Nuri crept silently through the dense forest under the night sky, her elegant sword clutched tightly in her right hand. She was clad in sturdy black leather armor with tall black leather boots, black iron shin guards, black leather bracers, and a grey hooded cloak covering her long red hair. Her dark attire blended in well with the surrounding forest, Nuri was nearly invisible in the shadows.
A gentle wind blew in from the north stirring up fallen leaves and causing tree limbs to sway in the moonlight. The breeze felt cool on Nuri's skin as she took another step on the soft muddy earth; the air still thick with the scent of rain.
Prowling with catlike grace, she approached a freshly cut tree. Wet sawdust and chipped wood littered the ground. How curious, she thought to herself, a single tree cut down in the middle of the forest, and nothing left but a stump.
Nuri glanced around quickly and noticed that there were no other fallen trees. She stepped forward, and felt the brush of a vine against her leg. She froze immediately and carefully pulled her leg away from the tightly stretched cord. She decided it was time to risk some light, and she whispered "Lux via." A bright light burst forth from her shiny sword; stronger and brighter than the glow of a hundred candles.
She spotted the vine at her feet and traced it with her eyes into the treetops, and that was when she saw it, a large log dangling high above the ground.
"Goblins," she whispered. Nuri knew firsthand the treachery of goblins. She had fallen into one of their snares in the past. She studied the crude device and assessed the potential danger should an unsuspecting traveler trigger it. "These creatures mean business," grumbled Nuri. It was too dangerous to leave the deadfall as it was. She gripped the vine in one hand and brought her sword down with the other; slicing the thick cord in two. Nuri underestimated the weight of the log and the rope jerked her up as the timber came rushing down. She let go of the vine, grabbed onto a tree limb, and watched as the heavy log smashed into the ground below. "It won't be hurting anyone now," she sighed in relief. The young rogue lowered her body and dropped down to the next branch, then the one after that and smiled once her feet were back on solid ground.
After circumventing the deadly trip wire, Nuri continued her search for those guilty of setting it. She had not traveled fifty meters from the deadfall when she noticed a heaped mound of rocks, branches, twigs, and displaced earth on the ground. This was not what she was looking for, nor was it anything that she had cared to find. She quickly whispered "Nox!" to extinguish the light from her enchanted sword, but it was already too late.
Nuri heard a loud hiss from the curious pile of debris, and watched as a large furry creature emerged from the den. It was stout and close to the ground with short sturdy legs and pointy teeth. It was the largest dire badger that she had ever seen. Its sharp claws were nearly as long as her sword.
Nuri jumped upon a large boulder as the badger charged at her. She leaped over the creature narrowly escaping the animal's vicious attack. She thrust her blade down towards it, but the beast was too quick and scurried out of the way. Nuri landed on her feet just as the dire badger attacked a second time, even more ferociously than before. She thrust her blade into the badger's mouth, but the monster continued to snap its jaws at her. The creature was not intimidated by her weapon, and it nearly swallowed the sword whole. She pulled using all of her weight to free her blade from the badger's mouth, but the creature had its own strategy. It lurched back violently, dragging her with it until finally releasing her weapon. Nuri flew backwards and tumbled onto the ground, her sword launched into the air and landed in the mud.
The dire badger wasted no time and charged at Nuri before she could get to her feet. She tucked her knees tight against her chest as the creature ran over her, but before its jaws could snap at her throat, Nuri kicked up with all of her might, throwing the animal over her body and into a thorny bush. The badger squealed loudly and struggled to disentangle itself from the thorny growth.
Nuri reached into the mud and retrieved her weapon then leapt to her feet and made a desperate dash for the nearest low hanging branch and pulled herself up into a tree. She watched the beast from a safe distance high above the ground as it freed itself from the briar. Curious as to why the badger was so angry and protective of its den, she watched it quietly. Nuri had fought and defeated dire badgers before, but this one had been relentless.
Then she saw the reason for the creature's fierce hostility; first one dire badger cub, then two, then another and another until a total of four cubs emerged from the animal's den. Seeing the little badger cubs made the large mother seem less threatening to Nuri. After all, she was only a mother protecting her young. Nuri could have caught the mother off guard now and finished her, but she did not have the heart to do so. Nuri waited until the creature and its young had returned to the safety of their den before climbing down to continue her search.
It was not long before Nuri was prowling the woods and tracking her quarry once more. She stayed to the shadows, moving ever so cautiously. She did not know if the male badger would be hunting or lurking nearby, so she did not risk illuminating her sword and alerting the creature. Fortunately, the night sky was clear and there was just enough moonlight shining through the trees for Nuri to get by.
Then she glimpsed a faint glow in the distance, followed by the mild scent of smoke. She pursued the tiny wisp of light through the dense wood. The distant glow broke into multiple smaller lights as Nuri drew closer. The lights originated from eight long torches planted in the grassy earth.
Nuri knelt down quietly, her sword in hand, and she watched the torches flicker in the darkness. They looked like long stakes, thicker at the top where straw and small sticks were bundled tightly together. Each one planted in the ground bordering a small clearing.
A soft flutter riding on the cool breeze broke the dead silence of the night. Nuri looked up and spotted a black barn owl swooping down towards her. She smiled as the nocturnal bird of prey landed on the ground next to her. "I was starting to think you weren't coming, Kesi." The owl stretched out its wings and quickly grew in size. Within seconds, the owl had transformed itself into a young girl with black chin length hair, grey eyes, and fair skin. She wore a short emerald green peasant dress with purple trim, a black vest with purple lacing in the front, knee high leather boots and a warm black fur-lined cloak with a hood. She was clutching a soiled rag doll with a tattered black dress.
"I almost didn't! Alice had me busy playing with her until Rheis called for her," Grimly explained sweetly. "Besides, I'd like to see you try flying at night and see how punctual you are, sis. Owls don't really see things in full color; it's all washed out. Or maybe I just forgot how to owl." Grimly sighed and gazed at the shadows on the ground cast by the flickering torchlight. The dark patches looked like small animals running through the tall grass.
Nuri snickered softly, "How do you forget how to owl?"
The child simply shrugged her shoulders and quickly glanced behind them. "Wasn't Scout supposed to be doing this with you?"
"I think she and Blue had another fight," Nuri replied candidly, "I'm not really sure what it was about this time, but it seemed like her mind wasn't very focused, so I came alone. It's not like she's the only one that can track, although I wouldn't mind having her here."
Grimly noticed several deep cuts on Nuri's leg, "You're bleeding, what happened?"
"Oh, I didn't even notice," Nuri's tone almost flippant. "That badger was faster than I thought. It must have clawed me at some point during the fray."
"What is it with you and badgers, Nuri?" Grimly placed her small hands over the four bloody gashes and whispered a few words. A faint blue glow appeared between the lacerations and Grimly's hands.
"That feels cold, like rain water trickling down my leg," muttered Nuri. She watched as the young girl moved her hands and smiled an awestruck smile. "Your abilities still surprise me, little sister." She ran her hand over the wounded area and felt no trace of the cuts after Grimly was done. Even the blood was gone.
"It's all in the wrists!" Grimly giggled and waved her hands in the air making silly gestures. "Any sign of our quarry?"
"Nothing yet, I expected the area would be crawling with goblins by now. This is like early morning to them. I had hoped to catch them in the middle of their first meal," whispered Nuri as she let out a deep sigh. "I wonder what they call their first meal of the night. It can't be breakfast. It needs to be early morning to be breakfast. Would they be eating bacon and sausages with black tea, like an Onaarri breakfast? Maybe they just gnaw on the leg of some poor animal; unlucky enough to be caught in their snare."
"Please don't mention food. I was so distracted while playing with Alice that I missed supper."
"Do you think they call their first meal supper? Maybe instead of sausages they feast on roast lamb and some hearty black bread."
"Now you're just trying to make me hungry," Grimly growled as she jabbed Nuri in the side with her elbow.
Nuri tried to maintain a straight face, "Mmmmm. Roasted chicken with onions and mushrooms."
"What makes you think goblins are involved?" Grimly asked, trying very hard now to ignore her sister's taunting and changed the subject.
"I came across a trap in the forest on my way to this clearing, and it looked like the work of goblins. I assume they are the same ones that had been abducting the children from Abandon. Thomas told me it had been going on for many seasons. We should probably run them off for good, or the problems that plague Abandon will never cease."
"I doubt it's the same goblins that we dealt with before, Nuri. I didn't exactly leave them in a place where they could escape easily," Grimly giggled again.
"Did you kill them all?"
"I wanted to, Nuri, but I didn't. I led them back into the mines and I trapped them there. I used Lilith's power to collapse the cave, they may have survived, but it will take years to dig their way out."
Nuri put her arm around the young girl, giving her a tight squeeze. "I'm proud of you, little sister. I probably would have killed them all if I had that kind of power. I'll never forget what they did to our parents. I'll never be able to forgive them for killing mom and dad."
"I miss them too, sis. I won't be able to show mercy if I ever meet the goblins who destroyed our happy home," Grimly wiped a few stray tears from her cheek. Thinking of her Onaarri parents reminded her of her own failure to protect them on the night that they died.
"It's not your fault, Kesi." Nuri brushed her sister's hair out of her eyes. "Don't blame yourself. Maybe you could have stopped them, but I understand why you didn't. The goblins invaded our peaceful home, and started the fire that burned our house to the ground. Don't torture yourself for wanting to help and being afraid. It may have been for the best that you avoided using Lilith's power as much as possible. Speaking of Lilith, do you ever wonder what happened to her?"
"She went through that portal so I assume she's back in her own realm or world. Where ever it is that demons come from. With any luck we'll never see her again."
"Yes, I remember. Sometimes I felt sad for her. It must have been terrifying to be trapped for so long. When Pathos captured us, he put us in that terrible dungeon. I hated it, and it was only a few days. I can't imagine what years would have been like. I would probably go crazy or become very hostile. It's a little strange that you still have the doll."
Grimly looked down at the old doll in her hand, "Wow, I never thought about it like that. It's strange, the dolly still obeys my commands as if Lilith was still in there. It still transforms into any weapon or object I choose. It just hasn't spoken to me since Lilith escaped from it. She's been a part of my life for so long, and now I can't part with this doll because it's all that's left. I know she was terrible to everyone, but I miss her a little bit. She was part of my life for over a thousand years, like a sister I never wanted but we were stuck with each other. Is that stupid of me?"
"It's not stupid, Kesi. I sometimes feel the same way about our adopted family. We didn't always get along with them, but they really were like family to us."
"Even Naphara?" Grimly grunted, her voice curt and low.
"Sometimes," shrugged Nuri. "I guess she was just like a big sister who liked to bully me."
"And I thought I was strange for missing Lilith," Grimly sighed. "Naphara's the one I wish was never born. It's her fault that we were separated for a year. She's the reason that we both went through all that pain."
"I know, I should probably hate her too, but I can't help feel that it was all my fault," sighed Nuri.
"Something seems odd here," Grimly looked around and began taking in big whiffs of air, as if she had caught the scent of something. "The air smells too clean for this to be a goblins den."
Nuri took several deep whiffs through her nose and let out a long exhale. "I didn't know fairies had such a keen sense of smell. All I get is the mild scent of pine and smoke from those torches."
"Keen? Nuri, don't you remember what it was like the last time we were around goblins? Even if you had a terrible illness where your nose was all stuffy, you would still sense the odor. They aren't tidy creatures. Goblin dens usually smell so foul you can taste it."
"Now that you mention it, the air does seem pleasant. Nothing like it was at Bald Man's Butte where it stank of death and decay. I can remember all the flies buzzing around and getting in my face. I was afraid they were going to crawl into my nose and lay eggs." Nuri shivered.
Grimly cringed at the revolting picture painted by her sister's words, and then she casually changed the subject. She peered ahead curiously. "Have you explored this clearing yet?"
"After my last encounter with goblins, I decided on a slow cautious approach. I wasn't going to wander their camp alone. Getting caught in one of their nets is not a pleasurable experience," Nuri whispered, pointing to several trees nearby. "Each of those trees has some suspicious vines hanging from them. I don't know what they do, nor do I care to find out."
"Maybe I can find out for you?"
"I don't think that's such a good idea. What if you get caught up in something and there are more goblins than we can handle?"
"I'll just turn into a goblin. They'll think I'm one of their own. It's not as if goblins haven't been caught in their own traps before. They aren't known for their intelligence, either."
Nuri protested Grimly's idea, but the child was already changing her form into that of a scrawny goblin and running towards the suspicious tree line.
There was a loud snap followed by the sound of creaking wood, and a large snare flew upward to tangle the scrawny goblin in a net that hung from the tree. At the same time, there came a loud clanging sound. A crude alarm fashioned from scraps of tin rattled in the canopy. Short figures wearing mismatched pieces of armor, ragged hoods and helmets emerged from behind bushes and trees. They quickly surrounded Grimly while Nuri stood back hiding in the bushes. She observed the goblins as they gazed up at the net in utter confusion.
They all turned towards the torch lit clearing where a taller goblin emerged from a concealed hole in the ground. Nuri believed this to be their leader and if she could subdue him, the rest might surrender or retreat. She jumped out from the bushes with her sword and struck the goblin's helmet. The misshapen barbute fell to the ground and Nuri gasped in shock, realizing it was not a goblin at all but an adolescent boy dressed in goblin armor.
"Please don't hurt him," cried a child's voice from behind her. Nuri spun around and uttered "Lux via," triggering her sword to glow brightly. The beings around her gasped in surprise and stepped away from her.
With the light from her blade, Nuri realized that the goblins were all really children in disguise. She sighed in relief at the sight of them, then extinguished the light and sheathed her sword.
"Oh, you're only children! Why are you all dressed like goblins?" Nuri knelt down to get a closer look at them.
"We're hiding," said a little girl.
"Hiding from whom?" Nuri asked curiously, but none of the children answered her. "Could you release my sister?" She pointed up at Grimly tangled in the net. "We thought you were goblins."
The children looked up at the net in shock to see that the goblin that they had ensnared was now a young girl.
"How…how did you do that?" asked one of the children, pointing up at Grimly.
Nuri looked up at her sister and smiled. "Actually, I had nothing to do with it. You see…" Before Nuri could finish explaining, she felt a hard blow to the back of her head and everything went black.