Chapter One: The Day I Die
Leaves crunched beneath her feet as she sprinted forth, weaving around tall, sturdy trees. An agonizing cry far behind her lent itself to that terrible cacophony. High above, a haze obscured the sun, leaving the forest eerily dismal.
Venathryn braced herself against the tree trunk, steadying her breaths. The terse, deep voices of those in pursuit stole that brief respite from her. She clasped her hand over her lips and looked to the sky for some measure of hope.
A slow approach resounded in the leaves behind her. A series of low grunts could just be heard between each step.
The elf let her hand slide toward her hip, where the hilt of a dagger was waiting for her. A subtle scrape announced the blade’s escape from the cover.
She let a silent, hollow sigh fly from her lips, and bowed her head. A pivot around the tree showed her pursuer. The goblin stood nearly as tall as she, yet its broad body reminded her more of a dwarf. His pale green skin would have blended well with the forest earlier in the year. There was no denying his presence then.
His mouth parted and his eyes opened wide. Venathryn lunged at her foe, the tip of that dagger shrieking forward.
The goblin brushed the blade aside, but it was too late. It drove into the flesh of his shoulder, inciting an angry growl. Gnashing her teeth together, the elf maiden dragged the weapon out and drove it forth once more.
Her foe was ready that time. He caught the maiden’s slender wrist in his calloused hand, and wrenched her to the side. She yelped as the dagger bobbled from her fingers.
There was little time to lament that loss. With unbridled rage, her opponent lashed out with his free arm, his heavy hand striking her face.
Venathryn stumbled backward, the autumn breeze setting that strike afire. Tears were instantly in her eyes, but they didn’t veil the approach of her foe. His hand fell just below her throat, swinging her back into the tree that had been her sanctuary. She struck the sturdy trunk with enough force to send the air rushing from her lungs.
That furious pain in her abdomen had her seeing spots. The elf knew what was at stake though. A loud scrape resounded as the goblin ripped his saber from its scabbard. Though the maiden was weary, she was also frightened. She reached for the bracer on her forearm, desperately fumbling with the leather armor. A tiny knife slipped out from there, but just shy of her fingers.
The goblin’s sword was drawn. With his brow falling upon his jaundiced eyes, he sent a slavering snarl at his foe. Venathryn could feel the shivers slithering down her spine.
A loud thwack echoed out as the sword struck the tree. The elf was no longer there, gone before the goblin’s eyes. Dry, dead leaves spun upward in a sudden cyclone, casting aside in every direction.
Shuddering, the goblin felt a cool breeze run up his back. He looked over his shoulder just in time to see the maiden leap forth.
Though her knife was small, it was sharp enough to carve a spot within his neck. She roared, ripping it across until it struck the prominence in his throat.
Twisting and bending, the goblin threw her from his back, landing her on the ground several yards away. Adrenaline coursing through her, Venathryn rolled and skittered to her feet.
Her opponent stomped forward, his large, pronounced teeth prating just far enough to allow a labored breath past his lips. Blood poured from the wound in his throat, but he kept his focus on the maiden.
He took three more steps before his legs gave out beneath him, toppling him to the ground.
The elf stood up straight, enjoying a full breath for what seemed like the first time. Her face still stung, and in the absence of the adrenaline surge, the pain became more overt. A gentle brush of her fingers over her check did little to soothe that discomfort.
Another howl echoed out from beyond her place in the forest. Stepping forward, Venathryn swept dried leaves away with her foot. After a short search, she recovered her fallen dagger. Grimacing, she rolled her fallen foe to his back.
Contorted weirdly, the goblin’s face looked even more imposing in death. The maiden kept her focus elsewhere, finding the knife that had laid him low in the grass beneath him. She wiped both blades upon his filthy clothes and then returned them to their spots on her hip and beneath the bracer.
She looked to the west, knowing that more of the vicious creatures would be waiting for her. Alone in the woods, she looked to the sky once more. That haze grew darker, and Venathryn knew the sun was beginning to set. Spinning on her heel, the maiden gazed east. Her bosom rose and her eyes sparkled, but she could only look ion for several moments before she bowed her head.
Reaching to her shoulder, Venathryn grasped her bow. She swung it up over her head, and began toward the sound of the screams.
That approach was labored, for the maiden took care to steady her steps. The toes of her boots navigated around larger piles of leaves or fallen branches. All of her secrecy was nearly ripped from her when she saw the first body.
Long, dark hair was pulled into a tight topknot, casting down over the head of her fallen companion. A dark crimson stain sat upon the elf’s tunic, his cloak swept to the side.
Venathryn placed her hand over her mouth. “Oh, Orfalas,” she whispered. Rolling him to his back, she saw how grievous his wounds had been. While one blade skewered him cleanly, countless others poked and prodded and slashed, leaving his tunic in tatters.
“Numax chased another one this way,” a hoarse growl announced. “We can’t let them escape, or Bruzug have our heads.”
Again, the elf found solace behind a tree. She watched as a pack of goblins took to the woods. Counting at least six of the slavering beats, she closed her eyes, praying that they would move on.
When she opened her eyes once more, they were gone.
The forest seemed warmer in their absence, as if they had oppressed the sun. High above, however, the sky was still veiled by that sinister haze.
Sighing, Venathryn stepped away from her refuge. She continued her trek, toward where the screams had yielded to silence.
Bodies were strewn everywhere. Elves, humans and goblins had succumbed to mortal wounds. Those that Venathryn had known and called friends were viciously dealt with, some only a fragment of what they once were. Her foes had simply conceded to death, none as mistreated in their final moments.
The few humans she saw looked as though they had succumbed to their fates much more willingly. The maiden sneered at that weakness.
Rays of sunlight snuck in just below the canopy, beneath the dismal fog. A radiant aura rolled over the leaves, spilling down upon them like a golden path. She took to that route, avoiding the fallen warriors on either side. Far beyond, she knew home was waiting for her.
A groan to her side nearly had her sprinting for cover. She bent low, steadying her breaths. With the bow grasped in her hand, she reached for the quiver on her hip. Only a few arrows remained, and she let her fingers hover there for a moment.
As her eyes adjusted, she saw movement behind a nearby tree. A leather boot gradually pulled back out of sight, a quiet moan resonating with the movement.
Rising once more, the maiden tiptoed around the opposite side of the tall oak. More bodies could be seen in the nearby clearing, and nearly all were human. The encampment lay in tatters, tents ripped to rags and the dying remnants of fires barely producing a wisp of smoke.
Several goblins had fallen in amongst the other dead. More than one persistently clutched carved horns.
The elf’s brow furled as she recalled those terrible instruments. She nearly disregarded the other presence.
Another groan reeled her back, and she swung around to the side. Another of her people propped himself up against the tree, his skin ashen where it was not covered in blood.
“Quintus,” she whispered.
She ran to his side, hooking her bow over her shoulder once more. Falling to her knees beside him, she placed her hand upon his forearm. The elf clutched his chest and gasped, but when his gaze fell upon his friend, his eyes were filled with relief. His chest heaved every moment, and blood trickled from his mouth, but he could not keep his lips from curling upward.
“Find predicament we’ve found ourselves in, Venathryn,” he said, his words taking the melodic form of their native language. “Have you found any others?”
The maiden shook her head. “They’re all gone,” she returned in elvish. “Only you and I remain.”
Quintus locked his jaw and clenched his lips together. He forced a painful breath into his nostrils, but it struggled in his lungs. Shallow coughs puffed his cheeks and rocked his slender body.
“How many times have you whisperwalked?” he asked.
“Just once,” she said. “And you?”
He traced his bloodied teeth with his tongue before he turned to her again. Sighing, he began shaking his head. “Our pride overthrew us this day,” he insisted. “We didn’t think they could organize these kinds of numbers. Before we knew it, we’d all gone twice, thinking we could be done with them in no time.”
“Then we need to get you up,” Venathryn offered.
As she reached out to him, he pressed her hand away. “Don’t you dare,” he ordered. “You’d never be able to get me to safety. All I would do is risk your life.” Another series of gasps and coughs had the wounded elf shaking against the tree. When that bout ceased, he grasped his chest again. “You still have… one whisperwalk left. Go back to Aven’adon. Tell them the horde is bigger than we anticipated.”
“The sun has almost set,” the maiden protested. “In a few hours, you could be telling them with me.”
Quintus growled at that notion. “You still don’t know when to give up. I would never last until the moon rises to its peak. I am lost, Venathryn. But there is still hope for you.”
She stood then, her brow furling. With gnashed teeth, she looked upon her companion. “Get up,” she demanded. “You needn’t be so foolish.”
“You needn’t be so stubborn,” he contested. “There is nothing to be done!”
His shouts invited another series of agonizing coughs. He looked to the sky, moisture upon the rims of his eyes.
“They’ll be back this way soon,” he insisted. His voice was quieter than she had ever heard. “We could never push through them to Birch Haven.”
“We can if I send the goblins west,” she protested.
“You fool girl,” Quintus cried. “Let me die in peace. Let me see you drift away home.”
She was already in motion, racing to one of the fallen goblins. “Not today,” she whispered. With a fierce tug, she ripped the carved horn from the fallen creature’s hip.
The maiden dragged the heel of her hand against the mouth of the horn several times. Finally, she brought it to her lips, sending out a long, deep note. It traveled through the forest, passing through the rustling leaves.
“They’ll be following me now,” Venathryn said. “All you have to do is pretend until they’re past. Don’t let your pride get the better of you again.” She began west, the horn still in her hand.
“Venathryn!” Quintus called out.
“I’ll see you soon,” she insisted.
At once, the horn was between her lips again, and a rolling, taunting tune was played. She proceeded onward, passing the bodies of her fallen kin, and the humans from Birch Haven. As she raced forward, she leaned over, ripping the quiver from one of her kin’s backs. They were lost, but the maiden could yet save one. Hesitating for only a moment, she looped the container around her back.
She continued her sprint, a wry grin stretching her lips. Another blast from the horn announced her location, but the dead leaves were swirling beneath her feet an instant later.
Another sound echoed out in the woods then. That agonizing cry seemed as though it rang out just beside her.
Venathryn skidded to a stop, her jaw dropping as moisture welled up in her eyes. Only a dozen feet ahead of her, the forest had to abandon its sprawling growth. A wide ravine marked the end of her journey, though she barely noticed it was there.
The rolling sound of Quintus’ cry still lingered in the air, haunting the elf maiden. Gnashing her teeth together, she brought the goblin horn to her lips once more. That deep tone rumbled from the carved instrument until she could bear it no more. Venathryn gasped for air, and blinked away the tears that obscured her vision.
She stepped forward, reaching that wide ravine. A light breeze cast a pile of shriveled, dry leaves into the abyss. The maiden watched as they careened toward the darkness far below.
Her dark eyebrows furled then, and she gazed ahead. There, twenty feet away, another cliff stretched high above. The sheer, grey wall was shorn in places, sharp, jutting rock facing her.
Blowing a fragile sigh from her lips, Venathryn lifted the goblin horn once more. With a pronounced grunt, she heaved the instrument across the ravine. It smashed into the broken cliff face, shattering into pieces. The fragments fell, but a small cloud of dust lifted into the air before dissipating.
A determined nod raised the maiden’s head. Turning on her heel, she lifted the bow over her shoulder one last time.
“I’m here, you filthy rats!” she cried. “As long as I stand, the Birchwood stands with me!”
She waited there for some time, with no enemies in sight. She wondered if they had all moved on, searching for any of her kin that might have escaped to the east. Subtle movement behind the trees assured her that she was not alone, however.
Venathryn set an arrow to her bow. A deep breath filled her lungs, and she drew back the string.
The goblins offered her no further respite. From the trees, a trio of the monstrous creatures rushed on. Axes and clubs were held high and foreign curses were slung from broken, bloodied lips.
Below her, the maiden could feel the ground tremble. It mattered not. She closed one eye and narrowed the other, steadying her aim. Her missile shot forth, striking one of her foes in his throat. He carried forward for several more steps until a lack of breath slung him to the ground.
Another arrow was ready upon the elf’s bow. As she trained her next target, another projectile flew out toward her. Venathryn turned and dipped her shoulder, watching as the crude crossbow quarrel missed its mark.
Swinging back around, she fell into her stance with ease. Another arrow launched out, hitting a second goblin in the abdomen. That blow staggered him for a moment, but he pressed on.
Venathryn stepped back, her boot nearly slipping off the ledge. A deep breath steadied her, and she pulled another missile from her quiver. Before she even had it firmly upon the bowstring, she drew her arm back.
A resounding thwack echoed as the missile hit its mark. The arrow shuddered in the creature’s skull, only beginning to stop once he flopped to the ground.
Her final pursuer drew near, yet still behind him, she saw further movement in the trees. She reached for her quiver again, and quickly realized that she had run out of ammunition.
A subtle growl slipped from her mouth as she grabbed just behind her shoulder. A feathered shaft tapped against her fingers, and she tugged it free.
The goblin raised his sword high, the hefty blade nearly reaching the lowest branches of the closest tree. His pace never wavered, even when the elf maiden aimed her bow at his chest. A weak breeze struck him as he left the trees behind, and arrived upon the barren cliff.
Venathryn lowered her weapon and loosed her arrow. A satisfying thump announced its arrival at her intended target. Though her foe didn’t seem to be bothered by the missile in his ankle, his leg could no longer support his weight. He tumbled to the ground, rolling from the precipice.
Wasting little time, the maiden swung about and retrieved another arrow. Just at the tree line, the goblin sniper stepped to his side, once more taking aim with his crossbow.
The elf was quicker. That hastily launched projectile met its mark, sinking deep within the goblin’s eye. That blow was not so easily disregarded, and the foul creature fell to the ground in a heap.
Sighing, the proud warrior took in that brief respite. The autumn breeze kissed her skin, eliciting small bumps on her arms. She unhooked the quiver on her hip and cast it into the abyss below.
Beyond the trees, she could still see the approach of more foes. Sinking to one knee, she placed her bow upon the ground. The quiver on her back was received next, swung up over her shoulder.
The goblins grunted and hollered. She could see several of them through the foliage then, letting their overwhelming presence be known. Her eyes settled upon her quiver then. Even if she landed every shot perfectly, there would still be enough enemies standing to cut her down.
As she strapped the quiver to her belt, she looked over her shoulder. High above, the opposite cliff would be too far for goblin crossbows to reach. Venathryn bowed her head.
Focusing ahead, she witnessed the first of her opponents clearing the trees. As she wrapped her fingers around her bow, she closed her eyes, feeling that slight breeze whip into something more frenzied. A deafening whoosh echoed in her ears.
Then, all was quiet.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the forest beneath her. On the cliff where she once stood, she could still see the dry leaves spiraling back toward the ground. A quartet of goblins arrived there as well, in awe of the disappearing maiden.
She rose to her feet, taking up her bow once more. Narrowing her eye, she took aim on the unsuspecting fiends below.
The first arrow screeched out, thumping into the foremost goblin’s chest. He glanced in every direction like a confused deer. It was not long before his companions pointed toward the higher cliff, where the maiden stood sentinel.
One by one, Venathryn sent out her missiles until her quiver ran empty, and a new trio of goblins lay dead upon the lower precipice. Many more had arrived to bolster their ranks.
A resigned sigh passed through her lips as she placed her bow over her shoulder once more. Still, the goblins below stood and stared, chanting something in their guttural language.
Narrowing her eyes, Venathryn sneered at her distant foes. The sun had long before passed the horizon behind her, and the moon was rising. It would not be long before she could travel to her home once more.
She turned on her heel.
She was not alone.
The massive goblin towered over her. Bruzug wore a scowl that she could just barely see upon his pale skin.
With deceptive speed, his hands landed upon her throat. The maiden reached for her hip, blindly feeling for her hidden weapon. The goblin warlord pressed harder with his thumbs, squeezing Venathryn’s throat closed.
Finally, her fingers wrapped around the hilt of the dagger. She brought it up, and delivered it into Bruzug’s forearm.
If he seemed at all bothered by that puncture, it didn’t show. He snarled as he pushed on her shoulders, thrusting her to the ground. She grasped at his powerful hold, trying to wrench him away. Her fingers couldn’t squeeze in between his hands though. An awkward rattle escaped the maiden’s lips as she pleaded for mercy.
It was too late. The trees, embraced by autumn, seemed to catch fire then. Everything Venathryn saw became veiled by crimson. Those shades of red soon yielded to a terrible frightening darkness.
The elf felt nothing then, even terror slipping away from her as she took one last strained breath.