Ner Montu was once a beautiful place.
Kamati had never gone back to his home village, but he still thought of it often. It was hard not to. The small wooden shacks, put up with care and passion for the craft; the log palisade, clearly defining what belonged to nature and what belonged to them; the children, running down the thin dirt paths that connected the entire village; all of it once had a certain charming appeal that Kamati couldn’t quite name, but could feel. For the first 15 years of his life, he had been part of a tightly bound community, one that fought tooth and nail to protect their values, and their way of life.
These people are just like the ones in Ner Montu, Kamati thought to himself, and they, too, are prepared to fight to their last breath.
He was 36 now. He had left Ner Montu 6 years ago, had for the past year had been living in, and working to protect, the village of Wolf’s Hearth. It was a dangerous job, and Kamati knew that their next challenge would demand a heavy sacrifice. Yet, as he weaved between wooden shacks, and sprinted down thin dirt paths, his mind was put at ease, as if he were traversing the Ner Montu of his childhood. In those days, the world was so much smaller, so much more simple. Those nights, he dreamed of heroes clad in gold.
So long ago.
Two figures ran with Kamati through the streets of Wolf’s Hearth. To his right, a helmed gladiator from the Fire Pits. The man had tempered his bravery in the forge of the giant’s arena, and not only survived but thrived. He had never removed his helmet, keeping his face constantly hidden from the world. To his opponents, this dehumanized the gladiator into a force of nature, a thing which could not be stopped, only delayed. Kamati felt lucky to count the man among his friends. The gladiator had only arrived in Wolf’s Hearth a matter of weeks ago, but the two of them had fought side by side numerous times since then, going on various adventures out past the village walls to keep everyone safe. Kamati tried to tell himself that this time was no different, but he was acutely aware that the stakes were significantly higher.
Running ahead of the pair, and leading them to their destination, was the garrison commander of Wolf’s Hearth, “Number One”. The hobgoblin’s strangle title was not intended as a boast or indication of rank — it was simply his name. It was a relic of his past, one that he shared with three other hobgoblins in Wolf’s Hearth, named Three, Four, and Five. What happened to Number Two? Nobody that Kamati had asked had known for sure, but all had given the same advice: If you enjoy the shape of your face and the arrangement of your limbs, don’t ask that question in front of the Hobs. They were an intimidating lot, and Kamati suspected that most still saw them as monsters. The Hobs didn’t seem to care about public relations. All they cared about was that the village was safe and secure from all outside threats. Kamati had once asked Number Four why they fought for Wolf’s Hearth, and Four’s answer was simple: “We are bound by honour.” To Kamati, this only raised more questions. He had experience with those ‘bound by honour’, and suffice to say they were negative.
Kamati forced the thought from his head. This was no time for doubt or mistrust; the two warriors by his side fought for the survival of Wolf’s Hearth, same as him. They would either die together or emerge victorious. Betrayal was suicide. The cultists they were following were about to learn that lesson the hard way.
Rounding one final corner, Number One stopped and stepped aside, facing his companions. Kamati’s sharp feline eyes flicked over the scene: a back alleyway between two tiny huts on the edge of the village. Footprints lay in the snow, fresh and obvious, leading towards and through a small gap in the perimeter wall. The cultists hadn’t bothered to cover their tracks, as they had known they wouldn’t be returning.
But they won’t be escaping, either.
Kamati took a moment to center himself. His leopard-print fur rippled beneath his white gi as he drew a long breath in. He exhaled, and felt tingling power flow from his chest into his claws. He drew the hood of his cloak over his head, leaving his face in shadow, his glowing jade eyes peering out from the darkness.
May this final lesson be swift.
Kamati slipped through the gap, and out into the cold winter air.