5.23 G

Lady Bethal stared at the Goblins as the night tore itself to pieces. Screams and drumming horse beats broke the silence in the distance. War horns blew, shattering the calm, making her heart pound every time one blared. But she didn’t move. She held her position on her horse, soothing it. Her poor mare was terrified and exhausted in equal parts and she might have bolted if Bethal weren’t holding her in place. Lady Bethal stroked her side reassuringly and looked up.

At crimson eyes. The Goblins watched her every move, the tips of their crossbow bolts aimed unerringly at her. There had to be at least a hundred and twenty, formed into groups of thirty, all of them standing or kneeling in ranks ten Goblins deep. They surrounded her from three sides so that if they fired they wouldn’t hit each other.

Two [Knights] in pink armor held their position in front of her, shielding Bethal with their bodies. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia held their weapons at the ready, their faces set. They didn’t move.

Next to Bethal, Thomast kept his rapier lowered but she could feel him shifting, readying for action. Ahead of him a group of Hobs held their ground, watching the Humans, their eyes flicking. They didn’t look around as another horn blew, startling the horses again. Bethal saw the Goblins shift. But they refused to move. And the Humans didn’t attack.

It was a stalemate. Thomast could kill some of the Goblins with crossbows before they could fire. He could probably knock down a bolt or two with his rapier himself. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia would shield Bethal with their bodies and her [Aura of Thorns] Skill was powerful—but not enough to stop a crossbow bolt at close range.

Lady Bethal had a Ring of Sufferance on one finger, but even if she survived the first volley, even if Thomast and her [Knights] took out every Goblin assigned to watch them, they wouldn’t be able to escape without the Goblins first raising an alarm. And they would be hunted.

Against the hundreds of Carn Wolves and riders, their odds of escape would be perilously slim on foot. And it would be on foot; the horses wouldn’t survive ten miles with the Goblins trying to hamstring them every chance they got.

So they stayed put, as the majority of the Goblins raced away and distant horns began echoing through the woods. Minutes passed and no one spoke. Bethal felt her heart pounding. She couldn’t make it calm. She had faced death before. But this—this was at the heart of her fears.

Goblins. Their eyes made her shudder so she looked at Thomast to calm herself. He was here. He would protect her. And if he could not—she would not run. That was all there was to it.

But it didn’t come to that. Bethal was listening to her mare relieve herself on the ground and the Goblins were wrinkling their noses when another Goblin burst out of the trees. Instantly, both Humans and Goblins tensed. But the Goblin just shouted something and the other Goblins turned. They stared. Then, as one, they abandoned their formation and ran.

“What on earth?”

Lady Bethal watched, surprised, as the Goblins holding crossbows turned and ran. Only thirty of them held their ground, aiming at the Humans. But now they were backing away, clearly intending just to scare the Humans. Two Hobs stayed with them, holding their ground, raising their axes threateningly.

They were running. What was happening? Lady Bethal turned her head, expecting a trap. But the Goblins were already vanishing into the forest. By her side she sensed Thomast move. She didn’t have to hear him to know what he was thinking.

Now would be the time to strike. Her [Chevalier], shifted his grip and Lady Bethal bit her lip.

“No.”

Her soft voice made the Goblins start. One of them accidentally pulled his trigger and fired straight at Bethal’s chest.

The bolt shot towards her. Bethal blinked. She didn’t have time to think of dodging—it was streaking towards her and then Sir Nil was there. The bolt shattered on his shield and the Goblins froze.

“Wastes!”

Dame Truvia lowered her spear, shouting in outrage. But Bethal’s voice stopped her and the Goblins shifting their aim.

“Stop! Don’t attack.”

She pointed and Truvia held her ground. The Goblins backed up a step, uncertainly aiming at her. Bethal turned to Thomast.

“They’ve left.”

That was apparent, but someone had to say it. Thomast never would. He nodded, watching the two Hobs. They stared at him with grim resignation, knowing they couldn’t beat him. Still, they held their ground, barking orders and making the smaller Goblins aim back at Bethal.

“Something’s attacked the Goblins. Not all those war horns sounded like Goblin signals. If there was a time to make an escape—”

“No. I want to see Sir Kerrig. If he is alive…”

Sir Nils started.

“You want to ride into that? Lady Bethal—”

“If there was a time to find him, it would be now, wouldn’t it? Say, you Goblins!”

The Goblins jerked as Bethal waved at them. They stared at her. Bethal raised her voice.

“I agree with your Chieftain’s demands. We will be your prisoners! Take us back to your camp!”

The Goblins stared. They looked at each other, and then at the two Hobs leading them. They were a pair, male and female. The Hobs glanced at each other and the female one grunted. She shouted in the common tongue, making Bethal blink in surprise. More than just their Chieftain could speak?

“Drop weapons!”

“No.”

Thomast calmly replied, edging his horse forwards. The Hobs raised their weapons. The male growled.

“Prisoners! Drop weapons!”

“No. We’ll keep our weapons.”

Sir Nil rode forwards and the Goblins instantly backed up again. There were thirty of them and two Hobs. One of the [Knights] could rout them alone and Thomast could do it with one arm. Bethal’s ‘surrender’ was meaningless and all the Goblins knew it. All they could do was shoot her and then be slaughtered. The female Hob eyed Bethal and then pointed.

“Sheathe weapons.”

The three armed Humans hesitated. They looked at Bethal and she nodded. The Hob waited until the rapier and sword were at Sir Nil and Thomast’s sides and Truvia had lowered her spear. She hesitated and then nodded. The Goblins lowered their crossbows.

“Draw sword and we all kill you.”

“Very well.”

Bethal inclined her head graciously, trying not to let her nerves show. Believe they’re reasonable. She had no reason to expect it of Goblins! But the Chieftain had spoken rather than slaughter her at once. She’d negotiated—and Sir Kerrig might be alive.

“Follow.”

The Hob grunted and led the Goblins into the forest without a backward glance. Bethal was sure that they were ready to turn, shoot, and then run if Thomast so much as sneezed. She nodded to her escort and they hesitantly followed her into the tree line.

“We should go instead, milady. Let Lord Thomast and I go ahead while Sir Nil remains on the road with you.”

“No, Dame Truvia. We go together. I hardly think this is a ruse. The Goblins had us right where they wanted us. Something’s attacked them.”

“And will whatever attacked them attack us?”

“If it does, we will deal accordingly. But I want to find Sir Kerrig. I thought he was dead, truly.”

“It would be like him to survive. And Lady Welca lives too? If she’s escaped, why haven’t we had word? Unless it was recent—”

“Quiet.”

Thomast’s voice stilled the urgent discussion between Bethal and her [Knights]. He rode ahead as the forest became sparser and Bethal saw ghostly mage-light illuminating the forest. She inhaled sharply as she rode into the Goblin’s camp. Or what was left.

“Oh my.”

Broken tents, scattered fire. Smoke in the air and a foul, acrid stench that reminded Bethal of an [Alchemist]’s shop. Blood, too, heavy in the air. Faint cries—howling from the Carn Wolves. Shuffling feet, but too little sound. The forest floor was dark, trampled. And the bodies lay everywhere. Hundreds. Possibly a thousand.

The camp of the Flooded Waters tribe was destroyed. Goblin bodies lay everywhere, being searched for life by the living. It had been a slaughter. Lady Bethal looked at the still forms of Goblins, some covered in blood, others apparently unharmed but dead all the same.

The Goblins who’d been watching Bethal’s group stood in their camp, frozen by the sight. Bethal saw the pair of Hobs stare around and then raise their voices, shouting something in their guttural tongue. The other Goblins looked around and then ran, their discipline breaking, running into the chaos, shouting. Bethal looked around, confused.

“Wait. What about us?”

The Goblins had forgotten all about the four Humans on their horses. They combed through the wreckage, many of them picking up shapes, shaking them, and then letting them drop. Bethal blinked, her eyes stinging, and heard Dame Truvia utter a warning.

“There’s poison in the air! Lady Bethal, back!”

She was raising a ring that glowed with black light. Bethal looked around. She could see nothing, but she instantly rode back as Truvia covered her mouth with a handkerchief and checked her ring.

“It seems—weak. My ring isn’t detecting more than a low-level miasma in the air. But what happened here?”

“An attack. It must have been. Poison, arrows, and the ground is churned. I see hoof prints.”

Sir Nil had dismounted to check the ground. He coughed and looked around. Bethal felt her eyes stinging—perhaps the poison? She fanned at her face and froze.

“Is that…a child?”

A small Goblin was wandering past the warriors, shouting in a high-pitched voice. She had to be a child. There was no other word for her. The small Chieftain that Bethal had met had been small, even for a Goblin. But this Goblin was no bigger than a toddler. She had none of the knowing look that had been in the Chieftain’s eyes.

Bethal stared. She had never seen a Goblin child before. She expected the—the thing to look evil or to have fangs or some feature, but the child just looked lost. It kept shouting something. A word. And it was crying as it searched the bodies.

Lady Bethal Walchaís drew back and her horse retreated a step. The Goblin child ignored her completely and utterly. It ran over to a downed Goblin and tried to turn the body over. It gave up and bent down to look at the face and then turned away. It looked around, searching, shouting the same word and Bethal saw liquid dripping from its bright, crimson eyes. The [Lady] froze as the Goblin child stared past her, like a deer caught by a [Hunter].

“Tears?”

She had never seen a Goblin cry. She hadn’t known they could. Bethal watched the child turn. In that moment she learned two things. Goblins wept tears just like any other species. The same color, the same look. And secondly, she learned that a Goblin could weep. Bethal stayed put, her heart pounding. Impossible. Impossible. But the truth defied her to her face. Goblins could weep. She had never seen the like.

When the Goblin King rode upon First Landing with his hordes there were no tears. Only screams of rage as his armies hurled themselves upon the walls and pushed through the gaps in the broken masonry. There were no children, only warriors. Bethal could remember the blood, the eyes of the Goblins as she hid among the dead—

“Sir Kerrig!”

A voice broke Bethal’s reverie. The Goblin voices calling out silenced at Dame Truvia’s call. They turned and Lady Bethal saw a Human face among the sea of Goblins. Sir Kerrig was bending over a silent form, doing something. He turned and his face went pale. He broke into a run and Bethal urged her horse forwards a step—

“Stop! Stop!

Goblins flooded the ground, waving crossbows, aiming at both her and Sir Kerrig. Dame Truvia froze, raising her spear and Thomast appeared by Bethal’s side. But the Goblins weren’t attacking. They shouted at Bethal, pointing.

“Stop! No horse!”

They were pointing at something on the ground. Bethal looked down and realized Goblin bodies were strewn in front of her. She had nearly ridden through them. She hadn’t noticed. She backed up on her horse as the Goblins shouted at her, waving their arms.

“I’m stopping. I’ve stopped.”

They formed a wall, forcing the Humans back. There was nothing Bethal could do but back up and let Sir Kerrig come to her. The Goblins had remembered their unwanted prisoners and after an argument, a group of Goblins took up a position, aiming bows and crossbows at the Humans again. But the rest immediately flooded back into the camp. Confused, the four Humans met Sir Kerrig and Lady Bethal dismounted to clasp his hands.

“Sir Kerrig! We’d assumed you were dead! How are you alive? Dead gods man, are you injured? Let’s get you to safety as quickly as we can!”

Sir Nil clasped Sir Kerrig’s arm, urging him to mount his stallion. Sir Kerrig shook his head. He looked bewildered and there was blood on his hands. Not his own.

“Lady Bethal! Sir Thomast! How did you come to be here? Did you have a part in the—it’s dangerous to be here! If the Redfang Goblins catch sight of you they’ll attack! They’re out for blood.”

“Redfang? What are you talking about? Sir Kerrig, where is Lady Welca? Are you unharmed? What is going on?

“Let him speak, Sir Nil!”

Lady Bethal spoke sharply and Sir Nil bowed his head instantly. Sir Kerrig coughed and Bethal noticed a rasp in his voice. She immediately motioned and Dame Truvia offered him a high-grade healing potion. Sir Kerrig took a sip and his voice cleared of the rasp.

“Thank you. There was poison in the air. Some kind of mist or alchemist’s brew. I have no idea. As for what happened—I helped Lady Welca to escape not a day ago. I thought she would have reached some kind of civilization by now, but we had passed through the wilderness for the last few days. Perhaps she’s still riding—I had remained with the Goblins until the camp was attacked! Their Chieftain, Rags, rode forth with a good portion of the warriors. Shortly afterwards a group of [Riders] struck the camp, hundreds of them. They doused the campfires and torches and another force began sending a poison gas through the camp and shooting every Goblin that moved!”

Lady Bethal listened to Sir Kerrig’s description of the attackers and his sojourn as the Goblin’s captives, watching the camp as she did. The Goblins were in chaos, but as time passed someone began restoring order. Patrols of Goblins began combing through the wounded and dead methodically, calling out when they found a living Goblin. They also gathered up the trampled supplies and ushering other Goblins back into the center of the camp.

“They’re on the march. The army that attacked them retreated, but I’ve no notion of where they’re based or what their numbers are.”

Sir Kerrig finished and coughed again. His eyes were watering and he poured a tiny amount of the healing potion into his hand to splash at his eyes. Dame Truvia looked at him with concern.

“The poison smoke you described. You were caught in it?”

“Briefly. I immediately escaped when I noticed, but it was powerful enough to kill anyone trapped inside long enough. Most of the Goblins escaped, but they’re unable to breathe or see at the moment.”

“These attackers. Did you see their insignia?”

The [Knight] shook his head in reply to Sir Thomast’s question.

“No, and I have no idea where they came from. I thought perhaps Heldeim, a city to the east of here, but that would be unlikely. They have a small garrison. More to the point, they’re inexperienced, lacking a high-leveled officer of any kind. Hardly able to execute this kind of attack.”

He hesitated, wiping liquid out of his eyes.

“I did hear them shouting some kind of war cry. It was ‘Emperor Laken and the Unseen Empire’. But I’ve no notion…”

He broke off as Bethal gasped and the others shifted. He looked questioningly at Bethal.

“You know them?”

“We just visited them. It’s a small village and the surrounding area. There’s an [Emperor] there. Thomast, you don’t think…?”

Bethal looked at her husband. He nodded.

“Emperor Laken introduced us to his [General]. You remember her? She was a [Witch]. They know how to use poisons.”

“A night-time ambush using poison? Hardly befitting of an [Emperor]!”

Dame Truvia frowned. Sir Nil glanced around.

“Ideal for a larger force, however. Sir Kerrig described only a few hundred [Riders] and mounted [Archers] and warriors. They’ve slain several times their number, at least.”

“It was the absence of their Chieftain that presented the opportunity. Had she been here—”

Sir Kerrig was speaking urgently, pointing to the Goblins. Now they had formed into units again. Bethal saw they were coming towards her and shifted uneasily.

“Sir Kerrig—”

Hobs and mounted Goblins riding Carn Wolves approached them. They formed a semi-circle between the Humans and the camp, staring at Sir Kerrig and then Lady Bethal’s escort. They had weapons, but they stared at the Humans blankly. Sir Kerrig looked wary and Thomast and the two [Knights] moved in front of Bethal again, but she didn’t see hostility in the Goblin’s eyes.

“Why aren’t they angry?”

The Goblins were staring at them. Just staring with a blank, empty gaze. They were aware of the Human’s threat, but it was like they were just going through the motions. Behind them, the Goblins searched their dead, the same empty look in their eyes.

“I think they’re mourning.”

Sir Kerrig’s reply made all of the Humans glance at him sharply. Lady Bethal opened her mouth to say that was impossible, but she stopped as she saw the Goblin child again. It—she—wasn’t the only Goblin child, but somehow Bethal recognized her. The Goblins checking for the living had passed her section of the camp, but the Goblin child had found who she was looking for. She sat next to a bloody body with two arrows sticking out of its chest. Sat and wept, her eyes overflowing.

The Goblins around the child ignored her, going about their tasks. Not once did they glance at Lady Bethal and her shining [Knights], at Sir Thomast. They had to remember. They had to know how dangerous the Humans were. But they were not the ones who’d committed this slaughter. They were not important. So they worked mechanically, eyes empty, moving like puppets. Ignoring the Humans.

And slowly, it dawned on Lady Bethal that her small company didn’t matter to the tribe of Goblins right now. Not at all. They were a footnote unless they chose to attack. It was as if the Goblins were truly grieving. But they didn’t show it. They didn’t cry. They moved, packing up their camp, preparing to march.

They left the dead where they were. More Goblins moved into groups, loading up wagons, calling their fellows away. At last, it seemed as though someone noticed Bethal’s group and decided it had to be addressed. She saw a wave of Hobs and Goblins with crossbows returning and a fat Goblin leading them. Not Rags.

“Humans.”

He said one word, his voice raw, rasping. Bethal saw that the Goblins behind him were already marching. On the fat Hob’s left stood a [Mage] with electricity crackling around his fingertips. To his right rode a Goblin with a scar across his face on a Carn Wolf. He glared at Sir Thomast in hatred.

“Where is your Chieftain?”

“Hurt.”

“I see.”

Lady Bethal waited. The fat Hob just looked at her. She expected him to reiterate her Chieftain’s demands and was preparing to negotiate. She’d promised them wealth hadn’t she? If it came to it, could she get Sir Kerrig—

“Go away.”

Bethal paused. The Hob pointed. He was holding a battleaxe that shone with a fiery enchantment. Sir Kerrig’s battleaxe! And was the scarred Goblin holding Welca’s sword? Bethal looked at him uncertainly.

“Excuse me?”

“Leave. No prisoners. Take Human with you.”

The Hob pointed at Sir Kerrig. Then he turned and began to walk away.

“Wait!”

Grudgingly, the Hob turned back. Lady Bethal looked at him, confused.

“You’re letting Sir Kerrig return to us? Without a ransom?”

“Yes. That is what I said.”

The Hob glared at her. Bethal waited. But there was nothing more. The Hob looked around and issued an order. Some of the Goblins broke away and streamed towards the marching tribe.

“You won’t attack us?”

“No point. Humans too hard to kill.”

“And you’re not worried about what we might do?”

The Hob glanced at Dame Truvia.

“Try it.”

“Truvia! Enough. We had nothing to do with this attack.”

Bethal informed the Hob. She had no idea why she said it. They were Goblins. But the Hob nodded.

“We know. You killed Goblins before. Not now. So go.”

More silence. Bethal sensed Thomast shift. He looked at her and nudged his head. They should go. She knew he was right. But she wanted to—Bethal’s eyes flicked back to the Goblin child. Now she was looking at Bethal. Staring. For some reason Bethal felt guilty. Guilty?

“This was a—harsh tactic. Poison. Not honorable. But surely your tribe expected this. Surely you knew you were being hunted.”

Why was she trying to excuse this? Bethal saw the Goblin’s eyes flash as one. The Hob raised his head and met her eyes. There was no fury there. But a trace of anger flickered past the empty expression.

“We did not attack these Humans.”

“But you attacked Humans before. Sir Kerrig told me. You routed an army not a day ago. This conflict—”

The Hob cut her off.

“We destroyed a Human army. Hunting Goblins. We kill Humans who attack.”

“But—”

“There is a difference. We are not the Goblin Lord army. We are not raiding Goblins. We are not the same. There is a difference.

There was. Only, Bethal had not ever made the distinction before. This was a tribe and they were not the same as the Goblin Lord’s army. So they told her. She felt ashamed.

“We will leave, then. I apologize for my error.”

The Hob nodded. He looked at her, waiting. He knew she had more to say. So he waited. Bethal looked around the camp. Goblins were streaming away. The child was still sitting there.

“Won’t you bury your dead?”

“No. No burial. Leave.”

“I see.”

Alien. Incomprehensible. How could they not care for their dead? The crimson eyes watched her. Bethal pointed. The Hob turned as she pointed at the crying Goblin child. She hadn’t budged, though Goblins were urging her to get up and leave.

“Why is only she crying?”

The Hob looked at the child and shook his head.

“Tears are a waste of water.”

He turned and walked away. The Goblins behind him hesitated, and then streamed after him. They marched, many of them still wounded, some coughing, eyes streaming. Bethal saw the Hob stump over to the Goblin child and say something. An order. The child shook its head, eyes and nose streaming. The Hob repeated the order.

“I will stay. Someone has to witness this.”

“What?”

Bethal didn’t hear Sir Kerrig’s argument with the others. She watched as the Hob bent and pointed. He touched the body, shook his head. Pointed. The child shook her head. She clung to the body as the Hob reached for her.

“Here.”

Shielding their bodies so the Goblins couldn’t see, Dame Truvia pressed her enchanted dagger into Sir Kerrig’s hands. He slipped it into his clothes and nodded. Bethal saw the Hob pulling, saw the child hold on with all its strength. Clinging, clinging—the Goblin child held the body as the Hob pulled her up and then separated the two. Then she did wail, once. She beat the Hob as he carried her away.

He let her hit him and walked without looking back. He shed not one tear, but he bled as the Goblin child bit his hand. Bled, but didn’t stop. Bethal watched them go until they disappeared between the trees. She glanced down at Sir Kerrig, who was preparing to run after the Goblins.

“I did not know they could weep.”

“Neither did I, milady.”

“Follow them, Sir Kerrig. If you wish it. I will return to my estates. I—”

Lady Bethal never finished the sentence. She eventually turned and rode away as Sir Kerrig jogged after the Goblins. They were marching already, moving swiftly through the forest. Injured. Many wounded. But they still numbered thousands.

If they had wished it, they could have slaughtered Lady Bethal and her escort despite the cost. They could have overwhelmed the [Knights], brought down Thomast by sheer numbers and slaughtered Bethal. They could have. But they hadn’t. They had every right to fury. And perhaps it was there. But their despair, their grief was stronger. It was all consuming. So the Goblins left the [Lady] behind and walked.

They did not cry. They marched, blood dripping in the place of tears. Tears were a waste of water. The Goblins marched away as the night turned to day. They left their dead behind. They left family. They left friends. They left their loved ones, their hearts, and their blood. And they did not weep. Except on the inside.

 

—-

 

After a while the blood stopped. The child stopped biting him. Her teeth had left cuts in his hand and she’d torn the flesh as if she was tearing flesh from raw meat. Pyrite ignored the pain. He carried her as she wept, striding past the lines of Goblins. The child was young. So young she hadn’t learned that crying was a waste of water, dangerous sound. He would have told her to stop, but there was no point. The enemy had come and gone. So Pyrite walked.

“Sorry.”

She clung to his shoulder. He bled. The blood ran down his hand, stinging. It dripped into the soil. It was such a meaningless thing. Pyrite remembered the body he’d torn her from.

“Sorry.”

He marched to a wagon with Goblin children and tried to make her let go. She clung to him then, not wanting to. But he made her. He was strong as she was weak, for all she tried to lace her fingers together, grip him tightly. He put her with the older Goblin watching the children.

“Sorry.”

Nothing else to say. Nothing else to do. Pyrite looked down at the child and then ahead. The trees were thinning. He strode past her as the muffled crying grew fainter behind him. Pyrite reached another wagon and looked into it.

“Chieftain.”

Rags lay in the center of the wagon, covered with a blanket, her face pale. She was unconscious. They hadn’t been able to wake her and she’d lost so much blood. Too much for even a healing potion to properly heal. Pyrite walked next to the cart until he remembered he should be doing something.

“You. How many sentries? Where warriors?”

The Hob he pointed at looked blankly at Pyrite. He walked over and poked another Goblin who barely responded. Pyrite shook his head. He had to think. Rags was unconscious. That meant Pyrite had to take charge. He turned to another Goblin.

“Sentries ride ahead. Get Redscar. Put pikes here and here. Move!”

He had to push the Goblins, sending them racing ahead and behind to move the tribe into position. Just in time. Not ten minutes later, Pyrite heard a howl and saw a flash of movement. He saw a group of Humans burst out of the trees. They rode towards a group of Goblins who looked up and stared at them.

Just stared. Pyrite saw the Humans. He knew what they were going to do. But he failed to react. He saw a rider in armor cut down a Goblin and then he woke up. Pyrite saw the Goblins raising their weapons weakly. The Humans trampled them. No. Pyrite inhaled. He shouted at the Goblins who were just staring.

“Humans! Move! Attack!”

Goblins turned and stared at him. Pyrite bellowed. The numbing emptiness in his chest filled. His blood began to surge. Humans. Their leader wheeled, his sword red. They raced down the line, away from Pyrite. He pointed at them.

Humans!

He roared the word and the Goblins looked up. Their exhausted heads rose. Their eyes opened wide. Wider. Pyrite pointed and Goblins ran. He heard one scream, an angry, bitter cry. The others took it up. The warriors streamed towards the fleeing Humans. Pyrite wanted to run, but he held his ground. Wait. He shouted at other Goblins who were abandoning their positions.

“Stay! Wait for order!”

They held. Reluctantly, they held. Pyrite heard another howl to the south and this time he was ready. He roared and Redfang warriors streamed towards the attacked site and within minutes he heard a Goblin horn call. All clear. The Humans were gone. They’d attacked and fled.

So this was how it would be. Pyrite closed his eyes. They were already striking again. It made sense. He was exhausted. He was wounded and his tribe was barely able to function. He saw Redscar riding towards him. The Redfang leader was furious. He pointed in the direction of the fleeing Humans.

“Attack! We ride!”

“No! Guard tribe!”

Pyrite snapped at him. He was too tired to convey all of what he understood—that the Humans were baiting them, trying to get the Goblins to chase them, to lure them into a trap. Redscar growled, but he assented after a moment of hesitation. Pyrite looked around.

“Where Noears? Poisonbite?”

The answers came too slowly for his tastes. But they did come. Poisonbite was hurt and among the wounded. Noears was at the back. Pyrite grunted.

“Noears go back. Redfangs spread out! Crossbows ready. Not spread out. Keep moving!”

Redscar growled and nodded. He took the front and Pyrite reorganized the rearguard. The Goblins marched for two hours as the sun lightened. Pyrite had no idea where they were going. They needed to find somewhere to rest, somewhere defensible. But sending scouts out now would be a bad idea.

The Humans hit them as they were leaving the forest. They rode into the tree line, at least a hundred of them and began loosing arrows as soon as the sentries called the alarm. Pyrite growled as he saw they were attacking a spot with heavy pikes and wolves—and few archers! He saw Redfang warriors racing after them and the Humans retreating. Several mounted Goblins disappeared into the trees and Pyrite called the rest of them back.

“No follow. Get crossbows!”

Goblins with crossbows scrambled to the front. Pyrite heard wolves howling in pain and then silence in the trees. The Redfang riders didn’t return. But the Humans did. They rode out of the trees and loosed another volley, shouting triumphantly.

Were there more of them this time? Pyrite kept a wary eye on his flanks and rear as the units of Goblins wielding crossbows returned fire. That surprised the Humans—they’d clearly expected more Goblins to chase. Instead, several horses went down and some riders fell, screaming. At this distance both sides were too far away for accuracy; the clumped-up Goblins suffered more than the Humans. But the Humans did fall.

After the second volley, the archers among the trees vanished. The Goblins waited and Pyrite sent a group of Redfang Warriors to investigate. They found tracks, but the Humans had fled. Pyrite ordered them not to follow to Redscar’s disgust and posted twice as many sentries, twice as far out.

 

—-

 

They had to rest. Pyrite knew it, but he was dithering over leaving the tree line. Beyond the forest was a hilly landscape, open, but terribly exposed if the Humans launched another night attack. He followed the forest until the next wave of attacks. This time it wasn’t a full-fledged assault. Pyrite heard a howl as the Goblins tried to sleep and jerked awake. Redscar raced towards him, shouting.

“Sentries gone!”

Half of the sentries Pyrite had sent out to the west had been ambushed, their locations found and the Goblins feathered with arrows before they could raise the alarm. Only the last group had raised any alarm.

“Heard horn call. Too late. Fleeing Humans. Ordered not to pursue.”

Redscar growled as Pyrite tried to wake up and think. Redscar pointed.

“Humans leave tracks! Can follow!”

“Is trap.”

Pyrite repeated himself stubbornly. He knew it was true. Redscar knew it was true. But the Goblin had a different idea about it.

“Let us spring!”

He wanted to take two hundred wolf riders and hunt the Humans. Pyrite shook his head.

“No.”

Redscar growled. Pyrite glared at him. After a second Pyrite nodded.

“Put sentries back. Closer. Split riders. Ready to reinforce any moment.”

He held Redscar’s gaze until the other Goblin nodded. Pyrite was second in charge. With Rags unconscious he led. But neither Goblins spoke what both knew. The Humans would be back, sentries or not.

 

—-

 

They had to leave the forest. Pyrite marched the tribe into the hilly plains, watching the sun setting and searching for a spot, any spot where they could put their backs against a wall. He found nothing. He marched the tribe on until nightfall, watching the hills grow closer in the distance. Maybe if they dug ditches? Or camped on the hills?

They never made it that far. Pyrite noticed only when he had to ask why the tribe was lagging behind twice. He strode back and saw the Goblins at the back were gasping for air.

“Can’t breathe, Pyrite.”

Quietstab pointed to a Goblin who was trying to inhale. His lungs were making a terrible rasping sound. Pyrite stared at the Goblin in dismay.

“Bad?”

“Can’t fight. Can’t run. Can’t see. Some. Got rest. Or potion.”

They didn’t have enough potions. And there were hundreds, no, thousands of Goblins who’d inhaled the poisonous gas. Maybe a third of the tribe! Pyrite turned to Poisonbite who was making the same horrible sound.

“How long heal?”

She gasped for air. Her eyes were weeping and she was keeping them closed. She had to try twice before she gestured weakly with her claws. Two claws. Four. She shook them weakly.

Two days or four days. And then—a pause. The fingers clenched slightly. Or two weeks. Pyrite looked at Quietstab. He checked the landscape. Open ground. They should have stayed in the forest. Rags would have stayed. Pyrite had no choice now, though. He pointed.

“Make camp! Get Redscar and others!”

The council of war was brief. Pyrite gathered Redscar, Noears, Quietstab, and any of the Hobs who knew how to fight. He divided them up and posted them around the camp. The trouble was that with so many wounded Goblins, it was impossible to encircle the entire camp and not be spread too thin. Pyrite tried to figure out if they could construct defenses. Ditches? He looked at the exhausted Goblins who hadn’t slept since the day before yesterday and shook his head.

Pyrite ordered the Goblin warriors able to fight to sleep in shifts until the attack came. He kept torches lit and burnt as much fuel as he dared. Because the Humans would surely come again. When they did it was in darkness.

“Horses!”

This time the scream came near Pyrite’s position. He pushed himself up, grabbed his battleaxe and ran. He saw horses flashing in the chaos and more shooting arrows behind. He roared, cut down a Human on horseback, saw another dragged off his horse and watched the rest run. They were good at running! If the Redfangs could follow—

No. Too risky! Pyrite cursed as he watched the Humans leave.

This time the attack was bloody on both sides. The Humans pulled back after a single charge, leaving behind two dozen dead or wounded. But they’d cut down far too many Goblins. They’d attacked where there were no pikes or crossbows ready. How? Pyrite had no idea. The sentries had been hit first, but they had been alive right until the attack and the surviving warriors swore they hadn’t so much as seen a Human. Did they have a high-level [Scout]? Some kind of invisibility spell? A scrying spell?

They weren’t even that high-level. Pyrite whirled as he heard a howl. He saw Redfang riders streaming past him and saw a Goblin shouting and pointing after the Humans fleeing into the darkness.

“Redfangs! Follow!”

Stop.

Redscar roared as he tried to ride past Pyrite. The Hob charged at him, forcing the Carn Wolf to halt its dash. Pyrite tore Redscar from the saddle and felt two things happen at once. A painful, familiar cold sting in his right arm and a pair of jaws clamping over his hand.  Redscar shoved his sword into Pyrite’s arm as his Carn Wolf bit. Pyrite made a fist and forced the wolf’s jaws open.

Release!

Redscar snapped and his Carn Wolf let go. The Goblin kept his blade pressed into Pyrite’s arm, though. Pyrite roared at him in frustration. Redscar roared back. Around them the Flooded Waters tribe froze, watching the two Goblins in fear. Only then did Pyrite realize what was happening. He was fighting with Redscar! What was the point? He let go of the smaller Goblin slowly and felt the freezing blade’s tip withdraw from his arm.

The two Goblins stared at each other, breathing hard. At last, Pyrite jerked his head.

“Sixty riders. A hundred warriors. No you.”

“Yes.”

Redscar sheathed his blade and called. Instantly sixty of his Redfang warriors charged into the darkness. Pyrite turned.

“Pikes and crossbows! Twenty Hobs!”

Goblin warriors raced forwards at his command. Pyrite pointed and they followed the Redfang warriors. The mounted Goblins were already racing across the plains. They rode after the Humans, howling with rage. Sixty mounted elites and a hundred Goblins on foot, enough to tear apart a force twice their size and harry the riders before retreating in turn.

Pyrite felt the blood running down his arm and rubbed at the wound. Redscar eyed the frozen skin and blood, but Pyrite didn’t reach for a potion. He pointed back to the camp.

“Reform defenses. Humans might attack. Other side.”

Redscar nodded. He whistled and his Redfang warriors followed him back into camp. Pyrite trudged back to his sleeping spot, but he was awake now. He waited as the Goblins who’d been sleeping tried to get some rest. But no one could. They were all listening as hard as they could. They’d been hit by what, a hundred and forty riders? They’d sent more than that after them.

Surely they’d catch their enemy. If they were outnumbered they’d retreat. Redscar would race to their aid the instant they heard anything. Pyrite would let him. If they could bloody the Humans, force them to defend…the instant they heard anything Pyrite would move. He’d defend from the other side because of course that was when the Humans would attack. He waited, listening. Waited, waited…

Three passed then ten minutes. Then half an hour. The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe waited. They listened for howling, stragglers—anything. They heard nothing. Pyrite thought he heard a distant war horn—once. Then nothing. After that, Redscar did not try to follow the Humans, though the camp was attacked once more that night. Always with perfect accuracy, always in the weakest point, the flawed sections of the camp’s defenses that Pyrite himself hadn’t spotted.

 

—-

 

We’re winning each encounter. They’re moving each day, but they haven’t sent any more patrols. Heading towards a city—Lancrel. Orders to keep pursuing?

I tap my fingers together. I don’t have to hear Wiskeria’s reports to know what’s happening. My mind is with her mobile attack force almost all the time. With the Goblins too. I can tell how many have fallen. Hundreds from the raiding. But not enough. There are still thousands, for all they’re still poisoned.

“Your Majesty?”

Nesor’s face isn’t that pale today. He’s gotten used to sending and receiving [Message] spells and he’s faster and has stopped stuttering as much. I turn to Lady Rie.

“Lancrel. Where is it on the map?”

“Here, your Majesty.”

She finds me the place on the map instantly. I touch the spot and try to line it up in my head. Yes, the Goblins are headed that way. Aimlessly, it looks like.

“That’s not one of our cities, is it, Rie?”

“No, your Majesty. Lancrel has refused all messengers and did not reply to your levy. We have appraised them of the Goblin threat, but they declined to send aid. Their walls and gates are thick; I believe they think they’re well-defended.”

“Especially with Wiskeria harrying the Goblins.”

I appraise Lancrel in my mind. A small city. It might hold as many as ten thousand people at most. I don’t bother to count.

“Ten thousand is a small number? They could outnumber Riverfarm three times over.”

“Emperor?”

“Nothing. Lancrel outnumbers the Goblins, and their walls are…probably six meters? How much is that in feet? Twenty? I doubt the Goblins will head towards it. Nesor, tell Wiskeria to keep raiding.”

“Yes, sire.”

I sense Rie standing by my side. I focus my attention on another group moving towards them.

“Nesor. Tell Wiskeria her first group of reinforcements is headed her away. Two kilom—I mean, one mile and a bit south of her. Tell her to find them. They have…some horse, but mainly [Archers] and [Warriors].”

“Yes, sire!”

“They’ll be in position by evening.”

I hear Rie fumble with some figures. She’s changing the map in front of me to reflect what I’m describing. I nod.

“Wiskeria can keep harrying them, but the infantry can’t launch rapid attacks. She can set up a trap and commit all of her mounted soldiers to attacking. No full assaults. The main army will finish them.”

I can sense Durene marching with the bulk of the levied soldiers. [Soldiers] marching in ranks, levied from multiple cities. More cavalry, archers, thousands of them. I add the numbers up again. They’ll outnumber the Goblin army. Barely. Barely, but it’s enough if it’s Goblins. We did it last time. But Durene’s marching and I’m stuck here. I grit my teeth.

“Harry them, Nesor. Tell Wiskeria to harry them. They’ve shifted almost all their crossbows to their west side. Almost undefended towards east, about a hundred paces north of where Beniar hit them two hours ago. I count two groups of pikes spaced out ten meters…scheiße. I mean, thirty feet apart. Tell Beniar that if he approaches northeast, he can slip past them. There are five sentries. If he sends a group of ten, he could take them out and loose some arrows—”

 

—-

 

Sleep. Attack. Wake. Attack. The next day was filled with marching and sporadic, deadly raids by the Humans. Always in bad spots. Never in any of the traps. Hidden Goblins lying down with crossbows, Goblins pretending to be napping, Noears hiding in a tent, none of it worked. The Humans knew exactly what Pyrite was doing. Somehow. They’d actually aimed at Noears when he’d been in hiding. They could tell he was a [Mage], where he’d hidden—

How? Noears had suggested magic, but that was too convenient. Redscar was of the opinion some kind of fantastic [Hunter] or [Scout] was spying on them from some incredible distance. It wasn’t anyone nearby. In desperation, Pyrite had sent out the Redfang warriors en masse, hunting for a Human spy. They’d found nothing. No Human [Scouts] for ten miles in any direction. They were sure. So it was something else.

Pyrite didn’t know what, exactly. But he’d come to one definitive conclusion.

“They know where we are. Always.”

“How?”

Quietstab looked around as if the Humans could see them. Pyrite shrugged.

“Don’t know. But can see. Can’t follow.”

“Trap?”

“Trap.”

If the enemy knew exactly where you were and what you were doing at all times, sending out a force to attack them meant they would be surrounded and killed. The only safety was in overwhelming numbers. The Humans were still outnumbered by the Goblins. That was what Pyrite took comfort in. For all of five hours. Then he heard the frantic horns blowing and heard a scream.

“Humans coming!”

Another raid! Pyrite grabbed his battleaxe. He ran towards the shouting and froze. He could see the riders loosing arrows and charging again, but just as quick he was intercepted by Redscar himself. The Goblin was sweating. He pointed southwest.

“Human army approaching!”

“Humans here!”

Pyrite pointed towards the fighting ahead. Pyrite shook his head.

“Big army. Big army.

An army? Pyrite looked up at Redscar, his heart beating even faster.

“How many?”

“Thousands. Days away. Sent [Scouts]. One survived.”

For a second the Hob’s ears rang. He looked up. Redscar looked grim as he shifted his grip on his sword. Pyrite looked around in desperation. Southwest? Redscar had sent—

No, no time for arguing. Pyrite knew now. He had to move! Keep ahead of the army! Half the tribe still couldn’t breathe. Rags was still unconscious, being carried, her face deathly pale. They had to move.

But the Humans on horses—Pyrite heard more screaming and looked up. There. He saw two of the Humans. One, the Human all in armor who led the raiding. The other he’d spotted. A Human woman with a pointed hat. A spellcaster throwing fire. They were tearing up the Goblins in front of him. No one else could reinforce them! If they did, the Humans would just attack the unguarded spots. Pyrite roared. He pointed at Redscar.

“Guard rear! Quietstab, follow!”

He charged towards the gap in his lines. Goblins surged to follow him. Gasping. Wounded. They were so tired. They just needed a chance to rest. Two more days. They were breathing better. But the poison—

She was the one behind it. Pointed hat. [Witch]. Pyrite was sure of it. He roared as he charged past Goblins, cutting down a Human on horseback. Blood splashed his chest and Pyrite howled. If it was this they could win! If it was a fight the tribe had Hobs, had warriors, had strategy! But they were hurt! They weren’t able to use their strength! Their Chieftain was asleep.

But she would wake up. Pyrite felt a Human slice his back, but it was a shallow cut. He spun and saw Quietstab hamstring the horse. Rider and horse went down and Pyrite heard the Humans shouting.

“Retreat! Let the archers cut them down!”

Flee. The Human in armor was too far away. Pyrite saw the [Archers] on horses loosing another volley. They had to be chased off. Goblins with crossbows were coming. They just had to buy time.

Strong. This tribe was strong. Pyrite looked around and saw Goblins fighting, coughing, some blind, others exhausted. They just had to rest. Everything would be alright when Rags woke up. If it was a fight, a proper fight—

He had to hold on. Pyrite charged at the Humans loosing arrows, preventing the Goblins from organizing their ranks. Give them a target. Pyrite shouted as he ran. The arrows flew past them. One struck his shoulder as Pyrite covered his face. All he had to do was hold on. Another struck his stomach, and another. Something struck his shoulder and burned. Pyrite screamed and kept running.

Believe. All he had to do was—five arrows struck Pyrite’s chest and he slowed. His blood spattered the ground.

Like tears.

 

—-

 

When the waters rose, the Flooded Waters tribe ate well. It was dangerous of course, but Rags remembered the rain with fondness. Goblins loved fish. They could hunt fish easily so long as they watched out for predators. All you had to do was find a big school of fish and surround it.

It didn’t matter if they were fast or small. When there were so many you could attack it from every side, find the stragglers, the slow ones. And then you took them. If you were quick enough you could have an armful of fish and your belly would be full. If they couldn’t fight back it was so easy. All you had to do was surround them with some other members of the tribe and then you could eat and eat. Rags had never known what it was like to be a fish.

And then she opened her eyes and the fish were Goblins.

The world swam in front of Rags’ vision. She looked up and saw a blank piece of canvas stretched over her head. A tent? No—she felt rough wood under her back and sat up. She realized she wasn’t in a tent. She was in a wagon.

Someone was crying. It was a high-pitched sound. An unfamiliar sound. Rags hadn’t heard crying in…it wasn’t a Goblin thing to do. But someone was crying and it was a Goblin who wept. Rags was sure of it.

She sat up and felt at the canvas covering the wagon and her. Only, halfway up Rags was seized by a horrible coughing fit. She coughed and pain coursed through her body. Her lungs were on fire! And her eyes burned. She scratched weakly at the canvas and heard a gasp. Someone wrestled with the covering and then there was light.

Rags sat up slowly, her eyes watering, coughing, and saw a hand offer something to her. Blindly, she reached out and drank. It wasn’t a healing potion, but the tepid, stale water did the same job. She stopped coughing and looked into the eyes of a small Goblin. A child.

To be fair, Rags was a small Goblin. This one was a proper child, not adult even by Goblin standards. She stared at Rags and she noticed the child had redder eyes than usual. She’d been crying.

Stop that.

Rags growled at the child and coughed. The small Goblin scampered back as Rags got up. Her body ached. Her chest felt terribly, terribly weak where she’d been cut. But she was alive. And she felt it. Her tribe needed her. So Rags rose. She stood up in the wagon and gasped. Coughed. But then stood tall.

Like nibbling fish. Like Goblins slowly tearing apart a school of fish. Like slow death, like a thousand stinging ants. Like blood dripping from a wound.

She felt her tribe’s anguish, even if she didn’t know why. Rags took a step, stumbled. A pair of hands steadied her. She looked at the small Goblin. Had she been crying because Rags was unconscious? No—it was more. Death. Rags could remember that.

Let go.

She felt the hands retreat and took another step. And another. Rags made her way over to the wagon’s edge and looked around. She could hear…silence. A lack of noise where noise should be. The tribe had stopped. There should be working Goblins, chattering, movement. And she shouldn’t have been covered in a wagon. This was bad. Rags made to leap off the wagons’ back and paused. She looked back at the child and saw two huge eyes staring back at her. Someone had to tell her.

“Crying is waste of water.”

The Goblin child stared at Rags and shrank slightly. The Chieftain of the Flooded Water tribe held her gaze and then smiled briefly.

“Unless it wakes Chieftain. Then it good.”

She leapt from the wagon, landed hard on the ground and got up. Staggering and then feeling her leg muscles work at last, Rags walked. The small Goblin child leapt off the cart after her. First it was one Goblin.

There was a Hob standing guard next to the wagon. He was healthy, but tired. His arm was bandaged and though he had no wheezing cough, his breathing was still labored. He was dozing on watch, which is why he’d missed Rags waking. She walked up to him and kicked him. He jerked upright, swung at her with his quarterstaff and stopped.

Chieftain?

She glared at him.

“Where is Pyrite?”

He looked around wildly and pointed uncertainly. Rags strode past him.

“Follow.”

The Hob saw the Goblin child follow Rags. He slapped himself, grinned as he realized he wasn’t dreaming, and followed, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. And then there were two.

Rags walked through her camp. It was her camp, but it was not her camp. It was all wrong. The fires were too close together. No—there weren’t many fires lit. The Goblins were lying too close! What if they were sick? What if there was an attack? What if they needed to pee? Too many were coughing, and it looked like many hadn’t eaten. Food was low. Water was low. And the wounded—

Too many wounded. Rags stumbled forwards, remembering what had happened. The attack! Poison. The coughing. Pieces came together. She saw Goblins look up, glance at her, away, and then do a double-take. They got up. Rags waved at them, croaking.

“Pyrite!”

They pointed. Rags quickened her pace. She didn’t tell the wounded to follow her, but they did anyways. They got up and the other Goblins saw the motion. They looked at each other and poked each other. They didn’t see Rags, short as she was, but they knew. And then there were handfuls.

The center of the camp was too full. But the perimeter was too sparse. Rags saw Goblins dug into hasty fortifications in the earth. They were in the plains! When had they gotten here? The Goblins on duty were too divided. Rags frowned. Why were they spread out? It was as if the camp was expecting an attack from any direction at any moment. But that wasn’t how you defended. You put your best soldiers where the enemy would attack, not weaken yourself by spreading yourself out. What had happened?

Pyrite!

She snapped the word and the Goblin soldiers looked up. They gaped and rose. Some pointed. Rags shouted at the ones who tried to abandon their positions.

“Stay!”

They did. But the shouting, the familiar voice made heads turn. The Goblins in earshot looked around. They stood up, craning to see. And they spoke.

“Chieftain.”

“Chieftain?”

It was an uncertain word, a tremulous question. Hope, and its cousin, fear, wavering for fear of the truth. But the word was repeated. It spread as more Goblins rose, defying exhaustion to see. And then they were many.

“Chieftain is awake.”

“Chieftain Rags.”

“Chieftain.”

They rose and followed. And then Rags was followed by hundreds. And the tribe took notice. Word began to spread from Goblin to Goblin. Rags was awake. And she was headed for Pyrite. Every hand began to point the way before she asked. The broken network of Goblin communication restored itself for one purpose. And as Rags walked her tribe formed itself around her. Around their Chieftain.

When they reached the sitting Goblin they were thousands. Rags stopped as the Goblins showed her to the Hob sitting on the ground. He was drinking from a half-empty bottle as Goblins fussed about him. Blood covered the ground around him. His battleaxe was covered with gore. And they had plucked too many splintered arrows and arrowheads from his flesh to count. Pyrite looked up and smiled around the blood.

“Good sleep?”

Rags stopped in front of him and looked down. Pyrite drank from the healing potion and sighed. She stared. He was bleeding. She couldn’t tell from where. He was covered in blood. He’d taken sword wounds, tearing mace blows, arrows to his chest, his sides, his back, cuts from daggers, burns from fire. And he’d stood among it all. The fat on his body was torn. His blood ran with it. Slowly.

He’d taken so many wounds that the healing potion was failing to recover all of them. Rags saw a gash on his stomach oozing fat slowly knit together and then—stop. She looked around, head spinning.

“Healing potion.”

“Out.”

Pyrite tossed the empty bottle to the ground. Again he tried to stand. This time he did. Rags looked at him. Pyrite swayed, frowned, and regained his balance. He bled. But he stood. And when he glanced at Rags, it was expectantly. He wanted orders. He said not a word about his wounds. Rags looked into his eyes.

“Show me.”

And the Hob smiled for the first time in days. He nodded and turned, his ravaged body as light as a feather. He said the words he’d waited so long to say.

“Yes, Chieftain.”

 

—-

 

By night they rode. By day they came. With arrow and sword. With fire and spell. Warriors of the Unseen Empire. From every direction, with traps and quick, lightning-fast attacks. And though they were fought off each time they exacted a price. Hundreds of dead. Hundreds. Rags saw the missing faces. Day after day the Humans had come. And for three days Pyrite had fought them off.

Three days. Three days he’d kept them marching while a third of the tribe was unable to do more than move, struggling for breath.

“Enemy not that smart. Weak leader. But Humans on horse can see at night. And they know where we are. Always.”

Pyrite stood with a crude map of the landscape drawn for Rags. She watched his chest rise and fall. He still bled, but his wounds were bandaged. They’d given him food—dry oats meant for fodder. There had been no time to forage so the tribe was hungry.

“How find?”

“Don’t know, Chieftain.”

Noears grinned at her. His head was bandaged and he looked exhausted, but he couldn’t stop grinning. At her. He gestured around.

“No spell. Can’t sense.”

“Tracker? Scout?”

“No.”

Redscar folded his arms. The Goblin warrior hadn’t shown his elation on seeing her, but he’d arrived as fast as the others. Rags had heard of his disastrous attempts to pursue the Humans. She understood. But—she turned back to Pyrite.

“How? Know?”

“No, Chieftain.”

Pyrite shrugged. He pointed back at the crude map, drawing her attention.

“City nearby. Big. Got walls. Lots of Humans.”

They’d come to a city, fleeing the Human’s advancing army. Pyrite pointed to the Human army, grimacing. Rags grimaced too. Thousands of Humans, approaching slowly on foot. Not the mounted raiders, but far more of them. They’d be able to finish off Rags’ weakened tribe. So Pyrite had taken the tribe away—right into a Human city.

“Not moving. Not yet.”

Poisonbite wheezed as she squatted next to the others. Her lungs were better, but she still had trouble breathing. Rags shifted her attention to her. Poisonbite was wounded, even if it wasn’t a visible wound. Over a third of her tribe was wounded. Vulnerable. The Humans had been chewing apart the warriors as they struggled to defend their helpless tribe from every direction.

“Mistake to leave forest. No cover.”

That came from Quietstab. There was no recrimination as he glanced at Pyrite. Both Hobs nodded, as did the other Goblins. It was a statement of fact. Rags chewed her lip, agreeing. If they’d stayed in the forest they could have built another fortress. Maybe. Or would the Humans have used poison again on a stationary target?

It didn’t matter. She focused on the map.

“Humans on horses. From city?”

“No.”

That voice came from no Goblin. They all looked at Sir Kerrig. He was squatting with them. Rags stared at the [Knight]. He looked up at her and nodded respectfully.

“The raiding Humans are part of the Unseen Emperor. Under the command of one Laken Godart. An [Emperor].”

Sir Kerrig waited for the Goblin’s response. They just stared at him. He coughed, slightly surprised, and went on.

“Goblins attacked his empire once before. The Great Chieftain’s forces, or so I believe. He may suspect you’re part of that force. Or a raiding army sent by the Goblin Lord.”

“Not.”

Rags said that firmly and all the Goblins nodded. Sir Kerrig hesitated.

“I don’t believe the difference would occur to Emperor Laken. Nevertheless, I can tell you that the city—it is called Lancrel, incidentally—is not part of his domain.”

Rags absorbed this information and promptly discarded the details about the name. She stared at Sir Kerrig. Then she turned to Pyrite.

“Why he here?”

“Human [Lady] come. She go. He stay.”

Pyrite shrugged, seeming to enjoy the motion despite how it opened up the wound in his shoulder. Rags glanced at Sir Kerrig. He met her gaze levelly.

“I wished to observe your tribe, Chieftain Rags.”

“Observe this?

She gestured angrily around at the injured Goblins. Sir Kerrig paused. He looked at some of the injured Goblins. Rags had heard that he’d helped tend to the injured. She didn’t care. At last the [Knight] responded.

“What would you have me say? I witnessed you destroy a Human army. Just or not, Laken Godart’s attacks are in retaliation for Goblin raids on his lands. He is protecting his people with preemptive strikes. He regards this as a war.”

“Against Tremborag. Against Goblin Lord. Not us.

“He cannot tell the difference, Chieftain Rags.”

“So tell him. Why not stop? Go shout at Humans!”

Incensed, Rags glared at Sir Kerrig. He’d come back here? To do what? Watch? As if it was his choice? Sir Kerrig spoke defensively.

“I am an observer. I cannot speak for your intentions. If I requested peace and your tribe attacked innocents, the blood would be on my hands!”

Rags just stared at the [Knight]. He looked apologetic.

“Chieftain, if you can give me an assurance that your tribe would truly stop fighting, I could attempt—”

She leaned forwards and spat. Sir Kerrig jerked and wiped at his face. Rags turned away.

“Coward.”

She ignored the [Knight] and looked back at Pyrite. He was glancing at Sir Kerrig, half-smiling. So wounded. She saw what he was doing. Could she have done better? Perhaps—she would never know. But now she was awake, Rags understood. An enemy that knew where you were. An [Emperor] with an army pursuing them on horse and a larger one following behind. A city full of Humans.  A stupid, silly Human [Knight]. The pieces fell together and she sighed.

“Humans.”

Her tribe looked at her. Not just her officers, not just the red-faced Sir Kerrig, but all of them. Goblins stood around her meeting spot, waiting. Watching her. Watching their Chieftain. She had led them into this land. She had attacked the first Human army. She had fallen and left them for three days. So they waited, judging her, waiting for her to bring them hope.

Rags closed her eyes. So many dead. The poison. The black riders in the night. All of it. Why? Because—because some [Emperor] thought they were the wrong Goblins? Her heart hurt. Her chest burned. But this was fitting. This was right. This was—

“This is the way Goblins die.”

Her tribe looked at her. Rags stared up at the blue skies. In Liscor, it would be raining. She spoke, still smelling the poison in the air, still seeing the arrows falling. How dare he.

“Running, fighting, protecting, friend and friend. Humans hunt us, monsters to the end. Not people, not anything worth anything. Again, they come, for Goblin children, for Goblin Kings. Forever, forever. All the same in the end.”

She rose. Her officers stood with her. Rags looked around. An [Emperor]? Protecting his people? Replying in kind. How silly. Rags looked at the map. The Humans could be anywhere. They could attack from any direction, at her weak spots. What did you do about that? She jabbed her finger at her answer and the Goblins stared at her.

“The city.”

 

—-

 

General Wiskeria of the Unseen Empire was brewing tea in a pot when the [Mage] responsible for receiving [Message] spells, Allais Vermot, ran towards her.

“They’re moving straight for Lancrel!”

What?

Wiskeria nearly dropped the ball of dried herbs she was dipping into the kettle. She stood up as Beniar raced over. The former Silver-rank adventurer and now [Captain] and [Cataphract] listened to Allais’ report.

“They’re headed straight to Lancrel as fast as they can.”

“Do they think we’re based out of the city? Or are they trying to take it?”

Wiskeria shook the wet tea bag as she took the kettle off the fire. Beniar’s eyes shone.

“They must be insane! If they try for a siege we’ll hammer them against Lancrel’s walls! Wis, this is our chance!”

The [Witch] frowned and not least because Beniar had called her ‘Wis’.

“Hold on. The main army is still a day or two away at best. We don’t have more than eight hundred soldiers here. The Goblins still number over seven thousand!”

“So? Lancrel can hold its walls and we’ll hit the Goblins while they’re stationary. If they commit—we don’t need the rest of the reinforcements! We can smash them against the walls right here and now!”

It was tempting, Wiskeria had to admit. Lancrel had refused to field its army in response to the Goblin threat. By attacking the city, the Goblins were adding another enemy. She nodded after thinking it over. There was really one thing they could do.

“Move out! Beniar, keep your cavalry back. I want them to start attacking the city before we strike. We’ll pin them there!”

Beniar grinned and Wiskeria sighed as she ran for the horses. She hoped it would all go according to plan. In the worst case the Goblins would dig into the nearby landscape as they constructed siege towers or rams. They could prove difficult to uproot if they remained still, rather than kept moving. Of course, by then the army would get there…

It was all a matter of time. Within the hour she and the entire camp of mobile horses were racing towards Lancrel. By the time they reached the city the Goblins were already closing in on the walls.

 

—-

 

“Goblin army approaching!”

Lancrel had seen the Flooded Water tribe coming miles away. And they were warned. By the time the Goblins approached the walls from the east, the majority of the garrison was deployed and waiting. They laughed as they saw the Goblins approaching, though the size of the army was slightly concerning. However, as the Watch Captain reassured his men, there was nothing to worry about.

“There’s twenty feet of wall between us and those damn green freaks! Twenty feet! Keep the ladders off—if they have any—and we’ll slaughter twenty for every one that even makes it on the walls!”

His men laughed, reassured. They watched the Goblins stream towards them. They had wolves, some of them! Huge, loping monsters, three times as big as normal. That too was concerning. But again, the walls were there. It wasn’t as if the Goblins had brought siege towers.

“Hold your ground, men! We’ll push this Goblin Lord back, without this so-called [Emperor]’s help!”

The Watch Captain was still laughing as the first rank of Goblins entered bow-shot range. Instantly some of the [Archers] on the walls fired, their shots going astray. The running Goblins paused and their mounted wolf riders pointed. The Watch Captain nodded.

“See that? They’re going to pull back, send their ladders first. Hold your shots you idiots! Focus on the Goblins with ladders—”

He bit back his words because the ranks of Goblins broke into a run. Straight towards the walls. The Watch Captain looked around wildly.

“Ladders! Aim for the Goblins holding ladders!”

Confused, the Humans looked around. Where were the Goblins with ladders? They weren’t carrying any?

“Watch Captain! Those Hobs have a ram?”

“A what?”

The Watch Captain spotted a few Hobs with a smaller version of a ram. He pointed.

“Aha! Not even ladders! On my mark, bring those Hobs down! Loo—

Those around him felt a kick and heard the roar after the impact had tossed them off their feet. The unlucky Humans who’d been knocked off the walls fell screaming. The ones around the Watch Captain who’d landed on the battlements looked around. They didn’t see their Watch Captain, only a smoldering corpse. They looked back down and lightning flashed upwards again, straight from the fingers of a cackling Goblin with no ears.

Goblin [Mage]!

“Bring it down!”

Panicked shouts came from the walls. The [Archers] began shooting wildly, aiming at the Goblin who’d thrown lightning. He ducked behind a Goblin with a huge wooden shield. And then the Goblins behind him raised something. The Humans blinked. Were those crossbows?

They saw the bolts fly up. The first volley took many of the [Guardsmen] and [Soldiers] off-guard. They fell back, screaming, as the bolts shattered flesh and bone. The Goblins reloaded as the defenders of Lancrel took cover. The Goblins were dangerous! But they still had the high ground and reinforcements. They could hold on the walls so long as the Goblins didn’t—

“Throw!”

A voice shouted the word. The Humans looked around. Throw? Who had shouted that. One of them looked over the walls, ducking as an arrow grazed his helmet. He saw something strange below. A pair of Hobs, cupping hands. And a small Goblin with a glowing blue blade, running at them. The Goblin leapt and his foot landed in the Hob’s cupped hands. They heaved and he flew up, twenty feet into the air. The Human [Soldier] gaped as a hand grabbed onto the ledge in front of him.

“Dead g—”

He raised his sword and Redscar’s enchanted blade went through his helmet. The Goblin reached up and used the dead Human’s body to haul himself onto the battlements. He grinned as, across the wall, more Redfang warriors were launched up by the Hobs.

The defenders of Lancrel gaped at Redscar as he looked around, his enchanted sword raised. It was bloody. A Human jabbed at Redscar with a spear. He sidestepped the thrust contemptuously and swung. His sword sheared through the thick haft of the spear. The Human backed up as Redfang turned. The second swing beheaded him.

“Kill the Goblin!”

Lancrel’s soldiers rushed at Redscar. But too many were armed with bows! The Goblin ducked between the bigger Humans, stabbing in the confined press of bodies. He heard screams and ducked as a sword flashed towards his head. He turned, cut down a Human, and kicked another one as the Human overbalanced from a swing.

The screaming Human toppled over the battlements. Redscar turned, grinning, his face alight with fury as more Goblins flew up to grab the walls. He spun, laughing, and the Humans backed away from the shorter Goblin with the enchanted sword. At last! This was a real battle!

 

—-

 

“Goblins on walls!”

“Good!”

Rags saw more Goblins flying upwards, propelled by the Hobs assigned to throwing duty. It was a completely stupid idea. Only regular Goblins were light enough for a trick like this and only Hobs were strong enough. But Pyrite had inspired her with his games of throwing Goblins into the lake. More to the point, it had worked because Lancrel’s defenders were being suppressed by the rain of arrows, bolts, and slings her army was throwing up at them. And Noear’s lightning. Rags pointed and sent a fiery arrow straight into the face of a Human woman with a bow. The defenders of the wall were well and truly occupied. So she turned and bellowed.

Hobs!

A group of Hobs answered her call. They thrust their way forwards, holding the smaller rams they’d made on the march. They charged towards the doors as Goblins made way. Hobs. She heard Humans on the walls shouting in alarm. They’d probably never seen more than one or two Hobs. But she had hundreds in her tribe. And the ones who began pounding on the gates were fresh.

This was the Flooded Water tribe’s fighting force. The wounded and sick Goblins clustered against the walls while the Human defenders were distracted by the climbing Goblins. They had probably two thousand warriors they could send. Rags knew the Human city probably held as many as ten thousand Humans. But how many would man the walls? How many could fight? A Human with a few levels in [Warrior] was not the same as a Redfang Warrior. Or a Hob.

And she’d sent her best. Rags watched as the Hobs she’d sent to the gates roared and struck the gates again with their hand-held ram as the rest rammed the door with their shoulders. The impact made the wood crack and splinter. They drew back and struck again as one. Again! Again! Ag—

The gates broke with a thunderous crash inwards and the Hobs roared and heaved. The Humans trying to hold it shut went flying and the Hobs charged in with hundreds of Goblins at their back. Redfang warriors, groups of Goblins with pikes—they smashed into the stunned defenders. The twenty-foot long pikes pierced through the defender’s shields and armor before the Hobs came in swinging. At their head was Pyrite. He roared as he cleaved through a Human’s shield and pointed. Goblins swarmed after him.

Impossible! Rags could practically hear the Humans shrieking the word. She grinned viciously. This was her tribe! This was their might! Then she turned her attention to the Goblins outside the walls.

Most of them were coughing, exhausted, barely able to move after their mad dash to the walls. Many, thousands, weren’t even warriors. Women and children huddled right next to the imposing stone walls, right in range of bowshot and where a vat of boiling oil or water could hit them. But the defenders were fighting Rags’ warriors! Lancrel was at their mercy.

Which meant that the Humans closing on their rear now had a clean shot at all of Rags’ weakest warriors and noncombatants. Rags looked over her shoulder.

There they were. Right on time. She saw Human riders streaming across the plain. Six hundred…eight hundred? A good force to harry. Not to charge an entire tribe. But Lancrel was being overrun. Rags could hear and see the Goblins pressing forwards. She’d committed nearly every Hob and all of her Redfang warriors to the push! Of course it was falling fast. But therein lay the weakness.

Rags tried to imagine what the enemy commander was thinking. Well. The foolish tribe may have gained the city, but now they’re trapped. They’ve sent their warriors ahead, all of them. You could ride them down from behind and slaughter them. They’d barely be able to put up a fight. They can’t breathe. They can’t see. Rags felt the burning in her chest and knew that was true. She watched as the Humans made a quick decision.

They charged. She saw the riders with spears, swords, and axes taking the lead while the ones with bows followed. They’d hit her from behind and pin her tribe against the walls! Packed as tightly as they were, it would be a slaughter. The Hobs wouldn’t be able to return until half of the tribe was dead! All the Humans had to do was strike before Rags could get her tribe inside the walls. She could see the Humans accelerate. Rags nodded to herself.

There was no good way to beat an enemy who knew what you were doing at all times. Not out in the open. Traps wouldn’t work. But what about something you knew was going to happen? She narrowed her eyes. The enemy commander was good at spying. But strategy?

The first line of riders was two hundred paces away from the walls when Rags gave the order.

“Crossbows.”

Every Goblin, child and elderly, sick and wounded, turned. They raised the crossbows they’d been given. The Humans on horseback wavered as they saw the wall of Goblins turn into ranks of waiting archers. Rags pointed.

Now!

The wounded Goblins aimed and fired. The first volley of bolts took scores of riders from their saddles, toppling screaming horses. Stones from slings and the weaker stone crossbows landed among the Humans, denting helmets, shattering bone. A few of Rags’ wounded Hobs shot with their bows, taking down Humans with precise shots.

“Reload.”

Rags reached down and pulled at her crossbow, laboriously cocking it. She slapped another bolt into the slot and aimed. Where was the armored Human. Didn’t matter. She focused on a Human with a spear charging at them. Rags sighed, coughed.

“Fire.”

The second wave of bolts cut down more riders. The Humans tried to keep charging, but the falling horses and Humans tripped up the ones behind. They pulled back as whoever was in charge realized they wouldn’t get the walls. There were thousands of Goblins and Rags had hundreds of crossbows firing at once. The force of eight hundred wasn’t enough! The riders circled as Rags continued to order the Goblins to reload and fire, marking targets.

Suddenly, the walls behind them weren’t a trap, but a shield. The Humans on horseback couldn’t circle the lines of Goblin crossbows and Wiskeria’s archers found themselves outnumbered by the volleys of bolts that rained onto their position. They retreated, breaking, falling, racing back.

What now? They had to keep Lancrel from falling! Another gate! They could enter from another gate! The defenders raced to the southern gates to reinforce Lancrel only to find they were too late. The gates were open and Humans were racing out.

“Into the city. Crossbows on walls. Get pikes in gate.”

Rags pointed as her tribe streamed further and further into the city. Humans fled from them by the thousands, wailing, fleeing the Hob’s advance. Rags rode through the city as her Redfang riders spread out, seeking out the Humans who’d continued to fight.

Whomever this [Emperor] was, he didn’t understand war like she did. Count on a city to defend itself? Against a weaker, smaller tribe, perhaps. But Human cities weren’t like Drake cities. They had no enchantments on their walls. Their populace didn’t fight to the death. And their walls were too short.

And worse, yes, worst, the Humans of Lancrel had failed to understand how fast the Goblins could take down a gate made of wood. They could have fought the Redfang warriors off on the walls in time. They could have held. But wooden gates? Rags shook her head as she saw Humans streaming out the other exits of the city. The Humans on horseback wouldn’t gain entry from any of the other ways in, if they’d been stupid enough to try. Lancrel’s citizens were pressed against the gates, screaming, shoving to get out. The Goblins were inclined to let them. They were tired.

 

—-

 

“Incredible.”

Quietstab shook his head and stared from his position atop the battlements. He turned to Pyrite, awestruck.

“Took city. Without siege!”

Pyrite grunted. He was feeling a lot better. His belly was full—they’d ransacked Lancrel’s stores and found lots of food. And healing potions. He stood on the walls, watching the Humans slowly marching away from their city. Lancrel’s refugees had immediately turned to the Humans on horseback and the Humans had no choice but to try and guard them—and watch the city. More had arrived on foot. A good two thousand, but they were keeping well back, wary of a Goblin attack.

They had no idea that there was little chance of that. The exhausted Goblins had almost all collapsed after eating their fill. The only ones on the walls were just there to look threatening; the Redfangs were the only group still active enough to keep searching the city for supplies. Pyrite leaned against the battlements as he replied to Quietstab.

“Bad city defense. Other tribes take cities. Mountain City tribe did.”

He was referring to the city they’d taken with Gold-rank adventurers. That had taken more planning, but it had happened. Quietstab nodded.

“But Tremborag leads. Great Chieftain. This time our Chieftain leads.”

“True.”

Pyrite thought about that. Rags led. She’d woken up. And just like that, things had changed. He felt—relieved. Ashamed. He hadn’t thought of this. But she’d woken up and like that she’d saved them.

“Can rest here. Hold walls against twice as many Humans.”

“Mm.”

Pyrite wondered about that. The Humans would come. There were thousands more coming and probably even more that would be angry about the city. They’d bought time, that was all. His ears perked up as he heard a grumbling complaint. Both he and Quietstab turned and saw Rags coming up the stairs.

“Chieftain?”

She had a bag in her hands. Quietstab made way for her and Pyrite eyed the bag. It was full of Rags’ possessions. He hadn’t ever seen inside, but it wasn’t filled with much.

“Chieftain. Want food?”

He offered her a handful of dried nuts he’d been snacking on. She glared at him.

“No. Help me up.”

She pointed and Pyrite lifted her up. Rags perched on top of the battlements, dangerously close to the edge. She didn’t care. She stared at the Human army camped far outside of range of the walls. They were watching the Goblins.

“Lots of Humans. Will attack if leave.”

“Attack them, Chieftain?”

“No. Will run. Probably. More coming.”

Rags grumbled to herself. She opened her cloth bag and glared into it. Then she hurled it at Pyrite.

“Where is? Search. Small red stone. Scary.”

Bemused, he opened the bag and rummaged through it. He found a battered chess piece, the ruby he’d given her, some battered pieces of parchment and then—

Pyrite inhaled sharply. Rags looked up.

“Give.”

She took the object Pyrite handed to her. Quietstab peered, interested, and then stopped as Rags looked at him.

“Quietstab. Get Redscar. Get Redfangs. Mounted ones.”

She glanced at the Humans in the distance. Pyrite watched her gaze, no longer complacent. Quietstab nodded, glancing at the thing she held.

“How many Redfang?”

“All.”

The Hob blinked. Rags glanced at him and he ran. Pyrite looked at Rags.

“Chieftain? What is that for?”

He pointed. Rags held the red stone up. It was shiny. A ruby gemstone. But the way it made him feel—she turned it and Pyrite’s stomach lurched. He looked at her face and his stomach lurched for different reasons.

“Bad things.”

Rags looked up. Behind her, in the city, Pyrite could see Redscar riding towards them. Rags looked at him.

“Not done yet. Pyrite.”

She pointed to the Humans beyond. Pyrite looked at her.

“What next?”

 

—-

 

“They’re coming out of the city!”

“Are you serious?”

This time Wiskeria didn’t wait for a reply. She shouted and every [Soldier] under her command leapt to their feet. The Goblins were attacking? She wavered between attack and retreat. How many? She paused as she saw—

“The wolf riders?”

They streamed out of the city, hundreds of them. But only hundreds. They formed into a wedge and raced out of the city, following a pair of short Goblins who rode forwards. Beniar growled.

“They’re making a break for it! Wis, we have to—”

“I know. Intercept! Everyone, towards the Goblins!”

Wiskeria raised her voice and thousands of Humans raced towards the Goblins. The Darksky Riders lead by Beniar raced forwards. Their numbers were reduced, but all they had to do was hold the Goblins there! An easy task. Wiskeria could tear the Goblins apart. Maybe then the disaster of Lancrel could be mitigated.

“Charge!”

She saw Beniar heading straight for the pair of Goblins. One small. The other held the enchanted blade. She saw the small one raise something in its hands. And then—

Something changed. Wiskeria felt her heart stop in her chest. Her beating, wonderful heart stopped dead. For a second. She stumbled and around her [Soldiers] cried out and halted.

The red eye pulsed as the Goblin held it over her head. In its depths something stirred. It looked at Wiskeria. It knew her name. Something called to her. It crawled in her head. It had a name. It was flesh. Putrefaction. It screamed and she screamed. Skinner! She turned and fled, she—

“No!”

Wiskeria shouted, breaking herself free of the [Fear] spell. She turned and saw the soldiers stumbling backwards and then recovering as she had. They shuddered as the gem struck fear into their hearts, but at her urging they kept running. However, it was too late. The [Fear] spell had done its work. Not on the Humans, but on Beniar and the riders.

Humans could withstand the spell. For them it was only fear. But animals were different. The charge of the Darksky Riders broke for the second time that day as Wiskeria watched. Half of the horses turned or reared, some throwing their riders to the ground. Beniar’s advance halted in its tracks as the Carn Wolves raced past them.

If they’d been faster by a few seconds. If the [Fear] spell hadn’t been used. The Goblin lowered the stone as it ceased to shine and tucked it into her pack. Wiskeria watched helplessly as the Carn Wolves outraced the horses, heading into the forests. She saw Beniar turn and whirled.

Alais! Send a spell to Laken! I need to know where they’re going! Now!”

 

—-

 

So this is how it ended. Dreamily, Rags rode with the wind blowing across her body. The Redfang warriors whooped, exhilarated to finally run, triumphant over their small victory over the Humans. Redscar drew his wolf over to Rags and pointed as they slowed.

“What is?”

She offered him the now inactive [Fear] gemstone. It wasn’t that useful, certainly not against Goblins. And it ran out of magic. But it was good for a distraction when she’d remembered it. Redscar eyed it appreciatively and then handed it back.

“What now?”

“Slow.”

They halted miles from the city, having outdistanced their Human pursuers for the moment. Rags turned her Carn Wolf, seeing the eyes of all the Redfang warriors on her. Curiously. She knew she was not their real leader. They had abandoned Garen for her. But they were still Redfang. Still his.

And yet. She looked at Redscar. He paused. The other Goblin had been exuberant since the battle for Lancrel. His fury against the Humans had been quenched in part. But Pyrite had told her what he’d done.

“Chased Humans.”

“When Chieftain was asleep.”

“Pyrite ordered not to.”

Redscar shifted, avoiding her gaze.

“Redfangs know how to fight.”

“So does Pyrite.”

Silence. The Redfang warriors looked away. Rags could sense their good moods fading. They did not want to see their leader be dressed down. She sensed their resentment. But Redscar eventually looked up.

“Angry. At Humans.”

Rags nodded. Anger. It was such a strange feeling. She had woken, feeling her tribe torn. She had seen the empty look in the eyes of her Goblins, heard their grief. But anger? It was in Redscar. But three days of fighting had left only embers.

“Anger. Rage. Orders is still orders.”

A pause. Redscar lowered his head.

“True.”

Rags turned her head. Redfang warriors looked at her or stared at their wolves. Some challengingly. Others unashamed. Some regretful. Anger. Fury. She reached in her chest.

“They killed us.”

The Goblins looked at her. Rags looked around. Fewer faces. Fewer wolves. The Redfangs had survived the fighting more than most by virtue of their superior levels and skill. But they had lost numbers too. Rags could see it when she looked around her tribe.

“They poisoned us.”

Like rats. Rags’ grip tightened on her Carn Wolf’s fur and it whined. She let go. She looked at Redscar and then around at the Redfang warriors.

Who is Chieftain? Who is leader for Redfangs?

They looked at each other. Redscar called out, his voice loud.

“You, Chieftain!”

Rags nodded. It had to be said.

Follow orders. Follow my orders.

She gave them. The Redfang warriors looked confused. Then, as they realized what she wanted, they sat in their saddles. Their eyes burned. Rags pointed. In the distance Humans were pursuing them on horseback. Too few. Too slow.

“Go. Go and show them.”

She pointed west. The Redfang’s heads turned as one. Rags pointed east. They looked. She pointed north and south and shouted.

“They attacked us! They killed us! So show them same! Show them pain! Show them hate. Show them Goblins.”

She kicked her Carn Wolf and rode past the Redfang warriors. They raised their weapons, shouting. The wolves began to howl.

“Burn the villages and towns and fields. No mercy. No Humans spared.”

Redscar’s eyes shone as he pointed. Redfang warriors roared. Rags reached inside her chest. There it was. Something darker than anger, thicker than fury. She reached for it and a black tingling ran through her veins.

“Kill them. Ride. Burn the playthings—

She broke off, touched a hand to her head. The Redfang warriors waited. Rags looked up. She saw the Humans racing towards them. She saw Erin’s face, plastered on the corpses. And then she saw the dead, lying on the ground in the darkness. She turned and the blackness inside her spoke for her.

 

—-

 

“Emperor Laken? General Wiskeria is asking you for an update. She is in pursuit of the Goblins riding wolves.”

My hands are sweaty. I’m shaking. Reeling, rather. Lancrel has fallen. The Goblin took it in less than an hour. It’s fine, though. They can be defeated. Just so long as the army reaches them—I need to send trebuchets. But this force—I follow it with my mind.

“I see them. They’re headed south. They’ve stopped. Wait—wait. What are they—”

Something’s happening. I see the small Goblin raise her hand in my head. The Goblins roar. And then—they move. But not in one direction.

“Oh no.”

The image of the wolves splinters in my mind, the solid mass of Goblins breaking up into groups of ten, of two, riding in every direction. They race across the ground, not one mass, but splitting up, into smaller groups. Smaller and smaller. In every direction.

“No, no. This can’t be happening.”

“Emperor Laken? General Wiskeria is requesting a location. Emperor Laken? Your Majesty?”

I raise my head, sightless, my hands clenched. Nesor’s sweaty face stares back at me. Lady Rie pauses.

“Where are the wolf riders headed? Emperor Laken?”

Everywhere.

 

—-

 

Rags rode. The wind felt hot in her face. She was alone. Behind her, Redfang warriors broke up. Riding in every direction, howling. They split up, the single mass of them fracturing. Rags rode alone for the moment. Her head felt light. Something black rose in her chest, as if she could spit it out.

It was so simple. So very simple. Pyrite didn’t see it because he was kind. Redscar didn’t see it because he was a warrior. But she saw it because she was Rags. Because she thought like her opponent. Erin had taught her that.

If you could see everything, if you could see every move your opponent made, what was the way to counter that? A trap? No. You couldn’t trap something like that. But you could overwhelm it. Give it a hundred targets.

They’d found a map of the region in Lancrel. It burned in her head. Villages, cities, towns. Farmers and their fields. All neatly written down. Targets.

Burn the villages. Destroy the mills. Cut them down as they flee. Set fire to forests. Raid their homes. Hurt them. Vengeance.

Across the landscape Redfang warriors rode, howling. They didn’t ride against the pursuing warriors. They rode into villages with flaming torches. They descended on fields, on Humans sleeping or heading to bed. They rode with no goal in mind.

Only hatred. Only fury. It was in her. After the brilliance was done, after the battle and saving her tribe, something else was in Rags. Not a Chieftain’s desires. Not a leader’s thoughts. Something dark. And primal. It was in her heart and she’d opened the door.

No more. They slaughtered her tribe. They used poison. They killed children, those who couldn’t fight. Rags heard the thoughts flash through her head. Excuses. It wasn’t howling anymore. It was a scream. The scream of wind. Of Goblins bringing death. A scream in her mind. She whispered as the screaming grew louder.

“They started it.”

No one replied. No one told her it was wrong. No one had to. But it didn’t matter. Ahead of Rags she could see a farm. A village attached to Lancrel, maybe. It didn’t matter.

It was everything that mattered. The Goblin rode alone as the air grew hot around her. Fire burned in her hands. She saw the dark building rise in front of her and remembered an inn. The two buildings were nothing the same. But they were exactly the same. Rags raised her hand and shot fire onto the roof. She blasted in the windows with flaming arrows. She wiped at her eyes then she drew her sword. Rags heard the screaming, going on and on.

It was coming from her.

 

—-

 

One last thing. As the Redfang warriors rode, as Pyrite took charge of the tribe in the city of Lancrel, as an [Emperor] shouted desperate orders too slowly, too late, as [Message] spells moved too slowly to catch the wolves that rode through the night, a [Lady] paused on the open road far north of it all.

She’d ridden far outside of the Unseen Empire and now she stood at the edge of the campfire. A man stood with her, his hand on his rapier. Always watchful, always wary. But the [Lady] paid no notice to the darkness. She spoke into the magical earring she held.

“Do you remember how we met, Magnolia?”

“I don’t care to recall. Is it germane to the conversation?”

The voice that spoke back was crisp, impatient. Bethal shifted.

“No. Perhaps. Yes. I had cause to remember it a while ago. Do you recall?”

“I should hardly forget. You nearly killed me.”

“After you slapped me and told me to run or be cut down with my family. I never thanked you for doing that.”

“Of course not.”

Bethal paused. She glanced over her shoulder. The fire was inviting. Her personal tent waiting. Her two [Knights] traded places for sentry duty. Bethal sighed.

“I’m done killing Goblins for a while.”

A pause.

“I see.”

“Don’t ask for my Knights of the Petal either. You may keep them at Invrisil if you need them. But I want sixteen to meet me.”

“Are you taking a role in this conflict with the [Emperor]?”

“I don’t know.”

“Bethal. I need you closer to home. Tyrion is moving.”

“At last.”

“The Goblin Lord is approaching the mountain. He’s slowed. Gathering more Goblins. But when they meet—”

“Yes, yes. And Tyrion will do what, exactly? Why is he delayed?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you can guess.”

More silence from the other end. Bethal sighed into the earring.

“Which side will win, Magnolia? This Goblin tribe or the [Emperor]? The Great Chieftain, Tremborag, or this Goblin Lord? Which do we want to win? And where will Tyrion fit into all this? Will you tell me or leave me guessing?”

“I should hope at least some of those answers would be obvious.”

“Not anymore. I thought I knew good and evil, Magnolia. But all this? This? This is madness.”

Bethal looked around. Distantly, far distant, she thought she could see sparks of light growing against the dark horizon. She wondered if someone was starting a fire. But at that distance—Magnolia’s voice was calm.

“Not madness, Bethal. This is what has always been. Goblins or Humans. It is always the same.”

“What is?”

“War.”

Bethal closed her eyes. She was still for a very long moment as Thomast put his hand on her shoulder. At last she whispered.

“I don’t think it’s the same. Magnolia. I think it hurts differently each time.”

Without waiting for a response she dropped the earring and turned to hug her husband. And in the distance, the fires grew brighter. And brighter. And darker.

 


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158 thoughts on “5.23 G

  1. I’ll be taking a break till next Saturday. I think I need it for various reasons. I could use the chance to rest my hands, think over plot details and so on. But the truth is that I think I’m a bit drained.

    Emotionally, perhaps. It’s hard to write chapters like these. I struggle to find the right words if there are and they become too long as a result. I’m not saying this chapter’s bad — in fact I hope it’s good. But of late I’ve thought a chapter could be better and if a break can help me write my best, I’m taking it. If I write a great chapter while tired that’s amazing. But I want to write the perfectest chapter I can. Without using the word perfectest.

    Thanks for understanding. I may also delay the monthly side story until the first week of October just so I don’t have to worry about that deadline too. I didn’t plan this break, but I felt l needed it. I always worry about doing stuff like this because I feel like I can’t stop or I’ll lose everything I’ve built. That is a common issue for online creators I guess.

    Enough about breaks. If all goes well I’ll come back ready to write amazing stuff. If not…well, at least my hands will thank me. This chapter would have been hard to write on my best day, though. I could have made it two parts, but the ending felt like it fit with the beginning.

    This is a chapter about war. Not a slice-of-life chapter. Not a fun chapter. We will go back to those I promise. But this story is a world’s story and chapters like these are essential. Hard to write, definitely. Perhaps the hardest. But essential. Let me know what you thought. Thanks for reading and see you next week. I’m going to relax now.

    • You web novelists have it tough, with (bi)weekly chapters and how open and close you guys are to your readers and the absolutely ‘constant’ demand and comments that come with that close relationship. Published books are nice wherein people already wait patiently, for the most part, for the next book and the authors have actual time and breaks and planning and most importantly, editors and ‘editing’. They just don’t feel the pressure quite the same way you novelists do. Not to mention with your readership coming from an entirely online platform just makes it ridiculously easy for people to criticize or judge you behind an anonymous username and their keyboard, and I’m honestly sorry for that because it just cant always be easy, or maybe it never has been.
      I dont really understand how people don’t realize your workload, you write anywhere between 15,000-25,000 words on the regular weekly and thats low-balling in some cases, lets not talk about rewrites and edits. Not to mention the expectations people have for you, you’re a fantastic author with an undeniable work ethic and I can imagine that just makes them want what you have even more. And (maybe) this wouldn’t be so surpring or significant if you hadn’t been doing for it so damn long, and you have. This pace and demand and this phenomenal story as the backbreaking result.
      I’m sorry Pirate but if you won’t say it I will, your job is damn tough and people demand a lot from you because your so darn good at it, its stupidly overwhelming, in a single word. But you always have a massive chapter waiting for your readers and cramped hands that probably ache during and far after, and color me confused if that doesn’t deserve proper gratitude.
      I apologize by the way. I feel as if I’m airing laundry that isn’t quite mine, (probably missing a sock or two as i do it, but oh well) but I just really strongly feel that you deserve some acknowledgment, some praise, some damn ‘understanding’ for all the hard work and content you’ve slaved over to provide for us for such an upstanding amount of time. Thanks for all the chapters, it’s been a pleasure seeing this story grow with such a dedicated author behind it, its been a blessing to have such great written content in such massive quantites provided twice a week and this too-long message is really just a culmination of my gratitude and me wanting you to get proper recognition. You’re a really fucking great, hardworking and kind person, so thanks for being the you that you are. Sorry I swear to emphasize if you hadnt noticed, helps get a point across in the shortest way possible most of the time. Hope you have a great time, enjoy your break and treat yourself ridiculous amounts

    • Do yourself a favor and don’t just push back your anticipated release dates. If you just delay the monthly bonus chapter, then it will result in October being even more hectic than September. Better to just make it the October bonus chapter.

    • Yay for breaks! Take the time off, Aba, you’ve worked hard (:

      Minor nitpick: the phrasing of “fire” as in “fire your weapons” never came into use until firearms were invented, since “fire” meant to touch a flame to the wick of the gun to fire the round.

      Until that point, it was some variant of “loose” or “release”, as in draw/loose for arrows. (and probably bolts, too, though maybe it was “wind” instead of “draw”.)

    • Pirate, are you sure a single week suffices?
      It makes the impression to me that you are not just a little bit depressed and exhausted. I don’t know if just one week will improve that. Perhaps consider to increase it to at least 2 weeks.
      If you immediately start writing again it might only get worse until the problem is much harder to fix and you require a break that is severely longer or, in the worst case, burned yourself out, forcing you to go on hiatus.

      In the end, I can only guess how your current state is and perhaps it is not nearly as bad as I assume.

    • Have you ever thought that it might be the material itself that has been affecting you?

      I mean obviously burn out as well, but my girlfriend writes too and she can be very much influenced by what she is writing similar to how we readers can have a moods seriously affected by what we read.

      Your head may be in a dark place because you are visiting your characters there.

      • While this is a valid concern, I don’t think it is the case with Pirate. She has mentioned for quite some time on the occasion that she is a bit exhausted; it isn’t anything new. I assume it simply increased over time until she now felt the need to take a break.

    • Greetings from a silent reader. First off, I don’t remember the last chapter of this story that i disliked, so you’re in top form as far as I’m concerned. That being said, for the love of all that is holy, if you want a break, take a break. Please do. This is one of my 3 treasures, true despite the cheesiness, alongside worm and pgte. I really do love this story, and hope you’ll write it until it ends, how long that takes doesn’t matter to me. Thank you for the story, thanks for the chapter, please take care of yourself.

    • it gets harder and harder to keep reading your story with every chapter that comes out. stories, movies, songs, all of this is just an escape from a reality we can’t change, dipping into a fantasy that is better in some way than our reality. there’s just gotten to be too much misery in this story and not enough light. if every victory is pyrrhic and every minute of light is drowned in hours of darkness, then what’s the point? it either drags me further into the depression, or it all loses impact because it becomes formulaic and ultimately predictable.

      “oh, something good just happened to someone, give it a few paragraphs and something will happen to reverse that and make things a thousand times more miserable than they were before”

      your ability to tell stories is second to none, it’s just that the story you tell leaves me with less happiness at the end of the day instead of a little bit more. in a way i wish you weren’t such an effective writer. at least then i wouldn’t care so much about the characters i’ve been drawn into suffering with.

      • There needs to be darkness before dawn.

        Sure things are messed up now, however, there is plenty of hope. It’s in adversity that true heroes shine…

        • that’s definitely true, but you can’t hold back on the light for so long you start killing all hope. it’s bad enough in books, but the problem is magnified in the serial format. in a full book, if a chapter leaves me sad, i can read the next one. with periodic updates, it’s harder to balance out. it’s gotten to the point where tuesday or saturday rolls around and my first thought about this story is “well shit, how bad am i gonna feel after reading /this/ chapter?”

          you do that too many chapters in a row, you lose me. i read to escape a crappy reality, not make my already miserable existence even worse.

    • 1) Your Break
      While I am happy for you taking 1 week break, do not underestimate that ONE WEEK of rest, because it pass faster that one may think. I am of the option that you should take from 2 weeks to a month of rest.

      2) This Chapter
      Seeing the Flooded Waters tribe straggle in the first half of the chapter was nerve racking and sad, and at one point I thought that Pyrite was going to die.

      Then seeing Rags walked through her camp while the tribe formed itself around her, taking Lancrel, and turning the table at the Darksky Riders was so satisfying, it completely made up for the first half of the chapter.

      There is only 1 things I am worried about and that is Rags descending into hatred and fury. I just hope that she and the Redfang warriors don’t kill anyone, because if they do than there may be no way for the upcoming war between them to end peacefully. More important is that she does not end up like Toren, with no way to be able to face Erin in a peaceful and happy way.

    • This chapter is incredible and incredibly brutal.
      To me, there is no longer anything interesting about Laken. These last few chapters marked his descent into evil and cruelty, and so he is not a character I can ever like or respect again. On the other hand, this chapter and the last few send a very powerful message about war.
      I also hope you don’t stop TWI until it’s done, because it’s very well-written and well-built, so take all the time you need to recuperate.

      …Fuck Laken though. Hitler 0.5 needs to die.

    • “the two” part? They split in groups, and the groups then split further and further as they ride to cover more ground. Rags is even alone.
      It’s not uncommon expression or phrase (or whatever it’s called in english)

    • not a typo, seems more like inconsistency, the city of Lancrel is not part of laken empire but somehow laken has full vision of it and its surrounding with his empire view in contradiction to what we know of his abilities and their limits ending outside his empire limits.

      he shouldn’t be able to see in places that aren’t his, rags and the tribe should be out of vision sight if Lancrel is not his

      • Hey Ram Nevet, not a plot hole. You’ll notice that Laken never ‘sees’ the city falling, he just knows it’s down in under an hour. He’s in constant contact with Wiskeria via [Message] spell so he can get reports too. The area around Lancrel though? His domain since he’s been putting down his totems and claiming unused land like nobody’s buisness.

    • Shouldn’t Skinner’s old Gemstone have the [Terror] spell instead of the [Fear] spell?

      Or does the fact that due to it running out of magic, it weaken the spell from paralyzing the targets (like humans) with [Terror], to only struck [Fear] into their hearts, that could be withstood?

      Can you please elaborate?

    • “Pyrite pointed towards the fighting ahead. Pyrite shook his head.”
      Pyrite -> Redscar shook his head? Redscar is the one answering Pyrite’s query.

      “When there were so many you could attack it from every side, find the stragglers, the slow ones.”
      it -> them

    • Three passed then ten minutes.
      –>
      Three minutes passed then ten.

      minor inconsistency:
      The Goblins still number over seven thousand!”
      they started with around 8k (from prev. chap: “The Goblin Lord has sent nearly eight thousand Goblins by my count.”),
      then over 1k died and they where harried for 3 days.
      Chance it to over 6k or increase to 9k in the previous chapter.

    • There wasn’t a typo box in the last chapter so I combined those together with this one’s. And I hope you had an enjoyable break.

      5.22 G:
      “She {seized up} Poisonbite’s wary stance, her new bracers, and her expression in one glance and understood what the other Goblin wanted.”
      {seized up} -> {sized up}

      “Wait. On my command, Nesor. Not a moment before. Wait—wait—”
      No typos, just missing an extra line break between it and the —- for consistency.

      “She was lying on the ground, her head lying at an angle.”
      No typos here, but there’s another inconsistent line break above this paragraph. Either there’s extra line breaks or a line break and “—-” are missing.

      “Now? Find wounded{?} Count living. And make ready. Humans will come back. Lots of them.”
      Possibly incorrect punctuation.

      “Use poisonous gas to cripple the Goblins and [Blacksky Riders] {to strike} at night.”
      Extra space.

      this chapter
      “Her [Chevalier], shifted his grip and Lady Bethal bit her lip.”
      Stray comma.

      This chapter:
      “They also gathered up the trampled supplies and {ushering} other Goblins back into the center of the camp.”
      {ushering} -> {ushered}

      “She expected him to reiterate {her} Chieftain’s demands and was preparing to negotiate.”
      {her} -> {his}

      “Three passed then ten minutes.”
      “Rider and horse went down and Pyrite heard the Humans shouting.”
      Not sure if these are worded this way intentionally, but pointing them out in case they aren’t.

      “We have {appraised} them of the Goblin threat, but they declined to send aid.”
      {appraised} -> {apprised} Appraise is to judge the value of, apprise is to inform someone. They appraised the Goblin thread, then apprised the Humans of it.

      “They’d come to a city, fleeing the {Human’s} advancing army.”
      {Human’s} -> {Human’s}?

      “A city full of Humans. A stupid, silly Human [Knight].”
      Extra space between sentences.

      “A voice shouted the word. The Humans looked around. Throw? Who had shouted that{.}”
      “She slapped another bolt into the slot and aimed. Where was the armored Human{.} Didn’t matter.”
      Possibly incorrect punctuation.

      “The twenty-foot long pikes pierced through the {defender’s} shields and armor before the Hobs came in swinging.”
      {defender’s} -> {defenders’}

      “Humans fled from them by the thousands, wailing, fleeing the {Hob’s} advance.”
      {Hob’s} -> {Hobs’}?

      “The {Redfang’s} heads turned as one.”
      {Redfang’s} -> {Redfangs’}?

  2. I guess no place for Rags and co. in the Human territory. Too much blood. I guess Liscor will be the place of residence in the future if a certain crazy innkeeper could pull the strings for it. The Dungeon should have vacancies available – easily remedied if not.

    • ”Goblin [Mage]” referring to Noears should probably be ”Goblin [Shaman]”. We know that he is a mage but goblins casters should be known as mostly only shamans.

      Also i get that Goblin leaders tend to snap and go rabid from time to time shown by Valen the Kind but i feel like what happened to Rags at the end was too sudden.

      Rags has always been more on the softer side and tends to avoid killing when possible, to go from that to trying to maximize the harm you can do for the harms sake just like that is … :/

      I’m not saying keep Rags innocent, don’t make her evil, nothing like that. Go ham as you wish and probably make her tribe evil too since tribes seem to reflect the chief.
      But maybe retcon a few earlier chapters to show Rags struggling with some dark thoughts or maybe show her trying to keep a lid on that door you mentioned. Otherwise this comes off as too abrupt of a character change even considering magical rabies.

      • As a side note, whatever happened happened but was it in line for Bethal to continue on her merry way after learning that Laken was attacking the tribe she just humanized(lul) because of a misunderstanding?

        I was honestly expecting more interaction with Bethal and her knights after we called the goblins knightlike a few chapters earlier and even dropped a few moral codes during their conversation such as we only attack when humans attack first, we take care of our prisoners i.e. Sir Kerrig etc.

        But i dunno, maybe it was more on line for her to just want to distance herself from the goblins and get this whole thing over with considering her fear of Goblins.

        • Almost dying doesn’t make you magically evil. Magical goblin rabies that only effect goblin leaders for reasons unknown is the no1 case for alignment change for goblins (It still was too sudden though)

          • She opened the door, as it were, not from nearly dying, but because it was the only winning strategy. She has put in much effort to avoid this, only to be forced by a human to slaughter so she could save her tribe. It is a continuation of the theme. Every killing has been something forced on her. The only big difference now is the lack of precision in the retribution.

            • I believe she’s well on her path toward Goblin Kingship. After all, Velan was known as the Kind prior to becoming the Goblin King. My thought is that as her tribe grows her awareness of their pain and sorrow increases. She feels all their pains. Her innate sensitivity causes her to feel at a very deep level and to feel it constantly. Eventually she should either become extremely jaded or snap. I think this chapter was just that – emotionally overloaded and overwhelmed she snapped and lashed out. I would guess this parallels Valen’s path. The question is does her regret win out and she turns from that path, or does she follow Valen’s legacy to her destruction?

          • Pirateaba did a great job showing the horrible things that war makes people do. The humans are trying to exterminate every member of Rag’s tribe. She reacted as anyone would. Think about how the Soviets acted when they got to Eastern Germany. The Soviet leaders told them to restrain themselves but the individual soldiers were filled with so much vitriol at Hitler’s total war that they committed equally horrible atrocities.

            There’s no condoning it but what Rags did is in no way different from what humans do during war all the time. Like Sherman during the Civil War, she’s going to draw the humans away from the army threatening her tribe by attacking the families that the soldiers actually want to defend.

            • Yes yes what Rags does makes sense strategically, no denying that, it’s her thoughts that changes too abruptly she wakes up and acts naturally as Rags does for a while and after she departs with the wolf riders she suddenly goes kill em all that, dark door this etc.

              I’m not saying she shouldn’t be doing that im just saying make her go evil slower, make her have some darker thoughts after she wakes up before she departs with the wolf riders maybe. Maybe let her shout no survivors when they are taking the gates or make her drive out the inhabitans of the city instead of them simply leaving so we have an indication that she is becoming more evil.

              Otherwise it’s normal Rags one second and pillage and burn dark Rags the next.

              Meh nvm i get hung up on this for no reason.

  3. It is interesting to think that in this situation I find the Goblins to be in the right. It is amazing how if Rags and Laken had had a chance to talk early on this entire thing could have been avoided but due to his past experiences he went on the offense and struck a devastating blow and his harassment left Rags with no other choice and a valid reason to attack the surrounding areas. I actually think that what’s going on is his fault he drove them this far

    • Yeah, killing children and innocent people is totally justified in this case…
      ‘No mercy. No Humans spared.’
      Isn’t this exactly the same as what Laken is doing? Any human is like any other human. With the exception that Laken didn’t know these goblins were different/better. So one might even make a case for him having the higher ground in this comparison.

      • Laken is using chemical weapons for the purposes of exterminating the members of a race he dislikes. I’m not happy with Rags retaliation but I understand it. What he’s doing is sick and while the world he’s found himself doesn’t seem to deal with slavery, war crimes or weapons of mass destruction as we try to it’s not an excuse.

        • never understood why chemical weapons are banned in our world. they don’t seem that much worse than all the other weapons that are legal.

          • Several reasons, but mainly because it has no use against legitimate military targets. Every modern army since WW1 has been equipped with gas masks, making chemical weapons ineffective against actual soldiers. Their only use is as terror weapons against civilian populations, which oddly enough the Geneva Convention frowned upon

        • It’s also the only way she survives. Laken and the surrounding cities would hunt the goblins down to the last man woman and child if they could, and this is the only way to put them.on the defensive.

    • Eh right is subjective. What would a ruler do if news of an army (Rag’s tribe) who arrived in your territory just after recently wiping out your neighbor’s army (Goblin tribe killers). And your army is overwhelmingly below theirs in numbers.

      “I’m pretty sure they are nice people who won’t attack us given a chance.”

      “How did you know that?”

      “Gut feeling.”

      “I see.”

    • Rags brought an army into Lakens domain after ambushing and routing another local army. Even if Rags had been human Laken would have attacked.

      • Would he have exterminated down to every last woman and child? See the difference? Remember modern man sensibilities? Everything about Goblins is what others told him.

    • Quite a shock when the amateurs thought they were winning. Poor Laken now in the fight of his life against a highly experienced guerrilla army. He deserves it, if not for his arrogance he might have remembered why poison gas was finally banned where he came from.

      • For all the Earthers this is a fish out of water story. Getting into other people’s battles without understanding is a bad idea. Like playing a game without understanding all the rules.

        • Yeah, some of them, like Erin, are taking to it rather well by simply *not* getting involved with war and having no interest in politics. Erin is bad at actually avoiding politics (or more accurately good at doing insane stuff that causes the politics to come to her), but good at making friends to handle that anyway.

          The others are all causing messes that have to be cleaned up at least once before they learn.

          For example all Laken needed to do was wait until Rags left, and nothing would have happened. He screwed up. Badly.

    • Neither is right in this conflict I’d say. But one thing that I can say is that Laken simply made mistakes and attacked too hastily and in the end just got lucky to not get wiped out in the first attack.

      • How, he attacked their weak point, the same as always, just this time they had plot hacks. If rags forces can beat a city and the Unseen Empire forces at the same time, then they may as well have just fought a pitched battle.

        • If Rags had been in the middle of the camp she would have been able to beat his hacking power. At least the goblins think that and I’m inclined to agree. His strategy was pathetically bareboned and assumed the opponents really were mindless.

  4. Reading this is so so good . You are a tremendous writer mate 🙂 I am a little sad that no new chapters will appear next week but also happy you are taking some time off because after you come back you will be rested and new chapters will appear.

    Btw i would suggest you make it official and take a week for rest every 5 or 6 weeks because writing is exhausting.

  5. Rags saying, “Burn the playthings—” makes me wonder if the memory of a past goblin is influencing things. If you see a personality as being formed from memories and goblins have the memories of past goblins then their personality will warp as those memories intrude.

    • Well she didn’t get any memories or levels before saying that, so it might not be tied with past Goblin memories. Other than memories, there is always the sleeping god, the vengeance dungeon, and the Goblin King’s key, which could be/lead to the source.

  6. It’s good that you’re taking a break I guess. I understand that these were difficult chapters to write. I suspect you’re suffering a little along with your characters.

    What’s of particular interest to me is that you’re getting into the heads of your characters so well and that you’ve ripped the rose tinted glasses off of us, the readers.

    Bethal and Magnolia’s conversation is spot on as Bethal realizes a universal truth: War is terrible.
    This is why in the aftermath so many of us suffer. Call it PTSD if you will, but in essence it’s regret and guilt. Survivors’ guilt, maybe, but also because war is terrible. Too many believe the Hollywood version, but they’re just repeating the old lies … Dulce et decorum est, Pro Patria Mori.
    http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html

  7. My heart is breaking as I read this. I do not know if I have ever read an author who so captures the senseless and yet seemingly neccissary horror of war. That there is rarely a true villian and heroes on both sides who are the vilest monters to the minds of their enemies.

    Laken and Pyrite are my favorite characters, so I can’t help but hate you little even if this was inevitable. But I cannot because in the wonderful/horrible/desturbinly realistic world you have conjured forth any other result would be impossible.

    Now I must hope with all my heart that a little goblin and a blind leader will do just that. The impossible.

  8. This is tragedy. Beautiful, awful, terrible tragedy. These last few chapters have evoked so many feelings in me. I want to rage out at the stupidity of it all, the callousness of the humans, the hatred of the goblins.

    It’s rare that a story makes me so emotional yet it does. It is beautiful yet sad. To see Rags transform like this, yet understand why… It hurts.

    She’s one step closer to becoming a [Goblin Lord] I believe. Perhaps she will be the one to break them out of this horrible cycle of vengeance. Perhaps not.

    Thank you for this beautiful chapter. You deserve the break you’re taking, and I look forward to reading the next chapter.

    I read a lot, but I truly do think this serial is the best literature out there that I’m reading. Thank you so much for this journey you’ve taken me on.

  9. Taking a break is important, for yourself and the story.

    I feel bad that I feel happier about what happened,
    no one was wrong in this, there was no good or evil, (I love that too often there is a clear line when there really shouldn’t be). even an emperor needs to learn don’t over estimate your abilities a cornered animal is dangerous but a cornered sentient is deadly and he pushed way too hard.

  10. Perhaps skinner lives on.
    Toren had a personality change and became more violent after absorbing his gem and rags though she doesn’t use her gem often is feeling something unnaturally dark after using it.

    • Pretty sure that darkness is the source of whatever the Goblin rage comes from, the same kind that infected every Goblin King in the past, as she starts to call humans playthings.

      Skinner is dead dead, however, the gem’s fear spell seems like it was programmed to fit Skinner specifically. Remember, Skinner was just a flesh worm and a Lesser Guardian, he wouldn’t have any truly powerful magic items.
      Also, Toren became violent because he was becoming a self-aware undead without any guidance and fell into the gamer’s powerleveling habit (killing stuff = levels/skills/fun).

      • I don’t buy the goblins are naturally infected with darkness theory because velen the kind spent years living peacefully and trading with others.
        and we don’t know what set toren off for sure so i wouldn’t discount it especially since absorbing an evil gem is significant.
        No mage ever inspected skinners gems, they could be far more than just a fear spell.

        • While I agree the darkness is not natural, considering most goblins (even lesser Goblin Lords) aren’t warmongers, we do know from this chapter that something is there. Her thinking of vengeance and talking of playthings is just to off-character and similar to Velan’s own that it has to be there. Whatever it is, it appears to not necessarily be tied with past memories or even classes (neither of which Rags gained).

          As for the gem, I agree it may have caused Rags to change, but not because of the gem itself but more of so where it came from (a dungeon dedicated for vengeance). Other than Toren’s eye color, there isn’t much other change from the gems destruction.
          To be honest, I’ve always viewed the gems destruction as a way to get rid of an fairly OP item from the story of Erin/Toren. This was never an issue with Rags story, who has mainly dealt with goblins, until now.

          • It could be that the sleeping gid is reaching out and taking command of the goblin kings, trying to use them to wipe the slate clean, so to speak. Or maybe the goblin kings are able to see so far back they see what the gods really are, and in trying to prevent Rhirs god from waking they’re trying a scorched earth tactic to prevent its seizure of the system.

  11. I think Rags is already or almost a goblin lord (or goblin lady??). She’s using that same commanding speak that the other lords used.

  12. All of this makes me hope Laken gets a skill along the lines of “genocide”, “racist”, or “warmonger” and let him have a total collapse as he realizes he betrayed his morals.

  13. I read an article about locusts recently. It said there are no locusts, only grasshoppers. There is only one set of genes, but it has the potential to produce two different creatures. One wants to eat all the nutritious plants in the region, the other wants to eat everything it can get its mandibles into, and that includes its own relatives. Researchers still aren’t sure what factors determine if a given batch of eggs will produce grasshoppers or locusts, they only know that there are genes that operate on other genes and there are external bio components that influence how genes are activated.

    Perhaps there is some equivalent going on. When goblins “swarm”, to continue the insect analogy a little longer, it’s usually in the form of bigger trbes and more frequent rids. But sometimes a [Goblin Lord] appears, and sometimes a [Goblin King]. Sometimes you get a [Goblin Great Chieftan]. This changes the behavior of the goblins under their leadership. We know that Rags is becoming something else. Perhaps that darkness she’s feeling is a shift in her development. Perhaps she *was* going to become a [Goblin Compassionate Queen], but she’s just received an epigenetic switch and is now headed for [Goblin Avenging Queen].

    In any case, this chapter was quite emotional and left me feeling somewhat wrung out. And that’s from merely reading it. It must have been considerably more intense writing it.

    Also, i thought you were taking a break already, so this chapter was a surpise. Go take your break now. Get someone to tuck you in and bring you tea and honey water and lasagna and cake and burgers and deep fried bees and chocolate chip cookies and popcorn. Watch tv or read, let someone else tell stories for a bit. Get lots of sleep. Go for long walks and do some window shopping. Play with some little kids. Or kittens. Play some chess. Go ahead, do it.

    We’ll be here at the Inn when you get back.

  14. Honestly a realistic character reaction from Laken once he realises he committed a Goddamn War Crime by using Fucking Mustard Gas on innocent children would have to be extreme.

    Alcoholism, suicide, becoming evil, illness, not leaving bed for a month, self harm, lashing out at people around him, heartbreak, thinking his class changed him, paranoia, addiction, crippling emotion, isolation, anger, Unlocking the Hitler achievement, agony, dead inside, horror, doubling down, broken, thinking hes actually in hell not a game.

    Its a devastating thing he did, he cant have a casual reaction once realising the truth.

  15. I’m thinking Rags will upgrade/consolidate her classes once she gets enough of a reputation of being the strategic genius chieftain who keep beating anyone who fights against her tribe. A titled Goblin a match for any Named adventurer, sorta like the “Titan”. She has a combined level in the 60s so it’s reasonable.

  16. I don’t know how I missed it on my first read, but on a reread, I noticed that Pyrite and the rest of the tribe are still holed up in Lancrel. Seems like the battle between Laken and Rags will probably end up continuing there. (I’d thought that the entire tribe left with the wolf riders, for some reason…)

    I guess those trebuchets will get put to use after all, if that’s the case. And then, of course, the Goblin [Tinkerers] will steal the design. (Or [Engineers]? I can’t remember if any of the Goblins became [Engineers].)

  17. Started reading your series a couple of weeks ago, and I just finished catching up. Absolutely loving this world, the storytelling style of writing, and plot/character development.

    The last couple of chapters have been brutal. Must have been grueling to write, but they’re fantastic.

    Despite the administrative challenges he’s faced, I’ve had the feeling that Laken has been coasting along, bouied by stupidly good fortune and a massively inflated ego. I’m really holding out for him getting figuratively cut down to size and having his nose rubbed in it.

    I wonder if Durene will end up playing a more active/significant role in all this; she, of all people, understands the plight of the monstrous people.

    Sticking with Rags’ and Pyrite’s perspective on this part has made for a really heart-rending read. I can’t help but feel like, despite everything she’s been through, *this* is Rags’ loss of innocence. I both anticipate and dread reading what comes next for her. Hopefully she’ll come out of this stronger and more tempered, and finally growing into her role as a leader, but I have the feeling she’ll be wrestling with her demons -perhaps literally – for a long time to come.

    It’s going to be a long couple of weeks. Have a good break. 🙂

  18. It looks like my thoughts that perhaps we’d have a quick resolution on this sequence are not to be. Kudos for taking the tougher road to really dive into such a dark and more tragic story.
    I think Laken could have made different choices and prevented all of this, but I don’t hate him for it, classical tragedy is all about situations that spun out of control from small beginnings. Hopefully this won’t end up like one of those…

    On other speculation, the playthings insult is interesting. I doubt it has much to do with it but it does make me think about one of my frequent approaches to reading fiction related to rpg games – telling the NPCs and PC’s (player and non-player characters) apart. Goblins fairys and dragons all being classic NPC races might well insult the player eligible ones this way, in the same way that Morpheus’ people distrust the human inhabitants of the matrix as they can be taken over by the machines at any time.
    To take my analogy in a different direction, I’d ascribe the lack of technological and societal progress in innworld to the fact that’s it’s mostly populated with NPCs who of course don’t innovate. I could speculate that the entire story is about more and more real players joining the game and transitioning characters into full fledged players. Flos for instance could be seen as a player character from way back who gave up the game for years only to come back to it later in life. It’s a fun if silly point of view.

    • You know that is actually an interesting viewpoint. I’ve seen everyone act like pawns/pieces in the story, with very view worthwhile players, but I never did consider everyone else to be NPC like. Actual players (Flos, Magnolia somewhat, and Erin) all make drastic changes to the world around them, but many of them die off and the rest of the population cannot replicate what they did when they’re gone (eg the era of war golems that died off when that Wistram Archmage died).

      There was a post earlier speculating that everyone is to reliant on the System to handle everything, which causes hardly anyone to try and innovate without it. Essentially, most people do the bare minimum to get the class(es) they want and hope on RNGesus to provide them worthwhile skills when leveling. This ties in very well to people in the world acting like NPCs, who don’t do much other than be the environment setting.

    • The dependency on the System has been mentioned each time when they talk about ruling and leading Classes, also implied and later confirmed at that being the cause of Floss’ Kingdom’s downfall.
      People become dependant on the Skills of their leaders, for prosperity, healthy crops, stress relief, victory in war, developments, etc.
      Those Skills even change the way people think and even affect causality.
      It has been shown with Floss stating his Skills give prosperity in war, Lyonette’s Skill of royal taxes making people tip her more when she attends them in the Inn, Laken’s Skill enabling people on Riverfarm to sleep well at night and fully rest, [Emperors] and [Kings] influencing the minds of the people around them to the point they are perceived differently and their subjects become extremely loyal to them, [Strategists] and [Generals] changing the tide of battle with a single Skill use, and [Lords]’ Skills being the main reason in their economic success and business deals.
      Remember when Ryoka studied history in Magnolia’s mansion? She discovered that countries fall apart when their leader dies if there isn’t a ruling Class holder with the necessary level and Skills. Rags’ tribe had all its [Tinkerers] inspired overnight into making armor, a knowledge they didn’t have before; if Rags were to die the Skill would die with her and they would stop being able to make those armors.

      That’s the reason for the state of that world; if by the death of a King the harvest of his kingdom dies too and the knowledge of the scholars/crafters is lost too, the damage is greatly magnified.
      Floss’ armies were crushed and his kingdom conquered simply because he sat in his throne room without using any Skill, despite they having armies, strategists, generals and 6 of the Seven still active they were unable to fight back because their leader was inactive so they didn’t have the necessary support.

        • Do you remember the times the Fairies have spoken about the System, Ryoka and the Dead Gods?
          Of special notice is the chapter 2-38, where Ryoka and Teriarch are telling riddles to each other. The Fairies had explicitly said at least 3 times that Ryoka would be challenging the Gods. they called her “the wretched child who would dice upon the table of worlds with Gods”.
          She comes from another world, is unbound by the system, has great willpower and determination to face challenges with a grin, she is willing to bleed for success and she has established a friendship with a Faerie.
          She is one of my favorites characters, too bad Pirate has sent her to the back of the plot for a while.

  19. It’s really too bad that Rags didn’t try to negotiate with Laken first. I suppose Laken would be more inclined than most in this world to see goblins as people, given a little prodding. Now it seems she is burning that bridge.

    It might still end in negotiations anyway. Laken is a reasonable man. He might come to understand that what is being done to his people is just payment in kind. If his guilt is greater than his grief, he could be persuaded to negotiate.

    Or perhaps Rags could ride to Laken himself ahead of the Darksky Riders and “negotiate” by force.

    • Why should Rags have tried to negotiate with Laken? HE’s just another human, to her.
      However, Larken trying to negotiate with Rags would absolutely not have broken my SoD. He’s an insert from a much more “pacifist” society after all, and he did have that scene earlier when he couldn’t tell the difference by touch between a Goblin and a child…
      Ah well. He didn’t, and it’s definitely too late for that now!

      I’m expecting this to end badly for both of them. Long-term this was a pretty terrible choice for Rags (her only real hope in the world as it is now would have been to become personally hugely powerful somehow to counter things like the Knights of the Petal or to make peace with others and find herself a place to live), and this will be a tough time for Larken. He built his legitimacy by promising protection from Goblins, and he won’t be able to do that easily. Now he is still dangerous (siege engines + his “sight” skill mean that he can try to kill the Redfang leader’s group and whatnot) but he is at a massive disadvantage unless he can get outside help. Maybe hire more adventurers?

      I hope that Rags doesn’t stay in omnicidal mode forever though.

      I doubt that Larken will ever realise that “chemical weapons to slaughter enemies” means “genocide focusing on children and the elderly”. His own morals shouldn’t really accept doing that, but he doesn’t seem to be thinking about it now and I doubt anyone will point it out to him. The Knights of the Petal are leaving after all, and no-one else really has a problem about genocide here.

      • With chemical it’s more nuanced. By hitting children (Goblins don’t have elderly) and weak, he makes them a burden to bind strength Goblin warriors.

        Next, when you see enemy not like a person, but as parasyte, using chemicals is not “killing children”. It’s a pest control. Until Laken percieve Goblins as monsters, beasts, parade of ants, horrible unnatural disaster, he is immune to pangs of guilt.

    • Well, it wouldn’t make sense for either of them to negotiate.
      For her, he is just another human, and she didn’t know he even existed before her tribe was attacked. She didn’t care for the words of warning in the wooden posts that stated that territory was the Unseen Empire, she just thought those were useless human words and didn’t pay attention to it, hence leading her tribe into the land of a potentially powerful enemy; a terrible mistake and a bit illogical considering Rags’ personality so far and that they were on the run trying to avoid any army and large human group.

      As for him, they are just another bunch of Goblins invading his lands, he detected eight thousand of them marching into his territory. It’s natural he would react that way, he has no reason to think of Goblins in any good light. Laken has only had bad experiences with Goblins, he is aware that the Goblin Lord has just attacked Invrisil and everybody around him considers them monsters that can’t be reasoned with. So he did what was expected of someone in his position and did what he thought was best for his people as best he could.

      It was impossible for them to be diplomatic about it.

      • I think some kind of negotiation is still in the cards for storytelling reasons. How else can the Rags-Laken conflict be resolved? Likely not with the death of Rags or Laken, since they are both important characters with unresolved plot points. So Rags has to either seek actual alliance with Laken, or somehow walk away with her tribe. In order for her tribe to get out of the city and get past the humans who have surrounded it, it seems some sort of agreement with Laken would be likely.

        As an alternative, I suppose it is possible that Rags’ tribe in the city will be slaughtered, with Rags herself and some Redfang riders surviving. Rags’ tribe is less essential to the story than Rags herself. She could escape the Unseen Empire and become a Goblin Lord (or King) and gather a new tribe for vengeance.

        • Yes, there can be some diplomacy now, but that’s only because the city is taken. Even like that, it’s still one possibility, not a necessity.
          But it was definitely impossible before, when all Laken saw was a horde of 8000 Goblins marching on his lands.
          Even watching Rag’s encounter with Bethal would only show Goblin’s surrounding the 4 humans, and seeing Sir Kerrig in the camp only shows one man being imprisoned by the Goblins, after the attack he seems to have more freedom, and apparently has been moving around the tribe freely, but even now if Laken watched him he would only see some weird dude going around the camp of the Goblins, not a reason to stop attacking the Goblins.
          I wonder what the solution will be, it’s unlikely any of them die, but Rag’s can still walk away, once she is outside of Laken’s domain he won’t be able to chase her.
          But I agree that Rag’s is likely to suffer quite a bit more, her tribe will lose even more members now, even the Redfangs, strong as they are, will have many losses now that they are spread in small groups and some even going alone, they can’t all be caught, but many will die.

      • The diplomatic solution is following Rags around in with Lady Bethal’s knight still following the Goblins.

        In truth, I think that he will end up leading a diplomatic mission to allow free passage off Laken’s Lands for Rag’s tribe for a cease-fire after a few hamlets and villages are burned down.

        Honestly this is the only way this ends with both still having any power after this is done. Otherwise Rag’s tribe will be gutted when the city falls and Laken will have death by a thousand cuts.

  20. You captured the bleak feeling of hopelessness and that cornered feeling of desperation afterwards. So beautifully, painfully, exquisitely tragic.

    “They started it.” The words spoken in the last argument of kings in history of everywhere.

    Rest, relax, recharge, your fanbase is solid enough at this point. Might be because of all those emotional scars.

  21. a break is necessary sometimes, it lets you try new ways of looking at things. with writing like you have been doing it helps clear the clutter, and lets you see things in a new light.

  22. Hahaha, and people thought Laken was the one turning evil, now Rags is going of a rage against everyone that’s not a Goblin.
    Some people were saying they disliked and outright hated Laken after he attacked Rags’ tribe because she is an exception to how the other Goblins are, but now she is going to lose one of the things that set her apart from the rest: her willingness to live in harmony with the other races without bloodshed.
    It seems a bit rushed for her to become like that right now, though. That madness is something only a Goblin King is supposed to have access to, but she isn’t even a Hobgoblin nor a Goblin Lady yet, so why is it corrupting her already? Her rage and hatred is normally understandable after the huge loss her tribe suffered, but not the fact that this new rage is implied to be the same darkness that took over Velan the Kind.

    • I don’t think the transformation was all that sudden, she saw her own kind slaughtered by a relentless enemy for no reason other than that they were born goblins. Oh how she tried, but the hatred and ignorance of Laken has forced her hand. He’s essentially caused own downfall

      • Yeah, the rage and hatred are understandable, normal even, given the slaughter her tribe just suffered. But the weird thing is how this is implied by the narrative to be the same darkness that drove Velan the Kind to madness; and if it is that same corruption then it is something only a Goblin King/Queen should feel, but Rags is not even a Hobgoblin, she is also not a Goblin Lord.

        • It is possible she’s changed into a lady, we don’t always see the the level up after all, or maybe she’s just on the very cusp of transforming into one.

          • She is definitely about to transform into a Hobgoblin and on the threshold of turning into a [Goblin Lady], but I doubt she’s already gained that class, her tribe would have noticed, and even the far away goblins would have noticed the rise of a new Lord.

            Though now that I recall, she has been dreaming with Velan ever since she became a chieftain, and she didn’t even have the [Chieftain] Class back then, so it could be she is simply more sensible or perceptive to that darkness, even during her fight with Garen it was implied she heard Velan’s voice.

        • I don’t see that implication anywhere. Something seems to be changing but it could just as easily be because she’s taking everything that happens too damn personally

  23. Hear that?

    That is me crying out in frustration at the horrible, horrible events of this arc.

    Two of my favorite characters…how does they step forward from this? I don’t see forgiveness happening as long as they live. They are now each other’s mortal enemy.

    I…how?

  24. There are few literature that my solace for it’s veil-ripping grief were only found by quoting the existentialism of pale blue dot; —Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot—

    Yours is a masterpiece. When Laken called upon the dying soul of his soldier on the night of his village’s raid to preserve the living, I saw a desperation of a leader that in the testing time, forced to adopt the value of utilitarianism.

    He violate the right of the dead to rest. He called –howling– at the soul of the fallen villager. Don’t tell me that action do not leave a crack, corruption, or whatever the magical mumbojumbo. What important is that by doing that he essentialy bound them to his service. He robs the individual of their self-determination. He enslaved. His people cease to be sovereign that day. And to this moment I can’t find a fault in my heart to condemn his pre-emptive attack.

    You can’t expect a war victim to differentiate between enemies from the mound of his people.

    And Rags, Oh Rags. She took a chance. Prisoners. Not a captive. Not a plaything. She treat them both with dignities. Yet the world never seem to care about change of mind. About steps toward understanding. It never had. It never would.

    Just because her people were the same species of the slaughterer of her time, she were condemned. Her people poisoned, hunted. Killed. When Pyrite, her second-in-command, her mentor, her friend, her fellow goblin bled from who knows where. When she woke up by the sound of grief. When she saw her people mauled, burned, and charred. When all her goodwill discarded. When all of her sin is passing through at the wrong place at the wrong time.

    She rages.

    Yes, she rages.

    Vengeance.

    AND WHO COULD FAULT HER?

    HUMAN NOT EVEN SPARE GOBLIN’S CHILDREN! Her people could not even waste tear for lack of water!! So she spat at this so-called Emperor of All-seeing. She show it to him. That there are sin which could not be forgiven.

    If you, my fellow reader, ever put this story to rest. You will see a mirror of similar grievance run through the blood of all conflicting people in the real world. There was never a moral high ground. There was never one true answer. There was never one big bad villain that you could impose all the wrong of the world upon. And there was never, ever–ever an easy solution of generational conflict that could been solved by armchair observer that suggest the conflict-ers to talk it through. Because some sin were unforgivable. Some grief were unspeakable. And here I am jarred at my chosen read.

  25. This a terrible situation for them, I hate the no survivors order from rags as much as much as I hated it from laken, but I don’t blame rags for unleashing the wolves to soe terror and scatter lakens forces as they try to stop them. Now I want Laken to lose purely because I’m a bigger rags fan and I want this to trigger some kind of transformation for her as she becomes either a great chieftain or a goblin lady.

  26. Rest well. I felt like there was something off with this chapter regarding Lady Bethal in the end (needed more exlanation for her words character development, I guess. It seemed a bit out of character. She behaves too… kind and emotional? So unusual)

    But Goblins? Goblins were done good. I’m rooting for Rag’s tribe.

  27. I kind of wonder if it’s possible that rags “darkness” is the system pushing back against Larken and his innovations, trying to keep the technological stagnation going…

    After all, for all the reasons we were given, I do think that for technology to stay at the middle ages / renaissance level for so long (millenias) is unlikely if there aren’t forces pushing for it….

  28. Wow, this absolutely descended into the horrors of warfare, where both side is doing evil things. I’m still supporting Rags and the Flooded Waters tribe, but that’s not saying they’re “good guys” by any means. I just feel like I have to pick a side, and I like them better. Rags’ raiding tactic is horrible, but it’s also absolutely the best strategic response in this situation.

  29. Seems like everything can keep going downhill for everyone in this portion of the take for a while.
    Just thinking back to Ryoka’s early days when she was a pretty unlikable character for her bad descisions and unstable actions, it took her a long time to hit bottom and that bottom was pretty rough. Both Rags and Laken are now on that downslope big time. Either or both of them could lose their empires or their humanity (Laken on sleep deprivation trying to watch everything sounds like the recipe for psychosis, and Rags fulling indulging her personal and ancestral rage won’t be pretty), but I’m holding out hope.
    After all, I read fiction like this for the inspirational moments after the dark times that aren’t common enough in the real world. Cheers to Pirate, enjoy the break !

    • I suspect the answer is Bethal. She’s the one that groks that there’re fuck-ups going on on all sides, and she can actually do things about it since she can open lines with most parties. She’s already started: telling Magnolia “hell, no, girl: find somebody else to murderise Goblins in what you want to insist is unceasing war” is a purposeful move.

      And even Magnolia would have to suck whatever our lady of very pointy thorns gets up to up when faced with it, despite her own xenophobia and racism.

      Her next stop may well be going to Laken. Particularly as Bethal already suspects that he wouldn’t be happy with what he’s done once he finds out that Goblins aren’t all ravening, unthinking monsters like he’s been reassured they are. After all, she’s not all that thrilled to find out that she’s been unwittingly committing war crimes on people for years.

  30. If the Redfangs really are destroying everything, that probably includes the signposts.

    The question is whether Rags has any reasonable way to connect the dots and realize that she’s punching holes in Laken’s vision. If she does figure that out, Laken is screwed.

  31. Take a long, relaxing vacation! Writing as much and as fast as you do will take its toll so I really hope you’ll take more frequent breaks, not just when you feel like you desperately need them. Some artists and creators even swear by them, saying they replenish the creative spirit…but who cares about that when you have no self-imposed deadlines and can just sprawl out wherever and daydream about whatever.

    See you when you’re 105%!

    Meanwhile I’ll start catching up with the story.

  32. Please rest, you do amazing work and I would hate for you to quit enjoying it. I just bought Vol 1 on kindle on the 23rd of last month and read everything through the current chapter as of today, despite working 50 hrs a week, because your story is so good. Your writing is an inspiration for many people, and I hope you keep doing what you can because you make our lives better with your art.

  33. Pirateaba, are you aiming for Rags to pull off a Galatians inside the Unseen Empire?

    As in the Galatians of the New Testament? Who Paul wrote an entire letter to defending non-Jewish Christians?

  34. I have fantasies about Erin somehow getting a magic door into the Unseen Empire, and just running up to Rags in front of her tribe/army and giving her a big ole’ hug and jabbering about events in Liscor, to the befuddlement of all the goblins and Lanken watching.

  35. And THIS is what turned Velen into a monster. He had every time this ever happened crammed into his head at once. And he lost everything to the resulting rage.

    • nah has to be something else, Velan managed to get a kingdom going that lived in peace with its surroundings and he threw it all away and then crossed oceans after burning down loads of countries.

      Velan had what Riss and Rags want. Best bet is Velan learned how goblins became goblins and he wanted to undo it/take revenge.

  36. Are we all forgetting that Lakin thinks they’re fighting the Gobin Lord – the one who reanimates the dead? I agree with most everything said about Laken. But if he thinks it’s really the Goblin Lord does that perhaps justify his actions to protect his people. I hated Laken at first until I made myself back up and look from his perspective. He maybe should have consulted more people but wouldn’t he have received support for what hes doing from the majority of the humans?

    • There is nothing to hate about Laken as far as I am concerned. He’s acting very human: compassionate towards his subjects and trying to do right by them and his neighbors. He’s naive, but so would I be if were trying to be an Emperor. He’ll learn, if he’s given the chance.
      I like Rags, but she is an invader in his lands. She didn’t ask to cross them, nor has she hesitated to attack humans and steal from them. Her actions have dictated the response she has received, regardless of whatever she feels are her justifications.
      Just because you’re the victim of bias and hatred doesn’t give you the right to inflict the same on others.
      Rags has never really tried to engender communications with anyone other than other goblins, other than to threaten them. She likes Erin, and probably Pisces, but she hasn’t communicated really. She allows them to draw inferences.
      So do I blame Laken? Not at all. I applaud him.

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