The door slammed shut. The Wandering Inn fell silent, and every eye turned towards the five Hobgoblins sitting in a corner. They sat still, glancing around, aware that every eye was on them. The room was tense.
It wasn’t as though Embria Grasstongue had been the one anti-Goblin person in the room. Ilvriss hadn’t so much as glanced at the Hobs once and the rest of his escort kept staring at them. Tekshia Shivertail, the old Drake sitting next to Selys, had been giving the Goblins the evil eye all throughout the party. Then there was Relc, the other Drakes, the Silver Swords…
And of those who were on the Hob’s side, well, it might have been only Erin. She stared at the door to her inn, lips pressed tightly together. Then she sensed the mood and looked at the Redfang Warriors.
“Hey, you guys…okay?”
The Hobs looked at her, surprised. They nodded as one. Erin frowned.
“Embria didn’t bother you? I’m sorry about that. She’s kind of a jerk—”
Relc protested mildly. Erin turned and he paused.
“She’s my kid, you know? Don’t say it, even if it is true!”
“Right, but how about them?”
Erin gestured. The Hobs looked around and then seemed to realize she meant them. Erin looked anxiously at Headscratcher.
“You think Rags is okay? You uh—you’re sure you’re not mad?”
Headscratcher gave the young woman a long, blank look. Then he shrugged. Erin frowned.
The Hobs exchanged glances and poked each other. Eventually Numbtongue, the subject of the most nudges, grudgingly opened his mouth.
“Everyone in the world is hunting. So what? Nothing new.”
He looked around, sour-faced. Erin let out a slow breath.
“Huh. I guess I didn’t think…okay, then.”
She stepped back and clapped her hands together. Everyone looked at her. Erin gave the crowd a smile.
“Sorry about that, everyone! That was Relc’s not-jerk daughter—”
“—who’s not mean and doesn’t totally miss her dad. I don’t think she’s coming back. Anyone want more cake? Don’t leave just yet and maybe save room for some popcorn—we’ve got a play coming on in half an hour!”
The room filled with murmurs as the Drakes and some of the adventurers present looked up. Most of the people in the inn tonight hadn’t ever heard of a play—they’d just come here for the food.
Other adventuring teams had drifted in, ostensibly to eat food but also to socialize with the Gold-rank teams. Among them was the team of Vuliel Drae, sitting and talking quietly amongst themselves. They looked far more dispirited than the other teams, and Erin wasn’t sure why. She swept into the kitchen as she heard the murmuring.
“What’s a ‘play’?”
“Don’t tell me she’s going to have us play a children’s game.”
“Popcorn? Selys, why didn’t you bring me some of that either?”
“Ow! Stop pinching my cheek, grandma! You’re going to have some tonight!”
“I would have had some weeks ago if I had a granddaughter who cared about me.”
Erin grinned and winced as she heard Selys yelp. She ducked into the kitchen where Ishkr was washing dishes and Drassi was handing the Gnoll another tray of dishes.
“Selys’ grandmother is tough! Hey Drassi, go serve more cake and see if the Goblins want some first. And then get Selys’ grandma a bowl of fresh popcorn, please? I’ll pop it now.”
Drassi looked resigned as she grabbed some slices of cake on plates and headed out. She could now serve the Redfang Goblins without freaking out, but she still didn’t like it. Erin busied herself with a kettle and the dried popcorn kernels. She tossed oil in the pot, tossed the kernels in, and held the pot over the fire with mittens, waiting for the first satisfying pop.
“Hey Ishkr, how’re you feeling? Good?”
“Hrr. I could use more sleep. Busy day. Yesterday was busy too.”
Erin felt the first pop in the pot and shook it, keeping the lid pressed down tight. The key was to shake the pot so the kernels wouldn’t burn before the rest popped.
“I know. But hey, we’re making money, right?”
“Lots, yes. And a few of my kindred are here. They wanted to see your play.”
“Oh really? Great! Thanks for spreading the word! Actually, the Players should be here any minute and they’re doing a special play for tonight—”
The popcorn was really exploding now. Ishkr paused in wiping a dish clean and eyed Erin’s pot as she energetically shook it over the fire. She was sweating from the heat, but it was fun making popcorn.
“Yeah it’s—whoops, it’s stopped popping. Hurry!”
Erin dumped the kettle back on the counter and hurriedly poured the fresh popcorn out of the lid and into another bowl. She drizzled melted butter over it, added salt, and scooped out a hand-sized portion with a third bowl. Popcorn required lots of bowls.
“Too bad there’s no yeast. Oh well. Popcorn’s ready!”
“And the [Actors] are here.”
Drassi came back in to take the popcorn and divide it into smaller hand-sized bowls. Erin smiled and hurried out of her kitchen.
The Players of Celum were already getting ready by the stage. Jasi was dressed up in leather armor and she looked nervous—although it was hard to tell these days. Like Wesle, she had acquired an actor’s mask and had a refined quality to her movements. But her smile was completely genuine as she gently hugged Erin.
“Hello Erin. Good to see you. We’re ready for the play.”
“Great! Oh, did I smudge your makeup?”
“I don’t need any right now. Some blood and soot later on, but it’s refreshing not to be wearing anything. The other [Actors] on the other hand…”
Jasi nodded at Wesle, who was grimacing as one of the stagehands applied paint to his face. Erin whistled.
“They’re going all in, huh?”
“We have been working on it. I’m not sure how the Drakes are going to take the play. Especially with the face paint. But…”
The Drake shrugged. She hadn’t grown up in Liscor, so she often had Human reactions to things, having not experienced her people’s culture. Erin nodded.
“If they complain we’ll see. But I think it’ll be good! Oh! Shorthilt, Badarrow! Done with your meal?”
Two Hobs had appeared behind Erin. Jasi glanced at them a bit nervously, but the Hobs just stood with their arms folded. They were both wearing their ‘Security’ armbands. Shorthilt nodded at Erin. He was the friendlier of the two Goblins, which didn’t mean much. Badarrow just grunted as he eyed the stage.
“Cool. I don’t think there’ll be trouble—just stand there and look good. Or sit! The only thing you’ll have to do is tell me if Relc starts shouting at the stage like last night. Wait—I’ll hear that. You want popcorn?”
They shook their heads. Erin nodded.
“Okay, I’ll let you get ready! Tell me when you’re ready to begin, okay Jasi?”
The Drake watched Erin stride away, and then checked her belt. She was wearing a sword. She nodded to the other [Actors] around the stage, and at Pisces, who’d drifted over. The Drakes, Gnolls, and adventurers in the room eyed the Players of Celum with great interest and they waited to see what would happen next. In fact, more people started coming into Erin’s inn from Liscor as a few people slipped out to spread the word that something weird was happening at the inn again.
Within twenty minutes, the [Actors] had disappeared behind the curtain. With Pisces. Those that weren’t acting, like their playwright, a former [Scribe] who’d been bitten by the stage, was sitting at a table close to the front. Erin clapped her hands together as someone cast a [Light] spell and the front of the stage glowed brightly.
“Thank you everyone for your patience! You are about to watch a play, a story being told on this stage! None of it is real, and it is meant for your entertainment! Please don’t shout, make noise, or approach the [Actors]! If you want something, raise your hand and the staff will come over! Now, without further ado I’m proud to present to you an original play for the night: The Battle of Liscor!”
There was a surprised susurration throughout the room. Erin heard several people questioning what she’d said as she hurried to one side. Then the curtains opened. The audience saw a tall, grey wall covering half the stage. It was clearly a wall—the stagehands had worked hard on it all week with [Carpenters] to erect and paint the thing. And a Drake stood on the wall.
“Watch Captain Zevara! What brings you up here this early?”
Jasi turned, her head raised high, her posture alert. Another ‘Drake’ took the stage. This one had painted scales over his face. He was, in fact, a Human, wearing a fake tail and armor, just like Jasi. Erin heard murmurs and checked the audience’s reaction anxiously as Jasi replied.
“I have a bad feeling, Olesm. My [Dangersense] went off not five minutes ago.”
“Mine as well, Watch Captain! I was hurrying here to check on the dungeon.”
“That damn dungeon has given us nothing but trouble of late. I hope this is just a lesser alarm—wait, what’s that?”
She turned and pointed dramatically. Erin eyed Ilvriss and Olesm as she edged around the room. Both Drakes were staring. Olesm pointed at the stage as his friends stared alternatively at him and the actors.
“Hey, that’s me! What’s going on?”
“Is this a reenactment? Some kind of travelling troupe, like those [Bards] and [Tumblers]?”
“Must be. But when will they start hitting each other and dancing about?”
Ilvriss’ table was less complimentary. The Wall Lord stared hard at the Human playing Olesm.
“Disgraceful! Is that supposed to be a Drake? The nerve! And this is supposed to be a retelling of the battle? What will they have our citizens fight, crude sticks with wings stitched on? I don’t need to see this! I—”
He half-rose and then jumped as a shriek echoed from the stage. Half the room leapt to their feet as a Face-Eater Moth crawled onto the stage. It wasn’t a prop, nor was it an illusion. It was real.
Erin saw a Drake leap to his feet, grabbing at his sword. He was Insill, part of Vuliel Drae. The black-scaled Drake was panicked. He began to shout.
“They’re back! They followed us out! Oh, Ancestors, we have to—”
A bellow from the stage shocked everyone into freezing. Zevara, as played by Jasi, ripped her sword from its sheathe and skewered the moth with a single thrust. It fell back, keening, and the Watch Captain turned to Olesm as every eye fell on her.
“Olesm, raise the alarm! We’re under attack! There are thousands of them below! Get the command spells! Call every [Guardsman] in the city to the wall now! Summon the Antinium!”
‘Olesm’ dashed off stage, shouting wildly. Zevara turned as more moths crawled up the side of the wall. She slew one and battled another, cursing, as the audience slowly realized what was going on.
Ceria smacked her head lightly as she lowered her wand. Yvlon and Ksmvr glanced at her, and then at the backstage curtain. Yvlon groaned.
“So that’s what Pisces was doing!”
Olesm sat back down slowly as the rest of the room quieted. Erin grinned mischievously. Her idea had worked! Just as Ilvriss had said, fake monsters or illusory ones weren’t much fun to fight. But Pisces could animate Shield Spider bodies and he’d concluded that moths weren’t too hard either. More moths approached the stage as [Guardsmen] rushed forwards. Then, suddenly, both [Actors] and moths paused.
The audience watched, confused. The other half of the stage lit up as the [Light] spells changed position. Erin saw…Erin on stage.
“What a wonderful day. Hey, Ceria, anyone want waffles for breakfast?”
In the audience, Ceria choked on a piece of popcorn as a half-Elf walked forwards. Erin and Ceria traded a few jokes and then turned as the moths shrieking filled the stage again. The audience shuddered and Erin did too. Pisces had managed to recreate the sound the moths made with his spells and it was really horrifying to hear. But then Jelaqua, Ylawes, and Dawil took the stage. The adventurers leapt to defend the inn and then the play cut back to the walls.
“Watch Captain! The Antinium are battling the moths below! We’re cut off!”
Zevara, eyes blazing, turned as the [Guardsmen] bravely fought the moths.
“In that case we’ll hold the walls until they can send aid. [Guardsmen]! On me! Hold them back! For Liscor!”
She dramatically led a charge across the stage as the ‘Drakes’ and ‘Gnolls’ pushed the moths back. It was a good fight too—the undead moths acted realistically and the painted Drakes and Gnolls [Actors] wearing fur over their faces all had [Warrior] classes of some kind. The audience began to get swept up into the battle as Zevara shouted defiance from the walls—pausing for a monologue.
Erin watched, feeling embarrassed and pleased in equal measures. It was so bad! It was so cheesy! And yet, she saw Olesm grinning with delight as a spell blasted apart some of the moths. She turned and saw a sour face in the crowd. Predictably, it was Ilvriss. The Wall Lord glared at her.
“Ridiculous! This isn’t what happened! What of the deaths? What of the sacrifices of my people? I—”
He was halfway to standing up, probably to leave in a huff when another Drake strode onto the stage as the ‘dying’ [Guardsmen] fell backwards, screaming and groaning.
“Stand! I said stand! Liscor’s wall shall not fall while I am here! A Wall Lord of Salazsar does not retreat! Rally to me, brave Drakes of Izril!”
He unsheathed his sword and there was a crackle of magic that lit up the stage behind him. The audience cheered and Ilvriss paused.
He slowly sat back down as ‘Ilvriss’ charged the Drakes, uttering oaths and demanding to know where Pallass was. On the other side of the inn, ‘Erin’ was arguing with a Drake through a magic doorway, pleading for the Walled City’s help.
“Well, it’s not that inaccurate…ridiculous having a Human play me…hah, but Pallass’ ineptitude is well conveyed. Can we record this? Where’s my scrying orb?”
Ilvriss leaned back in his chair and within minutes was munching on popcorn. The play went on. ‘Jelaqua’ gave a monologue about the duties of Gold-rank adventurers. ‘Ylawes’ drew his sword to heroically dash to Liscor’s defense while ‘Dawil’ made snarky jokes. Erin saw the real Ylawes turn beet-red, much to her delight as the audience cheered and groaned through the retelling of the battle they had all lived through.
It wasn’t close to the truth at all. It was inaccurate, filled with monologues and heroic scenes and clever lines and jokes. It was a lie. And it was what the audience needed. Erin saw Olesm’s eyes shining as he watched himself burn some moths with a spell from Liscor’s walls, and heard Drakes and Gnolls cheering their own roles on the walls. The magic of the stage was that it wasn’t real and it was real at the same time, and if you were willing, you could almost imagine that this was how it had gone. Heroics and tragedy, without the real pain and loss.
For a few minutes. For an hour and a half. In the end, the undead moths Pisces had been using could literally not stand up any more and collapsed. The stage was wet with sweat and not a bit of dead moth gore, and Erin resolved to buy some scented herbs from Octavia for the next performance. Because oh, would there be a next performance!
Ilvriss stood on stage at the last stand, daring the Moths to come closer as Relc, Zevara, and Olesm held their ground. Halrac stood like a lone sentinel on the roof—having had literally one line the entire play. The Drake Wall Lord, played by Wesle, roared at the audience and the moths in fury.
“Cowards, cowards! Enough of this! If Pallass won’t send reinforcements then damn their cowardly tails to oblivion! Liscor will triumph alone! True Drakes know no fear!”
From the audience Erin could see Ilvriss nodding repeatedly.
“Well said. Well said. And I believe I did speak something to that effect.”
She grinned. The play ended with the rains falling, as Pisces playing Pisces strode onto stage with a truly hammy Deus ex machina moment. The [Necromancer] reveled in his moment, delivering a monologue to the crowd before the curtains closed and the audience went nuts. Erin laughed and applauded as the Players of Celum came out to bow and shake hands with the real heroes.
Because of course, that was the point. Wesle stood on the stage and bowed to the applauding audience.
“Thank you! You are too kind! Thank you! The Players of Celum are honored to perform this for the true heroes of Liscor who fought to defend the city. In the audience we have the City Watch of Liscor, Wall Lord Ilvriss, the [Strategist] Olesm, the Silver Swords, the Horns of Hammerad…”
He listed each name as the audience, surprised and pleased, now began to applaud each other. Erin saw Ceria blushing and Jelaqua springing up to give everyone a delighted bow. Moore’s face was almost as red as Ylawes’, and Typhenous couldn’t stop stroking his beard with a smile written all over his face. Wesle kept reading from the little list Erin had handed him, until he reached one of the final entries.
“And last but not least, Vuliel Drae, who bravely slew countless Face-Eater Moths in defense of the city!”
There was more applause and Erin saw the group of adventurers named stand up. She frowned as she saw them wave sheepishly. There was guilt written all over some of their faces. Perhaps the others wouldn’t have noticed it, but this was Erin’s inn and she had learned to read people. She frowned at the group as the five, Anith, Dasha, Insill, Larr, and Pekona, waved to the audience and sat down quickly.
Their leader, the Jackal Beastkin Anith, wasn’t showing much emotion. Nor was the Gnoll, Larr. But Insill’s tail was practically curled into a ball, and Pekona was gripping her sword hilt and looking down at the ground. Dasha was practically chewing on her own beard.
“Now what does that mean?”
Erin frowned at the team until she saw Wesle and the other [Actors] descend the stage. She had to hurry to get them food, and to keep the audience from mobbing them with questions. Not that the [Actors] seemed to mind. They were already giving out autographs and Erin was tickled to see that they were selling the audience pieces of paper so the [Actors] could autograph them.
“Now that’s business for you!”
She smiled and hurried around, rescuing Wesle before Ilvriss could tell him every little thing he’d ‘forgotten’ to add to the play, saving the actor playing Relc from the actual thing, watching Emme, the half-Dwarf woman laughing with Dawil who’d loved every minute of his performance, and ducking an angry Revi, Falene, and Typhenous, all of whom wanted to be included in the next performance.
Erin only caught Jasi for a second as the Drake stood among the other members of her species, and noted how many tails were wagging as the Drakes clustered around her. Jasi looked slightly overwhelmed to be meeting so many members of her species and Erin resolved to rescue her as soon as she could. She had to pause and smile broadly at the Drake, though.
“We’re going to make so much money!”
This was the first play Liscor would see. It would not be the last. And as Erin closed up her inn well into the night, she did so with lighter spirits. The adventurers went to bed in the restored second floor, and Erin had to let her guests through to Liscor and Celum respectively. The inn fell quiet, and Apista and Erin were the last souls in the common room of the inn. The Ashfire Bee swooped down and angrily stung something—Erin saw her killing a tiny Face-Eater Moth and shuddered as she tossed the dead thing outside.
“Good work, Apista. You do that again, okay? Now, I’m going to bed—make sure nothing crawls up my nose!”
She put a bowl of honey water out for the bee, a special treat. She was trying to ration what honey she had left since Lyonette had no chance of getting near the Ashfire Bee nest in the rain and high waters. The bee settled into the bowl, Erin went to her kitchen and laid down. She was asleep nearly instantly, smiling broadly, happy, relaxed. The inn was peaceful.
And in the basement, the five Redfang Warriors sat. They’d been forgotten by the audience, stood quietly throughout the play—which they hadn’t been included in—and had now gathered below. They weren’t smiling at all. They were upset. And only now, hidden away from the dangerous eyes of the others could they show it.
It was a quiet conversation. In fact, it was a conversation with very few words actually spoken. The Redfang Warriors rarely spoke the Goblin language and only Numbtongue was fluent in the common one. Like all Goblins they spoke through body language, a complex social interaction.
Not that anyone would have to guess what was running through their heads now. Headscratcher pounded on the stone walls of the basement of Erin’s inn, hitting the stone with his fists. Shorthilt and Rabbiteater slumped, heads in hands. Badarrow was fiddling angrily with his arrows and Numbtongue was gritting his teeth. The feeling each one conveyed was different in nuance, but the same at its core.
How? How could they have forgotten? Embria’s words had affected them, deeply. The Goblins hadn’t shown it, but her words had cut them to the quick. They hadn’t known the Humans were attacking their tribe. They hadn’t thought about it. They’d stayed at Erin’s inn, so happy, so content to be fed and not in danger every waking moment that they’d forgotten their tribe.
How could they? Headscratcher punched a wall and then hit it with his head, venting his fury. The Humans were attacking their tribe! Of course they would. And the Goblin Lord would be coming after their tribe! Garen Redfang had sworn to oppose him. Why hadn’t they remembered? His punches were that question given agonized form. Why, why, why—
Of all the five Goblins, Headscratcher was most prone to fits of anger, just like he had grieved deepest at the [Florist] girl’s passing in Esthelm. He took his pain out on the wall, not caring at the damage he did to his own body.
The thud of his fist hitting the stone made the other Goblins look up. Headscratcher stared at his right first. The impact had split the skin across his knuckles. He didn’t seem to care. He raised his first for another blow and Rabbiteater stood up. The shorter Hob grabbed at Headscratcher’s shoulder, gesturing to his hand.
Enough. Headscratcher turned away. He raised a fist and punched the wall, leaving a bloody streak. Rabbiteater grabbed his shoulder, trying to calm the other Hob down. It didn’t work. Headscratcher lashed out at him, a warning. Rabbiteater ignored it. He grabbed Headscratcher’s shoulder again, growling.
Headscratcher snarled and turned. He punched at Rabbiteater. The other Hob took the blow across the chest. He staggered but didn’t fall. Headscratcher paused in shock at his own actions as the other Goblins looked up. Rabbiteater didn’t retreat. He slapped his chest, glaring at the other Hob angrily.
Hit me! If taking a punch was all it would take, Rabbiteater would take as many as Headscratcher had to give. But Headscratcher was ashamed. He held up his hands and backed away, shaking his head. Remorse. Apology. Rabbiteater snorted angrily and turned away.
It wasn’t anger at Headscratcher. Rabbiteater’s hunched shoulders were mirrored by the other three Hobgoblins. The feeling of oppressive helplessness weighed on them. The Redfang Warriors sat quietly. Headscratcher lowered his head, brushing at his face and leaving blood behind. He sat with the others, head bowed as Rabbiteater sat next to him.
It wasn’t as if the others didn’t understand his pain. Shorthilt looked around the dark basement, his crimson eyes glowing in the faint light from the lantern Erin had given them. He pulled his sword out from its sheath. The worn blade was as sharp as he could make it, but terribly used.
It was a testament to Shorthilt’s care that it was usable at all—it was the only sword to survive the battle with the moths. The Redfang Goblins had been forced to fight with hands and feet near the end as their iron blades had broken from the strain of combat. And in Shorthilt’s hands it was a reminder, a symbol.
Duty. The other Redfang Warriors nodded. Badarrow snapped a faulty arrow and laid it on the ground in front of the others. Broken duty. They had come here with a mission. They’d failed it.
Numbtongue looked up sharply at Badarrow and he made a scathing noise. The other Goblins looked at him. Numbtongue folded his arms, his position clear. Duty? Their duty had been to kill Erin. And that was a mistake! Garen Redfang should have never ordered it.
To Numbtongue’s surprise, Badarrow shook his head. The Goblin rearranged the arrow pieces and his meaning, misinterpreted by Numbtongue, became clear. He pointed the broken arrow towards the sword. It wasn’t their mission they’d failed, but their duty to return once they’d realized the error of their orders.
Of course. The other four Hobs nodded and Numbtongue retracted his anger with a flicked finger at Badarrow. The Redfang Warriors sat silently. It was all too true. They had to go back. But how? They had no idea where their tribe was. If the Goblin Lord hadn’t been marching they could have gone north and searched for other tribes who might know where theirs had passed. If the Humans hadn’t been so alert, they could have roamed freely. But now they were targets.
Rabbiteater grinned. It wasn’t a happy grin, but it made the other Hobs look up. He pointed at his chest ironically. They grinned mirthlessly too as they got the joke.
Hobs. They were all Hobs. They’d left as regular Goblins, save for Grunter. Now they were five Hobs. Five! They were a valuable asset—worth just as much as thirteen regular Goblin warriors, elites or not. They were stronger, faster, and thanks to Erin feeding them, probably in better shape than most Hobs of their tribe. And yet—their faces fell.
The problem was—Numbtongue swung his fist and made a whooshing sound. The other Redfang Goblins nodded. The problem was that there was no way to fight this problem. How could you fight distance, and not knowing where your tribe was? And if you did find them, how could you fight an army? They were as useful as five Hobs. As useless as five Hobs, too.
If they used all their skill, all their cunning and all their life they could take out a group…four times their size. If they were ordinary soldiers. If the Hobs had time to prepare, or advantageous terrain. If, if, if.
And as Badarrow indicated with a slow shake of the head, if’s weren’t enough to win a war. And it was a war that had come to the Goblins. It was always a war. They were only five. If they went back to their tribe they’d be of little help.
Headscratcher shook his head. He grabbed for something at Badarrow’s belt. The archer’s dagger. He held it up, brandishing it as Badarrow glared at him. So what if it meant they would die? They were warriors of the Redfang Tribe! Wasn’t death what they’d all signed up for? If it could tip the scales he would gladly die.
Headscratcher’s eyes were wide, desperate. If it would help—he gestured with the dagger at his throat. Badarrow scowled and snatched his blade back. He sarcastically held it up and dangled it with one finger. As if battles were won that way! But he didn’t mock long. Headscratcher’s statement was too genuine, too true to what they were feeling.
If only they could matter. But five Hobs didn’t matter in a war between the Goblin Lord and Humans, in Goblin tribal battles where each side had hundreds, sometimes thousands of Hobs. They didn’t matter.
But they had to leave. They had to go. It was a certainty in the air, only none of the Goblins knew how to express it. Shorthilt picked up his sword, hesitated, gestured with his sheath, frowned, and chewed his lip, unsure of how to say what he meant. He looked at Numbtongue and nudged him.
The other Hob scowled. Headscratcher nudged him from the other side and Numbtongue folded his arms. He didn’t want to speak. Rabbiteater clicked his tongue, but the Hob refused to open his mouth. Out of patience, Badarrow snatched up the broken arrow and hurled it at Numbtongue’s chest. Say it already! Numbtongue sighed, and then grudgingly opened his mouth.
“This place is too…nice.”
The other Goblins listened to the words, mulled them over, and then nodded in agreement. Too nice. That was a phrase that Goblins had no equivalent for. But it was true. Erin’s inn was filled with food. She was kind to them. The Goblins had a place here. She protected them. And if the occasional Drake shouted at them, or Face-Eater Moths attacked, so what? It was heaven compared to the life they’d lived up till this point.
But they had a duty. Headscratcher was the first to look up. He glanced at Badarrow and held his hand up.
How far? The other Goblin shrugged. He raised two fingers and shook them. Really far. Headscratcher nodded. He looked at Shorthilt, pointed at the sword.
How many weapons did they have? Shorthilt sighed. He silently held up two fingers, nodding at the sword on his waist and Badarrow’s bow. Rabbiteater muttered—Headscratcher made a fist and clenched it grimly. Well, that was weapons sorted out. Shorthilt’s sword was still usable and Badarrow had his bow and some arrows. The other three Goblins had fists.
Hundreds of miles, no weapons, and no idea where to go. That was their mission this time. But none of the Goblins mentioned giving up. They didn’t consider it. They looked around, not at each other, but at the missing spots where they sat, the missing faces. Their nicknames rose unbidden into the air.
They’d all died on this mission. A pointless mission. But one that mattered. They’d died fighting the undead, fighting the Goblin Lord’s army. Fighting because it was right. To be people. For a young woman’s last words.
For each other. Now the last of their number stood together. Five warriors out of thirteen. Five Hobs. They stood up and faced each other in a circle. They looked at each other. Brothers in battle. Friends. Comrades. The last few. Some of them might die. All of them might die. But they were committed. The five put their hands together.
Headscratcher, hand bloodied, eyes full of tears.
Shorthilt, hand on his sword, eyes sharp.
Rabbiteater, his fist clenched, his teeth gritted.
Numbtongue, murmuring a word, remembering a Human’s song.
Badarrow, scowling, bitterly determined to see it to the end.
They gripped each other tightly, hands clustered in the center of the circle. For a moment. And then it was done. The Redfang Warriors stepped back.
They were resolved. They would find a way back to their tribe. They would become stronger, strong enough to save the others, to oppose the Goblin Lord, to return to their chieftain, Rags. They would do it.
Or they would die. The Redfang Goblins nodded to each other and they lay down to sleep, relieved, at peace at last. There was nothing else to it. That was what it meant to be a warrior of the Redfang Tribe. That was what it meant to be them.
That was what it meant to be a Goblin.
The next day, the Redfang Warriors got up at the break of dawn and began putting together a plan. They grunted at each other as they went through their morning spar, conserving energy, trying to think.
The problem was that none of them were real thinkers. Oh, Badarrow was cunning and Numbtongue could talk, which was impressive, but in their old group it had been Grunter who’d directed them. True, that was pretty much just the other Hob belching and pointing occasionally, but Grunter had been an older Hob. Hobs were leaders in Goblin tribes, and the older they got, the smarter. You had to be smart to live a while.
They wished Grunter were here. Or Redscar, Garen Redfang’s second-in-command. He was no Hob but he was smart. Or Rags. She was a genius. Bereft of their leadership, the five Redfang Warriors defaulted to what they knew. The first step was to arm themselves. Only two weapons among five was no good. They needed quality weapons. And that meant steal or kill for it.
Only, as Headscratcher pointed out by smacking Badarrow across the back of his head, stealing wasn’t right. Not from Erin. Not from one of two Humans who had ever shown them kindness. The [Archer] Hobgoblin muttered insults as he rubbed the back of his head, but agreed, grudgingly, that it would be wrong. They couldn’t steal from Erin. Besides, she didn’t have enough swords. Lyonette had a sword in her room that she occasionally practiced with, but that was it.
So where could they get weapons? The answer was simple. The magic door.
The Redfang Warriors strode into the inn, trying to look casual. They’d donned their ‘Security’ armbands just in case and they sat at a table as Erin served them breakfast and gushed about last night.
“Wasn’t it great? I’m sorry you guys couldn’t be in the play, but you didn’t say anything and the Players said it would be easy to leave you out. Are you mad? I hope you aren’t—Typhenous and Revi and Falene really wanted to be in the play! I think the writers are going to amend it. Anyone want more bacon? Toast?”
Every hand went up. Erin hurried into the kitchen and the Goblins immediately looked at the magic door. That was the ticket. They were realistic about their chances of sneaking into Liscor day or night—Drake cities were well-guarded and the Goblins would have to swim through the water to get there, already risky since they didn’t know what lived in the waters. But Celum and Pallass? They had a doorway into both cities!
However, getting weapons would still be a trick and a half. It wasn’t as if [Blacksmiths] and [Merchants] left out good swords for anyone to take! It was a hazy plan, but the first step was seeing if they could actually get away with it.
Rabbiteater slid over to the magic doorway while Erin was busy in the kitchen. This early in the morning only Lyonette and Mrsha were up and she was feeding the Gnoll breakfast and trying to get Mrsha to eat with her utensils. The Redfang Warriors casually looked away as Rabbiteater picked up the yellow stone in the bowl by the door.
He’d watched Erin use it enough times to know exactly how it was done. He placed the stone on the door and cracked it open a hair. Pallass’ bright sunlight illuminated his face just for an instant. Rabbiteater paused. If they went through they’d go at night, when—
It was an immediate reaction, a sense in Rabbiteater’s head that made him freeze instantly. The Hob leaned back from the doorway and shook his head at the others. They froze and Numbtongue got up. He hurried into the kitchen to stall Erin.
“Oh, Numbtongue, you want something?”
“Beets? Well, I’ve got some—wait, what do you mean, ‘beets’? Beets as in breakfast food? Is there a breakfast that has beets in it?”
The other Hobs listened as Numbtongue desperately distracted Erin. Lyonette looked over, but Rabbiteater had sunk down and she missed him. He listened, his ear to the door. His [Dangersense] had warned him—now he used his senses to confirm what he knew to be true.
The door was open just a crack, but that was enough to let the sounds of Pallass filter into the inn. Headscratcher could hear people walking about, talking, and more distance noises. He filtered that out and listened, his ears twitching. And then he heard it.
Breathing. Perhaps only Rabbiteater would have heard it. The Hob had learned to hunt rabbits in the grass, become the stealthiest of the group by honing his skills in order to feed himself. He raised a hand, pointed a finger left. There was someone watching the door in Pallass to the left.
Badarrow got up slowly and came over to listen. Erin was clanging around in the kitchen.
“What goes well with beets? Potatoes? Eggs? I never knew Goblins liked beets!”
Her voice surprised the listener on the other side. Badarrow and Headscratcher listened to the breathing pause for a second and then go on normally. Perhaps the guard thought the door had opened by accident? Rabbiteater raised two fingers. There was more than one watcher. The two Hobs listened. Breathing. Breathing and then a cough. Sloppy. Badarrow rolled his eyes and mimed putting an arrow through the doorway. Rabbiteater held up a hand. He waited. Then he peeked the door open a tiny bit more.
The Goblin had only a sliver of light to look through, but he pressed his eye to the door for five minutes, until Erin came out of the kitchen with a pan full of fried beets, potatoes, and eggs all made into a hash. By that time the Goblins were sitting down and they happily ate the food while Rabbiteater held up four fingers when no one was watching. Shorthilt shook his head.
Four watchers, then. Probably with a vantage point on the door, ready to summon others. The Redfang Goblins could rush the door, but they’d never get anywhere in the Walled City. They’d be dead within minutes. No good to steal things there. And they didn’t want to cause trouble for the Human.
If that was no good, they had to try the other city. This time they waited until Lyonette was in the kitchen with their dishes and Erin was complimenting Mrsha on the Gnoll’s dutiful watering of the flowers. The Goblins changed tables and Headscratcher opened the door to Celum. They listened and heard someone muttering.
“—hah, show those bastards what’s what! They want to play rough? I’ll buy up all their supply and sell my potions through Liscor! I’ve got two markets to work through—they’ll burn through their coin while I turn a profit! Just gotta get Erin to give me another idea. How in the name of good stitching did she and Ryoka know about matches, anyways?”
Octavia’s voice was tiny through the crack in the door. The Goblins listened, nodded, and Headscratcher closed the door right as Erin turned around. They conferred as she blinked at them.
“Did you switch tables?”
Badarrow nodded. Erin stared at him.
She turned away. The Hobgoblins conferred. Octavia’s shop was definitely less guarded than Pallass. They could definitely steal some potions from the [Alchemist]. The question was—could they get away with anything else? They’d have to do some nighttime reconnaissance. Assuming the Human [Guardsmen] weren’t too alert, the Redfang Warriors could locate a blacksmith, scope it out, and break into it.
Then there was securing an escape route. Maybe they could leap over the walls and try not to break anything? Or they could try the gates. They’d have to move fast. None of the Goblins was confident they could break into a shop and get away without being spotted and they couldn’t bring trouble back to the inn.
They’d have to steal food before they went. And build some rucksacks. But it was a plan. A bad one, granted. Badarrow kept wrinkling his nose in distaste. They’d have decent weapons if all went well, food, and potions. That would help, but so what? They’d still be woefully outmatched by any Gold-rank team and maybe some Silver-rank ones.
The Redfang Warriors had had a lot of time to observe all the teams that had gone into the inn, and they’d concluded that while they could take some of the adventurers if they got the jump on them, they might not win even if they took the others by surprise. Moore and Jelaqua, for instance. No matter how many times Shorthilt, their fighting expert, went through scenarios, they always ended up dead before they could take out the Halfseekers. No wonder they were Garen Redfang’s old team.
And there would be many groups equivalent to a Gold-rank team between them and their tribe. Still, that was their only plan. The Goblins sighed and then jumped as one when Erin addressed them.
“Hey. Do you have a moment?”
She stared at the Redfang Warrior’s startled faces.
“It’s cool if you don’t have time. If you uh, want to sit around that’s fine. But I thought you might be bored. So…wanna see what’s outside?”
They stared at each other. Erin had never asked them to do more than lift heavy things or help defend the inn. They’d agonized over whether eating her food and guarding her from non-existent threats was really repaying her kindness. Without a word all five Goblins stood up. Erin smiled.
It was still raining outside, but mildly compared to before. Erin stared around at the water. It was twenty feet down from the top of her hill where her inn stood. According to Selys, the water would drain rather than rise farther—there was apparently a finite amount of height the waters would rise. But it had well and truly engulfed the Floodplains now. And part of Liscor.
“Oh my gosh, look at that. Liscor’s half underwater!”
Erin pointed at Liscor in the distance and the Hobs muttered. Liscor didn’t sit on a hill as high as her inn, and so the waters had risen around the city, reaching halfway up the walls! Only the faultless stone kept the waters from rushing into the city, as well as the sealed doors. Erin finally understood why Liscor had solid slabs of stone rather than an easier-to-use portcullis—it was to keep the water out during the rainy season!
“But how do they get out of the city, do you think? They can’t stay inside forever. Right? I mean, they’d want to leave. So how…?”
Headscratcher grunted and pointed. Erin looked in the direction of his finger and blinked.
“Oh. That makes sense.”
Drakes and Gnolls were descending Liscor via rope ladders and a wooden ramp! They’d made a floating dock and were literally walking off the battlements down into the water, where a small fleet of boats had already been built. Erin saw several Drakes pushing the boats through the water with spears and nets in hand.
“Are they fishing? Gotta be. There must be monsters in the water. Relc said they were coming.”
“You hear that Mrsha? That means no playing by the water, understand?”
Lyonette had joined the group outside. She raised Mrsha to peer out into the water. The Gnoll wriggled and tried to get free, but Lyonette held her, despite the rain soaking both of them. Erin frowned at the skies.
“Yuck! Does it ever stop raining during the spring? Hey Lyonette, at least we don’t have to get water from the stream, huh?”
“That’s one good thing. But I’d be careful about getting near to the water’s edge, Erin. Remember those flat fish? If they’re in the waters…”
“Ooh. Yeah. Not good.”
Erin shuddered and then saw something move in the water in front of her. She frowned.
“What the heck?”
Something tiny poked its head out of the water. Erin stared. The Goblins stared. Numbtongue pointed.
It was indeed a small fish! It looked like, well, it looked like a porcupine had merged with a mackerel. The little fish had spines sticking out of its body as it looked up at Erin and the other land dwellers.
“Careful. Don’t get too close! It could be poisonous!”
Erin cautioned the others as she slowly reached for her frying pan. All five Goblins stared at the tiny fish. The spiky little thing gave them all the fish-eye, which looked remarkably like a stink eye. It did not look happy.
“I’m gonna see if I can catch it. I bought this net from Krshia. Why don’t I go inside—Lyonette, take Mrsha inside. I’ll sneak up on it and—”
Erin turned her back. The fish stared at her, and then two of the quills on its back rose threateningly. The Redfang Goblins reacted instantly. They dove out of the way and immediately took cover. Too late, they realized they weren’t the target. The tiny fish shot two of the spines on its body. Straight at Erin.
The young woman shouted in pain as two spines stuck out of her back through her clothes. Lyonette shouted and Mrsha barked in alarm. The Redfang Goblins cursed and before Erin could move Headscratcher and Rabbiteater grabbed her and charged back into the inn with her carried between them. She heard Lyonette and Mrsha yelp and then all of them were back in doors. Badarrow slammed the door shut as two more quills bounced off the side of the inn.
“What was that?”
Erin twisted, feeling a stinging pain in her back. She grabbed for the quills, but Numbtongue caught her hand.
Erin stared at him until she realized what he meant. Her eyes widened.
“Oh my god! Is it poison? Acid?”
Mrsha began to howl. The Goblins put Erin belly-first on the table as Lyonette ran to Celum’s door.
“Octavia, get in here quick! Erin’s hurt!”
They heard a crash and swearing as Octavia rushed through the door. She halted when she saw Erin’s back.
“I don’t know! This little fish shot me! I didn’t know that fish could shoot things? Do I need a healing potion or an antidote?”
Erin waved at Octavia. The [Alchemist], who’d been pale-faced with worry, paused.
“Yeah! A small one, the size of my hand!”
The Stitch-Girl passed a hand across her face.
“Stitches, don’t do that to me, Erin! You mean you got hit by a small fish outdoors, right? In Liscor? Those are Quillfish. They shoot little needles at you if you get near them. They can kill other fish underwater. They’re not poisonous. They’re barely a danger to other fish their size!”
Erin paused. Lyonette stopped wringing her hands. Mrsha stopped howling. The Redfang Goblins stared at the [Alchemist].
“Oh. So they’re not dangerous?”
“Only if you get a quill in your eye. Can I go?”
The [Alchemist] sighed and walked back into her shop, grumbling about idiots who didn’t know a Quillfish from a poisonous Roxian Bloater. Erin sheepishly looked around.
“Well…now we know. Be careful going out, guys! There’s more than Quillfish in the water, and if there’s a lesson to be learned it’s that nowhere is safe! Even on land! I—ow!”
She broke off as Mrsha pulled both quills out of her back. The Redfang Goblins exchanged a look.
Okay, so maybe leaving Erin alone was dangerous after all. She’d been smart enough to avoid the water, but she didn’t have the instincts of a Goblin, or the reflexes. The Redfang Warriors peered into the waters, wondering what other creatures had swum into the lake basin. They could see other fish darting around, probably feasting on the Face-Eater Moth’s corpses, but nothing bigger.
Yet. Didn’t the giant Rock Crabs live in this area? The Redfang Warriors had seen them scuttling about. Were they underwater, waiting to attack anything that swam past them? Now that would be dangerous. The Redfang Warriors engaged in a healthy debate, trying to cover up their embarrassment about running scared from a harmless fish with spikes.
It was Rabbiteater who saw the tiny blip of movement that indicated the Quillfish’s return. The Hob peered into the water and saw the spiked head staring at him. It seemed the tiny fish objected to any presence on the hilltop. He stared at it. The fish stared back. It raised its spines and Rabbiteater charged.
He dove into the water. The Quillfish was lining up a shot and realized the Hob was going after it too late—it tried to dive just as Rabbiteater’s hand closed over it. The Hob cursed and Erin threw open her doors to see what was happening. She saw Rabbiteater struggle out of the water and then come up the hill towards her. He was holding the Quillfish, which flopped and gasped as it shot its quills into his palm.
The Hob shyly offered Erin the dead fish. She stared in horror at the spines sticking out of his palm.
“Lyonette, get me a healing potion!”
Twenty minutes later, Erin had discovered that Quillfish were in fact, edible, and made for a nice snack once you removed the spines. She still scolded Rabbiteater for getting hurt—he’d actually tried to refuse the healing potion! He was definitely playing up the tough guy act, just like the other Redfang Warriors.
But they were helpful in discovering what else lay in the waters around her inn. They peered into the waters, pointing and keeping a respectful distance with Erin. Mrsha was allowed to watch, but from further back.
It turned out that Goblins had a practical approach to wildlife. They asked a few simple questions about everything they met. Can it kill me? Can I kill it? Is it edible? And sometimes, how much effort is it worth dealing with this thing? And they refused to take risks. Which was good, because it turned out that Liscor’s waters had more than just a few Quillfish in its stock of predators.
Erin stared as a large, black shape circled the water beneath a school of tiny silvery fish. Its shape twisted and she jumped as she saw a tentacle shoot out of the water and nap a fleeing morsel.
“That’s an octopus fish. Literally an octopus’ tentacles on a fish. It’s huge!”
The fish was probably fourteen feet long and it gave Erin a very, very dangerous vibe. She kept a distance as Badarrow trained an arrow on it and Shorthilt muttered and held his sword. The fish circled the hill and then tried to climb it.
“Holy crap, it has legs! Run!”
Erin screamed as the fish propelled itself onto the grass with eleven black tendrils, each as thick as her leg. She rushed Mrsha inside and the Redfang Goblins howled and charged the fish. To Erin’s horror, only Shorthilt had a sword. She waved at them as the fish began grappling with the cursing Goblins.
“What are you doing? Get your swords! Where are your swords?”
Badarrow cursed as he shot the fish in the side. It didn’t make a sound, but from the way it jerked it didn’t like his arrows, or when Shorthilt stabbed deep into its side. The tentacles grabbed Headscratcher as he kicked the fish in its face and lifted him up. The Hob got a good look at a mouth full of teeth as the other Hobs tried to pull him back. Shorthilt cursed and kept cutting and Badarrow reached for another arrow. Erin was rushing outside with frying pan and knives when she heard a voice from overhead.
An arrow shot down from the rooftop. It went straight through the black fish’s head and lodged somewhere in the middle of its body. The fish jerked and then died as Shorthilt followed the arrow up with a stab right through its brain. Its tentacles drooped and Headscratcher fought his way clear of them, cursing, his skin torn by the suckers on the tentacle. Erin looked up.
The Antinium was sitting on the second floor of her inn. He waved at her cheerfully.
“I got a new Skill. Hello, Miss Erin. Hello, Security Hobs.”
Everyone looked up. Bird had somehow managed to clamber up through the destroyed third floor and found his way onto the roof. There he sat as the rain fell around him, humming and watching the skies, oblivious to the waters surrounding him. It took Erin a few minutes to find her voice.
“Good shot, Bird!”
“Thank you. I just got up here and saw the fish. It is a strange fish. It has long grabby things.”
“Those are tentacles, Bird.”
“They are not as good as wings. Will more fish attack the inn? I will shoot them with my new Skill. It takes a while before I can use it again, but it is a good one.”
“Yes! It even works with my old bow.”
Bird waved his bow and Erin saw he was indeed using his old bow, the crude handmade one.
“What happened to your new bow, Bird? Oh—”
Her eyes widened as she recalled. Bird hunched his shoulders and rocked back and forth on the roof.
“It was broken. The moths broke my bow. I am sorry, Miss Erin. I broke the lovely bow you gave me. It was such a nice bow.”
“Oh, Bird—it wasn’t your fault.”
He perked up. Erin nodded. The Redfang Goblins were busy kicking the dead blackfish and sniffing it, probably for edibility. Erin debated climbing up to hug Bird, but decided she’d just slip off the roof and break her neck. She called up at the Worker.
“You need a new bow, Bird! And a new tower! The Antinium should be sending a group to repair the inn today!”
“That is good! Will I get a new bow, too?”
Bird looked hopeful. Erin hesitated and kicked at a tuft of grass.
“Um…maybe. I’m so sorry your old one got broken. I’d like to buy you a new one, but they’re expensive and I don’t think Krshia will give me another discount.”
“Oh. That is okay. One bow was enough for a lifetime.”
Bird’s casual words made Erin’s heart hurt. She peered up at him and raised her voice.
“Tell you what, if the Players of Celum pull in enough coin I’ll buy you a new one as soon as I can and take the rest out of your paycheck, okay?”
The Antinium paused.
“I get paid?”
Erin gaped at him.
“Bird! What did you do with all the coins I gave you last week?”
“I…used them as bird bait.”
Bird nodded enthusiastically, his mandibles opening and closing in a smile.
“They are shiny. If I put them out, birds fly down to grab them.”
He paused as Erin covered her face.
“That isn’t what they’re for? Oh. Buying things. I got in trouble for losing coins when I was a Worker in the Hive, too. I was punished. Will you punish me?”
“No, Bird. Just don’t let birds swallow—you know what? I’ll just save up money for your bow, okay?”
“That is good.”
Erin nodded. Then she turned and shouted at the Redfang Goblins, who jumped.
“And you! I forgot to give you your pay!”
They stared at her. Headscratcher raised a finger and pointed at his chest. Erin grinned.
“Come on inside!”
The Redfang Goblins had never had coin to their name. Oh, they’d taken coin off of dead adventurers and so on, but only to give to Garen Redfang. Goblins had no real use for coin, but Garen would sometimes sneak into rural Human towns and trade for things. It was a risk, even for their Chieftain and so the Goblins had treated coins as toys, good for nothing but ammunition in a sling, or distracting adventurers.
But there was something about the silver and one gold coin that Erin pressed into their hands that was special. The coins felt warm, unlike the bloody metal they’d fished out of dead corpses’ pockets. The Goblins stared at the coins and Erin smiled at them.
“I wanted to give it to you a few days ago, but then the moths tried to kill us. Sorry it isn’t much, but you get this much plus the same amount tomorrow! I pay everyone on the weekend, see.”
Erin paused. The Redfang Warriors stared at her, and then at the coins in their palms. She smiled sadly.
“I had another employee once. I never paid him. I’m not making the same mistake this time.”
The Goblins stared at her. Headscratcher brushed at his eyes. The others just looked…Numbtongue hesitated and opened his mouth. The taciturn Goblins hesitated, and then spoke.
“We have never—”
The door slammed open. All five Goblins dove beneath a table, coins scattering. They had weapons in hand—chairs and Shorthilt’s sword as they rose. Erin whirled. It wasn’t the door to her inn. It was the door to Liscor. The Silver Swords stood in the doorway, faces grim. Griffon Hunt was behind them, and sandwiched between the two Gold-rank teams was Vuliel Drae. Erin stared as Falene stepped into the inn. She eyed the Goblins and the coins scattered across the floor, and then looked around.
“Apologies, Miss Erin. Are the Halfseekers present?”
“Them? Oh—they’re still asleep, I think. So are the Horns of Hammerad. They had a late night and—what’s wrong?”
Falene’s lips tightened.
“We have a situation. Rouse the Halfseekers, please. We need them present to hear this. The Horns of Hammerad too, I suppose.”
She gestured, and the other teams walked through from Liscor. The Silver Swords took a position near the doors, and Griffon Hunt a table. The five members of Vuliel Drae sat at a table across from them. Their faces were pale. Erin saw Insill, the Drake, shaking. None of the adventurers talked.
She hesitated, and then ran up the stairs.
The Redfang Warriors had no idea what was happening. Neither did Erin, but she knew a bit more and explained it to them as the Halfseekers came down the stairs with the Horns of Hammerad, looking confused and sleepy.
“Okay, you see that team there? The five of them? They’re a Silver-rank team. Vuliel…Drae. Or something. They’re sort of big shots in Liscor. They’re not as good as a Gold-rank team, or the Horns of Hammerad, but they’re famous, you know?”
She looked at the Hobs. Rabbiteater gave her a bewildered shake of the head for the others.
“You don’t know. Right. Well, Vuliel Drae they went into the dungeon and uh, got this fancy mace thing. They’re the only team who’s come out with treasure, and it was a powerful magical artifact.”
The Redfang Goblins stirred. Jelaqua was talking quietly with Ylawes and Halrac and glancing at Vuliel Drae as Ceria hovered next to her. Numbtongue exchanged a sharp glance with the others and spoke carefully to Erin.
“Magic artifact? They found?”
“What? Yeah, in the dungeon. I heard it was Gold-rank gear. But why are they here? Could it be because of last night? No—that look. Could it be…?”
The silence in the inn was clearly getting to Vuliel Drae. Each one of the group was looking around nervously, even Anith, their leader. The other adventurers watched them silently, except for the Horns of Hammerad. Pisces was staring at Ylawes’ lips moving while Yvlon and Ksmvr just waited for Ceria to tell them what was happening. As it happened, Insill’s nerve broke first.
“It’s all my fault! I shouldn’t have suggested we go down that corridor!”
The other members of his team groaned as everyone looked at the Drake [Rogue]. Anith shook his head.
“Wait until we have a chance to speak—”
Dasha slammed her fist on the table angrily.
“We didn’t know what would happen, alright? If we had known—”
“But we should have said something earlier.”
That came from Pekona. Her head was bowed. The other adventurers just watched her. Dawil had his arms folded and a look of anger on his face that Erin had never seen before. Halrac’s gaze was flat and emotionless, but Erin could sense anger coming off him. Jelaqua cursed and stomped over to Seborn and Moore, who bent their heads to whisper to her.
“Look, would someone just say what’s happening? The Silver Swords seem to know, but none of us do!”
Revi burst out angrily as she glared around the room. Ylawes and Halrac looked up from their discussion. It was the [Knight] who nodded and stepped forwards.
“Apologies, Miss Revi. We were discussing it, but we think it’s better that everyone know. Briefly, let me explain. I was approached last night by Insill after the play…he came to me secretly about a crime his team had committed.”
Dasha growled and Larr sat up. The Gnoll glared at the Drake who shrunk in his seat.
“You spineless worm. We said we’d agree to talk about it!”
“I thought he—I couldn’t keep it to myself—”
Insill fell silent as Ylawes held up a hand. The [Knight] took a deep breath and went on.
“He didn’t want to give me details, but this morning he returned. With his party leader, Anith.”
Every eye turned to the Jackal who nodded quietly. Ylawes sighed.
“They told me of a—a misdeed, a mistake their team had committed. I immediately shared what I had learned with my team and we decided this had to be addressed. At once. I called the other teams here to listen to this—”
He broke off, shaking his head. Falene’s eyes were fixed on Vuliel Drae. Dawil growled. Halrac, Ceria, and Jelaqua all stood silently, their eyes shadowed. The other adventurers looked confused and worried. Pisces just closed his eyes.
“Well, out with it then. What did they do?”
Revi looked suspiciously around at the silent adventurers. No one wanted to say it. At last, Insill spoke.
“It was—you know the Face-Eater Moths? How they attacked Liscor? Well, we didn’t know.”
He shut up, as if too afraid to go on. Yvlon raised one eyebrow.
“You didn’t know? You mean, you weren’t here for the battle? But you claimed you were.”
“No, it’s not that.”
Anith’s voice was shaky. The others looked at him, and he fell silent, afraid to go on. Erin felt her pulse racing, although she wasn’t on trial.
Typhenous frowned over his staff. Moore and Seborn joined the circle standing around the team of Vuliel Drae. Behind them the Goblins were whispering, pointing out one of the windows towards a spot covered by water. The dungeon.
“It was—look, we had no idea—we were just in the dungeon, and we found a—a corridor, okay? It was filled with eggs and we thought they were d-dangerous, so we—”
Insill gulped, his voice wobbling too hard to go on. The other adventurers stared at him blankly. Erin gasped. All eyes turned towards her.
“Oh no. I get it.”
Revi was uncomprehending, whether because she didn’t want to understand or because the fractured sentences didn’t make sense. Erin stared at Vuliel Drae, but none of them could raise their heads. She spoke slowly.
“They were in the dungeon the day the Face-Eater Moths attacked. They were exploring and they found a bunch of eggs. And they—smashed them. Right?”
All eyes turned back towards the group. Dasha’s voice was quiet.
“How were we supposed to know it’d piss all them off? It was that masked woman who did it first. And we thought—”
Yvlon raised her head and uttered the longest, foulest expletive Erin had ever heard from the woman ever. The other adventurers just stared. Seborn leaned forwards.
“You mean to tell us that you set off the attack on Liscor? By destroying the Face-Eater Moths’ eggs?”
It was Pekona who replied. She tried to keep her voice level as she met Seborn’s eyes.
“We hid in a tunnel with the masked adventurer. They kept coming but we had this stone wall we could slide under. We were there for a day and a half, just killing the small ones that came through. We had no idea they came out of the dungeon. We didn’t know—”
Her voice broke.
“We had no idea.”
Dead silence filled the inn. The adventurers stared. Erin’s heart thumped loudly in her chest, the only noise in the world. They’d done it. They’d caused the attack.
Revi looked around. Her face was calm. It was probably the only one that was. Dawil was glowering, Falene’ eyes were flashing. Ceria, Typhenous, Yvlon, Moore—all looked furious. Halrac’s glare spoke volumes. Jelaqua couldn’t look in the direction of Vuliel Drae. Ksmvr was just waiting. Ylawes’s head was bowed, Seborn and Pisces silent. Revi nodded.
“Okay. Thanks for telling us.”
Everyone looked at her. The Stitch-Woman gave Vuliel Drae a smile. Her hand strayed towards her belt. Halrac’s head shot up and Typhenous started. They moved as Revi leapt.
“I’ll kill you, you fucking—”
The Stitch-Woman’s wand sizzled with magic. She would have leapt on Insill, but her team caught her before she could complete her attack. Typhenous dragged her backwards with Halrac as Revi’s wand shot a missile past Insill’s ear. The Drake shouted in terror and knocked back his seat. The other members of Vuliel Drae shot up.
“Let go of me!”
Revi was screaming. Vuliel Drae clustered together. Dasha stared towards the door to Liscor and Falene raised her staff.
“No one else move.”
“I should kick your heads in myself!”
Dawil shouted. Ylawes blocked him.
“Calm yourself, Dawil.”
“Bugger calm! You heard them—”
Across the inn, Ceria was breathing hard. She looked at her team.
“Pisces, Ksmvr, hold me back. Yvlon—”
“Don’t ask me to do anything.”
The woman’s voice was strangled with emotion. Ksmvr obediently grabbed Ceria’s arms. Pisces shook his head.
“No thanks. Put an [Ice Spike] spell through their heads if you’re going to do it, Springwalker.”
“I’m about to. Hold me back.”
Ceria’s eyes flashed as her hand frosted over with magic. Pekona gave her an alarmed look. Erin wondered if she should block Ceria—she was more concerned about the Halfseekers, who hadn’t so much as twitched. The way they were staring—
Pisces just walked forwards and faced Ceria. The [Necromancer] was calm as ice.
“They made a terrible mistake. If you can’t forgive it, kill them now. But I would tell you not to.”
“They got hundreds of people killed!”
Ceria’s voice was murderous. Pisces nodded.
“Yes. And as I recall, you eventually forgave one fool who unleashed wrath upon the innocent.”
She hesitated. The fury went out in her eyes.
Typhenous had had enough of Revi’s curses. He let go and pointed his staff at her. Webbing shot from the tip and engulfed Revi. She struggled and cursed, and then went still as the thick spider webs bound her tightly. Typhenous looked around, angry, his face red.
“We aren’t savages. If anyone else wants to take a swing at this group, do it now while I still feel like casting webs and not something stronger.”
He glared around. To Erin’s surprise it was Pisces who raised his voice in dissent.
“I beg to differ, Typhenous. If this will end in bloodshed, it would be preferable to end it now, rather than later. Is anyone for that motion?”
He looked at Revi, Ceria, and Halrac in turn. Dawil stared uneasily at the [Necromancer].
“Are you serious?”
Pisces nodded, but Jelaqua shook her head. The Selphid’s voice was cold as she looked at Pisces.
“If we were going to do it, it’d be before you asked, Pisces. If Revi had gotten them it would be trouble. If we do it now, it’s murder. Which is a pity, but the Halfseekers don’t kill idiots. We’re unpopular enough as it is. Shame Griffon Hunt doesn’t either.”
The Selphid folded her arms. The implication of what she’d said took Erin’s breath away. But Moore and Seborn didn’t say a word against her. Ylawes stepped forwards.
“No one is killing anyone. This is a meeting to discuss what should be done in light of the truth. Nothing more.”
He looked at both Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers as he said it. Both teams nodded. Reluctantly. Ylawes looked around the rest of the room and sighed. His gaze passed over the Redfang Goblins, who were quietly listening from a corner of the room, past Lyonette who was trying to get Mrsha to come upstairs, past Erin, observing it all quietly. He looked from face to face of each adventurer. This was their scene. Ylawes nodded.
“Let’s sort this out.”
Vuliel Drae’s account of the dungeon took over an hour to run through. It covered everything from their decision to leave the ropes at the dungeon’s entrance to their encounters with the mysterious masked swordswoman to their run through the dungeon before everything went south. They told the story in parts, voices faltering, while the adventurers listened.
Mainly in silence. Sometimes questions were asked. Those who couldn’t keep their emotions in check left the room or were thrown out. That number included Revi, Dawil, Yvlon, Ceria, Jelaqua, Typhenous, and, to everyone’s surprise, Seborn. The adventurers went outside to cool off—or shoot spells into the water and shout while the trial went on.
Because that was what this was. A trial. Erin listened with her hands shaking, trying not to let her emotions get control of her. She couldn’t believe it. It was so wrong. Not only had Vuliel Drae done what the other older adventurers described as incredibly stupid, but they hadn’t told anyone! They hadn’t told anyone after Liscor had—
She understood. She did. Every child knew the feeling of getting in trouble and not wanting to be found out, and this was that feeling times ten thousand. But still. It was wrong.
There were more than just accounts of the mistake in the dungeon, too. Vuliel Drae had been successful in their own way. They’d been led by the mysterious masked woman—someone the Silver Swords, Griffon Hunt, and the Halfseekers all wanted to meet—through a good section of the dungeon, avoiding traps and monsters. Halrac was working on a map of the dungeon based on their account. Erin thought he was doing that so he didn’t punch the Silver-rank adventurers. But the gem of their discussion came when they recounted a corridor they’d passed.
“It had a treasure room at the end. A real one. I’d only heard of them before, but we saw a pedestal and artifacts lying on it!”
Dasha’s eyes were wide as she gestured. The other adventurers leaned forwards. Falene looked down her nose at the team as if she were staring at something small and disgusting.
“Why didn’t you attempt to take it?”
Vuliel Drae looked at each other. Insill spoke nervously.
“The masked woman. She stopped us. We wanted to try—Larr was halfway into the room, but she kept pulling us back and shaking her head. It was real, I think. But trapped. We were going to go back to it, or see if we could ask for help when…”
“Treasure. Dead gods, and the rift entrance is a hundred feet underwater.”
Jelaqua closed her eyes tightly. Anith cleared his throat.
“And there’s more.”
“What, besides enough moths to take out a city’s worth of people?”
Revi’s sarcastic tone earned her a look from Halrac. She stomped outside. Anith nodded.
“There’s something down there. Those Gnoll-things—”
“Raskghar. What about them?”
The other adventurers leaned in. Vuliel Drae gulped as one. Pekona spoke up.
“They’re organized. There are other monsters down there, but those things—they knew we were down there the instant we arrived and we fought then twice! The masked woman helped us evade them, but there are far, far too many.”
Insill nodded rapidly.
“After the moths left they were hunting us! Our friend lured a group away and we barely got out but—there are kill teams patrolling the dungeon. They fight any monsters they come across—the ones they can see, anyways. Sometimes they pass by a group of monsters and don’t see them. And they hunt adventurers. That’s how all the other teams went missing, I think. Most of them.”
“Huge monsters nests, intelligent dungeon dwellers…this just gets better and better. Sure you don’t want to mention a Dragon or two?”
Dawil growled and spat. Erin glared at him and the Dwarf flushed. Halrac leaned forwards and Vuliel Drae leaned back. He’d spoken three times so far, and each time he’d nearly made the adventurers wet themselves.
“This treasure room. Where is it?”
“We can’t tell you that!”
Dasha looked horrified. The part-Dwarf woman looked around.
“It’s our secret! I mean, we made a mistake, but fair’s fair—”
She shut up as Jelaqua leaned over the table. The Selphid was glaring and her being angry was as scary as Halrac.
“I think you’ve forfeited the right to whatever secrets you’ve found. We’ll cut you a deal—you tell us everything and we’ll try to stop Liscor’s citizens from lynching you.”
“Wait, you’re not planning on telling them? You can’t! We live here! They’ll tear us apart!”
Larr and Insill paled dead white. Jelaqua grimly shook her head.
“Oh, they have to know. You think we’re keeping this secret? The first time I get questioned under truth spell I’ll have to talk about this. And the Adventurer’s Guild tests Gold-rank adventurers regularly for corruption.”
“But they’ll kill us!”
Ylawes raised his head. It had been bowed for the last twenty minutes. Now the [Knight] looked grim as he stepped next to Jelaqua.
“If we talk to the Guildmistress of Liscor—and Watch Captain Zevara—we might be able to keep it secret. Make no mistake, you will pay for your mistakes. But it won’t be public knowledge. That’s what we can offer you. If you tell us what you know.”
Faced with that, there was really no choice. Vuliel Drae hesitated, but then Anith spoke.
“It’s off the corridor with the blade trap. Secret door. It’s an illusion you can walk right through.”
The other adventurers paused and looked at Halrac. He made a note.
There was a sigh. The adventurers exchanged glances. Who would claim that treasure? Would it be a race? Troubled, Ylawes shook his head.
“Let’s settle this later. Now, I think it’s time to discuss what will happen next.”
Erin leaned back in her chair, exhausted. Vuliel Drae had to be just as tired, but they tensed as the team leaders conferred. Erin looked towards her kitchen and realized it was already past lunchtime. She should make people food! Not that anyone looked hungry. She looked around to do a headcount and frowned. Erin’s head swiveled the room. Once. Twice. Then she stood up. She went upstairs. Then she opened the trapdoor to her basement. Then she looked outside.
Ceria looked up, exhaustedly, staring blankly in the rain. She’d shot two Quillfish with her [Ice Spike] spell and they were floating belly-up in the water. Erin nodded.
“Have you seen the Redfang Goblins?”
“Them? I saw them take off around the inn a second ago. They were…”
Ceria frowned as she got up to point. She stared at the empty Floodplains behind the inn. Erin stared around. She got a bad feeling in her stomach.
“Where’d they go?”
This was where they went. The Redfang Goblins swam towards the dungeon entrance, keeping from hill to hill where they could. Fish swam around them; the Goblins kept a wary eye in the water, but they were taking a risk so they moved fast and trusted to luck. They reached the spot near where the rift in the dungeon was located and paused on a hilltop. The Wandering Inn was almost out of sight. The Redfang Warriors looked at each other.
Five of them. Shorthilt had a sword. Badarrow his bow, wrapped to avoid getting wet. The Goblins had nothing else. But they did know where the treasure was.
Treasure. A Gold-rank treasure had come out of a dungeon. A weapon. The Goblins stared at each other. It had been a wild thought. But it made sense the way nothing else did.
They were worthless, the five of them. They were Hobs, but that wasn’t enough. They couldn’t sway a battle themselves; they were just warriors when all was said and done. Five Hobs was a force to be reckoned with, but it was a small reckoning.
But what about five Gold-rank adventurers? What about five warriors armed with magical artifacts? What about five Hobs. Five warriors who’d trained under Garen Redfang himself? He’d been a Gold-rank adventurer, once. Five Garen Redfangs, or five Hobs half as good as Garen Redfang…now that might do it.
The Goblins stared down into the turgid waters below. They were black as a cloud passed overhead, and dark shapes swam through the water. And the dungeon was filled with darker things yet. Monsters. The moths were the least of the dangers in there. And the Goblins had two weapons. No plan.
They could all die down there. They could waste their lives. The Redfang Warriors stared into the abyssal depths. It was Numbtongue who spoke.
“Death below. Or useless death above. Shame-worse-than-death.”
They nodded. There was no choice, really. They grabbed the one thing they’d prepared. Rocks. The Goblins stepped into the water, swam towards the center of the rift, and then stopped swimming. They dropped through the water sinking as things drew around them, wondering if they were food.
Fat, dead moth corpses floated around them, half-eaten, disintegrating. Thousands of shapes nibbled at them. Larger things scooped up the bloated bodies. The Redfang Goblins stayed very still. The rift was a gaping black maw below.
Downwards, downwards. They held their breath for a minute. Then two. They were in the rift now, still dropping. They knew the waters would give way to air. They hoped.
They might not make the trip back up. But they had to try. For Goblins. For their tribe. For each other. The Redfang Warriors strained not to breathe.
The dungeon waited below, filled with darkness and dangers. The Goblins sank, their breath dwindling, blackness closing in. Above, something swam and dozens of glowing eyes opened to stare down at them. The rift’s walls drew in closer and the dungeon’s depths swallowed the Goblins.
It was a place of nightmares. A place where only the bravest went in search of adventure and treasure. It was a place of death, a place of monsters. The dark, unexplored heart of the world. It was meant for heroes, meant to kill them and torture the living.
But the Redfang Warriors were no adventurers. They were Goblins. They were monsters. And so they fell. Into the dungeon. And they felt it. They had never been here before, never walked this place before. But death they knew. Danger they knew. At last, they left the inn behind. This was where they belonged.
They were home.