When she slept she forgot where she was and what had happened. It was only when she was awake that she remembered. Sleep was her one reprieve. But it was a coward’s way out, so she woke up this morning as the sun hit her face. There was no running from the truth.
A young woman sat up in a tent, her body aching. She was alone. Far from home. For a few seconds, she looked around in the darkness. Then she inspected the restraints on her hands.
No good. They were as secure as they had been yesterday. The young woman thought about gnawing at the raw leather bindings, but gave up the idea. Her captors inspected the cords regularly.
There were no restraints on her legs, though. So the young woman stood up and walked around the tent. She could go to the bathroom so long as she didn’t mind being watched. She could wander around the camp, and run about if she so chose. So long as she didn’t cause trouble she was free.
That freedom would disappear if she tried to escape, though. And while the young woman knew she could run quite fast…no, it was still impossible. She was surrounded by the enemy. If she ran she’d be caught.
The same went for grabbing a weapon. She’d be overwhelmed in a second, and while the idea of going out in a blaze of violence was tempting, it was also wrong. She had to live. The young woman knew that. She had to live. It was her duty.
Still. In the confines of her dark tent, the young woman could tell it was just before dawn. She stretched as best she could with her bound hands, plotting another escape attempt. The guards around the camp were numerous, but if she could get beyond the limits of the camp undetected, and have half an hour’s, no ten minutes’ head start, she might outrun any pursuit.
“To hell with running. If I could fly—”
Osthia Blackwing grunted as she reached to touch her scaly feet with her arms. She twisted and tried to eye the black metal restraints that had been placed over the two leathery wings on her back. It was rather difficult; the young Drake woman couldn’t see that far behind her. Normally she’d use a mirror to inspect her wings for injuries or flaking scales. However, she didn’t have to look to feel the cold metal constricting the movement of her wings. She could move them, but she couldn’t unfurl her wings.
It was agonizing. The Goblins who’d put the bindings on her probably hadn’t any idea of how torturous that binding could be. In fact, they’d been extremely generous to her by the standards of prisoners; she could move about and eat whenever she wanted, she was left by herself unless the Goblin Lord wanted her, and she had her own tent. It was far better than how Drakes treated their captives, and Osthia might have been grateful were it not for her wings.
She longed to move them. It was like having her legs bound or—or having her eyelids forced open. All she wanted to do was flap her wings once. But of course, if she had that opportunity she’d be flying away in an instant.
And the Goblins weren’t fools. If they afforded Osthia small freedoms, well, that was a peculiarity unique to her and only her. There were no other prisoners in the Goblin Lord’s camp. None. They could treat one prisoner well. That she wasn’t being raped or tortured didn’t fool Osthia. She’d seen what the Goblins did to every other enemy soldier they’d captured.
After an hour of stretching and pacing around her tent restlessly, Osthia had to go out. It was that or go insane in the dark tent. She pushed through the dirty flaps of her tent, glancing around in disgust as she did.
The Goblin Lord’s camp was already bustling as the first rays of daylight shone down on the continent of Izril. Osthia looked down rows of orderly tents, which slowly devolved into sleeping bags, and then just small campfires and cleared patches of dirt which Goblins slept around.
Despite the magnitude of the camp—meant to hold tens of thousands of Goblins each night—it was still organized. Central pathways lead into the center of the camp and outwards, giving the streams of thousands of Goblins access to food, places to relieve themselves, social areas where they could squat, poke each other and grunt in their foul language—
Osthia looked around, her face twisted into a scowl of disgust. She would rather be dead than a captive here. But she had no choice. As tempting as it might be to ambush a passing Goblin armed with a knife or sword, Osthia knew she couldn’t die here. She had to survive.
Someone had to live to warn everyone. To tell them that the Goblin Lord was a pawn of Az’kerash, the Necromancer. At least one soldier had to return—few had seen the truth, or realized what it meant. Osthia had witnessed two entire Drake armies eradicated to the last soldier, only the stragglers on the outside escaping to tell of the Goblin Lord’s incredible comeback. But she had been at her uncle’s side. She had stood next to Thrissiam Blackwing and realized the truth.
The Necromancer had created the Goblin Lord. And he was sending his minion to wreak havoc across Invrisil. He had made the Goblin Lord, taught him necromancy, given him orders. It was because of him that two Drake armies had died. Osthia’s stomach tightened at the thought.
Thrissiam Blackwing. Garusa Weatherfur. Two heroes of the Drakes had perished in battle. How long had it been? Weeks? A month?
It felt like yesterday. Osthia could still remember her uncle, Thrissiam, ordering her off the field. She could still see him cutting down the other general, the Gnoll he had loved for a short few days, Garusa, and then falling to the horde of undead. She wondered if he had been torn apart. Sometimes she hoped that was the case.
The undead stood silently at a good distance away from the Goblin Lords’ camp every night. They were always there, no matter where the Goblins travelled. A silent group of tens of thousands of undead, motionless, swaying occasionally in the breeze. Their foul rot was usually too far away to smell, but occasionally a strong breeze would waft the scent of death towards Osthia.
She stood at the edge of camp, ignoring the Goblins passing by who stared at her and pointed, staring at the undead. It was one of her habits. She would stare at the undead, picking out each Drake zombie or ghoul that she could see. Each one she’d search for some clue as to their rank, their identity in life. She’d recognized comrades, officers…but never her uncle. She prayed she never would. Still, if she saw him—it was so tempting to bring him a final peace, even if it meant becoming one of those horrors herself.
No. Osthia looked away fighting down the dark urges again. Duty. As a prisoner she had to cling to her duty. If not, what was the point? So many Drakes had died—she owed them her life. Even if it meant living in this camp another day.
Against her will, her stomach rumbled, reminding her of the requirements for survival. Osthia turned, smelling the Goblin cooking pots hard at work. And realized she had an audience.
A group of tiny Goblins had gathered around the Drake. They were Goblin children. Osthia had never seen a Goblin child before, but she’d learned that was because Goblins were only functionally children for about six months to a year. After that, they could fend for themselves.
Well, Goblin babies learned to walk after about two weeks. After that they shot up in height rapidly. The children who’d gathered around behind Osthia stared at her with keen interest. They were short, unevenly dressed—some were naked—and picked at their noses, leaned on each other, or scratched themselves as they watched her.
“Get lost you little monsters!”
Osthia snapped at them angrily and the Goblin children scattered. A few passing Goblins looked at her warily, but the Drake knew better than to back up her words with any kind of action. And unfortunately, the Goblin children knew it too. As she stomped towards one of the cooking stations they followed her in a mass.
It was a game. They’d gather up behind her, trying to sneak up on Osthia and edging closer and closer. If she didn’t look at them they’d poke her in the leg and then flee. Osthia hated it. She scattered the Goblin children with sharp words as she stomped towards the cooking pots.
Of course, the children weren’t as bad as the adults. The Goblins that were eating breakfast stopped to stare at Osthia. They had no compunctions about staring openly, and several of them nudged each other and pointed at Osthia. The Goblins never got tired of her. Osthia ignored them all and strode up to the front of the line.
She growled at the female Goblin ladling hot soup into bowls. The Goblin woman glared at Osthia and pointed. Back of the line. Osthia knew what she meant without having to interpret the Goblin’s crackling language. She stomped into line and waited, grinding her teeth until she was handed a bowl. When the Goblin filled it, Osthia raised the bowl to her lips and sniffed suspiciously at the broth.
She knew the Goblins ate their own. And worse, that they ate Drakes and other species. If it hadn’t been for the presence of the undead, Osthia would have refused to eat at all for fear of eating Drakes or Gnolls. However, she’d checked and the Goblins had yet to use the meat of people in their broths. Fortunately or unfortunately, their stores were fat from raiding villages and towns, and they had more than enough meat from cows, horses, sheep, and sometimes, Corusdeer.
Not that they generally kept that. Meat was a luxury and day-by-day the Goblins lived on thick, filling soups made of whatever vegetables, grains, and what they had on hand. They seasoned their soups with a tiny bit of whatever meat they had.
At least it was palatable. Osthia grunted as she sipped at her bowl. The Goblin children who’d followed her were now pestering the Goblin server for a second breakfast. Osthia smiled grimly as the Goblin woman chased off the youngsters by smacking them with her serving ladle. Then she finished her soup, gulping down the hot mix and tossing her bowl in a pile with the other empty bowls.
Immediately three children jumped at Osthia’s bowl and fought over it. Because the Drake hadn’t licked it clean like all the other Goblins. She refused to, but the other Goblins left their bowls so clean you could eat your dinner out of them, which usually resulted in them being reused at least twenty times before needing to be washed.
The Drake sneered at the children. It annoyed her she couldn’t apply that word to the soup. The Goblins might be savage monsters, but they had their own [Cooks] and [Stirrers] who could make the soup halfway tasty. The Drake would have died rather than acknowledge that, though. She walked away from the mob of children now fighting for her bowl, ignoring her stomach that protested it wasn’t entirely full yet.
Time to observe. Osthia had no real restrictions in the camp, and so she could wander about. She took advantage of that freedom every day to scout out the Goblin Lord’s army as it moved from place to place. It was probably futile, but Osthia comforted herself in thinking that it might be useful if she managed to escape before the Goblin Lord’s army was destroyed.
Firstly. Organization. The Drake paced through the camp, staring at the lines of tents that had been used to house supplies and bodies. They were all looted from her army’s camps! The Goblins wasted nothing. Indeed, most of the Goblins warriors she passed by were carrying arms made out of Drake steel. Every time she saw a Drake insignia on a scavenged breastplate or helm, Osthia ground her teeth.
It would be so easy to call the Goblins simple thieves and dismiss everything they did, but Osthia was actually bothered by the efficiency of the Goblin Lord’s camp. While his army moved at a snail’s pace, the camp still had to be disassembled and rebuilt every night. And it was, with what was worryingly close to military organization.
The Goblin Lord’s forces were a far cry from an undisciplined Goblin tribe. He had sentries, regular patrols, and latrines! He’d stolen all of these ideas from other races. But that was the Goblin Lord. Osthia knew him better now. He was a thief. He stole everything. And he was terrifying because of that.
A Goblin found her as Osthia was watching a Goblin quartermaster handing out weapons to waiting soldiers. They’d even set up a temporary smithy, where a team of Goblins was crudely repairing holes and damaged armor! Others were coating new armor with a black resin, a sticky substance that gave the Goblin Lords’ forces their distinct black armor.
“Color coordination. Who gave the Goblin Lord the idea to mark his troops with colors? The Necromancer? Ancestors, he’s managed to figure out how to organize them into battalions with officers! Did the Necromancer teach him that too?”
“No. Goblin Lord took idea from Drakes.”
Osthia whirled as a guttural voice spoke behind her. A Hobgoblin grinned at the Drake, a female Goblin wearing steel armor. She had no weapons at her sides, but Osthia recognized her at once. The Hobgoblin was short for a Hob, but her head was unnaturally large. And as she grinned at Osthia, the Drake saw two rows of metal teeth glinting at her.
Snapjaw. She was one of the Goblin Lord’s top lieutenants. Her teeth were a product of her class—some kind of fusion of enamel and steel. She grinned at Osthia and pointed to the Goblin smithy proudly.
“Goblin Lord see. Drakes hammer metal. Bang bang. Goblin Lord watch. He copy. Now we have armor.”
Her voice was rough, and her words heavily accented. But she could speak the common tongue. Osthia narrowed her eyes and her tail lashed the ground as she looked at Snapjaw.
“Stolen armor, you mean. You can’t forge it yourself. All you can do is repair the armor you loot.”
The Hobgoblin woman looked at Osthia blankly.
“True. Take armor off dead. Fastest. Not enough time to make armor out of rocks. You stop staring now.”
“Why? Afraid I’ll bother the Goblins?”
“No. Goblin Lord wants. You come.”
Snapjaw pointed vaguely behind her. Osthia held her ground. She resented being ordered.
“And if I’m busy?”
“You don’t come and I bite.”
The Hob grinned at Osthia, her teeth glinting in the daylight. The Drake stared into her crimson eyes for a moment and then nodded grudgingly. Snapjaw looked vaguely disappointed, but lead Osthia through the camp at a quick walk.
As they moved, Osthia looked around. The smithy was already packing up; the Goblins were preparing to disassemble the camp. It was another day of marching. She wished she knew where they were going; she had no landmarks to guide her in the Human lands, but she knew they were heading north. The Goblin Lord had marched past Liscor, past Esthelm, and away from every major city. North. Why?
She might get an answer today. Osthia squared her shoulders and her wings tensed against their metal bindings as Snapjaw walked towards the heart of the camp. It had been nearly a week since the Goblin Lord had summoned her last. She had to memorize everything. Every clue, everything he said—
It was all she could do.
The Goblin Lord’s tent mocked her every time she saw it. It was the former command tent of Thrissiam Blackwing, and it served the same purpose it had when the Drake [General] had been alive. Only now Goblins stood around it, black-armored Hobgoblins who looked at Osthia with unfriendly glances. She returned the looks.
“Open up. Got Drake.”
Snapjaw swaggered up to the front, grinning her unsettling grin at one of the Hobs. He shifted and replied again, in the common tongue.
“Goblin Lord talking. Meeting.”
Osthia saw Snapjaw glance at her, and the Hob nodded. She walked into the tent and the Hob barred Osthia from following her. She stared at the Hob and the fat Goblin stared down at her. He had a halberd in his hands, clearly looted, but he looked like he could use it.
It bothered her how many Goblins had learned to speak in common. No, it bothered her how much they’d copied an actual army. They didn’t salute and their military structure was haphazard, but Osthia could see Goblin soldiers training in ranks from where she stood. Goblins. Training. It chilled her to see.
Osthia was a [Captain], and she’d graduated from the Pallass military academy with high marks. She understood the threats each species represented, and Goblins were ranked low as a general threat. However, that came with a huge condition that their numbers were regularly kept low by destroying tribes. If they were allowed to grow in numbers, Goblins quickly became a threat on par with the Antinium or Humans. In the worst case of a Goblin King, they were ranked as a threat that could pose a danger to multiple continents.
One of the reasons Goblins weren’t a threat when there wasn’t a Goblin King was that they were disorganized. Only when Goblin Lords brought them together in numbers would they actually be a danger to cities. If they actually became a proper army on top of that—
The voices coming from the Goblin Lord’s tent grew louder. Osthia stepped back as the tent flaps opened and a huge, gigantic Hob emerged. He was seven feet tall and instead of fat, his body looked like a solid wall of muscle. This Goblin was another of the Goblin Lord’s foremost commanders. As far as Osthia could tell, his name was Eater Of Spears. She eyed his massive jaws. Eater of Spears looked down at Osthia but said nothing. He walked past her without a second glance, striding into the camp.
She’d never heard him speak. Osthia stared after his back, her eyes narrowed into slits. She could…probably take him. Not with a sword or spear obviously, but if she spat acid—
At the thought, Osthia felt a trickle of the corrosive bile spilling into her mouth from the glands in her throat, ready to be sprayed out. That was the one thing the Goblins couldn’t restrain, and the reason why the Hobs were looking at her so warily.
Actually, they could put a muzzle on her, but the Goblin Lord had forbidden it. He’d offered Osthia a trade. She could walk around mostly free save for her wings and bindings on her wings. If she did melt anyone with her acid breath attack, he’d cut out her tongue and all of her claws.
It was still tempting. Osthia looked over her shoulder and saw more of the Goblin Lords’ lieutenants filing out. Snapjaw, two Goblin [Necromancers], the Goblin known as Blacktide who rode a huge Shield Spider and commanded a horde of spiders himself, a Goblin with no face…
They were all former Chieftains, all Goblins who lead thousands of their kin into battle. Osthia stared at each one, memorizing their faces. When the Goblin Lord’s army was slain she would hunt them down herself. They couldn’t be allowed to live.
The Goblin lieutenants stared at Osthia as they passed. Some laughed at her, others watched her warily. However, none were afraid of her. They did not fear what she represented, the might of a Walled City, or the promise of vengeance. They drew strength from their ruler.
Yes, when Goblins were mere tribes they were easy to handle. But when a Goblin Lord emerged they became an army. And each Goblin Lord was dangerous. They were all the equivalents of high-level [Generals]. And this one…Osthia saw the Hob guards holding open the tent flap and gesturing at her. She took a deep breath and stepped into the tent.
The Goblin Lord was waiting for her. He stood over a table with a map on it, looking downwards and not at her. For a second, Osthia thought he was staring at someone else. Her uncle. Then the Goblin Lord looked up and she realized his armor was black and his eyes were midnight, with white pupils. She clenched her jaw and her tail thrashed as she walked into the tent.
The Goblin Lord greeted Osthia with interest, staring at her with his unnatural pupils, appraising her with a glance. He was looking at a map of northern Izril. Osthia recognized it. It had belonged to her uncle. She nearly lunged at the Goblin Lord right then, but held herself back.
“What do you want with me?”
He grinned at her. The Goblin Lord was neither heavy nor tall. He was the size of the average Human, not built like a warrior. And he wasn’t. He was a [Mage] and wore robes rather than steel. Osthia shifted, thinking she could break his neck if only she had a moment—
But he was a Hob. And his control over magic was immense. She had seen him resurrect hundreds of bodies at the same time, and create black bolts of magic that consumed the life of everything they touched. The Goblin Lord watched Osthia as she circled the table around him.
“Cannot kill. Cannot run. Is good you are not causing trouble. But if you are frustrated, attack me and not my people.”
She jumped as he stared at her. How had he—? She saw his eyes appraising her from head to tail and turned her head away, scowling.
It was a peculiarity of the Goblin Lord. He didn’t seem to need truth spells to tell when she was lying. And he was uncannily good at guessing her thoughts from her posture. Yes, that was his nature. He was a thief. The Goblin Lord has stolen all the ideas that made up his army, from the way he organized the camp and drilled his soldiers to the secrets of smithing. And if it was just that he wouldn’t be terrifying. But the Goblin Lord was a master among thieves in his own way. He stole just by looking.
“What do you want?”
Osthia repeated the question, staring around the tent. The Goblin Lord kept his personal tent mostly empty. He had no personal effects, none of the gristly trophies or magical tools she would have expected of a [Necromancer]. There was only a cot to sleep in, a trunk that might have held his belongings, scrolls, books on a table, the map, and, strangely, a vase with a flower sticking out of it. Osthia blinked.
It was just a wildflower, yellow with delicate petals. The Goblin Lord saw her looking and smiled.
“A child. He offered it to me when I healed his wounds with a potion. Gift for gift.”
The Goblin Lord smiled at the flower. Osthia stared at him blankly. The Goblin Lord shifted his black gaze to her and then his smile was a memory. He pointed at the map.
“We are approaching a city. A large one.”
“Does it have a name?”
“The Origin of Seeking Death.”
The Goblin Lord saw Osthia’s blank look and shook his head.
“That is Goblin name for it. It is called…Invrisil to others.”
He pointed at the map. Osthia blinked as she realized where they must be. Invrisil? They had travelled much further than she’d thought if they were approaching that city! But why would he attack there? It was one of the biggest Human cities, and sure to be defended. Unless he had a plan? The Goblin Lord watched her reaction carefully.
“The City of Adventurers. We know it. Many strong warriors live there. But adventurers. Not an army. Not a Drake city. Can it be taken?”
Osthia didn’t know. Invrisil was a city famous for its population of high-level adventurers, but it wasn’t fortified like Drake cities. It had an army and wealth, but if the Goblin Lord’s army swept in, could the adventurers make up for a lack of numbers? She didn’t want to answer either way.
Unfortunately, the Goblin Lord needed no answers. He grinned at her.
“You don’t know.”
“There are countless Gold-rank adventurers in the city. Sometimes Named Adventurers. If you want to try it while Human armies sweep in and attack you from every side—”
“You don’t know. But you fear I could do it. Which means there is a chance.”
Osthia bit her tongue and shut up. She tried to keep her tail still as possible. It was always like this. The Goblin Lord spoke and she spoke—sometimes shouted—but he always seemed to come away with far more than she did. Now he turned back to the map and frowned at it.
“Strong city. Rich city. But not well-protected. Could take. But what if I said Humans were gathering an army?”
He glanced up and again Osthia went still.
“An army? How many soldiers are in the army? Who’s leading it?”
“Tens of thousands of soldiers. Forty? Sixty? Goblin scouts say many. Big army. Big as mine, without undead.”
Osthia looked away as the gears churned in her head. An army of that size should be superior to the Goblin Lord’s, especially if it fought defensively. Add in Gold-rank adventurers conscripted to defend the city…but without a [General], their army would be at a disadvantage—
She could refuse to speak, but she couldn’t turn off her mind. The Goblin Lord nodded as if Osthia had said it all out loud.
“Not good to attack. But army is too small to do anything but defend. Good appraisal. What my officers thought, too.”
He traced a curve around the city. Osthia glared daggers at him. The Goblin Lord stared at her, and then turned his head. He stared across his tent, towards the cot on his bed. There was a small scroll there. It was some kind of specialized [Message] spell. Osthia had only seen him use it once. To contact Az’kerash. A shadow fell across the Goblin Lord’s face and he looked at Osthia.
“Tell me more about him. The one who calls himself my master.”
So it had come to this. Osthia sighed. Every time the Goblin Lord summoned her he eventually asked the same question. And the problem was that Osthia had very little she could tell him. Granted, Az’kerash was the only topic she’d willingly advise the Goblin Lord on. But her knowledge on the Necromancer was…spotty at best.
“I’ve told you all I can remember. The Necromancer is famous. He lived on Terandria and was expelled from Wistram hundreds of years ago—”
“Yes. And is famous. But you know little of him. Famous is not important?”
The Goblin Lord interrupted, frowning at Osthia. She lashed her tail on the ground as she replied.
“Famous isn’t important if you’re dead. And we thought he was! I studied his actions of the Second Antinium Wars from a military perspective, not to understand how he thought!”
“So you know nothing more? Not why he attacked the Humans, not how he gained his powers? Not why he was expelled from this Wistram?”
When he put it like that, Osthia felt embarrassed. She tried to fold her arms, remembered she was manacled, and glared.
“No. He was—is—was—a Human. We don’t memorize their histories. If you want to learn more, read a book. If you can read, that is.”
The Goblin Lord looked sharply at Osthia and she bit her tongue. But the Creler was out of the bag and it probably couldn’t hurt. She nodded reluctantly.
“There is a book about him. Well, about the Antinium Wars, actually. It was written about both wars. The Necromancer is mentioned in the second war. If you want to read about him…go find a book.”
“Hm. A book. What is it called?”
“The History of the Antinium Wars, I think. Sometimes it’s in two parts, but most copies have both parts in them. If you want to learn about Az’kerash outside of finding some kind of Terandrian history book, that’s your only option.”
The Goblin Lord eyed Osthia for a few seconds and then nodded.
“Book. Good. I will see if it is found. I have several already.”
He turned and pointed to the table in his tent. Osthia saw six books, all worn, sitting together. Her heart jumped painfully as she recognized one of the books. The Triumph of Scales. It was a classic military book. This particular copy had been Thrissiam’s. She turned hostile eyes towards the Goblin Lord and then realized what he was implying.
“You can read?”
The Goblin standing over the tables shrugged as if it was natural. Which it wasn’t. Not all Drakes knew how to read more than basic words and numbers—of course, literacy was universal in the largest Drake cities, but in villages and towns? How had he learned it?
“I knew how to read before the Necromancer found me. It is why he took interest in me.”
“How? And why did he want you?”
It was a question the Goblin Lord refused to answer every time Osthia asked it. Again, he dodged it, peering at the map and smoothing a corner on the table.
“I taught myself. Before and after he trained me. He gave me spellbooks. Scrolls. I read more and more and learned from what I read. Now I read all I find. I would have more, but when my army loots cities, they forget books. Food is more important. And swords.”
He looked up at Osthia and tilted his head.
“What other books do you know of? Books on strategy? War?”
Osthia changed the subject quickly. She pointed at the map.
“Is the Necromancer ordering you to attack Invrisil? Is that why you summoned me here?”
He tilted his head at her and seemed to ponder the question. At last, he shook his head.
“No orders. Death, destruction, chaos. Not names. Not attacking Invrisil anyways. Going around. To this mountain.”
He pointed to the map. Osthia walked closer and saw he was pointing to a lone mountain northeast of Invrisil. It was a ways away, but clearly he’d have to pass by Invrisil to get there or take a long detour. Still…why that mountain? She stared at him.
“Is there something important in that mountain?”
He smiled at her surprise. The Goblin Lord walked around the table and Osthia backed up. He wasn’t afraid of her—he had a ring that could combat her acid breath and he might be as strong as she was physically. Still, the proximity to him made her want to try and—she walked back as he spoke.
“I need more Goblins. More tribes. And there are more past Invrisil. One is in mountains. The other…close by. I will have them join my army.”
“How do you know?”
The Goblin shrugged.
“I can sense them. Other Chieftains. Other Goblin Lords, too. Bright. In the distance like…lights.”
The Goblin Lord reached out, his claws touching for something invisible. Osthia shivered. Other Goblin Lords? Impossible! Unless they were hiding? Maybe in the deep jungles of Baleros—or Chandrar? It was possible they could be anywhere, in the mountains, in caves…Goblins lived in almost every climate. But Goblin Lords?
“Where are these other Goblin Lords?”
The Drake tried to keep her voice casual. The Goblin Lord stared into the distance and shook his head.
“Cannot tell. Too far. Only know two…three Chieftains close here. More distant. And many, many more further away. Across oceans…no Goblin Lords on this continent. Just I. And I am brightest.”
“Brightest? What, do you mean strongest?”
That would have reassured Osthia, but the Goblin Lord shook his head.
“No. Others are…dimmer. Do not call other Goblins loudly. May be strong, may not. But they do not say ‘come here’. Other Goblins cannot sense. But I? I shout. And all hear, although all do not obey.”
That made no sense to Osthia. Shining? Dimmer? It was probably a Goblin thing. But if he could sense the others, that confirmed at least one theory about their kind. She filed the information as well as the knowledge of other Goblin Lords away in her mind and stared at the Goblin Lord.
“If you think the Humans will just let you march around the city, you’re wrong.”
The Goblin Lord looked at Osthia, tilting his head from side to side. She bit her tongue and he laughed.
“You don’t know. A Drake [Soldier] and you don’t know so much. That knowledge tells me much. What you know and don’t know. So. Come. We are moving. Around Invrisil. You come as we march.”
Around the tent, Osthia could hear Goblins shouting at each other and the sounds of activity. They were striking the camp. And today the Goblin Lord wanted Osthia following him around? As a trophy? Or unwilling advisor?
“What if I don’t want to go with you? Will you drag me around?”
The Goblin Lord was busy folding up the map, taking great care not to damage it. He looked up at Osthia, amused. He shook his head slowly, mocking her.
“You will come. To see. You watch me. You want to know what I do. You would not turn down this chance. You watch and I watch.”
He tapped one eye, grinning at Osthia with his white pupils. She shivered and opened her mouth to deny it. But she couldn’t. Instead she walked out of the tent. But not far. He was the enemy and Drakes did not run from the enemy. She would watch.
That was all she could do.
Within the hour, the Goblins had struck their camp. A huge, winding mass of Goblins marched north, flooding across forests, around lakes, over hills and grasslands, the youngest Goblins and those not suited to combat flanked by the Goblin Lord’s main army. Other raiding groups of thousands of Goblins were already further afield, scouting or pillaging and sending riders back to the main host.
Goblins rarely rode, and apparently only a few tribes had learned to ride, much less domesticate animals. And when they did…Osthia saw the Goblin Lord riding on top of a massive Shield Spider, larger than a warhorse, slowly crawling at the head of the army. They were a peculiarity of his tribe, and many normal Goblins rode large Shield Spiders of their own.
They couldn’t be used to pull wagons though, so the Goblin Lord’s army had taken every horse, pony, mule, and donkey they could grab. The excess wagons and carts were pulled by groups of Hobs who churned across the ground with little effort in teams of six.
It wasn’t a quiet march of course. Armies marching never were. Even the most disciplined of Drake armies seldom marched in silence; Osthia was used to hearing Drake war song and loud jokes. Instead, she heard the Goblin equivalent. They chattered loudly at each other, screaming insults, laughing—sounds that were so normal, so Drakeish that they disturbed her.
In the background, she could hear war drums booming, sounding the Goblin Lord’s advance across the landscape. They were meant to frighten and terrify, but the Goblins who heard the sounds appeared reassured. This was their army, an army of their people, and it had brought them out of hiding. Where the Goblin Lord’s drums sounded, there was safety.
And apparently, word of the Goblin Lord or his ‘presence’ was enough to attract more Goblins. As Osthia marched behind the Goblin Lord she saw small groups of Goblins appearing in the distance, streaming towards the army. Individual roamers, small gangs, and tribes would appear as the Goblin Lord marched, swelling his numbers. The Goblins were quickly assimilated into his army and usually without a hitch.
The one irregularity in the day’s march came around midday as the Goblin Lord’s army had paused for a meal. Osthia bit into some beans and porridge, watching the Goblin Lord feeding his Shield Spider parts of a horse that had died on the march. The huge spider snapped greedily at the meat and Osthia shuddered to see the Goblin Lord patting it on the head. Then she turned as she heard a commotion.
A Goblin had wandered up to the Goblin Lord’s personal fire and was being roughly turned away by the Hobs who guarded him at all times. The Goblin Lord looked up and raised a hand and Osthia saw the intruder stumble forwards.
It was a Hob, but—one with a beard? Osthia stared as a Hob with a long and ragged grey beard stumbled forwards. She had never seen, never heard of a Goblin with facial hair. And this Hobgoblin looked old, for all he was still physically in shape. The Goblin Lord seemed equally surprised.
He walked towards the grey-beard Goblin and the old Hob fell to his knees, gabbling in the Goblin tongue. The Goblin Lord answered him, gesturing around the camp, and then tilted his head and asked a question. The Hob, looking relieved, replied, and then the two spoke in common to Osthia’s surprise.
“How did you come here, old one? And how are you so old? How old? I have never seen Goblin with…”
Goblin Lord stroked at his chin and turned to Osthia. He pointed.
“What is the word?”
Osthia replied after a moment’s hesitation. The Goblin Lord looked bemused. He repeated the word, tasting it.
“Beard. Beard. You are…Greybeard?”
“Yes, Goblin Lord! I am humble traveler. Once had tribe, but lost it! Too old, but too tough to die! Heard Goblin Lord’s call and came. Old Greybeard is so tired. Didn’t mean to intrude! Will go if unwanted. But asks Goblin Lord’s mercy!”
Greybeard practically flung himself at the Goblin Lord’s feet. The Goblin Lord looked amused as Osthia stared at the old pathetic Goblin in disgust. To her surprise, the Goblin Lord helped Greybeard up and invited him to sit and eat with him.
“Old one. You are welcome to my tribe. If you can fight, I will make you a soldier in my army. Otherwise, you will stay and help others. In camps, cooking, making arrows. You will have food and a place to sleep regardless.”
“Too kind! So kind! Is true, Goblin Lord protects. He calls and protects! With army! With swords and black armor! And undead!”
The Hob known as Greybeard eagerly grabbed the bowl of beans and began shoving them into his beard and mouth as if he were starved. Osthia edged back from him. The Goblin Lord had gone silent meanwhile. He stared over to the army of undead that had marched silently alongside his own. Greybeard didn’t appear to notice.
“So mighty! Crusher of Drakes! Has one prisoner! Mighty lord of undead! And slayer of Drakes! Take this one for torture? Ransom? Pleasure?”
He grinned lewdly at Osthia and she debated kicking him. The Goblin Lord frowned at Greybeard and shook his head.
“No, old one. That is not permitted. This one is for information. And undead are to protect. Will turn Humans, Drakes into undead.”
“And other Goblins?”
Greybeard looked up, a glint in his eyes as he stared at the Goblin Lord. Around him Osthia saw the eating Hobs look up and shift. The Goblin Lord glanced around and then looked at Greybeard and nodded.
“Yes. If must. Other Goblins. But only warriors. Only those who give permission.”
“Permission! To be undead after dead? Good joke!”
The old Goblin crackled with laughter, spraying bits of beans. The Goblin Lord frowned, looking vexed.
“Not joke. Undead are…tool. Sword. If they die instead of Goblins, good.”
“Hmm. Yes. Maybe. Goblins not like undead. But if make for Goblins to live, good? Better? Good question! Since Goblin Lords says, is right!”
It felt like Greybeard’s obsequiousness wasn’t earning him points among the other Goblins. Osthia looked around at scowling Hobs, but the Goblin Lord was patient.
“Old one. Anything is good to survive.”
“True. True! But how much? Bad question. Goblin Lord is Goblin Lord and that is good! But I hear things. As I come. Relieved that Goblin Lord protects!”
“Oh? What things?”
Osthia saw the Goblin Lord straighten. Greybeard glanced at him and again, she saw a glint in his eyes that belied his senility.
“Many things. Goblin Lord uses undead. Goblin Lord is not-Goblin. Foolish things by angry Goblins I think. But then I hear something else. I hear you are a slave.”
He grinned, crunching down on an uncooked bean. And then there was silence. Every Hob warrior sitting around the Goblin Lord looked up. The Goblin Lord froze, and Greybeard looked around, as if belatedly realizing he had said something wrong.
“Not slave? Goblins lie?”
Osthia held her breath as the old Goblin cocked his head, seemingly ignorant of the effect his words were having. The Goblin Lord stared at Greybeard. When he spoke, it was without a smile.
“Who said that?”
“Goblin only say—”
“Who said that?”
Greybeard flinched and dropped his bowl. He cowered as the Goblin Lord appeared bigger for a second and raised two hands protectively.
“Just hear! Just hear! Goblins say. Bad Goblins! Rumors of Necromancer, that all!”
Osthia stared at Greybeard as he hunched over. That was a good question. How had Greybeard heard that the Goblin Lord had a master, the Necromancer? Did other Goblins know? She would have pressed him further, but the old Goblin was close to—no, he was wetting himself with terror. The Goblin Lord relented as he edged backwards.
“Old one, calm. Not angry. If Goblins said slave, well—it is true. I have a master. One who teaches me magic.”
“Teaches? Teach Goblin? A master?”
Greybeard was open-mouthed. He suddenly brightened.
“Good, then! Master protects Goblins! Goblins are twice as safe with powerful master!”
The Goblin Lord laughed hollowly.
“Not, old Goblin. Master is death. Master of death. Casual death. Death of giants. You understand? He uses undead as tool, as sword. He uses me and Goblins as another sword.”
He pointed around the camp and Osthia saw the other Goblins looking down. Greybeard stared at the Goblin Lord.
“Not good master then. Slaves. If Goblin Lord is slave, are we all slaves? Are we all dying casual death, death of meaninglessness?”
The Goblin Lord’s voice brought up the heads of the Goblins around him. He looked around and stood. The Goblins, Osthia, and Greybeard looked at him. The Goblin Lord nodded and tapped one of his eyes, so unlike the crimson eyes of regular Goblins.
“Am slave, old one. Am pupil with master. Am tool and sword. But not to die. A slave learns. A slave grows and lives. Necromancer gave me strength. I created army.”
“But army is just tool. You said. Is being slave and sword good?”
Greybeard looked up slyly, and the Goblin Lord laughed. His laughter startled Greybeard and Osthia. He reached down and grinned at Greybeard.
“Better than being dead, old one. Slave will live. Slave may be sword, but sword will not break. And one day, Goblin Lord will not be slave. And until then, Goblin will do everything to survive. That is Goblin. Understand? Tell other Goblins that.”
He reached down and picked up the bowl of beans that had been overturned. The Goblin Lord offered it to the old Goblin. Greybeard picked at the beans, popping some into his mouth and ignoring the dirt. He smiled.
“Not tell other Goblins. They bad Goblins. Not like Goblin Lord. Slave is good, yes! Goblin Lord is wise.”
The Goblin Lord turned his head and glanced at Osthia. He smiled and she shivered.
“Not wise, old one. Learning. Learning is better than wise. Now come. Old one is wise and old. Will march with us and eat and sleep. Safety I promise.”
And that was that. To Osthia’s discontent she found herself marching alongside Greybeard. He smelled like fresh urine and dirt and he chattered constantly at her. She ignored him and marched after the Goblin Lord. She disliked to admit it, but the Goblins set a hard pace that a Drake army would have been impressed by. Even the children could keep up, though; it was actually the beasts of burden that tired before the Goblins.
They were passing along a large plains when a group of Goblins came riding hard towards the Goblin Lord’s army. They blew horns and waved their arms, and the Goblin Lord rode out to meet them. Osthia couldn’t understand what they said until she caught up, but she recognized a patrol when she saw it.
The patrol was ponies, a mule, and one horse ridden by regular Goblins. Only their leader was different. The Hobgoblin patrol leader was mounted on a horse, and his command of language was limited to say the least. The Goblin Lord nodded.
The patrol leader pointed over his shoulder and gabbled in Goblin. Then, apparently remembering, he switched back to the common language.
“Human city. Got army.”
The Goblins in the patrol conferred and the leader came back.
“Five thousand. Some horses. Many Humans on…feet.”
The Goblin Lord corrected his subordinates and grinned. He turned to the Goblins who’d all stopped to watch them and raised one hand. He pointed in the direction of the Human city, waved a hand, and raised two fingers, pointing at his lieutenants of Snapjaw and Eater of Spears.
It was incomprehensible to Osthia, but somehow the Goblins understood at once. The main army began marching again, but a group of eight thousand Goblins broke off smoothly from the main mass. Osthia eyed the Goblins as the Goblin Lord himself rode forth.
“You don’t think you can take a Human army with similar numbers, do you?”
He grinned at her as he pointed and the Goblins in his army roared and cheered. Osthia saw Snapjaw and Eater of Spears marching their units towards the Goblin Lord. She stared in disbelief.
Eight thousand Goblins versus five thousand Humans? It sounded like one of those trick questions back at the military academy. Unless all five thousand Goblins were Hobs, she would expect eight thousand Goblins to be routed by any professional army. Even a Human one.
But the Goblin Lord thought he could win, and so his small detachment broke away from the main army. Osthia expected to be left behind, but to her surprise, she was marched in the Goblin Lord’s own private escort towards the Human city. More surprising was that Greybeard came with them.
“Can fight Goblin Lord! Have sword.”
He did indeed have a greatsword strapped to his back, rusted and battered though it was. Osthia personally doubted he could lift it, but the Goblin Lord seemed to have taken a liking to the old Goblin so they both marched in between a double wall of armored Hobs.
They were the Goblin Lord’s elite. He had thousands of Hobs, all of whom wore the best armor looted from other soldiers. They were strong, disciplined, and formed the core of his army. Added to his regular Goblins in their black armor and the Goblin Lord has a decent army. But Osthia would have still given the battle to any regular Drake army with a competent [General] if it wasn’t for the factor of undead.
They doubled the Goblin Lord’s army and could pull off maneuvers like digging themselves into the ground and ambushing the enemy, or sending out special exploding Goblin corpses to tear holes in an enemy’s line. With them, the Goblin Lord could overwhelm many armies with sheer bodies.
And yet, not one of the undead came with the Goblin Lord! It was a battle of eight thousand versus five thousand after all! Osthia didn’t understand it. But the Goblin Lord was clearly bent on winning this battle without an advantage.
She hoped the Humans speared him through his arrogant face.
The Human army and their city came into view within twenty minutes. It was a rather large city that had grown up around a river. Their walls were short though, and the city had grown around the original keep. It was clear that the Humans wouldn’t be able to withdraw behind the walls, so the army had come out to buy time for the people to evacuate.
They hadn’t expected such a small force to attack them, though. Osthia’s keen eyes spotted a sizeable section of horsemen, but there were mainly infantry in the army. They didn’t look like veterans, but to her surprise she saw a [Commander] leading the army. A Human on horseback wearing plate armor. He was rallying the army, marching them towards the Goblin Lord’s forces.
“Commander. Lots of [Riders].”
Snapjaw commented to the Goblin Lord, licking her lips as she eyed the horses. The Goblin Lord nodded. He seemed eager for battle; he’d spread his Goblins out and was marching them in a large box-formation that Osthia was laughing at inside. It was a valid tactic, but it clearly showed the Goblin Lord’s lack of experience. If Thrissiam or Garusa had been in command, they would be employing a far more dynamic formation designed to draw the Human cavalry in and annihilate them.
All the better, then. Osthia was on the Human’s side here. She hoped the Human [Commander] was high-level. The Goblin Lord might not be experienced, but his Skills could turn the tide if the Human was only Level 15 or something.
She got her answer as both armies closed with each other. The Goblins were cheering, ready for battle and clearly confident. Whereas the Humans had to know there was a massive force at least ten times their size marching past them. The Human [Commander] had halted them across the plains from the Goblins and was shouting at his men. Osthia could barely hear his voice, and then she heard him shout.
The Humans cheered, waving their weapons overhead, their voices reaching the Goblins as a faint roar. Osthia heard chuckles from the Hobs around the Goblin Lord. And then the Human [Commander] raised his voice and shouted.
There was sound, and then, as if someone had turned the volume up suddenly, the distant shouting became a roar that blasted over the Goblin Lord’s army. Goblins cried out in surprise and alarm as the voices of the Humans became a crescendo of sound.
The howling that came from the Human army was far louder than it should have been. It was bestial, as if it came from a group ten times as large. It made the Goblins around Osthia hesitate and she found her heart beating rapidly as her mouth dried.
Fear swept through the Goblin ranks, making them hesitate. Osthia saw several Goblins and a few Hobs looking over their shoulders as if suddenly wishing they’d brought more of their friends. Strangely, Greybeard wasn’t one of their number. He just poked a finger into his ear and scraped out some earwax.
The Human cheering was demoralizing the Goblins, sapping their energy to fight. But the Goblin Lord didn’t waver. He stared at the other army as they screamed at his and then raised his arm. The Goblins around him looked up, and the Goblin Lord thrust his arm up and roared a word.
It was almost lost amid the tumultuous noise, but every soldier saw him shout it. They stared at their leader, the Goblin Lord, and Osthia saw their backs straighten, and the hesitation leave the Goblins around her. The Goblin Lord paused, looked around, and then thrust his arm up again. He shouted one word and this time every Goblin in his army joined in.
The word deafened Osthia and pushed back the howling chorus from the other army. She heard the voices of the Humans waver. The Goblin Lord thrust his arm up again and the Goblins around him howled.
He was trying to outdo the other army without a Skill! Osthia heard the Goblins around her howling and stamping the ground. The other army was shouting too—she could see the Human [Commander] raising his sword, shouting at them. But all she could hear was the Goblin Lord’s army. They howled again.
The ground was shaking. Osthia saw the Human army waver, and then the Human [Commander] was shouting orders, riding forwards with a group of mounted warriors armed with lances. They were heading into battle. The Goblin Lord pointed and his army moved to meet them.
From her position in the center of the army, Osthia could see the battle unfold smoothly. She had given up looking for an opportunity to run; that would only come if the Goblin Lord’s forces began to rout, and if that was the case she’d go for the Goblin Lord himself in that moment. Instead, she watched as an observer, free of the tension of fighting in the battle.
The cavalry charge of the Humans was one of their defining features that kept them on equal footing with the Drakes. Osthia had seen how their heavily-armored riders could smash into groups of infantry and rout them—their maneuverability was best on open fields like this. She had hopes they could charge through the Goblin’s ranks despite the presence of Hobs. Until she saw the Goblin Lord’s foremost ranks fall into line, Hob and Goblins alike forming a row of spears.
A spear wall! Osthia gasped aloud. That was a Drake formation, a standard of their armies! It was a proper formation too—the Goblins held position shoulder-to-shoulder, bracing themselves for the enemy charge. Behind them, more Goblins were readying themselves. The Humans would charge into the spear wall and as their momentum slowed, be hacked apart by Goblins in the next ranks.
It was a good plan. It might have worked too. The Human [Commander] lead his men in a charge straight towards the Goblin lines, ignoring the arrows coming his way. Then at the last moment he raised his arm and jerked his mount sideways. The Goblins braced for impact stared as he and the thousand or so [Riders] turned.
The cavalry galloped left, narrowly avoiding the Goblin’s front lines. And behind them, no longer concealed by the waves of horsemen, a line of archers and infantry appeared like magic. The archers began to loose volley after volley, catching the Goblins by surprise. The Goblin Lord blinked and Osthia exulted as a rain of deadly arrows streaked into the ranks of the surprised Goblins, cutting them down as the horsemen circled and crashed into the left side of the Goblin Lord’s forces.
“Hit them and away! Move!”
She could hear the Human [Commander] ordering his men, taking advantage of the chaos to strike the Goblins and then gallop away before they could be surrounded. It was a classic Human tactic. And meanwhile the Humans were outdistancing the Goblins with longer bows while their infantry advanced in a knot, clashing with the Goblins on the right side.
They were trying to crush the Goblins from two angles while they bombarded the Goblin’s stationary lines from afar! Osthia saw a lone mage shooting a fireball into the Goblin ranks and for a second she dared hope. Then she saw the Goblin Lord raise his hand.
The [Mage] who’d cast the fireball spell was hidden behind a knot of infantry. The Goblin Lord aimed at the Human man and a streak of black energy formed around his fingers and shot towards the Humans. They tried to block it, but the black bolt went through their shields. The mage and eight soldiers in front of him fell forwards, dead in an instant. The Goblin Lord nodded, and then he pointed.
“Pull back! Goblins move here! Spears go here. And here! Move!”
He raised his voice as the Human cavalry charged again. The goblins shifted according to his orders and a line of spears raced to block the Humans. Rather than charge, they went around again, hitting another weak spot. The Goblin Lord narrowed his eyes.
“Snapjaw charges the right. Eater of Spears forward. Pull back those. Move archers behind Hobs there.”
The Goblin Lord pointed and spoke, and the Goblins around him shot into the army, shouting. Somehow each unit of Goblins heard the orders and moved with incredible speed. Osthia gaped. She would never have expected any non-Drake army to react so fast, let alone a Goblin one! But they had an almost telepathic ability to read each other. The Goblins reformed, changing out of their box formation and into…Osthia saw the Human [Commander] waver and stare in disbelief.
The Goblins had changed their formations entirely. Battalions of archers stood behind lines of infantry, while a wedge of Hobgoblins and elites had broken off from the main army. It was a mirror of the Human army. For a second Osthia saw the Human leader waver, and then his face twisted in disgust under his helm. He pointed and his cavalry charged in as the Humans threw their infantry at the Goblin line.
Only this time the Goblin Lord was ready. He stared at the Human and nodded.
“Charging left. Move Hobs.”
Instantly, the line of Goblins shifted. The Human cavalry turned from their intended target and did indeed swerve left. Only this time rather than hitting an unprotected side they ran up against a wall of Hobs who were already ready with halberds, pikes, and spears. Worse, a group of Goblin archers was already loosing, aiming for the gaps in their horses’ armor.
The surprised cavalry pulled back as Goblins began peppering them with arrows. The Goblin Lord grinned and pointed.
“You charge! There and there!”
This time a group of Hobs took the offensive. Around eight hundred Goblins lead by a core of Hobs charged straight towards a group of Humans [Pikemen], only to swerve and hit the Humans in the side. Behind them, a second wave of Goblins charged forwards. A group of eight Goblin [Mages] began blasting the Humans with magic of their own.
Osthia stared at the Goblin Lord. He’d just copied the Human [Commander]! And as she watched, the Goblin Lord pulled back a group of infantry right as the Human formation charged into them. The Goblins melted backwards and fifteen Hobs stood up. They’d been hidden behind their smaller friends and now smashed into the surprised Humans from the front.
The Human [Commander] was at a loss. He charged again, this time hitting the Goblins hard, but they were ready, pulling back and letting him run into groups of Hobs and archers protected behind ranks of soldiers. And when the rest of his army tried to come to his aid, the wedge of Hobs circled around and hit them from the sides. They had to fall back and protect their exposed archers, while Goblins advanced from all sides, pulling off the same feinting maneuvers.
The enemy army was drawn into an unfolding trap of shifting Goblins as battalions would change positions, concealing each other’s movements and surrounding the Humans in waves of oncoming Goblins. Osthia saw Humans fighting desperately, pressed in from all sides. She hoped their training would prove superior, but for all that the Humans were taller and stronger than the average Goblin, they were equally matched with the Goblin warriors.
And the Goblin Lord had brought his lieutenants and Hobs. He might have taken only a small force, but he had intended to crush his enemy all along. Now, hemmed in at all sides, the Humans came face-to-face with his officers.
Snapjaw raced into the ranks of Humans, her mouth gaping wide. She took a huge bite out of a Human, swallowing half of his head, helmet and all. She gulped, turned, and a Human stuck a sword tip into her mouth. Osthia expected the Goblin to fall, but Snapjaw just bit and then the Human stumbled back, missing an arm. The Hobgoblin woman leapt on him as her soldiers pushed the rest of the Humans back.
In the center of the army, the Human cavalry had run into a wall of Hobs. They charged forwards fearlessly, intent on trampling the Hobs. The collisions between rider and Hob were terrible and left crippled horses and Hobs as one or the other broke from the impact. But the Humans had lances and if they could dodge the spears aiming at them or their mounts, they could take down a Hob in a single strike.
One [Rider] with a lance was charging Eater of Spears from the side. The Hob was finishing off a [Knight] on the ground. He turned too late and the rider charged the lance into his chest. Eater of Spears stumbled backwards and Osthia heard a snap.
The lance broke. The rider was thrown off his horse from the impact. Eater of Spears tore the lance out of his body with a roar and stomped on the [Rider]. Then he grabbed a potion, smashed the bottle into his side, and kept fighting.
Overwhelming. Overpowering. Without a superior strategy the humans lagged behind the Goblins at every turn. The Goblin Lord calmly blasted every [Mage] and high-level [Archer] he could find with his magic. Within ten minutes, the Humans were falling back, their army a fraction of what it was.
“Good strategy. Goblin Lord isn’t bad.”
From his position in the Goblin Lord’s escort, Greybeard looked approvingly across the battlefield. The Goblins had lost far fewer than the Humans. Osthia ground her teeth together, tail lashing the ground.
“It’s not over yet.”
And it wasn’t. The Human [Commander] was pulling back, pointing at the Goblin Lord with a bloody sword. His cavalry had formed into a wedge, and the rest of his soldiers were massing up.
“They’re trying to cut a path straight towards the Goblin Lord!”
It was their only choice if they wanted to strike any kind of blow. Osthia admired the Human [Commander] for his bravery. There was no way he’d survive, but taking that chance to strike a blow was a very Drakeish thing to do.
Of course, the Goblins could see what the Humans were doing. Eater of Spears and Snapjaw were both waiting in the middle of the ranks of the Goblins facing the Humans, ready to defend their leader with their lives. The Human raised a hand, ready to charge, when the Goblin Lord spoke.
“Clear a path.”
Every head turned as the Goblin Lord pointed. The Goblins hesitated, but he repeated the order and his army slowly parted like the sea. The Humans stared in disbelief as the Goblin Lord ordered his Shield Spider mount forwards. He was looking straight at the Human [Commander].
“Ancestors, is he serious?”
Osthia breathed the words. The Goblin Lord couldn’t really be taking the Human’s gamble seriously, was he? But yes, the Goblin Lord had unsheathed his sword and was gesturing towards the Human in armor.
It was a duel. For a few seconds Osthia thought the [Commander] wouldn’t take it, but then the Human spurred his mount and charged. His army roared as he charged towards the Goblin Lord. Around Osthia, the Goblins were shouting and screaming as the Goblin Lord ordered his Shield Spider forwards.
Osthia shouted the words out loud as the Goblin Lord charged towards the Human [Commander]. Was he an idiot? He was taking on a warrior—him, a [Mage]! Whatever the Human [Commander]’s level, he was clearly a warrior and what was more, he was armed for mounted combat.
He was charging towards the Goblin Lord, lance raised, surging behind his shield. Whereas the Goblin Lord only had a sword, a poor weapon for any kind of mounted combat. Osthia watched with baited breath. A [Lancer] could take down a far larger foe, even a Wyvern with a precise strike. The Goblin Lord was no [Warrior]—there was a chance!
“He could kill the Goblin Lord.”
“Hah! Hardly likely.”
Osthia turned. Greybeard was watching the duel. He looked amused as he looked at her.
“Think a Goblin Lord can be beaten so easily? Watch.”
The Drake turned back to the battle. And then she saw the Goblin Lord act. As his Shield Spider charged across the grass, the Goblin Lord raised his sword and spoke a word.
“[Arc of Midnight].”
His sword extended. The plain steel blade turned pitch-black and grew until it was a massive sword made out of darkness, as long as the Human [Commander]’s spear and three times as wide. It was a massive magical blade and Osthia saw the Human hesitate. But they came on.
Now the battle was up in the air. Osthia held her breath. The Human could still do it—he was rising in his saddle, trying to strike first! The Goblin Lord and the Human were fifty feet apart when the Goblin Lord raised his other empty hand and pointed casually towards the horse the Human was riding on.
Black magic swirled around his finger and blasted out in the form of a long spear of darkness that sucked the light into it. The Human cried out and tried to swerve, but they were too close. The magic struck his horse.
The stallion stumbled and fell as the black bolt carved through its body, turning the horse’s body grey and lifeless. The Human fell, cursing, and drew his sword. The Goblin Lord leaned down as the [Commander] stood. He swung the shimmering blade of magic as the Human charged at him.
There was silence as the Goblin Lord’s Shield Spider raced past the downed horse. Osthia saw the Human [Commander] falling—in two halves. The Goblin Lord raised his midnight blade, the arc of black magic shimmering in the air and sucking in light. He shouted and the Goblins around him howled in victory.
“That bastard. That cheating—”
Osthia stared at the Goblin Lord through tears as the Human army shouted their despair and fury. Some charged at the Goblin Lord and others loosed arrows, but the rest were retreating as the Goblin Lord’s army surged forwards. Without a leader, it was a massacre as Goblins cut down the fleeing Humans one by one.
“Cheating? He offered a duel and the Human took it. Not his fault if he thought a [Mage] would joust. More idiot, he.”
Greybeard leaned on his sword, watching the Goblin Lord leading his soldiers forwards. He was being shot at, but the arrows swerved before they could reach him. His ring of protection might have saved him from the lance thrust if he’d taken it. Osthia stared at Greybeard with pure hatred.
“You think he’s a hero, don’t you? That monster—you called him a slave, but you Goblins follow him even if he turns all of you into undead.”
“Not all. Only soldiers. Only those who ask. It makes a difference. And if he uses undead, so what? Velan hated undead. But our King is dead and a Goblin Lord is a Goblin Lord. He protects. The undead don’t matter.”
Greybreard turned his head to look at Osthia. She blinked.
“Why are you speaking—Velan? Velan the Kind? How do you know what he hated?”
The old Goblin grinned at her. They were alone now, the Hobs having left to guard their leader. Greybeard nodded towards the battle as the Goblins began looting the dead.
“Slave. A Goblin Lord who is slave to a Necromancer. That is new. I have known weaker Goblin Lords, but I have never met one who was a slave. But he is a Goblin Lord, however small.”
Something was off about Greybeard. He wasn’t acting like before. And his eyes—Osthia eyed the old Goblin. He was musing aloud, watching the Goblin Lord with narrowed eyes and stroking his beard.
“A coward, a child, and a slave. Interesting. And each one claims to be true Goblin?”
He laughed at that. Osthia stared at him.
“What are you talking about? A coward and a child? Do you mean other Goblin Lords? Or…other Goblin Chieftains?”
“Mm. Yes. All would be Goblin Lords of a kind. But which one would be best? A question for you, captive Drake.”
He grinned at her. Osthia glared.
“It sounds like any one of them would be a disgrace. If that’s the standard for a Goblin Lord, I pity your race.”
Greybeard raised his eyebrows, not drawn in by her insult.
“You don’t understand. That’s not the problem. A child? So what? A coward? So what? A slave?”
“They are Goblin. Any of them might be worthy. One stands out more, though. Redfang. But he is not a true Goblin.”
Garen Redfang? Osthia had heard of him, seen his name on bounty posters. His tribe was dangerous, more than a match for one or two Gold-rank teams. His was the kind of tribe that would take an army to root out. Why had Greybeard mentioned him? Was he mixed up in all of this?
“What does Garen Redfang have to do with the Goblin Lord? Is he working with him?”
The old Goblin laughed at Osthia.
“Garen? Work with a Goblin Lord? He might become a Goblin Lord. And then there would be two. Or one if they clash. But that won’t happen.”
Greybeard’s eyes glittered.
“He slaughtered his tribe. Adventurers. Other species. It matters not. He called them tribe and cut them down for a relic of our King. For hope. But he still cut them down. And so long as that is true, no matter how many false tribes he builds, no matter how strong his sword, he will never be a true Chieftain, much less a Lord. But if he changes…yes. Time to see him. This Goblin Lord will do anyways, if the others fail.”
He nodded at the Goblin Lord, and Osthia stared at Greybeard. He was like no other Goblin she’d met. Not even the Goblin Lord. He wore a mask, and it had come off. A Goblin with a beard. A Goblin who hid his identity.
“Who are you?”
Greybeard grinned at her.
“Just old! Don’t you mind. Tell Goblin Lord I liked his beans. Going now. Keep secret or I cut off tail. Drakes hate that.”
He turned. Osthia spat acid. Greybeard’s form blurred and he vanished. She saw him dash away from the spray of acid she’d shot at him and race across the plains. Only his laughter remained. She thought about running after him. But the Goblins were headed back her way and now the Goblin Lord was riding towards her as his Shield Spider chewed on a bloody body.
The Goblin Lord dismounted, still on a battle-high after his victory. Osthia stared blankly at his soldier and their blood splattered armor and fresh acquisitions. Behind them, she could see hundreds, thousands of zombies and a few ghouls rising. More warriors. The Goblin Lord’s army grew.
“Where is the old one?”
The Goblin Lord stared at Osthia and looked around with a frown. She replied numbly.
“Don’t know. He wasn’t who he seemed to be.”
The young Drake woman stared at the Goblin Lord. He shrugged.
“Old Goblin with beard? Very suspicious. Knew too much. Wonder if I’ll see again. Doesn’t matter.”
“He is Goblin and I am Goblin. We are all Goblin.”
The Goblin Lord was calm as he explained. They were of the same species, so they were on the same side. Osthia stared at him, uncomprehending. That wasn’t how Drakes looked at each other.
Instead of replying, she looked around. The Goblin Lord’s army had destroyed another Human army. Another one. And they were sending soldiers to pillage the city for supplies. At least the rest of the Humans had escaped. And that all begged the question: why?
“What is your goal? Why are you going north? Just for a few Goblin tribes? Or do you want something else?”
Osthia stared challengingly up at the Goblin Lord, ignoring Snapjaw’s glare and the way Eater of Spears looked at her. The Goblin Lord shifted on his throne of chitin, patting his Shield Spider on the head. He smiled at her.
“To survive of course. It is easy. I win three battles and my people live.”
“What? Three battles?”
He nodded calmly and cast his eyes north. The Goblin Lord sat straight as he spoke, the other Goblins hearing his words and passing them on to the others.
“Goblins need a home. Goblins cannot be separate. We are too weak. We are hunted. So I will build one. I will win three battles. One against the Goblins who rebel. Another against the Humans. And a third, defending our home. I will build it in the mountains. And when all three battles are won, Goblins will know peace.”
“Impossible. The Drake high command would never—”
“Drakes? Drakes don’t go north! Drakes don’t trust Humans and Humans don’t like Drakes. If I find a place for my people, one side will send armies and the other one will squabble and do nothing. We will be a thorn for one and good for the other. You know that.”
The Goblin Lord pointed at her. Osthia opened her mouth and stopped. If he settled and made a Goblin city? She could imagine the Walled Cities sending an army north, but surely the Humans wouldn’t think of that as a declaration of war, right? But the last time a Drake army had gone north…
The Goblin Lord raised his voice, addressing his army.
“Three victories. One against Goblins. Then my army is strong. The second against Humans to show them we cannot be defeated. The last to defend a home, to show them that we are here to stay. It is possible! I have an army. I have a people. I have everything you Drakes have, what Humans have. If I am strong, my people will live. And I am strong!”
He raised his arms and his soldiers cheered. Osthia looked around. The Goblins in black armor shouted and cheered in their own language, shouting for the Goblin Lord. For a home.
She was alone among them. And as the Goblin Lord dismounted, as he pointed and his Goblins began to march back to their army, he looked at her. His white pupils surrounded by blackness were too knowing, too intelligent.
“This was good training.”
Osthia Blackwing looked back at the bloody battlefield, at the dead Humans and the undead shambling after the Goblin Lord’s army. She stared at the Goblin Lord, all her fury replaced by…
“Is that what you call it? What you call this? Training?”
“Hmm. Wrong word? Learning, then. I learn. How to hide troops, how to send them here and here. Your Drake [General] and Gnoll [General] taught me how to lead an army. Now I learn how to fight best with one. Learning, always learning. That is what makes me strong.”
He grinned at her. Osthia swallowed hard.
“The Necromancer made you strong. Without him you’re just…”
The Goblin Lord’s eyes flashed and she fell silent. He shook his head slowly.
“Necromancer made me stronger. But I was always strong. Goblins are weak. But we grow. We learn. And we take. From you. From Drakes, from Humans, from everyone. We take and take. And someday we won’t need to take any more. Someday we will be like you. And we will have a home.”
He stared at her and Osthia felt it. Creeping into her heart, like poison. She could deny it, pretend it wasn’t true, but it was. The Goblin Lord was more than a threat. More than a menace. She was afraid of him. And that promise in his eyes. The word he kept repeating.
Goblins had no homes. They were monsters. Savages. Tribal nuisances that had to be put down. Or they had been. Now, the ones in this army were something else. Osthia Blackwing looked into the Goblin Lord’s eyes and he smiled.