Morning sunlight peeked over the treetops in the distance. A calm breeze wafted over from the sea a few kilometers away. Colorful and exotic birds chirped from atop the city walls. Unfamiliar fish splashed about in the moat outside the city. Active squirrel-like rodents scurried from place to place, scavenging seeds or fruits from nearby bushes and trees as well as trash generated by the people of the city.
Taking in a deep breath of fresh air, Ian gazed out over the open plain to the south of Conncinnata. His lips curled upward into a pleased grin without him even realizing it. Seeing such a beautiful scene so early in the morning invigorated him, and a hope of never getting used to these sights settled within his heart.
Now if only this soreness would go away… he thought, thinking back on the rigorous training both Edmund and Gaelan put him through over the past month. A little over a month was more than enough time to pick up on how crazy these people could be while training him. After all, one does not simply get used to doing thousands of push-ups and sit-ups, not to mention all the running, sparring, and Dark Matter practice.
Once more, he gazed toward the forest from behind the safety of the Southern Gate. Brief glimpses of his encounter with a werewolf in those woods flashed across his mind’s eye. Despite all of his training, he doubted whether he could handle such a situation by himself. No matter how inviting the forest looked right now, he knew the possibility of danger also lurked within. Anxiousness crept into his mind at the thought of traveling by himself for the first time.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have read through that bestiary yesterday…” he muttered, ignoring the few people walking around him.
The bestiary was one of the books on the bookshelf in the Marlow’s living room, and Gaelan strongly advised him to read it before venturing alone. Some of the creatures in it were the same as the animals on Earth, but there were plenty of dangerous ones that could not be found on Earth as well, including werewolves, goblins, and many other varieties of strange beasts. Although the limited information he could actually read would likely prove useful, the reality of dangerous creature still perturbed him. To think he had actually wandered so gleefully in such a dangerous place when he first arrived in Regnoras.
In an attempt to calm his nerves, he rested a hand on the simple pommel of the new sword Gaelan helped him craft. Its cool steel gave him something to focus on.
Some armor would have made me feel a little safer… Ian thought. After all, his basic cargo pants and gray shirt did not offer much in the way of protection. “Haaah… Oh well. Can’t stand here forever.”
With that, he traipsed forward toward the woods, keeping his fingers glued to the sword hilt the whole way.
When he reached the treeline, the entire forest was bathed in the gentle caress of the morning sun. All shades of green leaves shivered in the treetops, casting wavering shadows upon the dewy grass below them. A cool breeze carrying the scent of fresh soil and fragrant flora whistled between the branches. Shrubs, flowers, and wild berry bushes littered the forest floor, adding some color to the scene.
Breathing in the scent of nature, Ian meandered into the forest. Twigs and leaves cracked beneath his feet. The excited chirping of birds echoed throughout the forest. Here and there, a squirrel or other small critter darted past.
Within moments, he found one of the trees he marked back during his first venture in these woods. For a while, he ambled along, following the same path as the previous few trips. Just as his nerves began to relax, the sound of cracking twigs sounded out somewhere behind him. Immediately, his awareness peaked, and he spun 180 degrees to face the sound. It originated a fair distance away but quickly closed in.
As a precautionary measure, Ian hid behind the largest tree in the nearby vicinity. It turned out to be easily wide enough to hide his entire body. Despite hiding, his heart rate quickened. Fight or flight kicked in hard like a rough gear shift.
Seconds later, Ian heard the thumping of footsteps and breathing of a weary creature. Part of him wanted to see it but another part of him did not. He hoped it would pass by without any trouble. Unfortunately, the footsteps slowed no more than a few meters to the other side of his hiding place. The creature sniffed the air.
“Human,” It growled. The deep and gravelly voice sounded like stones grinding together, easily causing one’s skin to crawl.
Upon hearing the voice, Ian stiffened. Since he read that bestiary, he knew that only a few creatures could speak. All of them were dangerous in their own right.
Since the creature obviously knew he was there, Ian removed the travel pack from his shoulders and prepared himself for the worst. Briefly, he wished Gaelan hadn’t gotten so many orders over the past week to prevent him from going on this trip. When the guy traveled with him, shrugging off the feeling of danger was a simple affair, but right now, sweat trickled from his palms due to anxiousness. Even though he trained hard for just such an occasion, the anticipation of engaging in a life or death situation gave him pause. Hoping to stave off the nervousness and anxiety, he took a few deep breaths and gripped the one-handed longsword with his dominant right hand.
“You… can’t… hide… human…” The creature hissed, struggling to speak each word.
Before Ian could fully prepare his mind for confrontation, the creature stomped toward him, snapping a fallen branch beneath its foot.
Ian flinched at the sudden crack. Taking a deep breath, he summoned his courage, unsheathed his blade, and spun on his toes around the tree.
Seeing Ian come out from behind the tree, the gray-skinned creature halted and stared daggers at him with beady eyes. A handful of black gnarled hairs sprouted its wrinkled scalp. Its dry lips curled into a barbaric snarl, distorting its otherwise flat face. Two tusk-like fangs poked out from its fatty lower lip. Compared to Ian, the creature stood a head and a half shorter but had a far more stocky and burly stature. Save for a tan loincloth tied haphazardly around its waist, the creature was completely naked, revealing several white tattoos on its left shoulder and left calf, not to mention multiple bleeding wounds. To top it all off, the monster wielded a misshapen spear in its right hand. The rudimentary weapon was made of wood and bone. Half-dried blood dripped from the raised spear tip.
Based on the bipedal creature’s appearance, Ian believed it to be a hobgoblin, one of the weakest creatures capable of speech. The bestiary also mentioned that hobgoblins tended to live as tribal nomads, which made them fairly dangerous thanks to their overwhelming numbers. Recalling that information, Ian scanned the forest for any other hobgoblins. Although the trees prevented him from seeing too far, he concluded that this particular hobgoblin likely ended up separated from its tribe after some sort of conflict. Knowing that made him feel a bit more confident, but he reminded himself not to lower his guard.
Focusing on the monster, Ian raised his blade in a defensive stance to prepare for the advance of the creature. It also searched the area as though searching for other humans before dashing toward Ian, pulling back its spear in preparation for a powerful thrust.
Responding to the sudden attack, Ian’s muscles reacted instantly as the bloodied tip of the spear sped toward his face. Even though sweat coated his palms and his heart pounded with adrenaline, he felt eerily calm compared to the moments before facing the hobgoblin.
All the training pounded into his body the last few weeks started to come to fruition as Ian dodged right with a quick step. The spear whistled past inches from his cheek. Using the hobgoblin’s momentum against it, he swung his sword across its abdomen. The toughness of the hobgoblin’s skin startled him enough that he almost lost his grip on his sword. Still, he followed through as much as possible, gouging deep into the creature’s side.
To Ian’s shock and disdain, he also felt a sharp pain on the back of his left calf. A sharp cry of pain escaped his lungs. At the same time, the hobgoblin growled in anger at its own injury.
Surprised by the counter to his own counter, Ian hopped away from his enemy. He winced at the pain from the fresh cut on his calf. The hobgoblin itself tumbled to the ground before rolling into a kneeling position ten paces away.
For some reason, his thigh suddenly stung. He glanced down to see that a tree branch sliced through his pants and scraped his leg. Luckily, it didn’t stab him. The close call reminded him to stay aware of not only the enemy, but also his surroundings, though such a feat was easier said than done. It did, however, cement both Edmund’s and Gaelan’s multiple warnings to keep the environment in mind during a fight. Since the scrape did not break his skin, he refocused on the hobgoblin just in time to see its spear careening toward his face again.
This time, Ian dodged left, hoping to obtain some distance and reestablish his stance. The gash on his calf stung, but the adrenaline helped him ignore it for now.
The spear hurtled past where he had been standing only a moment before and plunged deep into the trunk of the tree that just scraped his thigh. The handle wobbled in the air, vibrating with a sound similar to a yardstick snapped at the end of a desk. Briefly, Ian considered slicing the handle, but the hobgoblin dashed in and yanked it from the trunk before he could follow through with the action. Splinters shot out in every direction, forcing both of them to raise their free arms to protect their eyes.
Once again, the enemy turned and thrust its bone spear at Ian’s face. Like the first time, he dodged right. Unfortunately, this hobgoblin was not so simple. Not giving Ian a chance to counter like before, it halted mid-thrust and swiped the weapon sideways, catching Ian off guard. The sharp bone spear tip sliced through his left side just above his left hip, returning the favor for Ian’s previous attack. This time, the wound was deep, though it did not quite reach his organs.
Again, Ian cried out, but quickly clenched his teeth and powered through the pain. If he faltered here, then all the beatings from sparring with Edmund over the past several weeks would have been for naught. Angered, he lashed out with his tempered blade. This time, the hobgoblin was the one taken by surprise as Ian mustered every ounce of strength and plunged the blade through its eye. The blade generated a harsh suction sound as it pierced the brain, followed by a cracking noise when it penetrated the back of the creature’s skull. Black blood splattered both onto Ian and the trampled grass below them.
“AAAHHHHH!” Ian shouted, kicking the hobgoblin’s suddenly limp body while ripping the blade back out of its eye socket. The quick movement resulted in more black blood and reddish bits of flesh spewing around with the arc of his backswing. The creature died instantly, collapsing in a bleeding heap.
“Hah… hah… hah… I… did it…” Ian muttered, gasping between words. Both his arms fell limp at his sides and he raised his head to gaze through the forest canopy. He could feel streams of blood dribbling down his abdomen and leg. He stared blankly at the streams of light filtering through spaces between leaves. Once more, he felt the cool morning breeze upon his face, dirtied by black blood and red brain bits. It was a very surreal feeling.
After a few moments of simply standing there, he fell backwards onto the bloodstained grass, heaved a sigh of relief, and closed his eyes. Now that he could calm down, his adrenaline subsided. Unfortunately, his wounds flared up as a side effect, sending sharp pain throughout his body. Worried about the wound on his side, he opened his eyes and lifted his head from the ground in order to inspect it. Around the wound, his shirt was completely bloodstained. Groaning, he let his head fall back against the soft grass.
“Haaaah… this sucks… I should have used my Earth Affinity…” he whispered, feeling upset at himself for forgetting something so important during the fight.
The pain slowly worsened, causing his face to contort.
“Man… now what should I – ouch – do?” He pondered aloud.
Grunting, he forced himself to open his eyes again and sit up. Considering he only wandered a short distance into the forest before running into the hobgoblin, returning to Gaelan’s house for aid seemed like the best, if not only, course of action. The gash on his waist obviously needed immediate attention. In an attempt to stifle the blood flow, he ripped off his shirt sleeves and the bottom halves of his trousers, tied them together, and bound the makeshift bandage around his waist. Although unsure if doing such a thing could be considered proper procedure, he needed to do something, and a large bandage was the best idea he could come up with. Now he just needed some painkillers and stitches.
With makeshift first-aid out of the way, he lifted his sword from the ground and frowned at the bloody mess coating the entirety of the blade.
“Better not let it stay like this,” He told himself, wiping off the blade on some unbloodied grass further away. Once it looked clean enough, he returned it to its sheath. He then returned to his pack to retrieve a handkerchief for cleaning his face. After wiping off the hobgoblin guts, he looked at it, and his gag reflex kicked in.
I just killed something, didn’t I? Ugh, don’t puke… don’t puke…
Alas, he vomited. Disgusting chunks from breakfast spewed all over the ground at his feet. He placed a hand against the nearest tree to brace himself as several more waves of nausea rolled up from his stomach, causing him to vomit several more times. By the end, he felt even more miserable. All of it only served to make the pain from his wounds even more unbearable.
Once the nausea finally passed, he used a clean part of the handkerchief to wipe his mouth. Afterwards, he held it up and muttered, “Yeah, not using this anymore…” As a result, he discarded it onto the dirt. Weary from his ruined morning, he swung his travel pack over his shoulders again and limped back toward the city, all the while rueing the fact healing magic would not work on him.