Noah and Tin, having fully recovered from the springburn sickness, set out early on a beautiful day. Summer was upon them, so the mornings had lost much of their chill, though everyone paid for it in sweat later in the day. Unlike before, when they roamed aimlessly through the woods to hunt monsters, they had a specific location in mind. Noah had heard rumors of an abandoned mine that was taken over by goblins. A hive, a nest, a colony, whatever it could be called, it spelled trouble for the village. Goblins ate and bred like rats, so if they managed to find a good place to dig in, they could bolster their numbers in very little time. They had claimed the area several times before and had to be flushed out, and while attempts had been made to seal or destroy the mine, the goblins always found a way back in.
They were following one of the maps Noah had bought, with several pieces of advice written down that he had received from other adventurers. It would take a day to reach the mine, so they exercised restraint and avoided fighting monsters whenever possible. Hopefully this mine would be a great source of revenue in scavenged weapons, meaning it would be best to travel light and not gather along the way.
They arrived at the mine early in the morning of the following day. Finding a safe place to set up camp had been difficult, for this was the territory where the goblins roamed. The mine was carved into the base of one of the small mountains. At one time, it might have been a fairly decent operation. There were plenty of signs of the buildings that would have stood around it, now reduced to piles of kindling. There had once been a wooden shack built around the entrance, sort of like an airlock, perhaps to keep the rain out some time ago, but it was just a rickety skeleton now. Many of the materials and abandoned equipment were harvested to construct weapons and barriers for use against intruders, with a handful of goblins keeping a constant watch.
Noah and Tin were hiding nearby, scouting the entrance. “You wait here and I’ll take out the guards. I’ll wave you over when it’s all clear.”
Noah concealed himself and advanced towards the mine. He counted seven goblins in total. One was on the roof of the shack erected around the entrance, perched like an owl with a bow in hand. Two more were sitting on the wooden walls at the perimeter of the camp. The remaining four were at the entrance, though they were preoccupied with a game of dice.
Noah went for the one no one would notice, the sniper above. He approached the entrance without a care in the world, invisible and inaudible to the goblins keeping guard, but that would change. The only way to the sniper was to climb up onto the roof of the shack, but it was so weathered and fragile, it looked like it couldn’t support more than the weight of one goblin. However, it was worth taking the risk. He reached the side of the shed and began the climb, using the mossy cliffside as a secondary ladder to help minimize the weight he put on the old wooden boards.
He was careful with every placement of his hands and feet, so as to disturb as little as possible. His illusion would conceal the marks he made, but only within a certain range. He had experimented with Tin’s help, finding that footprints would be revealed after ten steps, so he had to stay within that range to keep them within his illusion. Besides, if he ended up ripping a board right out of the wall, his illusion might not be able to conceal it. The climb was difficult. The wood of the shack had frayed over the years and riddled his hands with splinters, while the hard clay on the cliff crumbled and made it difficult to get a solid hold. Regardless, he managed to climb up onto the roof.
The roof itself was like thin ice, and if he ended up breaking through or snapping any of the beams, the goblin would surely feel it, even if he couldn’t hear it. Noah pulled a rock out of the cliff and threw it into the foliage in the distance. The goblin perked its head at the noise, and in that instant, Noah closed in and stabbed it in the back with his short sword. It died before it could even voice its pain.
Noah left it sitting there and climbed off the shack, then snuck over to the two goblins sitting away from the entrance. They looked bored as can be, struggling to stay awake. Noah approached the first one, leaning against one of the wooden walls. He dispatched it with his knife, striking the base of the brain stem. The wound was small and the goblin simply went limp, never feeling a thing. To its friends, it would look like it had simply dozed off. Noah slew the other goblin the same way, without creating any noise or disturbances.
Finally, he approached the entrance, where the four were still gambling. He stood over them, the sun passing through him perfectly and its rays illuminating their game. He ***********ed his longsword for this, even doing a few practice swings to figure out the reach and force required. When he was satisfied, he gave a mighty slash, beheading all four beasts at once. Their bodies dropped to the ground and Noah released his spell, then waved Tin over.
As he stood guard, she searched the bodies, and for each one, cut off their right ear. Most monsters had some useful body part that could be sold, like their hides for clothing or their meat as food, but aside from collectors of grotesqueries like skulls and other things to put on display, nothing about the goblin was sellable. However, since they were such a nuisance, their species had an ongoing bounty. The local baron would pay adventurers for every goblin they killed, and their right ears were the proof. The goblins also sometimes carried valuables, such as weapons, candles, and even coins. Tin searched them all, and whatever goods she collected went into her backpack.
“Ready to go in?” Noah asked.
Tin nodded. “I’ll follow you wherever you lead, Master.”
From her pack, she drew a lantern and lit it. Noah would lead, but she would provide the light. This meant that he couldn’t simply disappear and leave her at a safe distance while he picked off the goblins one by one. He needed her right beside him so that he could see what he was doing, and would have defeat the goblins drawn to the light.
They entered the mine, and were immediately assailed by the stench. This was the first time Noah or Tin had ever seen a goblin nest, so the smell was new to them. It reeked of sewage and rotting meat, much of the latter probably human.
“This air might be toxic. Tell me if you start getting dizzy, because if one of us loses consciousness, we’re both doomed.”
They delved into the mountain with Tin lighting Noah’s way. Everywhere, there were the remains of animals that the goblins had eaten, picked down to the bone. In a way, the goblins provided a valuable service to the ecosystem. Because monsters and animals spawned both organically and through magic circles, the landscape should have been buried under all of their corpses. Instead, the scavenging beasts would take their finds to their den, continuously sweeping the forest clean.
They soon came upon the first branch chamber, just like in an anthill. It was small, about the size of an average bedroom. Inside, several goblins were sleeping atop a mountain of pelts. Most of them were female or younglings. It wasn’t proper sport to kill such prey while they slept, but this was an extermination job, so things like honor held no meaning.
“It would probably be better if you didn’t watch this,” Noah whispered to Tin. “Look away and listen for any approaching.”
She did as ordered, a mournful look on her face as she averted her eyes while keeping the light of the lantern focused into the chamber. Noah drew his short sword and began stabbing the monsters in their sleep. Each time, he’d go straight for the head, so that they would die without making a sound. He was steady, methodical, taking them out one by one with none of his victims even suspecting a thing. It was unnervingly easy, and when he was done, he harvested their ears.
Noah heard it with a monstrous shriek. He ran back out into the tunnel as a goblin charged from deeper within, armed with a wooden spear. Noah pushed Tin out of the way of its first thrust, then sliced off the top of its head with a strike to the temple. More must have heard its cry, because another two goblins came running at them.
The first that tried to approach swung at Noah with a large dagger. He stepped out of its range and kicked goblin in the chest, nearly sending it flying. The second blocked the swing of his sword with a wooden club, but he forced it against the wall and drove his knife into its chest. Leaving it to die, he returned to the first, struggling to breathe, and ended its life with his sword.
“Master,” Tin said, handing him a damp rag. He used it to wipe the blood off his hands while she looted the corpses.
They moved further on down into the tunnel, finding it expand into a larger chamber and fork out. There was still plenty of mining equipment, but much of it was being used to hang food from. The bodies of both humans and animals had been skinned and were being cooked over bonfires. The goblins were jumping around and squealing in delight as the smell of their feast wafted through the mine. Human flesh cooked over a fire, it was a smell that took Noah back to some dark timelines.
Tin gasped in horror at the sight and one of the goblins spotted them and squealed something in the goblin language. The dozen or so goblins in the chamber turned their attention to Noah and Tin and began to approach, armed with the blades used for butchering their food. They chanted the same squeal, probably something along the lines of “more meat!”
“Tin, stand back.”
He summoned his clone and sent it running to the right side as if to flank them. The goblins paid no attention to the fact that their prey seemingly just split into two, and were drawn to the movement of the clone. With that opening, Noah attacked from their exposed side with his longsword and beheaded three of the beasts. The goblins, sensing the deaths of their comrades, turned their attention back to Noah and swarmed in. He kept them at bay with wide swings, while leaving his left side open to taunt them. One by one, they tried to attack from the apparent blind spot, but he would dispatch them before they could actually reach him. Any that got in close enough to attack found their weapons blocked by Noah’s shield, and then his sword would slash at them from below and split their stomachs open.
Once their ranks had been cut in half, they began to retreat back to the bonfire. As this was their den, they didn’t show their backs and instead tried to ward Noah off with threatening screeches. Their guard was raised, and while they were stupid, they wouldn’t fall for the same tricks as the others.
Noah cast both of his spells, and while he had his clone remain where he was and pretend to be standing his ground. He snuck past the goblins and attacked from behind. He slaughtered three before the remainders noticed, but as they couldn’t see him, they could do nothing but scream in confusion. They made it too easy for Noah to finish them off. Even though the chamber had gone quiet, he several moments before releasing his spells.
Tin went to work, gathering up valuables. The blades might be worth something to the blacksmith, but they’d had to wash the dried blood off them first. As Tin searched the goblin corpses, Noah looked around at the other bodies being stored here. There were plenty of freshly killed humans and animals that were waiting to be cooked, so it was possible that their pockets hadn’t been picked yet. Noah dug through the pile of bodies, ignoring their stench, but one of them caught his attention.
It was a boy, a bit younger than him, and unlike the others, his limbs were bound. He wasn’t cold like the others. Noah checked his neck, and while it was weak, he found a steady pulse. Wait a second, he had seen him before. Noah had gotten to know plenty of people around the town in the past month, and learned to recognize others. He often saw this boy with Beth and Mira, carrying a sword and dressed as an adventurer. They frequently ate together at the Old Wineskin. Noah assumed they recruited him to join their party.
“Tin, I found a survivor.”
He retrieved a health potion from his pocket and poured it down the boy’s throat. As it took effect, Noah examined him. His clothes were good quality, but still the kind used by outdoorsmen. He had a decent physique, showing signs of training and hard work, but while there were calluses on his hands, there were healing blisters from wielding a sword. He was probably a farmer, but came from money.
He at last woke up and looked around, struggling to see. Even with a bonfire nearby, this wasn’t exactly the best place to wake up in.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in a goblin den. I’m guessing they must have struck you in the head, giving you a nasty concussion. I gave you a healing potion, so your vision should probably clear soon. Hold on, I’ll cut you loose.”
He severed the boy’s binds and helped him to his feet. For a moment, he seemed back in good condition, but as he looked around, he began to panic and hyperventilate, and Noah had to catch him before he could fall back down. Either this was entirely new to him, or he was realizing how close he was to the most gruesome of deaths.
“Calm down, everything is fine. I’m Noah and this is my subordinate, Tin.”
“Did… did my father send you? Are you here to rescue me?”
“Your father? No, we’re just here to kill goblins and steal their loot. How did they capture you?”
The boy seemed to be able to stand upright on his own, so Noah let him go, though he was struggling to remember. “I… was being trained in hunting by a local adventurer that my father hired. I had just shot a boar with my bow… then I felt a massive pain in the back of my head and blacked out.”
“Your father, is he a noble?”
“Yes, Ivan Fault. The baron in charge of the town. I’m Oath Fault, the next head.”
“Well, Oath, we’ll help you get back to town as soon as we’re done with this mine.”
“This mine? What are you talking about? We have to get out of here! The goblins will be arriving any second!”
“I just finished taking care of a good number them, see?” Noah pointed to the bodies of his victims. “I’m confident in my abilities. Besides, it took a lot of effort to get here, so we’re not leaving until our pockets are filled with goodies and we can barely walk. Tell me, do you have any talents? Can you use magic or any weapons?”
“I… I have some skill with a sword.”
“Some, huh? So best case scenario, I can expect you to hold off a goblin that might sneak up on us from behind.” Noah took off his backpack and forced it into Oath’s hands. “Otherwise, you’re my new pack mule.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“You have to pay off the potion I used on you, and consider it a down payment for us getting you back to town. There is food and water in the bag, you can eat while you walk. Tin, give me a sword.” She handed him a chipped hand-and-a-half sword, taken from one of the goblins, and he gave it to Oath. “And I’m renting this to you, unless you would prefer to go unarmed. So, what do you say? Either do some work, or I can knock you out, steal your clothes, and sell them to cover the cost of that potion. Which is it going to be?”
“Fine, I’ll help you,” he muttered.
The three proceeded deeper into the mine with Noah taking point. Every few minutes, goblins would attack, desperate to defend their home. Noah dispatched each of them with a flurry of slashes and stabs, leaving Tin to collect the goods. Oath was understandably nervous, but it left him unable to even touch the slain gargoyles, so Tin ended up doing most of the work and just putting the finds in his bag. At the very least, he wasn’t complaining. Noah eventually tasked him with collecting goods found in the tunnel, while Tin would stick to looting corpses.
“I’ve seen you with Beth and Mira at the inn. Aren’t you an adventurer like them?” Noah asked.
“I used to be a farmer, I just started fighting monsters recently. I’m still not used to it. But this is incredible. I’ve never seen someone kill so many goblins singlehandedly.”
“Well I can see how they might be able to get the drop on someone if they ambush with superior numbers, but when you face them head on, it’s like fighting a group of ugly, feral children. Oh, speaking of which, I see another breeder.”
The sight before them was nauseating, as what appeared to be a big green pig was nursing a litter of pint-sized little gremlins. While the male goblins went out into the forest to gather, the females would tend to the younglings. Despite being less than half a foot tall as newborns, they would reach full-size in just six months, hence their voracious appetites. Noah dispatched the breeder and stomped out the younglings, much to Oath’s horror.
“They were just babies! They couldn’t even fight back!”
“They wouldn’t have been babies very long. In just a few months, they would be roaming the forest, killing whoever crossed their path and dragging them back here to be devoured. You and Tin are carrying packs full of the possessions of their victims. I’m not judging them for doing as nature commands them to, I’m simply dealing with a threat before it can become a threat.” A thunderous roar made the three teens cover their ears and wince. “What the hell was that?”
“A hobgoblin,” said Oath, “otherwise known as a goblin chief. They’re a rare breed. I hear that only one out of ten thousand goblins can grow to become a hobgoblin. They’re much bigger, smarter, and stronger than a regular goblin and can even learn magic. We need to get out of here, right now! It’s heard the deaths of the younglings and is coming for revenge!”
“Perfect. He’s probably hoarding the best stuff. Let’s go.”
“This is insane! The regular goblins may be weak, but hobgoblins are stronger than humans in every way!”
“Your issues are duly noted. I’m going after that chief, and if you run, you’d better hope that he kills me. Let’s go.”
Oath turned to Tin, hoping that she might speak up, but her expression was completely blank, as if she was daydreaming.
Noah set off towards the search of the noise, but they need not travel far, as their foe came to greet them from the depths of the mountain. It stood over six feet tall with a far more muscular form than the lower goblins possessed. Like them, it wore a loincloth, but it was also garbed in pieces of stolen armor, including a metal helmet. Looking over a pair of boar-like tusks protruding from his mouth, he glared at the intruders with indescribable hatred.
“You will suffer for the deaths of my kin!” he snarled.
“Huh, so it really is smarter. Oath, you remember your job, right? If any other goblins come, you have to deal with them.”
He didn’t bother waiting for a reply and stepped forward with his longsword in hand. The chief was armed with the same type of sword, though with a larger blade. On the battlefield, it would likely be used against cavalry, killing both riders and their horses with one slice. The chief thundered towards him with his sword raised high. His speed was certainly faster than a human’s, and with the strength he was probably wielding, Noah didn’t want to try his luck by blocking or parrying. He sidestepped when the cleave was made and attempted a sideways swing towards the goblin’s head. It raised its hand, blocking with a metal arm guard, then forced him back.
It immediately closed the distance to make the same sideways swing Noah had, and with the sword’s greater length, he didn’t have the time or room to get out of the way. Instead, Noah rushed towards the sword to block it with his own. As the goblin straightened his arms, his swing would become more powerful, so he had to intervene at the earliest possible moment.
Sparks sheared off their blades as Noah’s sword halted the goblin’s. It released one hand from the hilt of its sword, using was little momentum it could salvage to swing at Noah. He avoided its backhand by a hair’s breadth and countered with a punch to the Adam’s Apple. It staggered back, wheezing in pain, but without dropping its defense. Its pain tolerance was remarkable.
Noah gave it no time to recover and went on the offensive, slashing and stabbing at the goblin while it did its best to block. In moments, it had regained its dual-hand grip and was able to fend Noah off. It raised its sword for another cleave, but Noah’s eyes caught a distinct glow along the blade.
“It’s using magic! You have to dodge!” Oath shouted.
Noah’s instincts had already told him the same thing, but while he was able to get his body out the way, his sword met the goblin’s blade head-on and snapped. The beast’s weapon buried itself in the stone ground, shaking the entire cavern, and Noah rolled away to avoid any barehanded attacks like before. He got to his feet, examining his weapon and the enemy’s. The speed of the goblin’s swing had increased, as well as its strength and the durability of his sword.
It must have been warrior magic, something he heard of while gathering info in Clive. Warrior magic was the ability to activate weapon skills that would improve their abilities in battle, such as cutting deeper and withstanding more force without breaking. He had witnessed magic a few times during the last month and had become familiar, but this was only his second time since he arrived that he was actually fighting against a magic user. Perhaps it would be best to finish this fight while he was unharmed, rather than continue pushing his luck. On the other hand, Oath hadn’t seen his magic, and he wanted to keep it that way. He’d just have to work harder with his physical abilities.
The goblin charged with his sword slightly raised to either block or attack. It wasn’t glowing like before, but his last attack had shown that he could harness his magic in a fraction of second, so Noah couldn’t risk being in the way when the next swing happened. Noah readied himself, still holding his broken sword. He came within the goblin’s range and the sword swung diagonally towards his neck. Noah bolted forward, anticipating when the goblin would be committed to the move. He swung his broken sword towards the goblin’s wrists, making him pause for the briefest moment to consider the threat of fatal injury, and that moment was all Noah needed to draw his short sword and clip him across the stomach while zooming past.
The wound was severe, having used the inertia of the goblin’s charge to overcome the wall of abdominal muscles and slice deep into the organs. The goblin staggered, his guts spilling onto the ground. Noah finished him off before he could regain any of his strength. He took a deep breath and listened for any attackers hiding nearby.
“Well done, Master,” Tin said while bowing. Beside her, Oath was in a daze.
As Tin went to work removing the goblin’s armor and checking for personal possessions, Noah examined the sword used. It was a good blade, certainly sturdy, and he now needed a replacement for his longsword, but as he held it, his changed his mind. His original longsword had the maximum allowable weight and size, and anything greater in either category would hinder his movements too much.
Oath approached him. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”
“I’ve studied various styles and forms of combat throughout my life, including archery and swordplay, mostly out of boredom or for exercise, and I’ve had plenty of experience killing. Your father pays people for every goblin people kill, correct? Will I get extra if I bring him the head of their chief?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him myself. He’ll want to know about this.”
“Master, I found something.” He turned to Tin, who was holding up the hand of the goblin to show him the ring on his little finger. She removed it and handed the ring to Noah, and he could immediately feel the magic within it.
‘Huh, a magic ring found in a goblin tunnel. What could possibly go wrong?’ He gave it a closer look under the light of Tin’s lantern and found a crest, depicting a shield with a swan on it. It was the national symbol of Uther. There was also something written on the band, a foreign substance. “Oath, what do you make of this?”
“That’s the ring of an Utheric knight! Anyone caught wearing one without being knighted can lose their hand as punishment!”
“Why so steep?”
“The ring is gold, but is inscribed with a rare metal called avenium, which can imbue objects with very high-level spells. I once heard that a sword with avenium runes can hold more power than the ten best steel swords. Knight rings are inscribed with a spell that creates another world where items can be stored.”
“How many items?”
“I heard it can store up to the same weight as the one who caries it, but you only feel the weight of the ring.”
Noah put on the ring and channeled some of his mana into it. It was a strange feeling, like he had just put his hand into a stuffed bag. He could see his hand, but not the objects he was touching. He felt a small bottle and closed his hand around it. The ring acknowledged that as a ***********ion and materialized the bottle. It was full of a yellow liquid, probably some kind of potion, or it could just be olive oil.
“This’ll come in handy.”
“Just wearing that ring is a serious crime!”
“What ring? I don’t see a ring,” Noah replied as he stowed it in his pocket. “See? No crime is being committed. Now zip it. We’re not done searching this mine.”
The rest of the day was spent in those dark tunnels, searching for goods. By the time he had faced the hobgoblin, most of the other goblins had already been killed, so there was little resistance. They found the bulk of their prize down in the lowest chamber, where the hobgoblin appeared to have been sleeping. The goblins were excellent thieves, stealing whatever they could get their hands on with travelers being their favorite targets. There were weapon stashes, bags and barrels of food, ropes and chains, clothes and armor, plenty of tools, and a small fortune in coins. He even found the armor and sword of the knight that the goblin chief had killed. This haul was better than Noah hoped, and while they couldn’t carry all of it, the ring helped collect the best pieces.
When they finally stepped out of the mine, the sun was setting. There could still be goblins in the woods, making their way to the mine after a day of hunting, so the trio wasted no time getting a safe distance to make camp. A tree, nearly as thick as a school bus, offered them shelter. They bedded down at its base with its raised roots acting as walls and a fire warding off anything that might try to attack during the night.
Dinner was traveler’s rations, the standard food for anyone camping in the wilderness. While he ate, Noah examined all of the items in the ring. There were numerous potions, spare sets of men’s clothes, some tools and knives, rations, and a few gold coins. He took a closer look at the armor and sword that the knight had been using. There wasn’t much he could do with the armor. Minus some plates he could use on his arms and legs, it was impractically heavy for his fighting style, and considering how steep the punishment was for wearing the ring, getting caught with it would probably be a bad idea. Hopefully the blacksmith would be willing to buy it.
The sword, on the other hand, was a definite prize. It was a longsword like Noah’s broken one, but with an ornate guard and handle, as well as a line of runes going up the blade, inked with avenium. There was a spell imbued within it, he could feel the magic, but it didn’t react to his mana the way the ring did. It was probably illegal for him to possess, so it would be best kept in the ring, but once away from prying eyes, it would be an excellent trump card once he figured out how it worked.
“So how long have you been an adventurer?” Oath asked.
“Several years. Why?”
“I was just making conversation. You said you studied several different schools of combat. Who taught you? Where did you get your lessons?”
“The town I grew up in, there were plenty of former adventurers willing to pass their skills on.”
“And your parents?”
“I haven’t seen them since I set off from home to make my fortune.”
“So, do you—”
“I suggest you stop for a moment and ponder why I’m not asking you questions about your life or trying to get to know you.” Noah glared as him, unblinking. “Think hard.” Oath wisely closed his mouth.
They set out at dawn the next day, wanting to get out of the forest as soon as possible, to both avoid danger and reach the shops before they closed for the night. It would take them most of the day to return to Clive, and that was without all the weight they were carrying, so they had to try and keep a good pace. By around midday, they reached a large open pasture, but before they could cross it, a grievance was made.
“I can’t go any further!” Oath exclaimed.
“Master, please forgive me, but I too am at my limit.”
“Well we’ve made considerable distance, and I believe it’s about lunch time. Sure, let’s stop here for a break.”
Tin and Oath settled at the edge of the pasture under the shade of a tree and prepared lunch. While they worked, Noah did a short walk through the field to make sure there weren’t any predators in hiding. It was when he reached the center that he stopped, hearing something. It was not the rustling of grass or the growl of a wolf, but the neighing of horses. He looked into the distance and saw four men on horses break free of the forest and gallop towards him with their swords drawn. Bandits?
“Tin, take Oath and get back into the forest, deep enough that you can’t even see me!”
Tin didn’t understand, but when she heard the horses in the distance and the hollering of the approaching men, she hurried to her feet and dragged Oath into the woods. With them out of the way, Noah faced the oncoming enemies.
“Thanks for the horses,” he said as his brushed his hand over his eyes.
He was rendered invisible while he sent off his clone, running to the side with its illusionary sword drawn. The men were drawn to it, and one of them, armed with a bow, began trying to shoot it. Noah controlled the clone like a puppet on strings, and while it moved, he put the knight ring on his finger and activated it, materializing his bow and an arrow. It took him a moment to aim and release, striking the archer in the chest and sending him tumbling off his horse.
The other horsemen realized their friend had been killed, but there was no time to look for the enemy archer. They had to close in on the young man with the sword. They tried to run him down with their blades outreached, but before they could strike their target, another one of their ranks was taken out with a well-placed shot. The two remaining men swung at Noah’s clone, but for the sake of appearance, he had it dodge while he took out the third man. Only one man was left, but he didn’t bother going after the clone. He was smart enough to cut his losses and flee back into the woods.
“Tin, Oath, you can come out now,” Noah said as he released his magic. They appeared from the woods, seeing Noah with the three horses standing nearby. “Loot the corpses and then let’s have lunch. The way back to the village will be much easier now.”
With the horses, they managed to make it back to the village faster than they thought. They arrived in the late afternoon, when most of the shops had closed, but there were still a few open that they could sell their loot to.
“Thank you for getting me back here,” said Oath.
“No need to thank me, you paid off your debt.”
“Still, I’m glad you didn’t just knock me out and steal my clothes like you said you would. I have to go see my father, he must be worried sick.”
“I’ll expect you to bring that horse back.”
“Yes, yes, I know.”
They split up, Oath returning home and Noah and Tin heading into town to sell their treasures. They first went to the blacksmith, as most of their goods were scavenged weapons. When Noah laid them all out on the counter, the blacksmith couldn’t help but voice his surprise.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one man with a haul like this. You really did all of this yourself?”
“Well I had some help carrying it back. But there is another thing you might be interested in.”
Noah held up a canvas bag and set it on the counter. Its contents had originally been in the ring, but he had emptied it before entering the shop. The blacksmith looked inside and gained a stern look.
“You found this in a goblin den?”
It was the armor of the slain Utheric knight.
“That’s right, but that was all. I was hoping I could find the sword or ring, but they were gone. So, are you interested? This armor has better steel than anything in your shop.”
“I could get beheaded just for having this!”
“Which is why you better melt it down fast to make into something really nice that you can sell for a lot of money.”
The blacksmith mulled it over and released a deep sigh of resignation. Whether it was money or his artistic instincts thinking of all the things he could make, he couldn’t allow the armor to leave the store.
“Fine, what do want for everything?”
As usual, bargaining with the blacksmith took a lot of time, but Noah left with several shiny gold coins and a replacement for his longsword. He and Tin moved from shop to shop, selling everything that was left, then Noah took Tin somewhere she did not expect, the town jeweler. Unlike other stores, this one had guards posted inside and outside, and all the merchandise was behind a counter, with iron bars blocking it off from the customer. An old man was sitting at the counter, scrutinizing a jewel.
“Ah, how can I help you?”
“I was hoping you could appraise this for me.” Noah took out a black gem, the size of the first joint of his little finger, and laid it on the counter. The old man took the gem and looked at it through a series of lenses.
“Oh, this of superb quality. Where did you find this?”
“A goblin den.”
“Ah, of course. Goblins are brutish, nasty creatures, but they have a strange luck when it comes to finding things. This is an enhancement gem.”
“I thought I sensed magic in it, it appears I was right. What is it used for?”
“When grafted to an enchanted item, it boosts the strength of the enchantment. Imagine a magic sword that can cut through twice as much as a normal sword. With this imbued into the pommel, handle, or blade, it will now be able to cut through four times as much as a normal blade. They are a favorite of nobles, for not only to they improve the enchanted items, but they make them more visually appealing and extravagant, perfect for showing off. At balls and formal events, you’ll find high-ranking nobles with jewel-encrusted swords on their hips.
Would you be willing to sell it?”
“Actually, I was hoping you could set it into something.”
Noah took out the knight ring and slid it across the table, only letting the jeweler see it. At the sight of the ring, he became tense.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to…”
“I’m willing to pay handsomely. I’ve already sold the armor that went with it.”
Like the blacksmith, the jeweler took a deep breath. “Tob, Gon, could you two please step outside for a minute?” The two guards, despite their curiosity, left the store, giving Noah and the jeweler their privacy. The old man stared at Noah. “Do you have a death wish, boy? Just having this could—”
“I’m aware of the punishment, but you already decided you’re willing to take a risk. Cover the runes with gold leaf and set the gem. If it looks good and the ring’s spell really is enhanced, I’ll pay you ten silver coins.”
“Thirteen silver. Come on, no one out here is going to care about this. You think some royal knights are going to come bursting in? You could show this to the baron and he wouldn’t care.”
“Fine, fifteen silver.”
“I’ll have it ready by noon tomorrow.”
Noah and Tin left the jeweler and headed back to the inn to call it a day, but as they approached, Oath appeared. “Noah, my father wants to speak with you.”
“Can’t it wait? The sun is going to set soon.”
“He says it is of great importance. He also wants to reward you for saving me.”
Noah looked over to one of the bags hanging off the side of his saddle. It was full of severed goblin ears. Was he really willing to bring those into their room at the inn? It would probably be better just to get paid now.
“Fine, just let Tin and I drop off the rest of our haul at the inn and lead the way.”
After stopping at the inn, they rode out of town towards the north, to the baron’s estate. Being a noble, he was better off than any of the villagers, but his house was far from extravagant, just nicer looking and larger than anyone else’s, a rustic manor, surrounded by fields that slaves tended to. Leaving their horses in the stable in the back, Oath brought Noah and Tin into the mansion and stopped before a set of double doors.
“Father, I’ve returned with Noah,” he said while knocking.
Oath opened the doors of the private study, and behind the desk, an old man with a long beard was filing paperwork on parchment. He looked older than Noah expected, for a son so young. Standing beside him was a woman, dressed as a maid.
“You must be young Master Noah. My son has told me of your great strength and skills. You have my undying gratitude for saving him, and my respect for your accomplishments in battle.” The baron didn’t get up to shake Noah’s hand, but that was to be expected of a noble.
“You are very welcome, Lord Fault.” Noah replied with a bow of his head.
“You deserve compensation for your efforts. Twice, you have saved my son’s life.”
From his desk, the baron drew a sack of coins, likely silver, and handed them to Noah.
“I appreciate it. While we’re on the subject, I also have numerous goblin ears that I’d like receive payment for.”
“Ah, of course, of course. You also deserve extra for dealing with that goblin chief. Amelia,” he said, turning to the maid beside him, “please count up the ears and calculate their payment, and please take my son and this lovely young lady to the parlor to relax. Master Noah, if you have time, I would like to speak with you about some important matters.”
“Very well, then.”
The maid left with Oath and Tin and the doors were shut behind them. Finally, the baron got up from his chair and walked over to a whiskey decanter with a set of glasses. “Would you care for a drink?”
“I’d love one.” Two glasses were poured and one was handed to Noah. Compared to the modern world, the alcohol consumed in these lands was tough to force down, yet the quality of the whiskey surprised him. “Oh, that is good.”
The baron sat down. “I cannot thank you enough. If my son had perished, that would have been the end of my line.”
“I’m sure a man like you could work up a few heirs. There are probably some already running around the town.”
The baron gave a bitter chuckle. “I suppose we should get down to business. You have already proven yourself a great rescuer and guard for my son. I would like to hire you to do it again.”
“Not more goblins, I trust?”
“Actually, something a little more difficult. I want you to help him capture a dungeon crab.”
“Pardon my ignorance, but I am not familiar with the term. I come from a land without such things.”
The baron got to his feet and began searching a nearby bookshelf. “Dungeon crabs are massive terrestrial beings, spending their lives deep beneath the earth. However, they surface from time to time, poking the tips of their shells out of the ground.”
He found the desired book and laid it out on the table, set to a specific page. There were two pictures, the first of what looked like a hermit crab, with a pointed shell several times its own body and no claws. The second showed the tip of the shell poking out of the ground with a hole in the top, but just the size was the size of a lighthouse. Had the artist actually seen a dungeon crab fully revealed or was he just going by his imagination? For a creature of this size to move underground without being noticed, it would have to rise up from under the earth’s crust. A few days ago, the town had experienced an earthquake. That must have been the crab rising to the surface.
“Because they dwell so deep in the ground, they accumulate precious metals and gems inside their shell, which form vast labyrinths, hence its name. A man can get rich in one day exploring it.”
“But I imagine it’s not that easy.”
“You’d be right. The shell is teeming with parasites, ants when comparable to the crab, but deadly monsters to us humans. When a crab surfaces, the parasites will leave and become a danger to everyone and everything in the area. No one is quite sure why dungeon crabs surface like this. Some believe it does it when the parasites have grown too numerous and it needs to cut their numbers down, either by setting them loose on the surface or using treasure-hunting humans to cull their population. Others believe the crabs feed on the humans that enter its shell, and use the parasites to kill their prey for them. Many believe it simply surfaces to get fresh air, like a whale.”
“And you expect us to capture one of these things?”
“It’s just a figure of speech. To capture a dungeon crab means to get down to the deepest part of its shell, where the most priceless metal is.”
“Avenium, I’m guessing?”
“Correct. Anyone who can secure a cup’s worth and present it to the kingdom becomes a noble. That’s why I need you to help Oath capture it.”
“But as your son, isn’t Oath already set to inherit your title?”
“Oath is… my third son. His oldest brother, Colt, was raised and groomed to be my successor, and the second oldest, Victor, was raised to be the successor if anything happened to Colt.”
“Making Oath the spare of a spare.”
The baron grimaced. “He spent his life working the fields while his brothers hunted and earned achievements. However, both Colt and Victor died in battle at the start of spring, so Oath is all I have left. He has a good heart…”
“But no talent, skills, or reputation, and he’s a bit of a brick.”
“Unlike the son of my younger brother, Edwin, a baronet. He is petitioning the kingdom to revoke my title as baron and give it to him and his eldest son. I need to prove that Oath has what it takes to be a baron, and the best way to do that is to conquer a dungeon crab. I’m too old to sire another heir and time is running out. Oath already has an adventuring party that he trains and fights with, but their skills aren’t good enough to conquer a dungeon crab. I would like you to join their party.”
“Because you are young. There are numerous older adventurers with skills like yours that I can hire, but then my brother will argue that they just conquered the dungeon and handed the prize to Oath.”
“Which is exactly what you want me to do.”
“But the fact that you are young means that you’ll fit right in. No one will question one extra young man joining my son’s party.”
Noah gave a huff while weighing his options. On one hand, a political squabble between family members was the last thing he wanted to get involved in, and there was no telling if he was even skilled enough to successfully conquer a dungeon crab. It was an unnecessary danger. On the other hand, the idea of getting his hands on some avenium and other rare metals and gems was a tantalizing idea. He could get enough money to fund any venture he wanted for the rest of his life. Plus, it would get him to the capital, and perhaps let him make some valuable connections. There were probably plenty of adventurers who would give their right arm for the chance.
“Would I be giving orders or receiving?”
“The team is yours to lead. They’re ready to set out whenever you are.”
“And how long do dungeon crabs normally remain surfaced?”
“A couple months. This one appeared several days ago, thirty miles to the northeast. It won’t be long before its swarming with adventurers.”
“Very well, we’ll depart in one week. I want to use that time to evaluate the team, see if there is anything I can do to polish their skills before we go.”
“That would be a blessing.”
Noah got up from his seat. “I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I’ll return in the afternoon. Make sure everyone is assembled.”
This time, the baron stood up and shook his hand. “Consider it done.”
Noah left the study and retrieved Tin in the parlor. As they stepped out onto the front porch, Oath came to see them off.
“So my father talked to you about the dungeon crab?”
“That’s right, I agreed to go along with it. I’ll return tomorrow.”
“I appreciate it. I’ll see you then.”
Oath gave a deep bow of gratitude, and in the distance, Noah saw a flash of movement, and then heard a sound that he was well used to. It was the sound of an arrow buried deep into muscle and flesh. Launched a second earlier, it would have hit Oath square in the back, but because he bowed, it found its mark in the center of Tin’s chest.
Noah didn’t say a word, but before either Oath or Tin could react, he had already leapt off the porch and was sprinting towards the origin of the arrow. He had left his bow with his horse in the stable, so he’d have to kill the assassin up close. He could see the man hiding behind a scarecrow and recognized him as the fourth bandit from earlier. They weren’t just random marauders, they had been hired to kill Oath!
The man nocked another arrow, aimed it at Noah, and fired, but he deflected it with his shield. He closed in, able to see the shock in the man’s eyes as the distance between them vanished with terrifying speed. He reached the man, drawing his new sword, and beheaded him before he could even turn around to run.
The body hit the ground, but Noah had already left, sprinting back to the mansion. There, on the porch, Oath was gathered with several servants, giving her one healing potion after another, as despite the removal of the arrow and the wound closing, she wasn’t getting better. Noah could see it, her veins darkening, her flesh getting pale, and every breath seeming to cause her pain. Everyone moved aside and Noah embraced Tin, cradling her head.
“It was a poison arrow. We don’t know what was used, we have no antidote for it. Noah, I’m so sorry!” Oath exclaimed, shedding the tears that Noah should have. Instead, he just stared at Tin, his blank silence unnerving those around him.
Tin looked into his eyes. “Master…” she whimpered. Noah didn’t say anything, but as he cupped her cheek, she smiled and tears began to flow from her eyes. That touch was all she needed. “Thank you for making my life a beautiful one.” Then she closed her eyes and released her final breath.
All was silent, no one knowing what to say. Shadows began to creep into Noah’s mind, a cruel voice making him shake.
‘Great, now I have to do everything myself…’
He shook the voice aside.
“Noah…” Oath began.
“I’m going to bury her. Give me a blanket to wrap her in and a shovel. I’m not asking.” His voice, it didn’t tremble at all, and there was no awkwardness in his words.
“We’ll take care of the grave, you should—”
There was the slightest twitch on Noah’s face. The gears in his mind were grinding together. “I’m not burying her here. I know a proper place.”
The servants rushed to fulfill his order, bringing out a soft quilt that Noah knew Tin would have liked. He wrapped her in the quilt and carried her to the stable, getting onto his horse with her and being given a shovel.
The whispers came back. ‘I’ll just throw her into the woods.’ “I won’t be back for a day or so.”
Cradling Tin, he gave his horse a kick and it took off with a cry. The sun had set, the woods now at their most dangerous, but Noah didn’t hesitate to ride down a familiar road and into the wilderness. For hours, his horse galloped through the forest. When it tired, he would give it water and a health potion to restore its stamina, but that was the only time he stopped. Monsters routinely tried to attack him, but he ended their lives with his bow. As the moon moved across the sky, Noah, holding Tin in his arms, felt the warmth slowly leave her body.
It wasn’t just the monsters outside that were attacking, but the ones in Noah’s head. Evil whispers flooded his mind, trying to get him to turn back.
‘She’s just a slave.’
‘I should just go home.’
‘There is no point in risking my life.’
‘It’s all meaningless.’
It felt like all of his muscles were just loosely within his control, and if his focus broke, his body would act against his will, throwing Tin aside and riding back to the village. He had to force himself forward, despite every selfish instinct trying to hold him back.
Finally, when the night was at its darkest, he reached the desired spot. It was the waterfall that he and Tin had camped at. There were some wolves drinking from the river, but he scared them off and ignored the small slimes crawling around. The area itself hadn’t changed in the last few weeks. There were still the remains of the fires he had made, and the clay basin was undamaged.
He tied his horse to a tree and lit a torch, holding it while he carried Tin. ‘I’ll just dump her and go.’ He brought her behind the waterfall, where there was a small dry area with plenty of river silt, deposited by the waterfall. He dug down as deep as he could, forcing aside any thoughts to give up and spare himself effort. He laid her down on the cold earth and opened up the blanket, looking at her one last time. She looked peaceful, almost content. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver coin. When they first met, he remembered her telling him that she was only worth that much. He clasped her hands over her chest, holding the coin.
‘What am I doing?’
‘This coin is valuable.’
‘I shouldn’t just throw it away like this.’
He climbed out and buried her, then built a pile of rocks on her grave so that no animals would dig her up. Finally, he turned to the stone wall at his side and began carving Tin’s name into it with her dagger. The scratches were faint, but they wouldn’t be simply washed away, like if he had simply drawn the letters on with a rock.
Those three little letters, a little twinkling light in his mind, like a faint star, told him that they looked lonely, and he focused on that. He should put more. She’d want that. But what should he write? What did Tin mean to him? Who was she? What was she in relation to him? Did he actually care?
A FREED SLAVE
It was all he could come up with, but it didn’t satisfy him. There had to be something more. He hadn’t loved her, it had been a long time since he loved anyone. Did he even like her? She was loyal and helpful, and took care of him when he was sick. He also took care of her. Was that enough to consider her important to him? He couldn’t tell. He had spent countless lifetimes pretending to be a friend, son, a classmate, a coworker, a husband, even a father. When was the last time he actually liked someone and wasn’t just wearing the façade of politeness while putting up with them? When was the last time he told someone he loved them and wasn’t simply lying to their face?
He had buried so many people, most of them more than once. It was hard to tell those who were important from those he pretended were important, those who were remembered and those he didn’t deem worth remembering. Who mattered to him? Whose death mattered? He had long since lost the ability to tell, and was struggling to regain it.
Finally, some emotion. Noah punched the rock wall and split the skin on his knuckles. “Come on, think!” He shouted those words to himself over and over again. He was scratching at his own mind, trying to draw blood from stone. What had Tin meant to him? Or at the very least, what would she have wanted to hear? Noah focused on that, trying to imagine what he could have said to make her happy.
A FREED SLAVE
A PRICELESS COMPANION
Satisfied, he stepped out from behind the waterfall. In the east, he could see the sky beginning to brighten. He took a seat next to the clay basin, watching the sun come up while he searched his mind for that little twinkling light.