The second chapter of Gate of Twilight was supposed to be released yesterday (4/3) but due to technical difficulties, the update was delayed. Thank you for your patience, and without further delay, here is the chapter. I hope you will enjoy it (~Eiliya).
“We're gonna skin some scaly hide and walk back heroes! Woo-hoo!”
Ruzzella's cheerful cry made the heads of the other patrons in the tavern turn, but neither she nor Seyran minded. As she raised her mug, so did he, and they clanked them together in the air.
“Heroes!” Seyran joined her toast. “Come on, Emrald, don't just sit around! Up with your mug! “
Emrald smiled and clanked his mug against the ones his friends were raising, but with visibly less enthusiasm as them. Not that he wasn't happy for Seyran and Ruzzella, not that he wasn't looking forward to going on an adventure with them – his foster mother had taught him to always look at the bigger picture and not just at those parts the looked good. And as far as this adventure was concerned, it revolved around fighting a dangerous creature, and there was a good chance two of the people he liked most in the world could get hurt, or even killed. And that was something Emrald wasn't looking forward to.
Ruzzella, unfortunately, immediately caught up on those thoughts. “Aw, now come on, you worry-wart,” she chided him, “at least put a smile on that face of yours!”
“I am smiling!”
“There's a fifteen-stone-frown trying to hide behind a quarter-pound smile in your face, and you know it.”
“Can't you see it's gonna be awesome? It's the first time the three of us actually get the chance to prove that there is something like 'the three of us'. When we come back, not only will we have completed our Trials, we'll also have shown that we can work together, as a team! No one's going to even consider splitting us up after that – or send some of us off to some backwater elven town, if you know what I mean.”
Emrald sighed. He did know what Ruzzella meant. Eiliya had mentioned a few times that someone with his talents could be a great help in a community of scholarly inclined people who usually had a harder time with menial work, and she knew just the right elves for that...
“In any case,” Seyran interrupted his train of thought, “we've got quite a bit of a journey ahead of us, and I think we should think ahead a little. It's three days to the temple, if we can keep up a good pace. What do we do about setting up camp? Tents?”
“Yeah, tents,” Ruzzella agreed with him. “Emrald can easily carry something big enough for the three of us, and the militia has some in stock. I don't think they'll mind selling us one, and Gort said he'd be sponsoring our equipment.”
“Water's the thing we should be worrying about,” Emrald reminded the others. “There are no rivers or streams anywhere close, and I'm not sure the maps I've seen show any natural springs. We need to make sure we find enough to drink on the way.”
“Why not just carry the water we need with us?” Ruzzella suggested.
Seyran shook his head. “That would work for you since you're catfolk, but Emrald and I need to drink three times as much as you do. There's no way I can carry around enough water to last me six days, and we can't have Emrald carry everything.”
“I could ask Eiliya if she can spare a dowsing rod, though,” Emrald asked. “She owns one. Not that I'm any good at using it, but you have a keen sense of touch in your fingers, don't you, Ruzzy?”
Ruzzella skeptically looked up at the goliath. “I guess I do, but – isn't a dowsing rod water magic? You know I'm not that comfortable with water magic...”
“Oh, come on, Ruzzy,” Seyran laughed, “just because one amulet of Water Shield exploded on you, that doesn't mean all water magic will. And besides, if it's a dowsing rod, the only thing that might get wet is your hands, and maybe your arms.”
“And that's bad enough,” Ruzzella grumbled. “I hate getting wet. It takes forever to get myself warmed up again.”
“We still need to make sure we have enough to drink on the way,” Emrald reminded her. “Do you have another idea how to find water? Or how to carry enough of it with us?”
“We could just bring a cart and-”
“A cart, on a journey where we're not following roads?” Seyran shook his head. “Not going to work. We'd have to deal with a broken wheel before we're even halfway there. It would slow us down to a crawl. No, Emrald's right – a dowsing rod is the best idea.”
Ruzzella sighed. “I suppose you still haven't learned how to keep that elemental of yours in check around magical items, have you, Seyran?”
“Sorry, no.” Seyran shrugged apologetically. “It still breaks every artifact I try to use, or at the very least makes it lose its charge. Gyorgo said he'd find me someone to teach me how to control it – after my Trial of Adulthood.”
“Ah, well, the things you do for friendship.” Ruzzella took a deep sip from her mug and wiped off her mouth with the back of her hand before anyone aside from her friends could notice that she was only drinking milk. Her companions in the militia would really have a blast if they ever found out about that.
Emrald looked to his friends. “So, we meet tomorrow morning then?”
“At dawn, in the town square,” Seyran nodded. “You ask Eiliya about that dowsing rod, and you, Ruzzy, you get us a tent from the militia.”
Ruzzella nodded. “Gotcha. And while we're at it – can't you ask Gyorgo if he has some maps of the area that do show springs and other places to find water? I'd really like to keep that dowsing rod as a last resort. If we can somehow avoid using it...”
“I'll ask,” Seyran agreed, “though I doubt he has anything better than what I've already seen. The travel map he gave me is quite recent – a company that visited the shrine a few years ago made it, and they didn't mark any springs or wells on the way.”
“Maybe there's another way to find water I've overlooked,” Emrald pitched in. “I'll ask Eiliya again whether she has any alternatives to a dowsing rod. Maybe something I can use.”
Ruzzella nodded. “Or something that works without water magic.”
“I doubt something that can locate water will work without water magic.”
“Hey, can't I get lucky once?”
Seyran smiled at the exchange and turned to the tavernmaid. “Another round for the three of us, please!”
“None for me.” Emrald raised his palms. “It's getting a little late.”
“Aw, does the big baby need to go to beddy-bye?” Ruzzella chided him.
Emrald shook his head. “No, but Eiliya's usually in bed early, and I don't want to wake her. And I don't want to ask her about something to find water with tomorrow morning, at the last minute. Sorry.”
“No problem,” Seyran nodded. “Go then – our drinks are on me tonight.”
“Thanks.” Emrald emptied his mug and stood up, smiling at his friends. “A good night to you, then.”
“Good night, Emrald.”
“Nite, big baby.” Ruzzella grinned a pointy grin.
Emrald shook his head and chucked. On his way out, he turned to the tavernmaid. “Lass?” he called over the clamor of the room.
“For Ruzzella's next round, make sure you don't dip the mug too deep into the barrel. All the cream's on top, and she likes her milk with a lot of it.”
The heads of the men and women of the militia at the next table first turned to Emrald, then to Ruzzella.
And Ruzzella's face turned a bright red.
Before the sun rose the next morning, Seyran, Ruzzella and Emrald met at the town square, as they had planned. Gyorgo, Gort and Eiliya had accompanied them, though not all of them with the same enthusiasm.
“Ugh, did we really hav'ta be 'ere this early inna morning?” Gort complained. “I don't see why anyone would set out onna journey at such'n ungodly hour.”
“As a new day begins, so begins a new time in the lives of these adolescents here – their adulthood,” Eiliya explained. “It's symbolic.”
“Symbolic of the uncanny elven ability to annoy ta rest offa world, sure,” Gort grumbled. “But really, we couldda least have breakfast before sendin' ta young ones off. What good's startin' a journey on an empty stomach?”
Gyorgo smiled. “As this journey is about growing up and taking the responsibility of adults,” he reminded the dwarf, “don't you think we should leave the responsibility of when to have their breakfast to our three trial-takers? I'm certain they can easily make their own decisions about the proper time to eat.”
“I wasn't talkin' about their breakfast, I was talkin' about mine!”
“Which is probably symbolic of the uncanny dwarven ability to ignore the needs of others in the face of their own needs,” Eiliya snapped.
“Oh, aye? Well, what about-”
Seyran quickly stepped between the two elders before their argument could escalate even more. “Uh, if you don't mind,” he said, “the three of us won't be seeing the three of you for the next few days, and, well, we've been talking yesterday after we got the news, and we all wanted to say a few words to you. If that's not against tradition.”
“It certainly isn't,” Gyorgo nodded. “We'll send you off with a few words of our own, of course, but please, do speak your minds.”
“Then I'll go first,” said Ruzzella. “Uncle Gort – thanks for always believing in me. Thanks for always giving me fun things to do. Thanks for allowing me to do this most important thing in my life together with my friends. I promise, I'll show everybody how well you've trained me. I'm going to make you proud!”
Gort looked to the side, apparently a little touched by Ruzzella's words. “Um, well, yeah, I guesso...” he mumbled.
“Eiliya,” Emrald quickly began before the moment of embarrassment could become too long, “I also wish to say my thanks to you. You have taught me so many things about this world and how to see it with unclouded eyes that I am certain you have prepared me well for my tasks. I promise never to let overconfidence or prejudice determine my actions. I promise to heed your teachings.”
“Then you shall never lose your way,” Eiliya answered and bowed slightly towards Emrald. “I look forward to seeing where it will take you.”
Seyran cleared his throat. “As it's my turn now,” he said, “gramps – thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to prove myself. I've been waiting for this moment for so long now – I admit, I thought it would never come.”
“Everyone gets their moment eventually,” Gyorgo smiled. “Yours had just arrived.”
“And I promise I'll make the most of it,” Seyran continued. “I'll stand up to every challenge you make me face. I'll show you that you were right to believe in me!”
Gyorgo raised a finger. “Don't forget that from the moment you've completed your Trials, there will be no more challenges I will make you face. From the moment you return successfully, you choose your own challenges. And it's up to you whether you conquer them or they conquer you.”
“That goes for all three of ye,” Gort joined in. “Aye, this is goin'a be ta hardest task ye've ever had to face until now, but it won't be ta last. And trust me, when ye look back on your lives in fifty years or a hundred, yer goin' to laugh about how ridiculously easy your Trials of Adulthood were in comparison to all these other things ye had to face after that.”
“And never forget,” Eiliya softly said, “that no matter how much you've learned, what you don't know will always outweigh what you know. You may think you already understand much about this world, much about life. Don't blindly trust in your own knowledge. Sooner or later, it will fail you, and the only way to make sure it does not happen too often is to see every living moment as an opportunity to learn more, to understand more. Walk all your roads with eyes wide open. Never forget that.”
“We won't,” Ruzzella agreed, “and just to be on the safe side, I'll keep my ears open too. Ain't nothing gonna blindside me with these keen senses and-”
“In any case,” Seyran quickly interrupted his friend before she could continue her triumphant rant, “thank you all again for trusting and supporting us. We'll be back here in six or seven days, with that reptile horn you asked for.”
“If everything goes as planned,” Emrald added.
“Which it will,” Ruzzella finished the thought. “Don't you worry about us.”
“Worry?” Gort snorted. “Ye botch this, and it's you who's going to have to worry! Don't ye dare come home with one of yer friends injured, or worse! I expect more from me little girl!”
Ruzzella grinned. “And you're gonna get it, uncle. Count on it.”
“I really don't want to interrupt you here,” Gyorgo noted, “but if you take a look to the east, you will see that the sun is just starting to rise above the hills. This should be the time for your departure.”
Eiliya nodded. “It is. And according to tradition, we are not going to say our goodbyes. Instead, we shall send you off with this: See you back soon.”
“Aye,” nodded Gort. “See ye back soon. All of ye.”
“See you back soon,” Gyorgo added. “With you as adults, and as our equals.”
“We all thank you,” Emrald replied. “Stay safe.”
Ruzzella nodded enthusiastically. “We'll be back before you know it!”
“See you soon,” Seyran joined in, “and don't worry about us. There's nothing the three of us won't be able to accomplish!”
With that, the three friends turned and went towards the edge of the town, leaving their three foster-parents behind. As soon as they were out of hearing range even for Ruzzella, Eiliya leaned over to Gyorgo.
“So, do you think they'll draw the right conclusions?”
Gyorgo smiled. “They will. We did everything we could to assure that. They won't fail us.”
“Let's just hope they don't get sidetracked,” Gort snorted. “They're still young. There's no tellin' whether they'll stay focused enough.”
“I have faith in them,” said Gyorgo. “They're old enough to know what's important and what's not.”
At the same time as their foster-parents were having that conversation, Ruzzella turned to her friends.
“So, we're gonna have breakfast now?” she asked.
It was just past noon on the third day of their journey when the three friends reached the forest where, according to their maps, their destination lay. The trip so far had been almost disappointingly uneventful - the weather had been cloudy but dry, the winds between the hills were cool but not strong, and even water hadn't been much of an issue since they had come past a small brook quietly bubbling its way along the rocky ground on the second day.
Ruzzella stopped and looked at the trees in the distance. “So, is this it?” she asked, looking towards Emrald.
The goliath reached into his belt pouch and took out the map they had followed. “Yes, this should be it,” he answered. “There's only one forest in this direction, and that's the Darkwoods.”
“If that map is right. That river wasn't on there as well. Maybe it's missing more than that.”
“For the umpteenth time,” Seyran sighed, “that wasn't a river. It wasn't even a rivulet.”
“It still got my feet wet,” Ruzzella complained.
Emrald looked around. “If we climb one of the larger hills, we should be able to overlook the forest. According to our map, there's a large pond in the Darkwoods, so if we can see it from up there, we know we're still on track.”
“A pond. Great.” Ruzzella rolled her eyes. “More water.”
“Well, aren't you lucky that we need to go around that pond, not in it?” Seyran snapped. “Really, what is it with you? Ever since we set out from Vael, you've been complaining. I thought you were so enthusiastic to go on this quest?”
“You call that a quest? I call it boring! Where's the fun? Where's the adventure?”
“Right over there, in the forest, on the other side of that pond you don't want to go to.” Seyran shook his head. “And besides, we're not doing this for fun. We're doing this because it's important for Vael, and because it's our Trial of Adulthood. You really should take this more seriously.”
“I am taking this seriously,” Ruzzella hissed, her ears folding against the side of her head as it often happened when she was angry. “You know what? I'm gonna show you how seriously I'm taking this quest! I'll take the point from now on!” She turned and marched on towards the forest, at a considerably faster pace than before.
Emrald looked to Seyran. “Do you think that was wise?”
“I certainly don't. But really, if she wants to rush ahead, then-”
“No.” Emrald shook his head. “Do you think it was wise to pick a fight with her? You know she doesn't like getting wet.”
Seyran opened his mouth for a reply but immediately closed it again as he saw the disappointed look on his friend's face. Emrald hated to see people bicker, and even more so if these people were close to him.
With a sigh, Seyran turned towards the forest and looked after Ruzzella. “I didn't mean to pick a fight,” he said. “But it's so easy to get into an argument with her.”
“Strange,” Emrald replied. “I never felt it was easy. Maybe you're just good at it?”
Seyran said nothing. Instead, he took a deep breath and started walking again, following Ruzzella at her new, faster pace. Emrald smiled to himself and joined him.
Shortly afterwards, they reached the edge of the forest. Ruzzella had already arrived and was waiting for them to catch up with her. Judging from the state of her ears, her mood had improved slightly.
“Now that is what I call a forest,” she said. “Big old trees, hardly any undergrowth, thick foliage. Not like those flimsy little groves around Vael. I bet this thing here would even protect you from a rainstorm.”
“It’s called the Darkwoods for a reason,” Emrald said. “The tree crowns have grown together so much that even the light doesn’t get in there much. And I suppose you also could be right about the rain, Ruzzy.”
Seyran’s eyes narrowed. “That would also make it a good place for an ambush, wouldn’t it? If there’s so little light in there, sneaking up on someone must be easy.”
“Naah.” Ruzzella showed her pointy grin. “To sneak up on someone, you must know where they are first. And how are you going to find them if the forest’s all dark? Unless you have good eyes, like me.”
“The problem is,” Seyran explained, “we don’t have good eyes like you. Neither Emrald nor me can see well in the dark.”
“Then light your lanterns.”
“And if we light lanterns in the dark, people lurking for us will have it incredibly easy to find out where we are.”
“Oh.” Ruzzella’s expression became more serious. “I didn’t think of that.”
“In any case,” Emrald said, “not bringing any light into the Darkwoods isn’t an option. Unless we find a path, or any other sign how other travelers got to the temple, we cannot be sure of the ground we walk on. There could be natural pits, or roots covered under fallen leaves, or other things that injure us if we can’t see them. The ground could be overgrown with Spiky Ironwood. You don’t want to fall into Spiky Ironwood.”
Seyran nodded. “Maybe we should just follow the edge of the forest for a while. See if we can find the place where the last people to visit the temple entered. I would feel much more comfortable if we were able to follow a path others already took and safely traveled.”
Ruzzella suddenly snapped into attention, her ears turning sideways. “I think we may have another more pressing problem first,” she said.
“You see that tree right behind me?”
“I can hear something moving in its crown. Or rather, a lot of things. And they’re too heavy to be simply birds.”
“What? You think it’s an-“
And that moment, even Seyran could hear wood creaking and twigs cracking in the tree crown, and immediately after that, several small shapes broke through the foliage and jumped down, shrieking and hissing as they landed on the ground. In the pale light that shone through the clouds, the skin of the smallish, humanoid creatures looked a grayish-green, and Seyran recognized them from Gyorgo’s teachings as goblins.
“Ambush!” Emrald hollered (unnecessarily, Ruzzella thought), and the heavy backpack he was carrying landed on the ground with a thud. His friends moved close to him, covering his flanks as the goblins were slowly advancing on them. It was eight of them, wearing tattered skins and hides and carrying crudely made clubs and axes with stone heads.
Seeing them come closer, Seyran readied his glaive. He had already been carrying it in his hands anyway since there was no way for him to put a pole-arm like that away. Ruzzella didn’t have to worry about that; her claws were quite effective in a melee. Emrald, however, wasn’t so lucky. The war-fork he had been trained with was tucked away safely alongside the tent he had been carrying on his back.
“You no fight,” hissed a goblin wearing a headdress made of small animal skulls – probably the leader of the group. “You no fight, and we no kill you. We take shiny-shiny and sturdy-sturdy. Then we go.”
“Yeah, as if,” Ruzzella hissed back. “Here’s another idea: You back off into whatever swamp you crawled out from, and we don’t kill you!”
In response, the goblin shrieked and waved the axe he was carrying at Ruzzella. “I cut off your ears and make new bag of it!”
“We don’t have anything of value with us,” Emrald said in a surprisingly calm voice. “No money, no jewels. We can’t give you our weapons because we need them for our journey, but we can share our food with you if you are hungry.”
“No!” the goblin leader spat. “You give us all! You fight, and we cut off cat-beast’s tail and you eat it!”
Emrald shook his head. “I am sorry, this isn’t possible. Maybe you are interested in a tent large enough for you and your-“
Apparently, the goblin leader wasn’t. With another scream that hurt Ruzzella’s ears, he raised his axe, and the next moment, the seven other goblins were upon the friends, weapons raised and shouting and squealing their deafening battle-cries.
Goblins weren't known for their intelligence, but that didn't make them any less dangerous. Their combat tactics revolved around attacking in superior numbers and either just burying their enemies underneath a wave of green, shrieking terror or harassing their opponents constantly and making them wear themselves out before going in for a quick and easy kill. Since the goblin ambush party that had been waiting in the trees was too small in numbers for the first approach, they were using the latter one.
Seyran quickly noticed what that meant. Although only two of the smallish creatures went for him, he had a really hard time focusing his attacks on either of them, let alone make use of the advanced weapon techniques he had taught himself. In most of his training fights, his opponents had either used shields or parried his strikes with their own weapons, and the goblins did neither of that. Instead, whenever he stabbed or struck at one of them, it would jump or roll out of reach quickly, and the other would try to get in close and swing its weapon at Seyran. He didn't find it exceptionally hard to parry these little lunges, but he really couldn't use the length of his glaive much to his advantage.
Ruzzella had it a little easier. Her combat style was up close and personal, and she was easily able to match the goblins in speed and agility. Their rolls and dodges weren't enough to keep Ruzzella's claws away from them, and she often got a scratch or a kick in on one of the goblins. Of course, every time she did that, the other tried to flank or blindside her. Ruzzella had no intention to get hit in the head with a stone axe, and so she couldn't just pin down one of her opponents and really tear into him. She had to resort to a hit-and-dodge strategy, and that seemed to be working well for her.
Emrald, however, had it worse. As he wasn't armed and had previously tried to avoid a confrontation, the goblins apparently considered him the easiest target – which meant that four of them, including their leader, threw themselves at the goliath and did their best to take him out quickly. Of course, it wasn't as easy as the goblins had thought – Emrald's tough skin wasn't easy to break with the crude weapons they were using, and his sheer strength allowed him to knock the goblins off whenever one tried to grab him. Still, with his attention split between four opponents, it was probably just a matter of time until they would overwhelm him.
As he was doing his best to fight his attackers off, Seyran's mind was racing. He would be losing this fight unless he quickly figured out a way to turn the goblins' tactics against them. So they were trying to dodge his attacks and counter him as he struck? If that was all they could do...
Within a heartbeat, he changed his stance. He switched the grip on his glaive and held it like a quarterstaff, not like a pole-arm – closer to his body, with his hands only a foot away from the blade of the weapon. Instead of striking out at the goblins, he just stood there, his feet solidly on the ground in a position that made it easy for him to twist his hip into any direction and where he would be hard to knock down, if the goblins tried that.
And then he waited.
He didn't have to wait long. After a short moment of confusion that he was no longer attacking them, the goblins decided to take the initiative. One circled him so that he was in Seyran's back, the other attracted his attention by loudly screaming and shaking his weapon into Seyran's direction until his fighting buddy was in position. Then, both attacked at the same time.
Seyran sidestepped the attack from the front, and with the same movement hit the other goblin in the belly with the blunt end of his glaive. As it went down wheezing for a moment, Seyran spun around, swinging the same blunt side of his weapon into the direction of the goblin who had just attacked him from the front, forcing him to roll out of the way. And as he was, for a second, not ready to strike, Seyran used the momentum of his spin to turn around fully and bring the blade of his glaive down at the goblin whose wind he had just knocked out of his body. The sharp steel cut through hide armor, flesh and bone, and the goblin was dead before he hit the ground.
With just one opponent remaining, Seyran could easily cut him down too, and just as he did that, he saw Ruzzella from the corner of his eyes as her claws rent through one of her opponent's heels, and as that one stumbled to the ground with a terrible scream, Ruzzella jumped at the other goblin, landed on him with all fours and started to tear him apart. No, she didn't look like she needed much help. Emrald though...
Seyran turned towards Emrald and found his friend still surrounded by his four attackers, one of which – the goblin leader – was clinging to his back and constantly hacking at his shoulder with his axe. Emrald was tough, but sooner or later, that axe was going to have an effect, and with a wounded shoulder, there was a good chance the goblins would find a way to bring him down for good. He would probably need all the help he could-
Just as Seyran was starting to move towards his friend, Emrald was able to reach behind himself, grab the goblin leader by its legs, and instead of just flinging the creature away, he swung him around and used him to clobber one of the other goblins who was just trying to get in for another attack.
The goblin leader howled in pain, and Seyran watched in disbelief as he saw Emrald, the kind and gentle Emrald, mercilessly beat down the goblins using one of their own as a weapon. With each of his strikes, the creature in his hand started looking more and more like a rag-doll, and when he eventually tossed it at its companions, it crumpled to the ground with a whimper, most of its bones broken and shattered by the goliath's terrible strength.
The other goblins looked at the broken body of their leader. Then they looked at Emrald again.
Then they ran.
Emrald made no attempt to go after them, and neither did Seyran. He just walked to his friend and looked up at him.
“That,” he said, “was unexpected.”
Emrald just nodded. “I'd rather... not do this again.”
“Do what?” Ruzzella walked up to her friends, apparently having finished off her two opponents. Blood was still dripping from her paws, and she was licking it off casually as she looked to Emrald and Seyran.
Emrald gestured at the broken body of the goblin leader. “That. It's... not like I thought it would be. Very crude. Very... primal.”
“Well, duh,” Ruzzella laughed. “That's what fighting is like!”
“We should get going,” Seyran said, mostly to change the topic to something that didn't have to do with killing. “Off into the forest. We don't want those goblins coming back with thirty more of their tribe.”
Ruzzella shrugged. “Well, I could certainly do with a few more. I was just getting warm.” She looked at her friends. “What do you say, we wait and see whether it's really a thirty of them or-”
That moment, a loud rumble filled the air, and the companions suddenly realized how dark the sky had become. A second rumble followed, and Ruzzella looked up skeptically as a cold wind was starting to blow.
And then, without a warning, it started to rain as though someone had just opened the floodgates of a dam. Within seconds, everybody was soaked.
“On second thought, the forest sounds like a really good idea,” Ruzzella shouted and was already on her way, and her friends quickly ran after her, into the protection of the Darkwoods' thick foliage.