Luke finally stops running when he comes to a river. He turns to look at the sobbing messenger who is limping a few feet behind him. Stiletto trots behind the stranger, keeping a cautious eye on him. The protective dog goes for a drink, but continues to watch the messenger with an occasional turn of its head. Stiletto barks as a small river shark leaps out of the river and grabs a passing sparrow. The noise startles the nervous messenger again while Luke watches the current take the scattered feathers away.
“Don’t worry. River sharks would never attack anything bigger than a crow or a young rabbit,” Luke says, taking a seat on a tree stump. Stiletto saunters over to Luke and lies down in the grass.
“You were incredible back there. I have never seen anyone fight like you,” the messenger declares, a sudden surge of excitement in his heart. “You destroyed those zombies without wasting a single motion. Young man, you are so much better than that Paladin ever was. More importantly, you don’t seem to be as annoying and full of yourself as that man was. May I ask where you learned such an amazing style?” The man suddenly hugs Luke and kisses him on the cheek.
“Calm down there! I was taught the Whirlwind of Uli style by my grandfather, Talos Callindor. My name is Luke Callindor,” the half-elf replies, struggling with the clingy messenger. “There’s no need to invade my personal space. Stop it! I told you what you wanted! Let me go!”
“You mean the great forest tracker, Talos ‘Doubleblade’ Callindor? He is your grandfather?” the messenger asks, his smile growing wider. “This is perfect! The Paladin is dead, so I need to find another great warrior. Cessia must be smiling on me today. You are a great hero, right?”
Luke finally manages to push the grateful messenger off of him and takes a few steps back. He stares at the man with a confused expression before he remembers that Zaria sent him in this direction. A charming smile crosses his face as he grabs the messenger’s hand and pumps it up and down in a firm handshake.
“I’d be happy to help you with whatever you need,” Luke happily announces. Stiletto rolls his eyes and goes to sit by the river. “I have been wondering these woods for a long time now and I have fought many . . . uh . . . things.”
“Such as? You are rather young, but I’m not one to make such a judgment when it comes to heroes,” the messenger admits, taking several deep breaths. “Maybe you can give me some examples of your deeds.”
“I started with stopping goblin attacks and the occasional zombie infestation in the surrounding areas. You know, the usual jobs that all warriors begin with,” Luke humbly explains as he rubs the pommels of his swords against his palms. “My first big adventure was rescuing a priestess from a band of kobolds that wanted to use her for a sacrifice. I went to save her only to find that they had an ogre with them, which I really wasn’t ready for it. I won, but the priestess had to drag me back to the village where I spent the next two days being healed. Then there was the time I was ambushed by a pack of giltris and spent a few days as their prisoner. I escaped by using swamp mud to hide myself from them since their vision is based on body heat. They almost caught me when it started raining, but I left some pit traps and snares behind to keep them busy. Lately, I’ve been doing small skirmish control around the area since the goblins have been extremely active over the last few days. It feels good to take it easy, but I’m getting rather . . . restless.”
The messenger grins and nods his head. “Those are incredible feats for one so young. I’m impressed considering you don’t have any visible scars. The giltris should have left some kind of mark unless you know a powerful healer.”
“The priestess I saved was nice enough to care for me a second time. She has since moved on to the continent of Canst’s Field, so I have to be more careful these days,” Luke lies without missing a beat.
“Now, nothing would please me more than to help out Duke Solomon. My parents have told me many good things about him. His kindness and wisdom are well known in my village. What is this assignment?”
“The heir to the Serabic kingdom is being hunted by a Lich. Our agents have kept the heir in a safe place, but fear that it is only a matter of time before the Lich strikes,” the messenger says, sitting down on the tree stump. “Forgive me, but I cannot say the heir’s name or anything about this person due to the magic at the Lich’s disposal. We believe that while the Lich knows where the heir is, it does not know what the heir looks like. In any case, the Duke needs someone to go to Hamilton Military Academy and protect the heir. Have you had any dealings with Liches before?”
“Not really. I haven’t had any encounters with powerful undead,” Luke admits, relieved that he can be honest again. “Although, I have fought casters before and, thankfully, I’m quick enough to dodge most combat spells. Casters are mortal, so a stab to the vitals works on them like everything else. Of course, a Lich is more complicated, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out. Do you have a picture of the heir?”
“I do. Give me a minute,” the messenger requests.
The messenger begins rummaging through his pockets before he remembers that both scrolls were with the Paladin. He immediately pulls out a fresh piece of parchment and a magical quill. The messenger begins writing as carefully as he can, his tongue peeking out from between his lips. Once he is done writing, the man uses a ring in his belt to leave a wax seal on the scroll. Luke gently takes the scroll when it is handed to him. He looks over at Stiletto to see that the dog is busy trying to catch a trout in the river. The large dog yelps when the fish leaps out of the water and slaps him with its tail.
“That is your letter of introduction,” the messenger tells Luke. The man gradually becomes less jumpy as the thought of going home appears in his mind. “I was given permission by the Duke to do this in case I lost the scrolls. Sadly, both scrolls were with the Paladin who was killed by the zombies that you saved me from. On that scroll I have written your name and explained your previous training. A copy has been magically sent to his majesty, so he is now aware of the situation. Duke Solomon has paid for your enrollment in the academy because you won a tournament held in the city of Freedom. Enrollment was your request upon victory. You will be placed in the advanced classes, so I hope you are prepared for heavy workouts.”
“I’ve survived worse than anything this academy can dish out,” Luke claims with a confident smile.
“Selenia Hamilton is a very strict teacher and you will have to be careful to keep your mission a secret from everyone, especially her,” the messenger sternly warns him. “Selenia would not be happy to know that this mission is going on under her nose without her approval. So, please be careful. The life of the heir is dependent on you staying in charge of this mission.” The man stops talking, but he quickly remembers another warning. “Also, do not tell any of the students or the veteran instructors about why you are really there. If the instructors or students find out then they might attempt to locate the heir themselves. We don’t want the heir to know that an agent of Duke Solomon is in the academy or that there is danger. My lord desires minimal interference with the heir’s studies. Do you understand all that I have said?”
Luke scratches his head. “I think I understand, but I still need a picture of the heir.”
The messenger stares at his feet and starts breathing heavy. “I wish I could give you some help in that regard. I lost the sketch of the heir when the Paladin was killed and I have never personally seen the heir. I do not even know what the heir’s gender is. Maybe I should find someone who knows what the heir looks like. That might be best before sending you in . . . but then the Lich could get the heir before I find help. This is not good. All I know is that the heir is a first year student at the academy, which is always the largest class that they have. This mission is becoming a disaster.”
Luke puts his hand on the messenger’s shoulder and looks him in the eyes. The half-elf makes sure to use a soft voice as he says, “Don’t worry. I will go and protect this person with my life. I have seen Duke Solomon in passing when he visited Haven to personally purchase weapons from my father. Maybe I can use the great Duke’s appearance to help me find out who the heir is. You can tell the Duke that I promise to get the job done. On my honor as a forest tracker and a member of the Callindor family, I will succeed.”
“Thank you, young sir!” the messenger exclaims, giving the half-elf a brief hug. “I shall leave immediately to tell the Duke of your courage and see if any assistance can be sent.” With a final handshake, the messenger walks away and happily whistles as he goes.
“That is one traumatized man, Stiletto. He sounded pretty scatter-brained, but I think I got the basics,” Luke mentions, pulling out some stale rations to eat. “Now, if I remember my maps correctly, the academy shouldn’t be too far away. Probably no more than half a day from where we are now, so we will get some sleep and leave at night. That way we can arrive at the academy in time for a free breakfast. That’s the best plan since I’m almost out of trail rations and hunting will waste time.”
Luke and Stiletto yawn in unison. “By the gods, running at top speed for a few miles and then fighting those zombies was more tiring than I thought it would be. I must be getting out of shape, so a military academy will have some extra benefits. I’ll take first watch and you can take the second. Try not to get in a fight with a hawk this time. You’re allergic to their feathers and I don’t want to carry you again. You aren’t a puppy anymore.”
Stiletto briefly stares at Luke before going back to wrestling with a small river shark that he caught. The fish is still thrashing its tail fin, but the dog keeps it pinned under its front paws. A victorious look is on Stiletto’s face as he takes a bite out of the long dorsal fin.
“Don’t look at me like that. I know exactly what I’m doing,” Luke declares, his jaw aching from chewing the tough rations. “Aside from the Lich and whatever shot at me, this should be easy. Besides, the heir would be in trouble if I hadn’t taken the job. So what if I lied about my actual experience? A person has to take his opportunities when he gets them. A few feeble lies used to earn an assignment to protect an innocent are a means to a noble end. So stop looking at me like that and go to sleep.”
Stiletto finishes eating and rolls onto his side, falling asleep within minutes. Luke closes his eyes and contently absorbs the surrounding noises of Visindor Forest. The running water and singing birds start to make him drowsy. To stop himself from falling asleep, Luke opens his eyes and pulls out his sabers to look them over. His left hand saber is flawless while his right hand sabers has a fresh scuffmark. Luke sighs in annoyance and looks at Stiletto who is peacefully growling and smacking his lips in his sleep.
“That last zombie’s ribcage was tougher than I expected,” Luke mutters under his breath. “It made an obvious mark on my saber. Guess I’ll have to clean this blade up again before we get to the academy. Mom always said that first impressions are essential.”
The warm sunlight on his face causes Luke to doze off before his watch is over. It is a few hours later when Stiletto wakes up to the smell of fresh blood. The dog cautiously follows the scent to the riverbank. Luke remains in a deep sleep as Stiletto barks with all his might. Eventually, the dog gives up trying to get the half-elf’s attention and sits on his haunches. Stiletto quietly watches as the messenger’s mutilated body gets carried away by the strong currents. Several river sharks are already nibbling on it as it fades into the distance.