The roads of Izril were not made of stone. In most places, they were dirt, packed and worn smooth by travel, but prey to the elements. It was a sign that Izril had not yet been fully developed. Far from it. While the Drakes and Gnolls occupied most of southern Izril, the Humans who had taken the north had yet to fully claim every part of their half.
Like Baleros, the deserts of Chandrar, and the highest mountains, deepest valleys and caverns and of course, the vast sea, parts of the world were simply unknown. A place for [Explorers] and [Travellers] to seek, or the truest sort of adventurers. The ones who actually earned the class, [Adventurer].
And yet, perhaps it wasn’t that Izril lay unclaimed, but that what had once been occupied land had reverted to wilderness over the passing of countless years. For once, Dragons had flown Izril’s skies. Once, the north had held Walled Cities of their own. But they were long gone. And so Izril was untamed and the roads were dirt by decay as much as vastness.
Not so in Terandria. Many roads were stone, owing to the ancient kingdoms which endured. Memory and tradition in Terandria mattered more. So the roads were stone. In Chandrar, some roads were stone, but the relentless sand and deserts wore down even the most sturdy edifices. And in Baleros? The jungle encroached, and where civilization reigned, there were fine trade routes, meticulously maintained, modern. And where there was jungle, a dirt road was a luxury.
Rhir had roads only behind the walls. If the Demons had roads, well, Talia Kallinad had never heard. Surely they must. But the [Summer Knight], elder sister to Wil Kallinad and potentially heir to the Kallinad family if she married, had never visited Rhir. Someday she would. As a member of the Order of Seasons, she had sworn to champion righteous causes and fight monsters and evil wherever she found it.
As a Knight of the Summer she was even more dedicated to that ideal than her peers. Her nature was fire and heat. The Summer Knights burned like their season, shining brightly and challenging monsters wherever they roamed.
Perhaps it was silly, an old ideal. [Knights]? Crusades? To many, Talia’s class and the ideals of her Order were older, a relic of bygone days when Dragons were plentiful. But there was still a place in the world for [Knights], Talia knew, and not just on Terandria.
And yet, here she was. The young woman’s head dipped, and she gazed down at the horse she was riding. The mare was unaccustomed to her and prone to drifting left across the dirt road. Talia absently corrected her, regretting that her warhorse, a mare trained to fight alongside her mistress, was thousands of miles distant, in the Order of Seasons. But Talia had left the Order, and the road back was long.
Long, and painful. She glanced to one side and saw a flash of silver and green. A [Knight] rode to her left. Not a [Summer Knight] as she was, but a fellow member of the Order of Seasons. He was a [Spring Knight], sworn to the Season of Spring.
Normally, the youngest season, generally comprised of junior knights who were finding their path, were overeager, ready to do what was necessary, as befitted their nature. But at the moment, the young [Knight]’s head was bowed. Like Talia, he was not wearing a helmet, and she could see the anger and shame written across his features. And it was mirrored across the rest of their company.
Nineteen. Thirteen of them were clad in spring’s bright colors, and six in the shining gold and orange and yellow of summer. That was how many [Knights] rode down the dirt trail. Each wore the armor of their Season, spring and summer, and each was armed for battle. Spears, javelins, morning stars, swords, shields, lances—their equipment was as varied as could be.
They were experts in combat, and indeed, the few travellers they met stared at so many [Knights]. But the Order of Seasons was not riding on a grand crusade. For one thing, most of their horses were poorly trained for combat, having been bought from the nearest stables. For another—Talia’s hand clenched as she gently steered the mare back on track—they had been on said grand crusade against evil. And they had…failed.
Nearly a week past, the Order of Seasons had gone to war with one of the greatest enemies of their Order. The Stitch Witch, Belavierr, who had haunted Terandria past the reach of any living memory. To slay her, Ser Reim and a group of [Hunters] had come from Terandria, making use of a grand magic to travel across the world and slay her. Talia and the rest of the [Knights] had come after them, to fight Belavierr’s creations and safeguard Ser Reim and the [Hunters] until they could slay Belavierr.
They had failed. Failed, for treachery had ended the [Hunters]. And the Stitch Witch had threatened the Order of Seasons while keeping hostages to ensure her survival. Ser Reim had died trying to slay her. And so Talia and the rest of the Order had been forced to watch as Belavierr walked away. They had been ordered to avoid pursuing her and return home.
That was the background that led Talia and her company riding across Izril’s dirt roads. Each had fought Belavierr’s minions. Some bore new scars; Talia herself had a nearly-perfectly healed scar on her left leg, from an enchanted arrow that had gone straight through the plain, unenchanted steel of her armor. She didn’t begrudge the slight line of a scar at all, but she was tormented by her failure.
Ser Reim was dead. The [Hunters] were dead. And here she was, thousands of miles from home having failed to slay Belavierr. All that effort and magic and lives! Wasted for nothing!
Her companions shared Talia’s mood. To say they were discontented was to fail to describe their mood in every sense of the word. In fact, in the last seven days, they had barely spoken. But at last, one of them began to speak.
“Brothers and sisters, what shall we say upon our return? I cannot think of how I shall look at my comrades. Nor do I feel worthy of the crest I bear.”
Talia looked up and saw a dark-skinned man, Ser Raist of the Season of Summer, gesturing at his shield. The radiant sigil upon his armor shone in the light as he shifted on his horse.
For a moment, the other [Knights] looked up, surprised at the voice after so much silence. But then they turned to Ser Raist. Talia gritted her teeth. Raist was newest to the Season of Summer out of all six [Summer Knights] present, including herself. She wished he hadn’t voiced his opinions so; it was the kind of thing one of the Spring Knights would have said.
The Season of Summer was like an older sibling to the Season of Spring, usually, and their [Knights] tried to be mentors and teachers, at least in the art of war and valor to their juniors. Still, he was a fellow member of her Season, so she respected his opinion and nodded at him.
“Your guilt is shared among us all, Ser Raist. But as to how we shall return—surely you jest? We must return speaking of what we have seen! Shouting the glory of the battle we witnessed, the treachery and failure. But above all—the glory of it.”
“The glory, Dame Talia? I saw no glory. Only a traitor and the death of one of our finest. I beheld evil, and it haunts me.”
That came from a Spring Knight. Dame Ingrela. She was nearly Talia’s age, but a junior in terms of knighthood; she had taken longer to earn her shield. She looked at Talia, respectful, but haunted. Many of the Spring Knights did; Talia glanced to her side and another [Knight] wearing bright colors of summer shook his head.
Ser Lorell, the most senior of their group, looked around. A few strands of white ran through his beard, but he was hale as the youngest of them. He raised his voice as he echoed Talia’s sentiments.
“Dame Ingrela, I have seen the same evil as you have. And it troubles me as much as any present. But Dame Talia is right. We have seen a story! And we have battled a legend, albeit dark! That alone is worthy of song. When we return, let us speak of that battle!”
He was about to say more, but met Talia and the other Summer Knight’s eyes meaningfully. The only other female Summer Knight, Dame Chise, shook her head meaningfully. Ser Raist and the Knights of the Spring didn’t understand yet, and the lesson should be driven home, not spelled out weakly.
Another [Knight] wearing green was next to speak. He bowed in his saddle, but his face was bleak.
“With respect, Ser Lorell, I would be ashamed to boast of my feats on the battlefield. Or any of our company, as much as it shames me to say. To think we prided ourselves on holding back the Stitch Witch’s creations! Yet, her true aims struck our very heart. But for our failure, Ser Reim might have triumphed. Instead, he lies dead! And the [Hunters]—”
He choked on his words. The other [Knights] bowed their heads. So did Talia, for a moment. They had fought, it was true. It hurt, to think that their battle throughout the night would never be told. Talia still remembered fighting side-by-side with her sisters and brothers as creatures both undead and made of cloth assailed her.
They had held the ground for hours in the darkness, fighting an army of creatures. It was a tale equal to any battle Talia had ever fought in! But in truth, that had just been a diversion, barely worthy of a paragraph, a sentence.
The true tale had been of Ser Reim. Of the [Hunters] and the traitor. Of the Stitch Witch and her daughter. Talia and the other Knights of Seasons had been petty actors on a stage of history. And Belavierr had lived to continue walking down her dark path.
“How can you speak of songs, Ser Lorell? Should we not be castigated for our failures instead? I would resign my shield and arms if the Spring’s Warden demanded it of me.”
Dame Ingrela was shaking her head, her face bleak. Talia looked at Lorell. He waited a beat for anyone else to voice their opinions, and then replied in a steady voice.
“I say we should sing of it, Dame Ingrela! Sing of the evil we witnessed, and shout of the battles we fought and saw done! Or will you say that Ser Reim died a failure? Should we look to our own failures first and speak of woe and terror, or remember the champion who died? What of Dame Essa, or Ser Valliad? Ser Zahil? Ser Pitres? Will you call their deaths wasted?”
The question hit the younger [Knight] and the others riding with them. Talia saw Ingrela’s face drain of color.
“I would never! I—”
Lorell held up a hand. Metal shone off his gauntlet.
“I know you thought only of our failures when you spoke, Dame Ingrela. But remember, all of you. We bear our sins and shortcomings with earned weight. But to sully the valor of our fallen companions? No. When we return, speak first of the heroism you saw. Reflect on your guilt afterwards.”
His words silenced the group. Shame flooded any number of faces. Ingrela ducked her head.
“I have much to learn still, Ser Lorell, Dame Talia.”
“No more than I.”
Ser Raist looked even more flushed. He bowed from his saddle, his face full of chagrin. Talia smiled.
“Don’t fear, Ser Raist. I learned the very same lesson on my first campaign. And if there is anything to be taken from this tragedy—and it is one, a failure so deep it cuts me to the quick—let it be lessons such as these. Let it be levels, that we might not fail a second time.”
All nodded at that. One of the younger Spring Knights, emboldened by Talia’s words, shot up and raised a fist into the air.
“Ser Reim of Summer was a finer [Knight] than many could dream of becoming. Ere we return, let us tell his story to those worthy of hearing it. Let his valor not fade into distant memory and be forgotten!”
“Hold, Ser Eldein.”
Lorell cautioned the young man as some of the other Spring Knights shouted agreement. The others looked at him. The [Summer Knight] looked unhappy as he shook his head.
“I fear that while we may speak of Belavierr to our brethren in the Order, we must keep silent elsewhere. The Stitch Witch draws power from rumor and fear. Those who know of her might well call on her services, make pacts with her in hopes of furthering their lives. Shameful as it must be, the lives of those who have fallen must fade from the memory of most.”
Ser Eldein’s face fell. Talia felt bad for him; he was new to his shield and practically bursting with youthful vigor. He touched the mace at his side, and his face was frustrated.
“For fourteen years, I have trained. Since the age of six! I gained my first level when I was but eight, through the hardest of labors. And I have attempted to improve my skill of arms each passing day since. I won my right to the Order of Spring! And while I know I am poor of levels and equipment, I would face a Demon-kind Giant or a Dragon if my Order called me. I volunteered to lay my life down that Ser Reim would end such an evil. And yet.”
He turned around, meeting Talia’s eyes for a second and he looked at his companions. Ser Eldein pointed over his shoulder.
“I beheld my mortal folly in the gaze of that thing. She conjured an army in but a single night and though she burned and was killed dozens of times, death did not claim her. What is valor, what is honor and courage before that? It is not fair.”
No one could speak for a moment in the face of that. It was true. True, and yet—Ser Lorell replied again, speaking for experience among the older members of the party.
“Life, Ser Eldein, is not fair. Monsters beset the lands, even in Terandria, where our Order is strongest. They multiply in the darkness. And the hearts of men and women—”
“And other species.”
Talia murmured, recalling her visit to Baleros, to Daquin. That had been a different sort of battle, but she wished she’d stayed with Wil and fought the Iron Vanguard a hundred more times. Better that—and she missed her brother. She was proud of him, of course! But she hadn’t seen him for three years before that point. Her duties as a [Knight] kept her from home; the Order of Seasons was her new home.
Ser Lorell glanced at Talia, a bit annoyed by her comment. He went on, stiffly.
“—fester and corrupt. Nations make war. Magic may cause death untold. In the face of it all, the world does seem bleak. But we stand in the face of it. You may well be a blade of grass in front of the scythe, Ser Eldein, and I but a single mote of light in the darkness. But together, we will challenge any foe. It is that or give in without battle. And that is not how I choose to live.”
Dame Chise leaned over her horse. A radiance seemed to bloom around her, even in the shadows of the treetops they were passing under. She was always lit by such light; Talia admired the effect, even if she thought Dame Chise used it too often.
“Remember this day and grow from it. Do you think the Spring’s Warden would falter before such a foe, even one as ancient as the Stitch Witch? Or Knight-Commander Calirn himself? I say to you, I have seen the greatest of our order and they blaze in life as much as Ser Reim did in his final moments. Belavierr escapes death this day, but this is not over. Remember this, Ser Eldein. Forge yourself anew from the memory of it.”
Abashed, the young [Knight] nodded. Lorell clapped his hands together, startling his horse. He looked at the other [Knights], authority ringing in his voice.
“Let’s not speak more of this, brothers and sisters. We have far yet to travel! Ser Eldein, surely something of our current surroundings brings you joy?”
The young man hesitated, but then he nodded.
“Perhaps the thought of more species joining our Order, Ser Lorell. Dame Talia, are you suggesting we recruit from beyond Terandria?”
He relaxed, and some of the [Knights] around him laughed. They rode closer, losing the fugue that had engulfed them. Similarly, the [Knights] abandoned the elevated speech of their order that they adopted, becoming more casual in private.
“I have often thought of it. Drakes and other species lack for [Knights] in large. Why shouldn’t we recruit from them? Each species has their talents. Dame Ingrela, you were at Daquin with some of your fellow Knights of Spring. Didn’t you admire the Iron Vanguard’s resilience?”
“And cursed them. That was a hard-fought battle, for all it was meant to be practice. And I confess, other species have abilities we Humans lack. The Dullahans were especially tenacious.”
Dame Ingrela agreed. Across from her, Ser Thornst, a [Spring Knight], but a veteran one, looked amused.
“Dullahans? One might call every member of their species a [Knight], if not in training or virtue. The armor they wear is part of their bodies, is it not? They seem a mighty species.”
Dame Chise nodded grudgingly.
“They are that. I have fought them on the battlefield proper, and I say they are among the most resilient of species to face. I am told that once, they were considered natural enemies of Dragons. More so than even our orders. Each one wears armor, after all. They were born dragon slayers.”
“Even so, they are a dour lot.”
“Then make them [Winter Knights]! They surely fit in with our coldest Season. I’ve a mind to make a bet who would smile listening to jokes first, one of the Knights of Winter, or—”
A few of the other [Knights] laughed, scandalized. Talia grinned hugely. Ser Lorell was more disapproving, but he glanced at Talia instead.
“Would you consent to having a Selphid in our ranks, then, Dame Talia?”
His voice was disapproving, indicating his thoughts on the matter. Talia’s chin rose. The Order of Seasons were all comrades in arms, but that didn’t meant they always got along, and she’d argued this with her companions many times before.
“Why not? What stops a Selphid from showing as much valor as any Human, Ser Lorell? Besides, it has happened thrice in our order’s history. Once it ended in disgrace. Once in valor. And once, the Selphid, who was Ser Chalica, or Dame Chalica, the records do not indicate which, died in glorious battle holding the Order of Season’s very gates when our enemies brought a vast army against us. Chalica of Spring, they were. And they held the gates until the bodies of their enemies piled up like logs before the axe.”
“One incidence of treachery out of three is hardly reassuring. One in ten thousand of our Order ever compromises their honor.”
Ser Lorell pointed out patiently. Talia tossed her head.
“A faulty argument, Ser Lorell. If we had more Selphids, I truly doubt one in three would be false. Why not let them apply?”
The man shrugged, annoyed by the strident tone in Talia’s voice. He turned, addressing the younger [Knights].
“Even so, the Order of Seasons takes in limited numbers each year. Do we then petition recruiters to travel to Izril, or Baleros or other locations? We already receive enough applicants from Terandria—almost too many! Let us not crowd our ranks with any not deserving of the honor. Such incidents can be the end of a [Knight] order. Remember the lesson of the Crowlende Order.”
Talia folded her arms, but didn’t say anything more. By her side, Dame Chise leaned over and continued the conversation quietly.
“Your fascination stems from the company your brother keeps, does it not, Lady Talia?”
“Perhaps! What of it? I’m proud of Wil. He’s proven there’s more to be gained from other species than not! You know he won a question from the Titan of Baleros?”
“I have heard you speak of it a few dozen times, Lady Talia.”
The other [Knights] looked amused. Talia was either Dame Talia for her rank, or Lady Talia for her heritage. Talia smiled, embarrassed.
“Even so. I have not heard what Wil’s question will be, but he has promised to make it one that favors the Kallinad household?”
“Not the Order of Seasons? We committed over a hundred [Knights] to Daquin! That was not without cost!”
Someone sounded scandalized. Talia shook her head.
“All the costs were paid by House Kallinad, Ser Welte. And Kallinad is a generous supporter of the Order of Seasons. Moreover, we displayed our prowess in battle the world over, did we not? There are recordings of our own facing off against the Iron Vanguard! It was a victory!”
“A victory, aye. But sometimes I worry that our Order commits too broadly. We send lances of [Knights] out, but there was a time when we marched in legions!”
A grizzled veteran [Summer Knight] spoke sourly. Dame Chise shook her head, pursing her lips.
“And kept our own armies. That bears too closely to the foundation of a nation. Our Order has not made war on a nation ourselves in over twelve decades. We fight alongside nations of course, but challenging a kingdom for injustices is entirely different. I pray that function of our Order is never called upon. But recently…”
She trailed off. Ser Eldein spoke up, his cheeks flushed.
“Ailendamus is pursuing war. If they continue their wars of aggression, we may be well forced to choose a side. And I would argue this among any of our peers—it is not in our interest to support a nation seeking to enlarge itself even further!”
Talia coughed and shook her head. It didn’t matter usually, but nationality did influence some of the [Knights] and it was a known fact that Ser Eldein hailed from Calanfer, which was historically opposed to Ailendamus.
“No arguments there, Ser Eldein, but that is not our place to discuss. Nor wise to utter aloud; we are sworn protectors of order, not political creatures.”
The [Spring Knight] flushed and bowed in his saddle towards Talia.
“My apologies, Dame Talia.”
“Perhaps we would be best suited by action. We have a long way to go to First Landing and the harbor back. I am hesitant to race our horses, but if the road is clear, we shall force a quicker pace. Dame Talia, why not scout ahead with Ser Eldein and see if there are any travellers ahead we might disturb?”
Ser Lorell coughed. Talia shot him a glance, but then she ducked her head.
“As you say, Ser Lorell. Ser Eldein?”
She urged her mare forwards and Ser Eldein followed her. They rode faster, breaking ahead of the trotting company. Talia waited until they were a good two hundred paces down the road, and then nodded at Ser Eldein it was okay to speak.
“I don’t believe Ser Lorell appreciates your views on other species, Dame Talia. I apologize if I have put Ser Lorell against you, and for my thoughtless words.”
Eldein’s face was a bit flushed. He was young, with a spray of dark hair, nearly black. He might have been a [Farmer]’s son; he was definitely common-born, unlike Talia and Lorell. Talia smiled at him.
“It’s a point of contention, Ser Eldein. Old arguments. I respect Ser Lorell’s experience, of course. But we rarely work together; he and I were simply volunteers Knight-Commander Calirn chose to ride to Ser Reim’s defense. Call me Talia, by all means, Eldein.”
“Naturally. And it is an honor to ride with you, Talia. Your rise through the Season of Spring is well known! In truth, you have just as much authority as Ser Lorell, at least, I and some of the others think so. Nobility aside; he cannot claim to have fought in a war! But you have!”
“Just minor ones. It’s not an indication of leadership, Eldein.”
Talia grinned, embarrassed, and Eldein tilted his head towards her.
“Even so. Is age the only qualifier?”
The young woman paused and shook her head.
“Perhaps, but I’m hardly a prodigy. I was simply suited for the Season of Summer, and the Spring’s Watcher knew it. No more; I’m not about to challenge Ser Lorell’s authority. He is a solid leader.”
And we’re not riding into battle. Both [Knights] nodded silently. It wasn’t nearly as bad as politics between, say, noble houses or kingdoms, but there was some inner maneuvering in the Order of Seasons. Never too bad; a rivalry between Seasons or a disagreement about…qualification, or how another [Knight] conducted themselves. It wouldn’t come to that with Talia and Ser Lorell. She just didn’t like him that much.
The quick pace of the two [Knights] had led them out of the forest. Now, they saw a few travellers on the road, but nothing that would keep the Order of Seasons from a faster clip. Talia was just about to suggest they return back to Ser Lorell when Ser Eldein pointed.
“There’s a traveller. We might as well ask for news; we’ve been starved since passing through the forests these last two days. And no one was in the mood for it earlier. Shall I?”
“If you’d like. It would certainly distract the conversation. But remember, these are Izril folk, Eldein. Treat them with respect.”
Eldein nodded. He rode forwards and waved a hand at another man on horseback.
“Hail, my good man and thy harvests be blessed! Hast thou time spare to converse with knights-errant upon our ceaseless quests?”
He glanced back at Talia. She covered her face.
“Dead gods, Ser Eldein…”
The traveller looked at Eldein as he drew up his horse. His jaw worked and at last he spoke.
“What’re you on about? Harvests? I’m a [Shoemaker], not a [Farmer]!”
“A figure of speech, sir. Have you time to speak?”
Ser Eldein faltered. He was used to Terandria, where people were used to [Knights] and usually had some manner of respect for the class. The [Shoemaker] looked at Eldein, clearly worried that the [Spring Knight] was touched in the head.
“No, Sir Shoemaker. I—we are simply hoping you could speak to us of any news.”
The man’s face cleared and he took off his hat to wipe at his brow. The days were getting warmer; Talia could feel summer in the air.
“Oh. Why didn’t you say so? You want to know what’s happening? Well, monsters, that’s what! Wait, are you going after them or haven’t you heard?”
Talia sat up straighter on her horse. Ser Eldein leaned forwards.
“We have been travelling the last seven-day. What’s this about monsters, Sir Shoemaker?”
“My name’s Belic. Not Sir—seven-day? You mean, a week? Well, if you don’t know—there are Ogres about! I’ve been trying to get back home south; I should have never come north, not with them about!”
Talia rode forwards. Belic turned to her and she bowed.
“That’s right. Who are you lot?”
Belic had caught sight of the group of [Knights] riding up the road. He goggled. It wasn’t that strange a sight in Terandria, but apparently nineteen [Knights] was in Izril. Talia nodded to the rest of the Order of Seasons.
“We are [Knights] from Terandria, sir. The Order of Seasons. What’s this about Ogres? Ser Lorell!”
She waved and the older [Summer Knight] spurred his horse forwards. Belic blinked, already looking slightly overwhelmed. He stared at the colorful armor Talia and Lorell wore and then scratched at his balding head.
“Well—it’s Ogres. Lots of ‘em! You didn’t hear? It’s been the talk of the road all the way from—have you been camping the entire way here?”
“We…travelled here quickly. There are Ogres attacking this area? A band of them?”
“More than a band! A damn clan came out of the hills! First it was just a single band, but more and more have been attacking. Lady Magnolia Reinhart has placed a bounty on their heads! Twelve for each head at first. But when the others came, she put it up to sixty three! There’s a three thousand eight hundred coin bounty on the head of their leaders!”
“Sizeable for Ogres.”
Lorell murmured, his brows shooting up. Talia agreed, doing quick math.
“Ogres don’t have high numbers, but even a hundred would be a tidy sum. Have there been that many?”
“Dozens in each group. And yes, Miss Knight, there’ve been plenty of adventurers. But you know Ogres—they’re huge! Most of the Silver-ranks buggered off when they heard how many there were, so the Gold-ranks came for the money. Three groups have been driven off, but the last two forced a Gold-rank team, the Dividenblades, to retreat with a casualty! And killed dozens in a pitched battle with Silver-ranks and a militia outside the city of Phaust!”
“This is more than just a lone raid, Ser Lorell.”
Talia looked at the [Summer Knight]. He was nodding.
“Sir Belic, how dire is the situation? Is anyone doing anything to root out this threat?”
The [Shoemaker] frowned.
“Aside from the adventurers? They’ve pushed back the worst of it and all the outlying villages and such are either barricaded up or empty. Them Ogres only attacked outlying areas. They’re close to Ulta lands. I reckon if they get closer to Invrisil, Lady Reinhart’ll up the bounty or have them all assassinated.”
“But no one is pursing the monsters?”
Ser Eldein looked shocked. Belic gave him a sideways glance.
“They’ll get got soon. Or get lost.”
“But they should be hunted down at once! Ser Lorell, if this was Terandria, a dozen knighthood orders would be dispatching their own to deal with these monsters at once!”
“Izril is different, Ser Eldein. The local nobility protect their lands. And adventurers take on the duties of [Knights]. Which means their safety is weighed against the coin they earn.”
Dame Chise frowned disapprovingly. Belic gave her an odd look.
“It works well enough, Miss Knight. Aside from idiots on the road and the first victims, not many folk are dying. It’s locking down some parts, but a Gold-rank team will finish the job.”
“Or perhaps we will.”
Talia murmured. She looked up and met Ser Lorell’s eyes. He hesitated.
“We have instructions to return to the headquarters, Dame Talia.”
“Surely the Order of Seasons does not ignore monsters wherever they may be!”
Ser Eldein protested. Ser Lorell frowned.
“We do not. But we are ill-equipped for a battle with an entire clan, Ser Eldein. We wear steel; due to the ritual, we were only able to bring…”
He eyed Belic. The [Shoemaker] helpfully shrugged.
“The Gold-ranks seem to be doing a good job. If you want to find the Ogres, anyone’d be able to tell you where the dangerous spots are. Myself, I’m going far away. Good to see you [Knights]. Means the road’s probably clear. Good day to you!”
The Order of Seasons watched him ride off. Then they congregated, arguing fiercely.
“A delay to hunt monsters is almost foolhardy, Dame Talia—”
“If but a single innocent dies, Ser Lorell? Is it not our duty to at least inquire if they’re being hunted?”
He exhaled, but couldn’t argue with that. Lorell turned to Talia’s left.
“Dame Chise, your thoughts?”
“We could alter our path. Let us ask if these Ogres are still a threat at large. If they are, we bear towards them. If not, we continue. Either way, we still lose little more than a few days.”
Lorell nodded. So it was agreed. The [Knights] began riding faster. The next traveller they came across didn’t know about where the Ogres were, but he could point them towards Ulta lands.
“Ulta. Some noble [Lady] rules them?”
Talia frowned. Ser Eldein nodded.
“They’re but a day’s ride away. We could reach the outermost edge and inquire further.”
“We shall, then. Dame Chise, will you aid our speed?”
“Certainly. [First to Battle]!”
The [Summer Knight] raised her morning star. And the company of [Knights] accelerated down the road. They might have been slow on their return home, but with a purpose in mind, they moved faster. It was just a rumor for now; the Ogres might have been dealt with. But Talia rode at the head of the company next to Eldein, urging her horse to move faster.
Even if there was a chance, the Order of Seasons would investigate. If they could save a life by effort, none would be spared.
That was what it meant to be a [Knight].
The first town the [Knights] came to by the time lanterns were lit and they had to slow to avoid accident on the road was fairly prosperous. The company rode in fast, looking for a tavern or inn to get the newest information. Their horses were tired, but the Spring Knights would rub them down and mix a bit of stamina potion into their feed.
As they headed towards the largest tavern, Ser Lorell in the lead, the [Knights] cut off a [Farmer] in their hurry to reach the stables. The man riding the wagon took offense to the group of [Riders].
“Oi. Mind yourself, you idiots! I’m riding here!”
He roared at the [Knights]. Talia was impressed; it took guts to shout at a group of nearly twenty armed people, even if he’d spotted the crests that marked them as [Knights] in the darkness.
Affronted, Ser Lorell pulled up and inclined his head.
“Our apologies, sir. But we are [Knights], investigating word of Ogres—”
“And you think that gives you the right to cut me off? Out of the way!”
The enraged man waved a fist at Ser Lorell. Caught off-guard, the [Summer Knight] hesitated, and then moved his horse out of the way. The Order of Seasons parted and the [Farmer] rolled past them. They stared at him as he glared.
“Next time, obey the rules of the road! Idiots.”
He disappeared down the street. Talia bit her lip, glancing at Ser Lorell’s slack face. That had been an odd experience! Lady Chise was the first to speak.
“This is the domain of House Ulta, a noble family. And these are the lands of Lady Pryde. It seems her people are equally…spirited.”
“So it seems.”
Ser Lorell shook himself. Then he briskly dismounted. Talia followed suit. Soon, all but six of the [Spring Knights] were walking into the tavern. They had a more amicable greeting this time.
“My word! So many [Knights]? What can I do for you, ladies, gentlemen? My name is Keida. Will you be wanting food? Rooms for the night?”
“Good evening, good mistress. A repast would be welcome. But any information about this Ogre scourge is what we seek. How dire are the attacks? Do you know their location or if anything is being done to stop them?”
Miss Keida frowned as she had tables dragged together for the [Knights].
“The Ogres? A horrible mess. Lady Pryde will sort them out, I’ve no doubt. But there’s a few big groups left. All northeast of us, thank goodness. Three day’s ride. Will you be having that food?”
Lorell looked at Talia and Chise and nodded. That was much too far even if they’d been minded to push. The [Knights] began sitting down. Miss Keida was a friendly woman, and her husband got to work at once preparing a meal for so many. The [Tavern Owner] began talking with her guests and the odd incident with the [Farmer] outside came up as a matter of course.
“That would be Mister Chalt, [Knights]. He’s an odd sort. Keeps to himself, but he comes into market time to time. He lacks manners, but there was no ill will in it!”
Keima assured Ser Lorell. The [Knight] paused.
“He was particularly insistent on his way, though, Miss Keima.”
“Shouldn’t he be? He had the right of way. And he insisted on that. It’s a matter of dignity.”
“Hm. Even so—I’ve been told this is land owned by House Ulta. And the ruling [Lady] is…”
“Lady Pryde. We’re all her subjects. People of Pryde. Which means people of pride, Mister Lorell. Be it [Farmer] or [Shepherd], we won’t give up the right of way so easily. I daresay Chalt would have if you’d been in a hurry, but not to stable your horses!”
The glint in Miss Keida’s eyes made Talia love her in an instant. Lorell looked embarrassed. He coughed.
“People of Pride?”
“That’s right. Pride rules in Ulta lands. Pride in what you do, and who you are. Chalt, now, he’s a good example of that. Respected! More than most [Merchants] or rich folk without a lick of dignity; I daresay he could have married well if he wasn’t such a recluse.”
“But he has pride in being…alone? In being insistent on his right to the road? In being a [Farmer]?”
Raist looked mystified as he took a drink of water. Some intriguing smells were wafting from the kitchen. Mistress Keida gave the [Knight] an odd look in reply.
“Pride takes many forms, sirs and madams. It need not be on display. Lady Pryde only asks us to do what fulfills us. Not to live hollow lives. For instance, my boy is aiming to be an adventurer. I wouldn’t dare stop him. I’d be too ashamed to look anyone in the eye! But I am a mother.”
“And adventuring is a dangerous life. Risky. You won’t stop your son from trying?”
Talia replied. Miss Keida nodded.
“Of course! If I did, who would he be?”
The [Knights] glanced at each other. Chise cleared her throat.
“But Miss Keida, what if your son fails? Say he wished to be a [Merchant] but had not the class or any capital. Would you let him pursue that ambition?”
“Of course! Better to do what he wants than not try. If he fails, he’ll pick himself up and try again. If he doesn’t, then he was never meant to be an adventurer to begin with. Oh, I think your food’s ready. I won’t be a moment!”
Miss Keida smiled and disappeared into the kitchen. Raist raised his eyebrows as he looked around the table.
“Seems this entire region acts as their [Lady] does. Ambition and pride over caution and humility.”
The other [Knights] shushed him, but many clearly agreed. Talia liked the idea. She’d heard [Ladies] and [Lords] could shape their domains after them, but Terandrian nobility were still subjects of their monarchs, however powerful. Izril however, had no royalty.
Except for the [Emperor]. Talia wished she could have met him. But then she was distracted by the meal.
“I have enough for everyone and seconds waiting! No, I can take it out myself, and my [Barmaids]! That’s what we get paid for!”
Miss Keida scolded the [Knights] trying to rise and take the dishes. She placed them down with flourishes, beaming. Talia looked at the food, her stomach rumbling. Then she paused.
“All of it’s from our stocks! The salt’s from the Ulta salt mines—the finest in Izril! Pure salt, lovely brines—my husband’s personal recipe. Enjoy!”
The [Tavern Owner]’s cheerful voice hovered in the air. The Terandrian [Knight] stared down at their repast. It was…pickled eggs. Salted pork. Beets—yes, pickled. Some filling dumplings, also made with what seemed to be primarily preserved foods. And pickles. Pickled walnuts, which had turned black from the brine, served on blue cheese—
Salt. Talia looked up, trying to smile. She came from a coastal duchy, but she was used to sea food. Not pickled foods. And indeed, most of the Terandrians weren’t used to so much…pickling. The abundance of magic meant that you could get fresh food; pickles were nice, but pickled foods were an acquired taste.
The only thing that was there to cut the salt was some goat’s milk and fruits. And bread. The Order of Seasons stared at the meal with no small measure of chagrin. They exchanged covert looks, chivalry fighting with taste buds.
The [Tavern Owner] beamed, gesturing at the spread.
“All favorites among the Ulta region! You won’t get better anywhere in the town. And if I might add, good [Knights]? You’ll want to stock up on salt if you’ve a mind to be passing south or east of here. There’s a trade war on, and Lady Pryde’s stated there will be no trade in those directions until proper apology is made.”
“A trade war?”
Lorell murmured, prodding at a huge pickle. Raise was ordering more alcohol. Miss Keida nodded. She frowned darkly.
“They insulted Lady Pryde! Gave her a black rose. As if she hadn’t fought the Goblin King at First Landing! Well, they’ll pay for that. All of them! No salt is going to Reicch, or anywhere north of Veltaim. Unless they’ve got preservation runes, we’ll see how long their stores last without salt!”
“They could always smoke—”
Talia kicked Ser Eldein under the table. She gulped as Miss Keida retreated to get some more drinks for the table. She looked up and met Ser Lorell’s eyes. He was in agreement with her in this, at least. But all the [Knight] did was slowly pick up a cup.
“’Twould be rude to demand a different repast. This is their food.”
Talia agreed glumly. The Order of Seasons braced themselves. Ser Eldein sighed.
“Pride and salt.”
Fifteen minutes later, Ser Eldein put down his fork and regarded the empty plates. He turned, and with supreme force of will, smiled at the hovering [Tavern Owner].
“A truly filling repast, Mistress Keida.”
“Do you need seconds?”
The chorus came from the entire table. The [Knights] were full, Talia included, but at what cost? To distract the generous Miss Keida and her [Brine Cook] husband, they began asking questions about the Ogres.
“Well, Lady Pryde won’t let them attack anyone on her lands. I’ve heard she’s setting off after one war band, but there’s two big ones left. The first is led by their leader, very large, over fifty in total. The second’s smaller, but no less dangerous. Thirty-odd Ogres.”
“Thirty? We number nineteen. It shouldn’t be too dangerous a battle.”
Ingrela mused out loud. Ser Lorell frowned.
“Ogres are strong, Dame Ingrela. Not as thick-skinned as Trolls, but more numerous. What separates them from half-Giants?”
That came from Talia. A few chuckles and a glare from Lorell followed. He began a lecture; he was well-studied, at least. Talia reflected that it was Lorell’s specialty; he had a position training many [Knights] in their Season as a mentor. Like her, he hadn’t flinched from a real battle, but he could get…teacherly at times. And she was no student. The Knights of the Spring listened closely, though.
“Trolls are more squat. Tougher, sometimes magical. Ogres are humanoid, albeit monstrous. More intelligent than Trolls. Far, far less civilized than half-Giants, who are but people overgrown. Ogres can be reasoned with and they use tools, or so I have heard from Autumn Knights. But then, even Goblins and Trolls can communicate.”
“Few can. These are clearly monsters.”
Dame Chise’s comments were met by nods all around. Ser Eldein just looked confused.
“Reason with Goblins? With a Troll? Why would one ever do that?”
Ser Thornst clicked his tongue reprovingly.
“Diplomacy is the other edge of the sword we wield, Ser Eldein. Seldom on monsters. But if you ever meet a Dragon, you would be wise to try words first. Not all are evil.”
“Dragons, yes, but Ogres?”
“I do not believe we will be negotiating with these ones. Not after what they’ve done. Ser Lorell?”
Talia’s calm voice made the other [Knight] look up. Ser Lorell nodded calmly.
“With Dame Chise’s Skill, we may reach them in two days. Perhaps more. Perhaps less. When we do, if they are not dealt with, we will hunt them down ourselves.”
“A worthy task!”
Miss Keida had come back. She clapped her hands and nodded approvingly. There was something regal in the way she treated the [Knights]; pride again. But she looked at Talia warningly.
“A word of caution though, Sir and Lady [Knights]. The Ogres are thirty, but I’ve heard they had Goblins too. You might be fighting a lot more.”
She saw a few smiles on the faces of the Order of Seasons. Ser Eldein coughed.
“Miss Keida, your concern does you credit. But we can handle a few Goblins. How many are there? Three dozen? Fifty? If there are any Hobs, we will consider them on rank with the Ogres, but the Ogres are the true threat.”
“Strong foes. If we were less in number or under leveled I would hesitate at the fight. Even so, we will be cautious. How many Goblins do you think there are, Miss Keida?”
The [Tavern Owner] shrugged.
“What I heard was that the Ogre clan had a Goblin tribe. The second war band is thirty Ogres, but who counts Goblins? There were a lot, or so the rumors claimed. You might be fighting sixty. Or hundreds.”
That night, the Order of Seasons slept. They rose with dawn and departed. They moved quickly, following reports of attacks, riding down the road faster than all but Runners and the swiftest horses. But the grim truth was that they were too slow. They had been too slow to save every victim. Before they had come to Izril, the Ogres had struck. And they would strike again before the [Knights] reached them. But that was a reality even the most chivalrous [Knight] had to accept, if not make peace with. Monsters were everywhere.
Usually, and in big cities, they were a distant thing. But to those who lived closer to the wilderness, monsters were a fact of life, like [Bandits], a natural disaster, a wolf attack. Usually they were sporadic unless you lived truly close to a dangerous location. And sometimes, the monsters overflowed and came out. And they tore the illusion of peace to shreds.
That night, they came out of the hills like thunder. Fifty seven strong, racing down on the villages closest to the hills first, and then taking roads, attacking travellers, anything that caught their eye or fancy.
Ogres. A species everyone had heard of, but few had actually seen. They were not the fiercest species around, or possessed of the worst attributes to battle against. But they were imposing. And there were many of them. They raced down the slopes, roaring, armed with steel and pilfered weapons.
Any traveller idiotic enough to be on the roads ran, hearing the terrible bellows. But they were too slow. The Ogres descended, catching horses, tearing into houses and smashing wood and stone with crushing blows from their clubs and fists.
The smallest was over six feet in height. The largest nearly ten. And they were not thin either; they were heavyset, their fat overlaying muscle. Each one would have been equal of Moore. Or larger. But if half-Giants, or rather, quarter-Giants were what Gnolls were, capable of leveling and classes, Ogres were then Raskghar.
The few [Warriors] and people with levels trying to fight them off found they were outmatched. A single Ogre was equal to a Silver-rank adventurer, and short of a powerful bowshot to the head, their skin and the armor they wore made arrows barely more than a nuisance. They had the strength and endurance of monsters, but they fought like men. And they moved fast!
The Ogres struck like lightning, ravaging a village of Lanchestret, which had been forewarned of their attack. They found few victims; the villagers had already fled. A few, a foolhardy hermit, an elderly couple, died in their homes. A pair of travellers on the road met the same fate. The Ogres would have tormented them, but their leader’s snarls and bellowed orders kept them moving. They grabbed all of value, food, animals, and raced back towards the foothills, the Eldessale Foothills, to be precise, where their clan was located.
The foothills alone stretched nearly five hundred miles, not in one stretch, but creating a separation between the eastern coast and the upper-central eastern area of Izril. They had not been widely settled owing to the much easier lowlands. So the Ogres had grown in the hills, adjacent to civilization. There had been incidents before. A single Ogre. A band. Adventurers had removed the threat or the Ogre had vanished. They were one monster among many. Now though, they raided.
The first war band was led by a giant among their kind. A Chief, who wielded a magical hammer stained with blood. He urged his followers to pillage as much as they could. He was furious; the Humans had fought back, killing other groups of his clan. His personal group was one of two remaining.
The second was from a small Ogre clan. They were only thirty in number, but they had Goblins, a tribe they’d enslaved. The Ogre Chief might have considered warring with them, but the Humans were easier targets. So he pillaged. He wanted women, magic, and weapons in that order!
But he was smart enough to know that venturing too far from the foothills might mean death. Thus far the Chief had kept his war band away from more populated Human lands. But this village had been as empty as the last three! Food wasn’t all his clan craved, so, impatient, the Chief ordered his tribe to move north. Towards richer lands. They crossed into the Ulta region.
On the second night, the Ogres hit a farmstead, and then a village. They tore into the place, and the Humans who hadn’t fled died—or wished they had. The Ogres laughed as they retreated towards their hills, taking spoils with them. They weren’t about to stop; emboldened, the Chief was determined to take as much back with him to make up for his losses. He knew the other Ogre group, his rivals, were doing the same, so he and his warriors were already looping back for another raid that night.
On the third day, the first band met Pryde.
The Ogres were eating a [Merchant] and his [Guards] on the road as the sun rose. The foolish female [Merchant] had taken the risk of the road, judging her escort strong enough to deter the Ogres. They hadn’t been. And she had cut her throat as the Ogres crushed the low-leveled Humans into paste.
That annoyed the war Chief. Two of the [Guards] had been female too, but his warriors had crushed their bodies in their bloodlust. He kicked the corpse of the [Merchant] and snarled.
His warriors looked up from the horses they were eating fresh. A pair smashed the contents of the wagons. The Chief stared down at the boxes of rich spices and snarled. He kicked one over.
He didn’t want spice! Part of him knew that the females would make better food out of it, but the Chief wanted a new magical item. He had his hammer, but it wasn’t as good as the other Chief’s club! The other Ogres ducked out of range as the Chief swung his fists angrily, looking for something to hit.
Then they heard the horns. The Ogres jerked up, staring at the sky. A warbling blast echoed from the west. And then the south. They looked at their Chief. He stared upwards and bared his teeth.
They were coming. Last time it had been Gold-ranks. Tough to kill, but with precious magic. This time it sounded like many. The Chief hesitated. He wasn’t about to bother fighting an army.
He snarled and the Ogres grabbed what they could carry. They were retreating to the hills. They’d fall on the Humans if they had a moment, disappear otherwise. They weren’t stupid.
But then, neither were the Humans. No sooner had the Ogres began to lope across the ground, fast as any horse, than they heard horns to the east, cutting them off. They instantly switched north. And the horns blew a fourth time.
The Chief halted, breathing hard, looking around him. Each side? How many were there? His mind told him not that many; so many Humans were easy to spot. There was a trick! But which horns were the real ones?
He roared, pointing northwest. Away from the foothills. The Ogres followed him, fifty six streaming after their leader. They were more than a match for an army three times their size. Even the adventurers had fled them! They raced forwards—
And met Lady Pryde’s army. Over a hundred Humans marched behind their [Lady]. They roared as the Ogres stopped, and the [Scouts] deploying false horns stopped blowing. They had coerced the Ogre Chief, tricking him with Skills. Now, the army spread out. The Ogre Chief’s eyes widened incredulously.
Only a hundred? His lips moved as he counted and he looked over his shoulder. But this was it. Barely a hundred Humans against his sixty! He snarled with fury at how they’d underestimated them—but then he brightened.
There were females among the Humans. He could see them beneath their helmets. And even better—his eyes alighted on a woman wearing no armor but a pale yellow-and-lilac dress. He stared at her flawless skin and his groin itched.
“Her. Take that one. Alive! Or I smash your heads!”
He pointed. The other Ogres needed no encouragement. They grinned, advancing. The Humans deployed, spreading out. They had an odd formation; they were fighting along the road, next to some rocky ground that would favor them, but rather than retreat, they’d formed an enveloping position. Half stayed back, and the Chief saw they were armed with longbows. Dangerous, but that left barely fifty Humans to stop more Ogres!
“Ogres! Lay down your arms! If you do, Lady Pryde Ulta guarantees your deaths will be swift! Flee and we will cut you down! You have trespassed on Ulta land and your fate is sealed!”
A voice bellowed at the oncoming war band. A man wearing a bright helmet with a feather was armed with javelins and standing behind a pair of Humans with shields. The [Lady] was hanging back, staring fearlessly at the Ogres. The Chief stared at her, resisting the urge to rub his crotch. He laughed and pointed.
“Kill them. Take the females!”
The Ogres charged. They needed no great speeches. The Humans had clearly wanted one, though. They were off-guard for a moment. The man with the feather rode back.
“[Archers]! Focus your targets! [Shieldwall Warriors], brace!”
The Ogres came at them. They covered the hundreds of feet in moments, racing forwards. The [Archers] had only one chance to loose. They did.
The Chief raised a hand, blocking the arrows aimed at his face. He roared as he felt hot flashes of pain across his body, piercing the crude mail he wore. He turned his head, seeing two Ogres fall. The big bows hurt! But it was two. Far too many, but they were closing.
The man with the feather was raising one of the javelins. Aiming at the Ogres. Forewarned, the Chief ducked behind one of the foremost Ogres and saw the Human shout.
The javelin flew. It spiraled with such force and speed that the Ogre in front of the Chief had no time to dodge. The metal tip of the javelin tore into his chest, and the rotation splintered bone and flesh. The Chief swore as the Ogre fell, dead.
He roared, pointing at the Human with the javelins. He surged forwards. The Human was reaching for another javelin. He threw and another Ogre fell. But then the Ogres were on the first line of Humans. And it was all—
The first Ogre hit the Humans with the oversized tower shields. The club struck at the braced Human and rebounded with a gong of sound. The Ogre stopped, startled, and the Human backed up. She—a large woman whose face was set and grim behind her helmet—backed up, forming a line with her comrades. The [Archers] loosed, hitting the Ogre in the chest. His friends charged past the Ogre. They hit the shields, but their weapons didn’t sweep aside the smaller Humans.
It was like hitting rocks! The charge of the Ogres stopped as the shield-bearing Humans stopped them cold! And the arrows singing from the back ranks were tearing into the Ogres. They battered the Humans, but it was an even match. And the Humans had ranged weapons pelting the Ogre clan.
The Chief roared his fury. He shoved one of the warriors in front of him back, feeling more arrows scoring his arms. He raised his hammer and brought it down on the [Shieldwall Warrior] in front of him. The man raised his shield, whispering a Skill.
The hammer struck the metal with a crash. A bloom of black magic cascaded outwards from the Chief’s hammer. Death magic, striking the Humans and Ogres around them. The Ogres backed up and the Humans groaned. The Chief grinned, delighting in his special weapon. But the Human hadn’t fallen. His Skill had blocked even the Chief’s strike. His knees shook, though. He tried to back up, but the Chief, enraged, kicked past the shield.
There was no second Skill to save the man. He went tumbling backwards and the hammer fell a second time. The Chief felt the crunch, and swung the hammer sideways. Another Human died as the hammer screamed and emitted a burst of blackness. The Chief fought past the front line and the Ogres poured after him.
“Reposition! [Swift Redeployment]!”
The man with the feather shouted desperately. The Humans abandoned their position, retreating, blocking most of the Ogres and reforming a line. But the breach around the Chief was widening. The huge Ogre swung his hammer and pointed.
He wanted the leader and the archers. And the woman. They were unguarded. He surged forwards. The [Lady] watched him as the man with the feathered helmet snarled, throwing another javelin that took an Ogre down. But the Chief came on.
“Milady Ulta, let me—”
“No. Stand down, Beshard. [Archers], kill the other Ogres.”
Lady Pryde Ulta raised one hand. She dismounted from her horse and strode forwards. The Chief stared as she met him, the [Archers] harrying the Ogres around him. Then his lips twisted into a savage grin.
“Human. Female. I like you.”
He loomed over her, ignoring the fighting around him, the screaming Humans and Ogres. He expected the [Lady] to run and shriek. But she stared up at him without fear, only contempt.
Lady Pryde Ulta was a tall woman, and her hair was black. Her cheekbones were high, her posture as imperious as her voice. She pointed up at the Chief, and her voice snapped across the battlefield.
“Ogre. For what you’ve done to my lands, you deserve death. Do your species a credit and die without a fuss!”
He stared at her. Pryde’s chin was tilted. She stared up at him. The Ogre Chief blinked. And then he laughed savagely. He struck his chest, watching her and the man with the feathered helmet behind her.
“I am leader of my clan! Strong. And you—you are mine. This is mine! We—we’ll eat your men and take you. I’ll have you and fuck you until you break. Unless you make me happy. Then I’ll keep you.”
Evil. The words echoed, and the Humans who heard it shuddered with fury. Some of the [Archers] raised their bows, but the Ogres were advancing, and only the desperate fighting kept them back. Lady Pryde’s eyes narrowed. She looked up at the Chief and shook her head slightly. And still, she did not run or look to the other Humans for aid.
“Beast, you would not survive a minute with me, let alone a night. Amusing as it would be to conquer your puny tribe and turn them into vassals, you are far too unsightly for a consort.”
The Chief had not expected that. He flushed with rage. Then he grabbed for the [Lady] with his free hand. His hand shot to her chest—then jerked down.
Something grabbed the Ogre! Something invisible! Around the woman, the grass turned flat, crushed by the same pressure that was pulling the Ogre down. He stumbled, roared.
Weight. Gravity. Pryde raised her hand.
“[Pride is Weight].”
The force crushed the Chief down. It would have killed most Humans; and the weight was more intense the closer he got to Pryde. But he was an Ogre! The monster roared, lifting an arm. Furious now, he raised his hammer. He forgot about his lust and swung with all his might.
Death! The hammer fell downwards. The Humans cried out, and the man with the feathered helm turned. But Beshard was too slow. The Chieftain hit Pryde with a blow that shook the earth. He saw black magic blast outwards and raised his hammer. Instantly, he regretted turning her to paste. The Ogre straightened, feeling the pressure of gravity leave him—
And Pryde was standing right there. The Ogre Chief stared. Lady Pryde Ulta stared down at her dress, annoyed. The fabric had torn across her chest, as had her undergarments. The Ogre saw a flash of pale skin. She eyed her exposed chest, and then looked up at the Ogre. She put her hands on her hips and smiled, mockingly.
“Too much woman to handle, Ogre?”
He gaped. Then he looked at his hammer. Beshard pointed.
“Take the Chieftain down! [Archers]!”
Arrows flew. Now they stung the Chief. He stumbled back, feeling the heavy impacts in his chest. Snarling, he grabbed a healing potion and mashed it in his mouth, swallowing liquid and glass. The wounds healed, but the Chief realized too late that his Ogres were falling. He had to kill the lady and the archers! But there she stood. She had taken a blow from his hammer. How?
The Chief raised his hammer. This time he swung with every fiber of his being. The roar that left his lips made the Ogres look up. They saw their Chieftain strike Lady Pryde. The impact and death magic made the world shake. But when the dust cleared, there she stood.
The Ogre Chief stared. Pryde smiled archly.
“[Pride is Unbreakable]. You made a mistake coming here, beast. Die quickly.”
She raised a hand as the Ogre Chief swore at her and swung. The Ogres of his clan saw her raise a hand and block the hammer a third time. And their morale broke. Beshard threw his javelin as the Ogre Chief stared at Pryde.
The cast did not kill the huge Ogre. Nor did the next twenty arrows. But the second javelin, the hail of arrows that struck the Chief and the fleeing Ogres did. The Chief died on the ground. He tried to raise his hammer, but all he could do was stare at Pryde. She stood over him, her dress ruined, but her skin still flawless. She looked down at him.
“You were not worthy of one Skill, Ogre.”
He tried to reply. But there was really nothing left to say. The Ogre died, his mouth pooling with blood. Lady Pryde looked down at him.
The road was filled with Ogre bodies. Some Human, but aside from a few points where Ogres had broken through, the line had held. There were a dozen dead, twice as many wounded, some with shattered bones. But the Humans had routed the Ogres. And the last of them died, brought down a hundred paces from the longbows. Lady Pryde listened as her soldiers issued a huge cheer.
“Lady Pryde! Are you wounded?”
Beshard strode over to his [Lady]. The [Javelineer] and Master of Arms of the Ulta household looked at Pryde. She blinked down at him, and some of the intensity about her faded. Pryde nodded. Then she glanced down at her body. Her dress was ripped across the bodice, down the navel. Exposing, well…everything. The look of haughty contempt faded from the woman’s face and she flushed.
“Oh, I’m exposed. Beshard—”
“My cloak, milady.”
The man instantly unfastened his cloth and Pryde seized the garment. She hid behind it.
“Thank you, Beshard. Are the soldiers well? The injured?”
“Twelve dead, Lady Pryde. The rest have been healed and bones set for a [Healer]. We have won a grand victory! The Ogres are dead!”
The words stirred a cheer from the [Soldiers]. But Lady Pryde only looked dismayed.
“Twelve dead? Too many! Oh, Beshard. Should I have taken twice as many soldiers?”
Her voice was hesitant, guilty. Far from the imperiousness of before. But Beshard knew his [Lady] and his tone was soothing.
“Not at all, Lady Pryde. They would have fled a larger force. And Ogres are a fearsome threat. This is a grand victory; their spine has been broken! Should we pursue the second force, they will be all but crushed! But let us return and mend wounds for today.”
“Yes, of course. Your judgment is sound, Beshard. And allow me to convey my thanks to the brave souls who fought here today.”
The [Lady] inclined her head. Humbly. It was so uncharacteristic that some of the soldiers stared at Pryde. But the ones who knew the [Lady] and her abilities shook their heads.
The dead were seen to and the Ogre bodies left for later. They might become undead, but another group would see to their disposal. Lady Pryde had more important things to do than oversee a cremation. And indeed, her company rode back down the road in high spirits. Pryde was smiling, but she seemed smaller in her skin.
For a moment. But the [Soldiers] riding with Beshard began chanting her name.
“The [Lady] of Ulta! Pryde has slain the Ogres!”
They were returning down the road. And soon, they came across more travellers. They had scarcely missed the warriors marching down the road, and they let up a cheer when they heard the Ogres had been killed! Pryde flushed at first, sitting on her horse’s back with the cloak preserving her modesty. But that was temporary.
[Pride is Unbreakable]. And too, [Pride is Weight]. Lady Pryde embodied her namesake. She was a close friend of Magnolia Reinhart, but Pryde was no one’s inferior. And soon, the cheers stopped flushing her cheeks. Pryde’s back began to straighten, and the reservoir of ego she had spent in battle returned.
By the time the company was riding down the road leading to Ultase, the largest city of the Ulta lands founded by Pryde’s ancestors, the woman was riding at the head of her group. Her cloak was tossed back, her chin raised. She raised a hand, waving at the cheering crowds following her company. Her [Soldiers] still shouted her name, rejoicing at their [Lady]’s return to normality.
And Pryde abandoned the cloak. Or rather, she wore it properly, around her shoulders rather than covering her front. She didn’t bother to have her dress fixed either. Men and women stared, some for different reasons than pure admiration. But Pryde ignored both. She rode down the streets as her citizens turned out to cheer their beloved [Lady].
“Lady Pryde, if you would wish it, we could find a suitable replacement dress for you. Or hire a [Seamstress]—”
Beshard was more conscious of his [Lady]’s nudity. Pryde turned her head, staring down at Beshard, astonished.
“Halt my return for such a menial task? Or wear garments out of, what, embarrassment, Beshard? Out of the question! We ride on! Have that Ogre’s head displayed—and the hammer he wielded! Let my people know the Ogres will never touch my lands!”
The man bowed as Pryde’s eyes flashed. This was Pryde. Nudity, like shame, bounced off her ego. She rode ahead, possibly luxuriating in the envy, admiration, and stares she received. She raised an arm, holding out a hand to a young boy gaping with his mouth open.
“A [Lady] is a [Lady] in every moment. Whether naked or clothed. Lady Zanthia might say something like that. I personally care not. And shame is not something I feel for my body!”
She nodded at a young girl—possibly the boy’s sister—staring up at her. The girl beamed and waved and Pryde smiled. Beshard sighed. But it was true. This was the Ulta region. And like Pryde, the people believed that pride was a virtue above all others. It dictated society and even after eight years in her service, the Chandrarian man still found it disconcerting. And he was a Stitch-Man, used to swapping body parts!
He tugged at some strings on his cotton-flesh arm that had come loose from throwing the javelins in battle.
“You will encourage your subjects, Lady Pryde. We already have complaints about the nudity.”
“What of it? If they wish to walk around naked, or run, let them. I find it amusing.”
Pryde smiled. It was true that in her lands, there was a population of…nudists. A rarity in any nation, but that was hardly the least of the eccentricities of the Ultanese people. She rode on, waving to her subjects. After a moment, some of her [Soldiers] bowed. The [Longbow Archer], a woman with a flush on her face as she tried to speak to Pryde’s face, spoke.
“You weren’t serious about vassalizing Ogres, Lady Pryde? I heard you say as much to the Chieftain. That would be like Goblins!”
Lady Pryde smiled.
“It was a passing comment. But I did think of it. I’ve heard of Trolls being trainable. Wuvren claims she charmed one, once. But I changed my mind the instant I saw the Ogres. They are far too foul. One wonders what their females are like. Capable of more, I hope.”
The longbowwoman looked at Beshard and he shook his head. It would be like Lady Pryde to try that. He was relieved the Ogres hadn’t surrendered. Pryde, like many [Ladies] was willful, but she was especially bad. She’d once imported a Griffin in hopes of being able to ride it around. And she was still seeking any edge that would establish her superiority over her fellow nobles.
“Lady Pryde, I’m sure your victory will be the talk of the land for a week to come.”
Beshard tried to stoke his [Lady]’s ego. Pryde pursed her lips.
“Perhaps. But I have a mind to destroy this second Ogre band by the end of the week at least! Magnolia has let the adventurers do their work, but too slowly. She is laissez-faire. I demand results.”
The [Javelineer Commander] groaned, but internally. Externally he only bowed.
“I shall see to locating the second band. Your [Scouts] will find them, milady. But may I request we return our dead and wounded? We may need to alter tactics as your shield line is weakened.”
“If we must. I admit, the Ogre with the hammer was a decent bit of entertainment. Find the other Ogres, Beshard.”
“And perhaps we might replace your dress from the wardrobe?”
The company rode back into the town they’d left this morning to thunderous cheers. News had spread, and an impromptu parade greeted Pryde. She took it as her due, and Beshard conferred with the [Scouts] as she retired to the inn. By the time Pryde emerged in a new dress, Beshard had news.
“Lady Ulta, the second band of Ogres may not be a threat.”
“Oh? Have they fled after hearing news of the first group’s demise already?”
Lady Pryde was dining on a pickled egg; the outer parts had been dyed green by the brine, making it colorful and bright. Beshard repressed a shudder. Ultanese food was also a different thing. He turned to the [Scout] and the man shook his head.
“I do not believe they’ve heard of your victory yet, Lady Pryde. Rather, they’re being hunted. By [Knights]! A group of them has pledged to end the Ogres and they’re close to clashing.”
The [Lady] looked up sharply. Her eyes glinted.
“[Knights]? I sent for no knights! Are they from Bethal? Bethal’s [Knights]? On my land, hunting the Ogres without permission?”
“No, Lady Ulta. The Ogres are outside your domain. The [Knights] are merely passing through. And they are not the Knights of the Petal. I understand this is a Terandrian group. The Order of Seasons, apparently.”
Pryde’s eyebrows shot up.
“The Order of Seasons? That is unusual. They must be on some crusade of sorts. Nevertheless, they did not inform me of their presence.”
She looked peeved, drumming her painted fingernails on the table. Beshard waited. Pryde had a temper. She could be the epitome of grace. Or furious if she felt she’d been slighted.
Thankfully, she might have still been recovering her full reservoir of pride or sated from her victory, for the [Lady] only nodded sharply.
“Let them take the second group, then. I have assuaged my curiosity and dealt with the Ogres troubling my lands. Magnolia will clean up the rest. Tell me if the Order of Seasons fails. And have them greet me once they are finished with their task. Now, I think I shall take a bath. That Ogre had remarkably foul breath! Summon my [Handmaidens]! Where are they? Entertaining themselves, no doubt. And I am minded to throw a fête in celebration. See to it, Beshard.”
The man sighed. It wasn’t easy being Pryde’s servant all the time. But—he saw the woman smile. And he couldn’t help but copy the expression. It was like serving a second sun. He bowed deeply.
“Your will be done, Lady Pryde!”
And she only smiled.
The second band of Ogres took two days to track from where the Order of Seasons had begun their search. It wasn’t the difficulty of finding them that posed a challenge at first, but covering the ground the Ogres had on them.
They were quick! Ogres could move as far as a horse in a day if they were inclined and this band had trusted to speed, striking here and fleeing before they were caught. They had a surprising amount of discipline; they looted what they wanted and retreated fast rather than wasting time.
But Talia and her companions had Skills and fresh mounts. More importantly, each [Knight] knew that every passing hour was another dead soul. So they rode, and rode hard. By the time Lady Pryde’s victory reached them, they were certain the Ogres were within the area they were riding through.
“Oh, aye. The Ogres’re up ahead. In the hills, I’ve no doubt. They attacked Crimsal just yesterday. Might come this way. Might not. If they’ve heard about the group that got wiped on Ulta lands, they might flee right off. Be a shame now you lot are here; I’d rest easier knowing they were all dead.”
The [Hermit] who spoke to Lady Talia gestured to the Eldessale Foothills in the distance. Talia bit the inside of her cheek.
“I hope so, sir. We don’t have the time to hunt for their base in such a wide area. But should you not flee the area? We intend to pursue the Ogres, but we cannot guarantee your safety.”
The old man grinned at Talia and laughed.
“Don’t you worry! My home’s concealed by Skills and I’ve got more’n one bolt hole. I wouldn’t have let you know I was here but for the fact that you’re [Knights]. Thought you were here for the Ogres. Maybe you can get them before that other loon gets killed.”
Talia paused. Ser Lorell was waiting for news impatiently as some of the other [Knights] scouted for information. She turned back to the [Hermit]. He nodded sagely, pointing up ahead.
“Thought you knew? He went past my hut not a day ago. On foot. Went off after the Ogres, same as you.”
“A fellow [Knight Errant]? Either he’s one of Izril’s finest or he underestimates his foe.”
Talia was alarmed. The [Hermit] shrugged.
“Think he’s mad, Sirs and Lady [Knights]! He might not even know about the Ogres; it was Goblins he was after! You haven’t heard of him? A fellow in armor, smells to stink he does. Rarely speaks—hunts Goblins day and night? He’s gained a reputation since he arrived! Came from the south, so he did! Out of nowhere!”
“Not at all. Who is this? An adventurer? A [Knight]?”
The [Hermit] paused and shook his head. He lowered his voice.
“Either or neither, Miss Knight. All I know is that he hates Goblins with a passion. They call him the Goblin Slayer.”
The name sparked something in Talia’s mind. She nodded slowly.
“Interesting. Thank you for the information, sir. We may try to catch this person, lest he run afoul of so many Ogres.”
“He wasn’t mounted, so you’ve a chance. Best hunting! Let me know if those Ogres get killed. I hate them. Ever seen their shits on the ground? Worst things. Splashy.”
Talia Kallinad left the [Hermit] behind and reported to Ser Lorell. Ser Eldein, Dame Ingrela, and two other [Knights] returned as well. They confirmed the Ogres were up ahead, but the news about the other [Knight] alarmed Ser Lorell.
“I know Izril has a few orders, but I cannot say there are any great [Knights] to my knowledge. And it would take a great [Knight] such as Teresa the Giant or Ser Alonaid, the [Bow Knight] to face such a horde alone. If this ‘Goblin Slayer’ is hunting Goblins, we should find them.”
“Agreed. Do we ride down the road or take to the foothills, Ser Lorell?”
The Summer Knight hesitated. Talia waited, knowing what she’d order. Ser Eldein glanced sideways at her, but Ser Lorell made up his mind after a moment.
“The foothills. The Ogres won’t stick to the roads after the last group was defeated. They will be more opportunistic. Or do you disagree?”
He stared at Talia. She inclined her head slightly.
“Not at all, Ser Lorell.”
“Then we ride. Mount up! Dame Chise, Ser Raise, in front! Dame Talia, Ser Thornst, choose four and scout.”
The [Knights] took off fast. They were wary of ambush and Talia chose Eldein and a fellow [Summer Knight] to ride ahead, but she knew speed was of the essence. Her Order couldn’t afford to spend a month tracking the Ogres down if they fled into the foothills. She urged her mount into the forest surrounding the foothills, picking a path upwards.
“Gah! My steed can’t handle the terrain. Dame Talia, I fear he’ll break an ankle.”
Ser Eldein cried out as they passed through more dense trees with gnarled roots and stones. Ser Thornst nodded.
“I as well. We’ll have to go on foot unless we have [Steady Hooves] for our mounts or the like.”
Talia frowned, but it was true. And the foothills would be just as bad for riding.
“Dismount, then. Let Ser Lorell know; Ser Thornst, will you take the horses back? You have a way with them.”
Ser Eldein was junior, but it was true. Thornst nodded.
“Of course. I imagine Dame Chise will keep her mount, and perhaps Ser Aldon. But I shall bring the rest back.”
“We’ll have to send them back to a town or village. The Ogres might well go after them.”
Ser Eldein commented as Talia dismounted. The young woman nodded, grimacing.
“I imagine we’ll have to send one of our own back. Or perhaps the [Hermit] could—”
She broke off and raised a gauntleted hand. Ser Eldein fell silent at once. Off their mounts, the two [Knights] heard a sound up ahead. Rustling. They grabbed their weapons, alert. Talia motioned and the two spread out. They were hardly camouflaged with their bright metal armor, but they moved quietly, advancing. Talia rounded a tree and saw the Goblin Slayer.
Her first impression of him was of a kneeling figure. His armor was plain, but perfectly kept. He wore a full-visored helm, concealing his features. And his body was likewise covered, from head to toe.
That was like most [Knights]. But where Talia and Ser Eldein’s armor was polished and bright, painted in the colors of their Season, the Goblin Slayer’s armor was grimy. Not a single part shone. He smelled of dirt too, and Talia caught a foreign whiff from him that made her nose wrinkle. The Goblin Slayer was crouched, immobile as he studied a body on the ground.
A Goblin. It’s head had been split open and it was at least a day dead. The smell was foul and rotten. The Goblin Slayer knelt over it, inspecting the corpse. He had an intensity to even his posture as he remained still. Like a coiled spring, ready to explode if need be. But what stood out to her was the way he reacted to their presence. He looked up silently and she felt his gaze, hidden behind his helmet.
He had known they were here. The armored figure said nothing. He waited. Then, slowly, he stood and stowed the knife he’d been holding in one gauntleted hand. He turned, and reached for the pack on the ground. He looked back at the [Knights] and said not one word.
It was unnatural. Talia felt her skin prick slightly. Ser Eldein wavered and lowered his sword. He called out after a few seconds of silence.
“Well met, stranger! Are you hunting monsters? I am Ser Eldein of the Order of Seasons! This is Dame Talia, likewise of the Order of Seasons! May we know your name and purpose?”
The figure looked up. He stared at Ser Eldein, again, a bit too long. At last, he nodded and said one word.
His tone was guttural, hoarse, as if strained from misuse. He seemed content with that reply. Talia saw him stowing something in a belt pouch. She saw a flash of green and realized what it was.
Ears. He’d cut off the ears of the Goblin corpse. Or—just one. The head had been nearly destroyed by the blow. She saw Ser Eldein react with disgust. That wasn’t a practice of [Knights], but adventurers. Dame Talia was more diplomatic. She sheathed her sword and smiled.
“Are you Sir Goblin Slayer? My company was informed you were hunting the Ogres. As we are. There is a war band of thirty in the area. Thirty Ogres—a fearsome danger to the local citizens. Are you pursuing them?”
The Goblin Slayer looked up. He nodded once.
“Ogres and Goblins.”
Talia frowned. The voice came out of the helmet.
“Ogres. And Goblins. They have Goblins. This is one of theirs.”
He gestured down at the corpse. Dame Talia blinked. She looked sideways at Ser Eldein.
“We’re told they number thirty in total, Ser Knight. Are you intending to battle them alone?”
Another pause. Ser Eldein frowned.
“But there are thirty Ogres.”
“And Goblins. I hunt Goblins. So I hunt them.”
With that said, the Goblin Slayer turned and began to walk away from Talia. She called out.
“Ser Knight, wait!”
He paused and turned back towards her. She cleared her throat. Someone was moving towards them. Ser Thornst, perhaps.
“Will you wait a moment? My company is behind me. We too hunt the Ogres. And Goblins. Might we pool information?”
The armored figure considered her request. Slowly, he nodded.
Talia nodded to Ser Eldein. The other [Knight] sheathed his blade and turned. Ser Thornst stopped when he saw the Goblin Slayer, but the rest of the company converged on the spot in minutes. Ser Lorell blinked as well and covered his nose with a handkerchief; the other [Knights] looked at the body with disgust. And at the Goblin Slayer with suspicion.
“Well met, Ser Knight. Are you the Goblin Slayer we have heard about? I understand you are following the trail of the Ogres. A worthy cause. Might I know your name and order?”
Ser Lorell greeted the Goblin Slayer cordially. They were all on foot, but for Dame Chaise and Ser Aldon. Talia watched as the dark visor swung towards Ser Lorell. The Goblin Slayer paused for a long moment.
“I hunt Goblins. Call me what you want. I am not a [Knight].”
That was all he said. Ser Lorell faltered.
“Then you are hunting the Ogres?”
Are you a Gold-rank adventurer? Or Named? Or just mad? Ser Lorell was clearly thinking that. Talia was sure she’d never heard of a ‘Goblin Slayer’ as a Named Adventurer, excluding Elia Arcslinger of course. After a moment, she broke in.
“Do you believe the Ogres are in this area, Sir Slayer? We have tracked them by sightings and their attacks.”
“They are that way.”
The Goblin Slayer pointed, through the trees to the base of the hills. Ser Thornst frowned.
“You tracked them?”
“Here. And there.”
“Let me see.”
One of the other [Spring Knights] who had a tracking Skill moved forwards. He squatted by the body and studied the tracks in the ground. It was all dirt to Talia, but he seemed to agree. As he noted the stiffness of the Goblin corpse, Talia stepped back with Chise, Thornst, and Lorell to confer. The senior [Summer Knights] eyed the Goblin Slayer. He was watching them all.
“What an odd warrior. Not a [Knight], clearly. But he has the armor of one. That’s good steel. New. Quite mobile as well.”
Ser Thornst nodded to the Goblin Slayer’s armor. Indeed, he wore light armor, not as heavy as some of the [Knights], but it covered his body, allowing for superior movement. Talia knew a well-fitted suit of armor was like a second skin. A trained [Knight] could run, jump, swim, and climb in it with ease. Ser Lorell frowned darkly.
“He seems to match the description of this ‘Goblin Slayer’. I did hear a rumor of him on the road earlier. But he did not state he was such. An imposter, perhaps?”
“His armor is meticulously maintained, for all of the smell. They’re not all one set, though.”
Dame Chise studied the armored figure. Talia agreed. The armor was good beneath the dirt. Ser Lorell pursed his lips.
“He seems to be pursuing the Goblins. Should we insist on taking precedence?”
“Would he agree? This isn’t Terandria, Ser Lorell.”
“Nevertheless, we are nineteen.”
“If he’s an adventurer, he might object…”
“I’ll speak to him. Perhaps he can tell us more.”
Talia backed out of the conversation and moved over to the Goblin Slayer. He was speaking to the [Spring Knight]. Ser Shait was speaking.
“I count a large group. I’d say…fifty? More? Moving in the direction of the hills, indeed. That squares with the thirty-some Ogres. The Goblins…”
“Twenty five. Males and females. No Hobs. Few Goblins are with the Ogres.”
The Goblin Slayer’s voice made the [Knights] look up. Ser Eldein blinked.
“You can count so accurately, sir?”
The helmeted head moved towards him.
“I know Goblins. Twenty five.”
A specialized class for hunting Goblins, perhaps. Talia had met [Hunters] like the [Witch Hunters] who were like that. She had never met one that killed just Goblins. She studied the silent figure as Ser Eldein paused.
“No Hobs? Ah, Hobgoblins. Is that unusual, Sir Slayer?”
She squatted down next to the Goblin Slayer, steeling her stomach against the smell of the body. It had yet to truly stink. The Goblin Slayer paused.
“Hobs rarely appear in slave tribes. Goblins move too slow for Ogres. Tracks also show the same.”
“Yes. This is one. Goblins obey larger monsters. Twenty five for fighting came this way. Thirty Ogres. This one was one of them.”
“Why did it die? An accident? Its head looks—”
“Crushed. Ogre club.”
The Goblin Slayer dispassionately pointed. Talia nodded. Even she could read that much.
“And you’re sure of the count?”
“Fifteen female. Ten male.”
“More female than male?”
Ser Thornst had come over. He frowned. For answer, the Goblin Slayer pulled at the dead Goblin’s loincloth. The [Knights] recoiled.
Talia averted her gaze.
“That is unseemly.”
“The Goblin’s dead. Angered the Ogres. Probably.”
The cold voice from behind the helmet could have been staring at a rock on the ground. There was something almost…Golem-like about the Goblin Slayer. Talia got the sense of incredible focus from him. He was interested in only one thing. The Goblins. He gave her the impression of resenting even this delay.
Sir Lorell frowned. He’d come over, still covering his nose as he stared down at the female Goblin in confusion.
“Wouldn’t Ogres leave females behind? The bestiary states that few female Ogres fight in their raiding parties. Would that not hold the same for Goblins?”
“No. Ogres get bored.”
Talia recoiled. It took some of the [Knights] longer to understand what the Goblin Slayer meant. Ser Lorell took a full minute, and then he paled.
“Another reason to do away with them. Not that Goblins are different. This band has killed dozens. Sir Slayer, we are hunting them like you. May I ask what you intend to do when you find this band of monsters?”
The Goblin Slayer looked at Talia. His voice was calm.
“Track them to their lair. Kill them there. Can’t fight in the open. Ogres run too quickly.”
“Kill all of them?”
“One by one.”
It was like talking to a mildly communicative rock. Talia shook her head. She looked around, gauging the response of the other [Knights]. Most looked suspicious, but Dame Chise was nodding to the tracks. The Goblin Slayer was better at tracking than their company; they hadn’t been assembled for their tracking Skills, only to slay Belavierr. Talia took a breath.
“And if nineteen [Knights] were to do battle alongside you, Sir Slayer? Our quarry is the Ogres and Goblins both. Let us join forces.”
The offer took both the Goblin Slayer and Ser Lorell off-guard. He drew Talia back as the Goblin Slayer paused.
“He’s set on his quarry and he can track the monsters, Ser Lorell. It makes sense.”
“Can we trust him?”
The [Summer Knight] looked at the Goblin Slayer with great distrust. Talia shrugged. She beckoned and a [Spring Knight] hurried over.
“What do you see, Ser Thaime? Can you appraise him?”
The man nodded. He stared at the Goblin Slayer and Talia saw his lips move silently. He used a Skill. [Measure of Valor]. After a moment, he looked up at Ser Lorell and Talia and nodded.
“Well, Ser Thaime? His worth?”
“High. ‘Tis not akin to one of our order, but high nonetheless. I see deception, guilt of failure, and the mark of cowardice upon him, but no heinous crimes.”
The answer surprised Lorell. Talia too, honestly. Lorell raised his eyebrows incredulously.
“You’re sure? What of cowardice?”
Ser Thaime shrugged. His Skill allowed him to see the worth of an individual—at least, as a [Knight] judged such things. It wasn’t a foolproof Skill; there were honorable [Thieves], and lauded adventurers who held dark secrets. But it was a good measure the Order of Seasons liked to use.
“Cowardice in valor, Ser Lorell. I have seen the like upon our Grandmaster, the Summer’s Champion. Those who fled a battlefield at the last look so to me. As a whole, I call yon Sir Slayer a man of valor.”
“Is that so.”
Ser Lorell looked unhappy, but Talia smiled. She nodded to the other [Knights].
“Deception is well explained by how he acts. Cloaking himself in the blood and scent of Goblins? Exterminating them as they sleep? Hardly the act of a [Knight]. But he fights for a good cause. I say we pool our might of arms lest we foul each other accidentally.”
Ser Eldein and a few of the other [Knights] nodded agreement. Ser Lorell looked around but Talia knew she had the support of most of the others. He nodded grudgingly.
“Very well. You may extend the invitation.”
Talia already had. She approached the Goblin Slayer. He had folded his arms.
“I kill Goblins alone.”
“With respect, Sir Slayer, these Ogres are more than a small band of Goblins. I am told the rest of their clan and an entire Goblin tribe nests of the hills.”
“Yes. I will hunt them too.”
Talia nodded patiently. She gestured to the rest of the Order.
“But that is our charge as well. And since we have pledged to rid the world of these Ogres, we will not cease. Will you give up your hunt and entrust the burden of defeating these monsters to us, Sir Slayer?”
“No. There are Goblins. I hunt them.”
“So it is. Then let us work together. Or else we will endanger our causes by working apart.”
It was well-said, and after a moment the Goblin Slayer reluctantly nodded.
“Fine. We hunt together. Follow me.”
With that, he turned and began walking through the forest. The Order of Seasons started, but as Talia nodded, they trooped after the Goblin Slayer. He looked displeased—at least, behind his helmet. Talia strode forwards with Ser Eldein to walk alongside him.
Eldein looked affronted. The [Knights] were moving with a minimum of crackling footsteps in the underbrush. The Goblin Slayer looked at him.
“Noisy. Your [Knights] are noisy. Your armor is too loud. Too bright. And you smell. The Ogres won’t let you catch them.”
“Perhaps if we are too close, Sir Slayer. But we are used to the wilderness.”
Talia smiled, a bit annoyed by the blunt criticism. The Goblin Slayer shook his head.
“No. You smell. They are downwind. They will smell you. Use this.”
He paused and took something from his belt. Talia and Eldein recoiled when they saw a dried, stinking—
“Is that a foot?”
“Goblin’s foot. Smells like a Goblin. Put it on armor.”
Eldein backed up. The other [Knights] gagged at the sight of the body part. Talia stared at the Goblin Slayer. That explained his unique odor.
“You camouflage yourself by smell, Sir Slayer?”
“Goblins smell metal. I go ahead. You all stay back. Or use this.”
He offered it to Talia. She hesitated. She could see Ser Lorell shaking his head, but after a moment she took the body part. She shuddered despite wearing gauntlets.
“What must I do?”
“Wipe it over your armor. Dirt too.”
The Goblin Slayer bent and smeared dirt on her breastplate. Talia stared at the dirt, but she knew it made sense. Some [Knights] in her Order took the same precautions. Just not the foot!
It took her a minute to do as the Goblin Slayer bid. He sniffed her, and then nodded. Ser Eldein did likewise, but he refused to put the foot on his armor. The Goblin Slayer relented; the dirt was enough.
“We’ll scout ahead, Ser Lorell.”
The [Summer Knight] rolled his eyes, but let Talia, Eldein, and the Goblin Slayer move ahead. They were following the tracks. Some were obvious, like an Ogre blundering into a bush and uprooting them, but the Goblin Slayer noticed more. He was pointing out piles of stool.
“Ate here. Six hours, perhaps.”
“You seem very knowledgeable, Sir Slayer.”
Talia didn’t bend down to inspect the still-damp stool. The Goblin Slayer straightened.
“I hunt Goblins.”
“So you said. But it seems an odd occupation. Goblins are hardly profitable creatures for adventurers, are they, Sir Slayer?”
Ser Eldein muttered. The Goblin Slayer looked up.
“You seem to have garnered a reputation, sir. May I ask if you have a reason to hunting Goblins to exclusion?”
Talia looked at the Goblin Slayer. He stared straight back and she felt a chill. He hadn’t removed his helmet the entire time. In fact, he’d drunk through a straw. Perhaps it was paranoia, although Talia had put her own helmet on since they were hot on the heels of the Ogres. The Goblin Slayer nodded.
“I have my reasons. Let’s go.”
The two [Knights] fell silent, looking at each other. The Goblin Slayer was hardly talkative despite Talia’s best efforts to engage him. But how much did she need to know? It wasn’t hard to understand.
Here was a man who hunted Goblins. Why? You could imagine any number of reasons. None of them pretty. But his single-minded devotion to the cause spoke to Talia of a grudge. She wanted to know what it was. He interested her.
They were moving uphill when the Goblin Slayer grabbed Talia’s arm. She stopped as he yanked her back.
“Stop. A trap.”
He’d found something. In the trees, a metal spike embedded in wood. It was poised to swing down once Talia hit the nearly-invisible trigger. She shuddered, eyeing it as the Goblin Slayer climbed up. He was as mobile as she’d thought! He came down with it. Ser Eldein looked appalled.
“What is that?”
“Goblin trap. Ogres must have told them to set it up. They have a camp near here.”
“Yes. Ogres don’t use traps. Goblins do.”
“I’ve never heard of Goblin traps! And I’ve eradicated a tribe before.”
The helmeted head slowly swung towards Ser Eldein.
“Some Goblins use traps.”
That was that. The [Knight] paused. Talia frowned.
“Will there be more traps?”
So saying, the Goblin Slayer put the trap in a bag of holding and took the tripwire and other parts of the trap. That surprised Talia. As they stopped to warn Ser Lorell and the other [Knights], the [Summer Knight] frowned.
“Traps? These seem primitive.”
“Even so, night is falling. We should not venture forwards so near to the Ogre’s camp and risk alerting them and falling into traps.”
Dame Chise cautioned the group. Talia glanced sideways at the Goblin Slayer. He was staring up at the fading sun.
“I can see traps. But the Goblins can see at night. Better to wait for dawn.”
Since I have to put up with you. Some of the Order of Seasons frowned, but they eventually agreed. Ser Lorell ordered a camp struck and sentries posted. The [Knights] made a small, smokeless fire and ate travel rations. Talia had hoped the Goblin Slayer would join them, but the adventurer sat far from the fire. He’d taken the trap he’d found out and was working on something beside it. Talia walked over.
“Sir Slayer, what are you—”
She paused when she saw the second trap. It was a net, the kind [Fishers] might use in a river or stream. The Goblin Slayer was attaching metal shards to the net, tying them into place. Each was a wickedly sharp blade. The Goblin Slayer walked over to a span of trees and anchored the net into place. Anyone rushing through incautiously would run straight into it. Then he grabbed the Goblin trap and began rearming it at another point in the trees.
The Order of Seasons had seen what he was doing. Ser Eldein protested.
“That is not a chivalrous weapon! Sir Slayer, we do not need traps! We are hunting the Ogres!”
“They might attack. Goblins would.”
“Do they know we’re here? We’ve had no signs of them and we’ve kept quiet.”
Dame Chise looked skeptical. The Goblin Slayer just pointed to the fire as a reply. Ser Lorell flushed; he’d been the one to insist on a fire.
“This is an overabundance of caution. Our sentries are well-positioned.”
“And now they have traps.”
Ser Lorell’s mouth worked and he gave up.
“As you will! I shall take third watch. Everyone, to your positions. Let us at least rest well for tomorrow’s encounter. Sir Slayer may set up all the traps he wishes.”
So he did. As the Order of Seasons settled down, pulling gear out of their bags of holding, Talia saw the Goblin Slayer set up eight more traps.
“You take many precautions, sir.”
“I have to. I work alone.”
The Goblin Slayer looked up and looked at Talia. He seemed uneasy at her company. Of course, he was used to isolation. She hesitated.
“You have a number of items in your bag of holding. Traps. I see you use a shortsword. Do you have any other weapons?”
“I have another trick. I will use it when we fight if needed.”
“Will you not take supper with us?”
Talia conveyed his words to Ser Lorell. The [Knight] grunted sourly, eating from the pot. The fire truly was smokeless, and the light contained by the glade, but some of the [Knights] had taken the Goblin Slayer’s precautions seriously. They were checking their weapons and making sure they lay next to them where they slept.
“Let this adventurer do what he wills, Dame Talia. We shall see his mettle tomorrow.”
He gestured to the Goblin Slayer. The armored figure ate alone, in the darkness far from the fire. Talia kept glancing his way. Ser Eldein sat next to Talia as she ate some stew seasoned with bits of pickled herring.
“You seem intrigued by Sir Slayer, Dame Talia.”
“Just interested, Ser Eldein. He reminds me of the [Hunters] from Terandria. They are much like him.”
The [Spring Knight] nodded, but looked perplexed. Talia smiled.
“Oh, very well. I have another reason. You know that I am a [Lady]?”
“In upbringing, perhaps, but I call you a fellow [Knight] above all.”
His words made Talia smile. She shook her head.
“I mean that I have the class. And I have few Skills I gained before becoming a [Squire]. One of them tells me yon Goblin Slayer is a person of interest.”
“Oh. What is the name of the Skill, if it is not secret?”
It was, but Talia didn’t mind sharing among her comrades.
“It is called [Mark of Worth]. Some [Commanders] and [Leaders] have something like it. In my case, it would help me choose worthy retainers. Not necessarily trustworthy ones, but it does help. I sometimes see such people. There were a few in Riverfarm, for instance.”
“Like the Stitch Witch?”
Talia’s smile vanished.
“Oh yes. Worth comes in many forms. To me, I see notable figures. I wonder what makes this Goblin Slayer so important. Perhaps he is capable of killing thirty Ogres over time.”
“We shall see. Ah, but I have second watch. I should sleep.”
Talia nodded. She bedded down, noting that the Goblin Slayer had vanished. She thought his silhouette might be leaning against a tree. Paranoia? Or…
Her thoughts drifted off and Talia let herself relax. She slept, knowing her watch was nearest to dawn. The [Knights] relaxed, trading off watches with the sentries in the darkness. The fire’s embers had long been extinguished and the forest was silent.
The Ogres fell upon the camp in the night. They might have swept through the heart of the camp and slumbering [Knights] but for the sentries. And the traps. The [Sentries] shouted the alarm seconds before the monsters hit the camp.
The first Goblin crashed into the net full of blades and screamed. Talia lurched out of her bedroll, grabbing for her sword. An Ogre hit the plank with a spike and shouted with pain. That brief window was all the time she needed to roll to her feet. Ser Eldein struggled out of his bedroll, tearing the fabric, swearing, grabbing at his sword.
The monsters had thought they could overrun the Humans despite the alarm, but they had never met trained [Knights]. And the Order of Seasons was used to watchfulness in the field. In moments they were on their feet.
“Attack! Rally to me! [Summer Knights], forwards! [Spring Knights] to the flanks!”
Ser Lorell’s voice rose above the din. In the darkness, Talia unsheathed her blade. It glowed in the darkness. And then she saw them.
Ogres. Thirty of them streamed into the glade, battling the [Sentries]. They were huge, dwarfing the Humans! And around them raced smaller shapes. Goblins, green, their eyes glowing crimson as they hurled themselves forwards. The [Knights] charged with wild cries. They were wearing their armor, like the Goblin Slayer.
Talia saw a huge Ogre leading the group. Like the Chieftain that Pryde had encountered, this was the biggest yet. He carried a huge club, with dozens of tiny blades embedded in the wood. He roared as he swung and Dame Chise rolled out of the way; she went for her horse, rearing and screaming as Goblins swarmed around it.
“Leader! Knights of the Summer, to me! Bring down that Ogre with the club!”
Ser Lorell roared as he pointed at the Ogre. Around him, the Order of Seasons engaged. The [Spring Knights] leapt forwards, attacking, dodging, blocking, trained warriors used to a melee. But the higher-level [Knights], including Talia, stopped. She raised her sword, watching an Ogre charging towards her. She shouted and focused the heat of her fury into her blade.
“As the Summer blazes, let my foes fear the sun! [Aura Blade]!”
The plain steel sword began to heat up. Then it glowed. First red, then orange, and then yellow. And then white-hot! The glow illuminated the dark clearing and the Ogre shielded his face. Talia felt the heat of the blade and swung it; the searing metal sliced the air, leaving an afterimage. But she was used to it.
Ser Lorell had done the same, only with his shield. Dame Chise, Ser Thornst—all the senior members were shouting Skills. Concentrating their aura.
That was what the Order of Seasons were. Aura specialists, [Knights] who embodied the fury of their season. Now the Summer Knights copied Talia. Armor began to blaze with heat, or radiate light that blinded their foes in the night. Talia swung her white-hot blade, slashing with it as she guarded her left with her shield.
Her first jab took the Ogre in the side. He was wearing patchwork leather, but the blade went through the crude armor and the Ogre screamed. A slight scratch hurt far more and he recoiled. His club lost its trajectory and struck Talia’s shield.
It was still a heavy blow, but she threw it aside. She would have slashed again, but a Goblin attacked from her left. Talia slashed left, turning, and the Goblin screamed as the blade cut across his chest, burning skin and armor. She caught the Goblin’s hatchet and the weapon burst into flame, forcing the Goblin to drop it!
The heat didn’t make the metal any weaker. And it was hot. Talia might have lacked the ability to become a burning fireball like the senior [Knights] of her season, let alone reach the levels Ser Reim and the Summer’s Champion could, but her sword was still as deadly as many enchanted weapons. One touch would ignite or sear flesh beyond recognition. That held true of the Ogres’ and Goblin’s weapons too.
“Ser Eldein! To me!”
Talia backed up and saw the [Spring Knight] fighting in a whirlwind, eight Goblins lunging at once at him. His armor took many of the blows, but the Ogres were a deadly threat. While the Goblins distracted, they went in for crushing blows that would kill most of the Order of Seasons if not blocked or dodged.
“Dame Talia, your left!”
Talia spun. She cut and the Ogre reeled back, wary of her blade. He was good, and he had a shield of his own, but Talia was trained. She stepped in and Eldein warded her flank and cut. Her sword dipped, feinting, and then speared the Ogre through the leg.
Smoke and a scream. The Ogre lashed out at her, but Talia moved back. Now he was crippled and she and Eldein backed up, battling the Goblins, pushing another Ogre back. Eldein grunted as he blocked a heavy strike from an Ogre. His knees buckled, but he remained standing. A Goblin slashed across his legs, finding a weak spot in his armor. He cried out and Talia beheaded the Goblin.
The [Knight] grabbed it, drank, and spun, before the monsters could capitalize on his injury. He turned.
“Dead gods! Dame Talia, the Goblin Slayer!”
Talia whirled. She’d forgotten about their companion. While the Order of Seasons had grouped up, the Goblin Slayer had been alone! She turned—
And saw him fighting. The Goblin Slayer rolled, avoiding an Ogre swinging a bastard sword one-handed. The Goblin Slayer rose, running the Ogre through the back of his knee. The blow went through the kneecap. The Ogre went down, screaming, and the Goblin Slayer turned. He backhanded a Goblin running at him and leapt forwards. He didn’t go for the Ogre’s throat; avoiding the flailing arms, he cut the Ogre on the leg. Opening an artery. Then he leapt back.
A Goblin ran at him. The Goblin Slayer ran it through. The Goblin jerked. Without hesitation, the Goblin Slayer kicked him off the blade. He whirled. This time he punched a Goblin off her feet. He didn’t hesitate to use his fists or feet rather than waste time getting his blade into position. He went for a second Ogre.
“The legs! Take them from the legs! Group up!”
Talia shouted at Eldein and the [Knights] around them. She fought towards the Goblin Slayer, trying to come to his aid. He was alone, dodging from every direction. And he was good! Good as any [Knight], but he and the Order of Seasons were outnumbered. Talia was shouting his name when she heard a cry and her own name.
“Dame Talia! Your left!”
She turned and saw the Ogre Chief. He was swinging his club, clearing a huge space as three [Knights] tried to bring him down. Talia joined Ser Eldein, lunging forwards, trying to slash at this Ogre, but he was wearing armor on his lower half as well as his upper and he was quicker than the other Ogres. His huge club was too much of a threat. The [Knights] feinted around him. Then Ser Eldein, impatient, or spotting an opportunity, leapt forwards. He slashed, catching the Ogre on the side. The monster roared and swung his club in a tight arc, incredibly fast.
The blow hit Ser Eldein straight in the chest. He went flying backwards, his chest plate dented, bleeding from the metal embedded in the club.
Talia saw the two other [Knights] leap forwards, shields raised, covering her. She battered aside a Goblin standing over Ser Eldein with her shield, reached for him. He was lying on the ground, weakly reaching for his belt.
His potions. They’d smashed. Talia grabbed one from her belt. She smashed it on his chest, watching the liquid mix with his blood. She waited, crouched over him. His ribs were most likely broken. Her potion wouldn’t stop that. When he healed, they’d move him to safety—
The blood didn’t stop. Talia stared down. Eldein was staring at his chest.
She reached for another.
This time Ser Eldein accepted it. He fumbled with the cork. His lips were pale. Talia slashed at a Goblin, swearing. An Ogre hurled a stone at her and she blocked it. She looked down as Dame Chise rode down on the Ogre, lance raised. Eldein was drinking. But as he lowered the potion, the blood running from his ruined chest plate didn’t stop.
The young man gasped. Talia reached for him.
“The potions—they’re defective? Or—”
Then she saw it. A glimmer of metal in his ruined armor. Talia froze. Ser Eldein’s unfocused gaze fell upon the same object and stopped.
It was just a triangle of metal. Thin. Sharp as anything. It had been part of the Ogre Chief’s club. But it was no regular piece of metal.
An Evercut Arrow. Talia stared at the arrowhead that had broken off and lodged in Ser Eldein’s chest. She recognized the distinctive look. It was a powerful weapon, one that healing potions couldn’t fix.
Slowly, she looked at Ser Eldein. Then at the Ogre Chief. He was laughing, having cut other [Knights] with savage swings from his clubs. They were falling back, shouting as they realized what she had.
“Evercut Arrows! Watch yourselves!”
Ser Eldein’s eyes widened as Talia screamed. He looked down at his chest. And then up at her. She stared at him. And then at the Ogres. How had they known? But they were not just mindless beasts.
They were monsters, but they adapted. The Ogre war leader swung his club and the [Knights], forewarned, retreated. Talia looked down. Eldein looked at her. His face was white, draining of blood. But his voice was suddenly calm.
“I am cut, Talia. Mortally. Spring ends.”
“No. We can find a way to heal you. Sear the wounds closed! That works!”
Talia raised her blade. But Eldein shook his head. Slowly, he stood. Blood ran down his armor, covering the colors of spring.
She reached for him. The young man caught Talia. His grip was so weak.
“Let me fight. Let me die standing.”
He could barely raise his sword. But Talia looked in his eyes and saw the truth. Slowly, she turned. The world slowed around them as the [Knights] raised their blades.
Ogres and Goblins. They assailed the Order of Seasons. They came at Eldein, seeing his weakness. Talia took the left, circling, hacking at Goblins, screaming. Ser Eldein raised his shield, uttering a cry.
The Ogre had a mace. And a second one, a flail. Talia ducked the swinging ball of spikes. She slashed at the Ogre’s side, cutting deep. Her sword seared flesh; the giant warrior screamed, but the cut was shallow. She dodged back, slicing at a leg. The Ogre with a flail made a huge swing. Talia ducked, feeling it pass over her head.
And the Goblin Slayer leapt. He stabbed a long dagger deep in the Ogre’s side. The monster howled and turned, staggering. Talia looked back. Ser Eldein was fighting the one with the mace. He raised his shield. And his eyes found her.
The Ogre with the mace swung. A crushing blow. It broke past Eldein’s guard. The blow sent him down and crushed his helmet and shoulder on the right side. Talia cried out and attacked from the side, in the opening Eldein had given her. She struck home. Her blade pierced the Ogre deep in the chest and flesh charred. The Ogre jerked and collapsed, his innards smoking. Gone.
So was Eldein. Talia saw only a still body. She nearly ran to him, but then she turned. The Goblin Slayer was fighting the other Ogre! She whirled—
The Ogre was dead. Talia stared as the Goblin Slayer lowered his blade. He’d killed the Ogre himself! Talia saw the beast’s chest and broken chainmail rent by a terrific blow. A Skill?
There was no time to ask. Talia heard a roar. The Ogre Chief was forcing the [Knights] back. His club kept them at bay. Talia saw the Goblin Slayer look up. He focused on the Ogre.
“Sir Slayer! The Ogre! Do you have a bow? Can you strike it from afar? I can concentrate my aura, but—”
The Ogre was too big! Talia saw the Goblin Slayer hesitate.
“I can kill the Ogre. Sneak attack. Other [Knights] must get clear! Can you distract it?”
“Yes! Seasons, fall back!”
Talia shouted. So saying, she raised her blade. The white-hot blade grew even brighter as the Ogre Chief turned. He shaded his face, coming at them. Talia saw the Goblin Slayer reach for his side. He lifted something—she squinted to see.
“What is it?”
The Goblin Slayer raised the jade and gold axe. The jade edge glowed and Talia saw a magical edge appear, expanding, giving the axe a head three times as large as below. The glowing green blade shimmered as the Goblin Slayer lifted over his head—then threw it at the Ogre.
A scythe of magic cut across the glade. It spun through a Goblin. The rotating magical edge slashed towards the Ogre Chief. His eyes widened and the Ogre raised an arm to shield himself. Too late. The magical axe cut into the Ogre’s arm, cutting it nearly in half!
The beast screamed—and the Goblin Slayer ran. He had his shortsword. He planted the sword in the Ogre’s stomach, twisting the blade. Talia slashed, cutting at the legs, and a third [Knight] ran the screaming monster through the back from horseback. The lance ended the scream. The Ogre fell, dropping the deadly club.
The battle ended with the Chieftain’s fall. The Ogres began to flee, what few remained. And the Goblins ran. There were only a dozen left. The Order of Seasons began to pursue.
“Pursue the Goblins! We’ll cut as many down—”
Ser Lorell’s raised voice was cut off by the Goblin Slayer.
The [Knights] halted, confused. The Goblin Slayer pointed.
“No. They’re going back to their tribe. Let them.”
The Order of Seasons paused. Talia saw Lorell open his mouth. Then there was a cry.
The [Knights] turned. The light of battle went out in Talia abruptly. She lowered her sword and closed her eyes.
Ser Eldein had died fighting. He had given his life to let Talia slay an Ogre. The Evercut Arrows had already been his death. All of these things were facts. It didn’t change that he was dead.
They buried him where he had fallen. They could have taken his remains back. And Talia did take his sword and shield. But that wasn’t the way of the Order of Seasons. Instead, the [Knights] dug a grave. They placed weapons around his grave and laid their comrade to rest there. There was no face left for Talia; they draped a cloth over his head.
Ser Lorell’s face was grave. He and some of the other [Knights] still bled, but none had fallen. The Order had given a ferocious fight with the Goblin Slayer. With potions, they had beaten the Ogres. Only Ser Eldein had fallen. But it was already too much. Talia wept silently as Ser Lorell spoke before the Order of Seasons gathered around the simple grave.
“All things pass. As spring passes we wither. Summer’s glory fades. Autumn’s twilight deepens into darkness. And even the silence of winter must end. Yet the passing of time remembers glory. And so long as time continues, we remember. Ser Eldein, we return you to spring’s embrace. Your name shall not be forgotten so long as all who stand here live!”
The [Knights] murmured. The Knights of Spring laid their brother to rest first. They stepped back, raising their blades. Many were weeping too.
The Goblin Slayer watched. He stood alone, an outsider. But he had fought with them. As each [Knight] paid their last respects, Talia rose from Eldein’s grave.
“You fought with all the courage of Spring and Summer, friend. I will not forget you.”
She hadn’t prettier words to say. She turned. And saw the Goblin Slayer retreating. But she caught him as he began to move back.
“Look. Sir Slayer, look.”
He turned. And stopped. Where Ser Eldein had been buried, as the fresh dirt still settled, something was happening. Shoots of grass rose from the soil. Flowers, growing, budding, opening.
The grave was blooming. The Order of Seasons watched, breathless. Talia had seen it before. But the moment still made her heart hurt. Ser Eldein’s grave slowly bloomed, and a flash of color rose in the bloody clearing. Amid the death and carnage, something beautiful emerged. Growing.
It was not magic. The grave blossomed. The plants, native to Terandria, grew, not to maturity, but close. Spring’s scent hovered in the air.
Then it stopped. The flowers blew in a sudden breeze, suddenly fresh, but mortal. The mystery faded. Talia breathed again. She looked at the Goblin Slayer. The bloody helmet turned towards her.
“What was that?”
She smiled, and wiped at her face. Slowly, Ser Lorell raised his head. And his eyes shimmered with tears. Talia nodded at him and bowed her head. She spoke one word.
They burned the Goblin bodies. And then the Ogres. It was a horrible task, even with the [Summer Knight]’s ability to call fire. But a necessity. While they did that, Dame Chise, the Goblin Slayer, and Talia went after the Goblins. They came back with news.
“There’s a tribe of them in the foothills. The Goblin Slayer reckons at least eighty. Possible as many as two hundred.”
“Not a small tribe!”
Ser Thornst clenched his fist. The Goblin Slayer shook his head.
“Small. Weak. Many died fighting adventurers. It was probably eight hundred. Ogres made them fight.”
“Well, the rest shall die. It seems we have one last task ahead of us, brothers, sisters.”
Ser Lorell’s face was grim. Talia nodded, but it was the Goblin Slayer who shook his head.
The Order of Seasons stared at him, perplexed. He had been accorded far more respect for his feats in battle. Ser Lorell worked his jaw.
“But Sir Goblin Slayer—”
“I will hunt them. Myself.”
The [Knights] stared at him. Dame Ingrela looked incredulous.
“With all due respect, Sir Slayer, we did not come all this way to leave a job undone.”
“No. I will finish it. I promise.”
The Goblin Slayer looked at her. Ingrela frowned. It was Talia who spoke up.
“Sir Slayer, why do you insist on doing it alone? At least give us reason for your motives.”
The armored figure paused. When he spoke, it was succinctly.
“[Knights] fight well. But you fight battles. Some Goblins will escape. I will not let Goblins escape when I hunt.”
The Order of Seasons exchanged glances. Ser Lorell’s voice was confused.
“So what if a few Goblins escape, Sir Goblin Slayer? They may rebuild, but Goblins are impossible to eradicate. It would be quicker to—”
The helmet turned.
“Do you want to know…how Goblin Lords are made?”
The company of [Knights] fell silent. All eyes focused on the Goblin Slayer. He spoke slowly. But this time the words came more fluently. As if he’d said this before. No—they came from the heart. The grating voice echoed as Talia looked at him, his hunched figure.
“It happens like this. There is always a tribe. Always Goblins. And adventurers hunt Goblins. Or [Knights]. Or an army. Doesn’t matter. They kill them. All but one or two. Because Goblins hide.”
He looked up, meeting eyes with his visor. The [Knights] listened, silent. The Goblin Slayer’s voice darkened.
“And that one Goblin that lives? It remembers. It learns. Usually it still dies. But sometimes it lives. And then it grows older. Gets stronger. It never forgets. That Goblin becomes a Hobgoblin. And then a Chieftain. And then a Goblin Lord. If it is strong enough. It remembers. And it seeks vengeance.”
Talia murmured. The helmet swung towards her.
“Yes. Few can become Goblin Lords or Chieftains. Few can become Hobs. But a Goblin that sees its tribe die. That Goblin has a reason to become one. So if you want to stop Goblin Lords? You kill every Goblin in a tribe.”
“The one that remains seeks—”
Dame Chise looked at the Goblin Slayer. And then she glanced at her companions. Slowly, the Order of Seasons nodded. The Goblin Slayer missed the looks they gave each other. But then Ser Lorell stood.
“Your point is made, Sir Slayer. If you are certain you need no help—”
“There will be no Goblins.”
The voice was flat. Talia saw Ser Lorell nod. The older [Knight] looked at the Goblin Slayer. And there was some sympathy there. It was an easy story, after all.
“In that case, we shall return. We would extend the hospitality of the road to you, Sir Slayer. At least rest a day before tackling this tribe. Unless they’ll move?”
“No. The Ogres will make them stay.”
“Then come with us.”
Talia reached for the Goblin Slayer. He moved back, and she lowered her hand. She stared at the dark visor and inclined her head slowly.
“It would be an honor, Sir Slayer. Let us at share our company and speak to Ser Eldein’s valor a moment longer.”
She thought he’d refuse. But at Ser Eldein’s name, the Goblin Slayer turned to look at the grave. Then he nodded.
The company was subdued at first, returning the way they’d come through the forest. They found their mounts and the Goblin Slayer was offered Ser Eldein’s mount. He refused, and instead trotted along. It didn’t matter; the Order of Seasons kept their pace slow.
They mourned Ser Eldein. But he had died well. So instead they praised them, taking a lesson from earlier that week. And many were interested in the Goblin Slayer. Talia walked alongside him as he kept pace with the horses. Dame Chise wanted to know what the magical axe was. He let her inspect it and the woman nodded in appreciation.
“Jade and gold. Or perhaps truegold. The kind the Dwarves and master [Smiths] can shape. I think the enchantment is a light form construct. Brittle, yet sharp as any steel. Worthy of any full [Knight] of the Summer. A fine weapon, Sir Slayer. Where did you come by it?”
“I took it from a Hobgoblin.”
Of course. The [Knights] nodded. Ser Thornst eyed the blade.
“Why did you not use it before? I grant you that it would have endangered those around you had you swung it carelessly.”
“Sneak attack. Advantage.”
Talia snorted. She lifted a hand in apology as the metal helmet looked at her.
“Is everything for advantage in combat, Sir Slayer?”
He thought about the question seriously.
The Order of Seasons returned to the nearest village inhabited they’d passed through this morning. There was only a small inn, but the people turned out to hear that the Ogres were dead. And they feasted the [Knights] accordingly. Talia tried to smile as they gathered around, thanking her comrades. But her heart ached for Ser Eldein.
The one figure who stood alone was the Goblin Slayer. But the villagers knew him too. A dog barked furiously at the armored figure before the owner pulled him away.
“Sorry about that, Sir Slayer! So you got the Goblins and the Ogres? We’ll send word to the Adventurer’s Guild if we get a Runner sooner than you leave!”
“Some Goblins are left. I will finish them. Tonight.”
The Goblin Slayer’s voice was level. Talia eyed the angry dog. The man, the [Innkeeper], apologized.
“Sorry. Bessy smells the Goblins.”
“Perhaps a bath is in order, then?”
The other [Knights] looked anxious at the thought. They had cleaned off the worst of the gore, but their armor stank from sweat, entrails, and so on. The Goblin Slayer was the worst of the lot. The [Innkeeper] was only too happy to offer them baths. Talia accepted happily, but the Goblin Slayer shook his head. He grabbed a bucket and doused himself twice before beginning to rub dirt into his armor.
“Will you not drink with us, Sir Slayer? We will be toasting Ser Eldein into the night.”
The [Knights] sighed, but only Talia was truly disappointed. They began to tell the story of the battle and Ser Eldein to the villagers, and Talia and the female [Knights] followed the [Innkeeper]’s wife to the outdoor baths that were the pride of the inn.
“That Goblin Slayer is a truly odd character. But skilled. I wonder if he was a [Knight]. He spoke of loss. I think he is to Goblins what he claimed the survivors might become to Humans.”
Dame Chise spoke slowly as she shed her armor. Talia nodded. Dame Ingrela shook her head, eying the hot water with anticipation. She looked at the other female [Knights].
“An odd sort. But valiant. We might have taken more wounds from that club. As it was, we have lost yet another of our Order. Ser Eldein.”
“Too many. And yet, this is what it means to be a [Knight].”
Talia murmured. Her companions agreed. They lowered themselves into the hot water after scrubbing themselves with cold buckets, luxuriating in the steam. Talia looked skywards. Night had fallen.
“I hope Sir Slayer truly can dispose of a Goblin tribe alone, though.”
“With that axe and his skills? He might. But in truth, Dame Talia, I am relieved he did not allow Ser Lorell to order us to aid him. He may well fight any number of their warriors, but in the end, he will kill each Goblin in that tribe. And I have done so. They are children and mothers. It is not chivalry to do that.”
Dame Chise’s face was troubled. Talia looked at her and nodded slowly. She had never participated in an extermination of a Goblin tribe. Ingrela looked like she might object, but at last, she sank into the hot water up to her lips. Talia looked to the night sky and imagined the armored figure prowling the darkness. She thought of the intensity of his tone and shuddered.
“Someone must. But what hate drove him to be so, I wonder?”
“One can only wonder, Dame Talia. One can only wonder.”
The Goblins of the Rolling Rocks tribe knew death was coming when the remains of the warriors who had gone with the Ogres returned. The Ogres who ruled over their tribe had been killed. Their Chief defeated. Not just him; the other Ogre clans who inhabited parts of the hills had been broken by the Humans too.
Broken, but not destroyed. The Ogre clans were in disarray as few of their warriors returned, withdrawing further into the foothills. But they had some plunder and loot. And so they withdrew, fearing the adventurers that would surely come. And to buy them time they ordered their slaves to remain.
The Goblins. They were a fine bulwark against pursuers. The Rolling Rocks tribe had fought alongside the Ogres against adventurers, died by the hundreds. Now two hundred remained. They would have fled, but the new Ogre Chief promised to kill and eat them if even one ran. So they waited.
They had a good spot in the hills. A rocky pass where they could fight from. The Goblins were waiting. They knew the [Knights] had killed the Ogres. They were waiting for them. When they came, the warriors would fight and the rest would flee. Into caves. If they hid really well, some might survive and the Ogres wouldn’t kill all of them.
That was the only hope they had. And it was so little. But they clung to that. Because what else did they have?
Nothing. The Goblins—not a single Hob existed in the Rolling Rocks tribe—waited. They could smell nothing, though the wind was blowing their way. But they knew something was coming through the forest.
They had seen him. A [Knight]. Or—no, his armor was too dirty. And he moved more stealthily than anyone but the [Rogue] adventurers. The Goblins shuddered, holding their crude weapons.
Here came death. But they waited. He was just one. They could hide in the caves. Hold him off? Maybe. But then they saw a flicker in the forests. The Goblins with arrows aimed. One loosed, and an arrow fell short.
A shadow moved among the trees. The Goblin tribe froze. And from the darkness, as if he had been born of it, the Goblin Slayer emerged.
They knew his name. Oh yes. Goblins had heard it. An adventurer who killed Goblins. Who left none behind. They shuddered. Some screamed. He walked out of the darkness, the shadows clinging to him. Only blackness lay behind his visor. He stopped, out of bow-range and stared up at the Goblins. They waited.
Death. His gaze pierced them. They waited longer, forgetting to breathe. One Goblin fell off her rock, unconscious. The Goblin Slayer took a step. The Goblins raised their weapons. He looked up at them.
And then he took off his helmet. It came off slowly, and the Goblins stared. They stared. And then they screamed. Goblins dropped their weapons. Some fell to their knees. They stared at the figure who stood below them. They screamed, a shriek so loud it tore the sky. Not of fear. But of another emotion.
Slowly, the Goblin Slayer looked up at the Goblins. Worn, desperate. Afraid. His people. His crimson eyes burned with tears. Rabbiteater raised his gauntleted hand. And the Goblins of the Rolling Rocks tribe flooded down the hill. If he was a traitor, let them die. But let them see! They reached for him. Looking at his armor. His face.
A Hobgoblin. Rabbiteater knelt. And his eyes burned crimson. And he looked at them.
He spoke in their tongue. He had killed some of them. But the Ogres enslaving them were dead. The Goblins stared at him. Reaching out to touch his face, his head, his ears. To make sure he was real.
This was the true Goblin Slayer. He spoke to them. He bowed his head. And then he pointed. The Goblins listened, their eyes wide. They turned their heads, scrambling up rocks to see. Looking south and west. Towards distant mountains.
The High Passes. And then they came back down, looking at Rabbiteater. He spoke. And that night, the Rolling Rocks tribe vanished. When Talia and the [Knights] awoke the next day, Rabbiteater walked into the village with the helmet locked into place on his head. And he showed them Goblin ears. And he listened to them cheer his name.
The Goblin Slayer.
The Goblin Slayer was in the inn the next day, which surprised everyone, Talia included. But she was glad to see him. He had arrived past dawn, apparently. But if he’d smelled of blood or been covered in it, he’d washed himself.
He smelled a bit better by day, which was a relief for everyone. Still, the odor of blood, soil, and that faint bestial smell of Goblin clung to him. Still, the Goblin Slayer’s armor was clean, or at least not covered in soil. The [Knights] welcomed him as the [Innkeeper] offered him a drink.
With a straw. The Goblin Slayer had refused to take his helmet off. When asked, he had refused politely.
“I have sworn a vow. And my face is not…pleasant.”
Rabbiteater lied as he sipped from his drink. Both excuses usually worked. The Order of Seasons nodded slowly. They were impressed by vows. They seemed to think he’d taken one, or that he was extremely hideous from his scars. Both were sort of true. Rabbiteater had vowed never to take his helmet off in a Human town. And he didn’t want to find out what they’d do if they saw his green skin.
“You finished the Goblin tribe in a single night, Sir Slayer?”
The [Summer Knight], Dame Talia, looked at Rabbiteater. He shrugged.
He showed her a bunch of ears. He had them in a bag of holding. She stared at them, looking a bit nauseous. Another [Knight], Ser Lorell, shook his head. But they accepted that. They always did, and no one ever bothered asking how old the ears were. Humans were blind as rocks.
“He must be a [Hunter], or a specialist in fighting Goblins. As some are experts in fighting monsters, or certain enemies.”
Dame Chise whispered to Talia as the Goblin Slayer politely ignored requests from the villagers wanting to know how the Goblins had met their end. Talia nodded. Even in the inn, the Goblin Slayer was fascinating. He was so silent. Mysterious. Which attracted both men and women, wanting to know who the person behind the helmet was. She turned in her seat and addressed Ser Lorell.
“Are we bound north, Ser Lorell?”
“In time. I’m in no hurry to rush. Let us spend a day in contemplation of Ser Eldein.”
The [Summer Knight] was grave and the company nodded. Talia closed her eyes as she thought of Ser Eldein. She would and had mourned him. But then she looked at the Goblin Slayer. There was time enough to speak to him as well.
For Rabbiteater’s part, words were hard. He’d learned a lot, but he was still economical with them. He was no…Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin’s heart clenched at the thought of his friend. Numbtongue, Shorthilt, Headscratcher…all gone. It had been months since that day. But he remembered. He never forgot.
In time, he rose from the table and left the inn. The [Knights] were taking their ease in the village this morning after their battle with the Ogres. Rabbiteater kept glancing at them through his helmet. They were good fighters. And they’d used auras. But for the one [Knight], they’d taken apart a group of Ogre warriors and Goblins without losses. That was hard to do.
He was wary of them, though, so he did business instead. The [Innkeeper] beamed at him as he counted coins into the man’s palm. Silver. Rabbiteater had learned the value of coins too.
“Your generosity, Sir Goblin Slayer, is too much! Please, I can’t accept any coin. You’ve rid us of Ogres and Goblins both. Please—it’s all on the house!”
Rabbiteater stared at the man. They did this all the time, when he told them the Goblins were ‘dead’. He hesitated, then spoke in a low voice, straining it to sound more ‘Human’.
That was it. He didn’t trust himself to say more, but the Humans never asked for a longer conversation. The [Innkeeper] backed away, smiling, telling Rabbiteater he was welcome back anytime!
Rabbiteater nodded. He turned, ignored the angry dog—they hated his guts since they knew what he was—and walked out of the inn. He had work to do. He didn’t stay in Human settlements long, just enough to do what had to be done. Rabbiteater only wished the female [Knight], Talia would leave him alone.
Talia found the Goblin Slayer at the local smithy. He was perusing the local steel. It wasn’t guaranteed that you could find steel—let alone high-quality stuff, so Talia understood his interest. He was tapping on each bar of steel as the impatient [Blacksmith] held his distance—and his nose.
“Will you have any of it, Sir Slayer?”
“Yes. Four. And iron.”
The armored man pointed. His words were short, but the [Smith] nodded and packed up the ingots. The Goblin Slayer paid in gold. Fascinated, Talia watched.
“Are you fashioning more traps and your own arms, Sir Slayer?”
The Goblin Slayer looked up. He paused. Talia wasn’t the only person interested in him. The [Smith] looked sideways as he got out the Goblin Slayer’s second order; Talia saw a bunch of interesting items. Screws, hinges—a lot of it looked like household goods!
“…Yes. I make traps. It’s all…useful.”
Talia couldn’t imagine how some of the items worked, but she thought about the net he’d used and agreed.
“That is not how the Order of Seasons fights, is it, Dame Ingrela?”
The young [Spring Knight] shook her head. She’d come after Talia. She eyed the Goblin Slayer.
“No, but [Hunters] used such traps. Tell me, Sir Slayer. I have been thinking on it—why do you use a plain shortsword instead of enchanted weapons? Surely your axe would be a far better weapon for general use than plain steel.”
The Goblin Slayer paused. Inside his helmet, Rabbiteater bit his tongue. The reason he didn’t use his axe was because it shouldn’t belong to him. If anyone remembered it from the battle with the Goblin Lord—he saw the interested faces around him and fumbled for an answer.
“Enchanted weapons are…dangerous. For hunting Goblins.”
Rabbiteater lied desperately. He saw Talia’s brows shoot up.
Talia stared at the Goblin Slayer. She’d never heard that! But then Ingrela made a sound and Talia, the [Blacksmith], and Rabbiteater looked at her. She nodded slowly.
“I can understand it. Consider, Dame Talia, what might happen if he were to wear such a weapon openly. It would give his opponent information—and allow for detection in battle. Magical armor likewise.”
“Of course! I hadn’t considered it. Apologies, Sir Slayer. We of the Order of Seasons do not generally employ stealth. Much less my Season of Summer. I imagine you must answer such questions constantly.”
Talia looked apologetically at Rabbiteater. The Hobgoblin stared at the [Knights]. Really? But even the [Blacksmith] was nodding as another [Knight] chimed in, stroking his beard. Ser Thornst was pretending to study a blade as he glanced sidelong at the Goblin Slayer.
“I have heard it said that Knight-Commander Calirn uses naught but ordinary steel at times, to give himself a challenge that he might level up. There are reasons for it.”
“Right. Thank you.”
The ‘Goblin Slayer’ was sweating bullets. He collected his gear from the [Blacksmith] and hurried off. The [Knights] watched him go—this time to a [Seamstress] waiting for him with a bundle of cloth. Talia watched him taking small pads and shoving them into a bag of holding.
“Bandages, mayhap? He seems determined not to rely on potions.”
“After seeing the Ogre with the Evercut Arrows, I find that prudent. He’s clearly experienced in fighting Goblins.”
Ser Thornst nodded. It was Ingrela who sighed.
“And yet, I cannot help but feel for him. Did you understand the meaning in his comments about enchanted weapons, Talia, Thornst?”
They looked at her. Ingrela explained.
“It is true enchanted gear alerts a wary foe. But most of all? When he falls, each item Sir Slayer bears will be a weapon the Goblins can use against their next victims. ‘Tis a measure of resolve. Bravery, I call it.”
Thornst sobered. Talia looked back at the Goblin Slayer, struck again. She murmured.
“Indeed. He has put his life into his cause. No wonder he is so successful at his trade.”
“Not just that, Sir and Lady [Knights]. He’s become famous in all sorts of places. Where he goes, Goblins die like flies. Everyone’s talking of him. We already knew who he was when he walked into our village. A lone adventurer, fighting back the Goblins. Damn good thing after the Goblin Lord. It’s an honor to help him, for all he stinks of, well, Goblin.”
The [Blacksmith] nodded knowingly. The Order of Seasons agreed, watching the Goblin Slayer solemnly. They respected those who followed a cause similar to their own.
Rabbiteater, not able to hear any of it, tried to resist the urge to scratch his groin. The armor got stuffy. He really wished they would stop following him around.
The Order of Seasons insisted on accompanying the Goblin Slayer to the next town. It was north of here, and it was on their way. The Goblin Slayer walked, but quickly, so the Order of Seasons kept him company. He was still taciturn, but by now he seemed to have resigned himself to their company, especially Talia’s. She was trying to understand him, or at least, learn more about him.
“‘Goblin Slayer’ is a poor nickname. Have you any name you would be willing to share? Or is your identity sworn to secrecy as much as your visage?”
The Goblin Slayer paused.
“My name doesn’t matter.”
“Surely it does! A [Knight]’s deeds should be cried out.”
“I’m not a [Knight]. Killing Goblins is not…amazing.”
“Even so, you seem more [Knight] than mere adventurer. Have you had training? You fight with more expertise than a self-taught warrior.”
The Goblin Slayer shrugged uncomfortably.
“I have trained.”
“Ah, I knew it. With your skill at arms, you might well enlist in an order, Sir Slayer! The life of an adventurer may suit you in your quest, but the backing of an order would do you no harm.”
The Goblin Slayer could only shrug again in reply.
“I work alone. People die around me. Friends.”
There was a heavy note in his voice. And that spoke of truth. Talia looked at Thornst and the man shut his mouth. But even Ser Lorell was nodding covertly. More pieces of the puzzle. Talia was wondering what ill-fated battle had led the Goblin Slayer to his quest. Perhaps he had fought at Liscor? Or been prey to the Goblin Lord’s army. Or maybe his desire stemmed from an even older conflict. Velan the Kind, perhaps?
They reached a larger town, and Talia got to see the Goblin Slayer enter the Adventure’s Guild. The [Receptionist] at the desk knew him. They stared as he poured Goblin ears onto the desk.
“Enough! Sir Slayer, enough! We don’t need to count—dead gods, you wiped out another tribe? We could as easily use a [Detect Truth] spell!”
The man at the desk looked at the Goblin Slayer, slightly appalled, but mostly awed. The other adventurers, Silver-ranks and Bronze, gave the Goblin Slayer their own stares and respectful nods. The Goblin Slayer paused.
“This is proof.”
“And so it is, sir. I can collect your bounty after I er, count…”
The man helplessly waved for help. A few adventurers got up. One of them, a Silver-rank [Fencer], leaned against the counter.
“You took them out yourself, Slayer? Dead gods, and I thought my team was good!”
“I had help.”
The Goblin Slayer looked back at Talia and some of the [Knights]. The adventurers exclaimed when they saw the Order of Seasons and they were impressed as the [Knights] introduced themselves. A bit wary, even; some of the Silver-rank teams looked embarrassed as they eyed the shining armor the [Knights] wore.
“You know the Goblin Slayer, Sir Mells?”
The young [Fencer] flushed.
“Just Mells. I’ve seen him about. I’d like to say he’s a friend, but he’s driven. He comes and goes; in truth, my team saw him in the south. He walked into the guild one day and dropped a huge bag of Goblin ears! That’s all he hunts, practically. Did you say you saw him fight? He’s never partnered up with anyone so far.”
“Indeed. He was a fierce warrior in battle. We wondered if he’d do us the honor of accompanying us north.”
Talia’s voice made the Goblin Slayer look up. He stared at her as she explained.
“We ride north, towards First Landing, or perhaps to any port if chivalry demands we travel elsewhere. We are returning to our headquarters, in Terandria. But your cause is just, Sir Slayer, and we would speak to you of chivalry.”
Her fellow [Knights] were nodding. The Goblin Slayer spoke to them. He could only hesitate and shake his head.
“I don’t work in teams.”
“Consider it, Sir Slayer! We travel onwards at speed come tomorrow. But your talents are wasted as a mere—”
Ser Lorell caught himself, looking around. He coughed.
“That is to say, your task is a noble one. And the path of a [Knight] is one of worth! Let us at least speak to you of valor.”
He waited. Talia held her breath. But all the armored figure did was nod.
“I’ll think about it. Tell you tomorrow.”
She hoped he’d agree as they rested that night in the town. He was fascinating to her.
That night, Rabbiteater left the town through the main gates. He didn’t need to skulk. The [Sentries] waved him past after one glance. One of them called out good-naturedly.
“Patrolling, Goblin Slayer? We’ve got our eyes on the horizon!”
Rabbiteater raised a silent hand in reply. One of the other [Sentries] nudged his friend.
“Let him go. He always does this. Can’t be too cautious.”
The Hobgoblin walked out of the town. And then he began running when he was out of sight of the walls. It took him nearly two hours to reach the meeting spot, and when he did, he was late.
Last night, he’d found the Rolling Rocks tribe. They’d left without a trace, which had fooled the Humans, but they could hardly make the long trek south without help. Which was why they’d been found by the second Hobgoblin after Rabbiteater had signaled him. He was waiting for Rabbiteater, along with another companion.
They were both mounted. Rabbiteater paused as he heard the growl, but the Carn Wolves sat patiently, recognizing him as a Redfang. Badarrow slid to the ground where he’d been keeping watch; he’d spotted Rabbiteater from far away.
The Hobgoblin [Sniper] didn’t smile as he saw Rabbiteater. Like his friend, he hadn’t smiled since…that day. But he grabbed Rabbiteater’s arm, squeezing the [Champion]’s arm. Rabbiteater, the [Champion]. To this day, the Hobgoblin felt he didn’t deserve the class.
A [Champion] would not have let his friends die. But he had a job. So Rabbiteater followed Badarrow to the small camp. There was no fire; Goblins weren’t that obvious. A second figure stood up. She was less familiar to Rabbiteater, for all they’d gotten to know each other. He just nodded at Snapjaw as she crunched some bone in her mouth.
“Rolling Rocks tribe safe?”
“Safe. Good camp that way. Are quiet. Snapjaw lead south. Ogres dead?”
Badarrow grunted as he offered Rabbiteater some raw meat. Rabbiteater nodded, accepting the food. It was hard to eat, even in private. He tore off a bite, chewed, swallowed.
“Dead. [Knights] helped.”
“Peh. We could kill. And Rolling Rocks tribe.”
Snapjaw spat. The plan had been for her and Badarrow to back Rabbiteater up and rally the Goblins to overthrow the Ogres. Rabbiteater just shrugged. He traced the ground with a metal foot.
The two Hobs just nodded. Sometimes it happened. Badarrow looked at his friend. After a moment, he reached for a bag of holding. There were only a few available, but he, Snapjaw, and Rabbiteater all carried one. It was one of the first things Rabbiteater had bought with the gold he’d earned from his job.
He pulled out a larger bag from within the bag of holding. Rabbiteater didn’t need to know what it held, but he looked anyways. Goblin ears. Dozens of them. He stared at them, then closed the bag. Snapjaw cracked a bone between her teeth. Rabbiteater stared at Badarrow.
“More Goblins dead?”
“Some dead. Less, now. Chieftain find good place.”
Rabbiteater nodded slowly. He added them to his own collection. He had many Goblin ears. Hundreds of ears, in fact. He hadn’t sold them all at once. Many were from dead Goblins in Rag’s tribe. They weren’t using the ears when they died, and the money—even if it was only a copper coin per pair of ears—bought the Flooded Water tribe what they needed to survive.
The rest were from the battlefield. From the dead. After a moment, Rabbiteater began pulling objects out of his bag of holding. He switched to the common tongue, what Erin called ‘English’ to speak.
“Here. I have potions. Take this too. It’s steel Chieftain wanted. Good…quality…ore.”
He was no Numbtongue, but he had learned how to say some things. Use contractions, for one. Snapjaw had taught him, having learned from Reiss himself. Badarrow grunted. He wasn’t as good as Rabbiteater so he stayed in the Goblin tongue.
“Good. Smells good. What this?”
“Steel. Iron. Pickaxes. Potions. Screws. Nails. Wiping things…”
Rags wanted any number of items. Badarrow nodded until he came to the cloth objects that Rabbiteater had ordered. He prodded one and stared at Rabbiteater.
“What this? Not bandages.”
“Don’t know. Female Goblins want.”
Rabbiteater shrugged. He looked at Snapjaw. She took one and felt the fabric happily.
“For blood. Better wipe. Softer.”
Badarrow looked blank. Snapjaw glared at him.
“No! Other place!”
The three Hobgoblins paused a moment. Rabbiteater silently unloaded his bag of holding and Badarrow and Snapjaw divided the load. It was a good haul; he’d spent the money he earned well. After a moment, he pointed back the way he’d come.
“Stay away from Order of Seasons. Smells like weather.”
“What kind of death are they?”
Snapjaw looked up. Her crimson eyes glinted. Rabbiteater paused. He switched to the Goblin tongue then, to more accurately approximate their fighting strength in their terms.
“Screaming, fighting, cornered death. Maybe worse death.”
Badarrow nodded. He inspected his bow, glanced up. After a long pause, Rabbiteater looked at him. Reluctantly, he asked the real question he knew Badarrow wanted him to ask. It was written in every line of his posture, and Goblins spoke with bodies as much as words.
“Chieftain say anything?”
Both Hobs nodded. Badarrow glanced up at Rabbiteater. He tried to smile, but he had never been used to it. And Rabbiteater’s heart was missing since the battle. He’d left it in an inn, in the past. He shouldn’t have run. He should have died—
“She say ‘good work’. And—can come back if want.”
“I don’t want to.”
The two Hobs paused, then nodded. Rabbiteater sat down. They sat too. One of the Carn Wolves sniffed and Snapjaw threw him part of the bone she was eating. Rabbiteater stared at nothing. Then he looked up.
Another nod. Rabbiteater had no more questions. After a moment, Badarrow looked around.
“Lots of Humans. Hard to hide. What do?”
Rabbiteater hesitated. But the answer came out of him before he knew what he was saying.
“Going north. Find more Goblins. Go around. Maybe go with [Knights].”
Both Hobgoblins sat up, their postures and expressions radiating shock. Incredulity. Badarrow looked at Rabbiteater.
“No! Bad idea! Dangerous! Discover-death. Surrounded death!”
“Don’t care. Humans don’t see.”
“Dogs smell! I smell! Bad idea. Bad. You come back—”
Rabbiteater resisted Snapjaw’s arm. She stared at him. Her head was bigger than normal and her mouth was huge. She could bite through a Gargoyle’s skin with her metallic teeth. Rabbiteater met her eyes, and then looked away. He stood up.
“I’m going. Tell Chieftain I’ll get her what she wants. Pretend to be Goblin Slayer. Go with [Knights]. Don’t come back. Too dangerous.”
For them. But he didn’t care. The [Champion] stood alone, his armor gleaming thanks to his Skills. But his expression was bleak. He reached for his helmet and put it on. Wearing a false identity.
The Goblin Slayer began to walk away from his friends. After a moment, Badarrow stood up. He shouted, breaking the silence, ignoring the danger.
The visor turned back to him. Snapjaw scrambled up a rock and stared around. Badarrow walked down towards Rabbiteater. The [Sniper] hesitated. Then he reached out, grabbed Rabbiteater’s shoulder.
“Chieftain say when fortress finished in mountains, go back to inn. Secret. Few.”
For a moment Rabbiteater’s heart leapt. Go back? But then—he turned away. Yanked free of Badarrow. He shook his head. Once, and then again. He wasn’t trying to forget a young woman, a happy place, warm smells and laughter. It was that which kept him going. He would never forget. He looked back at Badarrow.
“Not me. Not strong enough. Not going back. Greydath was right.”
That was all. Badarrow watched as Rabbiteater turned away. But he shouted one last thing.
The Hobgoblin turned. Something wet hit him in the face. He stared at it. A flowing cloak unfolded in his arms. He stared at Badarrow.
“Chieftain doesn’t want?”
The Hobgoblin shrugged. Snapjaw hopped down and strode over.
“Chieftain gets other blood. This save Goblins. Many. Now it save you. You go. But come back! Understand?”
She pulled something out. A crude funnel. She tapped it.
“Here. Put in arm. Blood go in if cut. Feel better. Not too much!”
Badarrow nodded. He took the crimson cloak and stared at it. And the past, a dead Goblin’s blood, flowed in his claws. Shorthilt. For a second Rabbiteater’s head went white. He saw death. He saw his friend in his arms. Then he put the cloak on and bowed his head. He looked up at Badarrow and hesitated. But then he turned and walked away.
The two Hobgoblins watched him go in silence. Then, slowly, they mounted the Carn Wolves. And rode south. Back towards home. A Goblin’s home, beginning in the mountains, in secret.
About legends. Legends were ten-a-copper-penny. And most were fake, like the Last Light of Baleros being able to heal any wound, or the legend of the Titan’s height. Or that Humans could shoot blood on command. But some, most, had a grain of truth to them. You could hear them, in every part of the world. Of extraordinary people, events.
The crazy Human who lived around Liscor. The inn that kept moving that had doors that went everywhere. A tale of an [Emperor] who lived in a humble village. A story of a [Singer] who captivated tens of thousands and sang like no other. A [Hero], a monster, a slayer of Demons on Rhir. A pair of twins, one cunning, the other fierce, who were part of the King of Destruction’s new Seven.
And here, a Goblin Slayer. A [Knight], or perhaps an adventurer who hunted Goblins. Who killed them as vengeance for Velan, for the Goblin Lord, Reiss.
The next day dawned bright and early. Talia Kallinad smiled as she saw the Goblin Slayer waiting for them in the bottom of the inn. She knew his response, but it cheered the Order of Seasons when they heard it. They had grown from distrust to acceptance with the Goblin Slayer over their short journey together. And while he refused to share his identity, he said one thing that made Talia’s heart surge.
“I have a name. I would like to be called.”
“Really? Pray, tell us.”
Rabbiteater hesitated. But at last, he spoke.
The name meant little to the [Knights]. But it filled him with a surge of indescribable emotion. He didn’t deserve it. But if he could have picked any last name, any in the world…
“Sir Solstice, it is! Better than Sir Goblin Slayer! Let’s ride, indeed!”
“For a bit. If it is good.”
“We insist on it.”
Even Ser Lorell was welcoming. As the Goblin Slayer settled his bill, Dame Chise gave the group a significant look and addressed Talia.
“I know who Sir Slayer is, Dame Talia. Not Human.”
Every [Knight] turned, and then affected nonchalance as the Goblin Slayer looked over. Chise lowered her voice.
“No. I pondered it last night. And today confirmed it.”
“Don’t keep us in suspense, Chise! What’s the identity of Sir Solstice, if not Human?”
The [Summer Knight] looked at the Goblin Slayer. She gestured at his back.
“Consider his tracking ability. His refusal to show us but a glimpse of his visage—and now, since last night, I espied a few tufts of hair on his armor that had not been there yesterday. Dark, reddish fur.”
It took Talia a moment. Then her eyes went round.
“But he fights like one of us! His martial abilities—Gnolls are not [Knights]!”
Ser Thornst raised a finger, frowning.
“Hold on. It may strain credulity, but I distinctly recall our order receiving a request from a Gnoll in Izril last year. He wished to know whether we might accept him—”
“Yes! And he was refused, on the grounds of age and talent. He was fully-grown, far past the age of any normal [Squire] and to merit such an invitation and the expense of bringing him so far, we would have to have been assured of some great troth of talent. Even so, the Fall Sentinel expressed his regrets for the decision and debated issuing an offer—if the Gnolls were to obtain the prequisite levels in the [Warrior] class and suitable acts of valor.”
The Order of Seasons fell silent. Ser Lorell murmured, eyebrows raised.
“No wonder dogs don’t like him.”
Talia looked up. The Goblin Slayer was coming this way.
“Whoever he is, he is valorous. I saw that myself. Sir Solstice, will you ride with us today? We’ll make no fast progress on foot!”
The Goblin Slayer paused.
“Horses? I don’t ride well.”
“Can you not ride a horse?”
Talia saw the armored figure shake his head slowly.
“I have not much practice with…horses.”
The company left the inn. Outside, Talia showed Sir Solstice how to mount. He listened, and then looked at her as she offered him Ser Eldein’s horse to use.
“Why what, sir?”
“Why help me? Why want my company?”
The question was blunt, but she’d expected that. Talia paused, and looked back at her fellow [Knights]. She did love them, for all they were different. She glanced down at the Goblin Slayer and replied seriously.
“Honor is a hard thing, Sir Solstice. And valor is not seen enough in this world. Is it so strange for us to welcome the company of one who has either?”
“You think I have it?”
“You fight well. And I believe you when you speak of loss. More than that, sir? It’s just a feeling.”
The Hobgoblin stared up at the female [Knight] in silence. Then, slowly, he drew something from his pack and put it around his shoulders. Talia blinked at the crimson cloak of blood.
“What’s that? An artifact? I thought you didn’t use them, Sir Solstice.”
“This one came from a…friend.”
Rabbiteater put it around his shoulders. A cloak made of liquid. The crimson blood moved like fabric as Rabbiteater slowly swung himself onto the horse’s back. It was different from a Carn Wolf and the horse shifted uncomfortably, smelling both Goblin and blood.
He cut an impressive figure. The [Knights] looked at him. They smiled, and Rabbiteater looked around. His voice was…quiet as he looked at Talia.
“Is it okay?”
Rabbiteater paused. He gestured, awkwardly, at the [Knights], treating him with courtesy. At the [Innkeeper], who’d come out to bid him farewell. At the Humans who smiled and called his name. At the fake him. The image of a person who slaughtered Goblins. But mostly, he was talking about himself.
“Is it okay to be happy? Even when friends die? I should not feel happy. But I do. The world hurts. It is cruel. Good dies. But still. Even though I am…am I allowed to want to smile?”
His voice was lost. Small. And Talia was struck silent. She cleared her throat. And then she nodded. She reached out and grabbed his arm. The Hobgoblin looked at her as she drew closer. Talia nodded.
“Yes. You are right. The world is cruel. Sometimes, darkness overwhelms even the best of us. I have seen it. Good men like Ser Eldein die and few mourn him! Yes, the world is cruel. And our friends die. But we must live for them. Or else how would we honor their passing?”
The words echoed, and the Order of Seasons nodded. Rabbiteater looked at Talia, and she thought she saw a face behind the visor. A glimpse. Or perhaps it was simply him she saw, his true self. But then he drew back. Talia spoke, her words clear and carrying.
“Ser Solstice, know this. If you champion justice, you are a [Knight]. That is what I see in you. So long as your cause is just, your heart unwavering, and you live with honor, I will be your ally. I will stand with you.”
The words were fitting, and the Order of Seasons echoed her. But Sir Solstice, the Goblin Slayer, Rabbiteater, looked at Talia. With such a deep gaze that even behind the visor, Talia felt it. Loss and grief unimaginable. Sacrifice. That invisible stare held it all, overflowing. And Talia felt embarrassed to speak such bold words, as if she were but a squire speaking to a full [Knight].
But then Sir Solstice, the Goblin Slayer, the strange warrior who was not a [Knight], nodded. He looked at Talia and his voice was lighter, for a moment. As if she’d taken a burden from his shoulders with words alone.
“Someday. I will ask if you remember that.”
“I will never forget, nor break that vow.”
Talia offered him a gauntleted hand and he squeezed it hard. She smiled, and the [Knights] around her straightened, adding their voices to the triumphant chorus. Rabbiteater listened, and then followed the company north.
Let the dice fall where they might. He turned his head towards the sun. And he tried to smile.
[Champion Level 28!]
[Skill – Steelcut Sunder obtained!]
[Knight Class Obtained!]
[Knight Level 2!]
[Skill – Reinforced Armor (Steel) obtained!]
[Skill – Basic Riding obtained!]