"Stay back, both of you." Cecil froze, peering over his upraised shield, and gestured for Rydia and Edward to be still. For a moment there was no sound but the clinking of Cecil's armor and the gentle hiss of sand cascading over the rocks...then, the scrape of metal on stone and a murmur that might have been voices. Edward laid his hand on Rydia's shoulder protectively, though she didn't seem to need the reassurance -- she gripped her wand with white-knuckled hands and looked ahead with the calm stare of a woman much older.
"Goblins," Rydia whispered. The warning appeared to be for Edward's benefit. The voices around the corridor moved a bit closer, laughing in shrill tones. There it is again -- the shriek of metal being dragged along rock. The sound made Edward wince and shiver all at the same time.
A yell, another outburst of high-pitched and mocking laughter, and footsteps running closer. Edward closed his eyes and counted -- one, two...no, five pairs of feet at least. He heard Cecil shift his stance, ready for battle. Almost automatically, Edward's hands moved to the strings of his harp.
It was all he could do to will himself to play steady; he dared not open his eyes for fear his nerve might break. But he knew the tune as well as he knew the beating of his heart, and despite his trembling fingers he managed to pluck out the first few notes in the proper measure.
The footsteps slowed. The raised voices fell to a murmur. His eyes still clenched shut, Edward drew a deep breath and felt the dry air filling his lungs, smelling of dust and the strange, sickly scent of the Antlion that permeated this place. And then, unsteadily, he began to sing.
Edward could not remember a time when he had not known this song. It was written in the ancient tongue of Damcyan -- a lilting, fanciful language long fallen out of use and relegated to the rarified world of sages and poets. His nurse had often sung it to him as a child, but where the old servant had been comfortingly off-key, Edward was pitch-perfect. Mingled with the tones of his harp, reflected a thousand times off the crumbling walls of the cavern, the words swelled into an unearthly vibrato.
By the time Edward plucked the last chord, there was no sound at all but the echo of his song, returning back to him with unfamiliar inflections.
Cecil's armor clinked again. By the time Edward opened his eyes, the dark knight had his sword buried in the throat of the last sleeping goblin.
Edward choked, and Cecil looked up from the pile of bodies. He snapped up his visor up and regarded Edward, eyebrow raised.
"Is something the matter, Prince?"
"I...I was only going to...I mean..." Blood was dripping down Cecil's sword, hard to see against the black metal, but unmistakable where it hit the sand. "My song's not magic in the proper sense, but...they wouldn't have woken up when we passed them." The goblins -- six of them, all told -- were all curled up like napping children. They might have been asleep if it weren't for the spreading pool of red staining the sand. "You could have let them be."
"And have them ambush us on the way out? They won't stay asleep forever." Edward watched Cecil clean the blood from his blade and sheathe it with the efficient motions of a soldier, then looked around for Rydia. The little girl had already picked her way through the pile of corpses and was peering around the corner, scouting ahead by the icy blue light of her wand. Cecil glances behind him, as though worried that Rydia might hear him. "And they eat human flesh, you know. They're especially fond of young children." Edward shook his head.
"Your highness, goblins may look a bit like people," Cecil said, exasperation clear in his voice, "but I assure you, they are nothing but savage monsters."
Edward shuddered, remembering another man in night-black armor, a colder voice, and a much more terrible slaughter.
"There are many such monsters in the world," Edward half-whispered. Cecil's expression darkened, and he turned away suddenly.
"We'd best be going," Cecil said. "I don't want Rydia to get too far ahead." The dark knight motioned for Edward to follow him before turning on his heels and starting down the corridor. Edward watched him go for a moment and wondered what strange events could have possibly brought this exile knight and this unearthly child to his desert. Then, with a sigh Edward drew his cloak tighter around his shoulders and followed them down the long path to the Antlion's chamber. Just as the storybooks had told him, the goblins at his feet were dissolving into dust and dry leaves. Edward had always imagined that when a fairy creature died, it would dissolve into foliage before it even struck the ground and be carried away on the wind, never leaving a corpse -- but these goblins were still pouring out their blood in a slow trickle from their mutilated throats, even as their bodies began to crumble away like rotted logs.
Edward drew his scarf across his face to ward off the smell of decay, and pressed on.