Shinreal watched from a rooftop as the small group of humans turned down the alley across the street from her perch. They had entered through the ruined West Gate, on foot, just before sundown, and had begun a methodical street-by-street search of the city. At first she had thought they might be looters. Although if they were, then they must also be mad and foolish, for the captors of Ret Hold were still about, and no sane thief ever risked their neck for common loot. That was what she had thought anyway, until she caught a glimpse of the leader's armor and rank beneath his cloak. Now the question was not who they were, but why they were here. Paderishal's Sunblades had left the day prior to the attack, without warning, in the dead of night, and only a pair of runners had been sent to Grelhalden and Urell Hold asking for a reinforcement garrison after they had gone. Perhaps they had been sent back by the High General in order to check on the garrison. Maybe. But it seemed unlikely that a lone squad of soldiers would enter a city obviously overrun to check on a garrison that had just as obviously been defeated.
From the corner of her eye, Shinreal caught movement coming from further up the street. Quickly and with no more noise than a mouse, Shinreal flattened herself against the flat wooden roof of the clay brick building and folded her torso around the chimney stack to make better use of the shadows it provided.
Shuffling down the street in a loose mob, the humanoid figures were difficult to make out in the moonlight, but Shinreal had seen enough of them in the last day that she needed no help to visualize what they looked like. Short and stooped, with hunched shoulders and bare flapping feet with only three toes each, Goblins would almost look comical until you caught a glimpse of their faces. With noses so flat they almost seemed sucked into their skulls, overlarge pointed ears that could hear a pin drop and sharp teeth that seemed to jut out of their mouths even when shut, they would have been horrid enough, but what Shinreal hated most were their eyes. In her time traveling, almost half a human generation by their calendars, she had met brigands and rouges to make a grown man cower. Villains so black-hearted they would sell their own grandams into slavery not just for the money, but because they wanted to see the expression on the old woman's face before they were dragged away.
Goblins were worse.
Looking into the eyes of one of the Unclean was like looking into a black hole devoid of life, a glimpse of a soul beyond saving because it was never there to begin with.
She had never seen a Goblin before yesterday, but now she understood why her people hated them with such a passion. Perversions of life like the Unclean should not be allowed to exist; killing them wasn't even a mercy. You might as well be hacking up a strawman in some farmer's wheat field.
Still, when organized into packs and given weapons, even ungainly creatures like the Goblins in the group below were deadly dangerous. Possessed of strength equal to a human or elf half again their height, Goblins could easily hamstring mounted troops, and as long as they had the advantage of numbers were almost fearless fighters. The defenders of Ret Hold learned this the hard way a day ago, when not more than hours after Paderishal's runners had left, a huge army of Unclean swept out of the mountains and overran the hapless city militia. Without enough men to cover even a quarter of the great wooden palisades, the gates had been battered down and fighting began in the streets.
Shinreal had stopped her search for Harbind and assisted the militia as best she could, but the numbers were too overwhelming. She helped some of the soldiers escape, and then stayed in the city to try and aid others in getting away. Since the Unclean had come from the mountains, she doubted that any dwarven reinforcements were coming, and the head of the runner to Urell Hold, displayed prominently on a pike outside the remains of the north gate, meant no help from there either. Shinreal grimaced. She really should have left this city days ago, but then, she could never seem to pass up a puzzle like the one Harbind presented. She needed to trust her better judgment next time.
The Goblins passed by and continued down the street, muttering to each other in their crude snarling language. Shinreal watched them until they were out of sight, then carefully climbed down the side of the square building and silently crossed the cobblestones towards the alley the humans had entered, barely stirring the dust as she moved.
She quietly followed the humans unseen for several more streets, moving like a ghost between shadows; avoiding loose cobblestones that might make a sound if disturbed. She was sure they hadn't spotted her, and she was just as sure they hadn't spotted any goblins yet either. Pure blind luck on their part, but it wouldn't hold long; the city was crawling with them, and they were most active at night.
Shinreal had always been good at hide-and-seek as a child, and as she grew older, her skills improved to where even other elven children refused to play with her anymore. Since leaving her home to travel the southlands, those old childhood skills had proved useful in keeping her purse full. Between excursions into the wilderness she made her way by helping local constables catch thieves and find missing persons and items. She was much better at sneaking around now than she ever was as a youngster, and now those talents served to keep her alive.
However, the human soldiers were not nearly as stealthy. Shinreal winced every time one of them tripped, or let his sword, or that one's fool spear, clank against his armor or cobblestones. If she could hear them, any nearby Unclean could as well. It was a miracle they had gotten this far without being found.
Shinreal heard it a moment before the humans. The telltale flapping of bare feet on cobblestones. The soldiers flattened themselves against the walls of the alley they were passing through, weapons coming out of their sheaths with soft metal whispers. The leader seemed to be looking around, probably for someplace better concealed or defensible, but the street back Shinreal's direction was a cul-de-sac, with nothing but the narrowest gaps between the circle of buildings and trying to cross the street would only put them right into the path of the Unclean.
Ahead, from the T-shaped junction that ran before the alley, Shinreal could make out the forms of the Goblins as they approached. Numbering close to twenty, a taller, larger, less-stooped shape strode before them. Shinreal had seen a few of the larger creatures during the attack. Standing close to the height of a human male, its feet and hands were booted and gloved. A stolen chainmail shirt was worn over its crude, yet serviceable tanned hide armor. Like their smaller cousins, Hobgoblins had over-large ears, but with short tufts of hair that hung from the tips. Their noses were not as flat and their eyes, while still void of spirit, held the unmistakable light of intelligence. "Twice as tall, just as ugly, and three times as smart." is how her father had described them when speaking of his tenure as a sword-bearer during the Dark Times; what the humans called the Colonization Wars.
The Hobgoblin stopped, holding a fist out in front of the smaller Goblins that followed him. The pack stopped and the Hobgoblin began searching the shadows with his eyes while his nose twitched at the night air.
Shinreal tensed as one of the humans began to move, but the leader stayed him with a hand motion. Fools! They couldn't seriously be thinking that they could take twenty unclean while half-blind in the dark!
That was when it happened. The Hobgoblin's ears pricked at the sound of chainmail against stone and turned its gaze directly on the alley where the humans hid.
Shinreal wasn't sure which one of the soldiers cried out first, but before a heartbeat had passed, the five men had rushed out of the shadows into the pack of Unclean. In that same heartbeat, Shinreal made her choice as well. Leaping from her crouched position along the wall, she drew her long sword and swept into the fray.
A Goblin turned to face her as she dashed out from the darkness. It had enough time to snarl and bare its teeth before her blade took off the left side of its head. Flowing smoothly into her next enemy, Shinreal's blade dropped another before it even realized its companion was dead. Three more quickly came at her from separate directions, shortblades flicking out at her in quick motions, testing her defenses. She easily parried the blows and took a glance around before they moved in again.
The large human with the greatsword already had half a dozen dead Goblins strewn about him and was currently matching blades with the Hobgoblin leader. A bleeding wound in his upper-right thigh was slowing him down, and if it were not for that, Shinreal was sure the Hobgoblin would have already been defeated. His companions were not fairing so well, however. The brute with the spear had skewered one of the Goblins, but apparently the point had become stuck, and now he was vainly trying to hold off three others with the shortblade taken from the dead creature. The other three stood back-to-back over a fallen fourth, as the ring of Unclean around them slowly grew smaller.
The Goblin to Shinreal's left made a move. Quickly side-stepping the thrust, Shinreal counter-thrust with her left hand, while drawing a dagger from her belt at the same time with her right. The first Unclean impaled itself on her sword and the second, coming from the right, duplicated the feat on her dagger. Releasing both weapons and letting the dead Goblins fall, Shinreal flicked her left wrist at the third charging Goblin. A throwing blade blossomed from its throat and the creature fell with a gurgle.
One of the Unclean fighting the harried spearman made a feint to his left as another attacked from the rear. The large man roared as the Goblin hamstrung him from behind. The third Goblin leapt forward to finish his incapacitated opponent.
With a snap of her right wrist, Shinreal flicked the first throwing blade's twin out of the sheath under her sleeve. With a second snap, the blade sung through the night air and planted itself in the side of the attacking Goblin's head. It fell with a grunt inches from the crippled man's feet.
Shinreal crouched and yanked her sword and dagger from the corpses of the Unclean they had killed and charged the other two Goblins near the wounded human.
Intimidated by the sudden lethality of her attack, one of the two took a step back from the murderous elf and collided with the Hobgoblin from behind.
With a startled yelp, the Hobgoblin stumbled over his small ally and slewed sideways, off-balance. The human swordsman he had been facing took the opportunity without hesitation. In one effortless motion his sword sliced through the night air, and when it finished its arc back by his side, the Hobgoblin's head was landing several feet away.
Instantly, the Goblins stopped. Shinreal cut down the one she had charged as it stood there gaping. The ring surrounding the other four humans broke with a hiss and ran off into the shadows in every direction. Wisely, none of the soldiers pursued them.
The last Goblin had become trapped under the dead body of the Hobgoblin. It squealed and struggled under the weight. The large human with the greatsword put his boot down on the wriggling creature's throat. It made pathetic coughing noises under the weight, vainly gripping the man's boot with its one free arm. "Where did you come from?" the man growled at the Unclean beneath his foot. The creature made a series of croaking and chattering noises as it gagged.
Shinreal stood from retrieving her throwing knives, wiping the blackish-green blood off onto the Goblins' wretched clothes. "It can't understand your tongue, human." With a flick of her wrists, the knives disappeared back up her sleeves. "No more than you can understand it."
The man turned to look at her, keeping his boot on the pinned Goblin. "I thank you for your help, but this is none of your affair. You should leave now." Even without enough light to make the details of his face, she could tell that he was afraid. Not of the Goblins, that was for certain, but what?
Shinreal stepped closer, but remained well out of reach of the man's greatsword. "You're welcome for the help, but first I wish to make two things obvious for those who cannot see well." Tapping a bit of loose cobblestone onto her toe, Shinreal flicked it up at the large human. He didn't move, and grunted in surprise when the small rock clinked off his armor. "I can see all of you clearly, even with only partial moonlight. The Unclean can see as well as me. You however, are lucky you aren't tripping over your own feet." The Goblin started squealing louder and the man pressed harder with his foot, cutting it off as it continued to claw and squirm. Shinreal continued, "Second, I know this city well. The way you have all been wandering about, it's obvious you've never been here. I know of someplace we can hide until dawn. It will be easier to escape the city then; the Unclean are less active during the day."
The man's hand clenched convulsively around his sword hilt. Already the bodies of the Goblins were beginning to stink. Only another Goblin would eat a dead Goblin, not even the most foul scavengers would touch them. The man wrinkled his nose at the smell; while behind him, his companions were gathering their things and checking on the fallen soldier.
"Very well." he said at last. "Lead us to your hiding place. What I was seeking is no longer here anyhow it seems." he turned his head to call over his shoulder "Jadet, Edgar, make a carry with your cloaks for Kyle." Turning back to the man with the spear he said, "Can you walk, Adere?� The man propped up with his spear nodded slowly. The Goblin squirmed with renewed vigor at the sound of his voice.
"Blade Leader,� one of the others said, "Blade Kyle doesn't need a carry, it was Jadet who fell."
The large man seemed irritated, "Fine, then, make him one, we must hurry." he reached down to wipe his sword on the dead Hobgoblin as he continued to hold the smaller Unclean.
"Blade Leader," the same voice said again. "Blade Jadet won't need one either."
The human leader stiffened; the Goblin squeaked. "So he can walk then?"
"No sir, " the voice said, almost emotionless, "Blade Jadet is dead."
Shinreal flinched as a sickening crunch came from beneath the man's boot. The goblin moved no more.
Sivand didn't know how long he followed the dark shape before him through the darkness. They seemed to go on forever through alley after alley, street after street. A few of the squeezes were so tight that he and Adere had to inch through them sideways or crawl. Once, he was sure they had gone in a circle around three buildings twice before turning down another street.
Finally the girl in front of him stopped at the entrance to a root cellar beneath what appeared to be a burnt out inn. Her skill was extraordinary for someone so small. Perhaps she was some kind of child prodigy, a mercenary's daughter or thief of some sort. She certainly knew how to sneak about like cat.
Without more than a slight click she undid the lock on the doors to the cellar and opened them. "Quickly, get inside. I'll come in last. Don't light a torch or lantern until I've shut and covered the doors." she told Sivand softly.
Sivand motioned the others down into the darkness. He followed last, helping Edgar carry Jadet's body.
They sat for a while in the black room as the girl closed and barred the door behind them. A moment later, a light flickered to life as she lit a small lantern. The room brightened as she turned the knob that adjusted the amount of oil and Sivand finally saw who their savior was.
"You..." Sivand began, words momentarily failing him. "You're..."
"Extremely generous and kind, helping you louts at all." She finished. Unbuckling her sword belt she began to rummage through some of the sacks piled in the small room. "I hid some herbs and bandages in here last time. Give me a moment."
"It's an elf." Adere said, eyes as wide as platters.
"Astute observation, spear-boy." the elf said as she turned back around. She tossed Sivand a satchel tied with cord. "That should have some clean wraps and Hyulis leaves to prevent rot, but you and spear-boy will need healers eventually."
Adere frowned. "I do have a name..." he muttered.
The elf turned and cocked an eyebrow "I could hear that you know." she said pointing to her ear with one hand. Adere muttered something else and turned away.
"And of course I'm not human." she said still looking at him. "As you so smartly noticed. Edgar managed a chuckle, the others simply stared.
Sitting on the floor, she folded her hands into her lap. Her white hair hung in a triple-wrapped ponytail over her shoulder and was tied back out of her eyes with a brown cloth strip that matched the color of her molded leather chest plate and greaves.
"I suppose since we'll be stuck with each other for a while, that we may at least call each other by our proper names." she said as she began undoing the strap cords on her armor. "I am named Shinreal Wilkenshire."
Sivand handed the satchel to Tav, who began to treat Adere's leg. "My name is Sivand. Sivand Gilroth, Blade Leader, West Hold Sunblades. And these are my men, Adere, who you call "spear-boy", Kyle, Edgar, and my second, High Blade Tav." each person nodded in turn as Sivand named them, except Kyle, who scowled.
Shinreal looked over at the covered body near the doors. "And that was..."
"Jadet." Sivand said bowing his head. "May his spirit rest easy."
"Oh..." was all she said as she finished removing her armor. It was then that Sivand noticed her eyes. Gold eyes, like polished metal. They stood out in sharp contrast to her olive skin. Were his mind not so burdened with other matters, he might have admired her beauty, but then, the black bloodstains on her tunic and pants marked her true nature. Sivand had heard of female warriors, but not many, and most gave up the sword at some point for family, but with her being an elf; that meant that she was what? One hundred? One hundred and fifty years old, at least? From what his father and Tew had told him, it was unusual for a female elf to even pick up a sword, much less use one with skill as she did.
Tav finished with Adere and came over to Sivand, but he waved him away and began to bandage himself.
"If I may ask," Sivand said, "Why the round-about path to get here? "
Shinreal frowned at him as she undid the tie in her hair. "Don't be so naive." she snorted, "To avoid more of the Unclean. Do you really believe that bunch you fought were the only ones here?"
"Not really," Sivand began, "But we managed to get..."
"You were lucky." Shinreal broke in. "I had been following you for about an hour before you ran into the Goblins."
"Stinking sneak-thief!" Kyle growled from the other side of the room. "Following us, eh? What did you intend then?" he sat upright and clutched his sword.
"That's enough Kyle!" Sivand snapped. Now was not the time for one of his temper tantrums.
"I don't like it." Kyle said, glaring at the elf. "She could have easily escaped before now, she knows where and when the Unclean move. She might be working with them, to entrap people like us!"
"Why you ungrateful, sniveling..." Shinreal's face darkened and she began to rise.
Adere shifted uneasily, "But she helped us fight them, Kyle."
"What does that matter? Monsters like them would be viscous enough to sacrifice some of their own to gain an advantage. I don't trust her." Kyle began to rise also.
"Kyle," Edgar said, exasperated. "Please stop being an ass and sit back down."
"Stow it, bootlicker." Kyle growled. He began to loosen his sword.
"Blade Kyle!" Tav yelled, "Stand down!"
"You be silent too!" Kyle yelled back, "You're an even worse arse-kisser than Edgar! Damned High Blade! To Hades, with you!"
Sivand reached out and clasped Shinreal's shoulder. Pressing down as he stood, he forced her back onto her seat and limped between her and Blade Kyle.
"You will stand down, Kyle." he said, voice flat. "And you will not disrespect my second." he added as an after-thought.
"You can't swing that bloody beast in here." Kyle growled, pointing at Sivand's bastard sword. "What'll you do? Stop my blade with you're bare hands?"
"If needs be." Sivand said simply, never taking his eyes off of the man in front of him.
Kyle grimaced. "All bluster as usual, Iceman." he said, a sneer in his voice. "We wouldn't even be in this forsaken place if not for that useless coward of a brother of yours."
Sivand felt his face heating and tried to control his temper. He wasn't going to let this idiot get the better of him. "Do not call him a coward, Blade Kyle. And do not be so quick to judge others. I understand that we're all tired from what's happened in the last two days, we say things we don't really mean. Now put your weapon away and cool off."
Edgar spoke, "The Blade Leader may not be able to use his sword, but my shortblade has plenty of room." The buckle was undone on his weapon as he rose to a crouch.
Kyle snarled as he tried to watch both men at once. Adere rose to one knee as well and fingered the haft of his spear. Tav also had loosened his dagger and exposed an inch of blade as he watched Kyle carefully.
"So then," Sivand continued, "Are we going to be reasonable about this, Blade Kyle?"
Kyle looked about him with a hunted expression. Finally, he re-seated his weapon with a click and sat down, still trying to watch everyone else. "Coward or not..." he hissed, fury straining his tone, "Harbind is more trouble than this is worth." he cast a meaningful glance at Jadet's body.
Sivand felt a stab of guilt. Kyle was a fool, and his insubordination would be dealt with later when the situation wasn't so urgent, but even so, looking at the cloak-covered corpse of one of his men; Sivand was beginning to wonder if it really was too much.
The night breeze stirred General Paderishal's cloak about his shoulders. From the rise where his tent stood he imagined he could see the great walls of West Hold as a darker shadow against the rest. Here and there would be small dots of light, torches and light-stones, marking where soldiers walked its battlements, unaware of the storm that was about to descend upon them. Soon it would not be an illusion.
Smiling to himself, Paderishal turned back to his shelter to find its entrance blocked by a hooded figure.
He grimaced. A messenger from the old wizard. They had a habit of coming out of nowhere and he never saw the face of any of them, but the mage only sent one when the missive was urgent.
Calmly he strode over to the cowled figure. "I know your master," he said, "give me his words then begone, thing of sorcery." he growled the last.
When the thing spoke, it sounded like a loud whisper that rang with an echo in his ears: "At first light, two weeks hence, there will be a signal of fire. Only then should you move on West Hold. Kill any who oppose you. The Order is weak, as are the Sunblades. I will have control of the High Robes when you see the signal. The Sha-Qualin will side with whoever is the victor, for they are cowards. Do not fail, Hussan Paderishal."
"I do not fail!" Paderishal hissed at the figure. "Tell your master that by this time tomorrow, I will control both the Sunblades and the Governorship. Tell him he is the one who should fear failure!"
Paderishal began to turn and leave when the thing spoke again, rasping at his ears: "A fool once told me: "Ambition is a good thing, but one should not over-reach himself. Even the words of a fool are based on a grain of truth; beware of ambition, Paderishal."
With a snarl, Paderishal whirled, drawing his sword and striking in the same motion. The blade passed through where the thing's head should have been, tearing into the dark cloth. He stumbled a bit as the enchanted Varesh, curved Olgothian longsword, met with no resistance. For a moment, the rent clothes seemed to remain standing of their own will then evaporated into smoke, including the scrap still hanging from the tip of his blade. There had been nothing underneath the cloak.
The General repressed a twinge of fear and resheathed his weapon. "Damned wizard." he muttered to himself. Pulling his cloak about him to block the chill wind that rose, he entered his tent.
Van Simons slowly rose from the ditch he had taken refuge in, staying low to avoid the arrows flying overhead. His once shiny platemail was covered in dirt and blood, both black and red, and was dented in over two dozen places. A green and black fletched arrow protruded from his left shoulder plate. Half an inch more and it would have pierced even his chainmail and he would be dead from the poison that coated the surface of its wickedly barbed point.
Another ball of fire erupted several yards in front of him and he ducked back down to avoid the backblast of flame that tore over his hiding place. Still almost a week from the forts they had found the first of the Unclean the day before and easily routed them, but since then, their numbers had only seemed to multiply. What seemed like countless thousands of Dogmen had overrun the infantry, and the mounted cavalry had been blockaded by formations of Gnolls with pikes.
But that was not the worst. The Unclean had human allies. It was unthinkable that anyone would actually align themselves with such foul beings, but he had already killed several himself. They seemed to be mercenaries and rouges mostly, but they were well trained and organized, and they were leading the Unclean bands under the direction of the Lost who called himself Yeidran-Shal, "The Evil Wind". There were renegade mages as well, like the one blasting at his position with fire. Half of the Berindor Order had been killed in the initial rush; the Delinkhal knights had suffered heavy losses as well, and if any of the Kurloon Order that had joined them survived, it was through divine intervention. He had lost track of Van Grell and his entourage during the confusion, and his own squire had been killed trying to defend his fallen horse from a pack of Dogmen. It was a nightmare come to life, with no chance of waking up.
With a wild cry, a group of Gnolls brandishing swords came over the lip of the ditch as they rushed the rise to Van Simons' rear. With a cry of his own, Van Simons rose to meet the beasts, swinging his two-handed sword like a scythe. The Unclean cried out in surprise as the murderous human tore through their ranks, unable to organize well enough to fight back because so many were packed into such a tight space.
After half their number had fallen, the rest fled from the ditch back the way they had come. For half a day, Van Simons had held this position in such a manner, but he was beginning to tire, and the numbers of Dogmen and Gnolls seemed limitless. It was just a matter of time. He was sure the line had been breached in many other places already, but he could not fall back or expose himself to arrows and magic, and charging forward would get him killed even faster. If today was the day that Akradath claimed his soul, then he would send as many of the Unclean as possible back to The Pit before his body died.
A sudden, deafening noise like a thunderclap made him look up from his position. At the top of the ditch stood a woman dressed in robes of green and black, like the colors of the Lost she served. She grinned wickedly while making an arcane gesture with one hand. So, the mage had found him.
Van Simons raised his sword in salute and charged. The sorceress laughed and the world went white.
That's it for now. Chapters 5 - 7 by this weekend, plus maybe some extra side stuff I wrote concerning the wrold of Egoth and it's inhabitants.