ‘poof’ before he could pick up it, however. It really made Ky’Thand wonder if he was actually thinking of eating it together with the vegetables. After all, he had heard that Eyondans had some very exotic tastes.

“Like I was trying to say earlier. Among the warriors serving the local lord is one called Taro, he carries a similar blade. I was wondering how you manage to keep the grip on the blade when no pommel is there to stop your hand from sliding down especially in a bloody and gory encounter.”

As the day started to be lit by the beautiful rays of the evening sun, Hannibal chatted with Prothal, who was still shifting uncomfortable at the smell of the perfume from the women, “Friend, I do not know. Eyondans can be peculiar. Lt. Taro is always polite but it is hard to read a man of that land. He hears and understands fine – Smasher was telling me how he has booked a room and such. For now he chooses to ignore us.”

Hannibal smiled as Ky’Thand tried to get a response from the man and only hoped that the response was not lethal. “He must be good at ignoring people. Ignoring that mage is like trying to ignore that you’re in the centre of a poison ivy patch as you squat to relieve yourself! Hey, the man will talk with us in his own time, if the Eternal wills it right? Enjoy yourself, we have the attention of these three beauties!”

Hannibal concluded smiling at each of the barmaids that seemed to hover around his table. At least until Smasher hollered at them to serve the other customers. At which giggling away, they proceed to pour wine, or carry the food from the kitchen.

Chuckling at Prothal’s discomfort, Hannibal asked, “Did you learn anything else after we parted? Also, has your god granted you the gift of healing? I know Ky’Thand is still hurting and I have minor wounds. Also, I am sure some of the men that came in last night were wounded in the battle.”

Prothal shook his head, “Nothing much, I’m afraid. I was meditating, trying to ask the Nameless One for some inspiration and guidance, but none was forthcoming. I just hope that tonight’s trip to Brother Adam’s place would prove to be inspiration, if nothing else.”

Looking at Hannibal and Ky’Thand, Prothal continued, “Yes, I have prayed specifically for his hand of healing this afternoon. Somehow,” Prothal looked out at the setting sun, “somehow I get the feeling that we may really need it these few days.”

The Eyondan continued eating as if there were nobody else sharing his table. If he had heard what Ky’Thand has said, he did not respond. Finished with his food, he promptly got up, laid down the one silver coin for the common fare, picked up his sword, and made his way to the stairs where the rooms were above.

Chuckling at the complete rebuff of Ky’Thand, Hannibal handed his tip to each of the barmaids and went up to talk with Smasher one more time. “If that Eyondan ever speaks to you tell him that Major Hannibal would like to speak with him about orcs. I shall be back here tomorrow near sunrise if he would like to talk then. Oh, and let him know that another Eyondan has fought with me and earned great honour.”

As the sun began to set Hannibal travelled with his two friends to Brother Adam’s house to hear what the man had to say. On the way to the man’s house, Hannibal stopped at the armoury and retrieved his armour. It took some time, with the assistance of the armourer, for the armour to be put on him. It would look funnier for him to be carrying the armour to Adam’s place than for him to actually wear it there.

Hannibal remembered Prothal telling him about this very first convert of his upon his posting to the Border Defence Force. The town had not really paid anything beyond lip service to Prothal’s god until his arrival. Of course, Remora was not very happy but the town had so far been pretty resistant to conversion, though the townsfolk happily accepted Prothal’s ministering and thronged to hear his preaching.

Adam was a venerable old man who used to be a fortune-teller. He used to have a large family of four soldier sons, but only one of them was married, and had given birth to a granddaughter for him. All of them including his daughter-in-law perished when the patrol was ambushed by orcs a few years ago. Only his young granddaughter lived simply because she was too young for the army. Hannibal had understood that this event created an uproar with the then Major Bluestar, and he had ordered that all possible means be taken to ensure that family members were never together in the same unit, to prevent the reoccurrence of the same tragedy.

Hannibal remembered Prothal telling him happily that day of the very first true convert in Nomad’s Crossing. Inside his heart, he was shaking his head when he knew it was Adam. Not that Adam was a bad person. No, actually he had never been known to even harm a rat. But he was well known in town for spewing prophecies, all of which never came true. All the folks in town had politely put up with him out of respect. Not exactly the best convert for a religion. But Prothal was so happy then, that he was loath to break the news to him. Better to let him discover for himself.

But the latest twists were interesting. The fact that the prophecies sounded somewhat like what Prothal had been seeing in his sleep. The fact that Prothal mentioned about half of Adam’s prophecies was coming true. There was also something heavy in the air that Hannibal just could not put. There was an air of foreboding after the battle that had taken place. Something evil seemed to be poised to strike any moment, and if Adam’s words were correct, the world as he knew it could be in deep trouble.

Chapter 12: Adam the Pious

 

Adam’s residence was just about 20 minutes’ walk from the inn. The red-orange hues of the setting sun coloured the town in a warm and beautiful light, and made it different at times to tell the true colour of their surroundings. The house was a single-storey building sitting on about 1200 yards square of land, fenced by a small hedge barely at the waist height of Hannibal. The grass was well maintained, and a short rock-paved path led about 20 feet to the front door.

Light was streaming in from the two windows facing the front of the house. The sun had by then dipped beyond the horizon, and darkness quickly surrounded the land, lit only by the occasional lights of the neighbouring houses. The three friends saw the figure of a woman turn to look at them from one of the windows. Since the light was behind her, they could not really make out much of her features, but Prothal recognised her as Gina, the granddaughter of the old man.

She gave a squeal and disappeared from the window. The smells of freshly cooked foods greeted the nose of the companions who had by then reached the door. The door was flung open and Gina appeared, calling out excitedly, “Grandpa – Brother Prothal has arrived…and oh…he has brought friends as well!”

A cough was heard, and then voice came from inside the house, “Yes, my dear, I know. Bring them in, and help me out after you’ve served them tea.” The girl turned, an excited smile evident on her face. She said, “Come in, sirs, I will get you something to drink!”

The three companions were ushered to a simple table, with benches on all four sides. Food was already cooked and ready – five sets of them. Adam must have been really confident that all three of them would come. Or maybe he had a prophecy or something? With things happening as they were now, Hannibal just could not be sure.

Hannibal took another look at the food served on the metal dishes, as well of the table and benches. He noted that these were standard army issue, old but still useful. He remembered Colonel Bluestar hearing about the old man’s plight shortly after his promotion, and had promised to give him all the support the army could give. Apparently, the Colonel had kept his promise.

The girl serving them was young – possibly about sixteen or so. In the culture of the desert tribes, or even among the villages, she would be of a marriageable age, but town dwellers normally do not marry as young. Perhaps in another two years, she would be married off.

Gina was not much to look at – rather plain, with long black hair, and small eyes. Her hands and face looked darkened and rough, probably from hard work. She did have a slim figure though, and a wonderful cheerful personality, smiling all the while she was serving them tea. After serving the tea, she smiled at the three friends and said, “I’m going in to get grandpa in, please wait a while.” The long skirt of her dress swished on her ankles as she entered into one of the three bedrooms in the house.

Adam the Pious was blind for as long as anybody could remember. The wizened old man staggered in, his hand on the shoulder of his granddaughter. Prothal immediately raced to assist the old man, bringing him to the table. The old man rested his hand upon Prothal and immediately began saying, “Brother Prothal! You don’t know how much it means to an old man to have you for dinner tonight. You must introduce your friends to me!”

Gina smiled and spoke to her grandfather, “Grandpa, I’m sure you know one of them already. Major Hannibal is quite a famous figure in our town, although not many know him personally.” She smiled shyly at Hannibal. And her eyes noticed the jewellery on Ky’Thand’s neck. But she turned away immediately, probably not wishing to look rude by staring at him.

Ky’Thand noticed that she was not like many of the women he had seen in the towns – she was totally unadorned in jewellery. Not even a plain pin on her hair. Looking at the conditions, he could understand why. She probably could not afford them.

Adam was led to the table and sat down on the table. Ky’Thand and Hannibal sat on the bench to his left, Hannibal nearer to him. Prothal took a seat on the bench to his right, while his granddaughter sat on the same bench as him, on his right side. Adam smiled and looked into the air, his grey eyes seeming to smile as well.

“Yes, your friends, Brother Prothal…may I know who they are?”

Prothal stood up and brought Hannibal’s hand to Adam’s. He said, “This is Hannibal, brother Adam. He is a brave man, one who fights to defend Frelandia against the evils from the Darklands.”

The man’s hand seemed to tremble slightly when he heard the name spoken from Prothal’s lips, as well as Hannibal’s vocation. He turned his head towards Hannibal and said, “Sir…Adam is an old man…he cannot see with his eyes. Would you be so kind as to let me see your face with his hands? Please?” It was almost a plea.

Adam’s hands were trembling as Gina and Prothal assisted him in standing up. Tears began to well in his eyes as he traced the outlines of Hannibal, touching his eyes, his nose, his lips, his chin, his ears, and his bald head. It was uncomfortable having someone touch him like this.

Suddenly, the old man fell to his knees, kicking off the bench in the process. He bowed, his head touching the ground as he cried out, “Your Majesty, thank you for coming to see an old man in his final days! It is such a great honour!”

Ky’Thand almost choked. “Hannibal a king. Ha-ha-ha-ha, next you will tell me I am the dark one who created all this mess we seem to be in. Old man you should stay on the herbal teas not smoke the dream weed.”

Looking to Hannibal, he said, “Do you really think that you could be a king? Your diplomatic skills are the end of a sword.” Shrugging his shoulders, he continued, “Then again many kings have used similar in the past.”

At Brother Adam’s proclamation, Hannibal was struck speechless. As a warrior accustomed to issuing orders while men fight and die; in dire straits or pursuit of a defeated foe; Hannibal was never at a loss for words or unable to command respect. But this was nearly absurd! He could not laugh and make light of a man who had given so much to the military nor could he accept such accolades.

Looking acutely embarrassed, another rarity, Hannibal stopped and stuttered, unable to articulate his thoughts, “Sir…no…I mean…I’m a Warrior…”

After a few tries Hannibal finally could protest coherently, “Brother Adam. You must be mistaken. I am a warrior, not a statesman! I lead 500 men into battle, not a nation. I do not even have royal blood coursing through my veins.”

Hannibal seemed to be gathering his equilibrium back and continued in a gentler voice, “Adam. Is this something you have seen? If so, what else have you seen that may help us avoid the dark days that approach?”

Still on his knees, with his face to the ground, Adam continued, “It is true! It is true! I have seen you in my dreams, Your Majesty! You are the one the Nameless One will use to restore Theophilia after the judgement! Ah…thank you, O Eternal One, for giving an old man to see your chosen one in his last days! Thank you, O thank you, thank you, thank you!”

The old man began to mutter incoherent syllables as Gina looked desperately at Hannibal and Prothal. The redness in her face told the companions a lot about how she felt as she said, “I’m sorry, sirs, my grandpa does speak nonsense sometimes. I hope you do not mind his outburst…” She looked almost close to tears.

Prothal smiled. Having been about Nomad’s Crossing for almost three months, he knew how Adam was like. Giving the girl a gentle pat on her shoulder, he winked at Hannibal and said, “Your Majesty, the old man is still on his knees…don’t you think he would be happy to be granted the…uh…royal privilege of being seated next to you?”

He stood close to Hannibal and whispered, “I know impersonating royalty is a cause for execution, but I think we should be safe over here – after all we are not doing something evil. Something tells me he will remain on his knees until the king himself ask him to rise.” Hannibal could tell that Prothal was trying his best to remain untouched by mirth.

Having regained some of his composure, but still feeling acutely uncomfortable with the role forced on him, Hannibal spoke to Brother Adam, “Brother Adam, arise and sit at table with me. As your future liege I would ask what makes you believe these events will come to pass”

Hannibal sat back down and gently prompted the old man to tell all he had ‘seen’, looking for some clue as to how it all related to the attack on the lake last night.

The old man coughed and began to rise, assisted by his granddaughter and Prothal. Taking a seat on the bench that Prothal had placed back on its upright position, he turned to Gina and said, “Gina dear, go and get that lamb and dress it. His Majesty is…”

Gina interrupted him, an anxious look on her face, “But grandpa…we’ve just killed the lamb two weeks ago, remember? We…”

“Nonsense, Gina! The lamb is still around, did I not hear its bleating just outside?” None of the companions could hear anything, or had seen any lamb as they come in, for that matter. The old man continued, “Now be a good girl and cook something good for His Majesty. We must give him the best we can offer.”

“But grandpa…” her eyes were welling up again, and this time Prothal stepped in. “Uh…of course, of course, now let me go with you to see what we can find, huh?” He winked at the little girl and disappeared with her into the kitchen.

Now the old man turned to smile at Hannibal, his grey eyes focusing on nothing in particular. He seemed to be distracted by something, something that put him deep in thought for a moment. Then he turned his head, first to Ky’Thand, then to Hannibal.

“Ah…I sense that both of you seek after something. No…both of you seek after someone. One who had humiliated both of you. Is Adam correct?” Without waiting for an answer, Adam replied to his own question, “Yes, yes, of course, Adam is correct. Oh, but he is strong. Too strong for you. Only the power of the Eternal One will overcome him. Yes, only the power of the Eternal One.”

Hannibal listened to the old man ramble, sometimes making embarrassingly accurate guesses and other times being unintelligible. However, Hannibal had to ask as Adam seemed to speak about the orc mage. “How can an orc be too powerful for a mage and major in the army, friend Adam? Individually orcs are a nuisance, nothing more! What is to the south Adam, what are we seeking?”

He seemed to be in his rambling moods again. The words of Hannibal seemed to sail past his ears. He continued, “Hear the words of Adam, Your Majesty. That which you seek is not in the north but in the south. Not by the river but by the woods. But even now he is beginning, yes, he is beginning. And soon darkness shall fall. Yes, evil shall overcome Theophilia for the evils that man has done!”

Adam continued rambling on to himself, ignoring the fact that Hannibal and Ky’Thand were listening. “Yes, many creatures of evil are preparing even now. Dragons, werecreatures, the foul undead, the creatures of darkness. I see them rampaging over the countryside! Oh…it is terrible! The woman, her womb split open, to have her child devoured! Oh, the man! Hung on the pikes of the evil as a standard, his brain eaten while he still thinks! Oh…great evil, great evil indeed!

“And in seven days from that vision, Theophilia shall be destroyed! Yes, Theophilia shall be destroyed! Oh…darkness…oh darkness…it is just another three more days to the fulfilment of the vision! Oh, but how wonderful it is – to see the king who shall rebuild part of Theophilia! How wonderful it is! Flanked by men of valour, by men closer than brothers, the sun shone brightly upon his uncovered head.”

The smells of something came from the kitchen. Prothal must be at his cooking again. He always cooked such wonderful food. If Adam had smelled it, he was indifferent. He suddenly reached over and clutched at Ky’Thand’s hand, shouting out, “Remember never to call upon your darkness again, sorcerer! Never, never, ever, call upon the ways of your past again, lest destruction come to you! For power shall be yours through the path of mana!”

As quickly as he clutched at his hand, he let go and began to shake violently. He turned to Hannibal and said, “It is evil, Your Majesty! It is evil! But it shall be the Dark Emperor’s undoing! Yes, it shall be the Dark Emperor’s undoing.”

Hannibal eyed the old man wondering where he was going. Hannibal was not sure what was evil but deep inside he felt that Adam was somehow talking about his blade. Thinking to test his idea he casually slipped the scabbard off his shoulder and laid it on the table to see what Adam did next.

Adam did not seem to notice the blade in front of him, and he continued, “Hear, Your Majesty! In the days when you are lost and seeking information for the next place to go, seek only after your heart. Hear, oh sorcerer! In the days when you are lost and seeking information for the next place to go, seek only after your heart. And hear, Brother Prothal! In the days when you are lost and seeking information for the next place to go, seek only after your heart!”

He seemed to have forgotten that Prothal was not around to hear what he said. But he shouted so loudly that Prothal must have heard him from the kitchen, for his granddaughter ran out, crying and saying to him, “Grandpa, please stop, you are embarrassing all of us! The boys at the market are teasing me everyday. Do you have to embarrass us in front of important guests as well? And you know Brother Prothal is here!”

As if on cue, Prothal came in with a plate of hot food, smiling and saying, “It is alright, girl. We know how he is like. Don’t think too much about it.” He set the food down on the table. Hannibal had always been amazed at how he could turn out something more edible from the standard army rations given. He would have to get him to teach his cooks something.

The old man’s excited rambling seemed to have stopped, for he settled down amidst a fit of coughing, which Gina had to help to relieve. For a while, the only sound that seemed to move about the house was the sound of his heavy, chesty cough. Taking a drink to relieve his cough, he continued, this time more soberly.

“I must say all that I need to say, little girl. I have seen the Eternal One himself, a being of pure light, and he told me that my time to be in the bosom of the Nameless One will be soon, but I shall have the pleasure of talking to the king before I go…”

Prothal gave a smile and put his hand on the old man’s, “Now that is a vision I can be sure is wrong, Adam. The Book of Records left by Brother Joseph told us that no man could see the Eternal One and still live. You are still alive, so obviously the one you saw was not the One-Who-Has-No-Name. Now, let us eat of spiced mutton, and all the good things we thank the Eternal One for!”

Adam smiled as he turned to Hannibal, saying, “You do believe me, don’t you, Your Majesty? Everybody says Adam is mad, but Adam is not mad, no?” Ky’Thand could not help but remember an old Frelandian saying – He who is mad never thinks himself mad, He who is wise never calls himself wise.

As Adam questioned Hannibal’s belief, Hannibal stated with all the grace and etiquette he could muster, “What you say is very hard to believe though some of what you say does ring true. Where to the south should we look to verify your story? We only have a short time to try to avert the destruction of our homeland.”

“Yes, to the south, yes!” The old man began his excited ramble again and started to cough madly, probably choking on his own saliva. His breathing became laboured as he gasped for breath. His granddaughter quickly patted his back, trying to calm him down, and Prothal quickly got a cup of hot water from the kitchen.

The old man sipped from the hot water as he began to calm down. Prothal and Gina looked worried – his face looked almost blue from the laboured breathing. Gina looked at Hannibal and Ky’Thand, then back at her grandfather, before saying, “You should get some rest, grandpa. Stop talking and get something to eat, please.”

Amidst laboured breathing, Adam said, “Nay, Adam is not hungry…he needs to say some…” And the coughing fits came again, needing more hot water to relieve. This time Prothal looked really worried. His gaze fell upon Ky’Thand, then upon Hannibal, and he said, “Uh…Your Majesty, perhaps brother Adam needs some rest, uh…his granddaughter can attend to you, right? Uh…after all she also represents the family…” He gave a few desperate winks to both of his friends.

Hannibal looked with a worried expression at Adam. The old man was nearly killing himself to tell him and his companions something. While it seemed that the man would attempt to speak more, Hannibal wondered if the speaking would not be too much for his heart.

In his mind Hannibal weighed his decision. On one side of the scale was Adam’s life, the other the possible salvation of Frelandia. Did the old man know anything more that would warrant the risk? If there were any truth to what Adam said, did Hannibal want to begin his quest killing an innocent man for information?

Taking a deep breath, Hannibal addressed Adam, “Friend, rest now. I need you to sleep and in the morning let me know anything else that you man see. Your granddaughter can see to the rest of our meal that you have generously shared. We shall heed your words.”

Gina nodded and, together with Prothal, guided the still coughing and protesting Adam into his bedroom, Prothal all the while admonishing him to take care of his body – or how would he be able to see more visions from the Eternal One? The old man seemed to take that well, and soon disappeared into his bedroom.

After Adam had retired for the night, Hannibal turned to his friends. “We must see what these trappers can show us in the early morning light. Gina, care for your grandfather and if he has any other information for us; you can find us at Smasher’s Inn at first light.”

Gina nodded as the four settled down again to the dinner table. The food was good, characteristic of Prothal’s cooking. Gina tried to talk to Prothal about the faith once or twice, and Prothal obliged with a short explanation of the right way of living for someone of the faith. Apparently, Gina had not converted, unlike her grandfather, but it was obvious her interest was being kindled. Though Hannibal could not help but notice that Gina seemed to be gazing more at Prothal than listening to him.

After dinner, Hannibal prepared to leave Adam’s hovel with his friends. He seemed lost in thought as to what could possibly be south. Once outside the land cleared by the town, there was nothing but deep forest. Fortunately, his expedition kit and supplies should be there in the morning and he could depart with Hamish loaded down as a packhorse. Even with his skill he did not want to be riding in uncharted forest for long. Shaking his head one last time he turned to his friends, “I will see you at Smasher’s first thing in the morning. I am planning on being gone from civilisation,” this he said with a smile as he looked around the small town of Nomad’s Crossing, “for quite a while.”

Prothal smiled and patted both the shoulders of Hannibal and Ky’Thand. He spoke up, “Hey, Hannibal – what do you mean, ‘I’? We should change it to say ‘We are planning on being gone from civilisation for quite a while’! After all, we have all fought together for so long, you wouldn’t think we would just let you have all the adventure and glory to yourself? Hey, leave some for us, huh?” He gave a friendly punch to Hannibal, and was about to give one to Ky’Thand but stopped short seeing the brooding mage.

The evening was too weird even for Ky’Thand’s tastes. A king found, a babbling old man, dark forces they could not deal with, a threat of using old skills leading to darkness, and the gall of the babbling fool to tell him he had to follow the path of mana. Sooner they were in the forest hunting down the orcs the better, the sooner the mageling orc was removed from the overall equation the better, was Ky’Thand’s only thought.

Hannibal and Prothal could only guess at what Ky’Thand could have been thinking. Even after being friends for years, there were still many things he kept in his heart, and would not tell his friends about. Sometimes it really made Hannibal worried. But he knew better than to say anything right then. Best to let him sort out his own thoughts.

Hannibal chuckled as Prothal interjected that the three would be going together. “Of course my friend. It is just that heading off into the wilderness seems more like something one your priests might do, not a military man. Well, being a king would be…intriguing I guess, but not at the price of Frelandia! I will meet you in the morning.”

Each of them went to their rooms with different thoughts, and each tried to sleep. Ky’Thand tossed and turned, but could not sleep. He finally got up and walked out of his room.

Hannibal, too, was having a hard time sleeping. He continued to mull over the words of Adam, Prothal’s prophecy, and the battle. Hannibal shook his head and went to his writing desk.

“Lt. Taro,” Hannibal wrote to his long time commander and friend, “If you are reading this then you are about to face an overwhelming foe. Fight with honour and bravery, but preserve your men for the retribution on your foe that will surely follow.

“If your orders do not conflict consider the following as my orders to you. First, preserve your force and harass the enemy at every opportunity on his flanks and to his rear. Slow his progress to the south. Second, recruit men from where ever you can find them. Train them as well as possible to swell your ranks. Third, I believe a new leader will arise, go to his call.

“I hesitate to write even this, but I believe with all my soul that my commanders must know anything that will help them ultimately win and survive with honour.

“Major Hannibal”

Shaking his bald head as he read the letter on more time, Hannibal nearly threw it into the fire, but instead sealed it with wax and his military seal writing on the outside, “Lt. Taro – open before your next major battle.”

Hannibal then took a standard order parchment from the pile in his room, writing to Xavier.

“Report at dawn to Smasher’s Inn for new orders. Be prepared to travel through the woods and bring the supplies necessary to loot a ruin. This will be a small party so the shares in what we find should be rewarding.

“PS: I hope to find that orc who made fools of us all the previous night.

“Hannibal.”

Hannibal chuckled as he read this note to his friend Xavier. It would not be past the thief to ignore the summons, but at the chance to loot a ruin, he would show up. Maybe not at dawn, but close enough!

Hannibal folded the message and simply scrawled an “H” on the outside. Looking into the hall he hailed one of the guards on duty. “Soldier,” Hannibal called reading his rank as second nature, “Please deliver this,” Hannibal handed him the sealed letter, and continued, “to Lt. Taro. Then take this,” he handed the folded note over, “to Xavier. He is probably in some dive so after you deliver both messages consider your self off duty for the rest of the watch.”

Hannibal grinned as the common soldier hurried to finish the task, and headed back into his quarters to get what sleep he could.

Chapter 13: Into the Forests

 

Walking past the supply hut Ky’Thand requisitioned a short bow and two quivers from the quartermaster. Some insurance was what Ky’Thand needed, like sleep venom or similar. Shame this town was so small, but who would know what a trip to the local herbalist would yield? With that in mind, he decided to go over to the local herbalist. At that hour, obviously the store was closed, but Ky’Thand could see light streaming from the windows upstairs, indicating the presence of the residents.

Many persistent knockings brought the herbalist to the door. He quickly opened up the door and invited Ky’Thand in, saying, “Sir, it is late and I am closed…”

“Good herbalist, I am about to ask for a couple of items which you may frown upon or even refuse to have, but for the interests in the crown and what I need to do in the days to come I hope you will be able to provide me.” Ky’Thand interrupted him.

“I need a sleep drug which can be added to ale, wine or water, with little aftertaste if possible. A sleep drug or agent that could be applied to an arrow head, either that or a quick-acting poison. Before you get upset, tomorrow I will be going against a superior force of darkness with but two close friends, I wish to have some surprises that will allow us to complete our necessary task. These couple of requests I have made may just keep my companion and myself alive long enough that we can complete our task.”

Ky’Thand wished to gather as much as he could. Thoughts of tainting the orcs’ water or wine supply was foremost on his mind.

The herbalist blinked a little when he heard what Ky’Thand said. He scratched his head a little, looking first at the bandages that characterised his customer right then, and answered, “Well, sir…I am just a humble herbalist here…I do have a herb that can induce sleeping, but it would have to be boiled in water and taken hot. We call it the Sleep Herb, and the locals use it for insomnia, sir. The onset time is about 15 minutes after consumption. I am afraid I don’t really have anything faster or more subtle.”

He stroked his chin and continued, “Yours is a most unusual request, sir – it is not that I have no knowledge of such drugs. I know of some rare herbs that can be used to induce sleep from an injection, but these are very, very rare. I heard that only those who comes into contact with fairies or the elves has such things. I myself would love to see one of these herbs my father have told me about!”

He looked at Ky’Thand again, “So…er…would you want some Sleep Herb, sir? A sprig boiled in a bowl of water is enough to induce sleep in one person for 8 hours, and they only cost 8 silver, sir.” Herbs were expensive indeed. At 8 silver, only the middle-class and above could afford it regularly, and not many of them were about in Nomad’s Crossing.

Ky’Thand smiled and said as an idea hit him, “So this herb could be added to a stew for instance to get the effect? Master herbalist, I would like as much of your stock as possible bar one or two sprigs for locals, ideally 20 sprigs would be excellent.”

Pulling his coin purse out, he asked, “You wouldn’t have any bandages which have been treated with herbs to speed healing as well would you?”

The herbalist scratched his head again, and replied, “Well…I guess you could possibly try adding it to a stew for the effect, though the stew would taste of herbs! As for the number, let me check…”

The herbalist turned from behind the counter to look at the vast wall cabinet he had installed onto one wall of the shop. Stretching across three support pillars, it was a wooden cabinet with drawers upon drawers, from the bottom all the way to the top. Taking a ladder and climbing up two rungs, he reached out to one of the drawers at the other end and pulled it out. And began counting and muttering to himself, probably doing some mental calculations.

He smiled and looked back at Ky’Thand, saying, “If I keep two sprigs for any other customers that might come in, I should still be able to spare about eight for you. Looks like I would need to hunt around the forests for the herbs soon! And since you asked about medical bandages…”

He climbed down the ladder and squatted down to open one of the bottom drawers. Pulling out what seemed like a foul smelling paste, he grinned and said, “Leeches’ Suckers is one herb that smells horrible, but it would help your wound heal faster, if you do not exert yourself too much! Make sure you get plenty of rest, and don’t let your wounds open again!”

Taking some bandages as well, he began clicking off on his abacus. He grinned as he clicked the last notch, and looked up at Ky’Thand. “That would be 64 Silver for the Sleep Herb, and let us say both the bandages and the Leeches’ Suckers go for 2 Silver altogether. That would be 66 Silver, sir – oh, and by the way, I forgot to tell you, I have to put down your name on the register! The Sheriff made it a law for all buyers of herbs to be recorded. I hope you understand, sir.” He began scribbling down Ky’Thand’s name on the register, and pushed it towards him to sign.

Ky’Thand nodded at the herbalist, placing 10 Gold upon the counter. “The rest is your silence, I wish no one bar the sheriff assuming he inquires, is to know of my purchase. Understand, good herbalist, I like to keep all my affairs quiet and to myself. I dislike things made town gossip. I hope I have made myself clear. Mages who are angry tend to be very destructive. If someone does inquire tell them I was purchasing clean bandages for my chest wound. Thank you for your business.”

And with that Ky’Thand left with his small bundle of herbs and bandages, leaving a decidedly more uncomfortable herbalist fingering 10 pieces of Gold. The open book before him remained unsigned.

X X X

It took a little adjustment to sleep at night again. The companions were so used to sleeping in the daytime, that they each tossed and turned, trying to get some sleep. They were all awake, bleary-eyed but prepared mentally to explore the lands south, before dawn had even touched the land.

The cold early morning wind blew and rustled the hair of his two companions but provided a chill to the exposed head of Hannibal. The three walked abreast of each other, the wind blowing their clothes about, making them seemed larger than life. Each was in his own thoughts, but there was a bond between the three of them – an inseparable bond perhaps of fate.

Prothal was dressed for war. The early morning sun shone and reflected its beams off the various curves of the field plate mail armour that he was wearing. A buckler was attached to his left forearm, and wrapped around the same arm was the helm that Prothal had decided not to wear yet. A long-bow and a quiver of arrows hung across a shoulder, and a leather satchel was strapped across his back. Only the surcoat he wore, bearing the insignia of his faith, made him recognisable as a priest, not a warrior.

And then of course, there was his sword. Now that they were next to each other, both Hannibal’s and his weapon pulsed their greetings throughout the journey. Or might it be a challenge, after hearing what the old man had to say the night before?

Hannibal, like Prothal, was dressed for war. Plate mail that had seen recent combat was buffed to a dull sheen that could be seen in the passing torchlight. Hannibal was armoured neck to toe, though he did wear a sturdy pair of walking boots with the hilts of two daggers protruding from the tops of each. A blue military tabard covered his chest and rippled in the cold morning wind.

Grumbling as the wind tried to snatch the green felt beret off his bald head, he looked wistfully at the full helm that rode on the pommel of his loaded pack horse. Shrugging he adjusted the back scabbard for a blade that seemed to pulse evilly in a counterpoint to Prothal’s blade. His gauntleted hands rested easily near a more conventional long-sword at his waist as well as a viscous looking combat dagger that sat between a large and a small pouch.

The packhorse he led was loaded down with the necessities of travel in the wilderness as well as with the rest of Hannibal’s tools of war. An unstrung long bow and medium shield were readily available on the top of the gear Hamish was carrying.

Hannibal smiled fondly at the horse, a much better companion than his first commander by the same name. Fortunately for the horse, Hannibal did not plan on doing much riding in the heavy wood.

Next to Hannibal was Ky’Thand, the enigmatic wizard with a past. Ky’Thand was smaller and less robust than his friends. His hands were smooth, a little soft yet a wiry strength could be seen. He was dressed in a large cloak with a hood, and under this woollen trousers tucked into long leather boots. A loose linen shirt with a doeskin vest finished his attire. Several blades were secreted about him, and a simple long dirk rested in a scabbard on his hip. Upon his right hand rested his short-bow and the quiver of arrows. He definitely did not look like he was a wizard.

The three soon reached the inn. A stable hand took Hamish away and began loading it up with the provisions Hannibal ordered. Taking a seat and ordering breakfast, they waited for the trappers to arrive. Soon they see the forms of the two men in the distance. They were all dressed up in forest greens and each carried an iron-shod staff. As they came closer, Ky’Thand noticed that each of them also had a dagger tucked into his belt. They smiled at the three friends as they entered the inn and joined them for breakfast.

Ky’Thand’s blue eyes were focused and rarely wandered the room – they currently seemed more intent on the breakfast in front of him. On the floor behind him rested a light pack, a short-bow and 2 quivers. Finishing his bowl of porridge, the bowl was pushed away. “The sooner we start, Hannibal, the better,” was all he said.

Hannibal saw Valena first, from a distance. She seemed to be somewhat hurried, as if bearing important news. Hannibal remembered this little girl, still in her teens, whom the townsfolk referred fondly to as the ‘Protector of Travellers’. Nobody knew where she could be at any one moment, for she came and went as she wished, moving among the forests like one of the creatures of the forest. With their duties seldom crossing paths (the companions were normally at the watchtowers), it was rare indeed for them to meet.

X X X

Valena must have been out of the town for months. No, perhaps not that long, but it was definitely many weeks. She had hurried to the watchtower, the headquarters of the local border guards, only to see it an area of tenseness and heightened security. What she had seen astounded her – bodies upon bodies of dead orcs, horses and soldiers. The troops there were not willing to tell her what had happened, but it did not take a very intelligent mind to guess there was a battle there.

Lieutenant Stonewall was kind enough to tell her that Hannibal and his friends had led a detachment of troops to Nomad’s Crossing to intercept a group of orcs that had disappeared into the forests. Beyond that, there was little information, the officer citing military security as the reason. But the location of Hannibal was the most important – he had to know what she had seen just one mile south-west of the village of Jameson Vineyard!

She had actually intended to go to the Sheriff’s office, after hearing from the guards at the gates that the three friends had been there. The soldier at the guard post of the Sheriff’s office had politely told her that they had left before dark, and nobody knew where they could be heading. It was perhaps the grace of the Eternal One that she had decided to at least stop over at the Woodsbridge Inn for some food. For there, before her eyes, were the three friends.

X X X

The sound of somebody walking down the stairs drew the attention of the three friends. The friends saw that it was the Eyondan they had tried to speak to the day before. Hannibal tried to nod a friendly greeting but he was ignored again. Respecting his need for solitude, Hannibal turned his attention back to Valena. The Eyondan moved over to Smasher, and the companions heard his voice for the first time. “Innkeeper, give me the breakfast of the day.”

It was a voice of one used to giving and taking orders. Without gazing even to look at the five men eating at the table (the only other patrons in the inn), he sat down at the very same table he sat the day before, his back towards a wall. He laid down his weapon on the table, by his side. One of the waiters hurried to serve him tea. Then his eyes shifted slightly again, as Valena entered the inn.

Upon looking at her, one would get the feeling that she enjoyed staying outside much more than being inside. Wisps of golden brown hair fell loosely against her cloak and tunic, and her eyes, vivid blue, looked cautiously about her, surveying the slightest detail. She wore clothes that were all brown – a light but well-tended travelling cloak, a brown tunic and leather breeches, a light brown-dyed silk shirt and calf-length leather travelling boots, tied just below the knee.

She was also armed, with a beautifully crafted long-sword on her left hip and a well-worn short sword on her right hip. A beautifully crafted composite short bow adorned her shoulder, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice. She used a handmade leather satchel made of deer hide to carry her other belongings in.

She gave a quick scan of the room, her eyes darting to everyone that she recognised, before looking slowly at the foreigner sitting alone at a table. She would keep in her mind his mannerisms, and would watch him closely.

When Ky’Thand saw Valena enter the inn, he immediately knew they would be delayed. “Hannibal, make this coming discussion fast, we need to be on our way.”

Ky’Thand turned away and opened his pack, removing an empty wineskin. “Innkeeper, could you fill this with a decent red?” he said, and with a gentle throw the wineskin landed in the innkeeper’s arms. Ky’Thand winked and turned back to see what Valena wanted.

Valena’s attention was drawn to the emerald green eyes that peered out of a handsome weather-beaten and deeply tanned face. Valena’s teacher used to tell her that this type of eyes was ‘the bane of all women’. While those eyes had teased her in the past, she knew that Hannibal’s true love was the desert witch Yolanda. Indeed, while many women of beauty had entered these eyes, none had managed to penetrate his heart.

Valena walked across the large room, and stood next to Prothal, Major Hannibal, Ky’Thand, and the two woodsmen that were with them. She looked to Hannibal as he offered her a chair to sit. “Please join us, Valena of the forests,” he said. Valena accepted his offer, and sat next to the friends she had not seen for over 3 weeks.

She began, her voice sounding a bit winded, “I’m glad I found you, great warriors. I have urgent news for you, Major Hannibal. There seems to be a large massing of goblins and large wolves south-west of the village of Jameson Vineyard. I’ve had a hard time getting any information from Lieutenant Stonewall, but he did tell me a little of what you had done. I am grateful to all of you, friends. Thank you.”

She placed a hand to her heart, in a tradition taught her by her old teacher, before bringing it out slightly. “I’ve had a few run-ins with orc scouting parties near the border, but nothing of this size. It has me worried.”

Hannibal listened intently to Valena’s tale. It seemed surprising that he did not seem that surprised by the news, more resigned it seemed. “Goblins? And wolves. We’ve heard rumours of an orc conversing with goblins then killing them. These good trappers,” Hannibal nodded to the trappers eating with them, “were just going to show us the sight. Maybe your skills could help determine what happened and where the creatures came from and went. We shall leave as soon as Xavier joins us, or dawn plus thirty at the latest.”

The six finished the rest of the breakfast quietly. They each laid down their piece of Silver for the meal, and got ready to leave the table. The Eyondan was still picking at his food with his two wooden sticks when the stable hand sent Hamish to Hannibal, laden with the supplies he ordered. He paid 30 pieces of Gold in total, the rest being a tip to the stable-hand. The stable-hand’s eyes widened at such a large tip, and he smiled and quickly did a very exaggerated job of grooming the horse. Hannibal smiled – he had used up most of his money, but with the pay coming soon from the capital, it should not be a problem.

They were about to move off when who else but Xavier should appear, a grin on his face as he moved off the side-street, already beginning to be lit by the rays of the morning sun. He looked at Valena, then said laughing to himself, “Hey, come on – you guys aren’t going to leave me out, are you? Please don’t tell me you are trying to keep all the gold to yourself! And what have we here? Hey, beautiful, you’ve forgot to bring your perfume with you, you don’t smell too good now you know!”

Hannibal chuckled and whispered so only the companions nearest could hear, “I didn’t think that thief could resist the chance at gold.” Then in a louder voice, he said, “Well met Xavier, we were just moving out. If you need something to eat see if Smasher can give you something for the road.”

Hannibal shook his head at the teasing of Valena by Xavier. It’s a wonder he ever gets involved with anyone, he thought. Well, when he has gold; at least you know where to find him.

“Come on Xavier, I know you and your scouts envy her woodcraft. But since she is travelling with us, maybe we can all learn something.”

Valena had one or two encounters with this man before. She knew that he was a close friend of Hannibal, and was one of the leaders of the scouting units. They had crossed her paths before many times, and she was careful to ensure they kept to their duties. Still, she had heard much about this man, how he kept company with some pretty unsavoury characters. Sometimes she wondered how a man like Hannibal could have him for a friend. And of course Ky’Thand. People do keep strange company sometimes.

The party moved on, letting the trackers lead them to the site of the encounter. Hannibal was not a woodsman though he could survive. He ducked the larger branches but still left many signs of his passing. The heavily armoured Prothal fared little better. Only Ky’Thand, Valena and Xavier were able to follow the trappers easily, Ky’Thand treading where they trod so to hide some of the traffic upon the trail, slowing down the entire party as they paused to wait for him a few times.

Ky’Thand’s backpack hung loose over a shoulder, the short-bow unstrung touching the loamy soil every second step, currently a walking stick. This forest was unlike the streets of the Capital where Ky’Thand used to run. Instead of two and three storey houses, huge elms and oaks towered overhead hiding the glow of the sun, so it became a diffuse light able to see by but not too good in determining the direction of travel. Walking silently in both places required practice and skill, and over the last six month’s since being transferred to Hannibal’s command Ky’Thand had endeavoured to keep his old skills while honing his new. It had been difficult, but now it was paying off nicely.

A rustle to the left dragged Ky’Thand from his thoughts. Another squirrel. It seems these trappers have a near limitless source, what a nice business arrangement, thought Ky’Thand to himself.

After travelling north-west through the wooded area for two hours, they reached a clearing, and the two trappers stopped. They turned towards the party and one of them said, “Well, here is the place, sirs. We encountered the orc killing the goblin here.”

Hannibal carefully scanned the scene looking for clues as to who came and went where. It was not easy, but he picked up what looked like tracks that ended in a fight. He allowed Valena to come to her own conclusions before asking, “What do you think?”

Valena was busy looking around for clues as to the passage of the orcs and the goblins. Her years of being in the forests hunting for these creatures had made her extremely sensitive to their tracks. She easily spotted the tracks, and came to the same conclusions as Hannibal. But she also noticed that the tracks came from the south, and one of the tracks, presumably that of the victor, headed south after. She could not be sure if they belong to orcs or goblins, but they were definitely from a humanoid host. Her keen senses also picked up some greenish blood trails off to the north. There were signs of dragging, and also some four-footed creatures. Probably scavengers feeding off the vanquished.

Valena returned to her companions. “Hannibal, it appears that you were right about the creatures being here. I found some tracks that indicate the beasts came from the south, had a struggle of some kind, and that whoever won also went south. I found some greenish blood and some four-footed tracks leading away from the scene. The forest has a way of cleaning up the messes made by those that do not belong there.”

Valena looked to Ky’Thand and the unscrupulous Xavier. She still did not trust these two, but was somewhat surprised at their skill in the forest. “It was a good idea to help conceal our tracks, Ky’Thand. You have a way in the forest that is good to see.”

At Valena’s comment about the signs to the north, Hannibal looked to Ky’Thand and Xavier. “You two want to check that out? They probably weren’t carrying much but there may be something that helps. Also, if one of the goblins is alive we may be able to get some answers.”

Xavier shrugged and moved casually towards the bushes, in an almost sauntering manner. Hannibal had known him from young – he had that lassez faire attitude about him, even when he was ‘on the job’ as he called it. Others called it worse names.

Ky’Thand watched Xavier move towards the bushes. He moved parallel silently then encircled the bushes entering perpendicular and to the left side of Xavier. His senses alert, he listened and looked intently to the ground expecting a corpse at least, his long-sword in his hand ready to repel any scavenger he might disturb.

Xavier pushed the bushes aside and looked around for a while. Shaking his head, he turned to Hannibal, saying, “The blood trails go into the underbrush – it would be crazy for me to go after whatever has taken it alone! No way am I going over!” His eyes were all rolled up, and there was an expression of incredulity on his face.

Ky’Thand hissed at Xavier, “Stop whinging like some brothel tart and earn yer keep.” Xavier simply sneered and said, “You go ahead and be the hero then!” Ky’Thand then stepped forward into the underbrush weapons ready, for now he had also drawn a dagger in his off hand. His keen eyes saw what Xavier had seen – the trail of blood which continued into the dense forest grass.

Ky’Thand moved quietly forward, following the blood trail into the underbrush. The trail was not difficult to spot, and it seemed quite fresh. Pushing back the grass which came up to his waist, Ky’Thand continued to follow the trail, hoping it would lead to some clues.

At Xavier’s comment about going farther into the wood, Hannibal looked sourly at him and said, “You are not going that far and you ARE a scout. Ky’Thand is with you and the rest can join you in moments.”

“Yeah, yeah, you are always right as usual…” Xavier shook his head, and rolled his eyes up, but did nothing to step forward to assist the mage checking out the bushes.

Seeing that Xavier would not follow Ky’Thand, anger flared in Hannibal’s eyes. “My friend. If you won’t scout, then stand by me and I’ll look for what dragged off the goblins. Proof of their death may be profitable to us in the future. Come with me, now.”

With that Hannibal crashed into the brush after Ky’Thand. Xavier realised that Hannibal was giving him one last chance and no was not a real option. He shook his head and muttered an oath, and Valena seemed to hear him say, “One of these days my lifeless body will be in his arms if I continue to follow this crazy man…” before he too moved in after Hannibal.

Passing quickly by him, Xavier whispered, “Hey, pal – the jingles from your armour are going to make whatever took our little friend off come to us! Stay back and let the pros do the job, OK?” Muttering another oath seemingly to no one in particular, Xavier moved on ahead of him, catching up with the quick mage in front.

Hearing Xavier follow him, Hannibal slowed down allowing him to easily catch up. At Xavier’s suggestion, Hannibal smiled to himself but still with an edge of anger in his voice replied, “Very well, I will wait at the edge of the wood, call if danger threatens.

Chapter 14: Tracking the Forest Denizens

 

It was difficult pushing through the underbrush, but a short distance of less than fifty yards into the dense forest, and Ky’Thand emerged into a small clearing. Cautiously, Xavier drew his weapon and advanced with Ky’Thand into the clearing.

Whatever had eaten the dead had done it well, even many of the bones were cracked and their marrow sucked out. Pieces of hard boiled leather, obviously former parts of a complete piece of armour, were scattered about the place, as were scraps of clothing. A small humanoid skull was intact, as well as bones too tough to crack, like the femur.

Ky’Thand poked and moved bits and pieces around, looking for identification of the goblin tribe, perhaps on the chest plate of the armour or shield and belt with money purse if present. It took about half an hour of careful searching to gather and check through everything. There were markings on the pieces of leather, and it would have to be assembled together (a painstaking task) to see the full pattern. Especially since it just might be possible the pieces of leather scattered around belonged to more than one set of armour.

Ky’Thand came across only one weapon. It was a mace. Other interesting bits included about eight pieces of copper scattered about, obviously the contents of a nearby ripped pouch. Having seen enough, he moved back through the bushes, bringing the pieces of armour for Valena to identify.

Hannibal waited impatiently for his companions to return from the underbrush. Seeing them come back with torn and bloodied remains, Hannibal shook his head and asked the pair, “Well did you find anything of interest? Any tribal markings still intact?”

“Why don’t you ask our hero over there? I was too busy ensuring he was safe to notice anything else! He seems to have an obsession with dead bodies though.” Xavier shrugged, replying in his usual nonchalant way. Ky’Thand had been with him long enough to know his nature. Sometimes he wondered if that was how he survived for so long. But then again, the rate at which he offended people made him wonder too how he survived for that long. But Hannibal needed an answer.

“Scavengers had worked the body over quite well, the pieces of armour, a mace and some copper were the only things of note. I was hoping to get Valena to identify the goblin clan who had been at the meeting with the orc.” Ky’Thand replied.

Hannibal nodded and asked, “Shall I stow the remains on Hamish? I can’t see much reason that we should be burdened carrying it. However, we may be able to talk our way out of a fight if we can let the goblins know what happened.”

Valena looked at her friends, a dark, angry look in her eyes. “So long as these creatures threaten our towns and our livelihood, there will be no negotiations. I have a feeling that there is more to this than what we see. Call it a guess, if you will. Still, let me look at those markings…”

Valena turned to Ky’Thand, and looked closely at the items that he brought from his search. The markings were not clear but the paint was typical of the tribal creatures living in the forests. It was obvious that the markings were meant to signify something, but she could not be sure. Besides tribal markings, she was aware that some markings denote rank as well, like their human counterparts.

Hannibal took the meagre finds and stowed them on Hamish. The light war-horse whiffed at the additional weight but was used to being treated as a packhorse. “I don’t know if we will be able to negotiate but we may save more homesteads turning the goblins against their allies than wiping them out ourselves.” Hannibal answered Valena’s obvious hatred of the humanoid races.

Valena turned to Hannibal, a more sombre look crossing her features. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so brash about the humanoids. My old teacher and mentor taught that all life is precious, whether it be human, or humanoid. But,” Valena looked again to the forest across the road, where a goblin patrol was possibly hiding in ambush, “he also asked that I protect Nomad’s Crossing from the threats that may come. Vespin had said that there was ‘an Evil wind’ sweeping across the lands, and I intend on discovering what that is.”

Looking carefully at Valena, Hannibal seemed to start at her words. “An evil wind. Prothal has been having dreams and Brother Adam was having visions of the same type of thing. What direction was this wind coming from?”

“He never got the chance to tell me,” Valena responded, “He only said that it was going to be a bleak time for mankind. I got the impression that the ‘Evil Wind’ would be converging from all fronts, land, sea, water, and sky. I don’t know how we can prepare for something like this.”

The two trappers now looked really nervous. Each time a bird called, they would jump and clutch their daggers. One of them finally plucked up the courage to move over and say softly to Ky’Thand, “Uh…sir…we have already brought you here. We have some urgent business to attend to, and uh…perhaps you can pay us now?” The trapper looked at him sheepishly. Xavier grinned and winked at Ky’Thand – he had obviously overheard what was said.

Valena looked at Xavier, and his smug, wry grin. She turned her head in obvious disgust.

Ky’Thand smiled, signalling to the two trappers to follow him back a bit so their talk would not disturb Valena and Hannibal. He produced ten coins of gold each for the trappers, casually biting the edge on one to prove it was true gold.

“Your service was well done. I also wish to give you a piece of advice for the coming days. Tell no one, for if this gets out your lives will be worth little. I ask you to take yourselves and any close ones with some provisions and find a good hiding place in the few days to come. A great force is coming which we will hopefully weaken. I tell you this because when we emerge we will need stout folk like yourselves to help us.”

Ky’Thand looked at each of them, and said, “Swear to me you will heed my words and tell no one.”

Hannibal noted the nervousness of the two trappers but held his tongue. While Ky’Thand was speaking with them he scanned the trees and forest attempting to see what was making them so nervous. Hannibal was well able to command a battlefield but realised that he was not an expert in the woods.

“Valena,” Hannibal asked in a quiet voice, so he would not make the trappers more nervous than they were already, “I can’t believe that woodsmen like the trappers would be so nervous out here. Do you sense anything out of the ordinary? We saw plenty of game so there can’t be too much out of the ordinary. However, be careful as you track south. We don’t want to run into an ambush.”

“I haven’t sensed anything out of place here. But,” Valena looked at the two woodsmen, and noted their every glance and twitch, “these two do seem a bit nervous out here.” Valena glanced at Hannibal, but never let her eyes from the two woodsmen, and continued, “I think that they know more than they’re letting on. I don’t think we should allow them to leave just yet.”

Valena did not allow her eye to stray from the two woodsmen. Her gut instinct was screaming – do not trust them! “I don’t think it was by chance that these two knew where this killing site was. Why would they seek to contact you, if there was not something to gain from it? A little coin will cause a man to do many things, and a lot of coin will have him commit treachery. In my opinion, they need to be kept with us, until we have located the encampment and assessed the situation.”

The two trappers nodded their heads eagerly, accepting the money Ky’Thand gave them while looking around them as if the area spooked them. The bolder one said in a hushed tone, “Of course, of course, we will heed your advice sir…uh…we have to go now sir…”

“Excellent, now safe travels good trappers may your hunting days be plentiful and your years many.” Ky’Thand watched them leave then returned to Valena and Hannibal. “So which way did the orcish mageling go?”

Hannibal pointed South in answer to his question. “It seems hard facts and prophecy are still converging. Let’s hope we can thwart the larger parts of it.”

Absently patting Hamish’ head he answered Ky’Thand. “Our foe travels south. It is odd, but he heads for the same area where Valena saw the goblins massing? They would not take kindly to an orc killing one of the tribe, especially in cold blood.”

“We shall have to pursue. I suggest we go slowly with Prothal and myself bringing up the rear.” Hannibal smiled as he continued, “Neither of us are going to sneak up on a camp, so we can stay far enough back to give you three a chance too.”

Hannibal then took Hamish’s halter and prepared to follow the scouts south into the unknown. As they prepared to leave, Hannibal slipped his light gem into his money pouch, which was nearly empty anyway and made sure his pack was where he could quickly retrieve it from Hamish.

“Yes, our warriors should stay a good distance from us. I also feel it important that Ky’Thand continue to cover our tracks as we pass. Xavier and I will scout ahead and signal with a bird whistle like this,” Valena made the sound of a woodpecker pecking, before continuing, “This will be your signal to stop, draw weapons, and approach slowly. Either Xavier or myself will come back to report what is ahead. That is…” Valena turned to Xavier, “if there are no objections?”

Ky’Thand thought, The gall, a bloody mage and I get to cover the tracks as we pass. I doubt anything would be dumb enough to follow us considering the amount of steel some of our party carries.

Xavier shrugged his shoulders and winked at Valena, “Hey, if beautiful is here with her mighty sword with me, why should I object? Ah, maybe you should take off that armour of yours – it hides your beautiful figure, eh? Not to mention it make a whole lot of noise!” He chuckled to himself and made a motion with his hands, for Valena to move before him. He just loved to be irritating.

Valena just thought to herself. How can Hannibal and Prothal suffer such company? He may have a strange sort of wit, but it would not get very far with her, except perhaps in angering her. Still… Xavier did have some degree of skill in the wood, though she thought his ears were probably playing tricks on him.

She moved well ahead of the small group, quickly and silently, about a hundred yards. Not a single jingle in her armour, or a misplaced creaking of leather, nor even footfalls were heard! The only sound heard was the wisp of her cloak as she passed by Xavier.

Hannibal, being used to following his scouts in battle, but ever anxious to meet the first blows of combat, kept one hand on his sword and the other on Hamish’s lead line as he followed about a hundred yards behind the two scouts. He stayed to the centre of what little trail the two broke for him and Prothal. Many a times, he would lose track of Valena and the scouts in amidst the thick forest, but they would always slow down for him to catch up. It was a good thing they did not get lost.

Valena’s keen senses allowed her to trace the route the two creatures had taken to the area. She noticed that the first creature had also backtracked using the same route. The tracking was easy as the trampled grass left obvious signs, but moving about proved not easy, and the party had to slow down many a times for her to check and be sure that they were following the correct path.

Xavier was very careful as he moved with her. His weapon was not drawn, to prevent the unwanted glint of the sun, but his hand was upon it, ready to be moved into action at a moment’s notice. It was obvious that Xavier, while a good scout, was most definitely not a woodsman.

The faint trampled grass stopped as Valena hit the road. She motioned with her hand to Xavier to halt just before reaching the road. “Let me look alongside the road before we cross it. Tell the others to wait behind you, about twenty-five yards from the road, so as not to attract attention.”

Valena looked up and down the road before proceeding to continue the search for tracks. As the blazing sun began to move near to mid-day, Valena had the chance to look about in better lighting conditions. Just off a little in the distance, less than two hundred yards to the west, was the village of Jameson Vineyard. She found it hard to believe an orc and a goblin could come to such proximity of a village and still not be spotted, but mayhaps they had moved quickly, possibly under the cover of darkness. The clearing where she had suspected a goblin patrol could be about was very near here, approximately just two hundred yards into the forest south.

She could hear her friends approach through the forest, and while she could not see Xavier motion for them to stop, the lack of the sounds of motion should mean that he had done so. Now, Valena thought to herself, came the difficult part. The trail along the road and forest edge was criss-crossed with multiple prints, and it would not be easy to spot the prints on the compacted sand. She knew she would have to attempt to track the creatures again using their prints instead of trampled grass.

After a few minutes, Valena returned to her friends. “There are many different prints along the road and forest edge, and it will take some time to find the ones we seek. Also, there is a small village some two hundred yards of here, to the west.”

Concern crossed Hannibal’s brow as he saw how close to those he was supposed to protect these goblins came. Granted two or three of the creatures would pose little threat to the village, but they could scout for a larger force!

Valena looked to each companion in turn, and a saddened look crossed her lovely eyes. “I am worried that orcs and goblins can pass so closely to a village without being noticed. They must have crossed the road during the eve. I think we should investigate the village before proceeding. Mayhaps someone there has noticed things out of place.”

Ky’Thand moved nearer to the edge of the forest and looked down the road. He turned to his good friend and asked, “So Hannibal, do yer want me to go have a talk with the locals?”

“Leave them be. They are either already dead or safe until tonight. In either case, we can be more use finding that patrol and our quarry.”

It was a cold answer, but one that made military sense. Hannibal was betting that his foe would not try to force the goblins to raid in the day when the light would cause discomfort. Also, two hundred yards should not take that long to check. The group could sweep back to the east if nothing else presented itself.

Hannibal looked to the ranger and asked, “How far are we from the place where you saw the goblins massing? I don’t want to leave the village undefended, however we should proceed if we can strike before night.”

Valena looked at the strong warrior, noting the concern in his eyes. “We’re not far. It’s only about another two hundred yards or so, in the forest to the south.”

Hannibal shuddered at her answer. “Jameson doesn’t have the men to repel a goblin force, let alone a war party with wolves. They shouldn’t attack until night. Let’s see if we can strike at the patrol during the day. We can spend the night in the vineyard if we must.”

“We could easily strike before nightfall,” Valena assured the warrior. “I told an old friend that I would look after these good people, and I will not see them fall to the likes of goblins and orcs!”

Hannibal carefully moved about so as not to obscure any tracks. However he did move to the south side of the road, attempting to determine where the orc might have re-entered the woods, using his tracking skills to find out.

The packed dirt made it really difficult to trace the path the orc took. There were simply too many crossings all over the place, disturbing the barely visible tracks on the floor. He searched carefully, looking for what might be gave him some clues, but there was none for him to find. Perhaps his skill just was not good enough.

Hannibal looked to Valena, “If you can not find the trail of this orc, we should look over the location of this goblin patrol. We should be able to track a whole force much easier than one orc. Obviously the orc wants something from the goblins, we just have to figure out what.”

Hannibal choice was action obviously. If the orc-mage could not be followed then, Hannibal was prepared to deal with the goblins in his area of operation.

“Ky’Thand,” Hannibal called to his friend, “If we meet the goblins in battle, do you have any magic that will allow us to capture them? I would like to question them, willing or otherwise, about that orc.”

Making sure his sword was loose in his scabbard, Hannibal prepared to follow the scouts into the wood in pursuit. Hannibal harkened back to the words of Adam. What he sought was south and to do what his heart told him to do. Well going after the goblins was ‘south’ and protecting the people was what kept him in Frelandia and not with his wife in the northern desert.

Ky’Thand laughed, “Of course, I can stun then into unconsciousness, or web them in a bundle of sticky strands. The question I have is, Hannibal can you speak goblin?” Ky’Thand strung his bow, ready for uses soon on goblins.

Valena moved next to Hannibal, Prothal and Ky’Thand. “I will not slay these creatures unless need be, but Ky’Thand does has a point. Do we know anyone that can translate goblin? Or,” Valena looked at Ky’Thand, “perhaps knowledge of a magical spell that will enable one to comprehend their language? Vespin had a way of understanding the animals, birds and wildlife, but he never did communicate with any humanoids that I am aware of.”

Ky’Thand shook his head, “Such a spell I haven’t had a chance to study, maybe one day soon.”

“Hopefully at least some may speak a pidgin of common and goblin, or the trader tongue,” Hannibal replied, “While I would be loathe to kill them in cold blood, sending them back to the village where they would be hanged would be just as bad. The threat of a town may loosen some tongues.”

“I hope that this is the case. Let’s get going.” Valena pulled her composite bow from her shoulder, absently checking the weapon for any nicks and scrapes. She would make sure that it was ready to be used if needed, before she proceeded into the forest to the south. “I will take a look ahead with Xavier. We have a few hours before sunset, so I suggest we check this out before it starts to turn to dusk.”

Ky’Thand asked, “If we know where the goblin camp is we should attack it in daylight, so we can see and not at night time like our last fiasco.”

“Yes my friend, this time we shall attack with the light,” Hannibal smiled at Ky’Thand’s concern. “Depending on what we learn, we may need to spend the night at Jameson’s Vineyard.”

“I suggest that we have Prothal and Hannibal act as the ‘Anvil of an attack’. Valena, Xavier and I will move around and past the goblin camp,” Ky’Thand continued, “Then with bow fire from three different locations we herd the goblins toward the Anvil- Hannibal and Prothal.”

Hannibal listened to Ky’Thand’s plan then shook his head. “It may work. However, we don’t know how many goblins there are. If wolves are with them, they may decide to rush the arrows instead of taking them in the back. We may want to set an ambush. One or two of you move ahead and fire some arrows while I prepare an ambush. I can camouflage our group to give us the element of surprise. Also this keeps our group together, not split up!”

Hannibal thought back to other fights with the goblins, “Prothal and I will engage, Xavier and Ky’Thand will make sure no stragglers escape, and Valena can act as bait then join the fray where she is needed most.”

Valena patted her short bow lovingly. “The element of surprise is best. However, we still need to determine their size and strength. And sending bow fire from 3 angles would panic them, and give us a window of opportunity.”

She turned to Xavier. “We can circle around the encampment until we meet up again, then let loose a volley of arrows. That should get their attention, and draw them to us. If Ky’Thand,” Valena looked to the mage, “has something in his lore that could be useful, he could aid when we pass by him. Then,” Valena continued, a fiery look in her eyes, “Xavier and I can circle back around, and hit them from behind as Prothal and Hannibal charge in to the fray. If they have a spell-caster among them, it could become a much different situation, however.”

Ky’Thand smiled like that of a predator when his spell list was inquired about. “I have in my repertoire Colour Spray, Web and Flaming Sphere, all useful spells for this type of ambush. If they have an enemy spell-caster, a flight of arrows or a “webbing” will keep him occupied.”

Hannibal listened to the group discuss the planned ambush. He nodded and said, “It sounds reasonable. Get Prothal and I as close as possible and we will hide as you try to drive them to us, if you feel your arrows will do the trick. However, give us a signal to advance if they should instead turn to engage you!”

With the sun blazing overhead, the party set off towards the campsite. There was no path to the campsite – the party had to move as silently as they could through the grass that grew up to the thighs. Trees were also packed closely together, making travel difficult. Truly this was the home terrain of the forest denizens.

Hannibal himself had fought many of these patrols in the past. It was always them choosing the opportune moments to strike. No military commander was able to successfully lead a punitive expedition against them in the thick forests. But the superior training of the Frelandian soldiers had always stood them in great stead during the frequent clashes along the roads, when the bolder forest denizens had attacked.

Indeed, sometimes Hannibal wondered if Frelandia would have become so prosperous if the frequent and well-trained patrols were not about the roads and the Freeway. Even then, travelling was a risky business, for the Crown could not muster the men to be everywhere at once.

Only twenty yards into the forest and the party knew that the original plan was not going to work. The trees made it impossible for the three in front to move too far ahead of Hannibal and Prothal – at most they could be separated for about five to six yards without risking being lost in the forest. On their part, the three in front realised that the two armoured juggernauts following closely behind them were making a lot of noise and giving away their position.

“This is not going to work,” Xavier grumbled to no one in particular, “We should think of a way for us to be further away from the two iron men. What kind of surprise element could we talk about if they could hear us before we reach them?” He shook his head and muttered another oath.

Both Ky’Thand and Valena knew within their hearts that Xavier was right. In order for them to keep their silence, they would have to be at least twenty yards ahead of the other two. But with visibility as it was, there was no way they could be that far ahead without risking the other two being lost. Especially since Valena suspected that even Ky’Thand and Xavier would not know their way about the forests as easily as she would. Much less those not accustomed to stealth.

Valena had gotten lost in the forests once in the early years of her training. It was a terrifying experience, moving around and never seeming to get out. By the time she had come back to the same spot twice, Kaylen was waiting for her, smiling at her frustration. It was only then that she was taught how to look for signs, and to trace her own steps if necessary, to reduce the chances of being lost in the forests.

Hannibal too, was having his own problems with Hamish. The saddlebags tended to get snagged on the branches, and the mare hissed each time its pack got stuck on something. Obviously the horse was not relishing the idea of moving around in the dense forest, but it plodded on with the encouragement given by its master. Valena and Ky’Thand again heard the sound of a loud ‘crack’ as a branch was broken by the horse. That would make it the second one within the short journey of twenty yards.

Chapter 15: The Goblins at the Clearing

 

Seeing that he and Prothal could not stay close on the others’ heels and allow them the chance at surprise they need, Hannibal called them back to him.

“Well we can’t go on like this. Valena, leave us a trail as you move forward and I should be able to follow it. Between keeping us moving in the same direction and tracking you by the 10-minute old trail you leave, the two of us should be able to follow. Now Hamish here may not like it, but he’ll put up with it. One of you wait where you want us to stop for our ‘ambush’ though it may make more sense fighting into the clearing.”

Nodding in agreement with Hannibal, Valena looked into the woods ahead, to see if she could see any breaks through the brush and trees ahead. It was as dense as when she first left it the last time. It was much easier then, as she was alone in her natural element – the sylvan wilderness. Now she had to contend with warriors more at home on the sands of battle than the trees of the land. But the muscle they provided might just be the thing needed.

“Hamish would have a difficult time even if he was not so burdened with supplies. Look at you and Prothal.” Valena winked at the two of them. “Xavier and I will move ahead of the group, with Ky’Thand following about 10 pace behind. This should let us move forward without making too much noise and attracting unwanted attention, and help give us the element of surprise.”

With that said, Valena unshouldered her bow and moved forward with Xavier next to her, and Ky’Thand a little behind.

“I concur, this is a better plan.” Ky’Thand nodded.

“Xavier, if we do get attacked, we should spread out about 20 paces and give them more than one target to go after. With a little luck, Ky’Thand won’t be noticed, and can give the transgressors a ‘heart-felt welcome’.” She smiled again as she said that, her eyes sparkling in the shade of the trees.

Ky’Thand whispered, “Make it 30 paces, some of my spells arc out a fair way in their effect, particularly the ones designed to stun opponents.”

Xavier, having heard what Valena had said, winked and put an arm about the young girl, saying, “Oh beautiful eyes, when an attack do finally come please come and rescue me, for I won’t be a target. I might though,” Xavier grinned a most charming grin, “if you would ask me politely and maybe give me a kiss or something.”

Hannibal saw that very same glint on Xavier’s eyes again, the same as when he was telling tall tales to the barmaids, and charming the skirts out of everyone of them. Sometimes he wondered why some of these women have to fall for someone like him. He still remembered how he had lost to Xavier over that foolish bet in their youth.

Being unaccustomed to being treated in such a manner, Valena pressed her arms outward to break Xavier’s embrace. Valena spoke in a hushed whisper, “You are an interesting man, Xavier, but not a very bright one. If you refuse to help, then you can leave. No one is forcing you to stay here. And,” Valena had since turned around to face the unscrupulous man, “if you think to put me or my friends in unnecessary danger, let me assure you that if it becomes necessary, you will become a target like these humanoids!”

The fierceness in her eyes and her voice let everyone know how she felt. “Xavier, we can use a good scout right now, not an immature child.” With that said, Valena turned and moved ahead of the group.

Xavier made a face of mock shock and faced Hannibal. He pointed to himself and said with stressed incredulity, “A young girl, barely even into womanhood, calling me an immature child?” He rolled his eyes up and threw his hand up in mock despair. “Hey, these are my friends also, OK?” He seemed to speaking more to himself than to the fast disappearing Valena. Smiling and giving Hannibal a wink, he went on after Valena. It seemed like the challenge from Valena was taken up.

With that Hannibal watched the trio move into the brush and then started ploughing ahead. He hacked the most offensive branches out of the way for Hamish. Valena might not like it, but he would explain to her later. Looking to his side, he saw Prothal. Prothal seemed to have changed much after the last battle, when his men suffered great (though not grave) losses. He seemed to be talking less than usual. But he would leave him to his own. Perhaps he would speak more when he wanted to.

Once again Ky’Thand allowed his body to meld with the surrounds, his shadow joining others and his footfalls becoming lost in the surrounding forest sounds. His ears pricked up listening to the telltale sounds of company, his nose clearly filled with fresh forest smells. Just like the streets and alleys, only difference was that the forest was larger, deeper and nearly endless to the sight.

And his keen ears really did pick up a few sounds. The sounds of Valena’s cloak against the bushes occasionally. And other sounds as Xavier stepped on some grass. They were being pretty careless in their movement. Or perhaps they were not even aware of their carelessness.

Valena had already gone some way off the main party, with Xavier by her side. They moved carefully, concealing the sounds of their passage, using the skills that each had learnt – her from her years in the forest, and Xavier? Who would know? But it was disturbing the way Ky’Thand had completely silenced himself. Who was this man, and what kind of a past did he have? No wizard she knew of had such good skills in the forests. Admittably, she did not know many wizards, but this one was really unusual.

I will have to ask Ky’Thand about his skill in the wood when there is a chance to, Valena thought to herself.

With the attempts by the scouting party to move silently through the already difficult bushes, the progress was slow and laborious. But it was only a short while later that Valena spotted the clumps of bushes she remembered marking the spot where the trees parted and a clearing would emerge. This would be the campsite where she spotted the goblins.

Cursing the forest under his breath he wondered when they would get past this fringe and into more passable terrain. Hannibal wondered again how Valena hoped to use a bow in this mess. He would stick with sword and shield. Of course if the press got much thicker, a pair of daggers would be a more suitable choice of weapons.

Hannibal mentioned to Prothal, “I hope we can engage in that clearing Valena scouted. If we must fight in these trees, we will be forced to rely on thrusting weapons or small ones like daggers.”

Hannibal continued forward. He nodded his head and made sure Hamish’s bit and bridle were secure so he could move him forward as needed. Hannibal was not worried about the horse’s nerve, though he would feel uncomfortable leaving him in the wood while he battled. If he could get closer to the clearing, Hamish could be left there.

Valena approached the clearing. Yes, this is it, Valena thought to herself. She glanced over in Xavier’s direction, and made the sound of a woodpecker pecking, for him and Ky’Thand. She moved behind a bush, and surveyed the clearing before moving in. Her composite short bow rested in her hand, and an arrow was nocked, ready to be loosed if needed.

Carefully, she peeped through the bushes that served as cover for her. The clearing was large, with a diameter of about 50 feet across. Sunlight shone through the breaks in the canopy of trees, and only the outer band of about 10 feet did the trees spread out their branches to provide a shade. Shade which some goblins were conveniently using.

From her position, she could see about six of them, lying at one shaded area of the clearing, across from her. They looked like they were sleeping, and she could discern faint snores from one of them. Goblins never liked daylight. It was interesting that they could stumble across a patrol during the daytime. But there were no signs of the large wolves that she came across the other time.

Hearing the sound of a woodpecker ahead Ky’Thand froze and listened intently for goblin sounds. He could only hear the swish of Valena’s clothes as she stepped closer to something. Drawing a pair of arrows one place in his teeth, Ky’Thand nocked the other and stalked forward to where Valena and Xavier were to see what lay ahead. He could see that Valena was looking intently at something.

Xavier turned to look at Ky’Thand. He crept closer and whispered, “Valena seemed to be on to something. I think I will move back to warn our noise-makers. Don’t do anything right now, OK?” He brushed past Ky’Thand, towards where the unseen Hannibal and Prothal should be, possibly quite a distance away. Just like him to avoid any possible trouble. Ky’Thand nodded, and continued forward towards Valena.

When Ky’Thand got to Valena, he whispered, “When we attack take out the outer goblins first so we may have a few rounds of surprise.” He could not see what Valena had seen, but if he had not guessed wrongly, their target should be within sight.

“There are 6 goblins that I see sleeping in the shade some 50 yards from our position. I don’t see any of the wolves I had seen when I was here before. This doesn’t seem right. I think there may be more of them out there, just not within sight.” Valena looked over to Ky’Thand, noting the way he had approached her position. “You’re pretty skilled in the woods, Ky’Thand. You will have to show me how you move so silently some time.”

Ky’Thand shrugged, whispering, “It is a gift I have naturally along with some long training to hone it. I am sure when we have time I can show you a trick or two. Most of it is mental attitude however.”

Looking to Valena, he whispered, “Well do we take them now or twiddle out fingers?” Moving away to the left about twenty paces, Ky’Thand watched the open grove counting the goblins, listening for their four-footed companions. There were no sounds that he could hear indicating the presence of any other creatures. Eventually he found a good position to fire unimpeded from, a pair of dense shrubs with a gap between for firing. There Ky’Thand waited for the ambush to occur.


Hannibal and Prothal, meanwhile, was trudging along the forest, keenly following the trail that Valena, Xavier and Ky’Thand had left behind. It was not easy to follow, and for a moment Hannibal was glad of his tracking training. He might not be as good as Valena, but his meagre skills would suffice. From behind a tree ahead, the figure of Xavier popped out.

“OK, this is it, we are at the clearing. Now, I would suggest that you too stop moving about and stay here. We are about twenty over yards to the clearing now, and if we are going to be springing any surprises, you two had better not be around rattling your tin cans away. I will give a loud call if you are needed! Hey, you would probably even pick up the sounds of battle if our little girl and crazy wizard decide they could take on the Darklands and survive!”

Hannibal nodded at Xavier’s description of the battleground ahead. It appeared that his companions had not yet been spotted.

Xavier smiled and winked at Hannibal, and said before he turned to leave, “I will be around with them. I may not be a bowsman, but don’t look down on my knives!” He patted at the bandoleer about his chest, possibly holding a dozen knives, and moved on through the forest.

Settling down to wait, Hannibal commented to Prothal, “Too bad we can’t make ourselves silent and get to that clearing. I much rather fight these with a sword instead of my dagger.”

”I think that in such a thick forest we do not have so many advantages. So I agree that at the first sound of battle we should head towards the opening but cautiously. Since we’ve set a trap for them they might have one for us. We should first see how good the other 3 fare with the goblins and then interfere immediately to help them if they have any problems. I think it is good to give a time lag before we attack.

“And we can go real close since the goblins will be surprised in the heat of the battle. While they are trying to find out what is going on, they would not be paying any attention to any noises from the woods. Either they’ll try to find where the arrows come from or they’ll try to escape.”

Hannibal waited realising that from where he was then, there was little chance he would engage the foe. With some reluctance, Hannibal slung his shield over Hamish’s pommel and drew his combat dagger and a throwing dagger to engage when the opportunity presented itself.

“Prothal my friend,” Hannibal began after pausing a while, “We shall move forward with all speed at the first sound of battle. You and I will be hard pressed to do anything in the thick woods as we will be forced to fight with dagger or spear. Swinging a weapon would be problematic at best.”

Hannibal looked over Prothal to see if he was armed with anything that would be effective in the thick woods. From what he could see, he only had his sword and his longbow with him. Both weapons ill suited for fighting in the woods. If only they were in the fields of battle! Their armour and their weapons would have surely made short work of any foes that stumbled across them!

“Also, how would we stop anyone from simply going around the two of us? We must attack at a point they wish to defend, hopefully the clearing. I am loath to test the battle skills of our friends while we wait behind.”

Hannibal looked in the direction the others went. “Is there nothing your god can do to help us approach closer?”


Valena and Ky’Thand heard faint sounds behind them. It was Xavier, and he had returned from warning Hannibal and Prothal. Valena motioned him over. With a cheeky smile on his face, Xavier winked at her and moved over, giving a soft whisper, “Anytime, lovely. Anytime.”

Valena spoke, “Xavier, I’ve seen only 6 goblins and no sign of the wolves I had seen previous in the far reaches of this clearing. They’re about 50 yards distant.” Valena took another look across the clearing, watching if any goblins move, and still whispering, said, “I have a feeling that there may be more of them in the deep woods, just not within sight. What do the two of you suggest? I know that we can take these 6 goblins with ease, but if there are more nearby, we might be caught off-guard. I feel we should move around the clearing, looking for any signs or tracks.”

Ky’Thand suggested, “It is likely there be more further in, but to have them charge across a clearing will make our task easier. I say we shoot to kill the 6 goblins present and see what is provoked. I think it a sounder ploy than being separated when combat comes to us.”

“Agreed. Just be ready to get Hannibal and Prothal if we do get attacked.” Valena pulled out two arrows and set them next to her. She also drew out her long and short swords, and set them next to her. She nocked one arrow back, mimicking Ky’Thand. “Xavier, are you good at throwing those pretty little daggers? Ky’ and I may need your skills if we do get rushed, until we can draw our own weapons.”

Xavier grinned, balancing one of the knives on his hands, remarking cheekily, “Oh…how I wish it is some other pretty little thing in my hands! I won’t throw that away!” He moved quickly away to his own firing point before Valena could shoot back a retort.

Ky’Thand knelt and took a careful bead on the first goblin from behind his screening bush he had made use of. “On the count of three Valena. One, Two Three.”

The arrows flew straight and true. All four pierced into their target with deadly precision, straight into the chest. Both the goblins shot at by Ky’Thand stirred and groaned, while one of Valena’s target lay still on the ground, the other one also stirring. One of the goblins not hit seemed to be waking up in a stupor.

Another four arrows sped on to their targets, fired from their hidden positions. The second arrow from Ky’Thand upon each of his original two targets produced a few convulsions from the creatures before they lay still. Valena’s arrows, meanwhile, had struck one of the creatures a second time, and the goblin that had just woken up straight through the head. Both collapsed.

By now, big pools of smelly greenish blood had started to form. But the last one had sat up straight amidst the killing. Looking at the carnage about it, it uttered a loud grunt of terror and rolled away from its fallen comrades. None of the other five goblins, blood spurting out from the arrows in them, made any motion.

“Damn! I didn’t want them all dead! Ky’, is there something you can do to silence the goblin, or keep it from fleeing before we have to kill it? We need more information…” Valena spoke out to Ky’Thand.

Ky’Thand cursed and said, “Take it out before it summons aid.” Ky’Thand fired again to kill. Valena took aim at the goblin, and let loose another volley of arrows.

The creature was fast, and jumped into the bushes quickly. Ky’Thand’s bowsman instinct told him where to shoot, and an arrow flew into the bushes. The moving bushes probably indicated that he had missed, or else the shot was not debilitating. Valena, on the other hand, was somewhat better. Her skilful shot stopped the movement in the bushes. Valena was quite sure it was a killing shot, but there was nothing she could see from where she was.

Squatting on his haunches Ky’Thand muttered to himself, “Well that certainly didn’t go the way we wished completely.” Turning to Xavier, he said, “Go back to Hannibal and bring him to the edge of the glade here but in cover. Tell him to set up a kill zone in the glade for when the goblins and such come back. I will take Valena forward to further investigate with one of my spells. Now go time is of the essence.”

Xavier shrugged his shoulders and was about to move away when Valena stopped him, to say, “Xavier, tell Hannibal that it might be best to keep his fine steed further back, out of sight of the clearing, but not out of sight of him or Prothal. Goblins are known for ambushing ones such as us, and don’t care about mounts, other than for a good meal!”

Xavier could have, or he might not have heard Ky’Thand, but he definitely made a motion of attention (though somewhat exaggerated, probably deliberate) when Valena spoke. Nodding, he winked to her and blew her a kiss, before moving off into the undergrowth.

Ky’Thand turned to Valena again, as he said, “Valena relax, close your eyes otherwise it can be disorienting to watch your body fade from sight.” Before she could say anything, Ky’Thand had begun to weave a spell upon Valena.

Valena had seen a little magic from her teacher Vespin, and recalled some of his words: “Take heed of magic, for you do not control it, you simply ask it to do what you wish of it.”

She also knew that it was important that they were not spotted going through the foliage, and with a whisper, said, “Let’s do this right.”

Ky’Thand did the same for himself calling upon the forces that his skilful hands and quick mind had taught him – the powers that a woman he loved called upon at one time.

“Now don’t do any offensive action as it dispels the enchantment. Watch your steps as they still give away your presence along with foliage movement and stay away from things that smell well like dogs and wolves. If you get into trouble retreat back to Hannibal’s defensive line. Let’s go have a look ahead.”

Ky’Thand padded off ahead silently, to see what mischief the goblins were up to. Valena, a bit out of her element, tried to listen to where Ky’Thand was headed to, but it was next to impossible. There was not even a rustling of the leaves – so accomplished was he with silent tactical movement.

She then stepped into the clearing, her bow slung on one shoulder, and her short sword in her hand. Hopefully, she would not end up bumping into Ky’Thand, whom she could not see. Valena started scanning the ground before her, looking for any tracks and other signs of creatures passing through the area.

Ky’Thand began searching but stopped as he suddenly remembered something. Damn forgot the communication bit, he thought to himself.

A disembodied voice called out to its invisible listener, “Val use the following to get me or vice versa, all bird calls. Nightjar to return to our ambush point, Cuckoo to get the others to come to them, a Wolf howl if great danger and or discovered. Go it, till then happy hunting, I will stick mainly to the left side of the clearing and the dead goblins, you the right. That way we’ve got less chance of treading on ourselves.”

Valena heard the voice, louder than a whisper, but not loud enough to echo about the woods. But whoever was about the clearing would have heard the voice too. But at least she could guess from Ky’Thand’s voice, where he could be, and avoid having to bump into him.

Tracking a big group of creatures had always been something easy to Valena, and so far she had not met any goblins that attempted to hide their trails. Her eyes spotted the telltale signs of the steps on the forest floor, the broken branches, and the trampled grass. She was quite sure, however, that there were more than just six – there should be about ten of them that came in.

Ky’Thand resumed his stalking forward, stopping briefly at the six goblins to see if they were dead and already starting to stink. He first moved towards the five that were killed in the quick and efficient ambush. They were dead only a while, and while their bodies were not stinking from decay, the stench from their unbathed bodies and their blood did made things unbearable at close range.

Stepping into the forest to look for the final felled goblin, Ky’Thand became careful of the movements of the foliage around him, trying to disturb as little as possible so he would not be detected. Periodically he scanned the trees for lookouts, hoping the goblins were not as well organised as the cursed orcs from a few days before.


” There is quite a long time passed for a battle. What do you think? Should we move on? I don’t know but something might be wrong.” Prothal was getting worried at the fate of his friends.

Hannibal checked his daggers one more time as he vainly scanned the brush around the two warriors. “Well my friend, we can’t go barrelling in where our scouts have failed to report! The gods know I want to be in that clearing, but we must wait till we hear something or they return. If they are approaching stealthily, they may be about to capture some goblins. And we need information.”

Hannibal looked at Prothal’s weapons and reached down to draw a dagger from his boot. “Will your god allow you to use this in combat? Your sword and staff will be little use in this brush.” Hannibal offered Prothal one of his daggers.

Hannibal and Prothal then heard the sounds of stirring among the bushes. It was Xavier, moving back rapidly towards them. It was disconcerting how much visibility was reduced – they could only see glimpses of his figure among the trees only at about five yards distant. He still managed to carry a grin.

“Hannibal – we’ve just jumped a few of these fellows over at a clearing ahead. Ky’Thand and Valena wants to do some investigations of their own,” he shrugged as he said that, and continued, “But we will be stationed just outside the clearing, just in case there are more of them to jump us in return. Oh – and leave the horse here. We don’t want him making unnecessary noise do we? Just tie him up or something.”

He turned and prepared to move off. Looking back, he said with a grin, “Now this must be the easiest job ever – a messenger!”

Hannibal followed Xavier still leading Hamish. “The horse comes too, he won’t make much more noise than the two of us and he may be carrying what we need for later.”

Chapter 16: The Goblin Prisoners

 

Valena tried tracking where the other remaining members of most likely a goblin patrol could have gone. Ky’Thand tried to move into the forests without disturbing the foliage, but it was almost impossible. He was aware that the grasses were parting, and being treaded on as he moved. It did make him wish there were a spell he could weave that would prevent that.

The sounds of clanking metal, together with the whinnying of a horse, alerted him to the movements from the north. Valena heard it too. The cavalry must have arrived.


Hannibal, Prothal and Xavier soon arrived near the clearing. From their vantage point, they could see into the clearing – which would mean that if the position was correct, any within the clearing could see them too.

Everybody heard it together – a rustling of leaves, and sounds of creatures moving. Valena was in the process of tracking one set of the tracks to a tree, and was close enough to see one goblin jump down from one of the lower branches, into the grasses of the forest. But the disturbances were not just from that one tree – she was sure of that. Some more trees were being disturbed at the perimeter of the clearing as well.

Ky’Thand’s sharp hearing also heard the sounds of disturbances. He had reached the corpse of the goblin by then, however – and for a moment he was undecided as to what to do.

Hannibal, Prothal and Xavier were even luckier. They were close enough to actually have one goblin jump down from a tree, and turning to face them. For a moment it looked at them, hesitation and a sense of confusion registering on its face.

Hannibal struck at the goblin descending in front of him with his mailed fist. His wild swing must have smashed the nose of the creature, for it collapsed on the floor immediately. He turned his combat dagger to hit the creature with the pommel of the handle, if it got up again. Hoping he had stunned the creature, Hannibal then stepped over near it and looked around for other creatures descending from the trees.

Xavier, meanwhile, had taken a step or two away from the engagement and was watching intently the trees, and the clearing. He was holding on to Hamish, although the trained war-horse was not one to be easily frightened by a simple fight.

Valena knew that the goblin near her did not know she was there. I’ll take this one alive, she thought to herself.

With familiarity of herself and her belongings, she silently put her short sword away in her scabbard, and drew forth her dagger, tucked into her belt, instead. She quickly scanned the forest to see if she could see any other goblins nearby. She calls forth the sound of a cuckoo, hopefully alerting Ky’Thand to the goblins. By the time she had finished what she did, however, the goblin had taken off into the woods, to the east. It was obviously fleeing, but whether in fear or in wisdom, she could not tell.


Ky’Thand thought, Dammit the bloody goblins are in the trees.

Moving away silently from the dead goblins, about ten feet, he stopped and looked upward to discern exactly where the bulk of the goblin patrol was, and more importantly where its leader was, the larger goblin of the bunch. There seemed to be no more disturbances among the trees. Looking closely, it seemed that two of the largest of the goblins were among those still bleeding from their initial engagement.

Then, Ky’Thand searched with his eyes and ears for any witchdoctor type goblins. There seemed to be none of them, but his eyes spotted a glimpse of a goblin disappearing into the woods, to the Southwest.


Moving to the edge of the clearing, Hannibal sheathed his throwing dagger and took over the leash, leading Hamish into the clearing proper. “Prothal, move into the clearing, you can use your weapons there. Xavier, stay behind Prothal and me. Hopefully they will attack from my side.”

Hannibal could not see the scouts, but he heard the noise of movements within the clearing. Wondering what the scouts were doing, and hoping that they were all right, Hannibal moved to the northern edge of the clearing, while Prothal moved to the southern edge. Xavier dragged the unconscious goblin into the centre of the clearing, and held on to Hamish. We had to wait back in the woods to walk into an ambush! Hannibal though to himself as he prepared for what may come.

”My friend Hannibal I know that you’re eager for battle but don’t you think that if we get to the centre of the clearing, we will be in danger since any missiles can hit us and we’ll probably be surrounded? I think since we don’t know how many the enemy are we should first wait to learn what the scouts have learnt.” Prothal spoke up.

“We should move to the edge of the clearing so that we can run to their help. That’s what’s important. Not to kill but to save. I assure you that there’ll be a lot of fighting to satisfy the thirst of the warrior in you. But we have to be careful since the whole expedition is not about fighting goblins but preventing something worse.” Prothal looked at Hannibal with a sincere look in his eyes.

He moved towards the edge of the clearing looking up to the branches of the trees. ”Xavier, do you think you help us sharing your ears and eyes with us so that we don’t get surprised?” Xavier shrugged, still holding on to the horse. His sharp eyes scanned the forest constantly.

Hannibal looked to Prothal, “Well, in the woods they can sneak up on us from any direction and we can not wield our weapons to advantage. In the clearing they would need to reveal their position to fire on us and would only get one shot. We can use sword and shield.”

“Anyway it looks like they are running.” Hannibal ended with a shrug. He thought to himself that maybe with his group as bait enough goblins would stick around to give Ky’Thand and Valena a chance to capture some.

Hannibal called back to Xavier, “Check the goblin and see if he is alive. It may be the only prisoner we get to interrogate. Prothal and I will try to take whatever goblin comes out of the trees. There is some rope in my backpack to tie up the goblin.”

Xavier grinned and went to check on the goblin he dragged to the clearing, and said, “It looks alright to me. Out cold but all right. I will have to tie him up fast, before he wakes up, though!” He began to tie the creature up with the silken rope he took from Hannibal’s pack on the horse.

Hannibal looked over the clearing. He would have to move about and spend some time checking for the tracks. If he was not wrong, they should lead him to the source, and hopefully, some information on the size of the patrols as well. If the patrols were large, the nearby villages could be in peril.

Watching closely for possibilities of more goblins appearing, Hannibal began moving about the clearing, searching for clues of the goblins. There were indeed many marks of passage, many of which he was unable to decipher, but he persisted. His persistence paid off, and he began to understand a few things.

It looked like more than one patrol had been in the area. Apparently, this was a common resting area for the patrols. The most recent trails were made by a large group of goblins, about nine of them – the number that usually made up a goblin patrol. The tracks looked like they originated from the forests, to the south.

Watching for a second to make sure Xavier was tying up the goblin, and also aware that anything of monetary value was probably gone, Hannibal continued to study the tracks of the goblin’s heading south.


Damn! Valena thought to herself, and hesitated as she saw the goblin fleeing. Perhaps there are more hiding in the trees, or deeper into the forest.

Valena was torn with what to do next. Head back to the clearing, where Hannibal and Prothal were, or to pursue this goblin and determine where it was heading? Are there more than the ten or so I had first determined were in the area? She thought to herself.

With resolution and determination, Valena skirted the edge of the clearing, moving towards Ky’Thand’s area, but still keeping a watchful eye on the fleeing goblin. With a little luck, there should not be too many more around the immediate area – she hoped. She saw the rest moving in, and Hannibal combing the area, possibly looking for clues.


Ky’Thand did a Cuckoo sound, then chased after the goblin headed Southwest, doing his best to stay silent. He was only about five yards into the forests when he realised that the goblin was obviously running hard and fast, and he would have to run after it too to keep the goblin in sight.


Everybody in the clearing heard the sound of the Cuckoo, and Xavier looked around, then to Hannibal and Prothal. All three of them knew the familiar call that Ky’Thand liked to use, but only the movement of bushes to the south betrayed his presence. Valena, too, was nowhere to be seen.


Ky’Thand swore to himself as the goblin broke into a sprint. He matched the pace, not wishing the goblin to get away and alert others of the presence of invaders in the forest. With an invisible “something” chasing the goblin, Ky’Thand was sure it would wind quickly and his healthy constitution would allow him to overhaul the pesky runner. Shame this was not the back streets of the capital, or he would have used a few short cuts to further close in on his prey.


“Xavier, Prothal. Prepare to move out! Our mage friend is pursuing something in the general direction that the goblins went. We better follow to make sure he doesn’t stumble onto a whole lair of them alone!” Hannibal shouted out to the rest of his companions.

Hannibal sheathed his sword and stowed his shield on his back over the ebony blade and again drew his combat dagger. “Xavier put that goblin on Hamish and scout forward. You’re looking for traps this time, the two of us,” Hannibal indicated Prothal and himself, “won’t be sneaking up on anyone. Fortunately their beaten path will make it a bit easier going this time.”

Hannibal pointed out the path to Xavier, “Stay about 5 yards in front, if you lose the path wait for us and I’ll point you on.” But there was something interesting that gave him pause – the cuckoo was also to the south, but it seemed to come from a slight South-west direction. The path the most recent goblin tracks came from went on a direct south direction.

Xavier frowned as he listened to Hannibal’s direction, and said, “Hmm…are you sure you got the right place, Hannibal? The call comes elsewhere, and we better hurry – it sounds urgent. But someone has to look after Hamish and our captive, right?” Xavier gave a smile and continued, “And I cannot run and check for traps at the same time too! How about both of you go as fast as possible after the sound of the call?”


Valena could barely discern Ky’Thand’s cuckoo sound while she moved through the dense woodland, but once she caught sound of it, she quickly moved further into the woodland, about thirty yards inward, to support Ky’Thand in what she perceived should be another fleeing goblin. I should have killed the goblin while I had the chance, Valena thought to herself, I’ll make sure to finish the job if I can see it again.


It seems that everyone is going on his own way, Prothal thought to himself. Ky’Thand and Valena were nowhere to be found, and Hannibal and Xavier was moving south in pursuit. Somehow, he felt a little lost, and prayed for some insight from the Eternal One, to give him strength to face this somewhat chaotic situation.

“Oh Great One listen to your humble servant. In this hour I feel alone in a dead end. Please give me the strength to face this wall which is in front of me.”


Goblins have short legs – Ky’Thand could not help but conclude as he chased after the creature. The creature was fast and in its natural element, but Ky’Thand was faster. Within less than a hundred yards, the little creature was within reach of his invisible arm.

Pulling a throwing blade from his chest bandoleer, Ky’Thand did a trick he had used and practised much of his youth. With the pommel of the dagger, he whipped it over the back of the head in the sensitive area, this usually caused the victim to fall unconscious like a bag of turnips, falling to the ground almost instantly.

Striking at a moving target was very different from striking at a running target, however, and this was especially so when the attacker was himself running. Ky’Thand found himself misjudging the distance between the goblin and his weapon, and his swing fell short.

The familiar feeling of mana draining away from him came about. He did not even need to look at his own hand to know what happened – the mystical binding forces of magic had its own rules, and the weak illusion of invisibility he had woven upon himself had exceed its limit of power.

The goblin seemed to feel something was wrong too, for it suddenly jumped onto the ground, and rolled, before coming to a standing position just a few feet away from Ky’Thand. For a moment, it hesitated as it sized up its opponent. An unarmoured man, wielding only a dagger, and strapping a short bow to his back. Growling, it set its spear and advanced.

Ky’Thand was ready for it. Still gripping the weapon in his hand, he moved with the speed of a lightning, lashing out with its pommel. The action caught the goblin by surprise, and it backed up a little, its nose probably smashed by the attack. It trembled a little as it realised it was facing an opponent it had probably underestimated. It dropped its spear and turned to run away again.

Ky’Thand was not about to let his prey get away that easily. He swiftly brought his weapon down on its head again as it turned its back to him. This time, his sap struck true. The goblin collapsed silently without even a groan. A second ‘cuckoo’ was made to ensure his companions knew his position.


Valena heard the signal call by Ky’Thand, close to her position. She must have been moving in the right direction then. She continued and closed towards the source of the signal call. It was a pity one goblin got away. Hopefully, it would not cause too much damage.


Ky’Thand crouched down silently and listened to what was happening around him. Satisfied no goblins were nearby he searched the goblin to determine his social level in the goblin life. He could not be sure just how high up in the social ladder it was but it sure was no leader. The spear looked unremarkable, and it was dressed in leather armour. Nine pieces of silver were recovered from its body. Suddenly, his keen ears picked up the sound of moving bushes – somebody, something, was moving quickly towards his area!


Hannibal started down the southern path with determination. “I shall lead the horse, Xavier. I need you to scout, in the path where I direct you, for traps! We don’t need to run, just move so we can support Ky’Thand if needed. He is somewhere in this direction and we’ll have to assume that his course and ours will intersect. What we seek is SOUTH!”

Hannibal glared at Xavier knowing his friend was not a coward but also knowing that any show of weakness or indecision would be played upon to get out of work, dangerous or otherwise. Xavier grinned and passed the leash to Hannibal, and said, “Alright, alright! Hey – the professional is here, yes?”

As Xavier finally led off, Hannibal turned to Prothal. “My friend, you have been quiet since we have left civilisation at the road. We shall need your god’s assistance if we are to be successful in our endeavour.” Prothal seemed to be in some form of meditation, and Hannibal knew better to disturb him while he prayed to his god.

“Well, what are we waiting for? His god will look after him, yes?” Xavier called out impatiently to Hannibal. Nodding, Hannibal moved on, attempting to make the best time he could on the Goblin trail, hoping not to get too far behind Ky’Thand.

He heard the second ‘Cuckoo’ about less than a hundred yards in. He stopped to take his bearings to see how far away he was from the mage. He could not be sure but the sound sounded like it was fifty yards at most to the westerly direction. Looking around and only seeing dense woods he shook his head and then shouted, “We’re this way.” A flock of birds, probably disturbed by the loud noise, suddenly took flight and flew off into the skies.

Turning to Xavier, he said, “Now we wait till our scouts report in. Look sharp, there still may be a few goblins with a spine around.” Xavier nodded, and pointed towards the saddle of the horse, where the goblin tied up a while ago seemed to be stirring.


Warmth began to fill up in Prothal’s heart again as he realised what he could do at the present moment. “Grant me the power to speak with you wild servants, the ones that are called animals. Give me this in order to protect the whole of mankind and my friends from the evil that’s coming upon us. Give me the strength to carry on with my duty praising your goodness into every creature’s heart. To make them believe in you and to show them your greatness. May be your name and grace live in everyone’s heart.”

He turned towards the squirrel that he had spotted foraging up in the trees, and said in a friendly voice, “Greetings, little fellow! Are you hungry? Don’t be afraid of me. I’m your friend.”

The creature stopped what it was doing, then turned towards the friendly cleric, still munching on the nut it was holding in its small hands. It spoke out, its voice seemingly friendly, “Greetings, big two-legged one! Yes, me hungry, so eating now. You want crunchy food as well? I get for you?”

Prothal could not help smiling as he shook his head and continued, “Have you seen any group of ‘two-legged ones’ similar to me around?”

The squirrel answered as it picked up another nut and started munching again, “Similar to you? No, no big two-legged ones around. But many, many, small two-legged ones like…” Its eyes suddenly widened as it noticed the dead goblins all around it. Somehow, Prothal could sense the fear in its heart as it suddenly turned and ran off.


Ky’Thand bound the goblin with the copper wire from his robes, blindfolded and gagged it. Pocketing the nine pieces of silver, he murmured to himself, “Hardest nine silvers earned.”

Ky’Thand was not too worried about the noise coming from behind him – it should be one of his friends who responded to his call. He stayed low in the scrub while dealing with the goblin, keeping a lookout for the approaching person. The thick undergrowth parted as some invisible force pushed them aside. That should be her.

“Valena, keep a watch while I deal with this goblin.” Ky’Thand spoke out to her. He continued searching the goblin’s chest for ritual scars or tattoos, and finding none, he cursed and said, “Just a sentry.”

“Ky’Thand, this being invisible is dizzying. I’m not sure if we weren’t chasing the same goblin!” Valena spoke out.

She looked down at the felled goblin. “Nice work. There shouldn’t be too many more of the goblins in the immediate area. We should head back to the clearing. It sounds like Hannibal is getting restless!” She beamed a beautiful smile to the young man she had not known for that long, knowing full well that he could not see it. Perhaps she could let her distrust of the intelligent man wane somewhat, she thought to herself.

Valena made a final look around her immediate area, looking for any tracks out of place – especially goblin tracks. The vegetation around the area was thick, and it did not look like the place was well crossed by any animal at all. She looked back to Ky’Thand. The quiet enigmatic man shouldered the goblin and had to quickly put it down. Its weight, combined with the armour it was wearing, and all the gear Ky’Thand was wearing, was too much for him. The goblin had begun to stir by this time.


Hannibal was getting somewhat worried about Prothal. “Well, Xavier, you get your wish. Take Hamish and the goblin back to the clearing and guard Prothal. I don’t know exactly what he is doing, but go back there and watch him. I will wait here for Ky’Thand. I think I can surprise just about anyone if I’m not moving.” Hannibal finished without humour. Xavier nodded, gave a mock salute, and moved Hamish to rejoin Prothal.

The goblin snarled and started struggling as Xavier approached it. He simply ignored its struggles and led it back to the clearing.

As Xavier moved back to the clearing, Hannibal looked over the trail and found a suitable thicket to hide in. His many years in the military soon showed as he blended in with his surroundings quickly. With his preparations made, Hannibal lay in wait for what ever may come. Ten minutes passed by and nothing seemed to stir.

Chapter 17: Into the Goblin’s Hideout

 

” Come on small one, do not be afraid. You are my friend after all. I’m here to protect and believe me that’s what I will do. I would really like one of these nuts you eat if you have enough.” Prothal called out after the scampering creature.

For a moment everything was quiet as it disappeared into the leaves. There was a light rustle among the leaves, then slowly its head popped out, and it moved shyly out of hiding. It was carrying two nuts, and dropped one to the ground, before continuing to nibble on the other one.

“Many small two-legged ones like those there without life around. They come many times here to close eyes. Sometimes big four-legged ones come too. Big four-legged ones bad – chase us small four-legged ones many times. Sometimes even eat us when we have hot heads.” It continued to nibble on the nut, occasionally glancing at the dead goblins, as if they might come to life suddenly.

“Four-legged one have to go now. Big two-legged one good. Four-legged one tell you secret. Tree here has many good crunchy foods. Crunchy food cures hot head many times. Good crunchy foods. Going now!” The creature scampered off, leaving one of the nuts dropped on the floor, just in front of Prothal. He heard the sound of rustling behind him, and turned to see Xavier leading Hamish into the clearing – without Hannibal with him.

X X X

“Blast yer scurvy bones to the nine pits, yer one heavy bloody goblin,” Ky’Thand cursed. Ky’Thand smiled as the goblin stirred and said, “You were not expecting this yer bloody goblin scum.” It growled at Ky’Thand in return and tried struggling against the bonds but to no avail. Several loops of copper wire made for a strong binding.

Ky’Thand decided to gag it with its own clothing, with his belt holding the wad of cloth in place around its head.

“Ky’Thand, there may be more of them out there, and I don’t notice any tracks of any kind. It’s like the animals avoid this place as well. That has me worried. Let’s get back to the clearing and see what Hannibal and the others have discovered, if anything.” Valena called out to Ky’Thand.

Ky’Thand took out his dagger and rested it on the kidneys of the creature. Using this as an encouragement, he made the goblin move on back to the clearing, half prodding and half pushing it on the way. Valena tried covering up the tracks, but it took too much time, and Ky’Thand, not seeing her, had gone on ahead. She gave up and moved quickly to catch up with him.

X X X

Time seemed to go by slowly as Hannibal remained hidden on what he hoped would be the main thoroughfare for the goblins. It was a game he played all the time during his days as a scout. His eyes went slightly out of focus as he concentrated on listening to travel through the brush. Waiting in ambush as he had many times in the past, his mind wandered while his ears listened for anything out of the ordinary. His eyes looked, preparing to lock on any movements that were not the natural rhythmic swaying of foliage in the breeze.

Hannibal spent his time motionless, ignoring the occasional fly that landed on him. Good thing mosquitoes were not to be found up here in the north. He had quite unpleasant experiences with them at the Central Plains. Still, they were mild annoyances compared to the sudden death that might occur when his prey arrived. He thought back to the prophecy, the premonition that what he was looking for was south, and tried to think what following his heart really meant. It could not be as simple as racing to the desert home of his love, for his duty is to Frelandia and the men he commanded.

All he could do was wait, as his eyes tracked movement and his ears listened for discord in the forest.

X X X

Prothal turned towards Xavier and asked, “Where is Hannibal?’”

He shrugged and answered, “Well, our hero there is trying to make a name of himself trying to kill some imaginary goblins. Or least that is what I would think, having known him for so many years.” He smiled smugly to himself. Meanwhile the goblin, having woken, began to growl and struggle against the bonds.

Xavier looked up at it and gave it a tight slap across the cheek, agitating the creature further. He grinned wickedly and gave it another, even tighter, slap across the other cheek. He winked at it and said, “If you continue on trying to be a hero, you will get even harder slaps!” There was a dangerous edge to his voice.

As if it understood, it went silent but its eyes seemed to gleam with murderous intent. Not that it could do much in its state, nose still occasionally bleeding, and arms all tied up.

Prothal looked around and up to the trees, trying to determine what that was which cured hot heads. The trees looked unremarkable, being filled with leaves and nuts all about. Even the tree that the squirrel was on looked just like any other tree around the area.

”Have you seen any of the others? I think that this place is quite dangerous and we should move on as soon as possible” Prothal asked Xavier, who had now begun to taunt the goblin, tickling it on the ribs, and occasionally giving it insultingly light slaps on the cheeks. The goblin remained silent, occasionally gnashing its teeth in anger. He heard some more noise, and saw Ky’Thand entering the clearing, another goblin with him, all tied up with several windings of copper wiring. Moments later, the grass parted, as if some unseen creature was moving through it.

Upon reaching the clearing, Valena noticed that Hannibal was nowhere to be seen. She spied Xavier and Prothal towards the back edge of the clearing, but no Hannibal.

“Ky, do you see Hannibal?” The voice called out, and all within the clearing heard it clearly. For a moment Xavier looked a little startled, then he grinned and called out, “Hey, pretty, you don’t look nice without your face, you know! Why don’t you come out of hiding and show yourself!”

“Nope, I wonder what mischief the old warhorse is up to?” Ky’Thand ignored Xavier and answered Valena. He did a birdcall to call all together. For four times at thirty-second intervals he made the call so Hannibal could follow. Meanwhile he had pushed the goblin on the ground, still bound. Looking around the clearing, he muttered to himself, “Gotta check those trees further.”

“Xavier, you’re a scoundrel! And your manners are lacking almost as much as your charm! And wit! Still, it might be interesting to see if you can put your skill where your mouth is!” Valena could not resist a sounding retort.

Xavier grinned to himself and gave a hurt expression to nobody in particular as he muttered to himself, “Scoundrel? Me a scoundrel? Awhh…”

The birdcalls would have fooled anybody but the denizens of the woods, Valena noted. She then moved over to Xavier, Prothal, Hamish, and what appeared to be a bound goblin, obviously in anger at being teased and insulted by Xavier. Along the way she looked for tracks or other such signs, but she could not see anything with the cursory search she made. A more thorough one would be in order.

“Xavier, I’m going to take a better look at the tracks in the clearing. Do you know in which direction Hannibal headed in?” Valena called out to Xavier. He grinned and said, “Awhh…I wouldn’t know how to tell you, pretty, but he sure headed somewhere due south of here!”

X X X

Hannibal was disturbed from his vigil by the birdcall of Ky’Thand. Well at least what sounded like a turkey warble did not seem to belong in these woods. Hannibal did not move, just peered through the foliage at the trail. Well the goblins could follow as well as I, he thought to himself.

Hannibal waited in the foliage for another twenty minutes to see what moved about. They’ll be stewing in the clearing, but it will give Prothal time to pray for guidance, was the last thought Hannibal had before he went back into ambush mode.

Again the time passed by, and nothing appeared. He decided that he must have made a wrong judgement – this might not be a goblin thoroughfare after all. Or perhaps they might not be travelling so often through that route. The possibilities were too many to think of at this moment in time. He got up and moved back to the clearing.

The vegetation parted as he moved and soon he reached the clearing, where he saw Ky’Thand, Xavier and Prothal, but no signs of Valena. One goblin was on the floor before Ky’Thand, and the other was on Hamish, where he had last left it. The poor thing was being taunted by Xavier. Just like him to do such a thing. It had been so many years, and Xavier had not changed one bit.

“Valena still scouting? I see we have two to interrogate. Xavier, leave that one alone!” Hannibal barked out to his friend of many years. Xavier grinned and poked the goblin again on the ribs, saying to it, “Someone is here to save you! Just give me a chance and I will give you the tickling of your life!”

Ky’Thand grimaced when Hannibal finally arrived, “Signals are used for a purpose, disregarding them gets people killed. You deal with the goblin prisoners, once questioned I will set them free of their physical confines. If you need me I will be up there checking the trees where the goblins came down. Valena has an enchantment of invisibility upon her currently so don’t be scared of any disembodied voices.”

“Hannibal!” Valena spoke out from somewhere in the clearing, “You had me worried! Next time you decide to wander off, don’t leave by yourself!

“Oh, sorry. You can’t see me, can you? This invisibility does have its advantages, doesn’t it? I’ve been examining the tracks in the clearing while you were away. It will take some time to determine exactly what it is used for. I couldn’t locate any other tracks throughout the forest where I was. I didn’t even see any animal tracks. Very unusual. I have a bad feeling about this.” Valena continued her search for tracks.

Hannibal shook muscles slightly stiff from waiting and told the group, “Well, I waited up their path and it doesn’t appear that any others are coming that way. I had hoped to surprise the rest of the group.”

He shrugged as the he looked over the goblins. Moving to the first lying on the ground, he raised a hand and spoke, “Do you understand me? Where do you come from?” The goblin growled, its eyes burning with anger, but unable to touch Hannibal.

Ky’Thand climbed up the tree the goblin he captured had jumped down from, leaving his bow, quiver and small pack at the base. He looked through the branches, checking for platforms and goblin presence, any sign of supplies.

Unable to get an answer from the first goblin, Hannibal went to the one on Hamish and repeated his query. The goblin remained silent, not speaking. He then asked about the orc mage, “Orc with you? Mage? Where?” Again, there was no response.

“Well,” Hannibal spoke to rest of the group, noticing the movement of leaves as Ky’Thand continued to search at one of the trees, “I don’t know goblin so I guess we will need to take them into the village for interrogation. I suppose the villagers will hang them when they are through.” Hannibal closely watched the goblins while he was speaking to see if they understood what he was saying. It could be his imagination, but the eyes of the goblin on Hamish seemed to change expression a little when he spoke the word ‘village’.

Hannibal’s head snapped around as the one goblin seemed to pick up on the word ‘village’. Putting one hand on his combat dagger he asked, “Village? Where?” The goblin kept silent, anger and hatred in its eyes evident.

“Too bad they can’t help us out here. We could let them go if we get the information we need.” Hannibal continued, his hand still on the dagger.

Xavier retorted, “Hah! You are too optimistic! The village will hang them before anybody would get to interrogate them, and I don’t think they will listen to either the Major or the Brother even if you plead with them not to! You know goblins! Nobody trust them alive for long!”

And Xavier was right. The constant raids and attacks of the goblins and the orcs had made it near impossible to reconcile the humans with them, Prothal thought to himself. He remembered reading something in the records of Brother Joseph, The Legends. The goblins were created by the evil elder races to do their bidding. Many of the older, more experienced priests among the Order of the White Rings had agreed that these creatures, being tainted with the magic of evil, would never be able to turn from their evil ways.

“So did anyone else find anything interesting? It looks like we could take this path south and get to where ever the goblins came from.” Hannibal appeared eager to press on and the group realised that there were very few days left to avert the disasters that Prothal had foretold.

Ky’Thand could not find anything like supplies or platforms or whatever. The goblins must have used these trees as makeshift scouting platforms. The goblins hiding in the trees were probably on watch as the rest lazed away. They were probably sleeping though, Ky’Thand mused, for none of the goblins raised any alarm as Valena and he had approached the clearing – and the watchmen would have seen their movement near the clearing from their vantage points had they been more vigilant in their watch. He suddenly realised how close they were to being attacked in force, in the enemies’ home ground. It took just once lazy sentry to tip the scale to their favour.

Meanwhile, Valena had finished checking through the clearing. The tracks were easy to find, fresh in the forest grounds, they had come from south – where Hannibal had came from as well. Although some of Hannibal’s tracks had mixed in with the creatures’, she was still able to tell them apart, the result of her years of training under her mentor and teacher.

Valena moved further into the vegetation, out of the clearing. She was very sure it was a goblin patrol. They had moved in double file through the path, and two of the tracks seemed to occasionally move further ahead of the main group – typical scouting movements. She was also very sure this patrol had nine members. With six killed and two captured, it meant that one was not accounted for. She returned back to the clearing to report on her findings.

As Valena returned to the clearing and to her friends, she could not help but think of Vespin. Her long-time mentor, teacher, and friend would have told her that “all creatures of the forest are here for a purpose, even those that follow evil. You must remember to see things from all views, and not let what you feel cloud your judgement. You may miss something important.”

‘Important,’ Valena mumbled to herself as she approached Hannibal, who was threatening a bound goblin with a dagger. “Hannibal, you don’t need the blade to get the information you seek.” By then, Ky’Thand had climbed down from the trees.

Valena noticed the goblin look around quickly at the sound of her voice, a panicked look in its eyes. “It’s a scared creature, full of hate for humans. But that is not important right now.” She quickly looked around at each of her friends, even Xavier.

“I’ve checked out the trail to the south where Hannibal had came from earlier. It is definitely a trail used by goblin patrols. I noticed tracks for nine goblins, which is typical for a goblin patrol. We have two in custody, and six dead. One goblin is not accounted for. If that goblin has moved ahead of us south, it will alert its comrades. We can expect a confrontation, and possibly the town nearby being put into danger.”

“Ky’Thand, if you’re willing, I would like for the two of us to scout around the clearing one more time, looking for the goblin not accounted for. It may be hiding, hoping not to be discovered. Otherwise, I suggest we take these two to the village quickly, and prepare for an attack!”

Hannibal looked down at the hand that rested on his dagger, then back at the goblin. “Well, Valena,” He spoke to the air, “Either we prepare the town, or take the fight to the goblins. Why not advance down the trail and hit them today when they don’t have the advantage of darkness. It is only mid-noon, we should be able to get to them before they move out to attack this night.”

Hannibal looked over the small group, “With you invisible, we can make good time on their trail and still bypass or neutralise any sentries. Take another quick look around the clearing then we should move. Either south to the suspected goblin lair, or back to the village”

“I don’t like the idea of advancing southward without alerting Jameson’s Vineyard of the possible threat of a goblin attack first. I am here to protect the people and the forest first, before anything else. But,” Valena sighed outwardly, “we also would have the element of daylight to aid us against any goblin sentries we may come into contact with. Either way, with yourself, Prothal, and your magnificent mount making as much noise as you do throughout the forest, I don’t think that my being invisible will help in matters any. If there was only some way that we could silent our movements.”

We can move southward, and if we come into contact with the goblins before nightfall, we should take them. But there may be more than just goblins. They are known to ride large wolves in battle, and if what I’ve heard is true about the orcs and goblins being sided together, we may be in walking into more trouble than we can handle alone. The decision is yours to make.” Valena looked towards Hannibal, the leader who had often made countless decisions in the field of battle.

Hannibal finally nodded to Valena, “Well, Xavier could take the goblins and warning back to Jameson’s Vineyard. Standing up battle isn’t his expertise anyway.” Hannibal smiled at Xavier, who was grinning, probably in full acceptance of the idea. “The two goblins should lend credence to his warning and the villagers could gather expecting the worst tonight.”

Hannibal looked thoughtful for a moment. “Prothal, can your god silent our movements? Even if it is only centred on yourself as you pray, I can stay close enough to be effected. The others are able to move quietly on their own. This may be our best chance to protect the village. I believe we should attack during the day, not wait on the defensive. Even if only for a short time. Valena and Ky’Thand could scout ahead while we hang back, then when we are near; rush them in divine silence?”

Hannibal was slightly frustrated but not surprised that the goblins were not providing much information. He checked his armour and weapons and prepared to move south to confront whatever waited for them.

He looked to the sky and the goblins again and nodded. “Well unless any others have objections; I say we travel south with all speed. Xavier, take Hamish and the goblins into Jameson’s Vineyard and warn them of a possible goblin raid tonight. We’ll see what we can do about that.” Xavier nodded and went over to the fallen goblin, giving it a kick to make it rise up. With a snarl it did that. He held on to Hamish’s leash, and pointed his sword at the goblin, looking to the four companions.

Hannibal’s eyes flashed with the warrior instinct and the knowledge that if they did not find the goblins the village might be in dire straits. He turned to Prothal, who was quietly contemplating, and asked, “If Ky’Thand or Valena come back and tell us we are close to the goblins, will your god grant us silence so we can quickly move to engage?”

”I think that we should warn the village first before doing anything else like going further south. The village is in great danger and it wouldn’t be wise to leave them in ignorance. Those people need us and we must first secure the children and women before engaging in a battle with goblins into the forest, possibly during night time. I agree that we should be moving fast but we have to protect these people, that is what we’re here for. If while we tracking down these goblins other evil creatures may attack the village. I trust in His Grace that we’ll have time to warn the village and return to our task.” Prothal spoke up.

“Brother Prothal, if we go to warn the village we will be forced to stay and fight a goblin horde at night, with non-combatants everywhere. The village will have few that can effectively help and the four of us will be hard pressed to attack AND defend the others.

“Xavier can go to the village and warn them. The two goblin captives will lend weight to his story. REMEMBER your vision. Do you want to wait another day until we proceed south? An attack now will disrupt their plans. With your god’s help, we may even have a chance to surprise them and goblins fight much worse during the day.

“We go south to protect the mothers and children of Jameson’s Vineyard. Your god gave you your powers to use in defence of our homes, our people, and our honour. You will have to choose how and when you use them. I would ask you to remember the story of the miser who clutched his treasure so tightly that nothing else could be poured into his hands and what he had slipped through his fingers.”

With that Hannibal checked his shield and sword, took his backpack from Hamish and spoke to Xavier, “My friend, you must proceed to Jameson’s Vineyard with all haste. Warn the villagers and use the goblins as proof of your word. Live goblins will be more effective.” Hannibal’s eyes were hard with the realisation that the goblins would die shortly, but Xavier would attempt to at least get them to the village alive. As if understanding his unspoken words, Xavier nodded and began to retrace his steps up north.

Turning to the rest of the group, Hannibal continued, “We must head south to avert what we can, waiting another day only helps our enemies.”

Hannibal headed to the southern track and waited for Ky’Thand and Prothal to join him. While he could not see Valena, he was very sure she was somewhere near, ready to fight alongside them when necessary.

Seeing the resolve in the eyes of Hannibal, Valena also knew it was useless to argue with him over spending more time in the clearing. She turned and moved onwards through the clearing, slowing down and looking back occasionally to make sure Ky’Thand and the rest could follow her. She had to make sure he could see the movement of the bushes, the slight patter of her feet, or risk having the main party get lost.

Time seemed to move for an eternity as the thick forest made the going difficult. The heavy metal armour worn by the two warriors slowed them down, and many a times Ky’Thand had to alert Valena to that fact, getting her to slow down. And already Valena had considered her movement slow enough, with her following and interpreting the tracks.

Occasionally, the sun had a chance to break through the thick tree cover, and Hannibal made quick judgements. The sun was already dipping and a hint of the beautiful colours of dusk had already began to show, when Valena heard something that made her froze. Seeing the movements ahead of him stop, Ky’Thand also stopped and listened, looking back to motion the other two to stop as well so they could hear.

Along the journey, Hannibal could not help but think about his friend Prothal again. He had changed so much ever since the last battle, when men lay dying in his arms. He seemed more quiet, more reluctant to speak, and…for once Hannibal really could not make out of what had happened to a man he had called a friend, whom he had fought alongside for months against the orcs that threatened the travellers in the region.

When they had stopped upon Ky’Thand’s signal, Hannibal and Prothal had taken a quick look at their surroundings. They were surrounded by the same featureless forest that seemed to be everywhere. It was frustrating – nothing could be seen except trees and vegetation. If not for the expert guidance of Valena, they could easily get lost. And Hannibal suddenly remembered Xavier. He had no guide on his way back to Jameson’s Vineyard.

Valena was very sure she heard a bird call very near to where they were. While birds were not unusual in the forest, she had a feeling something was wrong. Then Ky’Thand and the rest heard it too. Not just a bird call, but a series of bird calls echoed through the forest. It was most definitely a signal!

Chapter 18: Discovered!

 

At the call of the birds, and the sense that it was a signal, Hannibal readied his daggers and whispered urgently to Ky’Thand and Prothal. “Well, they know we’re here now. Let’s move with haste and hope when can reach their village and open terrain before they can converge!”

Hannibal thought of Xavier, that man was smart. A few hundred yards following the crushed path of Prothal, myself and Hamish and he would be back on the road. He could make the village in no time then. Though he would probably kill the goblin that was on foot. But that could not be helped, Hannibal shrugged to himself.

Valena cursed under her breath at the sheer number of bird calls. And she knew that she did not have the time to determine just how many were out in the forest.

She looked behind her, noting that Ky’Thand had already had the companions stop, intently listening as well by his appearance. She could see Ky’Thand and the others start approaching her position at a quickened pace. With the foliage being as thick as it was, it would be difficult for her to use her bow. She instinctively drew forth her short sword, and pressed ahead of the others, and moving slightly from the tracks, to the left, to see if she could see any clearings or breaks in the trees ahead. Only trees and thick foliage greeted her sight.

Ky’Thand swore to himself the goblins had them in an ambush rather than the opposite, the lone goblin must have alerted the main force. Looking into the trees around him, he tried to quickly determine which one he would use as his base for when the attack came. Finding one near to him, he quietly climbed it. With his nimble fingers, he quickly scaled the trees. It was all child’s play to him.

The trees around him made it difficult for him to see much. He just might be able to see more of the forest around him, whether there were clearings nearby, if he climbed to the top. This tree was tall – perhaps extending for another five to ten more feet. But the leaves obstructing him would also mean that he could not support any actions down below.

Prothal wonders how they were noticed so quickly. It was sure different fighting them in their natural element. But this was daylight, and goblins generally could not see well with the sun in their eyes. How could they have been spotted so quickly? He glanced at Hannibal and prayed to the Eternal One to let them be winners to one more fight.

Valena looked back at her companions. She could see Ky’Thand climbing up a nearby tree. Perhaps I should do the same, she thought to herself. With that, Valena put her short sword in its scabbard, and began to climb a tree on the opposite side of the one that Ky’Thand had climbed up on. She was wondering why Prothal was staying so far behind Hannibal.

Hannibal continuing to charge forward stopped when he happened to glance back and saw Ky’Thand scurry up a tree – and the motion that had indicated Valena had stopped as well. Looking back to Prothal, Hannibal shouted. “Move or we both die!”

Prothal, having finished his prayer, moved next to Hannibal. Now Hannibal was in a bind. If Valena had stopped, as he believed she had, he would risk getting lost if he tried to follow an indeterminate track. And if he were to try tracing the tracks by himself, it would take some time. And time was not with him, now that he suspected they were spotted.

Looking through the dense underbrush, he hoped Ky’Thand up in the trees realised the futility of trying to shoot an arrow through branches, scrub growth, and leaves. The shooting range was so much reduced it would probably only hit targets a feet away from the base of the tree. It would more likely simply indicate where they were than anything else. Hannibal’s only consolation was that the goblins would not be throwing many missiles at him either.

Valena was climbing perhaps the first fifteen or twenty feet when she stopped, sensing something just up ahead. She was right, it was a goblin, hiding itself such that Ky’Thand, disappearing into the leaves on the tree opposite, could not see it. So this was the vigilant sentry that alerted the rest. It looked like this encounter was going to be different from the one at the clearing the patrol had rested.

The goblin obviously knew it was overmatched in its present situation. Valena spotted a simple bronze mace hanging by a loop on its belt. A shortbow was readied, with an arrow notched. The goblin looked very tense. From where Valena was, it would take another one or two steps of climbing to move to the branch the goblin was at. Suddenly she was glad of her invisibility – the goblin obviously did not even realise she was there, its attention fixed mainly on the tree opposite and the two armoured warriors below.

With determination in her eye, Valena silently moved along the tree. She knew that if she stepped too hard on the branch the goblin was on, it would notice. And, to make matters worse, the goblin most likely had a comrade somewhere further in the treetops watching its back.

Hannibal was a fool to have us fight these goblins in the heavy woodland, she thought to herself. Still…

Valena stepped softly to the branch the goblin was on, and watched it for any quick movement. She silently drew a dagger from her waist belt. As luck would have it, her sleeve caught on to a small branch she had not noticed before, and the resulting rustle had the goblin turn around. Valena could see the quick and cautious twitches of its eyes as it tried to determine if an enemy was nearby, in hiding.

She could not believe she was so close to the creature – they were virtually an arm’s length apart – and she was sure she saw fear in its eyes. Fear mixed with hatred. She could also hear the sounds of Hannibal and Prothal moving through the undergrowth, the steel pieces of their armour clashing against each other.


Hannibal realised the danger but decided that leaving Valena and Ky’Thand behind while drawing the goblins to chase Prothal and himself might be the best course. He believed that the goblins would not have pickets out too far from their main encampment in such dense growth, and also remembered that the goblins’ main form of attack was an overwhelming wave. With all these in mind, Hannibal decided to take the fight to the goblin encampment.

He spent a moment to fix the direction of the birdcalls. They had stopped, but the cries seemed to have echoed from all directions – it was difficult to tell their origin. Hannibal decided to rely on his innate sense of direction to keep him moving in a southerly direction. With no attempt to mask his movement, he called to Prothal. “Stay close, if we reach a clearing we can fight with our paired swords. Goblins are fearful creatures, and the light may be enough to slow them down. The TWO OF US are in grave danger.”

Ky’Thand heard and saw Hannibal move to the base of the tree and called out for Prothal. Well if the goblins did not know where we were, now they do, Ky’Thand thought.

His shortbow ready Ky’Thand scanned the surrounding vegetation, looking along the tree boughs and how they intertwined made Ky’Thand smile. He moved along the bough then jumped lightly to the next. Almost as good as the thieves’ highway back home. Using Hannibal’s noise as a cover Ky’Thand moved above him looking for goblin sentries. He would have to depend on the noise the two armoured warriors were making to follow them. Hopefully that would not result in any of them getting lost. Just where was that Valena?

Hannibal hoped that the goblins would think that only the two of them were in their domain. Strapping his shield securely to his back, Hannibal took two daggers and proceeded with his best speed towards the south.

Hannibal moved with purpose away from the trees holding Ky’Thand, with hopes that he would be able to follow shortly. He could not be sure where Valena was, but he believed she would have the sense to follow him. As he moved, Hannibal relied on his hearing for the approaching goblins and used his eyes to carefully watch the way ahead for pits, snares, or other traps (including an ambush) that the goblins might have prepared around their homes.

In an effort to foil those traps, Hannibal decided not to take any obvious path or open areas while he was moving. Not that there were any in the dense forest more like a jungle than any other area. He stayed very close to any large trees he passed, in the hopes that snares and nets could not be effective that close to the trunk. While he never thought it at that time, all those ambushes of his patrols on the roads might actually pay off as he made his way forward, Prothal following.

Ky’Thand tried to follow as best as he could – while the movement along the branches was not as fast as he could move below (having to be more careful), he could more than keep up with the two men of steel below, judging by all the noise they were making. He tried being more careful with his movements, to conceal himself, but the noise trailing away notified him to the fact that he was slowing himself too much. He decided to abandon that idea, but to speed up his movement along the trees to catch up.

He nearly lost his footing once on the branch he was in, but his quick reflexes enabled him to hold on to a branch. Anyone looking would have seen the sudden violent movement on the trees. Nothing much to it anyway – his movement through the trees would disturb the foliage enough for most observers to notice. If they look up, he thought to himself.

The two must have travelled many tens of yards before Prothal felt something strange, and he stopped Hannibal. Stooping down, he brushed away the grass. Hidden neatly within, was a snap-trap, the types used to catch small prey, or – more likely in this case – the legs of a larger prey. If they had moved any faster, one of them would have been the victim of such a device.

Hannibal frowned as he realised something. The trap was made of steel, and the tribes of goblins hidden within the forests should not have the ability to smelt anything like that. The metallic weapons he had encountered them using were bronze. Not that he was an expert in goblin sociology anyway, but it did seem a little strange to him. But there was no time to think of this – for something was amiss. He stood up.

Ky’Thand lay still, for he saw them too amidst a sudden parting of foliage. If only the leaves were less thick, he would be able to see them coming from afar. As it was, the engagement distance was already fixed, and he could not warn his two friends below even if he wanted to.

Coming at them from down south, spread out in rough line, were their enemy. Five goblins riding on what looked like huge nasty wolves, saliva still dripping from the fangs, their tongue lolling in anticipation of the fight.

Hannibal quickly made an assessment of the threat facing him. They wore leather armour, and four of them brandished spears. Hannibal could assess straight away that they could not charge with that weapon in the space they had to fight, but spears were some of the best weapons to use. Another, with markings on his armour different from the rest, wielded a small mace.

The goblins were obviously not expecting to encounter them so soon, and obviously had no idea of Hannibal’s position, or they would have come at them from all directions – the standard goblin ambush tactic. Even though their eyes were squinting from the sunlight coming at them, Hannibal could tell that they were ready for a fight.

Hannibal stood near the snap trap as the goblin riders came into view. Realising that combat would be momentarily joined where the pair was at Hannibal looked around. While sword and shield can be used effectively, the environment would cause both of them, to some extent, to fight separately.

“’Ware the trap.” Hannibal called to Prothal as he dropped his throwing dagger on it to trigger it. While he thought that manoeuvring the wolves onto the trap would be elegant, in the chaos of combat, he and Prothal might step into it as well. Taking up a position near the trap, Hannibal unlimbered his shield and drew his sword after sheathing his combat dagger. That was all he could do as the wolves attacked, spurred on by the goblins.

“I shouldn’t need the power of the black blade yet,” he shouted to Prothal. “I have a feeling that its surprise may be needed later. Let’s take this without your magic. If we can kill them in a few minutes, we may still reach their camp before they are ready…and before others find us.”

”Lead the way Hannibal and may Great One be with us.” The words of the priest rang through the forest, as confident as he had been back when he fought shoulder to shoulder with Hannibal against the orcs at the Great Lake.

Hannibal turned to meet the approaching Goblins. He noticed that the one with the markings different was not attacking but staying some way off – it seemed to be the commander. One of the wolves was fast, and went for him before he could get his shield or his sword ready. His raised his right hand instinctively to ward off the blow – smashing into the wolf’s face as he did so.

Another wolf went for him. They were fast! Hannibal thought as he prepared to bring his shield up to ward against the attack as he readied his sword. His footing was solid and his shield ready to protect. And indeed he stood his ground, as the wolf recoiled from smashing into his shield.

Prothal, too, was swamped by two wolves that attacked. The first he side-stepped easily, giving it a kick on the ribs as it went by. The other glanced off the protective plates of steel that guarded his flank, ensuring that only a jarring sound of bone meeting metal was heard. He returned the favour with Lightbringer – only to have his blow parried off by the spear carried by the goblin.

Fitting an arrow to his shortbow, Ky’Thand aimed for the middle wolf hoping to cause their ranks to be broken up. Where to aim…head, too thick, shoulder, yes the shoulder and lung area. The calculative thoughts of a cold mind sprung into action.

Changing his aim slightly Ky’Thand let loose the arrow, quickly drawing a second, aiming for the same wolf. As if some evil was against him, an insect landed on his fingers, causing him to lose his focus. The two arrows thudded next to the wolf.

Hannibal was slightly surprised to see arrows streaking out but assumed either Ky’Thand or Valena was above him. Smiling he called out to his cover, “Attack the riders, the wolves won’t retreat.” Hannibal quickly ducked as one spear point poked over his head, and brought up his shield to parry off another spear from his left flank. He noticed Prothal also parrying off the attacks of the two goblin riders with his holy weapon.