Rags wondered if today was the day she would die. It seemed like she asked herself that question every day. But never did she wonder if she was being paranoid. Because someday she would die. The only question was: was it now?
The young Goblin didn’t know. She only knew that if her death was today, was now, she’d go down fighting. That was how Goblins lived and died. Her blood sang in her veins, and she could hear nothing over the pounding of her heart.
She stood at the top of a snowy slope, staring down. Her quarry was below her. The Rock Crab slowly picked its way across the wintery landscape, testing the ground with a segmented leg before moving forwards.
It hadn’t noticed the sixty Goblins on the hill yet. That was the crab’s first and final mistake. Rags looked around. Her tribe of Goblins waited, crouched and holding their weapons in their small hands. She knew their hearts had to be pounding just as hard as hers was.
It was time. Rags unsheathed her sword. The bright bronze blade shone in the light from the grey skies overhead. Unlike the weapons of the Goblins around her, Rag’s weapon was new. It shone; she polished it every day. It was a symbol, but more importantly, it was sharp.
Rags raised the sword and the Goblins around her tensed. She screamed and her tribe surged down the snowy banks. The Rock Crab paused and began to slowly turn towards the horde of Goblins.
It was massive. For a Goblin, the Rock Crab was nothing less than a giant capable of crushing them with one of its claws. It did so now, seizing one of the Goblins running next to Rags and crunching the Goblin without any effort.
But for all a Rock Crab was terribly huge, and for all its armored shell repelled any attacks, it had one weakness. It was alone.
Rags slid as she drew within five feet of the Rock Crab. A pincer as large as she was grazed the top of her head and then she was sliding underneath the Rock Crab’s shell. She scrambled to her feet, trying to avoid the countless pointed legs as they stabbed into the snowy ground around her.
Everything was confusion. Rags sensed her Goblins running towards the crab, screaming in terror and fury. Their high-pitched shouts distracted the Rock Crab even more as it twisted around, trying to keep the Goblins at bay.
But Rags and a group of Goblins were already inside the shell. Rags raised her sword and stabbed up. She didn’t have to aim; the crab filled the air around her.
Her sharp blade punctured and cracked the carapace above her. Rags felt some blue liquid splashing down on her face and sensed other Goblins bashing at the Rock Crab’s legs, crawling up his body to bash at him from all sides.
The Rock Crab clicked, a noise that was nearly deafening in the confines of his shell. Then, suddenly, the world went dark.
Rags had no idea what was happening, until she realized the Rock Crab had lowered itself to the ground to prevent other Goblins entering. She heard a Goblin outside screaming as the rocky shell caught him in the midriff and crushed him to death.
Something moved in the darkness. Goblins had good night vision, and even in the shell some light still got in from outside. Rags saw a pincer move. The Rock Crab was trying to kill all the Goblins who’d made it in his shell.
Rags raised her blade and stabbed up again. The Rock Crab clicked in distress and threw itself against its shell, trying to crush her. But the shortsword was buried in its body now, and Rags hung on for dear life. She twisted the blade, trying to make the crab bleed. Blood spattered her body and arms.
The Rock Crab had made its second mistake. It had trapped the Goblins inside with it, true. It had even kept the Goblins outside from hurting it. But it had put the Goblins trapped with it against a wall. Either they killed it, or it killed them.
The Goblins inside the shell raised their weapons. Their crimson eyes gleamed in the darkness. The Rock Crab couldn’t see much, but even its pathetic eyes could see the glowing eyes in the darkness. It clicked once and raised its claws.
When the rest of Rags’ tribe finally managed to worm their way underneath the shell by digging through the snow and dirt, it was already over. Rags sat in a pool of shell, guts, and blood, chewing on a piece of crab meat.
Goblins lay around her, some in parts, others just lying down because they were tired. They were all eating—although some were drinking the Rock Crab’s blood too. The inside of the shell was a scene of carnage, but to the Goblins it just looked like a buffet.
The rest of Rags’ tribe wanted to start devouring the Rock Crab as well, but Rags barked an order and they stopped. Instead, she had them lift the shell off the crab’s corpse. It was a lot of work, but the forty-some Goblins remaining could do it if they worked together. The shell crashed to the ground, taking an unlucky Goblin’s toe with it as the Goblins shoved it off the former occupant.
Now it was time to feast. Rags let her tribe begin hacking apart the crab as she sat in the snow and munched. The meat was bitter and tough, but it was filling and it was all a starving Goblin could dream of.
As she ate, Rags thought. This was a unique hobby among Goblins, but she was not a normal Goblin. Besides, she was also chief of this tribe. To be more accurate Rags was Chieftain of the Flooded Waters Tribe of Goblins who lived and died in the area around Liscor. She had responsibilities.
Now, how many goblins had died this time? Rags didn’t have a complete count of the Goblins in her tribe because they came and died so quickly, but she had close to sixty this morning. Now, she had closer to forty. Possibly forty-five.
They’d lost fifteen Goblins killing the Rock Crab. That wasn’t bad. It might have been terrible for any group of soldiers, people, or any other species in general, but Goblins were used to slaughter, mainly on their side.
Normally it took around twenty lives to bring down one of the gigantic Rock Crabs. The exchange wasn’t good, but it meant life for at least another week for a Goblin tribe. That was considered acceptable.
But there was another aspect to the numbers. Rags eyed the dead mixed with the crab parts and wondered how many were young, or female. She had only a dozen experienced warriors, and she’d hate to lose any of them.
That was another thing about Goblins. They fought together. Women, children—there was no difference. Goblins fought or died as one. There was no place to put the young.
If they died, they all died together. It was better than dying alone and starving.
True, the pregnant females and children generally stayed at the back, but their tribe didn’t have the numbers to hold their home and hunt Rock Crabs at the same time. Rags shook her head as she stared at a small head lying in a pool of congealed blood.
It was another day in the Floodplains of Liscor. She hadn’t died yet, but there was time. There was always time to die.
The Rock Crab sated even the hungriest Goblins after a while. Rather than leave the precious meat behind, Rags ordered the bulk of her tribe to take everything they could and bring it back to their home. In this case, it was a small cave they’d taken from the bears hibernating there.
Now, that had been a fight. Rock Crabs were one thing. They were terrifying behemoths of the plains, but they were slow. Bears on the other hand could catch a running Goblin and tear them to shreds.
Rags had led that encounter as well. She’d had her Goblins loosing arrows and throwing rocks at the bears and keep them at bay while she burned them from afar. She knew only three spells, but one of them was [Firefly]. It was a spell designed to attack from afar, and ever since Rags had learned it, her Goblins had been able to take on far stronger enemies than before.
As the majority of her tribe left, Rags barked an order and eight of her best warriors formed up around her. None of them were badly injured from killing the Rock Crab, and they all had the best weapons in her tribe.
Rusty swords, a sharp dagger, a club, and a hatchet. That was the might of Goblins, and compared to them Rags was a knight in armor with her small buckler and short sword. None of the Goblins wore armor outside of some leather and cloth; it slowed them down too much in case they needed to run away.
Now, where to? Rags’ priority for the day had been killing the Rock Crab. Ever since Winter had arrived, her tribe had been starving to death. They’d waited until this Rock Crab was far away from its friends before attacking. Now that they were full, Rags could finally think about other things.
First things first. Rags set off across the snowy landscape, her warriors ranging out around her. They knew where she was going. It was the first place Rags ever went when she wasn’t busy keeping her tribe alive.
To the Goblins, The Wandering Inn wasn’t just a place to eat. No, for them it was closer to heaven. It was a miraculous place where they were safe from all dangers, had food to eat, and best of all in Rags’ opinion, she could play chess.
Chess. Rags loved chess. It was something so completely unlike anything else she’d ever experienced in life that even now after hundreds of games it still fascinated her. Chess wasn’t something you did that was just physical, like eating or crapping or killing. It was a game you played on the board, and also in your head.
It was wonderful. And it had given Rags an even greater gift, which was the [Tactician] class. She was looking forwards to playing. Today would be the day she finally beat Erin Solstice at a game. She just knew it.
Rags crested a ridge and stopped still. The inn was gone. No—not completely gone, but—
Destroyed. Rags stared at the broken windows, the collapsed part of the roof and of course, the walls that no longer existed. She could stare straight into part of the kitchen from her spot on the hill. Something massive had taken a chunk out of the inn. It was gone.
For a full second Rags stared in shock at the inn. Then she began to think. Goblins moved past shock and confusion fast or they died. So Rags quickly noticed that the inn might be destroyed, but its owner was still alive.
Erin Solstice, human, proprietor of The Wandering Inn, and The Destroyer as she had been named by the Goblins, stood around talking with several large black insects and two tall lizards as more Antinium moved around her.
What were they doing? They were…dismantling the inn? Rags saw a Worker pry a broken piece of timber off the inn and walk down the hill. They were going somewhere else with it.
And not just pieces of the inn. Some of Rags’ warriors murmured as a group of eight Workers lifted a section of wall and trotted down the slope with it held between them. They were indeed taking apart the inn, and it seemed to Rags that they were intending to build it somewhere else.
Curious. Rags analyzed the situation as only she could do. She was smart. Every Goblin knew it. That was why they’d accepted her as Chief.
So let’s see. The inn had been in one piece when Rags had seen it yesterday. But clearly something had happened. The inn was destroyed—possibly by a monster or something else, and Erin had gotten the Antinium to fix it. Only, they’d decided to build it somewhere else.
Even as Rags came to that logical conclusion, another of her warriors came up to her and reported that more Antinium were making their way across the plains.
It was clear that Rags wouldn’t get to play chess today, so, intrigued, she ordered the other Goblin to bring her to the site of the other Antinium.
Goblins could move fast when they wanted to. It was practically their only advantageous feature, if you didn’t count their size. So Rags and her small posse found the Drake, Klbkch, Ceria, and the twenty-odd Workers shortly after the group had reached the site of the Boom Tree forest.
Rags heard her Goblins murmur as they crept closer to the Working Antinium, supervised by the Drake, Ceria, and Klbkch.
The Antinium were moving like machines, systematically stripping each tree of bark before felling them with axes. They had everything Rags dreamed of in an army. They would never break or flee, and they moved together flawlessly.
What disturbed Rags greatly though was their location. She and her Goblins had crept through the snow, ignoring the freezing temperatures, to the edge of the trees. They’d done this against all their instincts, and Rags had only come this far out of curiosity.
Her curiosity being, why the Workers were still here and not fragments of flesh and exoskeleton raining from the sky at this point. She knew these trees. They were death.
In fairness, Goblins classified almost half of the world as ‘death’, but they had a far more nuanced view of death than other species. Their species had over twenty words for death, and that meant they could define death in an almost unlimited number of ways.
Goblins pessimistically defined death as a probability, or perhaps an inevitability depending on how you looked at it. For instance, a lone human traveler was only ‘possible death’ for a group of Goblins, and if a tribe was nearby the unfortunate human was only ‘death for one or two’. By contrast, the Rock Crab had been ‘near certain death’ for the individual Goblin or small party, but only ‘many deaths’ for a tribe.
But the trees here, this forest, was absolute death. Goblins avoided the area, having learned the exact range of the explosive bark from trial and error, as it were.
That was why Rags was astonished to see that the Workers were not only moving among the trees, but chopping them down without being perforated in a thousand places. Why? Was it magic?
No—none of the three people here was capable of magic like that, Rags was certain. She knew Ceria could do magic, but she also knew the half-Elf had been badly injured, as evidenced by her skeletal hand. Moreover, Rags saw no wand or stave, and she couldn’t sense any magic coming from Ceria.
And Klbkch and the Drake certainly weren’t capable of magic. Although of the three, they bothered Rags far more than Ceria.
Klbkch for instance. The Antinium was clearly distinguishable from the other Workers, thanks to his unique build. He was taller, leaner, and had only two arms instead of four. He was also ten times more dangerous than the others.
Rags still remembered his death. She hadn’t been part of the ill-advised group of Goblins that had set out to kill Erin and avenge their Chieftain, but she’d watched as the Antinium and one of the Workers had carved their way through the ranks of the Goblins. Even though they’d killed him in the end, it had only been because he’d been protecting Erin.
And now he’d come back to life. His body might have been changed, but he smelled and acted the same. That terrified Rags.
But while Klbkch was a silent enigma, he was nothing compared to the Drake. Rags knew he had a name, but she refused to remember it.
The Drake. He was known by the Goblins of the Flooded Waters Tribe, oh yes. He had killed more of their kind by himself than the rest of the other guardsmen combined. He was faster than any Goblin—faster than arrows—had skin tougher than metal, and he could kill even a Hob with his bare hands.
He was a monster. He’d killed the Goblins who’d raised Rags. He was her enemy, even if he didn’t know it.
But there was nothing to do about him but avoid the Drake. He could easily slaughter Rags and all the warriors she’d brought. No matter what Erin said, they had to keep their distance from him.
Speaking of which, where was he? Rags narrowed her eyes and scanned the forest. The Drake had been talking to Klbkch only a second ago, but now he was gone. Where had he gone? To piss? Or—
Rags heard the terrible voice too late. She twisted, but Relc grabbed her out of the snow and threw her through the air.
The Goblin felt herself flying, a dizzying, rushing weightlessness broken by terrible pain as she hit a tree and bounced off. She landed in the snow, winded and curled up reflexively into a ball of pain.
She didn’t think for a few minutes, only lay there as she heard the Drake laughing and her warriors screaming. The screams grew fainter, and she realized they’d fled. As was only sensible. But it left her alone, and in only moments she heard voices above her head.
“I knew it! I saw one of those pointy-eared freaks poking his head out of the snow, and I knew she had to be nearby. It’s that stupid Goblin!”
“I am not familiar with this Goblin. You say you know her?”
That was Klbkch. Rags tried to uncurl, but the pain was still too much. The Drake replied irritably.
“Yeah. Erin took her in. Her name is Raggy or something stupid like that. She’s been hanging out at the inn and playing chess.”
“Yeah. Crazy, huh? I wanted to get rid of the little bugger, but Erin won’t let me. Her tribe’s been causing chaos while you were dead, and now it looks like she’s got an ambush party waiting to attack us.”
She heard the menace in the Drake’s voice, and that made Rags move. Ignoring the terrible pain in her back, she uncurled and looked up. Relc and Klbkch were standing over her while Ceria stood just behind them, staring at Rags.
Was this the day she died? Rags knew she had no chance if it came to a fight. The Drake could kill her with one claw. But she stood up anyways and reached for her sword.
The Drake growled at Rags, looming over her.
His voice sent a thrill of terror down Rags’ back. But she still gripped the hilt of her sword with one hand. She was terrified of the Drake, but so what? Rags was always afraid, but she never gave into the fear.
Klbkch laid one hand on the Drake’s shoulder as he gripped the shaft of his spear.
“Calm yourself, Relc. I would not wish violence here.”
“She was spying on us. Don’t you think we should do something? What if they were going to attack?”
Klbkch’s voice was an oasis of calm. He pointed at Rags.
“Erin Solstice harbors affection towards them. If she discovers they have been slaughtered, she will react poorly.”
Calm, and coldness beyond anything Rags had known. She was sure that if his needs called for it, Klbkch would kill her without batting an eyelid. Not that the Antinium had eyelids.
“Moreover, I do not believe even Goblins would be foolish enough to attack a larger force by themselves. No, I think Rags and her group were following us to see what we were doing. That is all.”
The Drake glared at his friend. He pointed at Rags.
“They killed you. Killed. You. You’re telling me you don’t want to slaughter every one of these buggers we find? They’re filthy little cowards, the lot of them.”
The word burned Rags. But of course there was nothing she could say. Klbkch paused, and then went on without changing pitch.
“My feelings do not matter. Erin Solstice has been deemed important to the Hive, and for that, her cooperation is needed. Let the Goblin go.”
The Drake glared at his friend, but then he cursed long and loud. He turned, and Rags breathed out just slightly. Maybe, just maybe—
Relc turned back and raised his foot. Rags saw only a blur and then—
She woke up with a terrible pain in her jaw. Rags knew it wasn’t broken, but it hurt!
Relc was gone. Klbkch was gone. But someone was standing over her, and it wasn’t one of her Goblins.
Ceria the half-Elf bent down and reached out for the Goblin. Rags’ reaction was immediate. She rolled away from Ceria and sprang to her feet, backing away from the mage warily.
“I don’t mean you any harm. I just wanted to make sure—”
Rags pulled the small jar of acid from her belt and Ceria paused. Rags hadn’t dared reach for it with Relc because he was too quick, but she held it out between her and the half-Elf warningly. It was a threat; not something Rags intended to actually make good on.
It worked. Ceria paused, and stood up carefully. She regarded the little jar of acid, knowing full well how dangerous it was. But she didn’t panic. She looked Rags in the eye.
“I’m not going to hurt you. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt. Relc shouldn’t have kicked you like that.”
So. It had been the Drake. Rags felt her chin. It felt like it was about to fall off, but if that was all she ended up with, she’d count herself lucky. But then why was Ceria concerned about her? Rags was still wary.
“I’m not looking to do anything with you. If I wanted to hurt you, I’d have done it while you were asleep.”
That was true. Rags hesitated, and lowered the jar of acid. Ceria watched her tuck it into her belt and shook her head.
“I need to talk to Erin about her giving you those. That girl—”
She paused and shook her head again.
“What am I doing, talking to Goblins? Look, I don’t really care what you and your little group were doing watching us. But I have a message for you.”
A message? Rags’ ears perked up slightly. Ceria looked serious as she pointed at Rags, and then out across the plains.
“Leave. The Watch is going to wipe your tribe out or drive it off in a few days.”
Rags absorbed the information silently. She didn’t doubt that it was true for a second. Not because she thought Ceria was honest, but because she’d predicted it was coming.
More patrols through the plains. More guardsmen spotting Goblins but not attacking them, just following them for a while. The picture added up. Ceria’s words just confirmed Rags’ hunch.
Ceria didn’t seem surprised Rags wasn’t surprised. The half-Elf thrust her good hand into her pocket.
“I don’t know if you really understood that, but I hope you did. Not that I want your tribe to live or anything. I’m just telling you this so Erin doesn’t get upset. I owe her a lot.”
That was true, but Rags didn’t see how it had any bearing on the current situation. She wasn’t Erin’s pet or anything like that. But it mattered to Ceria, clearly. The half-Elf looked at Rags balefully.
“I remember the last Goblin King’s rampage from the sea. He left a sea of fire and destruction across three continents. Even if others underestimate your kind, I know you can be dangerous.”
Goblin King? Ceria had known the last Goblin King? Rags was suddenly intensely curious. No Goblin she’d ever met remembered the Goblin King, but of course they all knew of what he’d done. But it was clear that Rags’ opinion of the late Goblin King was not Ceria’s.
“If it were me, I wouldn’t shed a tear if your kind died out. But Erin likes you and I owe you for rescuing me from the ruins.”
Ceria sighed. She raised her skeletal hand and stared at it for a second. Rags stared too. She’d never seen an injury like Ceria’s before. Of course she’d seen frostbite, but never a skeletal hand that stayed together like that. Was it magic?
“You know, if your kind didn’t steal or attack innocent people, you might actually be tolerated. Perhaps not. Even half-Elves live on the edges. But you—”
Ceria broke off. She paused, looked at Rags, and for a moment her expression softened.
“There’s no place for you anywhere in the world. You have my sympathies. From one outcast to another. But take my advice and get lost. Today.”
She walked away. Rags was left alone in the middle of the stripped clearing, only a cluster of stumps indicating where all the trees had been.
Now then, what was all that about? Rags had no way of making sense of what had just happened. She took a seat on a stump, perched on the edge, one hand under her chin as she tried to think.
Ceria had warned her. Rel—the Drake had expressed his hatred for Rags and her kind and Klbkch had seemed indifferent. Was any of it a lie? Rags wished she had a Skill to tell the difference.
She often thought of Skills, and the ways in which she could use them. It was an odd thought to have, because most Goblins didn’t have any Skills to speak of. But Rags had earned several, and increasingly, she’d begun to question which Skills she might one day obtain and how they might help her survive longer.
She ascribed these un-Goblin like thoughts to the [Tactician] class, but the truth was simply that if Rags had been a human, she would have been a genius. Since she was a Goblin, she was more of a legendary being in their eyes. She was one in a million—perhaps one in a billion.
Which still didn’t make Rags all that special. Goblins reproduced so fast that even some insect species couldn’t keep up. Their kind lived and died like mayflies, and their children were able to walk and fight within days of being born.
And they died just as quickly. So Goblins would mate and reproduce as fast as they could before their half-lives ended. Even in the winter, more babies would be born and die.
The Goblins would normally starve, even with kills like the Rock Crabs to sustain the tribe. So many new lives were a strain on any ecosystem. But that was why the dead were always brought back. They would be eaten, and life would begin again.
It was the way of things. But some days Rags wondered why it had to be this way. She wondered if there was something to do that would take her tribe out of this cycle of death that was their way of life.
Or failing that, her at least. Rags wanted to live. It was all she thought about. Living, and dying. But for the first time in forever, she actually had something that could help her accomplish her goals: her classes.
Goblins could level. It was just rare that they survived long enough to gain more than one or two levels.
For instance, every Goblin including Rags had at least one or two levels in [Scavenger] and [Warrior]. But what was interesting to Rags was that they seldom leveled up higher, even the old ones.
Goblins that had lived for three years or longer were only Level 9 in the [Scavenger] class. And the highest-level [Warrior] Goblin that Rags could remember was the old Chief. He’d been Level 18 in the [Warrior] class, and he’d been a Hob.
But Rags was unique. Not only did she have eight levels in the [Warrior] class – the highest in her tribe – she also had a [Mage] class, which was practically unique among Goblins. And of course a class that was unique, the [Tactician] class. Rags was a Level 11 [Tactician]. That practically made her a Hob herself, but she still hadn’t started growing.
Hobgoblins were the next step in Goblin evolution, insofar as Goblins ever evolved. They were still Goblins, but ones who, for whatever reason, entered a sudden growth spurt. Strong Goblins who were either Chieftains or stronger, faster, or tougher than normal would suddenly begin eating twice their weight each day. They’d grow constantly, until they were suddenly as tall as Humans and in some cases, twice as wide.
These Goblins were the leaders of tribes, the shock troopers in any Goblin group and the only way Goblins could take on deadly monsters. It was a given that most tribes would have around one Hobgoblin, or Hobs as they were known. The Flooded Waters Tribe’s single Hob had been their Chief—until Erin killed him, that was.
But while Rags had leveled up as much as any Hob, she hadn’t gotten any bigger. That happened too sometimes, but she was still disappointed. She would have liked to tower over the other Goblins, but being small also meant she was less of a target.
Her concerns over being a Hob were only a small part of the questions in her mind. Rags shifted in her seat and winced as her fist bothered her injured chin. She had to think. Thinking was one of the only things Rags could do, and if she didn’t, she and her tribe would die.
Why did Goblins not level up that much? And on the other hand, why had Rags leveled up so quickly? Was it just because she was special?
Then again, every Goblin in the tribe had leveled up at least twice after killing Skinner. Even the ones who’d only cut a tiny slice off of him. Why was that? What made Skinner different from a traveler on the road, or a Rock Crab?
Maybe it was because…he was dangerous. Because the Goblins had fought, against something truly dangerous. Because they hadn’t taken an easy fight, for once.
Were Rock Crabs easy to kill? …No. But it was practically a given that if an entire tribe of Goblins attacked, a Rock Crab was going to die. It was a safe fight for the tribe, if not individuals.
But Skinner—yes, Rags remembered that night. The Goblins had known he was weak, known he was running. But they hadn’t known if he was able to kill them. Over a hundred of them had charged, and if they’d been a tiny bit slower or if Skinner had been just a little bit stronger, they might have all died.
Yes, that was it. They’d risked everything. And that, surprisingly, was rare for Goblins. As a general rule, Goblins did not pick fights that were even remotely risky. That was tough since everything was stronger than Goblins, but they always attacked with overwhelming numbers, and by surprise if they could help it.
Maybe that was why Goblins didn’t level much. And Rags—she’d leveled because when she played chess she always did her best. And when she learned magic, she worked as hard as she could to listen and learn from the smelly mage Pisces. And fighting—
She’d killed all the Goblins who’d wanted to be Chief themselves. She’d led her tribe against many monsters already, always from the front. She was brave and she risked her life.
That was why. That was the key. That was what Rags needed to leverage if she wanted to survive.
In the quiet falling snow, Rags could think clearly. The cold was getting to her, but she had enough furs on to keep herself warm for now. And the winter air was clarity. It was a reminder of death, and how close her tribe was to it.
The cruel truth of it was, the Flooded Waters Tribe was the weakest in the region. While the humans, Drakes, and Gnolls living in cities and villages didn’t really regard Goblins as more than pests roaming the countryside, there was actually hierarchy even among Goblins. Tribes were their own separate entities that controlled a territory, fighting other tribes and roaming bands of wild Goblins to maintain their dominance.
Dominance of course being the right to prey on stray livestock and keep just under the radar enough so that high-level adventurers weren’t dispatched to get rid of them. It was still a lot of power, considering how many animals could be killed and how many useful little items could be stolen while keeping a low profile.
From a pure power standpoint, the Red Fang tribe to the north was by far the strongest. They were spread out around the entrance to the High Passes, and they had six Hobs in their tribe. They dominated the other tribes occupying the grasslands in that area, although the Goblins stayed away from the Human cities where adventurers lived.
To the south, around the Blood Fields, the Broken Spear Tribe was another barrier to any movement. They ruled that area with an iron fist, much like their Chieftain. He was no Hob; like Rags, he was a smaller Goblin, but one taller than normal. He wore armor made from Shield Spiders as did much of his tribe, and they had even managed to tame the deadly creatures. If the Red Fang Tribe and the Broken Spear Tribe ever fought, it would be hard to say who’d come out on top.
Other than that, the only other major Tribe in the region was the Ghostly Hand Tribe. They lived further south than the Blood Fields, but they alone would occasionally travel north through Liscor. The Broken Spear Tribe left them alone, mainly because even they feared the Ghostly Hand Tribe’s Chief. She was a terrible [Shaman] capable of raising the dead, and several Goblins in that tribe knew basic magics. They used poison and traps to fight, and they were just as deadly to other Goblins as their enemies.
All three tribes were so far above Rags’ small tribe in terms of hierarchy that it was impossible to compare them. She couldn’t even imagine challenging one of their Chieftains, only imagine the mutilated corpse that would result from such an act.
But they had to leave this place. Ceria had said, and the writing was on the trees.
Actually, nothing was on the trees, including bark. The Workers had stripped almost every tree around here of bark, even the ones they hadn’t cut down. Piles of thick bark lay rolled up in the snow.
Rags got off her stump and wandered over to one of the rolled up pieces of bark. She squatted down and inspected it with utmost care.
Yes, this was definitely the death of this forest. A cross-section of the bark showed Rags that there was definitely a layer of detachable wood—cushioned by something soft and almost jelly-like in between. Was this what exploded to make the bark fly so far?
Hm. Could she use this? Why wasn’t the bark exploding now?
It had to be the cold. Rags could think of nothing else. The bark was hard and the in-between substance was sludgy and stiff. If it warmed up, what would happen?
They had to leave. But to where? Rags had made overtures to the Broken Spear tribe to the south already. It was warmer down south, and she’d had the idea that her tribe could inhabit the Blood Fields if necessary. But she wasn’t sure their Chief would even acknowledge her, much less grant her safe passage.
Failing that, she might be able to negotiate passage north. The Red Fang tribe was vicious, but they might grant her some space far north if she offered them tribute every week. It would be desperate, but far better than certain death. Rags could weigh the options in her head; analyze the odds of survival thanks to her [Tactican] class and skills.
But—all of that was still running away, wasn’t it? It wasn’t how you leveled. That was the key. If Rags wanted to be stronger, wanted her tribe to be stronger, they had to stop running eventually.
But running was what Goblins were good at.
Cowards. That was what the Drake had said. It burned Rags just to remember. But what hurt most was that she couldn’t dismiss it. It was true.
Goblins were cowards. Maybe that was why they were so weak. Maybe…it was that Rags had to change. The nature of what it meant to be a Goblin.
Cowardice. It was a bad word. Goblins had no real word for ‘coward’, just words for those Goblins who ran when their tribe needed them, or stabbed each other in the back. Actually, Goblins who stabbed others in the backs weren’t thought of in a negative light. Stealth was a very valuable skill.
But cowardice was a bad word in other species’ languages. Rags understood that. The word was like a burn on your head, making you smaller, less important. Coward.
What was the opposite of that? It was a word Goblins didn’t really know. It meant ‘foolishness’ or ‘stupidity’ in their language, but Rags had heard Erin say it once. She’d been talking about how Rags played. It was a better word. A good word.
And it lit something inside of Rags. Something. A feeling she’d only felt once or twice. The first time she’d set foot in Erin’s inn. The feeling she sometimes got as she played chess and when she was in the middle of a battle.
Yes…she did know one place that would be a challenge. A challenge beyond challenges. A place of death. Possibly even worse than the High Passes. The death beyond death.
In point of fact, the place of ‘death beyond death’ was no more than a small crack in the side of one of the distant mountains. Technically, it was part of the Red Fang Tribe’s territory, but as a general rule, all Goblins avoided the area.
Rags closed her eyes. An image—sounds—engulfed her. She went back inside her head, not just back in her thoughts, but back. Back in time.
Memory. A huge glistening mass of slime rears up and engulfs the first Hob. He drops the two-handed battleaxe and screams as the creature engulfs him whole.
The slime rears up, nearly twelve feet tall. It’s not simply clear jelly, but colored sections that swirl together in a hypnotizing miasma. Crimson redness engulfs the Hob’s form like mist within the creature’s liquid form; when it clears, the goblin is gone.
The tribe’s [Shaman] raises a staff and croaks a few guttural words. Spinning arrows made of blue light strike the slime, vaporizing small bits of its mass.
The amorphous slime does not scream, but purple gathers around the places where the missiles strike, like antibodies rushing towards an injury. It rolls quickly towards the [Shaman], but two of the remaining Hobs move to block it.
The Scale Slayer Tribe battles the slime for thirty minutes before they retreat. One of their Hobs staggers away, half her face melted. The small Goblins limp away, burned, many beyond saving. They will die that night.
This is the third tribe that has sought to conquer this strange place. The abundance of strange plants gathering around the cave is not worth the death that comes out. They leave the slime to feast on their dead, and it is remembered. This is a dying place. It must be avoided at all costs.
Rags blinked, and woke up with a gasp. She realized she was being carried, unevenly propped up on other Goblins as they made their way back to their den.
Where was she? Rags looked around and realized she’d left her forest. Sometime as the ancient memories of her people had engulfed her, her warriors had come back and found her. They’d carried her back rather than disrupt her trance.
That was no good. Rags shouted and thumped the Goblins beneath her. They lowered her to the ground gently and she looked around.
She was…around two miles away from the forest where they’d found her. Good. That was good. Rags shouted and her warriors reacted with dismay. But she was insistent, and soon they had returned to the forest and ended up returning to the Goblin’s den, carrying the bark the Workers had left.
Rags lugged along a huge roll of bark, still thinking. She ignored the grumbling of her warriors around her as they carried equally heavy burdens. They would obey her, complaints or not.
She was a Chief. The Goblins may have resisted her at first, but once she had claimed her position, her status was undeniable. She would lead, until one stronger challenged her, or she fell.
A Chief was essential to any tribe. Without one, the Goblins were aimless, no matter how many of them there were. A Chief could direct them, give them purpose. Wandering bands of Goblins or weaker tribes were absorbed into a strong Chief’s tribe, and Rags had added one tribe and a few lost Goblins to her tribe just as countless Chiefs before her had done.
But being a Chief was more than just about leadership. It was also something that connected all Goblins. There was power in it, just as there was power in [Shamans]. Goblins gave their Chiefs and Shamans their abilities.
In a [Shaman]’s case, the more Goblins that were in the tribe, the more power their spells had. But a Chief took something different from their Goblins. They took memory.
It was something every Chief could do. They could remember things that had happened to their tribe, things that had happened years or even centuries in the past. This could be extremely valuable, as Goblins remembered strategy or good places to hunt or hide. But it only worked with enough Goblins.
With a small tribe, Chiefs could remember the last generation’s memories, or maybe a bit further back than that. But with a huge tribe numbering in the thousands? Rags was certain any Chief of such a tribe would be able to remember backwards thousands of years. Perhaps more.
In her case, she’d remembered the place where Goblins had discovered death. Death, in the form of a small rift in the mountain from which monsters and horrible things emerged every now and then. It was something to consider, but Rags had no time to ponder that. Because when she returned to her cave, she found more death.
A severed head sat in the center of the small cave that Rags’ tribe called home. The other Goblins sat around it, staring at the head and then at Rags as she laid the boom bark in the snow. She walked towards the head slowly. It was staring at her.
Rags knew the face of the Goblin who had died. She was a Goblin she’d chosen a week ago as a messenger. She’d sent the Goblin to the Broken Spear tribe to talk to the Chief and bring back a message. And the Goblin had, after a fashion.
The head was a clear answer to Rags’ request. The young Goblin’s head rolled across the ground before coming to a stop. It was still bleeding; the blood hadn’t clotted entirely yet.
That meant something. To Rags, who understood death, it meant that her messenger had not been killed until only recently. An hour—perhaps less?
It meant that the Broken Spear Tribe’s Chief hadn’t just killed her messenger there and then, but had the Goblin brought close to Rag’s territory and killed the Goblin then. It was a message within a message. It meant ‘we can do this to your entire tribe if we want.’
It didn’t change the rest of it, though. Rags stared into the vacant eyes of the Goblin.
It was always like this. This was why…this was why she had to do it. Even if it meant death. She had to try, try to brave the ‘death beyond death’ to stop this from happening. Erin had done it, once. If she could do it, Rags could too.
Erin Solstice was a terrifying human. She had killed a Hob by herself, something that even Silver-rank adventurers had trouble doing. In a straight up battle, their tribe would have supported the Hob while he cut down a party of adventurers one by one. But the previous Chief had been overconfident as he hunted Erin down like prey, and she had killed him.
She was stronger now, Rags was sure. Erin had gone through fire and violence and now she had people who would help her, and strength. She had been able to kill the creatures in the ruins with just a frying pan. And afterwards, she’d hurt the adventurer with the huge eyes.
Adversity. Rags had to prepare her tribe. So she buried the head and sat and thought.
Burying the head was a sign of deep respect. It meant that the Goblin who’d died was not merely food. The Goblins would have buried their last Chief if Klbkch hadn’t done it for them.
Rags watched her Goblins eat and warned the rest to leave the bark in the snow, well away from the fire. She wasn’t ready to test the effects of warmth on the bark just yet.
Let’s see. What did she have to challenge certain death with? She had…forty five Goblins. A paltry number, compared to the hundreds of Goblins in the larger tribes.
What else? Poorly maintained weapons, aside from her short sword. Wood clubs, a few metal weapons. Nothing useful.
They had slings, adapted from the Red Fang tribe to the north. Rags had instantly adopted the weapon when she’d heard of it, going against the traditions of her tribe. The new weapon had led to more kills from scavengers, and an increase in the Goblins’ ability to harry their enemies.
She had only six small jars of acid left, and Rags knew that Erin wasn’t able to harvest any more acid flies so long as the winter lasted. Rags had several potions taken from travelers, but she had no idea what they did. She regretted losing the one Ryoka had taken back, but that was that.
They had potions, a few weapons, Rag’s magic and superior armaments, and enough food for a few days thanks to the Rock Crab. And they had the bark. And…something else.
Rags went into the back of the cave and kicked Goblins until they moved aside to let her get to the Chief’s spot. She had something there. She reached under her small nest of dried leaves, grass, and cotton, and pulled out a tangle of wires and metal.
This was what Rags had. It might be the key.
The Goblins of her tribe stared with interest as Rags brought the remains of the crossbow out and laid them close enough to the fire so she could see, but not close enough to burn anything.
Rags inspected the gleaming metal and tried to think. This was a crossbow—or it had been. Rags had found it next to a pile of death, and the humans had named it. So she had taken it, but she had no idea how to fix the crossbow.
In truth, she had no idea what a crossbow really was. She thought it was like a strange box that fired twice, maybe tied together, but the pieces of the one she’d found in the ruins didn’t look like that.
At any rate, the problem here wasn’t so much that Rags didn’t know what a crossbow was—she had the pieces. But she had no way to put it back together.
Rags poked at the wires, stared at the wood. Then she did a very Goblin thing. She reached out behind her, and punched the Goblin sitting behind her. He grunted, and she pointed to the mess on the ground.
He had no idea what to do, so he reached out and punched the Goblin behind him. That Goblin had no idea what to do either, but he punched another Goblin to ask. And meanwhile, Rags was ‘asking’ another Goblin, and the other Goblins kept asking too.
And then one Goblin punched wondered if the metal had once been held on something. The idea of a bow had made her think of that.
Rags remembered the splintered black wood and the memory made her realize the Goblin was right. Another Goblin thought the pieces would go something like…this. Another Goblin disagreed. More punched each other, but all the Goblins were thinking now.
Within an hour, the Goblins had figured out what was missing from the crossbow. They needed wood. Sturdy wood, so the metal could be pulled back like…this! And then, yes, then you could put something in the slot. An arrow? It would fly far and strike hard, they were sure.
They had a few Goblins with a level or two in [Crafter] or [Carpenter]. Rags called them over and showed them the pieces. The Goblins muttered and then grabbed firewood and began to carve.
Meanwhile, Rags’ own mind was on fire. She looked at the metal, and then ordered more Goblins to recreate the designs of the crossbow with metal. They had plenty of scrap metal, and now all of her tribe was curious.
They hit problems, though. How were they supposed to fasten the metal to wood? Rags inspected the pieces of the crossbow, and found the black metal screws. Such was the craftsmanship of the Dwarven crossbow, the wood had broken while the screws remained intact, unbent.
Screws? That was way beyond the Goblin’s level of technology. But wait—the Workers were still working on that inn. Rags sent a group of Goblins out to see if they could find anything.
They came back with a bucket stolen when no Worker was looking. The nails and metal in the bucket weren’t like the industrial, mass-produced items of the modern world, but to Goblins, they were still a miraculous thing.
Rags watched the original crossbow being reassembled by her Goblins, and then considered the issue of ammunition.
Bolts. Now, that was another problem. Like anything metal, Goblins didn’t make so much as scavenge. They didn’t have enough arrowheads for their archers to make arrows as it was, and it seemed these crossbow bolts would require different shaping of the head and shaft.
Rags set a few Goblins to cutting lengths of woods anyways while she tried to figure the problem out. They could probably fashion enough crossbow bolts for her, but they’d be made of wood and not metal, which would decrease the power. And wood was hard to come by in the winter, and harder still to manufacture without proper tools.
They couldn’t use wood for all the crossbows. So then what? What could a crossbow fire besides wood?
If you couldn’t make enough arrows, change the crossbow. Rags squatted down next to the team of tinkerers and soon, they’d widened their prototype crossbow and removed the string. Now it more closely resembled a sling mounted on a stock.
It took hours, and the entire tribe working into the night, but with a superior model to copy, the Goblins eventually came up with something that made Rags’ heart skip. They placed it next to the remade crossbow, two mismatched weapons, but two deadly ones nevertheless.
Rags loaded the Dwarven crossbow, pulling hard with both hands to cock the mechanism. Then she took one of the crude bolts one of her Goblins had made and fired a round outside. The bolt disappeared as the crossbow kicked Rags back into the cave. The Goblins were in awe.
The second crossbow was different, but no less important. Rags, massaging her chest, let another Goblin fire the first shot of that one.
This crossbow took a small stone rather than a bolt. The Goblin placed it carefully in the leather sling and drew the bow back until a small ring of metal could catch on the release of the crossbow. He aimed the bow at the cave wall and pulled the trigger.
Goblins dove to the ground as the small rock flew across the cave and shattered on the stone wall. Rags blinked as a shard of stone struck her on the forehead. She began to kick the Goblin who’d fired it, but she was elated nevertheless.
The new crossbow the Goblins had created was a stone-shot crossbow, not the advanced versions of crossbows as they exist in the world today. It had a lot less range and accuracy than a crossbow that used actual arrows, but ammunition was plentiful. Goblins could load it with small stones or even roll clay and dirt into pellets and bake them near a fire until they were hard.
Rags had her Goblins make more crossbows, as fast as possible. This revealed more problems, mainly in the construction process.
The materials the Goblins used to make the crossbows were shoddy, old, rusted iron and splintered wood. Two crossbows broke on the first firing and one’s drawstring snapped and nearly blinded the Goblin using it. But they worked.
By the end of the night, the Goblins had six working crossbows and several Goblins had earned the [Tinkerer] class. Rags was internally elated, although she wasn’t sure about the class itself.
That was the other thing. Goblins had different classes than humans. Weaker ones, Rags suspected. Instead of the [Warrior] class, a Goblin could as easily gain the [Scrapper] class. Instead of [Carpenter], some got [Crafter]. And [Tinkerer]. She was sure there was a better class that would replace it if she gained enough levels.
It went something like this. [Scrapper] became [Warrior] at Level 5 or thereabouts. And if you reached Level 20, Rags had heard some Goblins gained a different class and new skills.
She desperately wanted to level for herself and find out. But it was better, yes, far better to think of her tribe’s competency in battle first.
Rags’ internal [Tactician] was going wild at the thought of using the crossbows. They had good range, and unlike slings, they could be loaded and left alone until they were needed. Rags could open any battle with a volley and let the less-able combatants pelt her enemy while her warriors engaged at close range.
Yes, they could be a game-changer. Rags wanted these new crossbows in the hands of every one of her Goblins. Rags had visions of sixty Goblins firing all at once. What could they kill with that? The Rock Crabs had too much armor, but with these new weapons, they wouldn’t have to kill them. They could hunt birds without worrying about ammunition.
They could stop eating their dead.
As for her crossbow, Rags could barely load it even with help from other Goblins. But she was fairly certain that a bolt from that would kill even a bear if she hit it in the eye. It was a weapon fit for a Chief.
Rags went to sleep that night, head buzzing with thoughts. But at the back of her mind was the knowledge that this was only the first step. She had something—now she needed to turn that into a way to survive her coming trial.
[Leader Class Obtained!]
[Leader Level 2!]
[Skill – Aura of Command Obtained!]
[Tinkerer Class Obtained!]
[Tinkerer Level 1!]
[Skill – Basic Repair Obtained!]
The Goblins left their cave the next day. It was a chaotic, messy move, but Rags shouted and used her new Skill to make her Goblins organize themselves much faster than they would have normally. They set out through the snow, skirting dangerous spots, scavenging for wood and deposits of clay to make ammunition for their new weapons.
It turned out they could use ice for ammunition as well, although only jagged bits of ice and not compacted snow. Rags located an older cave using her Chief’s memories and her Goblins worked all night to make more crossbows. She tested the boom bark by lighting a fire far away outside and sending a Goblin out to toss a roll into it.
When the Goblins picked themselves off the ground, Rags decided she’d found a very useful trap. But she made sure to bury the bark deep in the snow outside the cave, nevertheless.
They came to the opening in the side of the mountain the next day. Rags halted her tribe outside, ordering them into loose ranks. By now, she had fourteen crossbows not including her own, and she’d distributed slings and bows among the rest.
This was it. Rags stared at the small opening and felt her heart racing. Was this the day she died? She’d enter as carefully as possible. If anything dangerous came their way, she’d retreat.
But she had to level up. Her tribe had to be stronger. That was the truth that had revealed itself to Rags. She wanted to live. So she would dance with death until she did.
Death or levels. Life or death. She unsheathed her sword and pointed at the small rift in the rock. A hundred feet in, and the place would change. Two hundred and they’d start traveling downwards. Three hundred, and no Goblin would ever return. That was what the memories told her.
The Goblins tensed, weapons at the ready. Rags inhaled, and then the breath caught in her lungs.
Something was moving from within the darkness. The Goblins around her froze in terror. Rags lowered her sword and raised her finger. She knew three spells. The [Firefly] spell blazed in her mind.
Then it appeared. Horror washed over the Goblins, undiluted, pure terror. As the purple flaming eyes touched them, the Goblins and Rags felt fear. The same fear that had come from Skinner.
Pumping, bony arms. A lithe frame, mainly because there was no meat on it. Light illuminated bone as something dashed out of the darkness, running as fast as he could.
Rags’ jaw dropped.
A familiar skeleton charged out of the ruins, pursued by a massive suit of armor. To the Goblins, the armor was even more horrifying because it was clearly made for a Minotaur or something even larger. It was missing its helmet, but the enchanted armor glowed with orange light that shone from seams in the armor and the open hole at the top. It held a massive greatsword raised in both hands as it chased Toren into the snow.
Rags and her tribe watched Toren run straight towards them. They eyed the magical armor, considered their crossbows. They looked at the armor, at Toren, at each other.
They screamed as one, and ran.