Wolf’s Hearth was burning to the ground around him. The smoke was thick and looming, filling the dull winter’s grey with deathly charcoal. Where once snowflakes peacefully drifted to the ground, cinders now sizzled, streaking upwards into the sky as if the village was a giant’s campfire. Soon, his home would be little more than a burial mound of ashes and blood. Despite the overwhelming heat, RJ was frozen in place.
From somewhere near him, a grave voice echoed through his trance.
“Kid. Come here.”
RJ lowered his head, a feeble attempt at warding off the ghost. Yet, the voice persisted.
“Listen to me. You need–” The voice cut off into a fit of coughs. The ghost wasn’t sick; no, they were far beyond that now. The ghost already had one foot in the grave.
The roar was one of authority and purpose. This wasn’t a ghost; it was someone still living, if just barely. RJ turned toward the death rattle, and stared at the broken hobgoblin before him.
Number One was spread out on his back as if he were a ragged doll that the gods had tossed aside. His blackened legs twitched uncontrollably, little more than charcoal stumps. His right arm was bent at the elbow to make an L, and the flesh from the shoulder to the tips of his fingers seemed to be welded to the metal tower shield that now lay face down beside his head. His left arm, bruised, burned, and bleeding, was his only remaining functional limb, and even it seemed to drain of life by the second. RJ kneeled next to the warrior, and the meaningless lies came pouring out.
“I… I can heal you. It’ll take time, and you might not… but, you’ll live. I just need–”
“NO!” The grunt was hoarse and followed by another fit of coughs, but it was full of every ounce of command it always had. “No healing. I cannot fight. I would burden you.”
“If I don’t… if you aren’t healed, you’ll die!”
“THEN I AM DEAD!”
“No… no, you’re alive, I can save you, I can–”
“LISTEN!” More coughing followed. RJ stayed silent, not wanting to miss a word. The hobgoblin’s words came quietly now, almost a whisper. “Your mother. Her last command… save her son.” They locked eyes. “It is done. I die, my oath kept.”
The hobgoblin’s free hand reached to a sheathed sword attached to his belt. The super-heated cracked leather snapped off easily, and he pointed the hilt towards RJ. “Take it.”
“No… it’s yours. You should be bur… keep it.”
“Not mine. Was a gift. Now, to you.”
RJ accepted the sword with numb hands and glassy eyes.
Number One continued. “No burial. Wolf’s Hearth is my graveyard. You must leave.” The coughing was getting worse. Flecks of blood collected into a thin stream of scarlet from the soldier’s mouth. His words were barely audible over the howling wind. “Do not stay. Find your path. Leave now.”
“Number One… I’m so sorry.”
“No. I lived well. Now, your turn.”
RJ couldn’t bring himself to stand. He simply stared at the dying guardian, unable to think clearly. Number One recognized this and summoned the last of his strength into one final command.
Unable to think, unable to cry, unable to hope, RJ remained in place. But his legs followed the command that his mind could not. His lips whispered a final goodbye as he left all he had ever known and loved behind.
As Number One watched the retreating figure of the lone survivor of Wolf’s Hearth, his face contorted into a grim smile. He wanted to follow the kid’s journey, to watch over him, but he knew he could not. His injuries were far too great, and even now he could feel himself slipping over the edge, his soul crying for release from this mortal prison. But he wasn’t dead yet. He held onto the edge of life, not because he chose to, but because his mind refused to let go. He could never give in to that graven siren song. The vast eternities would have to drag him down kicking and screaming.
The white, clouded sky above him clashed with the towers of smoke rising from his home. In a way, it was a suitable reflection of the fallen soldier; through all his life, he lived in a world of black and white. So much time was spent drawing and redrawing the lines between them, yet to him, it never seemed to matter. Some deep part of him knew that this was the way the world worked. It split the good from the evil, and it would always put him into the latter group. It was painful to live like that, knowing that you’d always be the monster. So instead, he defined himself by paying attention to where the smaller lines were drawn. There were more borders than the one between good and evil: there were ranks, and communities, and chains of power. No matter his surroundings, he would always be defined by his shadow, but the least he could do was play his part well. He followed commands and climbed every ladder he could. He was respected by his leaders, then his peers, then his followers. When a greater power came, one he knew he could not defeat, he fought to the bitter end. For his strength and leadership, he was the first to be noticed. He became Hobgoblin Number One.
Eventually, he was set free by a real hero, one who saw past his shadow. A hero who saw his value not just for giving orders, but for believing in himself, believing he and his kin could be better. Since the day he met the hero, Hobgoblin Number One became more than a simple beast in the eyes of the world, more than a challenge to be overcome by the worthy and more fortunate. He had become an ally and crossed the border into the white.
As he gazed up at the sky and reflected on his journey, the sky began to change. It swirled above him, ash and snow dancing together, white clouds mixing with black smoke to create a masterpiece in monochrome. Now he saw the truth. He lived in a world of greyscale, neither rights nor wrongs, simply survival. And Number One had survived far longer than anyone in his original hob clan thought he would. He had outlasted them all, and grew old enough to see the world crumble around him. He had gotten to the end.
He grinned a savage grin, one of immense pain, matched only by his satisfaction. He had lived a full life, and now it was time to make sure the world knew.
From far behind him, RJ heard the terrible roar of a dying warrior echo through the ruins.
RJ kept walking.