In Liscor, Wall Lord Ilvriss stood at a table with Olesm, Watch Captain Zevara, and Wing Commander Embria. He had sheaves of reports on the Antinium spread out in front of him and he was talking into his personal scrying orb. At the same time, Olesm was furiously sorting through pieces of parchment while Watch Captain Zevara laboriously dictated messages to the other Walled Cities. Their topic was the Antinium and the recent suspicion of the Antinium’s motives in regards to Liscor’s dungeon had everyone’s tail curled up.
If Pisces could have observed the way his subtle blend of fact and suspicion had sent Drakes across Izril into a panic he would have been beside himself with glee. As it was, the Antinium problem once again dominated the discourse between the Drake cities, overriding lesser politics and infighting.
So many [Message] spells and higher-Tier communication spells were sent back and forth that the covert discussions were soon drawn to the attention of anyone of an ear for magic. The contents of the secret talks would soon find their way into reports read by individuals such as Magnolia Reinhart, the Archmages in Wistram, and so on. And the news of the Drakes’ concern would also pass through other channels to the Antinium, who would begin wondering exactly what the Drakes were concerned about.
Of course, all of this was second to the larger issue in the back of everyone’s minds. The Antinium were still not as pressing as the threat of the Goblin Lord. But as anyone with half a scale’s worth of sense would have pointed out, the Goblin Lord’s army was currently north of Liscor. In Human lands. There was little the Drakes could do about them at the moment.
Sending another army had been debated and then shot down. Moving any force past Liscor would be an act of war and there was no negotiating with the stubborn Humans. All they could do was wait and see what would happen, hence their focus on Liscor and the Antinium.
The Goblins were a Human problem now. But the group best-placed to deal with the growing threat had not risen to the occasion. And far, far north of Liscor, north of Invrisil, the gathering of nobles and leaders who had ridden to Lord Tyrion’s call were growing increasingly anxious.
Yitton Byres strode into the large pavilion and heard the loud voices arguing before he could wipe the water out of his eyes. The spring rains continued to soak the vast war camp of Lord Tyrion’s army and though the downpour was not nearly as harsh as it would have been in Liscor, it still made for an unpleasant walk. The rain and mud soured tempers and the assembly standing in the tent was already angry enough.
“When will we move? I did not ride eighty miles with my army to hide here like a coward while the Goblin Lord marches towards my lands!”
A large, roughly-dressed [Lord] in his early forties shouted as Yitton stepped into the gathering of his peers. Yitton recognized the man at once—the tattoo of a snarling dog on his cheek was enough of a hint, but if he had needed more proof, the smell of wet dog and the way the other nobles stayed well clear of him was another hint. Lord Gralton of Lycit was close to frothing at the mouth as he paced back and forth, his hands closing as if he wanted to throttle something.
“I answered Veltras’ call because I expected to take the battle to the damn Goblins rather than hide like a stinking Reinhart. But it was Magnolia Reinhart who took the fight to the Goblins while we sit here with three times as many men! If this is some joke I’m not laughing! What is Tyrion Veltras doing?”
As he raged, Lord Gralton snarled. He turned and Yitton saw his contorted face. It was no wonder many called Gralton the ‘Dog Lord’ behind his back in jest. Only, no one was laughing now. Gralton looked close to lashing out and a rabid dog was something to be feared. Moreover, he had a point.
“I agree with Lord Gralton. We have been sitting here far too long. Rains or not, we should be pushing south towards the Goblin Lord. How much food has this army consumed so far? A fortune, I should wager!”
A [Lady] fanned herself and pointedly glanced at the appetizers laid out behind the nobles. Some of those in the tent jumped guiltily and pretended not to be hovering around the rich treats. Yitton stood tall, ignoring the food, though he had had little more than cold bread, a bit of cheese and some meat himself. Byres didn’t have the funds to lavish themselves with supplies and he had elected to eat the same as his men to boost morale.
The other nobles murmured, most not openly agreeing with Lord Gralton, but expressing hesitant support. Lord Tyrion Veltras was one of the most powerful [Lords] in the realm, but his influence had limits. The nobles were sick of waiting to take a fight that they would easily win as they saw it. Still, no one wanted to be the first to say something and potentially make the Veltras family their enemy.
Gralton glared about, seemingly dissatisfied by the half-hearted support.
“Cowards. Why isn’t Veltras here himself? Let’s drag him out of his tent and have him explain himself now. No more excuses about the right moment! Does any man among you have the balls to join me?”
The [Lords] in the pavilion tent shifted and several flushed with outrage. But before Gralton’s words could lead to a fight, Yitton Byres spoke up.
“Do you intend to assault our field commander, Lord Gralton? If so, I would rather we come to blows here than suffer mutiny in the camp.”
Heads turned and the nobles made a path as Gralton spun. He eyed Yitton Byres without a shred of fear. Rather, he glanced at the longsword at Yitton’s side as an acknowledgement of what a battle would cost him in blood and flesh and judged it appropriate. He rolled his shoulders and growled at Yitton.
“If Veltras won’t come, what would you do, Byres?”
“Discuss. Object. Perhaps leave with my men, were he that sort of coward. But I suspect Lord Veltras would agree to meet with us candidly—were a delegation sent to persuade him of our discontent. If that is your objective I would be the first to join you, Lord Gralton.”
Yitton met the other man’s eyes without blinking. Yes, exactly like a rabid dog. Gralton bared his teeth, but he nodded with bare restraint. It was said that he trained the fiercest war hounds and the finest trackers in all of Izril. His lands were prosperous, a far cry from Byres’ modest holdings.
“In that case I would put forward my name as well.”
Another [Lord] stepped forwards. He had no sword. He was not a warrior. Yitton glanced at Lord Erill in surprise. Erill was a merchant-lord, a noble who had built his fortunes and amassed enough power and land to be considered true nobility. It seemed that Lord Erill was no stranger to boldness, despite his aversion to battle.
“Well then, I will join you three boys. Let us see if a unanimous front is enough to open Tyrion’s stubborn lips.”
The [Lady] who’d spoken fanned herself and then closed the fan with a snap. She swept past Yitton and only now did he place her face and voice. She had to be Lady Ieka, one of the few nobles capable of performing true magic. She had attended Wistram it was rumored, but had been expelled for reasons unknown after four years.
The four nobles didn’t wait for the other nobility to fall over each other volunteering. They strode out of the tent, Gralton in the lead. It was rainy but the rain only fell hard on Gralton and Yitton. Lord Erill and Lady Ieka were protected by enchantments that kept the rain from ever touching their clothes or skin.
Yitton walked after Gralton, hearing a dog bark as it recognized its master in the distance. He told himself this wasn’t rebellion. He had waited patiently for Tyrion to move after their last conversation. But several days later, he hadn’t seen any changes. Something had to be done. And Tyrion Veltras and this army was the force to do it. Why on earth was the man hesitating? It wasn’t like any of the tales about him.
“Have our guest housed in our tents. Supply her with water, food—clothing. Send for a City Runner if she lacks any amenities. And send a [Message] spell to her family. I am sure they would welcome the good news.”
Lord Tyrion Veltras was instructing one of his retainers. The man bowed and hurried out of the tent. Tyrion turned and strode back towards the desk he had been sitting at. He glanced at the wet chair across from the table—his guest had stumbled in wet, dirty, and quite exhausted. He didn’t begrudge the mess. Rather, the information he had been given along with the latest report—he glanced down at the slip of paper in his hands and grinned.
Lord Gralton would have recognized the grin as that of a hunting wolf. Tyrion’s fingers smoothed the parchment. He had received the welcome news not ten minutes ago. And if he added that the covert [Message] spell he had received…Tyrion spread out a map on his table.
“‘Proceeding south, down Almest Road.’ Hmf. That puts them…here. Poor speed but they have endured a sea voyage. They can catch up. And here—”
His finger traced another route south-west, passing through a forest and marshy terrain, past a city labeled ‘Filk’. Lord Tyrion measured the distance with a bit of marked string, nodding to himself and jotting down notes. In his mind he ran another series of calculations, checking the figures with his internal sense of how fast a horse could run. Then he stepped back and looked at the map as a whole.
“From here to here—and the time is—”
Lord Tyrion glanced at a calendar and eyed the date he had marked. He smiled again. At last, he could see all the pieces falling together. More perfectly than before, in fact.
Tyrion turned. His guard at the tent door should have kept anyone from entering, but a brief exclamation was all the warning he received before the guard was thrust aside. Tyrion saw Lord Gralton stride into the tent, followed by Lord Yitton, Lady Ieka, and Lord Erill. The four nobles stopped before his desk and Tyrion saw Erill and Ieka’s eyes dart to the dirty chair. Yitton stood with his hands behind his back and Gralton approached.
“Veltras! We’re done with waiting!”
The man was all savagery and no tact. Tyrion refrained from wrinkling his nose. Gralton had let his class take over too much of himself. The man slammed his hands on Tyrion’s desk and leaned forwards. He was taller and bigger than Tyrion.
“When in the hells are you going to move? That Goblin Lord is a nose away from reaching the mountain with the other Goblins! They could be there by the end of today! And here we sit! Enough talk! Tell us whether we’re moving or not or we’ll—”
“Take your hands off my desk.”
Lord Tyrion’s voice cut through Gralton’s fury. The other man choked and growled, and then looked down. His hands were wet and not exactly pristine to begin with. He was dripping on Tyrion’s expensive maps. He looked up and met Tyrion’s gaze.
The clash of wills in the tent made Yitton grimace. It was unpleasant being privy to a battle between powerful [Lords], even if you weren’t the target yourself. Lady Ieka fanned herself and Lord Erill sighed as Gralton and Tyrion locked gazes. Gralton snarled but then, slowly, took his hands off the desk. Lord Tyrion nodded cordially.
“I thank you. May I assume your objection is shared by the rest of the nobility?”
He glanced pointedly at the other three nobles. Lady Ieka nodded.
“We did not come here to be treated like ignorant children, Tyrion. We waited because we assumed you had a plan. But this idling about is ridiculous. Tell us what you intend or I fear that a good portion of your nobles will quickly desert your army.”
She met his gaze, telling him in no uncertain terms who would be the one to prompt that exodus. Lord Erill coughed delicately.
“I’m afraid I too must insist on some idea of our plan, Lord Veltras. Funding an army of this size becomes pointless if it is not employed to good use.”
Lord Tyrion nodded. He turned his attention to Yitton without betraying any emotion.
“And you, Lord Byres?”
“I have faith in your military expertise.”
The older man met Tyrion’s gaze without wavering. He looked around and bowed slightly to the more powerful nobles around him, all his junior, if only slightly in Gralton’s case.
“However, I agree with my peers. Loyalty is something that must be earned and continue to be earned. Blind faith is not something I demand of my men. The countryside burns.”
“And the Goblins are not just content to stay put as we are. I hear rumors of raiding parties assaulting towns, villages, and cities everywhere south of our position. Not even our nobility is safe—Lady Bevia Veniford has written to me with a request for aid. Apparently the Goblins have surrounded her location. Will you ride to her defense, and the defense of thirty peers of the realm, Tyrion?”
The [Mage Lady] closed her fan and gazed at Tyrion fiercely. He met her gaze. They had been childhood…friends. Acquaintances. It was still poor manners to use his name, but he had observed that [Ladies] bent the rules of etiquette more often than men in their own way. The four nobles waited tensely for Tyrion’s reply. They were all taken aback when he smiled.
“As it happens, Lady Ieka, I have just received the news I was waiting upon.”
She blinked at him. Lord Tyrion lifted the scrap of parchment in his hands. She stared at it with burning curiosity. Tyrion nodded as he passed it to her over the table.
“I have been waiting for a specialized group of reinforcements. They should be arriving at our position shortly. However, I intend to strike the camp before then.”
The instant Ieka read the note her brows shot up. Without another word she passed it to Lord Erill who scanned the note, nodded as if it all made sense and handed the message to Yitton.
“One group? We were waiting on one stinking—”
Again, Lord Gralton was about to rage but as Yitton tapped him on the shoulder he grudgingly read the parchment. It took him longer than the others but then his demeanor changed.
Tyrion nodded decisively.
“Quite. As you can see, the time is now. I am able to put forwards my plan at last. To that end, I am ordering the camp struck. I want our forces moving within the hour. I will briefly inform our peers on our plan of action. However, we may well outpace a good portion of our foot and supply. I intend to move the army now and cover at least fifty miles within the first day. Lord Yitton, I will be taking some of your horse with me and several thousand [Knights], [Lancers], and other advanced rider classes in a scouting party. Lord Gralton, you may wish to prepare your hounds for travel. If they cannot keep up—”
The man strode around his desk, talking rapidly. The other nobles stared as he strode into the rain. Lord Tyrion snapped at the soldier on guard.
“Soldier. Strike the camp and summon my command to the war tent.”
The man raced off, shouting orders. Instantly the camp buzzed to life. Lord Tyrion strode into the rain, too quick for the others to follow. It was time. He had waited patiently. Men like Gralton could not see the use of waiting. He was a dog, straightforward, refreshingly direct. But Lord Tyrion was the hunter. And his prey was in position.
Garen Redfang looked around blankly. He glanced up and saw Tremborag staring at him. The huge Hobgoblin was glaring and Garen realized he’d been called.
He shifted impatiently on his Carn Wolf. The massive beast paced along, twice as large as any other Carn Wolf. It was still dwarfed by Tremborag. The massive Great Chieftain of the Mountain City tribe was a colossus and with every step the fat on his body jiggled obscenely. He clearly did not enjoy the rain gently showering them from above. Garen didn’t mind. They were on the outermost edges of the storm front and had only been drizzled on sporadically. Still, Tremborag was annoyed. Perhaps it was being outdoors that did it.
“What are you listening to?”
Tremborag’s rumbling voice was tinged with irritation. Garen shrugged. He turned his head, listening again. It was a faint sound he heard.
“Something. Distant sound. Howls.”
The huge Hobgoblin paused.
“The scouts heard nothing.”
Garen shrugged. Tremborag eyed him and grunted. He turned and another Redfang Warrior, one of the few that had stayed with Garen, dodged out of the way, his Carn Wolf yelping in alarm.
“Do you believe it is a trap?”
“Doesn’t matter. We go to meeting place. He goes. After…”
The Chieftain of the Redfang tribe tapped his sword meaningfully. Tremborag bared his teeth.
“True. He brought only a handful of his Goblins. So my scouts say.”
Garen nodded without a word. He ignored the faint howling and turned his attention to the road in front of him. Both he and Tremborag were walking through the forest that surrounded Dwarfhalls Rest, the mountain which Tremborag had made his lair. They had abandoned the safety of the mountain and come out this far with a minimal escort for one reason: to meet the Goblin Lord.
At last the Goblin Lord’s army had arrived at the mountain. His army had appeared in the distance, a winding trail of black armored bodies marching across the landscape. It had taken him far longer than either Garen or Tremborag had expected. The distance had not been that far from Invrisil, but the Goblin Lord must have taken that time to heal his soldiers naturally, without wasting healing potions. He would only have done that if he expected a battle. That was wise.
What wasn’t wise was what he had done the instant he’d drawn close to the mountain. Rather than draw closer and begin the siege at once, he had stopped his army and sent a messenger of all things. Tremborag had nearly killed the Goblin on the spot, but after some debate he had heard the Goblin out.
The Goblin Lord’s message was simple. He had arrived. He was a Goblin Lord. And he expected the other tribes to follow him. Since they had not, he demanded that they meet. Chieftain to Lord, as it were.
Garen’s teeth ground together as he recalled the Goblin boldly delivering the message in the heart of Tremborag’s mountain to the jeering Goblins of the Mountain City tribe. It was a command worthy of a Lord, but coming from him—Tremborag had threatened to crush the little Goblin until he had heard the terms.
“Come alone. Just we two Chieftains and six escorts. He will bring six too. Far too small a number for an ambush. And he would be a fool to try and hide Goblins from Goblins.”
Tremborag mused as he walked through the forest floor, snapping branches that threatened to strike his face. Garen nodded.
“He must think he can persuade you or I. Fool.”
Tremborag grinned and his red eyes flashed. Garen nodded. His stomach clenched at the thought of meeting the Goblin Lord and his hand fell to the red blade at his side. Redfang, the enchanted artifact that was his greatest possession. His Carn Wolf growled, sensing its master’s mood.
“Take out small Goblins first?”
“You do that. I will rip his head off myself.”
The Great Chieftain flexed his massive claws. Garen nodded and focused on the trail ahead. Of course, the Goblin Lord had come to parley. Of course, it would be treacherous to slay him. But they were going to do it anyways. There was no better opportunity. Two Chieftains versus a single Lord? If it were any other Chieftains, it would have been suicidal. But Garen and Tremborag? They were far too powerful. The Goblin Lord had made a fatal error.
Garen wondered if his tribe would have considered the trap a betrayal. His teeth ground together as he thought of them, somewhere else. He wondered if they would have dared to protest this. And then he thought of Rags. What would she have done? Refused to join the ambush? Or laid a more cunning trap?
Such thoughts were a distraction. Garen shook himself. As he did, his Carn Wolf raised its head and sniffed the air. Tremborag halted.
The two Chieftains slowly entered a cleared space in the woods. The six Redfang Warriors spread out behind them, their Carn Wolves sniffing and growling as they sensed what was ahead. The Goblin Lord and his entourage.
He sat upon a Shield Spider, a massive example of the species. It was dead. Something had ripped its belly apart, and yet the Shield Spider still stood. The magic had reanimated it, given it second life and so it still served as the Goblin Lord’s mount. Next to him rode a Hobgoblin with metallic teeth and too large a head on a horse. Snapjaw, his fierce lieutenant.
On his other side, a Hob nearly as tall as Tremborag stood with folded arms. Eater of Spears was all muscle compared to Tremborag’s bulk and the Hob fearlessly met Tremborag’s eyes as both Goblin parties halted and stared at each other. Four more Hobs stood behind the Goblin Lord. But it was he that Garen looked at. He saw two black eyes with white pupils turn and felt the shock of hatred the instant their gazes met.
The Goblins stared at each other in silence. Garen tensed as he leaned over his Carn Wolf. The Goblin Lord’s eyes flicked from him to Tremborag. Weighing. Judging. Assessing. This close, Garen felt the urge to kneel, to follow the Goblin in front of him. But he resisted with every fiber of his being.
There were no flowery speeches, no opening niceties. That was not the Goblin way. The Goblin Lord spoke abruptly, his voice educated, direct. Authority rang through it, commanding with every syllable.
“I am a Goblin Lord. I am Reiss. Your tribes will join my army.”
The two Chieftains looked at each other. They turned back to Reiss and laughed. They spoke as one.
The word was as powerful as the Goblin Lord’s request. One of the Hobs behind Reiss actually took a step back before catching himself. Reiss did not move. He looked at Tremborag, and then at Garen. The question was meant more for Garen.
Garen held his tongue. His chest was burning. With betrayal. With hurt. With rage. He stared at the undead spider and it was Tremborag who answered with a booming laugh of contempt.
“You are arrogant, little brat of the south. Who do you think you are, coming to my home and challenging me? I am Tremborag! Great Chieftain of the Mountain! If you are wise you will turn and run. You will never take my tribe, little Goblin.”
His words made Reiss’ entourage shake with fury. Snapjaw glared up at Tremborag and shouted at him.
“Show respect! You speak to great Goblin Lord! Not Chieftain.”
She interjected as much contempt into her tone as she could. Neither Garen nor Tremborag seemed affected by the comparison, though. He glanced at Snapjaw dismissively.
“How the female barks for her master! I am no small Chieftain. I am old! I lived decades ago, when the Goblin King was an unborn seed! I heard his call and I refused him to his face. I am no small Chieftain with the lifespan of a fly! I was here when Velan the Kind gathered his armies. I was here when he fell. I remember the Goblin King’s face!”
“So do I.”
Silence. Reiss looked around the clearing. When he spoke, the past weighed on his words.
“I have seen Velan’s fall. I know his rage but not why. I know our history. And I will make sure it does not happen again. Look at my army. I defeated the Tidebreaker, hero of Drakes. I destroyed Drake and Human armies. Join me and I will make a kingdom for Goblins. I will bring us peace and make other species afraid to strike us! Do you not wish that?”
The Goblins behind him raised a cheer. Garen’s heart felt a twinge and his hand gripped his sword’s hilt. He stared at Reiss. The same words. Good words. But his eyes—
Again, Tremborag snorted. He looked down on Reiss with contempt in his red eyes.
“You speak of kingdoms and peace without knowing the truth, little slave. Grow as mighty as you want. The Humans and Drakes will never let you know peace. You will be hunted. And you will never be a King. A slave cannot lead others.”
And there it was. The hiss from the Redfang Warriors behind Garen said it all. Reiss’ Goblins shifted and Tremborag pointed down at the Goblin Lord.
“You are not Goblin. You are a pet. A thing. You cannot bring peace. You do not even deserve to be Chieftain. Let alone Lord.”
“Yet I am a Lord.”
Reiss met his gaze, unflinching. Tremborag laughed.
“A poor one. Your army is small. You bow to a master. You copy Humans! Humans! We are Goblins. We steal and take. We do not copy formations and armor and—this.”
His wave took in all that was Reiss. From the way he spoke to his eyes to everything else. Tremborag shook his head.
“Turn around little Lord. This is the last time I offer. The Goblin King himself could not unseat me from my home. What makes you think you can?”
The Goblin Lord sat calmly atop his Shield Spider and closed his eyes. When he opened them, his white pupils were unflinching as he met Tremborag’s gaze.
“The Goblin King was kind. He let those afraid to die run. He left your home and your tribe alone, Great Chieftain. But I am not kind. Your tribe is mine.”
Without waiting for Tremborag to respond, Reiss turned his head.
“The ‘Great Chieftain’ declines. But what of you, Redfang? You swore to follow me if I had the right idea. If I had a vision. Do you forget your promise of long ago?”
All eyes darted towards Garen. Tremborag’s expression changed to one of alarm and sudden paranoia. He took a slow step backwards as Garen rode forwards. He stared up at Reiss. The Goblin met his gaze with foreign eyes. Who was he now? Garen spat on the dead Shield Spider.
“Becoming a slave is not good idea.”
“Sometimes it is the only choice.”
Reiss whispered down to Garen. The Hob grinned mirthlessly.
“Better to die than be slave.”
The two stared at each other in silence. Garen’s Carn Wolf growled and he tensed, his hand on his sword. The Shield Spider’s dead face was right in front of him. Reiss sat far above.
There was no signal. Garen ripped his blade from his sheath and hacked at the Shield Spider’s head. He shouted as he did.
It was a basic Skill. But it was all he needed. The enchanted blade sheared the front of the Shield Spider’s face off and it collapsed. The other Goblins around Reiss shouted in fury and alarm. Garen heard Carn Wolves howling as his warriors leapt to attack, Tremborag’s roar. His Carn Wolf leapt towards where Reiss had fallen. He swept his sword up.
“Traitor! Cowardly coward!”
Snapjaw lunged, biting, and Garen twisted to avoid her jaws as they bit for his neck. He twisted and his Carn Wolf snapped at her horse. They circled each other, trading blows.
Behind them, Tremborag had charged forwards and met Eater of Spears. The younger Hob was smaller, but he stopped Tremborag’s charge with ease. Tremborag cursed him and clawed at Eater of Spears’ arms but the Hob pushed Tremborag back. He was trying to pull the Chieftain’s arm off and Tremborag’s howl of pain echoed through the clearing. Eater of Spears felt Tremborag straining against him but knew he was stronger. Then he felt muscle and fat ripple under his claws. He stared at the Hob in shock as Tremborag’s form grew.
Something else grabbed Eater of Spears’ arm. It lifted the gigantic Hob up and something threw him as if he were a toy. It was not a Hob. Tremborag’s voice deepened into a roar as his body changed, grew larger. In a blink the fat became muscle and he turned and tore a head off of a Hob. He howled.
“Weak, brat! Decades too weak to face me!”
Then he charged at the Goblin Lord. Eater of Spears tried to stop him, but a single blow sent him reeling backwards. Tremborag raced forwards on all fours at where the Goblin Lord had fallen behind the Shield Spider. The Hob didn’t waste time circling the fallen undead spider—he picked it up and hurled the thing away, breaking it to pieces as it struck a tree. Tremborag turned, grinning, and saw Reiss pointing up at him.
The black magic struck Tremborag in the face. He cried out and stumbled back. For a moment his face went grey, and then he roared and swiped at the Goblin Lord. But the Goblin had already dived for safety. And something burst through the ground as Eater of Spears once again charged Tremborag from the side. A huge hand shot out of the soil and a massive, hulking Human burst upwards. It grabbed Tremborag by the leg as a dozen undead burst out of the ground, surprising the Redfang Warriors.
Garen snarled the instant he saw the huge hulking undead. He lunged to one side as the first Draug swung at him. They were deceptively quick! He parried a blow from Snapjaw and countered.
The edge of his sword slammed into her open mouth, sending her reeling backwards. It didn’t sear off the top of her head—the blade had struck her teeth! Garen saw several break, but the enchanted blade cut no further. Snapjaw spat blood and jumped at him.
He stabbed her horse. It went down, squealing, and his Carn Wolf lunged forwards and bit once. Snapjaw cursed but Garen leapt past her. He would have rushed at Reiss once more, but three Draug blocked his way. Garen snapped an order and his Carn Wolf bounded back. He cursed and saw another black bolt of light. He instantly leaned sideways and the death magic missed him by inches.
Reiss was standing in a circle of undead and his three remaining Hob warriors, aiming at him! Garen snarled as he cut at the Draugr around him. This was not what he had envisioned! Worse, he saw Tremborag besieged by the undead. The giant Goblin smashed them effortlessly, destroying the powerful undead with single blows, but between Eater of Spears and the Draug he couldn’t charge Reiss. And he was too large a target.
Another [Deathbolt] blasted from Reiss’ fingertip. Not at Garen, but at Tremborag who was unable to dodge. Twice more the spell struck Tremborag, blackness absorbing itself into his skin. The gigantic Goblin roared as if to defy the death magic. But he did retreat, shielding his body, running backwards as he ignored the Draugr battering his legs and stomach.
“Fall back! Back!”
Garen waved his blade and saw his Redfang Warriors retreat. Six—no, five of them fled, one on foot. One Goblin and two Carn Wolves lay dead and another Goblin fell as Reiss picked them off with another [Deathbolt] spell. Garen shouted his fury but fled as well. There were too many Draug! He raced through the forest, hearing Reiss shout an order. Now his entire army would be pursuing them in moments! Still, Garen didn’t fear being caught. Rather, he raced towards the huge shape lumbering through the forest, knocking over trees.
He called up at the massive Goblin. Tremborag was still in his combat form, but he looked…tired. Three [Deathbolts] had struck him and the Goblin Chieftain was laboring for breath. He snarled as Garen rode next to him and swung at the Carn Wolf and its rider.
“I strong. Go!”
Garen hesitated, but Tremborag’s color was returning quickly and he was picking up the pace. He nodded and rode faster, grabbing at the Redfang Warrior on foot. He pulled the Goblin up and they raced back towards the mountain ahead of them. Behind, he could hear horns blaring. The Goblin Lord’s army was coming now. They would besiege the mountain.
Not what he had hoped for. But he was alive. And if he was alive, he’d get another shot at Reiss. That was his name now? He’d always wanted a name. Garen closed his eyes. His heart beat with betrayal and fury. He was bleeding. Had Snapjaw cut him? Or the Draug?
The air rushed around Garen as he rode. He turned his head up and heard a faint noise again. He could still hear it on the wind. A distant, far off sound. Garen could pick it out in his mind, in his heart. Not here. Somewhere farther away. Miles, tens or hundreds perhaps. It didn’t matter. He could still hear the howl, the howl of his warriors, his tribe.
He heard his warriors screaming, in rage and fury and grief. He longed to be with them. For a moment Garen listened, then he kicked his Carn Wolf in the side and it bounded towards the mountain as the Goblin Lord’s forces rushed through the forest after him. But the howling remained.
War was in the air.
The Goblins rode across the countryside, screaming their fury. They rode terrifying wolves thrice as large as the normal, their fur rust-red, their teeth bared for blood. These were no ordinary Goblins. They were Redfang Warriors and they burned as they never had before with hatred.
Vengeance. Revenge for the fallen, those who had died to poison and steel in the night! They howled as they rode in small groups, in pairs, alone, to villages and farms. They carried torches and crossbows and set every building they came to alight. They burned fields where they could and where it was wet they did as much damage as they could, hounding the Humans, some laying traps before fleeing.
Because they were being pursued. Human [Riders] followed and [Trackers] and [Soldiers] laid deadly ambushes that took down each Goblin that passed. The Humans knew where the Redfang Warriors were, where they were going. So the Redfangs died. But they died hard.
A Redfang Warrior named Fleetfur breaks off from the group. His friends call out to him, but he raises a hand holding his spear upright. His Carn Wolf is injured—struck by an arrow. He turns back and lifts his spear. Fifteen Humans pursue him, shouting. Fleetfur pats his wolf on the head and hears it whine once. He points and it bounds forward, ignoring the pain. He rides against fifteen, alone, laughing. He takes a horse and rider down and spears another Human before he falls to their blades.
Far east and north of him, a group of Goblins comes across the town of Muerfurt. The night air is cold and the Humans laugh at rumors of Goblins. They hear the howl and fear—but their walls are ten feet high! And they have a row of spikes set across the walls, and their militia is manning each spot with torches. No Goblin will climb up on their watch!
They hear a howl nearby and then a snarl. A Carn Wolf leaps and a sentry screams. The Goblin jumps from its back and lands on the wall. He has a shortsword and buckler in hand. The Humans laugh, shakily as they realize it’s only him. Until another jumps onto the wall. A third climbs up in a different spot. Four, five, eight—the Redfang Goblins are outnumbered ten to one even so. The militia surges forwards, shouting just that. The Redfang Goblins slaughter twice their number and then disappear over the walls, leaving two of their dead behind.
Elites. What pride they have. What daring. A Redfang Goblin stands in the middle of a city street. He has won the walls, killed the three [Guardsmen] with less than ten levels between them, but now he is cornered. A group of Silver-rank adventurers, five warriors and a mage has cornered him. He steps forwards and fights all the warriors at once.
Cut, parry, duck, slash—he is quick. But the half-Elf with the axe is good and he has armor. The Redfang Warrior never stands a chance. He sinks, bleeding, as the adventurers laugh and the crowd of Humans cheers. His nickname is Beetlestare, but it is not at the ground or insects he stares at. He looks up as he bleeds and hears a whistling sound and then the thunk.
The Silver-rank [Mage] looks at the arrow sprouting from his chest. He drops and the second arrow strikes another adventurer in the eyes. Beetlestare looks up and grins. He sees the Goblin in the trees swing away as the Humans notice the attacker. The Goblin flees and Beetlestare laughs and laughs until the half-Elf finishes him.
Dying, fighting, riding on—a group of Redfang Warriors race down a road and see the riders in the dark too late. They turn and find themselves ambushed! Humans race out of cover and more ride out of the darkness. The six Redfangs turn and see their pursuers have caught up. They bare their blades for a final stand and hear a howl. One of the Humans on horseback turns and sees a fiery bird or insect flying at him. It strikes his armor and he bursts into flame. Another [Archer] on the ground turns and she drops as a crossbow bolt buries itself in her chest.
Redfang Warriors race out of the darkness. At their head rides a Goblin with a glowing longsword. Redscar swings once and cuts down a Human. He cuts backwards and catches a second. He shouts his fury and hears a voice.
He turns and points. His Redfang Warriors cut into the Humans a second more and then flee. They shower the Humans with crossbow bolts as they race onwards. They too are being pursued. But they have eluded capture so far. They join the small Goblin holding the black crossbow and she turns. They shout triumph as the Humans attempt to pursue them and more race towards their backs. Rags turns her head and looks back just once.
The word burned in her mind, single, pulsating thought. It did away with notions of mercy, told her to abandon pride and memory and everything else and give in to the bloodlust. It was not darkness. It should have been, but Rags only felt alive as she raced with the Redfang Warriors through the night. She pointed and the group of six Goblins she had saved fell in with the others, cheering.
The Humans had not expected their ambush group to be ambushed in turn, but they had forgotten how many Goblins were racing through the night. And the Goblins might not have had magic spells to communicate, but they could do almost as well by listening to the howling of their brethren.
“To cave! Move!”
The Redfangs followed Rags to a cave she had located nearby and immediately dismounted. Their exhausted Carn Wolves instantly lay down and the Goblins reached for their packs, offering the hungry wolves food and water. Rags pointed.
“Sentry. Watch. Has time. Thirty minutes. Less.”
The other Goblins nodded and went to secure the cave. Rags allowed herself a moment to stretch her legs and then found some dried jerky to feed her Carn Wolf. She swayed on her feet but did not allow herself to sit. If she sat she would be too tired to stand. She had been riding and fighting nonstop for two days now.
Two days, with only time to rest the Carn Wolves. Two days of raiding and destruction. It felt like forever. But while the Humans had sent groups of riders after her, tried to hunt down the hundreds of raiding parties marauding across the landscape, they had failed to mitigate the damage.
Worse for them, Rags had assumed command of a group of forty or so Redfang warriors and had destroyed each group sent after her. The Humans had numbers, especially since Rags had sent only her elite Redfang Warriors out to do damage. But she had something they did not.
Tactics. Ambushes set up in seconds or minutes, like the one she had just pulled off. Rags felt the cerebral rush with each small victory. Yes, she now had an image of her foe. Whoever was leading the Humans on horseback—whether it was the Human in armor or the one with the pointed hat Rags wasn’t certain yet—they were not the one in charge. She knew that for two reasons.
Firstly, they lacked the all-knowing gaze that had been on Rags the entire time she had been in these lands. The feeling of being watched never slackened on her skin. And yet, both Humans had fallen for her feints. If she gave them time to think they would invariably pinpoint her location and sense her ambushes. Somehow. But if they were simply reacting they were as blind as any other Human.
Secondly and crucially, both were poor leaders. Poor strategists without a grasp of true warfare. They could lead armies, but they couldn’t react to Rags’ ever-changing plans. She was not afraid of them. What she was afraid of was losing all the Redfang Warriors who had ridden out with her.
The mounted Redfangs were a limited force. The tip of her sword, her shock cavalry. They were less than four hundred in number and while that was a mighty unit she had split them apart, sent many on suicidal assaults to distract the enemy. She would burn these lands but the Redfangs would pay the price.
That was all Redscar said as they rested the Carn Wolves in the dark cave interior. The Humans were milling about the entrance, aware that the cave had two openings. They were sending reinforcements around back so they could trap Rags and the Goblins inside. She knew they had five more minutes so she sat calmly, letting her Carn Wolf lap from a helmet she’d filled with water. She looked at Redscar seriously.
“Redfangs will die.”
“Goblins have died.”
He bared his teeth at her. Rags shook her head.
“More Goblins should not die.”
The nuance between them was grief. Redscar expressed his in unrelenting fury towards the Humans. Rags was more measured. What good was victory if she sacrificed her tribe for it? She shook her head, ignoring Redscar’s unspoken rebuttal—that sacrifice was the only way to slaughter the Humans.
“Too many. Pull back. Gather.”
She was cutting short the raids early. Redscar didn’t protest. He rose as one of the Redfang [Scouts] called a quiet warning. The Humans had surrounded their rear.
“How escape now, Chieftain?”
There were three times as many Humans waiting for the Goblins as they burst out of the front of the caves. This was the largest group of Goblin riders and Rags had made herself a target. They were already preparing to loose arrows and encircle the Goblins when she casually raised the [Fear] gem and Redscar led his riders past the rearing horses into the forest. Of course, they were still pursued. The [Fear] spell worked a bit less each time and the Humans had fresh mounts. They would catch the Redfang Goblins.
Already a group of [Riders] was hot on their heels as they entered the trees. They charged after the fleeing wolves and then the first rank of horses went down, screaming, as they tripped over the line of rope Rags had ordered her warriors to set in advance. The Redfang Goblins rapidly tied more trip lines as the Human pursuers lamed horses and riders died from being thrown and trampled.
Simple tactic. All you needed was rope. Rags shook her head. Some of the rope had been tied in advance—the Carn Wolves could easily bound over the ropes but the Humans couldn’t spot it until it was too late. She led her group away. Another lesson learned—whoever was leading the Humans missed details. They were not all-knowing. Rags clung to that knowledge as Redscar urged his mount to howl a warning to every Redfang within earshot. Their howls soon answered and Rags knew that word would spread.
Retreat. Gather! Return to the meeting spot she had designated. She hoped she would see enough of them return. The raiding was only one step of the battle. It was easy to hurt someone. Far harder to defeat them. She still had no idea how the Humans could tell where she and her tribe were. And it was her tribe she thought of. They were still occupying the Human city, surrounded by Human forces. And more were on the way. A lot more.
Questions. Pyrite sat on the battlements of the city they had captured and thought of them. His wounds ached horribly and the cool air wasn’t doing them much good. But he refused to take a healing potion, trusting to his body to do what it did naturally.
Even with the plundered stores of the city, they had used too many healing potions tending to the wounded. If the others could endure the pain of the poison gas they had inhaled, if the Redfang Warriors could sacrifice their lives to distract the Humans, he could sit here and think without a healing potion.
Distract the enemy. That was how Pyrite chose to think of it. The Redfang Warriors were drawing the attention of the Humans, of this Unseen Emperor away from the city. In order to buy time for the tribe to heal, to be able to breathe. Yes, they were raiding and slaughtering Humans who had nothing to do with the conflict. But in a strategic sense…
Pyrite imagined the carnage. He didn’t have to imagine it, really. He had seen enough Goblin raids before. Humans killed. Girls and women abducted, the rest, children and adults, killed and left to rot. Only, Rags wouldn’t order kidnappings. She would just kill them all and torch the fields. He wasn’t sure if that made it better.
What Pyrite was sure of was that it was necessary. Rags was Chieftain and she had seen what he could not. Their enemy, this [Emperor] could not respond to so many attacks. Rags alone had saved their tribe when he had only been able to run and lose more and more Goblins day by day. That was why she was Chieftain.
But was a Chieftain enough to fight an [Emperor]? Pyrite’s skin prickled and grew cold in a way that had nothing to do with the weather. An [Emperor]. He had gathered the information from Lady Bethal, from the Frostfeeder tribe and Sir Kerrig. That was a danger far beyond any normal Human. They had strayed into his empire. The smart thing to do was run. But somehow, Pyrite doubted the Humans camped across from the city would let them go in peace.
He could see their camp, see the smoke rising in the distance, the picketed horses and the Humans watching him. They were far out of range of bowshot or magic spell. They had been closer at first, perhaps hoping some of their longbows could strike the Goblins from the walls. But Noears’ lightning bolts had convinced them to fall back. Now they waited, staring at the Goblins while the Goblins stared back.
It was a stalemate. Pyrite understood that. Both their mobile cavalry forces were engaged across the region. Meanwhile, Pyrite’s tribe was still recovering from the poison while the Humans couldn’t assault the walls. They’d tried in one bloody skirmish. The crossbows the Flooded Water tribe carried had been enough by themselves to send the Humans running. So the Goblins were safe and the Humans were waiting.
It wouldn’t last. Pyrite knew that with total certainty. Soon the Humans would attack or do something and Rags would counter it. The question he was wrestling with was how he could ensure they would survive.
Rags was a genius. But she was one Goblin and their enemy knew exactly where they were at all times. That was how it seemed. Pyrite understood how dangerous it was to have an all-seeing opponent as your enemy. If he could help Rags pinpoint this [Emperor] or stop them from being seen all the time…
How? It was a question Pyrite had thought in desperation many times while fleeing with his tribe but only now could he devote all of his attention to the problem. He was clear-headed, his stomach was full, and he had time to think. So he engaged the mystery of the all-seeing Humans with all of his mind. It was all he could do to help Rags.
This is how Pyrite thought of it. The Humans could tell where the Goblins were. They could detect ambushes, feints, hidden Goblins, even find gaps in formations to exploit. However, their gaze did not seem to be perfect. They could make mistakes. They needed time to ‘see’ and if they had a lot of targets they couldn’t identify them all.
That spoke to Pyrite of one or two Humans with this ability, whatever it was. Which made sense. If he had to classify this omniscience, he would have explained it as either proper scouting, magic, or a Skill. He knew it wasn’t scouting. No [Scout] could be that perfect and be everywhere at once. And he suspected it wasn’t magic. If it was a scrying spell, why could Noears sense nothing? Also, if there was an enemy [Mage] with that level of magical ability, why weren’t they casting other spells?
That only left a Skill by process of elimination. The trouble was, Pyrite couldn’t imagine a Skill that powerful. Even an [Emperor]’s Skills surely couldn’t be that powerful. Could they? It was all he could think of though, so Pyrite put that as his working theory. Then he turned his mind to figuring out how to stop it.
It was tricky. Pyrite instantly assumed that the all-seeing vision of this [Emperor] probably extended to his lands. If you could see the entire world…no. So they could evade him by running away. Or by killing him. The trick was that this [Emperor] was nowhere to be seen. He could be among the Humans fighting, but Pyrite doubted any ruler would risk himself like that. Thus, the Hobgoblin found himself pondering over the maps of the surrounding landscape, frowning at the names and scratching his head over where the Humans might be.
“What are you looking for?”
Noears stared at the maps with Pyrite. The Hob grunted.
“Big city. Biggest. Fancy name. For [Emperor].”
Noears nodded. He and Pyrite scrutinized the map. The trouble was…there was no city bigger than any other. As Humans reckoned things, the surrounding cities and towns were pretty paltry. None of them was close to a major city like Invrisil, certainly nothing an [Emperor] would stay in. Pyrite did notice an odd symbol next to one of the villages. He squinted.
It looked like someone had marked it as having expanded recently. That was suspicious, but it was still only a small village. Pyrite tapped it and Noears nodded.
Well, the maps were inconclusive. So Pyrite tried his other source—Sir Kerrig. Only, the Human was understandably reticent about giving away information about the mysterious Unseen Emperor.
“I don’t know much. My lady apparently visited him, but if he is your enemy I cannot in good conscience aid you.”
The [Knight] was tending to the wounded Goblins. He had seen poisonous gases before and had instructed the Goblins to gargle salt water. Apparently the salt would draw out the bad humors and toxins. Pyrite hadn’t seen the harm so he’d let the [Knight] do his work. Sir Kerrig seemed caught between pity and regret as he looked at the wounded Goblins. Pyrite only saw innocent children, Goblins who didn’t fight. And he felt…angry. But he kept his face neutral as he nodded.
“No tell where. But who is [Emperor]?”
“I only know a name. Laken Godart. The Unseen Emperor. I’ve no notion why he’s called that or where he comes from.”
Poisonbite growled. She was sharpening a dagger, glaring at Sir Kerrig. He blew out his mustaches exasperatedly.
“Not all Humans know each other, Miss Poisonbite. His subjects would know, but I doubt capturing one of them would do you any good. As I said, if your Chieftain would consider suing for peace—”
Pyrite turned away. It was that or thump the man. Peace? They didn’t attack first! He knew that didn’t matter to Humans. But it mattered to him. Disconsolate, he wandered through the city, waving at Goblins and listening as they came up to him with problems. Where to poo? Humans had a poo building. Use that. Not enough food? Bring hungry Goblins to him and he would decide. Need healing potion for bad-bad cough? Use tiny bit. Get Noears to use.
The city was a good place. It had food, places to sleep, and walls. The Goblins could rest here. Pyrite listened to a Goblin cough as he passed and noticed the rattling, wheezing sound was better. A bit. If Rags could buy them another few days they could fight.
But fight what? Fight where? The city was a fortress but it was also a trap. The Humans knew where they were and they would send armies. Pyrite stomped through the street, worrying about escaping. Maybe they could find the edge of this Unseen Empire? If he could plot the quickest route away—
The Hob’s ears perked up as he heard a howl and a commotion at the gates. He turned and ran, grabbing the battleaxe he’d strapped to his back. The thing was too big to carry easily. But he was grateful of it now. He saw a group of four Redfang Warriors race into the city and the Goblins at the gates shouting and pushing them closed. The Humans outside were blaring horns and shouting but they hadn’t tried to stop the group once they’d gotten close enough.
One of the Redscar Warriors called out. She was slumped in her saddle and both she and her Carn Wolf looked half-dead. She turned and saw Pyrite.
“Out. Not see?”
Pyrite’s heart beat faster in worry. The Redfang Goblin shook her head.
“Hid! Not join—strange thing—hear retreat!”
She was shaking, barely able to stand. Pyrite instantly called for water and food. As the Redfang Warriors dismounted he pointed.
“Sit. Talk. Eat!”
The Goblins sat on the ground and Pyrite watched them devour some cheese and bread as more Goblins ran to get food. He listened intently.
“Bad run. Many Humans. Follow. Burn-kill-run. But too many follow.”
The Goblins described their ordeal since splitting from the others. They had gone raiding like the rest, but their pursuers had forced them to keep on the move. They had lost their friends, burnt down a farmstead, and then been cornered in a valley.
“No good run! So burn—burn too much! Burn tree, grass, big wood not-tree.”
Desperate to strike a last blow, the Goblins had set fire to part of the forest. In doing so they had accidentally destroyed a man-made structure. A strange wooden pole, carved with eyes. That was how they described it. Pyrite frowned. Something about that seemed familiar.
“So? Run? Fight?”
The Goblins nodded as Pyrite blinked, astonished. They had hid from their pursuers? How? It shouldn’t have been possible! But that was what had happened. The Redfang Warrior grimaced as she described it.
“Big not-tree gone, Humans no seek. Confuse-scared. Wait for found-death…not come! Humans go! Big not-tree eyes! Eyes on wood!”
“Not-tree. Big pole? Big wooden pole carved with eyes?”
Pyrite tried to translate the Goblin’s words. The trouble was that they had no word for what they’d seen. They imitated it, standing on each other’s shoulders, drawing symbols in the dust. Pyrite stared at the long, wooden pole carved with eyes and then he remembered where he’d seen it before.
The back-scratching pole! Pyrite’s own eyes widened. That was it! And it was what had given the Humans their sight! It had to be. The Redfang Warriors had lain in the bushes as the Humans passed right by them and heard them worry about the missing marker. They had hid for hours, believing the Humans were just laying some kind of devious trap. But only after they had fled a few miles were they pursued once more.
Was it magic? When Pyrite summoned Noears the other Goblin declared it couldn’t be. He would have noticed an enchantment! But there was no other explanation for it. These Redfang Warriors weren’t the only to survive by finding the secret of the totems either. As more trickled into the city, they revealed that a good number had survived by accidentally chopping down or burning the man-made markers, upon which the Humans lost track of them.
“Totems are eyes. Eyes for Humans.”
Pyrite felt a rush of satisfaction as he confirmed his theory. He no longer felt helpless as he directed the exhausted Redfangs to sleep and rest. An enemy with a mysterious ability was one thing. But this?
This was different. If they could blind their enemy, Pyrite was certain the Goblins could evade the Humans. He selected eighty Goblins and sent them out in bands of two, armed with axes and torches. Their instructions were simple. They’d hide in areas cleared of the magical markers and search for the others, retreating if Humans tried to find them. With a few days’ time the Goblins could completely blind the Humans in a huge radius around the city.
And then Pyrite heard the horn call. By this point he was back on the walls so he was in prime position to see the last of the Redfangs return in a huge mass. Over a hundred battered warriors raced over a hilltop, followed by the Humans on horseback. It was a desperate flight; the army of camped Humans raced to intercept. Pyrite saw one of the riders hold up a red gem and stop the Humans in their tracks for a second. But the Humans riding behind were determined to cut down as many Goblins as possible.
“Crossbows on walls! Noears! Lightning!”
Pyrite roared orders and the Flooded Waters tribe surged to the walls. Lightning began blasting riders back and they quickly broke off their pursuit. The Goblins cheered as Rags rode into the city with Redscar. Pyrite did not cheer. He counted. There were far too many missing Redscar Warriors. Of the four hundred they had sent, less than two hundred and forty remained.
Rags’ face reflected the casualties as she rode up to Pyrite. She nearly tumbled from the saddle but he caught her.
“Chieftain. Good work.”
She spoke tiredly, without a trace of triumph in her voice. Pyrite smiled. He had good news to give her.
“Is good. Time bought. And know secret of Humans.”
She looked up. A glimmer of hope, that spark of intelligence and passion returned to her eyes.
She sat on the battlements as Pyrite spoke. The Hob conveyed his findings, his suspicions, and watched Rags sort through his thinking and come up with her own conclusions. That reassured him. More than a full belly, more than walls. This was his Chieftain. She would save them. In the distance, Pyrite saw the Humans pulling back. By the end of the day they would double their numbers in size. By morning they would double their number again.
“It’s all burning. They’ve burnt every field they could find. Every village, towns, cities. They’re everywhere.”
I sit in Wiskeria’s cottage, my head in my hands. Nesor hovers around me. I can tell his face is pale, but he doesn’t dare speak. Lady Rie paces by the table.
“But they have retreated, your Majesty?”
“For now. To rest and heal in that damn city. I think they’re all there. I can’t tell.”
I run my hands through my hair, gripping tightly. The place where the city should be is a gaping hole in my mind. I have no sight there. The city is not mine, so it and the surrounding areas are just a blank spot. I can see right up to a certain spot and then the detailed image of grass and stone and trees and so on vanishes. And that’s not the only hole now.
“I’ve lost another totem. Southwest now. Nesor, tell Wiskeria to post guards on the totems if she has to! The Goblins are aiming for them now and another group is—”
I grimace as I see a group of Goblins running towards a totem. One begins chopping at the base of the pole and my image of the area begins growing hazy. It vanishes and I curse and sit back.
“Tell her I want guards on the markers.”
Nesor puts his hand to his brow and concentrates. Lady Rie sighs and her dress swishes.
“General Wiskeria cannot post guards on every marker, surely.”
“She needs to keep up a field of vision around the city or I can’t help her. Tell Jelov I want more markers carved to replace the ones lost. Today.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Lady Rie’s voice is too calm. As if she hasn’t been here, listening to me frantically try and chase hundreds of Goblins for the last two days. It was all going so well. And then—what happened?
“Wiskeria says they must have changed leaders. She was unable to hunt the main group of Goblins. She tells me they lured her into ambushes, outsmarted her—I saw some of that myself. She’s identified a Goblin with an enchanted longsword with the frost spell. For all the good that does us.”
“Perhaps she will be able to slay the Goblin leader in battle. I assume that is what she intends to do? Take the fight to the city?”
“The main army has arrived. Durene’s group. They took longer than I thought—we had to drag the trebuchets on wheels. Slow. But we have two there now and Tessia and the siege team is in place. Wiskeria tells me she is ready to begin the bombardment but she’s asked me to hold off.”
“She’s concerned about the Goblin leader. She’s afraid of a trap.”
“How strange. That is rather cautious of General Wiskeria, especially given her stunning success earlier.”
I grunt sourly.
“I trust her opinion. Beniar’s ready to attack, but Wiskeria’s asking me to hold off, perhaps call for more reinforcements.”
“I doubt you will receive them. The settlements are terrified. Rather, I believe you will be receiving refugees en masse, your Majesty. All of the displaced are converging on Riverfarm.”
What? I have to blink and rub my ears for a second.
“They’re coming here? To me? Why? I’m the one who’s failed to handle all these damn Goblins so far!”
Lady Rie’s voice is patient and I sense her sit delicately as Nesor edges out of the room, still muttering and sending his [Message] spell.
“That is your opinion, Emperor Laken. But I will remind you that your army is the only force attempting to battle the Goblins. The [Lords] and [Ladies] stranded in Riverfarm are inactive, and the cities and towns have closed their gates.”
“Because none of them have an army. Because I levied their soldiers.”
“True. But the people hardly see it that way. To them, your empire is said to be the one safe place to be in the entire region. I have received two dozen [Messages] begging for your aid or further protection and just as many messengers await you.”
I shake my head. That’s just the lopsided, backhanded victory I need. I squeeze my shut eyelids, willing myself to see—but no, I can only see part of my army camped outside of the city limits. I look for a familiar face among the Humans, but I cannot sense Durene. I know she’s there.
“Sire? General Wiskeria has responded.”
A nervous voice interrupts my thoughts. I sense Nesor edge back into the room and Lady Rie makes a gesture. He gulps.
“S-she sends her acknowledgement of your commands, your Majesty. But she begs you to hold off another day.”
“For what, exactly?”
“She d-did not say, Lady Rie. Only that she wished to consult her options.”
Lady Rie makes a tsking sound.
“This is hardly the moment for prudence. The campaign against the Goblins is under scrutiny by the nobles in Riverfarm as well as powers outside. His Majesty must have a victory here. Is General Wiskeria not aware of that?”
“Forgive me my Lady, I did not—”
She falls silent. I sit in my chair. No choice. I feel like a fool after all my earlier bravado. People are dying. Dead. All because I didn’t strike the Goblins hard enough. I speak bitterly as I sense them nestled in the city. I can’t see them. But I know they’re there, infesting the spot. Like insects. Murderous monsters. Unthinking. I swore never to let my people suffer them again. And I will keep my promise.
“They’re taking away my sight, Lady Rie. They’re burning my lands. Killing my people. What would Wiskeria have me do? If this Goblin leader is a better strategist than she is—don’t let them run. We need to crush them here. Tell her to surround the city. She has the numerical advantage. Don’t let them escape. Use the two trebuchets and have Tessia construct more on the site if she can. Bombard the city until it is rubble. Let’s see the Goblins escape that.”
“Yes, your Majesty. Nesor? Send the [Message]. Don’t flinch. I will dictate it to you if need be. Emperor Laken, by your leave.”
Rie rises to give me space. I sit, my head bowed, heart pounding. I hate this. The necessity of it? No. I knew that was going to happen. But I hate sitting here while Durene will fight, while my people will fight and die for me as I sit and hide here, miles away. I interrupt Lady Rie before she can take Nesor to the next room.
“Rie? Tell Wiskeria to keep Durene safe, Lady Rie. She has to fight. But tell her—keep Durene safe.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The door closes. I sit, hearing Rie’s low voice. And wait. In my head the blank spots where the Goblins should be gnaws at my consciousness. They’re there. Out of sight. I can’t see. I can’t…see.
But then I see the two trebuchets being pulled forwards by oxen. I sense the [Engineers] and [Builders] rush forwards and detach the wheels, anchoring it on the ground. In my mind I see them dragging a huge block of stone forwards and then my breath catches.
She helps load the first trebuchet. I watch her as she steps back, as Tessia adjusts the aim. I see the arm go up and the boulder flies into the air. Out of sight.
For me, at least.
Rags sat on the battlements of the city wall. It was her turn to sit. Pyrite was sleeping. He’d been working ceaselessly while she had been out raiding. Thinking. Figuring things out. It was thanks to him that she now knew the secret of the Human’s strange sight. He had also kept the tribe running, tended to the injured Redfang Warriors. She was grateful for everything.
Now she knew. Rags recalled the brief conversation they’d had after she’d ravenously eaten. The news about the totems had made her hopping mad that she hadn’t figured it out before. But a larger issue had loomed in her mind.
“Can blind [Emperor]. But where is?”
Pyrite had had no answer to that. He’d shown her the map and shrugged helplessly.
“Sir Kerrig not know.”
“Sir Kerrig is smelly wolf poo.”
Rags sighed. She was faced with a stark choice. She could try to retreat and escape this Unseen Empire’s boundaries, stay until the Humans starved or besieged the city, or launch an assault. None of the prospects sounded appealing. But she had to make a move before the option was taken away from her.
At least she had time. The Humans would be stupid to attack her walls. They didn’t seem to have high-level [Mages] and their superior numbers meant very little to her fortified tribe. If Rags could only find their [Emperor] somehow, then she would have a plan. Maybe—
The Humans were doing something in their camp far away. Rags saw them swarming around a big, wooden thing and dragging a huge stone over to it. She didn’t think much about it until she heard a shout. Then she saw something flying towards her. She looked up. She saw a big block of stone hurtling through the air, falling towards the city. For a moment Rags just stared.
That couldn’t be possible. But it was. And it was falling.
Rags stared as the first boulder fell and shattered a portion of the walls. She looked out and saw a strange thing of metal and wood move. She saw an arm of wood go up, and saw a boulder fly high, high into the sky. It was impossible for something that heavy to move like that. It fell deceptively slowly, and landed with a thump that she felt in her bones.
She saw the chunk of stone gouge a hole in the streets and a piece of shrapnel strike a Goblin. She heard a scream and saw them scatter. The trebuchets launched another boulder. And another. Rags stared and turned her head. No matter where she looked she saw only Humans. Waiting.
And to the north, the Goblin Lord’s army marched on Tremborag’s mountain. The Great Chieftain heard them battering on the doors of his fortress home and roared in fury. His tribe rushed to the traps and defenses, shouting war cries as they clashed with the Goblin Lord’s forces. Tremborag bellowed one word to the Goblin Lord, a challenge.
Rags sat on her wall and felt the dizzying rush of thoughts coming together. She saw another boulder fly up and watched it land harmlessly outside the walls. She eyed the Humans, saw them scurry to reload, and nodded. She spoke softly.
“I have a plan.”