Once a place the public could roam and see the riches of the kings’ lines, the Kings’ Maze was built with strength. Solid walls several feet thick and fifty twigs high were built with massive stone blocks. It had taken the time of four kings to build it, and for several kings, the labyrinth wrongfully named a maze was used not only to see the riches of the kings but also for parties, celebrations, and meetings with the rulers and lords. It had been a grand place, and though everything was overgrown now and no riches remained, it was still grand.
Filled with hundreds of passages, including hidden ones used to show the more exclusive peoples, it was shocking with its height. Most passages were on the ground level, but there were also places up higher you could climb to which had mostly been used for maintenance. Those places were once hidden behind golden plaques or shields or painted carvings, but now they stood open and from them sprouted plants and vines and other things that seeded inside it.
But the deeper we went into the labyrinth, the more signs there were of danger; a broken arrow stuck in a crack in the wall; a stain of blood on stone; footprints in the mud not yet dried from the last storm that were not of man nor even of animal; skeletal bones left scattered along the edges, somehow forgotten by the hungry creatures we called goblins.
Then there was a roughly drawn line gouged into the grass and dirt between a passage that would lead us closer to the center, and upon the wall next to it was a mark which looked like a sharp M sitting beneath a wavy W with a rough line crossed diagonally through both. Next to it sat another symbol, this one a backwards S and two lines intercepting the top, pointing forward. Most would not know what these meant, but I knew, and the others knew of my knowledge as well and so they looked to me to translate.
“Boǡk goaĥń,” I whispered in the ancient elven tongue. “It means something similar to pass only for death by goblin.” I grimaced. “It means the goblins consider this their territory. It is a warning, telling us our death is imminent if we go further.”
“The whole maze is their territory,” Jazera whispered with a frown of confusion.
“Clearly not. They must use the outer reaches only to hunt, but if we pass further, it is trespassing on their territory. They will hunt us until we are dead. Out here, they only hunt for convenience of our closeness. It probably explains why some people survive long enough to escape.”
Goblins are extremely territorial. Once, their ancestors had been elves, and many of the Elven traits passed down to them, such as the love of riches as well as being so territorial and protective of their homes. Their excellent eyesight and hearing had also been passed along, and though goblins had no magic, they were dangerous just the same.
I backed up the horse. “It’s almost dark. There’s a passage a few twigs back that the horses can fit inside. We should stay there the night.”
“There’s still plenty of time. We can cover another arm of distance yet,” said Aitch, though he and the others still followed.
“We could,” I agreed. “But if we are delayed at all, we won’t make it to the next hidden passage large enough to hold the horses. Best we stay here for now.”
There were no arguments and after I found the proper stone to push on, a piece of the wall pushed in with it and we coaxed the nervous horses inside then went in ourselves.
That night, we were safe. None except those who knew where the passages were could find their way in, but though this was true, none slept soundly.
It was hard to sleep soundly when you could hear the scurry of goblins climbing the walls around us. Goblins were more creatures of the night, like blood-drinkers or bloodbats, who held a nocturnal schedule and roamed the nights expertly.
I fell asleep listening to their calls that were almost, but not quite, elven, and for some reason, I dreamed terrible dreams of drowning.
Not many people went further than the outskirts, so when we’d been travelling an hour, and Aitch saw a glint of shine at the base of a wall, I was not surprised.
“Gold!” he exclaimed, holding it up in the light and grinning widely. “An old coin. Must be... I think that might be King Arker’s crest on this. It be worth...” He shook his head, not even being able to imagine it. He shoved the coin into his pocket, then moved on.
Aitch was, from then on, in a far better mood.
At least until Jazera suddenly lifted her bow and shot upward, just over Aitch’s head, and a goblin let out a squeal as it fell, nearly landing on Aitch.
“Run,” sas all I said, and we kicked our horses into a hard gallop.
No arrows followed us or shot at us, but that didn’t matter, because where there was one goblin, there was another. Since the others did not attack, that meant that it had been a scout following us, and that meant there would be more coming, and soon.
And we were right.
“Left!” I shouted. Not to turn left, but that there was a goblin on the left. I had only seen the barest of movements up in one of the maintenance passages, but any movement meant goblin at this point. Jazera – as excellent with her bow as any elf due to her amplified Shadow sight and incredible instincts – turned in her saddle and shot it, ducking below the arrow that had been shot at her almost casually.
It was the first arrow shot at us, but it was far from the last.
As I’ve said, goblins had once been elves – or at least, their ancestors had been. Many, many kings ago, elves far off in another land had been captured and used by a terrible man who wished to learn how to become like them. Obsessed with the elven worlds, he’d experimented on the elves using magic he had found amongst a great ruin of a land which had long since been forgotten.
Eventually, he had created another beast – on purpose or by mistake, no one ever knew – and that beast that was once an elf killed the man and escaped.
As the centuries went by, the creature procreated, growing in number, and though they were hunted by all creatures they were growing just the same. And at each generation, the creatures turned less and less like their elven cousins and more into their own species we now call goblins. The name Goblin deriving from the elven word ğhobel’n meaning false copy or a forgery.
These abominations were still hunted in many realms, but about a hundred summers ago – perhaps a bit more, but not much – the goblins appeared in the Kings Maze and took over. However, never once did they stray from the labyrinth, and so the kings decided that so long as they remained inside this place that was abandoned and did not harm the people, they were not of importance.
Of course, every few years, the white dragons would get a full hunt inside the maze to build their strength as well as cut down the population of goblins for fear that they would leave the maze if it were too small for their size, and when there had been a frightening plague going across Nahdiera about ten years ago, all the dead were dropped into the center of the maze by the dragons in the hopes that eating the sick would make the goblins sick as well and kill them off - an attempt that obviously did not work as well as they had hoped.
But they were not a priority and it would more than likely be several kings yet that would decide to take them out completely.
These goblins did not look like elves at all. They were small, thin, and had a greyish tint to their skin that separated them completely. Mostly naked except a cloth or piece of leather-turned skin over their bits, they blended with the grey stone walls of the maze easily, and they moved very, very fast, climbing like spiders, or perhaps resembling intelligent tree-climbing creatures in the lands across the seas I'd seen as a little girl.
Hairless and with sharpened teeth and long pointed ears, they looked more animal then man-like. Though they stood on two legs, they often crouched and curled low to the ground to hide or were flat against stone to blend in, so it was hard not to see them as four-legged beasts.
But their arrows – small in size and poorly made – were what they used as weapons, and their aim was amazing. The tips of these arrows usually dipped in blackweed (which was a small rot that sat at the base of stones when exposed to too much wet and not enough light) caused severe pain when in contact with wounds.
I had never been shot by one, and though I had seen many goblins in my travels with Jovian outside Nahdiera, out there it was not man that they hunted but elves and so we had been left alone completely, deemed unworthy to be eaten.
I hoped that I would not ever find out what it felt like, but it quickly began to look like I would anyway.
After that first initial shot at Jazera, the goblins began showing up ahead of us on the tops of the walls or in the maintenance passages. Jazera had several dozen arrows on her person, and she shot one after another even as we raced dangerously ahead.
They shot the occasional arrow, but it was easy to tell that they were mostly waiting. Waiting for back-up, waiting for more to come so they could overwhelm us. These creatures were more animal than most, but they still had intelligence and were able to strategize well. They would attack fully when they were sure they could take us down.
Even so, one of those arrows caught Aitch’s horse, getting it in the front shoulder. Of course, this would have caused the horse to rear or fall under ordinary circumstances, but we were in the middle of turning down a low passage at the time and so instead of simply falling, she stumbled, slid, and slammed into a wall while Aitch rolled.
Jazera screamed out his name, fearing his death, but there was little time for frozen fear.
As if they had been waiting for this exact moment, dozens leaped onto the stone walls above Aitch and started shooting as we all turned to get him. Jazera still shot her arrows up, no longer looking down at Aitch, but I was closest to him and terrible with a bow besides so Aitch was all I could see.
He was alive and alert. Relief flooded me.
Then I watched as several arrows hit him, even as he raised his arms and tried to block them with it.
“No!” I screamed and leaped from my horse.
I would not lose another one. I refused.
I ignored Arion’s call as I threw myself under the fire of the goblins, hoping the bag would protect my back while my arm went up to my neck. My other arm reached down and grabbed Aitch’s arm, yanking him. “Get up!”
His eyes were squinted with pain. He had four arrows in his arm, poking out like a spikehog. One was in his shoulder, two in his leg, and one piercing in his stomach.
I started yanking them out, knowing that it would be better if he bled to death then died of an attack of the heart the arrows would cause due to its poison. I had heard that the longer they stayed in, the worse the pain was. I had no experience with this and even Jovian had not been entirely sure of its truth, but I would not risk it. Not when we had the gem. If we could get him to safety quickly, we could keep him alive by giving him the —
I gasped as an arrow went into my calf, then another going into my lower back, which I was fairly sure hit a kidney.
Pain... blinded me.
It was violent, this pain. Ragged. It took what fell like a full minute to remember that I needed to move, that I was kneeling over Aitch’s body, that we needed to move now, now, now. By the time I came to, Arion was pulling the arrows out of me and yanking me to my feet. ”Which way?”
He shook me, then stopped and started running instead, dragging me with him under his arm. A moment later Aitch was handing me something, running next to us. I had never been more thankful to feel that the pain was fading.
The Ruberous Faun, I realized. Arion must have handed it to Aitch before pulling me to my feet.
“Which way?” Arion demanded again.
The pain faded slowly, but the injuries themselves were already healed. It was the poison that still seeped in which was causing the pain. I was otherwise fine.
My mind began to clear. I looked around, then had to think back to remember the map and where we had been. It took me a second, and we almost passed the way we needed to go, but I did remember.
By this time, we were all on foot. I’m not sure what happened to Jazera and Arion’s horses, nor my own, but I didn’t bother searching or asking of them and simply ran, leading the way through the labyrinth. There was a hidden passage, but I didn’t want to be trapped so we had to pass it and hope that we would make it to the one we needed.
The longer we ran, the longer the creatures had to become organized, and the more organized they became the more fire was coming down upon us. Jazera shot almost constantly, even as she ran, and I was sure that every one of her arrows were hitting a mark, but we were stuck by some, too. Jaz in the hip, Arion in the shoulder and also his arm which was over my shoulders, protecting my neck.
The Ruberous Faun was passed around like a hot potato and it kept us healing, but one arrow to the heart or head and we would be dead and that could not happen. More, I remembered that the Ruberous lost its energy and so when it wasn’t being used, I carried it in my gloved hand myself to keep it from being used unnecessarily.
I got an arrow in my leg and stumbled.
Arion pulled me up into his arms with barely a pause and carried me while I yanked it out and - in my hurry to heal - slammed the gem against my face so hard that I was sure it would have become a bruise on my jaw had the gem not healed me. I was not a large girl by any means, but I had a good lot of muscle on me and I knew I was not at all light. Arion could still run while carrying me, but it slowed him down.
I wondered why he hadn’t passed me to Aitch who could have carried me for several arms because of his unnatural strength, but by then I was already healed and on my feet. I passed the gem to Jazera who had been shot yet again, this time in the thigh, causing her to limp as she ran. Her aim was still true.
“Up here on the left!” I shouted, still feeling the pain of the arrows. One of them shot past my face, skimming my cheek. I ignored it despite the poison – I could handle this. It was not life threatening.
“Stop!” I shouted at Aitch who was ahead. “Stop here!”
“We’ll be trapped.” Arion yelled.
“There’s another way out. Jazera, cover us!” I ordered while I skidded to a stop and started counting stone blocks. The stones were easy in a way to remember, as they were almost always on the sixth and eighth row, three columns apart from each other. However, finding the exact point in a wall from a small map was not easy and so it took me several minutes to find the right ones. Arrows came at us like rain, embedding into the ground surrounding, ricocheting off the walls, or piercing our persons. It was storming.
I pushed hard. The stone door slid opened with a groan, pushing in so that we could squeeze inside. I went, Arion behind me, then Aitch and Jazera. I waited for Rian to come through before remembering that he never would.
A goblin pushed inside after us, tackling Jazera before any of us could react, biting at her hand which held her bow, mangling it.
“Close it! Close it!” she was screaming, the tone so high I winced at the pitch even in such circumstances. Arion called her name in alarm, adding to the noise. Aitch was the one who turned to the stone door and started pushing while Arion picked up his sword and went to his sister, cutting the head off the goblin with a single stroke.
The body dropped. Its head hung from her mangled hand for a moment before it fell off, teeth peeling free from her flesh and bouncing slightly on its torso before rolling against the wall.
I handed her the Ruberous and she shot me a rare, grateful look remembering her hand would be saved.
Then the sound of a slam as the door closed leaving us in complete darkness, then another slamming sound as several goblins tried pushing at the hidden door. They did not know how to get in, for their intelligence was not high enough for that. But they knew that there was some way in and so that door would not remain closed for long.
Still, we stayed in place for a few moments as Jazera healed her hand with the gem and the rest of us caught our breaths.
Someone touched my face gently in the dark and I knew it was Arion, tracing the scratch on my cheek where the poison still burned. I knew he could see me, so I smiled in his general direction and tried to convey that I would be fine, but a few moments later his hand left my cheek and then was replaced by the cold of the gem.
I sighed as the poison left my system – it left very, very slowly. I shouldn’t have allowed the Ruberous to heal me when it was so low on energy, but it was hard to protest while feeling such relief.
“Where to now?” Jazera asked, breathing hard still from the running and the pain.
“This passage leads us somewhere to the east. I don’t remember how, but I know it just goes between the walls, so it shouldn’t be hard.” I sighed tiredly. “The thing is, we need to be sure to come back this way or I would find the passage that will take us through to the inner circle.”
A pause. “If we can’t find that passage, then how long would it take the reach the inner circle?” she questioned.
“Another day or two at least, in parts of the map I didn’t memorize.”
Arion sighed and took my hand. “Then we’ll be coming back this way.” His voice was grim. Aitch let out a tired huff.
He started leading me in the darkness for a moment, then Aitch lit his hand on fire and held it up so we could see where we were going. I grimaced – this was not a place for hidden treasure but instead a simple passage to lead us through somewhere closer to another hidden area. Therefore, it was narrow and had never truly been well kept even a hundred years ago.
Its narrowness made it easy for spiders to make their webs across the space and I very nearly walked into a spider with a belly the size of my fist. It was a harmless spider, but still...
I ducked under the web, only relaxing when I was passed it and it hadn't fallen on me.
It was only a few minutes walk but during that time, I concentrated on where we were going so that I could be sure to lead us back to the same place only on the other side. Then we were at the stone wall, a seemingly dead end, and I knelt to find the stones again.
I found them and started pushing but was pulled back by Arion. Aitch bent to take my place and Jazera pulled an arrow in her bow to prepare, both of them shooting me a look as if questioning my intelligence.
Of course, that’s right, we had no idea what was on the other side.
There was nothing. Arion put his arm over my shoulder. “Let’s move,” he whispered. We closed the stone wall as quietly as we could and then started sneaking along the wall back to where we’d started.
Again, I felt ridiculously loud in comparison to the Shadows, but loud or not, I was useful – I lead us to the same place we’d been except on the other side of the wall.
Then I motioned. We needed to go to a place that would bring us right into the open, right where they would see us if they were looking our way instead of at the stone. It would only be for a minute before we climbed a ladder into a passage and were hidden from view, but that minute could cost us our life.
Arion grimaced and let go of my arm to move his head around the corner. He looked quickly, though he was in shadow now which meant he was difficult to see by any who did not know of his presence already. It was almost dusk by now and should truthfully find a place to stay the night, but we were so very close and I didn't want to stay another night in the walls of these infested corridors.
Arion motioned to Aitch and before I knew it, I was being picked up and tucked into Aitch’s arms like a child.
This allowed me to see over his shoulder when we moved out into the open, quiet and fast.
I very nearly gasped aloud.
The walls were covered in goblins.
They clung to the walls like spiders, eyes on the area where they expected us to emerge from the stone. They were quiet now. I understood that they were trying to make us think that they were no longer out there, which meant that they were smarter then I realized as they were usually very loud when in groups, shouting their tongue that was almost-but-not-quite elven.
They did not look our way as we rushed in a silent run across the wide area, nor did they look when we rushed across the grass toward the ladder set into stone leading up to the maintenance passage, which would in turn take us to the center ring hours or even days faster than if we were to walk all the way around.
We could not stay the night out here.
I motioned up.
All of them grimaced, but I was set on my feet long enough to get on Aitch’s back and then we were climbing, first Jaz, then Aitch and I, then Arion.
I did not see it happen, but I saw it when the arrow fell past my head. It must have slipped from one of Jazera’s near-empty quivers as she climbed up. She had spent so much time making the extra arrows that she barely had time to make the quivers to hold them all. Instead of using cord to keep the arrows in place, she'd stretched long fur across the hole so the arrows poked out like the bristles of a comb. The hair was ripped as she pulled the arrows out, but this resulted in them becoming loose as more and more hair fell away.
I’m not sure if it was my gasp that made the goblins look, or the sound of the arrow skitter across the wall before landing in the grass far below, but either way, over a hundred pairs of eyes landed on us in the next moment.
And then they were coming.