“Kiokri,” Greg called, pointing to a mark on his map, east-northeast of Troubeck. “Headmaster Fabijan told me that there is a druids’ grove here.”
That was surprising, although when I thought about it later I realized it shouldn’t have been. This world was similar to mine in so many ways. Kaius’s god Pelor still granted him strength here. There were bound to be those who followed the delicate balance of nature.
“I’d like to meet them,” I said, popping the last bit of a breakfast sausage into my mouth. “The Elders of my kind are very wise. They might have some insight into how we can get home.”
“The headmaster also suggested we go to Lhanbyrde.” He pointed to a city a few weeks to our south. There was a long stretch of road that meandered its way along the coast of the Janko Sea, making stops in a few towns along its journey.
“We should visit the druids before we go south,” said Lluc. “I hate backtracking. Besides, I don’t think a damn soul lives much farther north of this town. And the ones who do probably aren’t the kind you’d like to meet alone on a road.” The others nodded in agreement.
The rest of that day was spent buying supplies for the trip with our newfound gold. We left the next morning after a good night’s sleep, heading east out of town. The well-worn path quickly disappeared and we found ourselves in a forest so thick it seemed a perpetual dusk below the canopy.
It would have been perfectly understandable if we had gotten lost in that dark maze of trees. Every direction looks just like the next in an old forest. But I had grown up in woods just like these. My master taught me how to survive here. I tracked animals to water, found us safe plants, berries, and fruit. Most importantly, I found the way through the woods to the hills beyond.
“Finally!” Barry exclaimed as the trees gave way to the sun. He threw his hands up in the air, took a deep breath, and let it out as his arms fell back to his side. “Some decent, tree-less hills. A man could make his home here.” The hills seemed to stretch for days. The treeline curved north and then east. Far to the north and east stretched a huge range of mountains, but they were many miles from where we stood.
Greg uncapped his scroll case and pulled out the map. “We’re making good time. We should only have a day left to—”
“Smoke,” Kaius said breathlessly, pointing to a rising plume to our east. He started in its direction and beckoned the rest of us to follow. The next crest gave us a clear view of where the smoke originated. That was when we heard the screams.
There was a small cluster of buildings. The largest and only two-story structure was completely engulfed in flames. The fire licked up at the sky as people ran from the buildings. Some of the people saw us and ran in our direction. Behind them came a half-dozen figures, one riding atop what looked like a massive dog. I strained my eyes and squinted to see.
“Goblins,” Lluc said, and drew his longsword. The rest of us readied our weapons and dashed down the hill.
We didn’t make it to the villagers in time though. The goblins got to them first. Rusty, bent weapons tore into the back of one man. A woman screamed as the mounted goblin ran her down. I could see it clearly now—he wasn’t riding a dog, it was a warg. A mangy, black and grey animal, more wolf than dog. But a warg isn’t a wolf. There is no sense of pack in a warg’s mind. They live to kill, and only suffer a handler so long as they present the warg with tempting prey.
But the woman wasn’t the warg’s target. Her hand reached out to a little girl who had stopped and turned after she lost her grip. The beast snarled at the girl, drool dripping from its mouth.
“SLEEP,” commanded Kaius. His voice rose over the clamor of the goblin marauders. Over the din of battle, blazing of the fire, and screams of those fleeing for their lives. It came with an imposition so strong, so unquestionable, that the goblin on top of the warg slouched in his saddle, rolled to one side, and made the warg lose its balance.
That gave Kaius all the time he needed to close the distance, put himself in front of the girl, and crush in the sternum of a rushing goblin. Lluc slid in next to him and caught another with the end of his blade.
A bullet clipped off the top of Kaius’s helm from behind. “Hey,” he cried out, looking behind him to see Barry, empty sling in hand.
“Sorry,” shouted Barry. He whirled a fresh bullet around and around, then loosed it at another goblin. This one struck true, right in the side of a goblin’s helm. It crumpled to the ground, limp.
I pulled out a branch of holly as more goblins started charging down the hill. The fresh leaves wilted and the berries browned as the pale glow of Faerie Fire settled onto the warg. The animal bit at the glow in confusion. Kaius’s morning star took it in the side of the head when he saw the chance. I sprinted in from behind him and sliced the warg’s chest open with my scimitar. Its legs scratched weakly at the ground and stilled.
I looked up in time to see the second group of goblins suddenly collapse to the ground. I turned around behind me to see Greg smirking to himself. The mounted goblin had woken up by this point. It screamed something in its coarse dialect and ran for Greg. Lluc took three long steps at a dash and swept his blade in a low arc, hamstringing the goblin leader. The rest of the goblins turned and ran toward the forest in a rout.