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Lost in Glory

By Quentin Oakwood All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Fantasy

Chapter 1

Dawn broke over the goblin village, but no cockerel was crowing this morning. It was a very bad omen. It meant that one of the goblins had eaten the cockerel. Again.

The goblins woke up early anyway. They didn't like to sleep late. They liked to eat early.

"I love the smell of roasted squirrel in the morning," one of the goblins said.

"Silly youngster, burning a perfectly good squirrel!" an elderly goblin complained.

"Raw squirrel is disgusting! How can you eat it like that, grandpa?"

The older goblin examined his squirrel carcass. "I can't. Not flat enough! Now, where was my club...?" He wandered away, muttering to himself and looking for some handy squirrel-flattening tool.

The goblins who weren't busy with activities that involved today's food were gathered around the latrine to deal with yesterday's food. There was quite a queue there.

"Who used up all the plantago leaves?" a shout came from the inside.

"Use poison ivy!" a goblin awaiting his turn replied.

"You can take your poison ivy and stick it where the moon never peeks! Or I'll do it myself when I come out!"

"Kitty! Here kitty kitty kitty! Come here, my little furry breakfast!" a sleepy goblin called, while chasing a small ginger cat. The cat apparently didn't want to become a little furry breakfast. It skilfully raced between the wooden shacks. The goblin followed it a bit less skilfully, stumbling on everything in his path. Desperation for a tasty meowing meal kept him going. The pursuit ended when the cat jumped over a garbage pit. The goblin tried to follow, but he fumbled his jump and fell into a heap of rubbish.

Other goblins gathered around to watch. They rarely had any entertainment this early in the morning. A goblin covered with food scraps and various refuse wasn't the funniest thing ever, but still pretty amusing. Especially because he couldn't get out of the pit. Time and again he slid back into the garbage, spitting and cursing and begging for help. That only caused more laughter. Unfortunately the amusement was cut short by a voice coming from the watchtower. "Human! Danger! Human alert!"

The goblins sprang to attention. They dropped whatever they were doing and scrambled for their weapons. The garbage goblin was quickly pulled out. Human alert was no joke. Goblin chief Blahterk was already climbing the tower. "Where?" he asked. The watchgoblin pointed. Indeed, a human was approaching. The chief scratched his head. "Only one?"

"Well, you know, I used a singular noun, therefore I most certainly meant..."

"Shut up!" The chief cut the elaborate explanation short by hitting the watchgoblin on the head.

"Ow!" the goblin complained, but Blahterk ignored him. He turned his full attention to the approaching human. Something was wrong. A human, out here, in the middle of nowhere? It was most unusual. Humans didn't wander out here as a rule, with crazed old hermits being the exception. This one didn't qualify. Possibly crazed, probably not old, definitely not a hermit. Hermits didn't carry around swords and shields. Nor did they wear full plate armour. Knights, on the other hand, did.

A lone knight. With just his weapon and armour. No sack, no bag, nothing to keep provisions in. No way he could have got here like this. He would have perished on the way, surely. So many interesting ways to die in the wastelands... Thirst, hunger and heat were the most common, but not by any means the only ones. There were also scorpions, snakes, spiders, skunks and sloths. And other dangerous creatures, not necessarily sponsored by the letter S. Not to mention inanimate surprises like quicksands, miniature tornadoes, long-forgotten-but-still-working bear traps, and exploding treasure chests that someone inconveniently had left behind.

No. One does not simply walk into the Desolated Wastelands. One could simply ride into the Desolated Wastelands though. A mount would vastly increase travel speed, thus improving chances of survival. The knight surely had a horse. He just... left it somewhere. Somewhere quite far away, cause there was none in sight. Blahterk licked his lips. He might go look for it later. It was a long time since he had eaten a decent horse.

The knight was quite menacing. Knights usually were. Although a single knight couldn't possibly be a threat to a village with a few dozens of goblin warriors inside, it was better not to risk.

"Arm yourselves! Goblin the palisade! Bowgoblins, prepare to fire!"

Orders weren't really necessary. Every goblin knew what to do in case of a human alert. They were armed and ready. Their weaponry was crude: rusty swords, bent spears, bows that were basically pieces of wood with a string attached. Armour was no better. No goblin had a full suit. Most had just a piece or two. Damaged, dented, often too big. Whatever they had scavenged. One of the goblins brought the chief's sword. It was the only decent one in the village. 'Decent' meaning rust-free in this case.

The knight stopped and decided to announce his intentions. "Hear me, goblins, unholy creatures! I am here to eradicate you! Prepare to die, ugly green scum!"

The goblins just laughed. Not even the chieftain took this seriously, much as he tried. "Hey! Who are you calling 'green'!" he shouted back. His own skin colour was much closer to brown.

"Yeah!" echoed Bluars, who was somewhat reddish.

"Violet forever!" cried the intensely violet Fuchsius.

"Shut up, you!" the chief quieted him.

"What? Do you know how well can I hide in... in... in violet flowers?"

The knight didn't seem to pay any attention to the goblins' shouts. "Your warriors will perish and your walls will fall. Not a stone will be left standing!"

"Because everything is wooden here, you dolt!" Blahterk replied.

The human didn't seem to even acknowledge the response. Apparently he wasn't interested in a dialogue. A monologue was more like his thing. "I will kill each and every one of you! I will slaughter you like the vermin you are! Your foul presence will be removed from the surface of the earth!"

"All right," Blahterk called to his goblins, "which one of you copulated with his mother?" Disgusted groans were the only answer he got. Jokes about intercourses with female humans weren't funny. They were revolting. No self-respecting goblin would do that. Pinkish skin colour, a distinct lack of fangs, annoying, high-pitched voices... Hideous, simply hideous.

"I did! With his father!" shouted Rolfzor, the village jokester. This even more disgusting joke resulted in clods of dirt being thrown at him. "Knock it off, you homospeciephobes!"

In the meantime, the knight continued shouting his threats. "I will burn your wretched village to the ground! And sprinkle what remains with salt! And pepper! And cinnamon, whatever that is! So shall do I, paladin Arthaxiom the Great, Deliverer of Light, Slayer of Evil and Wicked, Guardian of the Ancient Secret of the Holy Mysterious Summoning of the Mythical Archpegasus, Apostle of the Rainbow Sturgeon, Holder of the Hidden Antique Malodorous Anvil of Ancient Knowledge..."

The Hidden Antique Malodorous Anvil of Ancient Knowledge was the straw that broke the chieftain's patience. This man was hostile and clearly insane. Goblins knew only one cure for insanity. "Fire!", he ordered.

"...Thirty-ninth Warrior of the Joyous Beige Dragon, Crushing Flame from the Eerie Enchanted Eastern Island..."

Arrows flew towards the paladin. Most of them completely missed. A few struck his armour, but did no damage. "Keep firing!" the chieftain screamed, for no reason really, because the goblins didn't stop. Neither did they improve their aim. Their bows were primitive, but they usually were quite good with them. Not this time. It was some of the most awful shooting this village had ever seen. One goblin even managed to shoot himself in the feet. Both at once.

"...Turquoise Spearman of Heavens, Sword of Justice in the Gloom of Uncertainty!" Arthaxiom finished his litany. Arrows were still falling around him, but he completely ignored them. "Hear this, evil goblin village! I challenge you to a duel!"

"You challenge the entire village?" the chief asked, somewhat shocked. He didn't know much about duelling, but he was quite sure it didn't work like that.

"Yes." This was the first time that the paladin acknowledged anything that was said or done to him.

"Uhhh..." Blahterk hesitated. "We don't accept!"

"That is because you are evil, wretched, cowardly and pitiful creatures! I will slay you anyway!"

"It was worth a try," Blahterk said to nobody in particular.

The paladin was heading straight for the gate. He wasn't in a hurry. His speed was suitable for a nice walk in a park, not for charging towards a fortified settlement in a hail of arrows. It didn't matter. The goblins were unable to cause him any harm. Quite a few of them managed to injure themselves instead.

Blahterk with some sort of morbid curiosity watched his bowgoblins. One of them just lost a finger. It was quite a feat. The chieftain never before had seen anyone lose a finger to a piece of string. He turned away. He needed to keep his eyes on the approaching enemy. Also, he didn't really need to see another goblin eat the cut-off finger. Goblins didn't like to waste anything, but that was going a bit too far.

Only now the chief could have a good look at Arthaxiom. He was rather intimidating. About a head taller than any human he had ever seen. A head taller than most humans meant two heads taller than most goblins, because goblins were vertically-challenged a bit. He was appropriately well-built too. At least the size of his armour indicated so. No single goblin would stand a chance in a fight against this giant. Fortunately, it wasn't going to be a single combat. The chief smiled. His goblins may have forgotten how to shoot, but surely they didn't forget how to swarm and stab a human. He almost pitied that poor sturgeon-worshipper. The paladin wouldn't be the first to try to scale the palisade. He also wouldn't be the first to get killed during his climb or shortly thereafter. This village would not fall easily.

Blahterk was quite proud of his village. It was strategically placed in the middle of nowhere. There were no forests nearby, no rivers, no anything. Just wasteland. Seemingly it was the worst place ever for a settlement. Yet somehow it thrived. The goblins even managed to get themselves some nice juicy small woodland furry animals to eat. They didn't know where did they come from, but they didn't care. A goblin doesn't look a gift squirrel in the mouth. A gift squirrel goes into a goblin's mouth instead.

The village itself contained about twenty huts. Each one housed a few goblin warriors. No females, no younglings. They lived somewhere else. Probably. The goblins weren't sure about the details, but it had to be working out somehow. Or else there would be no goblins at all.

Apart from the huts, there was also a catsty for cat breeding, a latrine and a garbage pit. The village was surrounded by a stout wooden palisade about thirty feet high, adorned with skulls of slain enemies. Mostly squirrels. With several dozens of goblin warriors ready to defend, there was absolutely no chance of a lone knight getting inside the settlement.

The entrance was guarded by a nice, sturdy gate. It was supposed to allow the goblins to enter and leave at will, and to keep unwelcome guests outside. Like maniac paladins, for example. It was a really good gate. Blahterk felt that one would need some sort of a battering ram to break through. Therefore he was pretty surprised to see the paladin attack it with his sword. He was even more surprised when it broke to pieces and fell inside after just two strikes. Other goblins also were surprised, but none as much as one unfortunate soul who for some reason was standing just behind the gate and got knocked down by falling debris.

"It shouldn't have done that!" the goblin chief exclaimed.

"You're a bad, bad gate," the crushed goblin said weakly. These weren't the best last words ever. Arthaxiom the paladin didn't care. He killed the goblin before he managed to get up.

"Attack! Swarm him!" Blahterk shouted and the melee began.

It was a weird battle. The paladin shouldn't have stood a chance against that many opponents. Had they attacked him all at once, like they were commanded, the human would have fallen. They didn't. Only two of the goblins stepped forward to engage. The rest stood back. They seemed uncertain of what they were supposed to do and settled on running around pointlessly, shouting obscenities and making faces.

The two goblins who decided to fight also had some problems with their memory. They completely forgot that activities like "parrying" or "dodging" are quite useful in combat. As a result of that they got promptly decapitated. When they fell, another goblin charged at the paladin with his spear held high, roaring a battle cry. Arthaxiom gracefully sidestepped the charge and tripped the speargoblin, who in an astonishing feat of acrobatics managed to impale himself on his own weapon.

Blahterk couldn't believe his own eyes. His goblins were losing the battle despite superior numbers. "Rush him! Fight, you idiots!" he screamed as another lone attacker was cut in half. In addition, just before getting separated in two, the hapless goblin randomly and dramatically threw away his sword. It hit another goblin in the throat, killing him on the spot. These unbelievable feats of ineptitude and bad luck rendered the chieftain speechless and motionless. It had to be a dream. It had to! They couldn't have been getting slaughtered by a single human!

They couldn't, but they did anyway. Arthaxiom was effortlessly decimating the goblins. It wasn't a display of master swordsmanship. He was simply standing there and killing them as they approached one after another, while the rest was waiting for their turn to die. Just like sheep. Sick, elderly sheep.

Only when a severed goblin head landed directly in front of him did Blahterk come out of his shock. He unleashed a war cry and ran towards the paladin. One of his goblins tackled him before he even got near.

"Chief, you cannot fight him!", the goblin cried.

"Get off me, you flea-ridden moron!" Blahterk elbowed him in the head. The goblin didn't let go.

"No! I must protect you!"

While Blahterk tried to free himself from his overzealous follower, the remaining goblins continued their struggle. It looked more like headless chickens running around than an organized attempt to defend the village. Especially that some of the goblins ended up headless. The rest of them died in other spectacular or comical ways. Finally there were no more warriors. Only then the protective goblin let go of his chieftain and ran towards Arthaxiom with a blood-curdling scream. Unfortunately, he tripped over his own legs and fell down. The paladin ended the goblin's life with a powerful kick. Blahterk just sighed.

"Watch, wretched creature, as your cult of evil falls!" Arthaxiom said to Blahterk.

"It was a goblin village, you dolt!" the goblin chief replied.

"Good triumphed over evil once again."

"You slaughtered everyone!"

"I did."

"You... you brainless piece of garbage!"

"Your puny insults do not impress me, bug-ridden spreader of disease! I will kill you, I will extinguish your species, and all related species too! And the good people will erect a statue in remembrance of my Heroism, and yearly festivities will be held in my honour, and there will be feasting and singing..."

"Die, you bastard! Die!" Blahterk was fully aware that he has a better chance to win a dwarfspotting contest against a two-headed giraffe than to defeat this opponent, but he was going to try anyway. And he was going to use his skull for a chamber pot should he succeed. It was the least he could do for his fallen comrades.

"I shall not die," Arthaxiom replied. The goblin's wild slashes were easily caught on the paladin's shield. "Nor am I..."

"Shut up!" Blahterk realised he was accomplishing nothing and retreated a few steps. "Do you have to talk so much?"

"Yes. This is an epic duel between good and evil! Between right and wrong! Between day and night! Between heaven and hell! Between unicorn and..." The paladin didn't get to say what is the opposite of unicorn, because his opponent attacked again. Unfortunately, putting the end to the monologue was the only thing that Blahterk achieved. Once again he saw he was getting nowhere and disengaged.

"Could you please allow me to finish my Heroic speech, you sack of unholy filth, before I slay you?" the paladin asked.

"No!" If the best he could do was to annoy his opponent, he was going to annoy him as much as possible. He redoubled his efforts to get through his opponent's defence. That exhausted the Arthaxiom's patience. He smacked the goblin with his shield and sent him flying.

"See, wretched whelp of a writhing wraith, dirt is the last thing you taste before your demise!"

"I fell on my back! Are you blind?" Blahterk quickly got up. He had dropped his sword when he fell, but it didn't do him any good anyway. He needed something better, and fast.

"Running away like a duck from a broken carriage, are you?" the paladin called after him, displaying an inability to come up with a sensible metaphor. "You can run, but you cannot hide from my holy wrath!" But the goblin didn't intend to run away. He ran to grab a wooden pole from the shattered gate. It was a crude, unwieldy weapon, but it was longer than the paladin's sword.

"Puny goblin! If you think you will defeat me with a piece of wood..." CLANG! Blahterk didn't ponder the matter. Instead he decided to test it in practice. With complete disregard to his own safety, he ran towards the human and hit him on the head with the pole as hard as he could. Surprised Arthaxiom didn't raise his shield in time. His helmet protected him, but the force of the strike made him stagger. He made a step back and prepared to block the next strike. "You are out of luck, little worm! My sturdy shield... AAARGH!" This time the paladin was ready to protect his head, but Blahterk struck low. Arthaxiom's leg failed him and he fell on one knee.

The goblin knew now was his chance. His opponent was stunned and vulnerable. This might not happen again. He gathered all his strength and struck from over his head.

Arthaxiom had seen it coming, but he was in no position to block the strike or to move away. He only managed to quickly murmur a bit of a desperate prayer to the various entities he worshipped in the intention of keeping his helmet intact. If what happened next was their doing, they did a lot better than that.

CRACK! Blahterk watched in horror as his pole broke harmlessly on the paladin's helmet. He had a brief thought that it shouldn't have done that, and that the poles they had used for the gate were just too tough to simply break like this. It was a very brief thought indeed, because a second later he had a sword through his stomach. "Unholy carp!" he swore and collapsed.

A few moments later the village was ablaze.

-I-I-I-I-

The chamber that General Eneumerius Roseduck had chosen for that particular occasion wasn't exquisite. In fact, it was the least luxurious chamber in the entire Commander's Tower. That was exactly why the General had picked it. Everything in there was disposable. Nobody would miss a cheap-looking wooden table, nor any of the three battered chairs, should any harm come to them.

Inside it was dark. Only a bit of sunlight was coming through a very small window, illuminating the bare stone walls. Overall, the chamber was rather depressing. The General's guest didn't care. He rarely cared about anything.

"A goblin village in the Northern Wastelands was burned down," General Roseduck announced, slowly walking across the chamber.

"Oh dear. Shall we dispatch Smokey the Bear to educate the goblins about fire safety?" Vannard asked as he sat down. Then he drew his dagger with his right hand, put his left hand on the table with fingers apart, and proceeded to stab the table between his fingers. He did it with incredible speed. Only a blur of motion could be observed.

The General sighed. It was very hard to make Vannard take things seriously. He was just sitting there, playing with his dagger and smiling. And blurting out some gibberish, but that was nothing new. Roseduck more often than not had no idea what Vannard was talking about. He decided not to inquire. Experience had taught him that it was better that way.

Vannard was a difficult person to deal with. At first sight there was nothing unusual about him: a rather tall man with short dark hair and a perfectly ordinary face. He wouldn't stand out in a crowd. Nothing suggested that he was a very skilled assassin. It was sort of a prerequisite for being one. Someone looking like an assassin would have a lot of trouble in this line of work.

Roseduck was well aware what Vannard was capable of. He didn't know all the details, but he knew enough. Enough to be painfully conscious of the fact that just about anyone in the assassin's close vicinity could die any second. The General himself included. It was bothering him quite a bit, but he did his best to hide it. He was a firm believer in not showing his fear.

He faced the wall, turning his back to the assassin. Giving Vannard such an opportunity could be considered either brave or stupid, but actually it didn't really matter. Being in the same chamber with someone was a good opportunity for him. Which way the target was facing was mostly irrelevant.

"No, we shall not dispatch your mythical bear to educate the goblins about fire safety. They didn't burn down their own village. Someone else did. After slaughtering the inhabitants."

"AAAAAAARGH!" Vannard interrupted with a loud scream.

"Stop that!" the General scolded him, without even looking. "I am very well aware that you are way too skilled with that thing to stab yourself."

"Awww, you're not fun anymore."

"Furthermore, I expected you would do that. You are getting predictable."

"Ducky, now that was downright nasty!" Vannard said reproachfully. Roseduck cringed. He hated being called that.

"Serves you well," a female voice replied. A woman clad in a long red dress entered the chamber. She was tall and slender, with long, red hair. Almost beautiful. Her facial expression, which promised a painful death to anyone and everyone, spoiled the effect somewhat.

"Oooh, look who's here!" said Vannard, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Sally, the Mistress of Magic! You're probably expecting us to repeat everything to you?" Roseduck's sense of dread just quadrupled. Having these two in the same room was a bad idea. He knew that, but he made them meet anyway. Because they all were on the same team, so to speak. They were at least supposed to be on the same team. The team name would have to be Enraged Rabid Wolverines.

"You know very well what my name is. Also, there is no need to repeat your fake scream of pain and anguish. I heard it all too well thanks to the Enchanted Ear spell I cast earlier," the sorceress Saalteinamariva replied, not even looking at the assassin.

"You and your magic tricks again," Vannard said with distaste. He stood up and looked around. Indeed, there was an ear in the corner, barely visible, hovering just above the floor. He slowly walked there and stepped on it. Hard.

"I'll let you know that, unlike you, I learn from my mistakes," the sorceress mocked him. "My Enchanted Ears don't relay pain anymore."

"Don't relay pain, eh? How interesting. But what would happen if I..." Vannard didn't finish. Instead he spat right into the Ear. Saalteinamariva let out a scream of shock and disgust. It was quickly replaced by an angry shout as she hurled a fireball at Vannard. He wasn't surprised and swiftly moved out of harm's way. The fireball struck the stone wall, splitting into stray flames. One of them fell on an empty chair. It started burning.

"Stop that!" the General shouted. "You behave like children!" He realised that he was berating two people vastly more powerful than he was. He might have been a commander of an army and all that, but in this room, between those two, he was helpless like a snail. An old, sick snail. On drugs. He was neither a match for Vannard at stabbing things, nor for Saalteinamariva at putting things on fire. To make it worse, he was quite a bit shorter than both of them, and his physique was not impressive to say the least. Fortunately for him, his guests didn't bother with feeling insulted.

"Ducky, children don't play with fireballs, you know," Vannard said. The sorceress ignored the remark.

"Put out this fire, will you?" The General didn't direct this request to anyone in particular. Also, he doubted that any of them would listen. He was just trying to maintain authority. Or a resemblance of it.

"Do I look like a water mage to you?" the sorceress asked and stared at him nastily.

Vannard said nothing. He just shrugged, grabbed the flaming chair and threw it against the wall. It broke into pieces. Then he calmly took another chair and whacked the burning remains with it until the fire was gone.

"Is violence your solution to everything?" the General asked as he sat down on the only chair that was still intact. Vannard shrugged again. The question was too silly to deserve an answer. "Very well. I have something to tell you, and I believe it's rather important. Otherwise, I would not risk integrity of the castle by having you both in the same chamber. I'd ask you to sit down, but there don't seem to be any chairs around anymore. So just listen and try not to destroy anything else!"

"Oh very well, I'll put him on fire later," the sorceress said.

"Good luck with that," Vannard replied, smiling.

"Shut up and listen. Our patrol found remains of a goblin village in the Desolated Wastelands. It was burned down and the inhabitants were slaughtered. That is not an uncommon occurrence, villages of primitive humanoids get destroyed all the time and new ones are erected. The interesting part is that it was reportedly done by a single person."

"Reportedly? Who reported that?" the sorceress inquired.

"There was a lone survivor. An intensely violet goblin managed to hide itself in a cluster of fuchsia flowers."

"How convenient," Vannard remarked.

"Convenient indeed," General Roseduck agreed. "Especially that these probably were the only fuchsia flowers in the entire region. Even too convenient, I'd say. The scouts decided to bring the goblin with them for further questioning. Unfortunately, on their way back they were attacked by a particularly large irate badger. It bit the goblin's head off and ran away."

"How inconvenient," Vannard remarked again.

"Very inconvenient. Especially that it was most likely the only irate badger of the size required to bite off a goblin's head in the region. Or in this part of the world, for that matter. All that is improbable enough to be suspicious. What are you so happy about, Vannard?"

"Just imagining the scene, Ducky. A giant badger attacking a borderline patrol. That must have been awesome."

"I don't find anything awesome about this."

"Neither do I," the sorceress agreed.

"You wouldn't find anything awesome unless it was on fire," Vannard accused her.

"Not true. But I have to admit, a giant irate badger attacking a borderline patrol while being on fire would be pretty awesome."

"You two never cease to horrify me."

"My pleasure." Vannard smiled. Roseduck just sighed.

"So we only know whatever the goblin had told our scouts before getting decapitated. It claimed that they were attacked by someone claiming to be some sort of paladin. Also, a servant of a beige dragon and a lover of a rainbow surgeon, or something like that. He said that the goblins were evil and attacked the village. They were unable to hurt him. He killed all the goblins, burned down the village, and walked away towards the Northern Wilderness. Our scouts say the tracks confirmed that. So, Vannard, you know what I want you to do, don't you?" Roseduck immediately realised he shouldn't have asked that. But it was too late.

"Of course." The assassin seemed genuinely pleased. "You want me to find a bigger village, slaughter all inhabitants and burn it down afterwards. I shall enjoy that immensely."

That was exactly the sort of response the General had been afraid of. He was going to explain why Vannard's idea was very, very stupid, but Saalteinamariva interjected. "You moron! Of course he doesn't want you to slaughter a village! If he wanted a village slaughtered, he would have asked me! Magic is a much more efficient way to do this."

"It may be so, but it's nowhere as satisfying as the conventional method," Vannard replied calmly.

"Vannard..." the General started, but the assassin held up his hand to interrupt him.

"Yes, yes, it was a stupid idea. It's obvious you want me to track down and assassinate that paladin."

This idea was marginally better than the previous one. Only marginally. "Vannard, do you really think I want you to try to find a paladin who was last seen walking towards the Northern Wilderness a few weeks ago and who could be just about anywhere by now? In order to avenge a goblin village?"

"Well, when you put it like that... No, not really. So who do you want me to kill?"

"No one. I want you to find out where did that paladin come from."

"Come again?" Vannard seemed utterly confused.

"I require information on that paladin's background. What is his name, where did he come from, what does he want, and so forth. This might be of utmost importance. I want you to gather this information."

"But..."

"But that does not involve killing people. Yes, I know. I am well aware that you are an assassin, not a scout. Unfortunately, I don't really have anyone else to send. You can do it."

"But..."

"But you do not know where to start. Don't worry, I do. If my theory is correct, he is most likely travelling in straight lines. I extrapolated the path he was travelling according to the vector of his approach to the goblin village and found possible starting points. You will receive a map containing these."

"But..."

"But you do not know how to gather information? It is simple. You go to a village, you ask around. Start with the mayor. I think that an encounter with that paladin might have been quite memorable. Also, remember that a nice silver coin often helps people with refreshing their memories. You will be provided with funds."

The assassin smiled nastily. "Some say that a nice steel dagger also helps people with refreshing their memories, you know."

"Does it really, in your experience?"

He thought about this for a moment. "Well, in my experience, it usually helps people to become quite dead."

"I thought so. Stick to silver."

The sorceress sniggered.

"Be quiet, hyena," Vannard said. "You would put people on fire before questioning them."

"At least they'd be burning to share their knowledge," Saalteinamariva replied, ignoring being called a hyena. Roseduck groaned inwardly at the awful pun.

"So, Vannard, will you do it?"

"Very well. Since you refuted all my objections before I even came up with them, it appears I don't have any way to wiggle out of this assignment." Vannard paused. "Unless... I kill you." He paused again, but the General didn't even flinch. "Which I'm not going to do at the moment."

"Very obliged," Roseduck said. "There is a horse prepared for you. Here is bag containing some funds and the map. Also, a few pointers on what to ask, so that you don't have to think too much. I know how you hate that. Find out as much as you can, but try to return as fast as possible. I might have some people for you to assassinate soon."

"Will be looking forward to this," Vannard said, took the bag and left.

"Break your neck!" the sorceress called after him.

"Was that really necessary?" the General asked.

"I guess not." She shrugged. "And, to tell you the truth, I'd be quite disappointed if my wish came true. I want to kill him myself one day."

"Now that's... I don't even know how to respond to this."

"So don't." With the lack of chairs still in effect, the sorceress sat on the table. "Instead you could tell me why did I have to witness you sending that moron somewhere far away for no apparent reason? Not that I disapprove."

"Because we are on the same team and we need to work together." Roseduck realised how ridiculous and unconvincing that sounded. But it was all he had.

"I'm on no team!" Saalteinamariva protested. "Especially not with that insane murderous cretin! And I am beginning to have my doubts about you."

The General sighed again. "We went through this before. You know very well that no other lord will keep you around..."

"Why not?" the sorceress protested again. "A lot of them would be delighted to associate with someone of my power and..."

"BECAUSE," he interrupted, "they don't appreciate insolence, bad temper and putting random people on fire."

"Call me bad-tempered one more time..." she rose to face the General. She stopped herself just before threatening to put him on fire. Roseduck just smiled and nodded.

"You see what I mean."

She sat down again. "I can't help it. I'm a fire mage. Fire magic causes anger. And I wasn't a calm person to begin with."

"You are what you are and many can have a problem with that," the General said. "I don't. As long as you don't put me on fire."

"I'll try not to. But no promises."

Roseduck sighed yet again. "Very well. Let's get to the matter at hand. The... accident."

"Vannard did it," she said without hesitation.

"I didn't even say what accident I'm talking about!"

"True. But there's high chance it was him, whatever accident you have in mind."

"I mean the Emperor's accident," the General explained.

"I still say it was him."

"Unlikely. Too elaborate. I do not wish to hypothesise on who, how and why at the moment. Instead, I'd like to ponder the consequences."

"I never cared much about these things," Saalteinamariva admitted. "One Emperor dies, the next one gets enthroned, things stay as they were?"

"There is no next one," the General said sadly.

"What do you mean, no next one? He didn't have children, that much I know, but next of kin?"

"According to the Codex, nobody alive is related closely enough."

That surprised the sorceress. "So...?"

"So for the first time in history we'll have an election!" Roseduck replied with an added display of false enthusiasm.

"A... what?" She never heard this word before. She heard a similar one once, though. The person she had heard it from ended up running around and screaming as a result of being put on fire. It would be better for Roseduck if that word wasn't related.

"Election. The High Lords will vote to choose a new Emperor."

"Ah. How... interesting." Voting on things. What a strange notion. The sorceress didn't care much.

"That's not all. What happens next might interest you more."

"Very well, what happens next?"

"The new Emperor chooses a new High Lord Commander to replace me, and then I most likely get assassinated." Roseduck smiled brightly.

"Oh. That's not too good, I guess."

"I'm glad that we're on the same page here."

"Do you think the next High Lord Commander will appreciate a bad tempered sorceress with a tendency to put people on fire?" Saalteinamariva asked, with a wide, false smile.

"Unlikely," Roseduck replied, smiling back even more widely and falsely.

"That's what I thought. I suppose it means I should help you stay alive?" She didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about this.

"Correct, but that's a topic for some other time. There's no hurry. Right now what interests me that a first Hero for a really long time appears just as the Emperor dies."

Saalteinamariva was sceptical. "You mean that guy you sent Vannard to find out about? Killing some goblins isn't all that heroic."

"I mean a Hero. With capital H. Like these from stories of old. Attacking a superior force in a rather silly way and winning anyway, fighting whatever he sees as 'evil', adding stupid titles to his name..."

"This all might be just a coincidence."

"Yes, it is just a coincidence, and the Emperor's accident was just an accident. And the old stableman accidentally self-immolated last week too?" he asked, risking the sorceress' wrath, yet this time she controlled herself.

"Accidents happen sometimes. Of course, it was a just a coincidence that he had been looking at my behind just before it happened," she replied, unabashed.

"He was short-sighted. In fact, almost blind."

"So he didn't even see it coming."

-I-I-I-I-

Arthaxiom travelled through the wastelands. On foot. In full armour. He was a Hero, so he didn't mind.

He carried no food nor water. It was not a problem. Heroes don't die from hunger or thirst. That wouldn't be very Heroic.

He walked alone through hostile, uninhabited territory. There was no one to keep guard when he slept. He could have got ambushed and eaten by wild animals. Nothing like that had happened. Wild animals suddenly became polite and well-mannered. They attacked only when the Hero was ready to fight, and only in limited numbers. Swarming a Hero would be really inappropriate and could tax him unduly, whereas they were only supposed to be a mildly entertaining food source.

It is hard to say if crossing the Desolated Wastelands took the Hero a few days, a few weeks or a few months. It is not important. Every day was almost the same. Wake up, find a small water reservoir cleverly hidden where no water should ever be, have a drink. Get attacked by a random animal, kill it. Find some dry twigs despite a distinct lack of trees in the vicinity. Strike a fire. Cook and eat the killed animal. Walk, walk, walk. Kill more random animals. Eat some of them for lunch. Walk some more, kill some more, have another meal, find some more water... And find a comfortable spot for a good night's sleep, however improbable it would seem.

Only the animals varied. The wastelands had a surprisingly rich ecosystem. Things like snakes, rats, and even an occasional hyena were quite understandable. On the other hand, a polar camel certainly wasn't, and neither were a flying swordfish and an obese orange opossum, to name just a few. A lesser man might have been startled by those, but not Arthaxiom. They were something to fight, so he fought them. They weren't something to think about, at least for him. He wasn't big on thinking. The origin of a white rabbit wearing fancy clothes and a top hat was of no importance to him. He appreciated the taste, though. Only the round ticking thing was somewhat difficult to chew.

Encounters with wildlife posed little trouble to Arthaxiom. They weren't supposed to. Having an epic fight with each one wouldn't be very Heroic. They were too random and not quest-relevant enough for that. That is not to say that they were completely defenceless. The camel, for example, had a nasty icy spit.

One day the scenery changed. The wasteland ended. Arthaxiom entered the Northern Wilderness. It was covered in snow, like everything named 'northern' should be. The paladin didn't waste a thought on absurdity of a snow-covered forest bordering a scorched wasteland. He had more important things to do. Like being a Hero, for example.

The snow-covered forest contained, not surprisingly, snow. Also cold and icy wind. It didn't bother the paladin any more than heat of the wastelands did. Not at all, that is. He continued forward, even though he didn't know where exactly he was going. He was supposed to reach the Northern Wilderness, and here he was. Now he was supposed to find a cave inhabited by a wise man. Or a mage. Or a hermit, maybe. He wasn't really sure. That was just a small detail, unworthy of a Hero's attention.

Another small detail, also unworthy of a Hero's attention, was the size of the region. It never occurred to him that the Northern Wilderness could be huge and that finding the hermit-containing cave could take him weeks, or even months. He just went there and found it, without a need for any sort of directions. Heroes always find their way.

One thousand, three hundred and thirty-seven steep, narrow stairs led to the cave. Each one covered with ice. In case of a fall, Arthaxiom would have a fair chance of ending up in a nice deep chasm. It would be an instant death with some luck. Slow and painful otherwise. He went upwards anyway, without regard for his life, and he succeeded. After all, it would be very inappropriate for a Hero to fall into a chasm. He almost slipped once, but it was just to add some tension.

There was a sign next to the cave entrance. Arthaxiom couldn't read it. Mainly because he didn't know how to read. Fortunately, a small magical invisible little blue bird was there just in time to tell him that it said "NO SALESMEN, EVIL DEMONS, SNOW PUMAS". The paladin was pretty sure he was neither a snow puma, nor an evil demon. None of his titles suggested that he was a salesman, but he wasn't entirely sure about that one. He entered anyway. Signs don't stop Heroes.

The cave, as it is usually the case, was full of interesting rock formations. They were conveniently illuminated by some fluorescent fungi. After all, a Hero can't be expected to lug a torch with him wherever he goes, just in case he needs to go underground.

It was long and convoluted. One could easily get lost in there. Arthaxiom didn't. He found the right way, guided only by his Heroic instinct. Getting lost in a cave and starving to death wouldn't be a demise worthy of a Hero. Suitable for a secondary character maybe, and not a very likeable one too.

The paladin encountered rats, bats, spiders, and other cavelife. None of these challenged him. He was rather pleased about that. Littering someone's home with corpses would be a bit rude, and he needed that someone's help.

There also were skeletons. The lying around, unmoving kind. Arthaxiom somewhat expected them to suddenly turn into the walking around, bone-rattling and hostile kind, but they refused to. He briefly wondered why, but came up with nothing. What he didn't wonder about was why would all those lie around. Skeletons in a cave seemed quite natural to him.

Finally, he reached his destination. In the middle of a small chamber there was someone. Or something. It looked like a heap of grey hair. Was there a person underneath? Arthaxiom wasn't sure. He wanted to ask, but he felt it would be rude to intrude on someone just like that. He decided to knock first. There was no door, so he improvised.

"Knock knock!"

"Gaaaaah!" the heap of hair screamed and leapt in the air. Indeed, it was a person. A person wearing dirty gray robes. His hair was so long that the end of it was still lying on the floor when he stood up. Same with his beard. The colour also was dirty gray, matching his clothes nicely. Overall he looked he had been living in cave for quite some time. Which was obviously the case. That had to be the hermit who the Hero was looking for. Or a wise man. Or maybe a mage. Possibly some combination of these.

"I apologise, I did not mean to scare you..."

"Begone, foul demon!" the hermit interrupted.

"I am not a demon. Demons are not allowed here," the paladin replied calmly.

"They enter anyway! These scamps, scoundrels! If you are not a demon, then take off that steel can and show me your face!"

The paladin did as he was told. The old man saw his neatly cut brown hair and his square face without a trace of facial hair. He looked into his blue eyes which seemed focused, yet completely devoid of intelligence. He instantly realised who was standing in front of him. He wasn't an old wise man, a hermit, and possibly a mage too, for nothing. Recognising a Hero from not a long way away wasn't hard when one knew what to look for.

The wise man wasn't at all happy that a Hero came to visit him. He would definitely prefer a demon. Some of them weren't all that bad. Those of female persuasion were even quite pleasant sometimes...

"Well?" the paladin broke the hermit's daydream.

"Ah, yes, right. You're definitely not a demon. Also not a salesman I suppose?" He would even prefer a salesman to a Hero. They were nasty, nasty beings, but he knew how to deal with them. A nice, large stick usually did the trick. He had quite a collection of those. An old wise man has to have some pieces of wood lying around. Quite handy for chasing off unwanted guests. But not Heroes. You can't chase away a Hero with a stick. That just doesn't work.

"I am not a salesman. I am paladin Arthaxiom the Great, Deliverer of Light, Slayer of Evil and Wicked, Guardian of the Ancient Secret..."

The wise old man didn't expect that. He couldn't have. Nobody could have. He just stood there, with his eyes wide open, not really believing in what he was hearing.

"...Sword of Justice in the Gloom of Uncertainty!"

There was an awkward pause. Evidently, some sort of a reaction was expected from the mage. "Yes, yes, very nice. Why did you come to see me, Apostle of the Sturgeon?"

"The Rainbow Sturgeon," the paladin corrected.

"Right, the Rainbow Sturgeon." The old man rolled his eyes. "So, what do you want?"

"I want you to help me! Come with me! Together, we will defeat the Empire of Evil!"

"Of course, I'll be delighted to join you... gaaaaaah!" the hermit bit his own tongue just in time. The need to accompany the Hero was tremendous. Only those strong of will can resist that. He was taken by surprise and was having a really hard time. If only he could find an excuse... "I mean, I mean, I would, if I could, but I can't, because, because... because I have a headache! And hernia! And magnesium deficiency! Don't mind me, young man, run along and defeat the Empire of Evil while I recuperate here in my cave."

"A pity," Arthaxiom replied. The old man sighed with relief. He wasn't sure he'd be able to resist if the paladin had persisted. "In this case, could you possibly point me towards an ancient artefact of great power which would aid me in my quest?"

"Yes, I could do that." The hermit was happy to survive the temptation, so he decided it couldn't hurt to send the Hero somewhere. Possibly far, far away. "What artefact are we talking about?"

"I do not know. An ancient one. Powerful."

The mage scratched his head. "Very well... I know of a Magical Ladle of Taste."

"What does it do?"

"Makes every dish you cook taste like the excrements of angels, or so they say."

"It is not what I had in mind." The paladin looked disappointed.

"A Nimble Needle of Nirvana? With this you can sew thrice as fast!"

"I sew quite badly."

"So you would sew badly with triple the speed!"

"I do not think I really want to. Perhaps something else?"

"The Jolly Rake of Precision! It makes gardening not only easy, but also fun!"

"No, no, no! I am looking for an artefact that will help he to defeat the Empire of Evil! A sword! Or an axe! A mace maybe, or a spear! Some sort of armour! Magical gauntlets! Or bracers! Or shoulder pads! Perhaps a halberd, or a trident..."

"Stop! I get it! You don't need to list every possible type of weapon!"

"Sorry, I got carried away."

"So... the Singing Axe of Heavens?"

"What does it do?"

"It sings, I guess."

After a long discussion Arthaxiom finally settled on the Shining Slaughtering Sword of the Silver Sun. It seemed to fit his titles well. Also, a shining sword would really suit a paladin. Last but not the least, he really liked the letter S.

The hermit merrily informed him that this sword was hidden in another dark and foreboding cave, located somewhere in the Gloomy Jungle. Well defended, of course. That was to be expected. Arthaxiom wouldn't have it any other way. An ancient artefact that isn't guarded probably isn't any good.

Thus, the paladin continued on his journey. He only knew in which general direction he had to proceed, but it was enough. Heroes need no maps.

The old man returned to his duties. They mainly consisted of sitting on the floor and staring intently at rock formations, while occasionally letting out a wistful sigh. Being a hermit wasn't an easy job.

-I-I-I-I-

Glorm the bandit chief also didn't have an easy job. The westernmost part of the Empire wasn't a good place to be a bandit. Lack of people to rob was somewhat problematic. It was a downtrodden, rural area, with population consisting mostly of peasants. Peasants were poor as a rule. A rich peasant wouldn't be a peasant anymore. And probably would have moved out immediately.

Peasants were a lousy target for bandits, but it wasn't as if they had much choice. And they needed to rob a lot of them, cause the loot was just horrible. A bag of beetroots was the best one could hope for. On a lucky day. Sometimes it was an empty bag. Or a hit in the face with a rake, because some peasants could wield a nasty farming implement and they weren't keen on giving up their beetroots.

More wealthy travellers happened very rarely. It wasn't actually a bad thing, because they were even worse. They had better things to steal, but they also had guards. Nasty, nasty guards with even nastier cutting and stabbing things. They never hesitated to inflict some nasty wounds with those. No fun for a bandit, none at all.

Decent targets were few and far between. Therefore Glorm was pleasantly surprised when one of his men told him about a lone traveller.

"Ya sure, Flam?" he asked warily.

The other bandit scratched his straw hat. He realised something was wrong, so he took off his hat and scratched his head. With his hat. Something was still wrong. He moved his hat to his other hand and finally scratched his head. Only then did he reply. "Yah."

"Why is he alone?" Glorm was somewhat unconvinced.

Flam scowled. These were difficult questions. He didn't like difficult questions. That's why he became a bandit. He got fed up with having to respond to things like 'Flam, ya fed da pig?' or 'Flam, wat happened to da bottled spirits?' or even 'Flam, why ya has no pants on?'. Unfortunately the questions followed him even here. "Dunno," he replied and shrugged.

"He's not a mage?" The band had bad memories after trying to rob a sorcerer once. He simply laughed at them. So Rude Lenny stepped up and called him an 'old fort'. Lenny wasn't good at insulting, but made up for it by making an effort. For that particular effort he got turned into a frog. Nobody else bothered the mage. As for Lenny, the bandits took good care of him. They didn't leave their own behind. Unfortunately, during a very harsh winter supplies were scarce, so he ended up eaten.

Flam thought about this question. This one was important. Even he knew that. He remembered eating Lenny's leg all too well. Tasted a bit like chicken. "Nah. No beard."

"Good. So where is he now?"

Flam sighed. Being a scout was fun until one actually spotted something. And then the questions came. Where did he come from and what does he look like and all that stuff. He really pushed his brain to produce coherent answers. He knew it was worth it. If the robbery was successful, the one who spotted the victim would get an extra share.

Come morning, the bandits were waiting in an ambush. The whole band gathered for the occasion, all seven of them. It's not like they had anything better to do. Their idea of ambush was simple. They waited where the road entered a forest. Three of them were hiding in the bushes near the road, and the remaining four with their horses hid in the trees a bit further away. It usually worked well, so there was no need to change anything.

They knew their victim was coming their way. He came to the village by the road from the east, so he had to leave by the road to the west. As simple as that. The bandits' logic, flawed as it might be, worked. There simply was nowhere else to go. Nobody ever came there just to visit that village. It was way too small and hopeless for that. It didn't even have a name.

Their victim wasn't an early bird. They couldn't have known that beforehand, so they had laid the ambush at dawn. Now it was almost noon. Glorm had a lot of time to regret his choice of companions. Flam had been chewing on a bush for the last hour, and Sig was passing gas from time to time. The bandit chief a bit philosophically decided that he shouldn't be too annoyed with himself for picking them. The other ones would surely annoy him too. He knew them all too well.

Finally, a lone horseman appeared. A slim figure, clad all in black, riding a big brown horse. He didn't look like a mage. That was fortunate. If there was a slightest hint he might be one, the ambush would be off. Glorm squawked loudly. It was a squawk of a wounded desert owl, which he had always used. It signalled the other group to get ready. In response he received a howl of an angry wolf, which meant that the horsemen were ready, and a scowl of an annoyed fox, which meant that there was an annoyed fox nearby. Everything seemed to be in place, so he braced himself and jumped out.

The ambush went flawlessly. The bandits sure knew how to ambush someone. They did it many, many times before. The three footmen blocked the road, swords drawn, ready to strike if the victim tried to charge through. The horsemen burst out of the forest: two were flanking, and the other two blocked the rear. Now it was their target's choice: talk or fight. Glorm always preferred talking. Fighting was bad for business. Bandits could get wounded, horses could get wounded. Loot could get covered with blood. Really unnecessary. Should the man cooperate, they might let him go. After taking all his belongings, of course. Unless they decided they really disliked him for some reason, in which case they might kill him anyway.

"Your money or your life!" said Glorm. It was a good old traditional approach. A choice and a threat. He had witnessed many responses to that. Some tried to fight, some begged for mercy, some gave up their possessions while trying to keep their pride. This one did none of that.

"Ah. Finally." The man was smiling. Smiling! He shouldn't have been smiling! Glorm was pretty sure of that.

"What?" he asked, incredulous.

"What I was meaning to say is that I was beginning to get worried that you wouldn't ambush me," the man replied pleasantly. Seeing the outlaw's surprise, he continued. "Yes, I knew. I noticed your friend. The one who's busy eating a twig." Glorm looked at Flam angrily. Flam guiltily swallowed the twig and started coughing furiously. "I can recognise an inept bandit sneaking around, you know. By the way, nice signal you made there. Let me guess, a mating call of a moose?"

The man's perfect calm made Glorm uneasy, but he tried to compose himself. This wasn't going well, but they still outnumbered him seven to one. And, oddly enough, he seemed unarmed. "All right. You knew. But you fell into our trap anyway! Don't try to run! You can't escape!"

"Because those guys have horses, right? Are you sure you are feeding them well? I'm no expert, but they look awfully skinny. And that one seems to be a donkey."

The bandit gurgled in fury. "Now you give us all your stuff or we'll kill you and take it ourselves!", he threatened.

"Yes, yes, that's how it works usually," the man replied. "But not this time, you see. This time I will do the killing. Quite some time since I killed someone."

"You don't even have a weapon! Surrender, and I'll let you live!" The bandit leader's shout sounded more like desperation than like a threat. He suddenly realised he didn't want to fight this man. He didn't know why exactly.

"Oh, I have a few knives around my person. Don't worry, I'll manage," the lone horseman replied.

Glorm had no choice. He couldn't just back up now. Not without losing his face. And whatever self-respect he had. He had to order the attack. "All right, get..." he started, but didn't get to finish. There was a blur of movement, a whizzing sound, and both Flam and Sig fell down. They were screaming and clutching their faces, and blood was oozing from between their fingers.

It took Glorm a moment to understand what had just happened. A moment he shouldn't have used. By the time he realised that his henchmen were downed by two daggers thrown at once, his opponent was on the ground and running towards him. Before he could decide whether to fight or run, he was down on the ground, squirming in pain. The pain seemed to stem from several places at once. He thought he was done for, but then he realised he actually wasn't bleeding. He hadn't been wounded. Still, he was too much in pain to get up and fight. He could only watch. And he was watching intently.

He saw the four horsemen of inept banditry hesitate. Nobody could blame them for hesitating in this situation. Their companions had just fallen without putting up a fight. As it often happens in such situations, the group followed the first one to act. And the first one to act was Hurm, the stupidest of the bunch. He charged. So did the other three. Glorm hoped they would ride their victim-turned-killer down or hack him to pieces. It was a vain hope.

Hurm leaned from his saddle and lifted his sword, preparing to strike. His opponent on the other hand didn't prepare to strike. He simply passed him on the side that didn't contain the hand with the sword. And stuck a knife in Hurm's kidneys in passing. The process was repeated with the next rider. And the next one too.

Glorm briefly wondered just how many knives did that man have and where did he keep them. He also was glad that none of them were stuck in him at the moment. He wasn't as glad that out of control horses were coming his way. He barely managed to roll away from danger. Hurm fell down near him. He didn't seem very alive.

Now there was only one outlaw horseman left. Or a donkeyman, to be exact. He managed to break off his attack in time, probably because the donkey was a bit slower than the horses. He sheathed his sword and grabbed his bow instead. It was actually a decent idea. Glorm knew that a fight between a mounted bowman and a footman armed only with knives simply had to end with a victory of the bowman, yet he somehow doubted this would be the case.

"A bit late for this, don't you think?" the knife-wielder asked, mockingly.

"Never too late to shoot you in the AAAARGH!" The bandit screamed as a thrown dagger hit him in the throat. He fell from his donkey and stopped screaming when he hit the ground. His killer calmly went up to the body and retrieved his dagger. He stabbed the corpse once more just in case, cleaned the knife and hid it somewhere on his person. Then he went to the next fallen bandit and repeated the process.

Glorm watched in horror as his comrades were being finished off one by one. Suddenly it struck him: this could not be a human. Surely a demon or something! The bandit was hurt and in a lot of pain, but he was still alive and he intended to keep it this way. Fear of the demon gave him extra strength. Also the pain was subsiding slowly. He stood up and ran. Back into the forest. As fast as he could, not stopping, not looking back. Just forward, forward, away from that man, or demon, or whatever it was... He didn't care much about the direction. He should have cared. Because after a few minutes he ran straight into a trapping pit. His own trapping pit.

It was a good pit. Glorm had made sure of that. The bandits put a lot of effort into it when there were no adequate targets for banditry, which means they had a lot of time for that. The pit was meant for trapping huge animals, up to bears. No bear could have gotten out of it. And neither could a human. Not without tools at least. But it was a problem for later. Right now, the outlaw was happy and relieved. He missed the spikes. He got away from that...

"Enjoying yourself?" Or not. The demon was looking down the pit and smiling.

The bandit felt like a bear that fell into a trapping pit. The only difference was that he wasn't a bear. "You! You... whatever you are! How did you find me? How did you kill them all?" He had nowhere to run, no way to fight, so he just shouted in pure desperation.

"Some say that practice makes perfect. And I had a lot of practice." The demon smiled again. It was not a pleasant smile.

"Are you going to kill me?" The answer was obvious. Glorm simply had nothing better to say. Yet the demon hesitated.

"I... think not." There was a brief pause. "Leaving you in here seems funnier."

"You bastard!"

"Now now, no need to be rude." The demon turned around to leave. Suddenly Glorm remembered he had a dagger too. He had completely forgotten about it. It seemed so inadequate, but he had nothing to lose now. He quickly snatched it from his belt and threw it at his enemy.

The throw was perfect. The blade should have pierced the target's skull. But it didn't. The demon made just a slightest move with his head. His hair moved as the dagger sailed past him.

"That would have been helpful in getting out of the pit, don't you think?" he asked without turning. Nothing indicated that he even cared about the knife being just an inch away from killing him. The only response was a cry of anger and frustration.

The demon went away. Glorm was left in the trapping pit. There was nothing he could use to get out, also no food and no water. It was very unlikely that anyone would come to his rescue. He really disliked the idea of being the first and only victim of his own pit. He looked around, desperately seeking anything to help him. There was nothing. Nothing but stout spikes, dug in firmly into the ground. He tried to get some of them out, but to no avail. They had dug them in too well. After all, they were supposed to impale a falling bear. He sighed and started gnawing on one.

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FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"

The Cyneweard

Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."

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Spectra

Ro-Ange Olson: "Loved it and couldn't put it down. I really hope there is a sequel. Well written and the plot really moves forward."