Friday, June 20, 2014

Keepers of the List, Chapter 8

The adventurers stood at the edge of the bubbling brook, refilling canteens and taking the moment to rest. Alastor sat on a stone, his eyes closed, his long white hair blowing in the wind. A good distance away, Mel crouched close to the ground, one hand shielding the sun from her eyes as she peered through the trees and across a valley. Taking off a glove, she glanced down at marks in the dirt, running her bare hand across the ground’s surface gently.

Cadmus, his broadsword unsheathed, slowly swinging the blade through the air, slow enough to maintain perfect control, yet fast enough to allow his ears to feel the quiet whine of the sharp edge cutting through the still air. Keeping more than a safe distance from the others, he casually practiced changes in his stance, slashing and stabbing and parrying imaginary foes. By the time he stopped, there was a small veneer of sweat forming around the base of his horns, half from the day’s exertion and half from the bright sun.

“They went this way,” said Mel after thoroughly studying the ground. “A group of them, maybe five or six, and they were dragging something. Some time today.”

Cadmus halted, completed a practiced flourish with the wide-bladed weapon, and raised it above his head, gently lowering it into the sheath on his back. Taking a long swig of cold water, he walked towards the bard, flexing his neck left and right. Alastor, however, stayed put, his eyes still closed, one hand on the thick book at his side.

“I believe you,” said the mage, nothing moving but his mouth. “Just like I believed you last time. And the time before that. And the time before that…”

Mel threw her glove down angrily. “Just what, exactly, are you implying, ‘Alastor the great’?”

The old man’s eyes opened ever-so-slightly, peered in her direction, then closed once more. “Nothing,” he said casually. “Merely making an observation.”

Cadmus noticed Mel’s face was beginning to flush. “Well, my apologies, ‘master of the arcane’” she began, her voice coming out in a stage whisper, “but by all means, if you would see it fit to grace us with some assistance from your ‘vast collection of arcane knowledge,’ then perhaps we could get this job finished a little bit faster .”

The trystborn stepped between them, holding a hand up towards each of his companions. “Now, now, you two, let’s just focus on the job here.”

Alastor muttered something under his breath, but all Cadmus could make out were the words, “not worth the effort.”

Mel gritted her teeth and balled up her fists, grabbing her glove angrily from the dirt. Without another word, she began walking through the trees, shoving saplings and stray branches out of her way. Cadmus began to follow, and, seeing that Alastor was making little effort to keep up the group, gestured to the old man to hurry, and continued on after the bard.

When he caught up to her, she glanced back, and whispered to the trystborn as he neared.

“I’m telling you, Cadmus,” she began, keeping her pace swift, “he’s done next to nothing to contribute. All he’s done all day is criticize my tracking skills. And you know what I think?”

Cadmus didn’t know what she thought, but at the moment was more worried about the mission than her complaints about her teammate. But she continued before he could answer either way.

“I don’t even think he can use magic. He hasn’t done anything yet that I couldn’t do with a bit of sleight of hand. Yet he keeps going on and on about how powerful and wondrous of a spellcaster he is.”

Cadmus stopped in his tracks for a moment, but then continued when he saw she wasn’t slowing down. He cocked his head, staring at her strangely as she walked.

“Wait, what? I don’t understand,” he said once he was close enough to whisper.

And, unexpectedly, she stopped abruptly, causing Cadmus to almost run into her.

“I’ve been paying attention every time he says he’s casting a spell. He’s just speaking gibberish. Twice he’s claimed to be casting a protection spell, yet he said completely different nonsense each time. The only thing I’ve actually seen him done is that little fireball in his hand, but I’d be willing to bet I could do the same thing with a flint, some oil, and a day of practice.”

Cadmus shook his head and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, he heard Alastor’s footsteps through the trees behind them.

“Are you two mad,” the mage hissed, “leaving me behind like that?”

Mel glowered at him. “What’s the matter,” she began, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Afraid goblins might stumble upon you? I figured some puny goblins would bow down and worship an almighty spellcaster like yourself.”

“We shall see, shan’t we,” responded Alastor, advancing towards the bard, a flourish creating another ball of flame in his hand.

Cadmus pushed his two teammates apart, gesturing for them to silence. He snapped his head to the side, listening intently. Nearby, he heard a high-pitched murmuring noise- something he recognized: goblin speech.

“I know I heard it that time,” said a voice in its native language. “Probably another meal. You two, head into those bushes and scare it out.”

Cadmus locked eyes with Mel, who, judging by her appearance, had understood everything. The two immediately ducked down, pulling Alastor with them as he stared, oblivious. The trystborn began slowly pulling his sword back out of its sheath, taking care to make as little noise as possible. As he saw Mel pull out a pair of throwing daggers, he heard the goblins speak once more- a different voice this time.

“Me? You go scare it out. I scared out the last one.”

The goblins began bickering amongst themselves, and in the arguing Cadmus couldn’t tell how many he was hearing; he considered poking his head through the brush to see, but it was too risky. Mel got his attention, and with one dagger, she started scratching a small battle plan into the dirt. From the looks of it, she wanted to separate and flank them, hoping to catch them unaware and subdue them before they could react.

Their planning was cut short, however, by a loud cracking sound. Alastor had grabbed hold of a loose tree branch and snapped it off of the tree, holding it like a club (the flame in his hand having vanished). The bard and the trystborn could only stare at him in horror as they heard the goblins’ bickering come to a halt. From the sounds of their voices, they were splitting up and separating to surround the source of the noise.

“You… IDIOT,” Cadmus heard Mel mutter through clenched teeth as the first goblin came into view, its olive-green skin glistening with sweat, a crudely-made axe in one hand. It opened its mouth full of broken teeth to announce the presence of enemies, but its call was silenced by a dagger suddenly landing square in its chest. As it fell to the ground, its expression frozen, Cadmus sprang from the other side of the brush, his sword swiftly cutting through the air, its wide blade cleanly separating a goblin’s torso from its legs. Its momentum carried through and caused the sword to bury itself in the side of another goblin, who then fell to its knees as blood poured across the weapon’s surface.

Just as the trystborn was beginning to think that this battle would be over as soon as it began, two more goblins came around the foliage, leaving behind the broken body of a slain elk that the group had been dragging. Before Cadmus could remove his sword from the dying goblin he had just sliced into, the two newcomers charged at him, leaping and grabbing onto him like he was a living ladder. The first, wielding a crude bludgeon, started striking the weapon repeatedly against his face, not hitting with much force, but with enough speed to fill his vision with stars. Without being able to see, he suddenly felt something sharp stab at his midsection, but thankfully it got caught in the links of his chainmail.

“Cadmus,” he heard in Mel’s voice. “Watch out!”

Unable to see, he couldn’t exactly heed her warning, but there was the sound of an object flying through the air at high speed, and he heard the goblin stabbing him groan and fall to the ground. He released the grip of his sword and grabbed the goblin hitting him in the face, throwing the humanoid to the ground as hard as he could while it struggled. Fumbling for his sword while his vision slowly returned, he felt a sudden shooting pain in his knee as the goblin loudly struck him in the leg with its bludgeon, causing him to drop to one knee, his tail thrusting itself instinctively against the ground for balance.

His vision finally back, he saw the goblin wind up for another powerful swing, but his gauntleted fist collided with the goblin’s tiny jaw before it had a chance to strike. It soared backwards through the air, landing on the ground with a thud. Pulling his sword from the goblin body before him, Cadmus started to walk forward to finish off the one he had punched, but found himself almost doubling over in pain coming from his knee. He glanced towards Mel and Alastor, and saw the mage standing over the body of a lone goblin, his tree branch wet with the small humanoid’s blood. Mel, her arm and side bleeding, was pulling her rapier from the neck of a goblin, and scattered through the trees were the bodies of two more.

As he counted up the dead goblins, however, he heard a rustle. The one he had punched suddenly sprang to its feet, dropped its club, and began running as fast as its feed would take it away from the scene of battle. Cadmus tried to give chase, but the pain in his leg made him stop after only a few steps. He grabbed one of his shiny new throwing axes from his belt, and took aim. His head still ached, and his vision was still a bit blurry, but he took a deep breath, and threw the axe with all of his might.

The axe sailed through the air, spinning over and over itself, as the goblin ran in a straight line through the woods. The blade got closer, and closer, and closer, and then…

…It buried itself into the trunk of a tree, just narrowly missing the goblin. The creature kept running, soon out of Cadmus’ vision. Mel came running up from the other side of the brush, Alastor in tow.

“What happened,” she asked, panting. “Did you get the last one?”

Cadmus gritted his teeth, shaking his head.

“Great job, team,” said Alastor sarcastically.

Mel’s eyes opened wide with fury, turning towards the mage, looking ready to tear his head off. “Do you realize what you’ve done?

The mage stared at her incredulously. “Me? What did I do?”

“Where shall I begin,” she said, obviously not trying to keep her voice low. “You haven’t done anything to help us all day. You insisted on stopping for breaks often, yet criticized me whenever I stopped to gather my bearings. You insulted my tracking skills. And most importantly, you practically announced our location to those goblins, and because of that, we were surrounded. If we could have surprised them like I wanted to, one of them wouldn’t have gotten away.”

Alastor shrugged. “So what? We’ll have one more to kill later. What does it matter if one got away?”

Cadmus shook his head, feeling like he would be laughing if his leg wasn’t in so much pain. “You really don’t know much about goblins, do you?”

The mage said nothing.

“Well, let me give you a short lesson,” he continued. “Goblins are masters at setting traps. Where there’s one, there’s a dozen. And the worst thing you can do is give a goblin time to prepare.”

Alastor continued to stare blankly, his white beard and mustache twitching slightly.

Mel continued Cadmus’ thought. “So by letting that one escape, we’ve guaranteed that whenever we find their lair, it’s going to be full of traps, and on high alert. Good job.”

Cadmus massaged his aching knee. “So,” he added, “who’s ready to march to our death?”

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