Isger, 4701 AR
They rode their horses far from the well-trodden roads of the Conerica Straits. The ancient trade routes were no longer safe, even for seasoned warriors, and the pair stuck to the labyrinthine hill paths that intersected the foot of the Aspodells' northern peaks.
Kal Berne led the way, looking for any sign of the enemy's passing. The allied forces had managed to push the goblinoid insurgents back to the Chitterwood, but there were still isolated bands roaming the hills and mountains, ready to strike at the few towns and villages left standing. Their mission was part of the allied attempt to eradicate the goblinoid threat from Isger once and for all, and Kal relished the challenge. He had been a scout in the Steel Falcons for two years, and his tracking skills were as highly prized as his knack with a bow. With any luck, it wouldn't be long before he could challenge for the rank of lance corporal, and the success of this mission would certainly do his chances no harm.
His companion guarded the rear, though this did little to alleviate Kal's nerves. Truth be told, the warrior at his back made him more uneasy than the prospect of stumbling on a band of brigands or a goblin warhost. Kal glanced back, seeing the dark, brooding warrior atop his black destrier, gazing forward with barely disguised contempt. He was tall, his dark hair falling about his armored shoulders. On his breastplate was fashioned the face of a hideous demon, and at his back hung a wicked black sword.
What was General Marusek thinking, pairing him with such a... Kal couldn't think of the word; the warrior was hardly a man, after all. Men showed emotion, mercy, empathy. Whereas the armored fiend that accompanied him was like a block of cold granite.
They had been introduced at the allied base in Elidir. Tiberion was the Chelaxian's name, and he had ignored Kal's attempts at small talk. It quickly became clear that Tiberion was not one for conversation.
Their orders were clear--to scout out the hills east of the Chitterwood and report back any sign of the enemy. Simple. Or it would have been had Kal not had to ride with a devil-worshiping brute. Nevertheless, he had accepted his orders without complaint, and as they made their way along the treacherous goat tracks and shaded vales he focused on the mission.
For almost two days they had seen no sign of the enemy as they made their way toward the mountains, and as he sat atop his dappled mare, Kal was beginning to wonder if this was a fool's errand.
Then he saw it, almost imperceptible on the uneven ground. He quickly slipped from his mount, crouching beside the track and running a hand through his short, dark hair. It was barely half a print, but it was there, plain as day in the sodden earth, showing where a clawed foot had crossed their path.
"I have sign, headed south," Kal said, not expecting an answer.
Talmandor's wing--it speaks! thought Kal, though he didn't dare say it out loud.
"An hour, maybe less. On foot. If we're quick we may be able to catch them before night."
Kal glanced up with an eager smile, but instantly felt foolish as he was met with Tiberion's usual stolid expression. Kal leapt back onto his horse and reined it south, diverting from the path and moving higher over the lip of the valley. Tiberion moved up beside him as they mounted the rise, and the clawing peaks of the Aspodell Mountains rose before them.
Kal glanced up at the overcast sky. "We have maybe an hour of light."
"Then we had best make haste," said Tiberion, sticking his spurs to the black warhorse beneath him and galloping down the other side of the rise. Kal spurred his own mount, and followed behind.
They rode hard, navigating the narrow gullies and paths, rising higher into the foothills. Below them the ground gradually became firmer, as rolling hills made way for sloping mountains. With every step a darkening veil of shadow gradually enveloped them, and Kal began to think they might have lost their quarry, but as the moon began to rise he caught sight of a stooped and fast-moving figure up ahead. From such a distance he couldn't make out any detail, but from the loping gait it could only be one thing.
"Goblin." Kal pointed at their quarry as it fled toward a narrow ravine several hundred yards ahead. "If we're quick we can catch him before he loses us in the mountains."
He spurred his steed once more, urging it up the scree toward the slim opening. Their horses slipped and stumbled up the slope, and by the time they reached the summit the diminutive figure had disappeared from view, but Kal was not about to be beaten. He leapt down from his mare, unsheathed his bow from the saddle, and moved forward.
"Wait!" barked Tiberion, but Kal was in no mood to be ordered around by his stern companion. His target was close--he could smell it. The foul thing had most likely set villages aflame and slaughtered innocents, and Kal was determined he would not escape the justice of the Steel Falcons.
"A Steel Falcon lives by his ideals--and dies by them."
He ran into the ravine, twisting his body to slip through the narrow entrance. Once inside, the sheer wall of rock created a narrow passage, and he followed on the goblin's trail. Behind he could hear Tiberion dogging his path, sword ringing from its scabbard and armor eerily quiet as he moved with a grace that belied his bulk.
Kal followed the twisting passage, surefooted on the treacherous rock. He nocked an arrow as he moved, his eyes straining through the darkness for any sign of the goblin.
Suddenly, the passage opened out, and he ran into a wide gully, the cliff face reaching up to a lip twenty yards above. Several paths led away from the rock, and Kal cursed his ill luck, for there was little detritus on the ground that would give him a clue as to where his quarry had fled.
Tiberion entered the clearing behind him, and as Kal turned he saw the Hellknight was clearly displeased.
"Idiot!" snapped Tiberion. "Are you trying to get us killed?"
"I'm trying to track our quarry. We have orders--"
"Those orders are to observe and report, not to hunt down every solitary scout we come across."
Kal squared up to the Hellknight, despite the latter's imposing frame. "And what? We're supposed to just let him run?"
"Yes," Tiberion rumbled. "Because now you've most likely led us straight into a--"
Tiberion didn't finish, but instead pushed Kal hard in the chest. The young scout fell back, fury rising at the Hellknight's assault, just as a black-shafted arrow streaked in front of his face and clattered against the rocky ground.
Kal landed hard on his backside, instinctively bringing his bow up to aim at where the arrow had come from, but there was no sign of the archer.
"Move!" yelled Tiberion, grabbing Kal by the epaulet of his jacket and hauling him to his feet.
As they ran toward the nearest passage from the gully, a deluge of arrows began to fall, whipping past them and clanking against the rock face. One of the deadly shafts hit Tiberion's shoulder, but the pauldron of that fearsome armor turned its flight.
They sprinted out of the gully, hearing the screeching curses of goblin attackers in their wake. It was dark now, difficult to see in the tight corridor of rock, and Kal concentrated on staying close to Tiberion, whose dark cloak gave him the appearance of a shadowy specter in the night.
The passage twisted left and right, wending its way through the mountain until it let out mercifully into another gully. Tiberion ducked--and it was the only warning Kal got as they were suddenly ambushed by a mob of dark attackers.
A wickedly hooked axe swept through where Tiberion's head had been a second before. The Hellknight spun on his heel, sweeping his greatsword around and hacking into his assailant's abdomen. Kal barely had time to register the howl of pain and the stream of flying gore before one of the creatures was on him. Its gray-skinned face was a mask of fury, crooked teeth twisted in malice--the feral features of a hobgoblin!
Kal brought his bow up, drawing back the string and loosing an arrow before he had time to think. The arrow pierced his attacker's eye, puncturing the hobgoblin's brain. It stood transfixed for a second, the fletching quivering, then fell back dead.
In the following moments Kal was frozen, watching the Hellknight at work. Tiberion was truly an exemplar of his craft, and all the contempt Kal had felt for him was quickly washed away by stunned awe. The Hellknight was assaulted by half a dozen of the screaming, clamoring monstrosities, but he parried their blows with precision, countering with his own evil-looking blade. His movements were economical, with not a breath or motion wasted as one by one he eviscerated his foes.
By the time Kal managed to steel himself and nock another arrow, Tiberion was surrounded by corpses, his stance ready for the next comer, his breathing even and calm.
There came a sudden bellowing howl from the passage down which they had fled. An arrow whistled past his ear, and Kal looked up to see more diminutive, snarling figures above. He swept his bow around and loosed in one fluid motion, seeing his arrow fly straight and true. A grim satisfaction warmed him as he heard the gurgling cry of the goblin as it fell back from view. Before he could congratulate himself, Tiberion grasped his arm and pulled him along.
"We'll be shot like fish in a barrel if we stay here," he said.
Kal could only agree, moving after him as they heard footsteps echoing down the passage at their rear.
They plunged ahead once more, their way lit only by the moon. There was a howling clangor all around them now as their goblinoid foes whipped themselves into a frenzy, spurred on by the thought of the knights' imminent demise. Kal felt fear welling up inside him. He had seen what these animals had done to their captives in a dozen settlements across Isger. Torture and mutilation was common--the lucky ones died quickly. Kal could only guess that such a prize as two knights would be too good to waste with a quick death.
Well, Kal Berne wouldn't be taken alive, only to die later on the end of a goblin's dogslicer. He would go down fighting with the blood of his enemies on his hands and blade.
Tiberion scrambled to a halt, and Kal heard him curse, spitting the words in a guttural tongue he didn't recognize. Before them rose a solid curtain of rock.
"Like fish in a barrel," Kal said.
Tiberion turned back toward the direction they had fled, raising his sword in a defensive posture. Kal nocked another arrow, aiming it high, waiting for the next shadowy goblin archer to show its misshapen silhouette above the rocky parapet.
The howling grew louder, and above them came the sound of scrabbling bodies moving into position. It was too dark to see them now, but Kal knew they were there. Down the passage came the sound of the approaching horde.
Kal glanced at Tiberion. "You know they'll kill us slow, don't you?"
Tiberion nodded without turning his gaze from the corridor, sword still held aloft and steady, as solid as the rock enclosure in which they stood.
Then came the roar, and the enemy charged from the dark.
"For Andoran and liberty!" screamed Kal, as above them a dozen figures moved, loosing their arrows as one...
"For Andoran and liberty!" screamed Kal, as above them a dozen figures moved, loosing their arrows as one.
Kal braced himself for the inevitable deluge that would pierce his flesh and leave him bleeding like a stuck pig... but it never came.
Guttural cries of pain pealed out from over the lip of the rock wall, and shouts of anger joined them--not the foul speech of the goblins, but human voices.
From down the passage came the first of the hobgoblin berserkers, and Tiberion took a step forward, ready to cut them down as they charged. But before he had a chance, missiles suddenly rained down from above, piercing the foremost goblinoid's body. It fell with three arrows protruding from its chest as the rest ran into a solid volley, falling and shrieking. Kal loosed his bow into the fray, taking one of the hobgoblins in the throat. Altogether, it was enough for the others to halt their advance, and as the hum of bowstrings announced a second storm, the remaining hobgoblins in view turned and fled back the way they had come.
Silence fell over the dark gully as Kal looked around frantically, trying to spy who had come to their aid, though he could see little in the waning light. Before he could call out, a rope was suddenly dropped down from above.
"You'd best move quick," came a disembodied voice. "They won't stay gone forever."
Kal needed no further encouragement, and he shouldered his bow, then grasped the rope and pulled himself up the rock face. Tiberion was quick to follow, easily scaling the sheer surface despite his heavy armor.
When he reached the summit, Kal was helped up by strong hands. He saw that several disheveled figures hunkered in the dark, their bows drawn against any further danger. On the ground lay several goblin archers, arrows still protruding from their filthy, twisted corpses.
"Thank you," said Kal to the bearded man who had helped him up. "For a second there I thought we were going to end our days with our guts splayed to the winds."