"Fifty?!" I asked, incredulous. At that time, there were rarely more than seventy-five Living Weapons alive. Given the other conflicts going on at the time, that represented a more than significant portion of the Empire's total strength. It also represented a risk, if the battle was totally lost, the Empire would likely fall. They would lack the strategic advantage that each member of the Order could provide as a battlefield asset.
"Yes," continued Vellen. "Already eleven had met and fought the Goblin King, and eleven had died. They ranged from five years in the Order to thirty. They were all slaughtered. The fifty met on the fields of Istan, arraying themselves before the great army of the Goblins. They supported by over two-thousand pike men. We were over ten thousand, supported by a dozen Goblin Lords and thirty chiefs."
"So there were even fewer than I thought. They brought all but ten or so to the front line. They must have been truly desperate. Still, I suppose it makes sense. With the forces brought to bear against the Empire, I'd think they may have roughly even odds, if the senior members of the order were there to fight," I said.
"Yes," agreed the shield. "The only thing weighing in the favor of the Goblin host was the presence of the Goblin King. The Humans had taken a position on a hill, building earthworks and digging ditches to meet the host. They knew that their strength would be in their teamwork, strong positioning, and using the reach of their weapons to keep the tide at bay."
"Why did the Goblins not simply destroy them with magiks, then?" asked the book. "If they were all centralized on the hill, a simple fireball could reduce them all to ashes."
"They tried," replied Vellen. "The Living Weapons had among them several powerful magic casters. Araya the Warder, herself, engraved wards against magic into the fortifications. When fire and lightning struck from the sky, its edges were blunted on a barrier of crackling light. The Goblins also used siege engines, utilizing Hob-made trebuchets in an attempt to crush the enemy. The boulders shattered into dust more than a hundred feet above the encampment. That said, the Goblins were not unequipped. If they had not taken precautions against wide-array magic, they'd have been slaughtered by the Human Archmages long ago. No, the engagement would come down to the strength of arms, not the powerful magic employed by the Goblins."
"No magiks?" asked the book. "Why are we even listening to this tale, anyway? I have far more interesting stories written upon my pages."
Ignoring the book, Vellen pressed on. "At the head of the combined Human forces was Commander Talvir Ironsides."
I hissed in a sharp breath. "Commander Ironsides? He's legendary in the order!"
"Henry," hissed the sword, "If you interrupt the story one more time, I'm going to gut you like a fish."
"Sorry," I replied.
"Thank you," said Vellen. "As I was saying, the leader of the Living Weapons order, himself, had come to oversee the battle. Even among the Goblins, he was famous. His was the sword which shattered their assault at the Red Mountain. His was the bow which repelled their skirmishers on the border of Thuul. He had been responsible for killing over a thousand Goblins by his own hands. In the Goblin tongue he was called-"
"Lordsbane," Heph broke in, a trill of fear in his voice.
"Indeed. So-called as he had personally killed a dozen Lords in single combat. His presence alone struck a note of fear in all but the King himself. I remember the thrill of excitement running through Gulvris...he longed for nothing more than to feel his steel bite into the flesh of Ironsides. He believed that it was destiny driving them together. Their armies met, Gulvris lead the charge personally, flanked by his twelve Lords. They were met by Ironsides, at the head of thirty Living Weapons. The rest were kept in reserve, aiming to stem the tide of the Goblins who had already encircled the encampment. The battle was joined, the Goblin Lords met steel with steel, magic with magic, but they were outmatched. One by one they fell, but they extracted a heavy toll. For every Lord that fell, so too did one of the Order. Goblins rushed in from all directions, seeking to break the Human fortification through the press of numbers alone. With so many Lords tied up in the fighting, and so many dead from battle, the Humans unleashed earth-shattering magic, sundering the very ground on which the Goblins marched.
"Gulvris saw none of the battle, his sole consideration being the Commander with whom he dueled. Wielding a fiery black sword, Ironsides fought with a ferocity reminiscent of the greatest of Dragons. Gulvris, for his part, was like an avenging angel. With me to protect him, he focused entirely on pressing the attack. Midway through the fight, two others joined in the battle, flanking Gulvris. This enraged the Goblin King, activating his 'Berseker' ability. His strength was that of a Giant, his speed likened to a cobra. In short order, the flow of combat changed. The three Living Weapons were forced to give ground, then to only defend. Finally, in an attack which caused the King to take two wounds, he severed the head of one, and ripped the throat from the other. Again it was down to the Commander and Gulvris, both of them now wounded, exhausted from the battle. All but one of the Goblin Lords had been killed, the other having fled after looting the body of a Living Weapon sorcerer."
"The final battle of Gulvris," whispered Heph, awed.
"Commander Ironsides raised his sword, saluting the might of the Goblin King. Gulvris did the same, he felt truly fulfilled at that moment, finally having known true battle. The clash of their swords shattered the earth; shockwaves boomed out, sending hordes of Goblins flying in all directions. In the end, Ironsides slipped on the bloody corpse of a dead comrade. Gulvris lunged in, taking him through the lungs. We...I...dropped my guard. I thought the old man fatally wounded, I didn't think he was a threat. In the last moment before life slipped from Ironside's eyes, he lunged forward like a shot, running Gulvris through the side. Blood drained away from his body faster than I would have thought possible. He fell to his knees next to the defeated Commander. He looked him directly in the eyes as he died. They both died with smiles on their faces. After the King died, the Goblins were routed by the remaining Living Weapons. The Lords who fell were stripped of magical items, as was Gulvris. I have been with the Order since then, serving two other masters before you. That is my story."
Silence met the end of the story, the coals crackled in the forge.
"So you serve those you were crafted to destroy, then?" asked Heph, breaking the silence.
"I was crafted to protect my wielder. That is what I do. Besides, Henry is a friend, I would serve him as long as he lives."
My mind was whirring with the implications of what Vellen had disclosed. Humans had been the aggressors in a multi-species war of domination? The Living Weapons had not only been used to defend the Empire, but to expand it? I felt sick, I felt naive. We were called the Living Weapons not the Living Shields. Moreover, there were holes in the curriculum of the Academy; they must have known that Goblins were more intelligent—more complex—than we had been giving them credit for.
I stood, picked Vellen up, and strapped it to my arm. "I need to leave. I still have a mission to complete. For what it's worth, thank you. You helped my friend, I'll remember that."
"Didn't do it for you. Don't forget the Dragon skin and polish. I don't want to have to repair Vellen again."
I nodded at the Goblin, placing the equipment in my rucksack. I opened the bent iron door, ducking under the archway and walked out. In the hall stood Gitlog, his arms folded.
"Thought it were about time you got outta here," he said. "King's lackey showed up. You need t'go."
I followed the Goblin Chief to the exit, turning around as he released the catch on the door, again watching with the boots' spell.
"Thank you, Gitlog. I look forward to our next battle."
The Goblin smiled, razors glinting in the soft light. "Get strong, I'll get ya next time."
I smiled, walking out into the night-dark cavern. Not for the first time, I wondered what time it was in the world above.
I draped my cloak of shadows around my shoulders, sneaking along the side of the castle. Backtracking, I found the path we had taken to arrive. As I walked, I saw a column of Goblins up the road. I ducked to the side, concealing myself from the road. I watched as they marched by; a Goblin stood at the head, bedecked in coal-black armor. Upon his head was a silver circlet, at his sides were two massive war axes. Next to the behemoth in black stood a familiar face—the Shaman who had escaped Gitlog and I's slaughter the day before. I swore.
"Do we get to kill them?" whispered the sword.
"We should help Gitlog, he saved me, Henry. We owe him," said Vellen.
"We still have to consider our overall goals. Don't fight something which you can't win against. Poison is the way, not bloodshed," chimed the boots.
"With the right spell, we will slaughter them all. Let us display how worthless they truly are, Henry!"
A force of Goblins peeled away from the column, coming to investigate exactly where we were hidden. I swore silently, unsheathing the sword. "Looks like you're outvoted, boots. Let's do this."
I slid out from the cover of the stalagmite, moving like a flitting shadow toward the three Goblins. With that, the battle was joined.