"We could split up, to cover more ground.”
Guardian Brant Cormell considered the words. Someone who’d spent less time with the lad would’ve thought his suggestion was born from his eagerness to return to the citadel, where a warm meal and a soft bed awaited him. Cormell knew better. As members of the Avant Guard Order, it was their duty to keep peace in the lands, and the boy wasn’t one to pass up the chance for adventure.
Boy. It was a description that no longer fit his trainee. Aden was well on his way to becoming a knight, and Cormell knew that the time was soon approaching. Aden had grown into a bright and strong young man, one who’d do great things for the world.
Cormell nodded as he judged how much time they had. “Better to investigate before we lose the light.”
Aden hurried off to scout the area, eagerly searching for any clues as to where the attackers had gone. Cormell watched his trainee fade into the shadows of the evening, but his thoughts remained on the situation they’d come across. He stood on the main road that climbed a small hill, giving him a view of the surrounding forest. In the distance, the city of Avender surrounded Longshield Citadel that towered over it. With the day soon over, small lights of civilization began twinkling like beacons calling them home. They couldn’t return, however, not until they uncovered what had killed the men here.
City guards frequently patrolled the main road that led to Avender. The unusual behavior of one such patrol had caught their attention as he and Aden Fendrie, his knight in training, were returning from their latest mission. While flying above on their wyvernkin mounts, they’d discovered the troubling scene below. They had cautiously approached on foot; landing in the midst of a potential trap was never wise, and they were keenly aware that the forest offered ample cover. As they drew near, there was no sign of immediate danger.
Cormell surveyed the area thoroughly, taking care to catch every detail. The victims lay still and lifeless on the ground, while their lit torches were scattered around them. Dry branches littered the road and had caught on fire; an old abandoned cart was ablaze at the side of the path. The flames made the old wood crack and groan in protest, while the smell of smoke permeated the air. From the state of things, it was apparent that the authorities responsible for keeping the road clean had become too lax in their duties. Cormell knelt and inspected the nearest corpse. The man’s throat had been cleanly cut, and his sword still lay sheathed in its scabbard. After taking a moment to scan the other bodies, he deduced that they’d been taken by surprise and killed proficiently by a skilled hand.
An uneasy feeling crept over him as he studied where the men had fallen, and their wounds. The number of guards was strange as well. Don’t road patrols usually consist of only four… and where’s their missing gear…?
“Was it really necessary to kill them?” Cormell spoke, unsure where to direct his words.
A guttural chuckle swelled from an impostor, the one who’d been lying near a wheel of the cart. The figure rose, adorned with various pieces of armor from his victims. He appeared as any patrol guard, even using blood to complete the illusion. He stripped off the plated protection to reveal the minimal leathers beneath, most covering his upper chest. Cormell spotted a few small knives throughout the scant armor but knew there were plenty more strategically hidden. Preferring to be barefoot, the man kicked off the cumbersome boots and replaced the helmet with a wide-brimmed hat. “I wanted to grab your attention.”
“Well, you’ve got it! Why did you murder these men? What are you after?”
The stranger grinned beneath his hat, but his eyes remained hidden. “Your life.”
The Order made many enemies of the brigands across the lands, so the words didn’t surprise Cormell. What made his pulse race was the distinct yet subtle smell that he detected. “So… how does a goblin profit from my death?”
The creature paused. The dark eyes that studied him changed to a deep red. “Was I that obvious?”
Cormell then witnessed what few had observed: what appeared to be a human man change into something he’d seen only once before. Like his past encounter, the creature’s skin turned a deep green, and his nails grew sharp and black. His face scrunched in a permanent glare, while his nose became short, flat, and wide. Thin lips pursed together above an elongated chin. Lean muscles tightened throughout the body, and his limbs remained slightly bent, as if ready to pounce at any moment. His stature shortened, and his cut trousers became full-length pants as he was now two-thirds the height of an average man. Despite the goblin’s size, Cormell knew better than to underestimate him, understanding all too well the strength and agility of the creature.
Goblins were a reclusive race, able to take on the forms of other species when they devoured the heart of their prey. Those that ventured into societies preferred to hide behind an intellectual mask rather than the animal kind of their brethren in the wilds. Most that chose to live in societies preferred and excelled at mercenary work, greatly benefiting from their ability to change appearance.
In Cormell’s experience, goblins were more common than people thought. Most were either ignorant of their brush with fate or died from the confrontation. He’d been fortunate so far, and could identify the smell that gave them away, but he didn’t reveal these specifics to the creature. “I’ve had my share of encounters with your kind, and I’ve learned of some names that might interest you.”
He traced the names in the air with a finger, using magic to keep the letters in place. He slowly retrieved a blank parchment from his pocket and bound the words to it. He was tempted to grab his verge stone to warn Aden of the danger, but the goblin scrutinized his every move. From the caustic look in the creature’s eyes, he knew it would be a mistake. So instead, he tossed the parchment, which was deftly caught by his adversary.
Goblins were a sub-demonic race. To learn their names was to have power over them. That was why most of them feared the Avant Guard Order, since their members were of the few who could learn such secretive information. In goblin culture, it was a disgrace, and their brethren would kill them for it.
This wasn’t why Cormell now shared what he knew with this creature, who opened the paper with interest. It was to serve as a distraction as he readied a covert attack of his own. Before he did, he wanted to warn his trainee, but it was impossible without his verge stone in hand. He had to defeat the goblin quickly, before Aden returned. Cormell was afraid for the boy who had no experience with these crafty and dangerous creatures.
“Ah, this name is familiar. He was always a fool, I’ll enjoy hunting him,” the goblin said with amusement.
Cormell sucked in a breath, unwilling to waste this opportunity while the creature was preoccupied. The magic tingled through him as he concentrated on the goblin’s mental defenses. He managed to strike three times before the creature held up a hand, palm outward, as if to physically stop the attack.
“Enough.” The word held its own power and deflected the magic. The creature’s defenses remained unscathed, crushing Cormell’s hopes of a quick battle. The goblin calmly slid the parchment into a pouch on his belt. “Well, back to business then. You may have been lucky in the past, but not today.”
Cormell’s hand instinctively went to the hilt of his sword, then paused when he caught a glimpse of his trainee. Aden had circled behind the creature and crept quietly toward him.
“Get away! He’s a goblin!” Cormell waved in warning.
“What—?” Aden began, but as his foot touched the ground he triggered a well-placed trap.
The creature instantly attacked Cormell, and he narrowly deflected the vicious assault. The daggers pressed firmly against his sword, and the goblin mocked him with a thinlipped smirk. Cormell glanced in Aden’s direction but received a hard kick in the abdomen for his efforts. He staggered back from the blow as he heard a cry of pain. He ignored his throbbing midsection and immediately searched for Aden again, and saw the boy standing on a glowing emerald rune. The air shimmered with the same green magic, and two eellike creatures occupied the space with the trainee. The eels remained suspended in the air, as though they were under water. One had its teeth deep in Aden’s thigh, while the other had the boy’s forearm in its jaws and slowly drained their victim’s energy and power. Magic held the trainee in place, while bolts of electricity surged through the air and occasionally shocked him.
All this happened within moments, and Cormell knew they had little time now. His attention returned to the goblin, who seemed to sense his desperation and taunted him with a wicked grin.
“You want to save your pupil? Better hurry, few survive containment for long.”
Cormell heard Aden call to him but remained focused on his formidable enemy. He grabbed his cloak and threw it around his shoulders. The goblin’s eyes widened when the fabric fell to the ground, and he was nowhere to be found. Cormell slashed at him from behind, but his adversary instinctively dodged it with a dive-and-roll. When the creature regained his feet, he immediately turned and sent a knife flying at Cormell, who easily deflected it but was pressured to keep moving as more knives followed. He knocked the last blade away and saw the goblin circle him. Cormell blocked the dagger thrusts, and the clash of their blades rang through the air. They exchanged blow for blow, their battle evolving into a deadly dance of swordsmanship.
The air temperature became biting cold where Cormell fired his magic. The creature sneered and pushed away and barely avoided the explosions of the frost traps.
Once the goblin was clear of the danger, he skidded to a stop. “Ice? Really? You can do better.”
“Yes, I can.”
The creature tried to spin away but was already ensnared in Cormell’s magic. Golden tendrils of light snaked up from a nearby rune on the ground, wrapping around their target. They forced their captive to kneel, and while holding him in place, squeezed his wrists so tight that he dropped his weapons. The goblin wrestled with his bindings, but to no avail. The tip of Cormell’s blade then rested at his throat.
“Release him, now.”
It was only Cormell’s principles and duty as a knight that held him back from killing the goblin outright. Aside from that, there was no guarantee that the magic holding Aden would release him once the creature was dead. It was a risk he wouldn’t take since his trainee had been confined for too long already. If the goblin refused, he’d do what he must.
“As you wish.”
The magic vanished, the eels released their victim, and Aden crumbled to the ground. Cormell feared he’d been too late until the boy struggled to his feet. He was breathing hard, clearly in pain and disoriented from the assaults. Despite that, he kept moving toward his guardian.
Cormell relaxed slightly, and even the goblin seemed intrigued.
“Your pupil is hardier than expected. He made it through the ordeal, but… you should have killed me when you had the chance.”
There was a sudden flash of light and a sound like the shattering of glass. Cormell was taken off guard as his magic was neutralized so effectively, something he’d never encountered before. He knew goblins to be intelligent and devious, but he was unaware that they had such power. He thrust his sword forward, but now free of his bonds the creature used his forearm to divert Cormell’s blade off its mark. The goblin closed in, and Cormell felt the force of the knife’s impact as it stabbed his abdomen, followed by a sharp explosion of agony.
“Don’t worry,” the creature snickered, “I didn’t hit anything vital. I want you alive a little longer.”
The goblin retracted the blade, and Cormell immediately covered the wound with his hand. The creature stepped away, then turned back to study him. “You’re cleverer than most”— his smile held no mirth as green fire engulfed one of his hands and his spell built in power— “but now your pupil will die.”
The creature hurled the magic in Aden’s direction and released the spell just as Cormell’s sword sliced through his limb. Cormell heard the scream of the creature behind him, but lost his grip on the blade in his haste. There was no time to retrieve it as the world seemed to slow and the fire careened straight for his trainee. Cormell cast a short transpo spell and appeared ahead of the deadly magic. He stood in its path, determined to protect the boy behind him. He managed to get a quick glimpse of Aden, who’d collapsed but was still crawling forward.
Cormell turned to face the approaching inferno. As the flames connected with his barrier, a thought crossed his mind: This was his plan all along. The goblin had been building the spell for some time, the sheer size and power of the fire a testament to the fact.
The magic slammed against his will, and he defiantly pushed back. He clenched his jaw from the exertion, feeling on the verge of being consumed. He put all his strength behind blocking the fiery mass. A noise escaped him, an agonizing roar that fueled him. With one last surge of power he tore the magic apart.
As the blaze dissipated and Cormell took in a breath of relief, something struck him in the left shoulder and he staggered back from the force. He looked up at the goblin, who was gripping his bloody stump where his hand had been. Cormell’s sword was secured on his belt. The creature’s chest rose and fell heavily, and his face was a depiction of pure hatred and loathing. A final gust of fire flared, but when it died the goblin was gone.
Cormell’s shoulder numbed, and his breathing became labored. He slid to the ground, his energy spent. He didn’t bother to touch the knife that protruded from his shoulder, feeling the poison from his abdomen already spreading rapidly. He knew that if the creature were to attack them now, there was little they could do. As the moments passed without incident, he suspected that the goblin had fled, due to his injury. Or, Cormell thought, he knows his poison will finish things.
He heard Aden nearby but hadn’t the strength to answer. He gazed up at the sky, watching as the tiny lights emerged slowly from the darkness. The day was over; the dwindling light on the horizon was the only sign of what had preceded the night. Cormell had envisioned a different ending to this day, regretting that he wouldn’t get to return to the citadel with his trainee and celebrate another successful mission.
But Aden was safe.
The boy would live on, growing stronger with the passing
of each day. Cormell silently chided himself one last time. Not a boy, but a young man. In his last moments, he took comfort in knowing Aden would survive this, that the creature hadn’t truly won. He smiled inwardly as the poison reached his heart.