4.33

It was said that of the five continents, Terandria was the wealthiest, the safest, and the most advanced place to live in the entire world. And that was true. But only if you averaged things out.

Wealthiest? Terandria might be second place to Baleros, where the riches of the jungle and the companies turned blood into gold, or third if you debated the relative size of Izril and compared the three populations of Gnoll, Drake, and Humans to the smaller Terandrian continent. However, it was certainly a rich place, and fewer people died for its wealth.

As for advanced—in magic and technology, Terandria boasted the sole gathering of Dwarf-kind, and thus exported steel and metals far stronger than that. And its strong ties to Wistram meant that mages frequented its shores. However…one could say the same of Baleros and Rhir, whose militaries boasted the most ancient artifacts and highest-level craftspeople.

But safest. Yes, Terandria could call itself safe. Wars were endemic to this world and Terandria had its fair share. But in Terandria, there were rules. Wars were begun and ended with signed declarations, laws against slaughtering civilians and non-combatants were enforced by all nations. And since the populations of each nation were largely Human, they seldom wiped each other out.

It was a subject of mockery in other countries across the world. Terandrians were cowards, it was said. The fat, bickering rulers of each nation would roll over when poked with an ink-stained quill. And perhaps it was true that Terandria had grown too political, that it fought with words and poisoned drinks more than actual soldiers and armies. Perhaps they had grown soft.

But Lyonette missed her home, all the same. Sometimes. She remembered why she hated it, but she also remembered that she had never seen a dead body before leaving. Not once. She was too delicate as a [Princess] to look upon a poisoned uncle’s face, or go to the funeral of an esteemed [Knight]. And death didn’t intrude in her old life. Terandria was safe. Genteel.

On Izril, even Gold-rank adventurers could die. Good, innocent Gnolls could die. Brunkr, someone Lyonette had feared, someone she’d barely known, but begun to like—could die without any reason. And his killer would get away.

People died on Izril. And when they did, they tore holes out of Lyonette’s heart.

 

—-

 

Morning. Lyonette woke up and felt like the sky had fallen. She stared up at the ceiling of her room dully, too tired to get up and start her usual routine. What was the point?

She only moved when she noticed two things. First, was that Ryoka was gone. Yes, she remembered. But it was still another empty space where it should have been filled.

The second thing was that Mrsha was missing. That made Lyonette sit up. She dressed herself quickly and hurried downstairs. She found Mrsha in the common room to her intense relief.

The little Gnoll was lying on the ground in a corner, by the patched-up wall. She was a little ball of white fur, lolling on the ground. Listlessly. Mrsha stared blankly at a wall.

“Mrsha?”

The Gnoll’s short tail wasn’t wagging like usual. She didn’t respond when Lyonette came over. Lyonette tried to gather her up into her arms, but a sense in her head stopped her. She paused as a huge bee crawled onto Mrsha’s head and fanned its wings gently.

“Apista, shoo.”

Lyonette gently made the bee get off Mrsha by offering it her arm. The bee obligingly crawled onto Lyonette’s head; it wasn’t pleasant, feeling its sharp little legs crawling on her skin, but Lyonette put up with it. She bent and tried to pick up Mrsha.

“Come on Mrsha, don’t lie there.”

The Gnoll resisted. Passively. She was limp as a rag, and heavy. Lyonette stopped trying to pick her up and tried a different tack.

“I know you’re sad, Mrsha. I am too. But…I bet you’re hungry. You should eat.”

Mrsha didn’t respond. Lyonette crooned to her, edging over and stroking the back of Mrsha’s head.

“I know you like honey. Why don’t you have some with eggs? And Erin made a pizza two days ago. And she made lasagna last week. What if you had a bit of all that? With some sweet juice? Milk?”

The Gnoll cub’s tail twitched. It began to wag ever so slightly. Lyonette kept encouraging her. In the end, Mrsha got up and padded over to a table. She sat there, staring at the wood, while Lyonette hurried into the kitchen. Apista flew onto the table and twitched her antennas to keep Mrsha company.

Breakfast was a thin slice of lasagna, half a slice of pizza, a fried egg drizzled with a spot of honey, and hot milk. The last of the milk, in fact. It was well used. Mrsha ate her breakfast slowly, but with a sense of growing…peace? Calm? Perhaps the word was relief. A temporary relief from sorrow. Yes, that was it.

Tending to Mrsha helped Lyonette as well. She was able to eat a bit herself—just a slice of the odd ‘pizza’ that Erin was so fond of making. It certainly was easy to eat. And so she was present when Drassi walked in.

“Lyonette, I’m so sorry.

That was the first thing the female Drake said. She’d heard, of course. Not all of it, but enough. And she’d gotten all the big parts. Regrika Blackpaw, the traitor. Her murder of Brunkr and then the death of a Gold-rank adventurer. In Erin’s inn. And all this right before the Goblin Lord’s army marched by the city.

“It was terrifying. All of the Watch was on the walls and we were ordered to stay indoors, but we were all out on the streets of course. I kept thinking, ‘what about Erin and all the people in The Wandering Inn’? But then I heard you’d all fled to Celum, so I was relieved. But oh, it’s too cruel. And after Brunkr was—”

Lyonette put a hand over Drassi’s mouth and the Drake shut up. Both [Barmaids] looked at Mrsha, who’d paused in eating her egg. Gnoll hearing. Drassi coughed guiltily.

“I want to help. You should stay with Mrsha, you really should. Ishkr’s…not feeling well. I don’t think he’ll be in. But I’m sure I can handle whatever’s needed myself!”

“That’s fine. Thank you. I don’t think we’ll have many guests. Can you help me get ready? We have…the Horns of Hammerad and Halfseekers are still here. And Zel. And Erin. I bet she’ll be down soon.”

Drassi paused. She glanced towards the door and then at Lyonette.

“Erin? I saw her outside just a minute ago.”

“What?”

“Yeah, she was pulling arrows out of the dirt. The ones the Goblins shot. And she had a hammer.”

“A—”

Something went crack by one of the windows. Everyone jumped. Lyonette turned, and saw one of the glass windows, open to let the sunlight in. Someone was hitting it. With…a hammer?

“Erin!”

When Lyonette raced outside she found Erin, a carpenter’s claw hammer in hand, smashing it repeatedly on the glass window. Erin stopped and turned to Lyonette.

“Morning, Lyonette.”

“Uh—good morning. What are you doing?”

Erin stared at Lyonette. She didn’t look like she’d gotten much sleep. Her eyes were bloodshot and she was unsteady on her feet. She raised the hammer.

“Hitting my windows. With this.”

“Yes. Why?”

“Stress test.”

Erin grunted, and then turned her hammer. With the claw end of the hammer she swung it at the window. Hard. Lyonette braced herself, but rather than break, the hammer’s edge skated across the glass. Erin eyed the undamaged window, and then punched it.

“Ow. That’s tough.”

“What’s all this about?”

“I’m seeing how tough my inn is now. I didn’t tell you—the other day I got [Reinforced Structure].”

“Oh. Oh! So that’s why the inn wasn’t damaged when the Goblin Lord—”

“Yeah. But I want to know exactly how strong my inn is.”

Erin studied the window again, and then balled a fist. She took a breath.

[Minotaur Punch]!

The impact this time was loud and sharp. Lyonette saw Erin pull back her hand, wincing.

“Are you—”

Erin showed her hand to Lyonette. There was no blood. But there was a definite fracture in the glass where she’d hit. It was small, but it was there.

“Not that strong, then.”

She shook her head. Lyonette stared at her. She stared at the window.

“It looks strong to me. You couldn’t break it, and the glass is pretty thin!”

“Yeah. But if I can fracture it, anyone with more than twenty levels in a combat class can probably break it. And someone like Regrika could probably still put a hole in my walls.”

Regrika. Lyonette felt a cold surge of fear and anger in her stomach when she heard the name. She looked at Erin.

“Do you think she’s going to come back…?”

“No.”

Erin shook her head. She looked at her window, and then turned away. She trudged around to the front of the inn.

“I don’t. But even if I never see her again, what about next time?”

“What do you mean, next time?”

“A Rock Crab. The Goblin Lord’s army. Or another adventurer. Another Skinner. Or…”

Erin shook her head. She looked so tired. Lyonette stared at a boarded-up wall in Erin’s inn, where Moore had smashed through to run from Regrika. That had been before Erin’s new Skill. Now, she wondered if the half-Giant would have been able to manage the feat.

The [Innkeeper] was clearly thinking the same thing.

“Next time, I won’t be able to rely on luck. And that was what it was. Luck saved everyone but Ulrien. Revi still got cut up, Moore needed healing, and Jelaqua…I can’t keep doing what I’ve been doing. I thought I was prepared. I was wrong.”

Lyonette shook her head adamantly.

“You did everything you could! You got two Gold-rank teams and Zel Shivertail and a Wall Lord to help you. You made sure Mrsha and I—and Apista—were safely out of the inn. What else could you have done?”

“Something. Anything. When she was fighting, Regrika—I couldn’t scratch her. I bought healing potions, magical items from Octavia—do you know I didn’t think to use any of them? It wouldn’t have mattered if I had, anyways. I need something more. More protection. More power. More…”

She shook her head. Erin glanced towards the open door to her inn, leaking warm air. She went to close it and paused.

“Are you okay? Is Mrsha?”

“I’ll be—”

Lyonette’s throat closed up before she could say she was fine. She wasn’t. Erin looked at her. She had a haunted look in her eyes. And Lyonette remembered that Erin had seen people die before as well.

“Take the day off if you need to. Keep Mrsha company.”

“It’s okay. I can manage. But are you alright? You look…”

“I’m fine. I’ve been through this before.”

“Oh?”

Erin nodded. She stared into her inn, and then turned away. There was something quiet about her today. Quiet, and intense. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t frowning or visibly upset, either. She was just…present.

“It doesn’t get better. But I can work without crying this time. Because I have to. It’s easier to have something to do. And so much has happened. Ryoka’s gone. Ivolethe’s gone. Brunkr and Ulrien…the Goblin Lord. I need to…”

She stared up at the blue sky without finishing her sentence. Lyonette looked around. The snow was still thick everywhere she looked. But it was wet. Melting. It would take a week at least for the warming weather to melt the snow. When it did…Lyonette foresaw a lot of mud and water.

“Come on. I’ve got food and Drassi is here. You should have breakfast if you haven’t already. And I’d bet the others will wake up any time soon.”

Erin blinked. She looked at Lyonette.

“Yeah. Let’s do that.”

 

—-

 

Quietus. That was what followed death. In the moments between grief and anger, reconciliation, regret, denial, and perhaps, peace, there was silence. It was not always the same.

Some wept. Some mourned out loud. Others retreated inwards or found places to go to be alone. Some just…left.

It was the same across the world. In Rhir, a [Clown] sat in a room full of broken mirrors, too full of grief and horror to shed any more tears. A [Princess] wept alone in her bedroom, because she could not show her sadness outside. A kingdom was full of drums, and the people swore vengeance over pyres. Hatred stems from grief.

Silence in that place was loud. It was men and women crying out for vengeance, a [King] sitting on his throne, loudly praising those who fought and denouncing traitors. It was the sound of drums, beating to a mourning city. But in the fractured moments of time between each thump of a drum was that moment of silence. Of numb loss.

In a small inn outside of Liscor, the silence was different. It was pure quiet. Hushed voices. A talkative Drake who chattered quietly, trying to make a Gnoll smile. It was adventurers walking downstairs.

The Horns of Hammerad barely spoke. And they left early. Their silence was another contract; hunting down a large nest of Shield Spiders that had infested a section of Liscor’s sewers, burrowing through stone and dirt. Or maybe their eggs had been carried into the tunnels somehow? Either way, it was a job for a Silver-rank team, not Bronze. It was dirty, but it was work to keep them occupied.

They left. But carried silence with them. Silence was Pisces slipping Mrsha a piece of oily bacon, Ksmvr talking about the mission by himself since no one would join in. Yvlon thanking Lyonette and the two staring at each other for a moment before turning away. Ceria putting a hand on Erin’s shoulder.

The Halfseekers were different. Jelaqua was loud, drinking early in the day. Moore and Seborn were naturally quiet, but they filled the air today with sound.

“Now it’s just one Gold-rank team in here. At least until the Horns get certified. That means we’d better act the part. Moore, cause some trouble.”

“How?”

“Knock over a chair or something. Start a fight.”

The half-Giant obligingly turned over a chair. Seborn knocked over his empty cup. Jelaqua looked disgusted. Lyonette giggled a bit, and Mrsha’s tail wagged a bit more.

“You two are disgusting, you know that? Looks like I have to cause all the trouble myself. Hey Erin, got anything I can smash?”

“How about a window?”

“What?”

When they heard about Erin’s tests on her inn, the Halfseekers all went outside to test the durability of Erin’s inn. They argued, kept themselves busy. Jelaqua rapped on the window, first hard, and then punched it.

“Right. Looks like I could break this with my flail, but it might take two swings. Maybe three, depending on how much space I had. Moore could probably put his fist through it as well, but I’d hate to imagine what that’d do to his hand. Seborn…it would be pretty hard.”

Moore sighed.

“I would probably put an enchantment over my hand, Jelaqua. Cover it with vines. Or thorns. I’m not a savage.”

“Good point. Seborn, you think you could break it?”

The Drowned Man shrugged.

I don’t feel the need. I’d rather just unlatch the window and jump in, or find another route. But I could probably break it with my daggers. It would slow me down, though.

“Go ahead. I don’t mind.”

Erin stepped back from the window and invited Seborn to use his daggers on it. The Halfseekers eyed her. Jelaqua paused and shook her head.

“Nah. Glass is expensive. It’s good you got the Skill, though. A bit more protection’s always good.”

“You should look into some spells. I know a decent [Enchanter] who does warding spells.”

Moore nodded to Erin. She looked at him.

“Really? How much do they cost? And how strong are they? Would they stop someone like Regrika?”

The Gold-rank adventurers looked at each other. Jelaqua sighed. She scratched at the black stitches around her forehead.

“No. Never mind.”

Erin looked at the stitches. They were holding together the top of Jelaqua’s head, the bit Regrika had sliced off with the rest of her body, but the severed bit was already looking slightly…decomposed.

“Are you okay? Is your body…”

She didn’t know how to complete that sentence. The Selphid grinned at her wearily.

“Damaged. Thanks for asking. I tore a lot of muscles and the top of my head’s rotting off.  But hey, I’m alive so who cares about my body?”

She grinned. Erin remembered that Jelaqua’s head had been empty when she’d seen inside. The memory made her want to bring up the lasagna she’d had for breakfast.

“Right. No brains. That’s…a bit icky, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Not a problem. Nothing looks pretty from the inside. I should know!”

“But how’d your brains—I mean, your body’s brains—how did they uh, disappear? Is that something you have to do when you—”

Terminology was becoming an issue. Jelaqua smiled.

“Brains have nothing to do with how I control a body. I don’t need ‘em. As for how they disappeared, well…it’s this thing, okay? Excess body fat, useless organs—I get snacky, and sometimes—”

Moore elbowed Jelaqua gently.

“That’s disturbing. Even for me, Jelaqua.”

“Sorry, sorry! You did ask. I know you fleshies don’t like talking about it. But Erin did ask, and I want to be open about that.”

The Selphid raised her hands. Erin smiled at her and resolved never to ask about that again. Or at least not after she’d just eaten. She took a second to compose herself, and then gestured at Jelaqua’s head.

“So you need a new body, is that right?”

“Preferably. But I can manage without one if I have to for a month or two. Might get ugly, but I don’t know if I’ll find a new body around here.”

The Selphid grew serious. She nodded towards Liscor.

“Drakes do not like people using their bodies. Neither do Gnolls. They have a thing about it. You know, from the Necromancer? And people don’t like Selphids in general. It’s almost worse than back home because they don’t know about Selphids, so there are all these rumors I have to deal with…I’m willing to pay in gold of course, but I think I’ll have to ask around in Celum and that’s a gamble.”

Erin nodded. The logistics of corpse acquisitions were unfortunately not a new subject to her. Pisces had made similar complaints in the past.

“And I bet you want a good body, right? One with lots of teeth…freshly dead, and probably with muscles, right?”

“She gets it!”

The Selphid turned to Seborn and Moore, looking relieved. They nodded approvingly. Jelaqua walked back inside with the others and sat at a table. Zel was having breakfast. He nodded to Erin, and then winced as Jelaqua began grousing about finding a new host body.

“You would not believe how hard it is. Forget having a specific taste in bodies, finding one that’s not old, infected with some disease and in one piece is hard enough. I’m not one of those elitist types of course—I’ll go for anything without a pulse if it can get the job done. Heck, with all the wear and tear in my profession, that’s mandatory. But I’d like another female body. I mean, the male ones are alright, but let’s be honest—the dangling bits tend to get eaten by bugs before I can enter the corpse, and that’s a pain whenever I have to relieve myself from then on…”

Erin was in a position to regret ever asking about Jelaqua’s woes, but at least it was distracting to hear the Selphid grouse. And that was good. True, Zel lost his appetite and Lyonette had to cover Mrsha’s ears, but it was fun. In a way.

“What about Antinium bodies?”

“Excuse me?”

Jelaqua paused in her rant about having sex, and stared at Erin. The girl shrugged.

“I know a lot of Antinium die. It’s not…good, but if they were willing to give you a body, would you be able to use it?”

Bird paused as he walked downstairs. He had his bow in hand. He nodded.

“Antinium bodies are exceedingly durable.”

Erin jumped. She’d forgotten that Bird was staying here! She was about to apologize when she realized that Bird was agreeing with her. The Antinium sat at a table. He was uninjured, and he requested ‘unborn birds’ for breakfast. As usual. Lyonette gave him a plate of eggs which he began to eat happily.

“Ants? I’d never given it a thought.”

Jelaqua looked troubled as she picked at the stiches on her head. Seborn grabbed her hand. She gave him an annoyed look.

“It itches.

It’ll itch more if it fully decomposes.

“You suck. Okay. Antinium…it’s a thought, Erin, but there’s a few issues. Antinium aren’t welcome in most places on the continent. Also, I’m not familiar with their bodies. It would take a while to get up to speed, and that’s not good if we’re going to take on the dungeon again. I don’t know if their insides are different, which might be dangerous. And I mean, four arms? That’s tricky.”

She waved her two arms around and Erin nodded.

“It’s just a thought. If your uh, head gets rotty, I can ask Klbkch about it.”

“Thanks. Yeah, better that than decomposition, right? I mean, I can deal with maggots and flies laying eggs—just a snack when you get down to it. But people complain of the smell, and then I start leaking…

“Right. Thank you for breakfast. I’ve got to be on my way.”

Zel pushed his plate back. The [General] stood, looking queasy, and Erin saw Jelaqua raise a hand guiltily. Moore covered his face.

“Sorry about that.”

Erin hurried over and cleared the table. Drassi was in the kitchen doing dishes. Zel shook his head.

“Not a problem. I’m in a hurry anyways.”

“Oh? What are you doing?”

The Drake grimaced.

“Sitting with Liscor’s Council, talking, reassuring people and communicating—slowly—with other cities, mainly. We’re in touch with Esthelm via [Message] spell and talking over forming another army with the Walled Cities.”

“Esthelm?”

That was right. Esthelm was right in the Goblin Lord’s path if he was heading north. Erin felt a surge of panic, but Zel gently gripped her arm.

“Don’t worry. Our [Strategists] including young Olesm, say that the Goblin Lord won’t try to take the city. It’s not worth his while and he’s in a hurry. We’ll see what happens, but their walls are rebuilt thanks to the Antinium. And you. I’ll let you know if something happens.”

“Okay.”

He nodded.

“Besides that I have a [Message] spell to send…and while I’m thinking of it, I should give you this.”

He reached for his belt and opened a bag. It must have been a bag of holding, because the small pile of gold coins clinked onto the table in a quick flow. Erin stared at them.

“What’s this? You already paid for the week, and this is way too much—”

“For the wall. And damaged chairs. Tables and so on.”

Zel looked at Erin, and shifted his gaze towards the hole in the wall. Moore opened his mouth and Jelaqua stepped on his toes. Erin stared at the gold coins and pushed them back.

“I can’t take this. It’s my fault—”

“Please.”

Zel refused to touch the coins. He stood up. Erin tried to offer them back, but he refused.

“I know what you’re trying to say, but you did what I would have done in your shoes. Better. You uncovered a real threat, and…it was not your fault. I was the highest-level warrior on the field that night. The battle was mine to lose. I wasn’t here. This is my way of apologizing.”

“Even so—I don’t need it. I don’t. I have enough money coming in. Lots, actually. And Ryoka left some of her gold—look, I can’t—”

Zel edged around Erin and left the inn before she could block him. Erin stood in the doorway forlornly, watching him march quickly through the snow. Jelaqua sighed and got to her feet.

“We’d probably pay if he didn’t. He’s right, you know. No one blames you for what went down, Erin. You did what you could. It’s just…”

She shrugged. Moore and Seborn were also getting to their feet. She looked at them, shook her head. Mrsha, Lyonette, Erin—Drassi poked her head out of the kitchen. Jelaqua looked tired.

“Sometimes you run into a real monster. Someone invincible. Something. Sometimes you lose. That’s the way this world works, right?”

She turned and looked around, her customary smile gone. She nodded, and the Halfseekers slowly walked out the door.

Erin stood, watching them go as well. A half-Giant, wading through snow that only came up to his ankles. Seborn, quiet as a shadow. Jelaqua, leading with head turned up to the sky. Erin stood in the quiet inn and stared at the spot where Ulrien had died. Mrsha hugged Lyonette and Apista fanned her wings by the fire.

After a while, Drassi poked her head out of the kitchen again.

“We’re out of milk, by the way.”

Life moved on.

 

—-

 

It was the goats that saved them. Because of them, the six were granted another day to live. And they were grateful. They had to live. It was that or die, and they were too proud to die. Their friends had sacrificed too much for them to die.

But they would die soon. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then later. The only question was how they would die. For that was their fate.

They were Goblins. And they had no tribe. They were warriors without a purpose. They had fought and bled and half their number had died for a Human. A monster with a soul. Someone who had looked at them and seen a reflection.

And now six remained. Six Goblins. Elite warriors of the Redfang Goblin tribe, sent by Garen Redfang himself on a mission they had long since abandoned and no longer cared about.

Lost.

Last night, the Goblin Lord’s army had marched north. North, past the city of Liscor. North, towards Esthelm and the lands beyond. Their numbers were in the tens of thousands, not including the undead army that marched ahead of them. They were legion—an army to strike fear into the hearts of all but the mightiest. A Goblin Lord rode with them. A figure equivalent to any [General]. With him leading the army, they could destroy a lesser nation.

And yet, they had come under attack last night. Just once. It was as the group of six Redfang warriors were desperately hiding behind the cover of some rocks, lying low in case the patrolling sentries headed their way. They might have been found. Again, but for the goats.

Eater Goats. One of the monsters from the High Passes, a match for a Carn Wolf. These creatures were deadly, quick, fearless, and could eat anything. Their jaws could crunch stone or metal. And they hunted in packs.

A group of them had charged the Goblin Lord’s army. Just over a hundred attacking tens of thousands of Goblins. But the goats were fearless. And hungry. The winter had driven them from their homes. That, and…something else perhaps. Some disturbance. Whatever the case, they had spotted a lot of prey, and gone rampaging into the Goblin Lord’s ranks.

Hiding behind their cover, the Redfang warriors had enjoyed hearing the screams of Goblins as the Eater Goats ambushed them. The goats had taken down Hobs, chewed through armor and bitten through bone, and devoured the undead trying to kill them before retreating. Of course, the Goblin Lord’s army had encircled the goats with steel, shot arrows into their hides, blasted them with magic.

It was a testament, then, to the fearsome nature of the goats that after attacking an army of tens of thousands, a little over thirty goats still escaped. And not because they’d been dying either; it was just that they’d eaten their fill.

Monsters. But their intervention had allowed the Redfang Goblins to hide in the meantime and let the Goblin Lord’s army pass them by. And so the next day, the six Goblins rose and followed the Eater Goats as they headed south, searching for more food.

There was a logic to it. Despite the Eater Goats being considered a terrible threat worthy of a Gold-rank team, the Redfang Goblins knew they had little to fear from them. That was because their tribe, led by Garen Redfang, had lived in the High Passes for years and clashed with the Eater Goats many times. They were known to the Eater Goats, in short.

There were two settings the goats had. They regarded the world as made up of two things. Food and not-Food. Through bloody battles where they had slaughtered the goats, the Redfang Goblins had earned the enviable title of not-Food, allowing them to pass by the Eater Goats without incident. So long as one side or the other wasn’t hungry.

The trick was red paint on their faces and bodies. All six of the Redfang warriors wore it. That combination of red and green warned the Eater Goats not to attack. Thus, the Redfang warriors could let the goats move ahead and enjoy the protection of the ravenous monsters. Afraid of Shield Spiders, Mothbears, Armored Crawlers, or Wyverns? No problem. The Eater Goats would take down anything that moved.

And in the meantime, the Redfang warriors could scavenge the kills.

 

—-

 

The place where the Goblin Lord’s army had clashed with the Eater Goats still had a few fallen bodies. The goats, having eaten last night, were all resting until their systems worked through their meals. That meant the Redfang Goblins had a short window to procure their own rations. They were hungry; they’d been in hiding for the last day from the Goblin Lord’s army.

The six Goblins hurried down the pass and ran across the muddy ground, searching for fallen bodies that weren’t completely rotten. It was a miserable, horrible task, but they had to do it. It was that or starve. They were hungry enough to eat an undead Goblin, but all of them prayed it wouldn’t come to that.

One of the Redfang warriors paused as he found a figure in black armor lying in the snow. He nudged the body, turned it over, and saw a fat Hob’s face. Dead and still caked in mud. Skin cold from the air which still had yet to warm. Perfect.

He called the others over. Two Goblins approached. They eyed the Hob, nodded. Three lifted the huge corpse up and moved back towards their hiding spot. The other three hosted corpses of their own and joined them.

Normally, three Goblins couldn’t carry a Hob of any size, let alone a fat one with armor. But the Redfang warriors were strong. Unlike every other Goblin and some adventurers, they trained for combat. And the six who now started a fire in the snow were more different still.

Rabbiteater. Bugear. Numbtongue. Shorthilt. Badarrow. Headscratcher. They tossed wood on a growing flame, warmed their frozen bodies, and carved up the dead Goblins, roasting flesh on pans and eating greedily. Hungrily. They were starving. They’d been starving for days. Normally, a small Goblin could live for a week on a single body, but these Goblins consumed all they found and went back to look for more. Because they weren’t small Goblins any longer.

They were Hobs.

All six. Headscratcher carved more fat and tossed it into the pan, grunting with surprise when he missed. Badarrow caught the flesh out of the air. He had been the first to grow used to his longer limbs and new musculature. He tilted the pan and the smell made Rabbiteater grunt. Badarrow flipped the meat towards him and the other Hob grabbed it out of the air.

They ate for over an hour. Because they were hungry. It had been a week since the Goblins had begun growing at an abnormal rate, nearly doubling their height in a matter of days, and the cost of it was reflected in sunken cheeks, thin bellies, and their craving for any food—even the bodies of their own.

Shorthilt reappeared by their fire and tossed something down. The other Hobs looked and saw it was a pack. Of rations for the Goblin Lord’s soldiers! They were on it in a second, fighting over the hard, gritty bread and frozen bit of cheese and jerky. It didn’t matter that the food was half-rotten. Goblins would eat anything in hard times, and they knew they needed all the energy they could get.

The Hobgoblin transformation process was usually like this. But as Numbtongue pointed out with an eloquent grunt after their hunger pangs had subsided, it was rare for so many Hobs to appear at once.

The other Redfang warriors considered this. Bugear scratched at his ears, a tick left over from a time when bugs had actually infested his ears. Now they were gone, which was a disappointment since he could have used more to eat. But it was also a reminder of who he’d met, of who he’d lost.

The action was both a message and a habit. The other Goblins stared at Bugear and looked away. They remembered, too.

A city full of undead. A place of ruin and shattered Humans. A monster who ate like they did. A girl, begging for help. Goblins in black armor. The [Knight]. The skeleton dancing in delight. The flowers.

Death. That was what they had left behind. The Redfang warriors stared at the fire. They’d lost so many. Their leader, the taciturn Grunter, Rocksoup always complaining of indigestion, Leftstep, who’d once dueled a Gold-rank [Fencer] with a stick and a shield made of bark. Bitefly, who ate flies. Orangepoo, whose name spoke for himself. Patchhelm, obsessed with armor, and Justrust, whose swords were as deadly for tetanus as they were for their ability to cut.

All gone. The Redfang warriors sat, remembering. All gone, and for what? Badarrow gnashed his teeth as he gnawed at a bone, making his feelings plain.

Headscratcher held something up. The others looked. It was a flower.

Eloquently put. Badarrow tossed the bone aside and sighed. Headscratcher ate the flower. They’d been over this too many times to count. Too many times to dwell on it, but they did.

They were alone. And they had lost their group, as well as their purpose. Or rather, their conviction. After meeting a Human, after fighting for her, perhaps loving her—how could they kill another Human? What was the point?

Shorthilt made their general position clear by tossing a bit of intestines too filthy even by Goblin standards into the fire. The smell made the other Goblins growl, but he was right.

Garen Redfang was wrong. He was also an idiot. Rags, their new and rightful Chieftain, was probably right. At the very least, she was smart and worth following. If they could rejoin her tribe.

But where were they? The Redfang warriors had combed the area looking for clues about where their tribe had gone. They’d tried to enter the High Passes, but found no sign of any Goblins in the area. And the danger was too great, so they’d come south, hoping to find Rags around Liscor.

However, all six knew that if the Flooded Waters tribe had been anywhere around Liscor, the Goblin Lord’s army would have already destroyed them utterly.

So what now? Headscratcher scratched his head and patted his stomach. The others looked at him gloomily. Yes, the problem was obvious. Besides finding their tribe, the six warriors were in dire straits of their own. Because they were still hungry, and they would continue being hungry for a while.

They were Hobs. Six new Hobs, which shouldn’t be! Most small tribes had one or two Hobs at most. Big tribes could of course have many Hobs—there were rumors of a tribe living in the mountains who had hundreds of Hobs, and the Goblin Lord’s army had thousands. But who’d heard of six Goblins all turning into Hobs at once?

It made no sense. But it had something to do with what they’d been through, the Redfang warriors were sure. Losing Grunter, their leader and only Hob had triggered the change, as well as the ferocity of the battle they’d been through. Normally this would be a cause for celebration; a Hob was special, and they would be far stronger for their transformation. But only if they were with their tribe. Out here, away from any support and scavenging for food in the last stages of winter?

It was a death sentence. Already, the Redfang warriors felt hungry again. Numbtongue and Rabbiteater went to look for more corpses. The rest sat and debated what to do.

It wasn’t a hard decision. To the Goblins’ uncomplicated minds, there was only death, and more death. To the north, there was merciless death, overwhelming death, the death of enemies from the Goblin Lord’s army. They couldn’t hide twice and they’d die in an instant against so many foes, Hobs or not. Surrendering to join the Goblin Lord’s army was…also not an option. They’d been seen fighting at Esthelm against the Goblin Lord’s army and besides that, the Redfang warriors had their pride.

South, then. The only way they could go. To Liscor. However, the Redfang Goblins were sure that meant another kind of death as well. Badarrow captured the idea by breaking a bit of ice with one hand. It would be a death of pieces, a slow death. They’d find food or starve. Or be hunted down as threats.

Bugear nodded. He kicked dirt over their fire and Headscratcher pointed. The Eater Goats were rising, already heading southwards for more food.

Yes, it would most likely be their deaths. But what other choice did they have? They were warriors. At least this way there was a chance. And if they had to die fighting, well…

The Eater Goats ran swiftly down the rocky slopes and onto the road, moving quickly, jumping incredible heights with ease. Their teeth were still red from their feast, their hides still matted with blood. They screamed a hunting call. The Redfang warriors followed at a distance.

If they had to die, at least they’d have a worthy foe to die fighting against. They hated those damn goats. But, as even Badarrow would concede, they were a lot easier to fight against than Gargoyles.

 

—-

 

“So you’re a [Farmer].”

“That is correct, Miss Solstice.”

“That’s cool. I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions. But it’s just weird. I didn’t think I’d ever uh, meet a Gnoll [Farmer]. Do you—is that normal?”

The Gnoll raised a furry eyebrow. His fur was a dirty blonde, and he’d paused in his chores long enough to chat with Erin. He shifted the empty pail as he considered her question.

“Hrm. No, I suppose it is not. My people, they do raise animals, but they do not plant, yes? However, we learned to farm the land from the Drakes, and so some of us abandon our travels to settle near cities.”

“Like Liscor. That’s what I never got. Why would anyone ever live in a village near the city? I mean, this is a nice hill you’ve got here. Very big. But…it’s uh, a bit undefended.”

The Gnoll bared his teeth as Erin gestured to the village she stood in. It really was a small place. A pair of farms, a few houses, and a ten-foot high wall were the only defenses. The Gnoll only shrugged.

“There is no safety anywhere, yes? So long as we do not stray beyond the walls, it is easy to defend. Stone Deceivers—”

“What? Oh, you mean Rock Crabs.”

“Rock Crabs? Hrm. That is a good name for them, yes. They do not attack walled settlements. Shield Spiders are a threat if they burrow, but they can be heard tunneling. As for Goblins and other threats…I have a bow and the others in the village are able to fight. The Watch patrols in the area. It is safe, and needed.”

“Because you feed the city?”

“Exactly so. Without us, Liscor would starve. Oh, there is fishing to be done in the spring, and [Shepherds] can keep their sheep within the walls if need be. But all cities save for the Walled Cities require [Farmers].”

“Right. I gotcha. And you specialize in milk, right?”

The Gnoll nodded.

“That is so. I keep many cows. They are curious creatures, or so I think. Even after raising them for many years, I find it odd, yes? But they give milk, which my people love. You said you wished some.”

“Oh! Right. I’d like to buy some, yeah. Krshia said she gets it from you and you were going to bring some in a day or two, but I’d like some today if you have any you can spare.”

“Certainly. It is expensive in the winter of course—”

“I’ve got money. Don’t worry. I just need some. You see, I have this little Gnoll I’m helping to look after—”

“Mrsha. Hrr. Yes. I know.”

Erin blinked.

“You do—but—right.”

The [Farmer] smiled. He gestured towards his house.

“We have different kinds of milks, yes? Some cows give better milk. Richer, fatter…and of course I have had the great luck of obtaining a Fischer Cow pair. Now I have several such cows. And goats. I believe a young Gnoll would like goat milk most.”

“Goat milk? Well, I wouldn’t mind having some of—what’s a Fischer Cow?”

“They like meat. Their milk is very rich, although the cows themselves…they bite.”

The [Farmer] showed Erin a scar on one arm. She shuddered.

“Meat eating cows. What’s next?”

“I would love to have one of the magical types of cows in my barn one day. But they are rare and hard to raise, yes? For now, I have several bottles of goat milk and more. Come, please.”

Erin sneezed. It was cold, and the Gnoll’s offer was very tempting.

“Okay. I might have to make a few trips to get all the milk I want, though. I’ll buy in bulk. I have a little sled—”

“It is no issue. I will be here all day.”

“Cool. Hey, do you want to buy some honey? Lyonette got a lot last time and I thought I’d ask. Don’t know if cows eat honey, but it’s good stuff.”

“…Honey?”

 

—-

 

“I am Bird. Bird I am. I hunt birds with my bow. This is my song. La. Lah, la…birds.”

Bird sang quietly to himself as he stood in his watch tower on top of Erin’s inn. His bow was in hand, and he was scanning the sky for birds. This was his purpose, but he was being extra alert today.

Because he had failed. Two people had died while he was on duty. True, one had died inside the inn, at the hands of a Named Adventurer and the other had been killed in the city, but the deaths weighed on Bird.

He was a guard. A protector. Revalantor Klbkch had impressed on him the grave nature of his duty. He had been given a chance, a chance to protect Erin to whom he and his comrades owed so much.

She had given him the bow he held. She had taught him chess. She had freed his fellow Workers. Freed them in their heads.

For that he would always love her. And he had failed her. Her guests were dead. Bird knew he didn’t understand things like Pawn did, but he understood failure.

So he stood in his watch tower, ignoring the cold. He hunted for birds. He would hunt for birds and that would make things better. One bird, two birds…if it took him a thousand birds, he would shoot them all down. That was the only way he knew how to make things better.

Bird didn’t know much about the world. He knew some things were bad. Some things he had to watch out for. Rock Crabs, Shield Spiders, Face-Eater Moths…these things weren’t birds, so the Antinium only identified them as threats. The world was hard and complex.

Not like birds. There were blue birds and red birds, yellow birds and black birds. There were birds that flew high overhead, birds who could fly through the clouds thousands of miles overhead. The Antinium was still trying to figure out how he was going to shoot them down.

There were birds who could fly faster than the wind. Birds who were larger than houses. Birds who flew through the sky and left trails of glowing air in their wake. Birds that were beauty and wrath, elegance and cunning.

They flew. Bird could still remember the wonder he’d felt the first time he’d looked up and seen a bird flying. The envy. And he could remember shooting one. He hunted birds because he was jealous. Because they were beautiful. Because they were food.

Because he loved to hunt. And if you had a bow, what was the point of shooting at slow things on the ground? The masters of the sky were true challenges, from the tiny birds that could dodge an arrow’s tip at point blank range, to the big birds that might take a full quiver to down.

Bird had an arrow in one of his hands as he scanned the horizon. Check for birds, check for threats. He looked up, and then down. No birds in the sky. But they’d be coming soon. His [Hunter] instincts told him so. The world was warming, and that meant food for the birds and a time for mating, nesting. He just had to wait.

Look up—a flicker behind one of the clouds, about two thousand and three hundred feet up. A bit too high to shoot. Look down. Bird saw something move. He turned and stared.

“Goats.”

There were about thirty of them. They surged across the snow, screaming. Bird could see their bodies covered with blood; one of them looked like it was missing half its face, but it didn’t seem bothered. Another had an arrow sticking out of its side. Bird thought about that.

“Goats. Goats are an animal. They are not monsters. Therefore, they are no threat.”

Satisfied with that conclusion, he turned to resume scanning the landscape when he noticed something.

“The goats are going in the same direction as Miss Solstice. Towards the farming village.”

He stared at the distant hilltop. At the goats. At the one missing half its jaw. Bird shrugged.

“Goats are food. Can you milk a goat? I will ask later.”

Again, he was about to turn, when he spotted something else. A group of six, crossing the snowy plains. They were distant, but Bird’s eyes were enhanced thanks to his [Eagle’s Eyes] Skill. He liked it because it was based off a Bird. And what he saw made him pause.

“Green. Goblins.”

Six of them, all moving fast. They all had weapons, if not armor, and they were larger than the average Goblin. Bird thought and amended his analysis.

“Hobgoblins.”

He paused, arrow in hand. Bird watched the Goblins running, and slowly opened his mandibles.

“Goblins. Goblins are a monster. They are a threat. However, Erin’s sign says not to kill Goblins.”

That was a paradox. Bird scratched at his head and brightened.

“Ah. It said nothing about Hobgoblins.”

He put the arrow to his bow, sighted, and held his breath. Halrac had taught him how to shoot. Bird was grateful. He wished the Goblins were birds. That would make things so much more fun. Land-based things were so…easy.

The Goblins were over eight hundred feet away, a vast distance and far further than his bow was capable of shooting. Normally. Bird had no idea about technical terms like draw strength, the materials used in the composition of his bow, and so on—he didn’t know that it was a recurve bow. But he did know how to hunt birds. He knew that an arrow might not pierce a bird if it was shot from too far away.

“That is what Skills are for. Now. [Long Range Shot].”

He pulled the arrow back, sighted, and loosed.

 

—-

 

The Redfang warriors were arguing and split on their argument. They’d followed the Eater Goats down the abandoned road, and they had seen the goats pick up a scent. They saw the village the goats were headed towards, and half of them were in favor of waiting for the goats to do their work, and the other half were in favor of helping. Somehow.

None of them were under illusions. The Eater Goats outnumbered them and they were deadly. One could kill an average Hob. Six versus thirty wasn’t a fight, it was a death sentence.

And yet, Headscratcher insisted it wasn’t right. And however much Badarrow and Shorthilt snarled at him, he was growing more impatient. The Goblins were running after the Eater Goats anyways; they’d have a brief window to loot the village regardless of what happened. Headscratcher was cresting a hill when Bugear looked up in alarm and tackled him to the ground.

An arrow whistled through the air, catching Headscratcher in the arm. If Bugear hadn’t pushed him, it would have caught him in the chest. The Redfang Goblins immediately dove to the ground. Badarrow snarled as he grabbed his own bow and raised his head.

Where? The Goblins looked around, keeping low, aware that their position might be open. Headscratcher snapped the arrow in his arm, raised his head and ducked down.

Nothing that way. Rabbiteater crawled rapidly to the left and looked around a small rise of snow. He growled.

Nothing.

As Numbtongue raised his head over the hill, all six Hobs heard another whistling sound. Numbtongue ducked, and the second arrow nearly took him in the head. He snarled, and all six Goblins poked their heads up. They looked around, but only Badarrow with his enhanced eyes spotted anything. He pointed.

There!

The Goblins looked. All six ducked. The archer in the tower’s next arrow thunked into the ground that was giving them cover.

A lightning-fast debate with hand signs took place as the Hobgoblins analyzed the situation, and then, as Bird was waiting for them to pop up again, all six suddenly stood up.

“What is this?”

The Antinium stared at the six very helpful targets that had suddenly appeared. He shrugged, not deciding to question it since they weren’t birds, and aimed for the one he’d hit first. He sighted down his bow, and then jerked back.

An arrow streaked past his head, shattering on one of the wooden posts of his tower. Bird stared at the broken fragments as they splintered past him, and then at the Goblin in the distance holding the bow.

Badarrow grinned savagely. His best three arrows were in his hand. He nocked the first, aimed, and loosed.

[Farshot Mastery]. He’d learned the Skill after sniping the Goblin [Shaman] during the battle at Esthelm. Unlike Bird he could shoot as many arrows as quickly as he wanted, uninhibited by a need to use a certain Skill. Badarrow advanced, loosing all three arrows in succession.

As he did, the Redfang warriors advanced. Not at a run, but at a quick walk. Those of them with shields had them raised. They were waiting for a return shot.

When it came, it was straight at Badarrow. The Hobgoblin [Archer] grunted, and stepped sideways. The arrow flashed by his chest, scoring a line and making him growl. But it was a miss.

Advance. Badarrows’ shots came three at a time, flying with incredible accuracy to land on Bird’s position. The Antinium took cover by the stairwell, wishing he’d asked for a place to take cover from enemy fire when the Antinium had built this place. But birds didn’t shoot back! Well, most of them didn’t.

When he rose, an arrow struck him in the chest. Bird stumbled back, stared at the arrow, and touched it gently.

“Ow.”

The other archer might have been able to hit him at range, but his bow wasn’t good. It didn’t have the power to pierce his carapace with a single shot. That knowledge was important. Bird looked and saw the Redfang Goblins had covered over two hundred feet while the other archer kept him suppressed. They were advancing quickly, now.

“Troublesome.”

He aimed and used [Long Range Shot] again, but the Goblins were a bit too quick, and his arrows had to travel too far. He grazed one on the arm, and nearly got one on the eye until a lucky shot hit one in the knee. That Goblin fell, rolling until he was obscured in the snow. Bird ignored him. The real threat was hitting his tower now, concentrating on volume rather than accuracy.

Two more arrows struck the Antinium. They were both in each other’s range now, and the second and third arrows penetrated his carapace. Bird fumbled with an arrow. He could not die here. If he did…he would have failed again. Unacceptable.

“My turn.”

The arrow was coming. All five Hobs tensed. Shorthilt was hiding in the snow, and he had a healing potion. He’d make it back to them if he could, but the arrows were fast and deadly. The next one came fast and high at Badarrow. The Hob twisted to avoid it, grinning—

And the arrow curved into his side. Greatly surprised, Badarrow spun. Headscratcher caught Badarrow as he nearly fell. The Goblin gripped him, pulled himself upright—

The next homing arrow struck Bugear’s shield. It had curved right for Badarrow’s head. The Redfang Goblins looked at the distant archer. Badarrow snarled as he grabbed arrows from his bow. Whomever this strange bug was, he was good.

And yet, he was only one. Bird had to take cover again as arrows lashed his position. The other Goblin didn’t have his curving arrows, but he was quick! Bird peeked up, and an arrow nearly took his eye out.

“Dangerous.”

They were too close now. Too close! Bird had to risk a shot. This time he’d hit the archer in the head! He stood and took a fourth arrow to the chest.

“Ah.”

The cracks in his carapace were spreading. Bird fell against one of the guard railings of his tower, and lurched upright. One arrow. He drew it to his chest, sighted. Time felt slowed. He aimed at the Goblin. They both were aiming. The one who fell won. He could take the other Goblins down if he could just—

Where to aim? Head, chest—head. Bird drew, and spoke as he loosed.

“[Homing Shot].”

His arrow curved through the air, heading straight for Badarrow’s head. The Goblin archer sighted down his bow, aiming for Bird. He didn’t move. The arrow flew towards his head—

And Headscratcher’s sword shot out. The Goblin’s sword blocked the shaft as Bugear thrust his shield in front of Badarrow’s chest and Numbtongue covered his groin with a second shield. Bird stared.

“Companions. I see. How regr—”

The fifth arrow struck him just below the neck and sent him tumbling off the side of the tower. The Antinium crashed into the roof of the inn and slid towards the end. It was a long drop down. Down—

To oblivion.

 

—-

 

In the silence after the pitched archery duel, Badarrow lowered his bow, arms shaking, breathing heavily. The other Goblins clapped him on the back as they patched themselves up.

None of them were hurt that badly. Badarrow’s stomach and Shorthilt’s knee were the worst of it. A healing potion was very carefully used to mend both wounds.

As the Goblins regrouped, they moved away from the inn. Whatever the archer had been doing up there, it didn’t matter. The bug was dead, but no one was going to loot the inn. It was too close to the city—the Goblins might have already been spotted. They headed in the direction of the Eater Goats, hungry and desperate.

They spoke not a word about their victory either. It wasn’t a miracle, or a product of Badarrow’s superior levels or Skills. It was simple teamwork. Both sides had good archers, but one had located their attacker together, covered their archer and provided targets to distract the enemy. They didn’t fight alone.

 

—-

 

Meanwhile, in a small village, Erin was dragging her sled towards the gates. Several huge containers had been filled with different kinds of milks and she was wondering if she’d be able to get it to her inn without breaking any of them.

She was rechecking the ties on her sled when she heard a sound outside the gates. Erin frowned and stepped up onto the platform that allowed her to peek over the walls. She looked down and saw a goat standing outside.

“Hey Mister Wirclaw! I think one of your goats got outside somehow!”

Erin turned and hollered at the Gnoll [Farmer] who’d helped her pack the milk. He frowned and trotted over with his son, a small Gnoll with light blonde fur. Both Gnolls peeked over the walls with Erin.

“That is not my goat.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. I know them all and this one is clearly wild. It is strange, though, no? Where would such a goat come from in the winter?”

“Should we let it in? It looks hungry, poor guy.”

“Perhaps. But…hrm. Is…something wrong?”

Erin frowned. She felt it too. A prickling at the back of her mind. She looked at the goat. It was staring up at her with big, off-putting brown eyes. The pupils of the goat were a horizontal bar, not round at all. And it was staring. At her.

“Yeah. I think I feel my [Dangersense] going off. But it’s just a goat, right?”

Wirclaw hesitated. He looked back towards his house and nudged his son.

“Fetch me my bow. Miss Solstice, perhaps you should back up. I do not think that is—”

Then they spotted the second goat. It walked around the wall. It was a goat. Scrawny, its body a mix of black and brown. However, one thing separated it from the other goat.

It was missing the lower half of its jaw. Erin clapped a hand to her mouth as the goat looked up at them.

“Its teeth—

This goat had sharp teeth. Not sharp like a shark’s or a predator that just ate meat, but an omnivore’s teeth. And caught between the teeth and staining it was—

“Blood. And that is flesh. Miss Solstice, step back.”

Wirclaw grabbed the bow from his son’s hands and put an arrow to it. He sighted and shot an arrow before Erin could protest. The goat without a jaw stared as the arrow sped towards it and skipped to one side. The arrow thudded into the dirt.

Both Humans and Gnoll stared. Behind them, the few Gnolls and Drakes in the village were gathering. The two goats stared at Wirclaw and then turned.

And then a lot of goats popped out of the snow. Erin recoiled and Wirclaw growled. The goats stared at Erin and Wirclaw, and then screamed.

It wasn’t like a Human scream. Not at all. The Eater Goats screamed like a chorus of the damned, and then the first one rammed the gates. It had a set of slightly curved horns on its head and Wirclaw yanked Erin back from the wall.

“They’re trying to get in!”

He shouted at the others in the village and Erin saw them racing to get weapons. She scrabbled at her own belt pouches and pulled out a vial and a knife from a sheath at her belt.

“They can’t though, right?”

“The gates are thick. We should be fine—”

Wirclaw was aiming and loosing, but the goats were dodging. One of them backed up, its eyes on the Gnoll. It took a few jumps back, and then brayed. It charged towards the wall the Gnoll and Erin were standing on.

“It can’t get up—”

Erin was saying that when the goat leapt. It cleared at least seven feet and thudded into the wall. Too low. But the impact sent both Human and Gnoll scrambling backwards.

“Okay, they can jump! Real high!

Erin was shouting. Wirclaw opened his mouth. He might have been saying that their walls were still high enough when two more goats charged forwards.

This time one goat leapt first. He vaulted into the air, a good six feet up, and the second goat leapt on top of him. He jumped a second time, using the first goat as a stepping stone, and hurtled over the wall.

The goat landed lightly on the ground in the center of the village. It turned, and stared around at the small gathering of Drakes, Gnolls, and one Human. It cocked its head, seemed to sniff, and then bared its teeth. It screamed, and charged.

 

—-

 

The Goblins saw all of it of course. From their position, the Redfang Goblins could see the first Eater Goat clear the wall and hear the screams from within the village. They had predicted that would happen. The Eater Goats were suicidally fearless and almost immune to pain; that didn’t mean they were stupid.

Now they had a choice to make. Headscratcher stared at the village. He’d seen a young woman on the walls. A Human.

He looked at the others. They’d all seen the same thing. The Hobs looked at him, and then away. Badarrow spat. He’d made his position clear several times. It wasn’t worth it. They’d die, and she’d die. And for what? She was just a Human.

Just a Human. The other Goblins reluctantly agreed. It wasn’t the same. She wasn’t worth it.

And she would die. Headscratcher lowered his head and scuffed at the snow. His foot unearthed something. He stared, bent, and picked something up. The other Goblins paused. They turned, incredulously to Headscratcher and saw him holding—

A bug. It squirmed in his grip. He popped it into his mouth and crunched it. The Goblins all sighed. Headscratcher grinned. He cracked his neck and laughed silently at them. To ask them what they’d been expecting. He pointed.

The other Eater Goats were trying to repeat the trick and send their friends over the walls. Just one or two could wipe out the entire village. They’d kill everything within. They were too dangerous.

They all knew it. Fighting thirty? They’d die.

And maybe that was the point. Headscratcher reached into a small pocket he’d sewn into his clothing. He pulled something out. It was wilted, squashed, barely recognizable. But it was still a flower.

The other Goblins stared at it. Headscratcher looked at Badarrow. The other Goblin grunted irritably and pulled out an arrow. Headscratcher grinned.

Bugear scratched at one ear and nudged Shorthilt. They pulled out their swords. Rabbiteater lifted Grunter’s axe. Numbtongue sighed.

The Redfang Goblins slapped each other on the backs, grinned, and shook hands. They looked at the sky. Then they formed up.

They didn’t have the numbers for a proper formation. They couldn’t swarm their opponents. So they made a line. Badarrow raised his bow and put his best arrow to the string. He loosed one arrow, then another.

The Eater Goats were charging, trying to jump the walls again. The first arrow struck a goat in the back of the head. It dropped, and then stood up. The goat looked around for the source of the arrow, saw the Redfang Goblins. It bleated, a terrible, elongated scream, and the other goats turned. One seized the arrow in the first goat’s head and bit it off. The goat convulsed as the arrow was torn out of its head. At last it fell down.

And the Eaters charged. The goats raced towards the Redfang Goblins, screaming, a few staying behind to circle the village. The Redfang Goblins waited.

“Redfang!”

Badarrow shouted the word as he drew and loosed. He was running out of arrows. But he kept shooting, sending each one of his precious arrows into the mass of goats. His aim was flawless today. One by one they fell, but there were so many and they were fast!

“Redfang!”

The other Hobs shouted the word. The Eaters screamed. Headscratcher looked at his friends, and they looked back. It wasn’t a decision he’d made alone. They’d all made it.

It wasn’t about living. It was about dying right. It was about finding somewhere to die. Because they didn’t have anything to live for. They had no tribe, no leader. They just had each other.

And a memory. Of a girl, of a plea. And of that glorious, terrible moment when they had been something more than mere Goblins.

This is a story of a band of Goblins. A shattered, lost collection of souls. Dreamers, warriors who had tasted something else. This is a story about heroes.

Badarrow reached for another arrow and found none. He tossed his bow aside. Twenty goats remained. They screamed and charged. The Goblins did likewise. Six against twenty. Death.

Not one Goblin hesitated. The Redfang warriors raised their weapons and ran forwards. They were laughing.

And the young woman heard it.

 


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58 thoughts on “4.33

  1. The days after a double chapter are always hard. Doubly so after a Saturday-Tuesday stretch because there’s less time to recover. But that’s my constant issue. I’m more concerned with how it impacts today’s chapter, because of course it probably affects quality, the plot, and so on.

    Did anyone expect this? No? Yes? I’ll clue you in; this was forewritten. Foreplanned? I knew this was going to happen for a while. The goats weren’t in my original script, but you know goats. They show up.

    Like insects invading my home. Who says warm weather is a good thing? I miss the snow already. Although, bugs seem to invade my house regardless of the temperature. I hate bugs. Have I said that already? Antinium are chill, but that’s because they’re people. Tiny bugs is not people.

    Ah, but I shouldn’t ramble on. I’ll leave that for my chapters. Pisces and Olesm seem to have it! Why are Pisces and Toren always winners? People just like dead things, I guess.

    Thanks for reading! Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion! Goats vs Goblins! That sounds terrible when I put it like that.

    • Pisces and Toren both seem like complex characters that need more time to shine. Toren is still developing and so is Picses, and isn’t watching a character grow just the best?

    • Before even getting to the end of this chapter, I feel compelled to say: thank you, Pirate. I’ve only read the bit so far in which Lyonette wakes up and faces her new day, and it already reminds me how powerful your tale is in creating characters I really love and whose personhoods (is that a word? should it be?) are formed by their loves and hurts and not just by their plot points or battlepower. I’m not sure how to convey my sincerity in saying this: a story which helps me love people is a tale worth reading.

    • Thanks for revisiting the redfang goblins. The shift into heroic mode at the end was wonderful,. Hoping some of them survive to be surprised by Erin (their original target I believe, much character development ago)

    • Thank you once again for another amazing chapter! I swear every time I finish reading a release I sit there staring at the screen, in a daze of enjoyment, anticipation and emotional turmoil.

      Seeing each of these tragic and beautiful characters appear and be woven into this melancholic and stirring narrative is something I will always admire (and never understand how you can do it so well!).

      Especially the Redfang group and Antinium, all your ‘side characters’ have incredible depth, and it is great (and sad) to see them in all their heartbreaking glory. This isn’t a tale of fantasy plot points, cheap thrills and shallow action, it is one of people and their struggles, interacting with each other in a gritty, organic world. So kudos to you, all these characters, and you, are amazing.

      P.S. I hope the Gobs survive…. and keen for the return of the mighty potion slime

    • Toren has had a pitiful existence so far. Erin didn’t… treat Toren well when they were together. And Toren has had a lot of issues growing up, for she is like a child. However, she is unlike Azker’ash’s servants, which makes me like her more.
      Imagine what a reunion between her and Erin would be like. Erin would… apologize probably. And treat her to something. Erin is just that amazing.

  2. Leave a typo or a goat might eat your face off. What? I bet it’s actually happened before.

    (Readers with faces: Neceros, gueenee, MrWiggles, Carsten, Avocadolph, AVR)

    • “Sitting with the Liscor’s Council” -> “Sitting with the Liscor Council” or “Sitting with Liscor’s Council”

      “Our [Strategists] including young Olesm say” -> “Our [Strategists]_,_ including young Olesm_,_ say”? (Also, not a typo, but maybe mention those increased levels from the first attack that Esthelm has? And the fact that this time they know he’s coming and won’t be caught by surprise? Rebuilt walls and slight inconvenience don’t seem like a sufficient deterrent to the Goblin Lord given how easily his raiding band crushed the city last time and the fact that he now has his full army and is stronger than he was. Just a thought.)

    • Our [Strategists] including young Olesm, say that the Goblin Lord won’t try to take the city

      Should have a comma after “strategists” because the pat about Olesm is extra information. Perhaps not completely critical, just makes it flow better.

    • “So long as we do not stray beyond the walls, it is easy to defend. Stone Deceivers—”

      Could be intentional, but I’m pretty sure you called them Hollowstone Decievers earlier in the story.

    • Bird was injured in the fight with the Necromancers creations, or it was at least implied with the undead coming back with a piece of chitin. But he is showing no signs of injury in the chapter.

    • “There is no safety anywhere, yes? So long as we do not stray beyond the walls, it is easy to defend. [Stone Deceivers]—”

      “What? Oh, you mean Rock Crabs.”

      It was said in 1.23 that they are called in Liscor “Hollowstone Deceivers”.
      (“Oh, that. Is that what you Humans call it? We just call them Hollowstone Deceivers. What’s a crab?”)

      Although Stone Deceivers might be just a short version of Hollowstone Deceivers.

    • “I tore a lot of muscles and the top of my head’s rotting off. But hey, I’m alive so who cares about my body?”
      Extra space between sentences.

  3. …I refuse to believe that Bird is dead. He’s only unconscious… right? He was so adorable in this chapter, he’s not allowed to die.

    And boy, those dangerous spring monsters sure didn’t waste any time showing up, did they? Well, this is a good opportunity, I guess. Erin needs some nice new combat skills after everything that’s happened.

    The [Reinforced Structure] Skill is pretty powerful, it seems! I wonder, though– I’ve had the thought before that some Skills might grow stronger as the user gains levels. Can the inn get even tougher? I’d love to see it stand up to a siege weapon someday far in the future.

    It’s interesting to see the lost Goblins return! To be quite honest, I didn’t think we were going to see them again. At most, I figured they would show up with Rags’s group. If the Halfseekers figure out that they’re from Garen’s group, there’s going to be a lot of trouble.

    • I think if there ever wil be a siege to break down Inn and Lyscor it won’t be a normal one. Enchanted and made of best materials will still take down, because it was made to do so.

      • Mmm, true. Certainly, any siege weapons close enough to be used on the inn would have been brought there to be used on Liscor. The idea that a single Skill could equal or outperform Liscor’s legendary walls is a bit silly, isn’t it? Maybe if Erin had more defensive Skills and was very high level… But not before then, I think.

        • Were the walls of Liscor the legendary thing about the city ? Iirc the city is famous for its army and the city guard, not the walls.

          • The Necromancer apparently couldn’t bring down the walls of Liscor with a month of siege, so that seems pretty legendary to me. They might not be the strongest walls in existence, but they’re definitely second only to the Walled Cities.

    • Even if he is dead, Antinium are the only ones who can actually come back from that.

      Admittedly, Erin would have to convince the Queen that Bird was worth it, but we all no how far she would go to do so.

    • I wish that Bird is alive as well, as he is one of my most Loved characters, and I can’t wait for the day that he meets a Garuda.

      Ksmvr did survive some serious wounds and it is possible that Bird will as well, as in this chapter he said: “Antinium bodies are exceedingly durable.”

      • I know it’s super-taboo, but Bird-Jelaqua anybody? =)

        Always sad when the “good guys” get into a duel to the death, especially when the differences weren’t irreconcilable. Hope the Hobs survive, but I could see the dramatic irony if they died to save the one they were sent to kill.

        Was stoked for the composite chapter! =D

  4. Another arbitrary death of a fan favorite, for seemingly no reason. Go home George, you’re supposed to be writing Winds of Winter, quit ghost writing this light-hearted web serial about a Mary Sue who runs an inn.

    I hope this is a fake out or a set up for him to be reborn, Klbkch style, because otherwise this just seems hateful.

    • Light-hearted? Mass murder, racism, and attempted genocide don’t scream light hearted to me. Just because something isn’t grimdark doesn’t make it light hearted.

      Mary Sue? Eh? I just don’t get that, Erin doesn’t really seem to tick any of the Mary Sue boxes for me. She’s strong, yes, but that strength has largely been earned, and obeys established rules of the setting.

      I wouldn’t call it hateful. The worst written death in the series, maybe, but not hateful. It’s difficult to call something hateful when you can’t really see the emotions behind it. If Bird really was dead I would think that would probably be because pirateaba was trying to make a point about how arbitrary death and tragedy can be. Still wouldn’t agree with it necessarily, but I could respect it.

      I do really think he’s coming back though. Remember how the Queen was working on experimenting with the Antinium? That could easily be setting up the circumstances for her to resurrect someone she might normally not bother with. My money’s on Bird not only coming back, but coming back in an at least slightly non-standard body. He might even get something really badass, like wings so he can finally fly up and shoot those really high birds.

      That’s assuming the Queen can rez anyone she wants, but I think the only limits are the extreme effort required, which she might be happy to do if it helps her existing experiments, and the loss of levels, which Bird, as an Individual, is probably capable of taking.

  5. Hmmm…is Bird really gone like that? Or is there Selphid who might be able to assist? Heck, if they can keep half dead human doctor alive why not an Antinium with a few arrows. Hmmm, is there a Selphid Antinium partnership ahead?

    • oh god. Selphid/antinium armies. Especially if they opt to coexist instead of using dead ants.

      TOO MUCH POWER! AAH!

    • Yeah, I think Bird will be fine. He’s probably just unconscious. Either Drassi or Lyonette will be in the inn, in position to rush out with a healing potion as soon as they hear him thump to the ground.

      • I’m pretty sure Bird is going to live. Here’s my resoning:
        1) We’ve seen Antium take a HELL of a beating before. Way worse than a few arrows to the carapace and a 30 foot fall.
        2) Bird has levels. We don’t know how many, but probably more than 20. That’s naturally going to make him far more durable than normal. Imagine start-of-Inn Kbltch and I think we’re on the right track.
        3) Narratively, it doesn’t make sense to kill Bird here. Bunkr could actually be excused for a variety of reasons, but Bird has far more potential that doesn’t get into cliches. Wait until he has a reason to live, *then* kill him off.

  6. Noooo! Biiird! Reeedfangs! Seeing favorite characters murdering each other is so heartbreaking.

    Next chapter is highly anticipated.

  7. Mrsha’s curse strikes again. She barely even interacted with him though, so maybe Bird’s just knocked out?

  8. Posting without reading comments to avoid spoilers, so it may already have been said.

    “Silence in that place was loud.”

    This sentence and the following explanation were wonderful. Clear and meaningful.

  9. I love that Bird always asks for unborn birds for breakfast.

    That sucks. It was an awesome archery duel, but I liked both sides of the fight. And now Bird might be dead. I hope Bird and at least some of the goblins survive.

  10. I just read through the entire story in about a week, and I love it. I just have one question, which may be somewhat indelicate – please understand, I do [I]not[/I] mean it as some sort of veiled criticism, and I apologize in advance if I give offense.

    Do you have any plans to re-edit the start of the story, once you’ve finished the tale? I only ask because at some point, the nature of the story seems to have changed somewhat – not in a good or bad way, but in a stylistic shift. It went from a [I]Harry Potter[/I]-esque world where only the main character [I]really[/I] mattered, to more of a [I]Song of Ice and Fire[/I]-esque world where we see a dozen characters working towards a single plot, even if some are plainly more important to the story than others. I mean, at the [I]very[/I] start, even Ryoka appeared classified as a side character, and she’s pretty much the second lead.

    I understand that this was to allow the reader to learn the “rules” of the world alongside Erin, and that this required a tight focus on the character to begin with, before opening things up to the greater world. And it [I]did[/I] work. It did. But…

    Well, it did come at a certain cost. We learned about all of the [I]other[/I] characters pretty much in retrospect. We saw the Horns of Hammarad help Ryoka fix her leg, but we hardly knew them before they went into the dungeon. We had enough to go on to get attached to them, and for Celia to become a beloved character, but we only really knew her character [I]after[/I] that disaster, and through a flashback sidestory told a fair ways after she was introduced. If we’d had a chapter or two where they dealt with a more minor adventure (maybe the full story of the dungeon where they faced the lich, which would also serve to emphasize how Ryoka really [I]did[/I] save their lives, or perhaps told the story of taking Ryoka to Pisces from their perspective instead of hers, and fleshed out the dangers a bit more), we could better empathize with Celia’s loss, and their deaths would have had more impact. Though… That might not be desirable, I admit. It was already a well-told story, and we don’t want the reader [I]too[/I] depressed, even if it was supposed to be a bleak moment.

    To go further, an earlier chapter focused on Celia herself would have been an opportunity to talk a bit about her past, and to establish why her willing to take Ryoka to Pisces was a Big Deal, instead of the reader realizing that long after the fact. Not that such realizations on the part of the reader aren’t a nice bonus to help build a living world – but making such a moment an important part of her story makes her feel more like her own character, when put in the context of [I]Windstram Days[/I] and having to set aside old issues to save someone who saved their lives.

    Similarly, Lyonette’s story pretty much only began after she basically became a mini-Erin. And that’s really not who she is, right? That’s who she [I]became[/I], under Erin’s (at first unwanted) mentorship, and threat of starvation. We did have a chapter or two of her being a spoiled brat who almost pushed Erin into [I]letting[/I] her starve, and of her racism, but… Even that’s not quite who she [I]was[/I]. The first thing she was, as far as the story is concerned, was a runaway from her home, surrounded by people she refused to understand, stealing to survive while refusing to consider herself a thief. We were given glimpses of that, but seeing what an ugly figure she was before would make her rehabilitation all the better – as well as making her integration into the story feel more natural. As it stands, the fact that she tormented the town for months almost feels like an informed attribute, and makes things like the gnolls forgiving her lose a degree of its impact.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting you should do this for everyone – trying to find a natural starting point for Reinhardt (or the other legendary figures in this story, for that matter) would pretty much necessitate telling the story of the Antinium wars first, and that’s a ridiculous suggestion no matter how much I like her. But many of the characters you’ve given more spotlight to now could benefit from being tied more deeply into earlier books, and I suspect the same may become true of characters you choose to emphasize later. I don’t mean this as a criticism of your talent, which is spectacular, to be clear; just that it’s the nature of a web serial that it’s difficult to add such things after the fact, despite how much easier it is to notice such moments after the fact

    Of course, making changes like this would take a fair amount of time, I understand. But after you finish, perhaps running a Kickstarter campaign for a paper edition of the series (or an ebook, though I personally prefer paper) would help cover the time you’d need to spend on this between projects? I’d certainly be willing to pay for a “perfected” version, at least.

  11. I wonder… On the one hand, Erin’s suffered some crippling blows to her self-esteem in the last few days, especially with the business regarding Toren, and, however heroic these hobs may be, I’m pretty sure common wisdom would be that only a fool would trust six strange hobs while a Goblin Lord marches that close. Erin’s in a pretty dark place right now; I don’t think it would take that much pushing from her friends for her to ask the hobs to leave. Especially since the hobs don’t speak the common tongue well enough to explain who they are, or why they saved the humans. And they hurt Bird (I’m assuming Bird’s not dead).

    On the other hand, a heroic rescue against impossible odds goes a long way, and being in a dark place has caused Erin to double down on her beliefs in the past.

    I guess it really all comes down to the Halfseekers, doesn’t it? They’re the ones who travelled with Garen Redfang in the past, and know that Hobgoblins can go years without betraying you. But Garen did betray them, and these hobs raised his name as a battlecry. How they react to this will say much about the aftermath, I suspect.

  12. 1.13 R

    “I wish there was another way. I guess I’ll keep searching until I run out of food. What else do I have? What else could I do? What does Ryoka Griffin lack? Answer: A friend. My thoughts—grind to a halt. I stop. For a second I turn and stare back the way I’ve come. Yes. No. It’s stupid. But. But it’s all I want. And now that I hear it, the truth of it rings in my mind. Yes. Ever since I was young maybe— I was always afraid. And when I reached out I got hurt. But it’s what I want. And suddenly, I am filled with regret. Truly, painfully. It comes and bites me after I’ve pushed it away for so long and the pain stabs my heart for the first time. True guilt. True regret. I shouldn’t have run. I should have gone after Ceria. But instead I do what Ryoka Griffin does best: run away. A friend. Something I’ve never had. Never truly. Never—never someone I could really trust. And the Horns of Hammerad—Garia—they were the closest. But when I came close to opening my heart I slammed the door shut on their fingers. I regret. Slowly, I kneel in the soft red grass. It is soft. Like death. Clumsily, I clasp my hands together. It’s been so long. I’ve forgotten how. But I begin. I put my hands together and pray. Oh God. Gods and goddesses. Spirits and bodhisattvas, and deities long dead from this world. Anyone who’s listening, really. Please— I wish there was another way. I guess I’ll keep searching until I run out of food. What else do I have? What else could I do? What does Ryoka Griffin lack? Answer: A friend. My thoughts—grind to a halt. I stop. For a second I turn and stare back the way I’ve come. Yes. No. It’s stupid. But. But it’s all I want. And now that I hear it, the truth of it rings in my mind. Yes. Ever since I was young maybe— I was always afraid. And when I reached out I got hurt. But it’s what I want. And suddenly, I am filled with regret. Truly, painfully. It comes and bites me after I’ve pushed it away for so long and the pain stabs my heart for the first time. True guilt. True regret. I shouldn’t have run. I should have gone after Ceria. But instead I do what Ryoka Griffin does best: run away. A friend. Something I’ve never had. Never truly. Never—never someone I could really trust. And the Horns of Hammerad—Garia—they were the closest. But when I came close to opening my heart I slammed the door shut on their fingers. I regret. Slowly, I kneel in the soft red grass. It is soft. Like death. Clumsily, I clasp my hands together. It’s been so long. I’ve forgotten how. But I begin. I put my hands together and pray. Oh God. Gods and goddesses. Spirits and bodhisattvas, and deities long dead from this world. Anyone who’s listening, really. Please— Don’t let me die alone. Don’t let me die— Without having made a single friend. —- After a while I stand up. I have never prayed Don’t let me die alone. Don’t let me die— Without having made a single friend. —-”

    And she is gone now. Her friend. Her sweet, kind friend. Maybe forever.

  13. I have a funny feeling that Bird (if he lives) may not be the only guard of the Wandering Inn going forward. And yes, the Redfang connection may cause trouble with the Halfseekers, but he didn’t betray them arbitrarily. They found something that was IMPORTANT to goblins, and the one continuous thing for Redfang is he does what he feels is best for goblins as a whole. There’s a lot we don’t know about goblins in this world, a lot of things to be uncovered, and that “dispute over treasure” is strongly linked to that.

  14. I haven’t cried while reading since Fred Weasley died but I did today. Dammit, I really liked Bird and my love for him came about in less then a full chapter. This was amazing.

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