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They bedded down at its base, with its raised roots acting as walls and a fire warding off anything that might try to attack during the night.

Dinner was traveler?s rations, the traditional food for anyone camping in the wilderness. While he ate, Noah examined all of the items in the ring. There were numerous potions, spare sets of men?s clothes, some tools and knives, rations, and a few gold coins.

He looked closer at the armor and sword the knight had been using. Unfortunately, there wasn?t much he could do with the armor. Minus some plates he could use on his arms and legs, it was impractically heavy for his fighting style, and considering how steep the punishment was for wearing the ring, getting caught with it would probably be a bad idea. Hopefully, the blacksmith would be willing to buy it.

The sword, on the other hand, was a definite prize, albeit illegal to carry. It was a longsword like Noah?s broken one, but with an ornate guard and handle and a line of runes going up the blade. Like the ring, he could sense the magic imbued, but it failed to react to his mana. At the very least, it would serve well as a backup in similar fights. If he figured out how it worked, it could serve as a trump care.

"So how long have you been an adventurer?" Oath asked.

"Several years. Why?"

"I was just making conversation. You said you studied several different schools of combat. Who taught you? Where did you get your lessons?"

"The town I grew up in, there were plenty of former adventurers willing to pass their skills on."

"And your parents?"

"I haven?t seen them since I set off from home to make my fortune."

"So, do you?"

"I suggest you stop for a moment and ponder why I?m not asking you questions about your life or trying to get to know you." Noah glared at him, unblinking. "Think hard."

Oath wisely closed his mouth.

They set out at dawn the next day, wanting to escape the forest as soon as possible to avoid danger and reach the shops before closing. However, it would take them most of the day to return to Clive, and that was without all the weight they were carrying, so they had to try and keep a good pace. By around midday, they reached a large open pasture, but before they could cross it, a grievance was made.

"I can?t go any further!" Oath exclaimed.

"Master, please forgive me, but I too am at my limit."

"Well we?ve made considerable distance, and I believe it?s about lunch time. Sure, let?s stop here for a break."

Tin and Oath settled at the pasture's edge under the shade of a tree and prepared lunch. While they worked, Noah walked through the field to ensure there weren?t any predators in hiding. It was when he reached the center that he stopped, hearing something. It was not the rustling of grass or the growl of a wolf but the neighing of horses. He looked into the distance and saw four men on horseback break free of the forest and gallop towards him with their swords drawn. Bandits?

"Tin, take Oath and get back into the forest, deep enough that you can?t even see me!"

Tin didn?t understand, but when she heard the horses in the distance and the hollering of the approaching men, she hurried to her feet and dragged Oath into the woods. With them out of the way, Noah faced the oncoming enemies.

"Thanks for the horses," he said as he brushed his hand over his eyes.

He was rendered invisible while he sent off his clone, running to the side with its illusionary sword drawn. It drew the men's attention, and one of them tried to take it out with his bow. Noah controlled the clone like a puppet on strings, and while it moved, he put the knight ring on his finger and activated it, materializing his own bow and an arrow. It took him a moment to aim and release, striking the archer in the chest and sending him tumbling off his horse.

The other horsemen realized their friend was slain, but there was no time to look for the enemy archer. Instead, they had to close in on the young man with the sword. They tried to run him down with their blades outreached, but before they could strike their target, a well-placed shot further thinned their ranks. The two remaining men swung at Noah?s clone, but for the sake of appearance, he had it dodge while he took out the third man. Only one man was left, but he didn?t bother going after the clone. He was smart enough to cut his losses and flee back into the woods.

"Tin, Oath, you can come out now," Noah said as he released his magic. They appeared from the woods, seeing Noah with the three horses nearby. "Loot the corpses and then let?s have lunch. The way back to the village will be much easier now."

With the horses, they managed to make it back to the village in the late afternoon, when most of the shops had closed, but there were still a few open to which they could sell their loot.

"Thank you for getting me back here," said Oath.

"No need to thank me, you paid off your debt."

"Still, I?m glad you didn?t just knock me out and steal my clothes like you said you would. I have to go see my father, he must be worried sick."

"I?ll expect you to bring that horse back."

"Yes, yes, I know."

They split up, Oath returning home and Noah and Tin selling their goods. They first went to the blacksmith, as most of their bounty was scavenged weapons. When Noah laid them all out on the counter, the blacksmith couldn?t help but voice his surprise.

"I don?t think I?ve ever seen one man with a haul like this. You really did all of this yourself?"

"Well I had some help carrying it back. But there is another thing you might be interested in."

Noah held up a canvas bag and set it on the counter. The blacksmith looked inside and gained a stern look.

"You found this in a goblin den?"

It was the armor of the slain Utheric knight.

"That?s right, but that was all. I was hoping I could find the sword or ring, but they were gone. So, are you interested? This armor has better steel than anything in your shop."

"I could get beheaded just for having this!"

"Which is why you better melt it down fast to make into something really nice that you can sell for a lot of money."

The blacksmith mulled it over and released a deep sigh of resignation. Whether it was money or his artistic mind thinking of everything he could make, he couldn?t allow the armor to leave the store.

"Fine, what do want for everything?"

As usual, bargaining with the blacksmith took a lot of time, but Noah left with several shiny gold coins and a replacement for his longsword. He and Tin moved from shop to shop, selling everything left. Then Noah took Tin somewhere she did not expect: the local goldsmith. Unlike other stores, this one had guards posted inside and outside, and all the merchandise was behind a counter, with iron bars blocking it from the customer. An old man was sitting at the counter, scrutinizing a jewel.

"Ah, how can I help you?"

"I was hoping you could appraise this for me." Noah took out a black gem, the size of the first joint of his little finger, and laid it on the counter. The old man held the jewel up to the light and studied it.

"Oh, this of superb quality. Where did you find this?"

"A goblin den."

"Ah, of course. Goblins are brutish, nasty creatures, but they have a strange luck when it comes to finding things. This is an enhancement gem."

"I thought I sensed magic in it, it appears I was right. What is it used for?"

"When grafted to an enchanted item, it boosts the strength of the enchantment. For example, imagine a magic sword that can cut twice as well as a standard sword. It will cut four times better with this imbued into the pommel, handle, or blade. They are a favorite of nobles, for they improve the enchanted items and make them more visually appealing and extravagant, perfect for showing off. You?ll find high-ranking nobles with jewel-encrusted swords on their hips at balls and formal events.

Would you be willing to sell it?"

"Actually, I was hoping you could set it into something."

Noah took out the knight ring and slid it across the table, only letting the jeweler see it. At the sight of the ring, he became tense.

"I?m afraid I?m going to have to ask you to?"

"I?m willing to pay handsomely. I?ve already sold the armor that went with it."

Like the blacksmith, the jeweler took a deep breath. "Tob, Gon, could you two please step outside for a minute?" The two guards, despite their curiosity, left the store, giving Noah and the jeweler their privacy. The old man stared at Noah. "Do you have a death wish, boy? Just having this could?"

"I?m aware of the punishment, but you already decided you?re willing to take a risk. Cover the runes with gold leaf and set the gem. If it looks good and the ring?s spell really is enhanced, I?ll pay you ten silver coins."

"Twenty."

"Thirteen silver. Come on, no one out here is going to care about this. You think some royal knights are going to come bursting in? You could show this to the baron and he wouldn?t bat an eye."

"Fine, fifteen silver."

"Deal."

"I?ll have it ready by noon tomorrow."

Noah and Tin left the jeweler and headed back to the inn to call it a day, but as they approached, Oath appeared. "Noah, my father wants to speak with you."

"Can?t it wait? The sun is going to set soon."

"He says it is of great importance. He also wants to reward you for saving me."

Noah looked over to one of the bags hanging off the side of his saddle. It was full of severed goblin ears. Did he really want to bring those into their room at the inn? It would probably be better just to get paid now.

"Fine, just let Tin and I drop off the rest of our haul at the inn and lead the way."

After stopping at the inn, they rode out of town to the baron?s estate. Being a noble, he was better off than any of the villagers, though still pailing to the affluence of higher-ranked nobles. He lived in a rustic manor, surrounded by fields that slaves tended to. Leaving their horses in the stable in the back, Oath brought Noah and Tin into the mansion and stopped before a set of double doors.

"Father, I?ve returned with Noah," he said while knocking.

"Enter."

Oath opened the doors to the private study, and behind the desk, a man with a long beard was filing paperwork on parchment. He looked older than Noah expected for a son so young. Standing beside him was a woman dressed as a maid.

"You must be young Master Noah. My son has told me of your great strength and skills. You have my undying gratitude for saving him, and my respect for your accomplishments in battle." The baron didn?t get up to shake Noah?s hand, but that was to be expected of a noble.

"You are very welcome, Lord Fault." Noah replied with a bow of his head.

"You deserve compensation for your efforts. Twice, you have saved my son?s life."

The baron drew a sack of coins, likely silver, from his desk, and handed them to Noah.

"I appreciate it. While we?re on the subject, I also have numerous goblin ears that I?d like receive payment for."

"Ah, of course, of course. You also deserve extra for dealing with that goblin chief. Amelia," he said, turning to the maid beside him, "please count up the ears and calculate their payment, and please take my son and this lovely young lady to the parlor to relax. Master Noah, if you have time, I would like to speak with you about some important matters."

"Very well, then."

The maid left with Oath and Tin and shut the doors behind her. The baron got up and retrieved a bottle of wine with a set of cups made from the horns of some animal. "Would you care for a drink?"

"I?d love one." Two glasses were poured, and one was handed to Noah. Compared to the modern world, the alcohol consumed in these lands was tough to force down, yet the quality of the wine surprised him. "Oh, that is good."

The baron sat down. "I cannot thank you enough. If my son had perished, that would have been the end of my line."

"I?m sure a man like you could work up a few heirs. There are probably some already running around the town."

The baron gave a bitter chuckle. "I suppose we should get down to business. You have already proven yourself a great rescuer and guard for my son. I would like to hire you to do it again."

"Not more goblins, I trust?"

"Actually, something a little more difficult. I want you to help him capture a dungeon crab."

"Pardon my ignorance, but I am not familiar with the term. I come from a land without such things."

The baron began searching a nearby bookshelf. "Dungeon crabs are massive terrestrial beings, spending their lives deep beneath the earth. However, they surface from time to time, poking the tips of their shells out of the ground."

He found the desired book and laid it on the table, open to a specific page. There were two pictures, the first of what looked like a hermit crab, with a pointed shell several times its own size and no claws. The second showed the shell poking out of the ground, resembling a lighthouse atop a rocky cliff.

Had the artist seen a dungeon crab fully revealed, or was he going by his imagination? For a creature of this size to move underground without being noticed, it would have to rise from under the earth?s crust. A few days ago, the town experienced an earthquake. That must have been the crab rising to the surface.

"Because they dwell so deep in the ground, they accumulate precious metals and gems inside their shell, which form vast labyrinths, hence its name. A man can get rich in one day exploring it."

"But I imagine it?s not that easy."

"You?d be right. The shell is teeming with parasites, ants when comparable to the crab, but deadly monsters to us humans. When a crab surfaces, the parasites will leave and become a danger to everyone and everything in the area. No one is quite sure why dungeon crabs surface like this.

Some believe it does it when the parasites have grown too numerous, and it needs to cull the herd by setting them loose on the surface or pitting them against treasure-hunting humans. Others believe the crabs feed on the humans that enter its shell and use the parasites to kill their prey. Many believe they surface to get fresh air, like a whale."

"And you expect us to capture one of these things?"

"It?s just a figure of speech. To capture a dungeon crab means to get down to the deepest part of its shell, where the most priceless metal is."

"Avenium, I?m guessing?"

"Correct. Anyone who can secure a cup?s worth and present it to the kingdom becomes a noble. That?s why I need you to help Oath capture it."

"But as your son, isn?t Oath already set to inherit your title?"

"Oath is? my third son. His oldest brother, Colt, was raised and groomed to be my successor, and the second oldest, Victor, was raised to be the successor if anything happened to Colt."

"Making Oath the spare of a spare."

The baron grimaced. "He spent his life working the fields while his brothers hunted and earned achievements. However, both Colt and Victor died in battle at the start of spring, so Oath is all I have left. He has a good heart?"

"But no talent, skills, courage, or reputation, and he?s a bit of a brick."

"Unlike the son of my younger brother, Edwin, a baronet. He is petitioning the kingdom to revoke my title as baron and give it to him and his eldest son. I need to prove that Oath has what it takes to be a baron, and the best way to do that is to conquer a dungeon crab. I?m too old to sire another heir and time is running out. Oath already has an adventuring party that he trains and fights with, but their skills aren?t good enough to conquer a dungeon crab. I would like you to join their party."

"Why me?"

"Because you are young. There are numerous older adventurers with skills like yours that I can hire, but then my brother will argue that they just conquered the dungeon and handed the prize to Oath."

"Which is exactly what you want me to do."

"But the fact that you are young means that you?ll fit right in. No one will question one extra young man joining my son?s party."

Noah gave a huff while weighing his options. On the one hand, a political squabble between family members was the last thing he wanted to get involved in, and there was no telling if he was even skilled enough to conquer a dungeon crab. It was an unnecessary danger. On the other hand, the idea of getting his hands on some avenium and other rare metals and gems was tantalizing. He could earn enough money to fund any venture he wanted for the rest of his life. Plus, it would get him to the capital and perhaps let him make some valuable connections. There were probably plenty of adventurers who would give their right arm for the chance.

"Would I be giving orders or receiving?"

"The team is yours to lead. They?re ready to set out whenever you are."

"And how long do dungeon crabs normally remain surfaced?"

"A couple months. This one appeared several days ago, thirty miles to the northeast. It won?t be long before its swarming with adventurers."

"Very well, we?ll depart in one week. I want to use that time to evaluate the team, see if there is anything I can do to polish their skills before we go."

"That would be a blessing."

Noah got up from his seat. "I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I?ll return in the afternoon. Make sure everyone is assembled."

This time, the baron stood up and shook his hand. "Consider it done."

Noah left the study and retrieved Tin from the parlor. As they stepped out onto the front porch, Oath came to see them off.

"So my father talked to you about the dungeon crab?"

"That?s right, I agreed to go along with it. I?ll return tomorrow."

"I appreciate it. I?ll see you then."

Oath gave a deep bow of gratitude, and in the distance, Noah saw a flash of movement and then heard a sound that he was well used to. It was the sound of an arrow buried deep into muscle and flesh. Launched a second earlier, it would have hit Oath square in the back, but because he bowed, it found its mark in the center of Tin?s chest.

Noah didn?t say a word, but before either Oath or Tin could react, he had already leaped off the porch and sprinted toward the arrow's origin. He had left his bow with his horse in the stable, so he?d have to kill the assassin up close. He saw the man hiding behind a scarecrow and recognized him as the fourth bandit from earlier. They weren?t just random marauders; they had been hired to kill Oath!

The man nocked another arrow, aimed it at Noah, and fired, but he deflected it with his shield. He closed in, seeing the shock in the man?s eyes as the distance between them vanished with terrifying speed. He reached the man, drew his new sword, and beheaded him before he could even turn around to run.

The body hit the ground, but Noah had already left, sprinting back to the mansion. There, on the porch, Oath was gathered with several servants, giving her one healing potion after another, as despite the removal of the arrow and the wound closing, she wasn?t getting better. Noah could see it, her veins darkening, her flesh getting pale, and every breath seeming to cause her pain. Everyone moved aside and Noah embraced Tin, cradling her head.

"It was a poison arrow. We don?t know what was used, we have no antidote for it. Noah, I?m so sorry!" Oath exclaimed, shedding the tears that Noah should have. Instead, he stared at Tin, his blank silence unnerving those around him.

Tin looked into his eyes. "Master?" she whimpered. "Please, I want to go back to our room. I want to go back to our bed and sleep beside you. I want to help you train your magic. I want to walk with you through the woods and hear more stories. There is so much I want to do with you!"

She was crying, but Noah showed no emotion. Instead, he pulled out his phone and put the buds in her ears. Then, with the last few sparks of energy, ?Vide Cor Meum? began to play, slowing her tears. "It will be peaceful, I promise. Just let the voices take you there," he said.

He cupped her cheek, and she smiled. That touch was all she needed. "Thank you for making my life a beautiful one," she whispered. Then she closed her eyes and listened to the song, releasing her final breath as the last notes played out.

All was silent, no one knowing what to say. Shadows began to creep into Noah?s mind, a cruel voice making him shake. Great, now I have to do everything myself? He shook the voice aside.

"Noah?" Oath began.

"I?m going to bury her. Give me a blanket to wrap her in and a shovel. I?m not asking." His voice didn?t tremble at all, and there was no awkwardness in his words.

"We?ll take care of the grave, you should?"

There was the slightest twitch on Noah?s face. The gears in his mind were grinding together. "I?m not burying her here. I know a proper place."

The servants rushed to fulfill his order, bringing out a soft quilt that Noah knew Tin would have liked. He wrapped her in the quilt and got onto his horse.

The whispers came back. ;I?ll just throw her into the woods.? Again, he forced the voice out of his mind. "I won?t be back for a day or so," he said as he was given a shovel

Cradling Tin, he kicked his horse, and it took off with a cry. The night was when the woods were most dangerous, but Noah didn?t hesitate to ride down a familiar road and into the wilderness. For hours, his horse galloped through the forest, and when it tired, he would give it water and a health potion to restore its stamina. Monsters routinely tried to attack him, but he ended their lives with his bow. As the moon moved across the sky, Noah, holding Tin in his arms, felt the warmth slowly leave her body.

It wasn?t just the monsters outside attacking, but the ones in Noah?s head. Evil whispers flooded his mind, trying to get him to turn back.

She?s just a slave.

I should just go back to the inn.

There is no point in risking my life.

Nothing matters.

It?s all meaningless.

It felt like all his muscles were just loosely within his control, and if his focus broke, his body would act against his will, throwing Tin aside and riding back to the village. He had to force himself forward, despite every selfish instinct trying to hold him back.

Finally, he reached the desired spot when the night was at its darkest. It was the waterfall that he and Tin had camped at. Some wolves drank from the river, but he scared them off and ignored the tiny slimes crawling around. The area itself hadn?t changed in the last few weeks. There were still the remains of the fires he had made, and the clay basin was undamaged. He tied his horse to a tree and lit a torch, holding it while he carried Tin.

?I?ll just dump her and go.?

He brought her behind the waterfall, where there was a small dry area with plenty of river silt. He dug down as deep as he could, forcing aside thoughts of giving up and sparing himself effort. He laid her down on the cold earth and opened the blanket, looking at her one last time. She looked peaceful, almost content. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver coin. When they first met, he remembered her saying she was only worth that much. He clasped her hands over her chest, holding the coin.

What am I doing?

This coin is valuable.

I shouldn?t just throw it away like this.

He climbed out and buried her, then built a pile of rocks on her grave so no animals would dig her up. Finally, he turned to the stone wall at his side and began carving Tin?s name into it with her dagger. The scratches were faint, but they wouldn?t wash away anytime soon.

TIN

Like a faint star, a little twinkling light in his mind told him that those three letters looked lonely, and he focused on that. He should put more. She?d want that. But what should he write? What did Tin mean to him? Who was she? Did he actually care?

TIN

A FREED SLAVE

It was all he could come up with, but it didn?t satisfy him. There had to be something more. He hadn?t loved her; how long had it been since he had loved anyone? Did he even like her? She was loyal and helpful and cared for him when he was sick. He also took care of her. Was that enough to consider her important to him? He couldn?t tell.

He had spent countless lifetimes pretending to be a friend, son, classmate, coworker, husband, and even a father. When was the last time he liked someone and wasn?t just wearing the façade of politeness while putting up with them? When was the last time he told someone he loved them and wasn?t simply lying to their face?

He had buried so many people, most of them more than once. It was hard to tell those who were important from those he pretended were important, those worth remembering, vs. those who were forgotten. Who mattered to him? Whose death mattered? He had long since lost the ability to tell and struggled to regain it.

Finally, some emotion. Noah punched the rock wall and split the skin on his knuckles. "Come on, think!" He shouted those words to himself over and over again. He was scratching at his mind, trying to draw blood from a stone. What had Tin meant to him? Or, at the very least, what would she have wanted to hear? Noah focused on that, trying to imagine what he could have said to make her happy.

TIN

A FREED SLAVE

A PRICELESS COMPANION

Satisfied, he stepped out from behind the waterfall. In the east, he could see the sky beginning to brighten. He sat next to the clay basin, watching the sun rise while he searched his mind for that little twinkling light.

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Medlemsbild
Status Bestman
Blev medlem 2023-11-27
Vigseldatum 1999-01-20
Loggade in 2023-11-27