They appeared as dawn broke on the second day of the fighting. At first no one noticed. Goblins in black armor raced up the slopes, pouring into tunnels abandoned by Tremborag’s forces. They clashed further into the mountain as larger Hobs and Goblins wearing magical gear began entering at key points. The Goblin Lord was sending his officers into battle and the bloodshed was reaching an intensity far surpassing that of yesterday.
However, that fever pitch only applied to one side of the mountain. The Goblin Lord had elected to guard his camps rather than spread his forces across all sides of the mountain where he would surely be attacked. Thus, while the southern side was under direct siege and the eastern and western flanks were the site of ambush and flanking actions, the rear was silent. That was not to say it was unguarded.
The Goblins on duty weren’t Tremborag’s finest warriors, but nor were they his most incompetent. They stayed still, rotating out regularly in their hiding places, keeping guard in case the Goblin Lord’s forces tried sneaking around back. They’d already killed two such parties at different spots and the Goblins on duty weren’t worried. It would take a dedicated push to overwhelm their trapped tunnels and it seemed like the Goblin Lord didn’t care to take more tunnels than he had. So the Goblins weren’t quite as vigilant as they should have been. Then again, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been.
One of the tunnels located higher up the mountain was trapped with a collapsing tunnel. Unlike the other choke points or ambush sites, this trap was simple. If one of the six Goblin sentries hidden in an alcove at the back saw anything approaching, they would pull a rope and collapse several tons of rock and dirt on the intruders. The fact that six Goblins were still posted here was a sign of Garen’s watchfulness.
Currently, the sentries were taking turns guarding and napping. Four Goblins had to stay up while the other two got to sleep. It was a good system and it allowed the Goblins to remain still without getting annoyed at the wait. Aside from the occasional snore and sound of someone being kicked, they were silent.
The sentry closest to the tunnel could see the light beginning to grow outside. Dawn was coming and he was looking forwards to being relieved soon so he could eat. Of course, he might be called on to fight, but between eating and possibly dying or not eating, he was willing to take the risk. He’d been stationed here for eight hours and he was yawning when he saw something move.
Instantly, the Goblin grabbed his spear. The other Goblins looked up, alert. They peeked out of their alcove, staring for movement. They saw nothing. Only darkness, which to their eyes wasn’t that dark at all. The hungry sentry quickly relaxed as his mind identified the movement. It hadn’t been large enough to have been any kind of person. Rather, a rodent of some kind had entered the tunnel.
Sure enough, he saw something scurry across the ground. A little white mouse! It looked completely oblivious to the danger. The Goblin sentry licked his lips and lowered his spear. It wouldn’t be hard to grab the little thing and it would be a good snack, if he could eat it before his friends noticed. He edged forwards. The mouse scurried a few feet closer. The Goblin waited, tense, focused. One more foot…
The shadows behind the Goblin moved. A hand shot out and a black blade, invisible in the darkness, sliced across the Goblin’s neck. The Goblin choked. Surprised, his friends looked up. They saw a figure appear out of the shadows. They tried to scream, but the black dagger was faster.
The little white mouse scurried forwards until it came to the hiding place of the Goblins. It paused there, whiskers twitching, as it sniffed the air. Six figures lay in the small alcove. Two had died in their sleep. The other four had died almost instantly. The killer who had blended so perfectly with the shadows turned as she wiped her knife blade. She bent and made the first sound, offering her hand to the little mouse.
“Come on, Keri. Shh.”
The little mouse scurried up her sleeve. The Human woman smiled as she tucked Keri into her belt pouch. Then she took two steps and vanished into the shadows. She made no sound as she moved ahead. The [Rogue] listened carefully as she approached a point where her tunnel opened up into a larger one. She froze a few feet from a torch lit ahead of her and reached for Keri’s belt pouch again.
“It’s us, Minerva.”
Someone spoke ahead of her. Minerva froze, and then stepped into the light. She spotted nine other figures, most dressed in black, some in dark green or grey. She nodded at the man who’d spoken. He was holding a shortbow and crouching over a pair of dead Hobs. Each had an arrow through the eye.
His voice was low and reproving. Minerva shrugged.
“I cleared my tunnel.”
“With your pet mouse again? Too slow.”
“It gets the job done. Anyone run into difficulties?”
“None. They had a patrol and I think the two Hobs were about to check on things, but we heard them coming.”
The man nodded to the downed Hobs. Minerva nodded. She glanced around. One of the other figures was kneeling and fumbling with what looked like glowing chalk and a glowing blue mana stone. His grumbling was quiet, no more than a gnat’s buzzing. Still, all of the shadowy infiltrators heard him perfectly.
“Fecking rune inscriptions. Why can’t those idiotic [Mages] figure out a better way to draw this? Using a piece of parchment? Do they know how hard it is to draw on broken ground with chalk that breaks with every second—ah. Got it.”
He straightened and nodded at the others. Minerva saw him place the mana stone in the center of the diagram. To her eyes it looked like a circle with far too many wavy lines moving slowly towards the center in a dizzying pattern. But as the mana stone was placed she saw her leader, Jackal, lower his shortbow and pull a scroll out. He had a quill ready and wrote on the parchment. A short message, barely more than a word. Then he rolled the scroll up and tapped it twice on his palm. It glowed brightly, and then vanished.
“Sloppy. Mages have no idea how much that light travels.”
The grumbler had an opinion on the magic scroll too. Minerva agreed, but she kept her mouth shut as she stood in place. She didn’t have to wait long. The circle on the ground began to glow brightly and the mana stone shone with pure blue light. The nine others stood back and shielded their eyes, preserving their night vision. Minerva heard a low pop and then voices.
“Ah. Here we are. Someone send a [Message] spell back to the others and let them know we’ve arrived safely, would you?”
A half-Elf with bright silver eyes and a few grey hairs looked around. He didn’t appear as old as some of his companions—one was a woman with a classic witch’s hat who looked positively ancient—but he gave Minerva the same impression as her grandfather had. He was carrying a wand whose tip was set with a fiery gem carved to match the wood. His robes shimmered with an odd, pulsating pattern. He, like his companions, practically shone in the darkness.
Mages. They looked to Jackal. The [Ranger] grimaced.
“Can you cancel all those light spells? This is a stealth mission for the moment!”
“We’ll stay well behind you. But some of us need light to see.”
“Fine. Then we’ll take the attack group north. We’ve scouted ahead a small ways. We’ll launch the attack in seven minutes as planned. We’re on time.”
Jackal had a map. As the others crowded around he went over it. Minerva had already memorized it, but she looked anyways. The map was old, positively decrepit, but it was a good guide of what Dwarfhalls Rest had looked like in ages past.
“Remember your orders. Keep an eye out for Goblins in black armor and do not engage if possible. Defend yourselves if need be, but our goal is to cause havoc and retreat at the first sign of danger.”
The old [Witch] made a laughing, snorting sound.
“You don’t have to tell us that, boy. We’re not getting paid enough to die here.”
“Then keep an eye out for this Great Chieftain or his lieutenants. As soon we finish securing the area we’ll move in our warriors. So ward spells first. We’ll detrap if you hold here.”
One of the [Mages] was already looking towards the tunnel and muttering a spell. Jackal looked towards Minerva.
“While we do that, we’re sending another group on a scouting mission.”
The old half-Elf raised his eyebrows.
“No one spoke to me about that.”
“This isn’t part of our job. Five of us are going to look for prisoners. There’s a team that vanished here on reconnaissance a week ago. Keening Hunt.”
One of the [Mages] nodded.
“I’ve heard of them. You think they’re alive?”
Jackal didn’t immediately reply.
“If they are, we’ll find them.”
“If they are alive, they might not want to be.”
The old [Witch] tilted her pointed hat. Jackal looked at her.
“I have a pass that grants me a personal audience with the Healer of Tenbault. If they’re alive, they’ll be made whole.”
“Ah. Well, best of luck. We’ll hold things here.”
The [Witch] grinned, showing a few missing teeth. Jackal stood. Minerva and four others followed Jackal into the shadows as the [Mages] began casting ward spells, arguing quietly. The other four infiltrators slipped backwards, removing the traps they’d found on their way in. The [Mages] waited patiently in their now secure entryway, until they heard fast footsteps and the jingle of metal on metal. The [Witch] grinned and raised a gnarled staff.
“Alright. Enough waiting. We’re on a time limit, aren’t we? Let’s cause some trouble, children.”
She strode down the tunnel as the first of the Gold-rank [Warriors] and less stealthy classes raced into the tunnel. The [Witch] walked down the corridor until she saw a patrol of Goblins heading her way, to check on the defenders here. They stared as she grinned and raised her staff.
The explosion filled the tunnel with a roar of heat and flame. The Goblins vanished. The [Witch] cackled and the half-Elf with silver eyes sighed. Then he strode past her, wand raised. The adventurers behind him advanced as the alarm spread throughout the mountain.
“Humans? Why are they here?”
Reiss stared at Snapjaw as he stood over the rough map of Tremborag’s fortress. The Hobgoblin female shook her head.
“Dunno, Lord. But Humans are here! Throwing big spells!”
The Goblin Lord growled. Of all the times! He glanced at Osthia. The Drake was listening intently.
“Small number. Less than…thirty. All here. This here.”
Snapjaw struggled with the common tongue as she pointed to a spot far north of the fighting between Reiss and Tremborag’s forces. Reiss stared grimly at the spot.
The answering silence was all he needed to hear. Reiss stared at the occupied spot.
“How many dead Goblins?”
“Us? Few. Tremborag? Lots!”
Surprised, Reiss looked up. Snapjaw grinned.
“Adventurers aiming at his Goblins! Not many ours go there. Now big trouble for others!”
That was true. As Reiss studied the map he saw exactly how advantageous the spot was for his forces. They didn’t have to go near the Humans and Tremborag had another front to fight on. Still, the presence of so many Gold-rank adventurers made him uneasy. And the next report that came in from a breathless [Scout] made him warier still.
“Humans marching! Thousands! Thousands of thousands!”
Tremborag roared, throwing his scout across the banquet hall. Garen saw the little Goblin crash into a table and go still. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain didn’t care. He turned, roaring.
“An army? Now of all times?”
The news that came to both the Goblin Lord and Tremborag’s forces was like a physical blow. An army of Humans had been spotted marching towards the mountain. Fast.
“Many Humans coming this way. On horses! Many on foot behind. Moving fast!”
One of Garen’s remaining Redfang Warriors explained the situation, watching Tremborag warily. Garen peered at the map, growling as his warrior traced a huge wave of Humans coming south. Tremborag growled as well.
“Humans! Mounted on horses? And on foot?”
“Rushing. They must be using Skills to move their army here, Great Chieftain. They’ve left their slower forces behind. They’ll be here by nightfall.”
Ulvama’s voice was soft. Sultry. She stood by Tremborag, stroking his arm, trying to soothe him. But Tremborag was enraged. He turned towards Ulvama and she stepped back quickly.
“An army. Coming for the Goblin Lord at last? Or I? They already crawl into my mountain!”
“Gold-rank teams. Good ones.”
Garen had already heard the reports. [Mages], blasting any Goblins who approached down the tunnels, [Warriors] and [Rogues] pushing down other ones. He gritted his teeth, trying to figure out how to take down so many. If his tribe had been here—!
“We are surrounded, Great Chieftain.”
Ulvama tried not to look worried, but she and the other Goblins were clearly uneasy. Tremborag glared at her. Then, surprisingly, he laughed.
“Is my Chief [Shaman] afraid? Do you fear Humans more than the Goblin Lord, Ulvama?”
She didn’t immediately reply. Tremborag bent, staring at her with a giant grin.
“We are surrounded. But it is not just we. The Goblin Lord sees the Humans coming. And they come for him as well as I. But he is in the open. And I have my mountain!”
He turned to Garen. And now Tremborag’s eyes narrowed with calculation.
“We hold the mountain. If the Humans come, the Goblin Lord must fight or run. Is that not so, Redfang?”
Garen nodded. He was trying to imagine what Rags would say in this situation. Lacking her insight, he had to go with his gut, and he knew what Tremborag was thinking.
“Goblin Lord fights now and takes mountain. Or gives up and runs.”
“And the Humans have to choose between trying to besiege this mountain or chasing him. And then we will be fighting Humans in my domain. Easier than Goblins, perhaps.”
Tremborag grinned. Garen nodded too, but he was less certain. He stared at the map. Humans. Coming now. It made sense in one way—they had both Goblin sides occupied. But he felt uneasy, and not just because of the sudden attack. He felt like something else was coming, like a dagger in the night. He turned. Tremborag looked at him.
“Where are you going?”
Garen turned his head back as he drew his sword.
“Getting ready. You should too. Goblin Lord not running yet.”
“No. He will come here first.”
Tremborag smiled once more. He bared all his teeth and raised his voice.
“He will come into the mountain, rather than flee. So come, tribe! We go hunting for the Goblin Lord’s head.”
He roared and his Goblins roared with him. They streamed into the mountain as the waves of black Goblins began pouring in from every tunnel. And among them strode a Goblin with black eyes, surrounded by the undead and Hobs. He pointed and shot death from his fingertips. Tremborag roared as he tore into the Goblin Lord’s soldiers and Garen and his warriors entered the battle. Now they were on a time limit. At the same time, the Human adventurers who’d occupied the northern tunnels stopped advancing and fortified their position. They were waiting.
I have never seen lightning. But I have heard thunder. To me it is terrifying. A sound that comes during rain. Only, there is no flash of light to alert me. No hint. Just the boom of sound, sometimes terrifyingly close. I’ve often wondered what lightning must look like. A…fork of electricity hitting the ground? From the sky? I used to wonder.
Now I think I understand. Lightning is a flash of light. Something searing. A bolt of electricity from the heavens, extremely hot, striking out of nowhere. I feel one shoot through my body now, a bolt of pure energy. And the thunder is my racing heartbeat.
It’s too late to stop anything. Too late for anything but regrets. All the pieces are in motion. My army is clashing with the Goblins somewhere out of my range of—vision. I can still sense the two trebuchets, sense Tessia and her team rushing to reload the slings, wind back the arm. But what they are firing at, how the battle is going, I have no idea. All I can focus on is the small band rushing ever closer to my position.
“He warned me of this. I suppose I grew overconfident. Until I came here I didn’t know what seeing was like. So I forgot to watch my back. But I was warned. I wonder how he knew so much.”
I hear a nervous voice. I am sitting in my throne room, and my advisors are gathered around me. Two out of four, rather. Beniar and Wiskeria are fighting. Prost and Rie stand with me, as does Gamel. It is deathly silent here. They’re all watching me. But I have nothing to tell them about the battle. I’m thinking about treachery.
I was warned. I should have been more vigilant. Odveig, or rather, Sacra was one thing. But I was told by a…friend that spies would be the least of my trials. And they were right.
Someone knocked out Nesor. Someone sent a [Message] from Riverfarm ordering Wiskeria to attack. Or perhaps they didn’t need to be in Riverfarm? Only now do I realize how easy it is to fake a [Message] spell.
I should have established a password. I should have watched the nobles, put a guard on Nesor. But again, it is far too late for regrets. All my focus is turned towards Sir Kerrig, riding towards me.
Too late for peace? Perhaps. But I want to know what he has to say. As I focus on him another part of the landscape vanishes into oblivion. My vision of my lands is breaking, piece by piece. And only now do I see the pattern.
“What is? Emperor Laken?”
I don’t reply to Lady Rie. She sounds anxious. Prost and Gamel just watch me. Slowly, I stand. Thunder becomes my heartbeat.
“Sir Kerrig will reach the village in minutes. Prost, Gamel, Rie, with me. We have time so we might as well put on a show.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The two men fall in behind me as I stride from the throne. Lady Rie hesitates only a moment before following.
“Ah, your Majesty. How fortunate we could meet.”
A voice greets me the instant I leave the meeting hall. I turn my head, but I already know who stands there. Lady Bevia. I do not smile towards her as I’ve done before. She’s gathered the other nobles with her. And their retainers. She can sense it too. Or perhaps she knows something I don’t?
“Lady Bevia. Join me if you wish.”
I stride past her. Towards the eastern side of the village. I walk past rows of houses, many unfinished. But if I compare it to what Riverfarm looked like a month ago—we’ve done so much. I can tell my people are watching me, some following. They fear. I haven’t been a good leader of late. Making strategic decisions, managing my lands, all that is part of it. But the other part is being an [Emperor]. So I walk with my back held high.
Somewhere overhead, Frostwing is circling. Bismarck snuffles in the forest, hunting for snacks. I call them as I walk towards the gates. And now I hear hoof beats.
Close. I stop and wait, sensing a group of six riding towards me. The horses are lathered with sweat—they’ve changed them twice. One of the horses has lost a shoe. The riders look tired from the frantic ride. But here they are. I sense a man dressed in worn clothing in front.
Sir Kerrig. Perhaps he’s a handsome man. Perhaps he’s everything a [Knight] should be. Wiskeria seemed to think he was genuine. But in my mind he is just a man. Well-built, clearly muscled, but lacking anything else about him. He has no armor. He has a sword, borrowed from one of the soldiers. And as he draws his horse up and dismounts, I can sense him looking at me.
Behind me the villagers watch as Sir Kerrig hesitantly approaches. He glances past me at the waiting nobility, at Lady Rie and Mister Prost, at Gamel hovering warily at my side. What he thinks I can’t fathom. Slowly, Sir Kerrig bows deeply to me.
“Your Majesty. I beg forgiveness for my rude appearance and the unseemly nature of my request. I am Sir Kerrig Louis, a [Knight] sworn to the service of Lady Bethal Walchaís. I humbly beg a private audience—”
“You are too late.”
My voice is loud in my ears. Sir Kerrig breaks off, confused.
“You are too late, Sir Kerrig. A battle has begun between my army and the Goblins.”
A murmur sweeps through the people behind me. Anxious. Many did not know. I sense Sir Kerrig pale.
“But I was assured by your General—Emperor Laken, I beg you to reconsider! If there is a chance yet—”
The man shuts up. I stare towards the east more for the look for the thing than anything else. Now how would you say this? Old English?
“I am wroth with you, Sir Kerrig. Not just you. I have spies and saboteurs in my empire, it seems. Those who plot against me. Though I do not know what I have done to wrong them. They will be found and hunted. As for you—I am furious towards you, Sir Kerrig.”
I hear him gulp. He’s wise enough not to open his mouth, though. I wait a beat. Yes. I’m sure.
“Goblins. Peace. None of that bothers me. I wanted to listen to you. I held back because I wished to know what you had to say. But I should not have listened.”
Now. I turn my head towards Sir Kerrig and open my eyes. I don’t know what he sees. I’m told my eyes are different than…normal. A blind man’s eyes stare at him until I cannot help but blink. So I close my eyes.
“Tell me you did not conspire with the Goblins, Sir Kerrig. Swear to me here, on your honor as a [Knight].”
“Your Majesty! I would never do such a thing! I came here to broker peace, but treachery would go against everything I believe in!”
Sir Kerrig’s voice is genuine. I nod.
“I believe you. But that does not change the fact—”
I break off and turn my head east again. At first I thought it was just more sabotage. It was hard to spot a pattern. But the closer he got, the closer Sir Kerrig came, the more obvious it was. A marker falling here. A group of Goblins racing to hack another down. Another blank spot in my mind.
It’s like a spider web of oblivion around the Goblins. But the pattern changes towards Riveffarm. I sense a…path. Heading towards me. And another marker falls ten miles north. I know.
I turn my head back to Sir Kerrig. I smile at him, wearily. Thunder.
“You were followed, Sir Kerrig. The Goblins followed you here.”
I hear a sharp gasp from behind me. A scream. Someone faints. A noble. In the silence, before shock can become anything else, I turn.
“Mister Prost? Lady Rie? Raise the alarm. I want palisades built in every spot we can find. Arm every villager with weapons. The Goblins are coming.”
I turn and walk back into the village. Sir Kerrig stares at my back as people begin running. I ignore it all. In the distance I can sense the battle raging. And I pray, though there are no gods in this world.
“Don’t die, Durene. Be safe.”
Tyrion saw the [Message] flash into the scroll at his side. The [Lord] didn’t bother to stop riding—he transferred the reins to one hand and rode as his horse surged beneath him. The landscape blurred as he and his escort rode across the ground impossibly fast. Tyrion’s brow creased as he read the message once, and then twice. Then he tossed it over his shoulder.
A hand caught it. The man riding behind Tyrion inspected the scroll and Tyrion Veltras turned his head.
“We are moving too slowly. Advance to a gallop! Anyone unable to keep up will be left behind. Now. [Wildwind Ride]!”
The man behind him raised his fist.
The lines of riders behind the two sped up as if pushed from behind. The riders sped down the road, hurrying onwards. They had to be on time. Tyrion pushed ahead, demanding more speed from his warhorse. They could not afford to make a mistake. Not now.
Pyrite stood on the walls as the Humans marched towards him. The flurry of movement, the rush to prepare slowed before his eyes into a steady march. He nodded. That was basic. Running all the way towards the city would tire soldiers needlessly. Even a hundred foot dash mattered when a life-or-death fight stood at the end of it.
The way the army moved, the unsubtle way in which the infantry advanced with archers behind and the cavalry forming two wings on either wide, all of it told Pyrite that the army and leader was new. Raw. Inexperienced. For all that they were deadly. He remembered them attacking again and again. Dangerous. He didn’t underestimate Humans.
Around him, Pyrite could hear war horns bellowing. Goblins rushed to the walls with crossbows while more formed into their units of pikes or infantry. All without him needing to bellow orders. That was a testament to Rags’ skill. Pyrite slowly lifted his battleaxe and walked down the broken steps, taking care not to trip on rubble and break something. That would be…silly.
His nerves were humming, but Pyrite’s chest was surprisingly cold. The Humans roared as they advanced, beating drums, shouting a name.
Pyrite could hear them screaming other words.
“The Unseen Emperor!”
“Death to the Goblin scum!”
That last one was funny. It was hard to get a group to shout that. Pyrite shook his head. A good chant should be simple. Easy to grasp and repeat. Cadence mattered.
Cadence. What a nice word. It sounded to Pyrite like the measured gait of a horse. He stared blankly up at the blue sky for a moment as he paused before the gates. He could tell that hundreds, thousands of Goblins were looking at him. They were expecting his leadership. The problem was…Pyrite wasn’t angry.
Not at the moment. He just felt tired. Tired, upset—but not angry. And he needed to be. Pyrite understood what the Humans would do if they entered the city. So he dragged his gaze away from the sky and focused.
The Goblins at the gates straightened. They were ready to fend off waves of Humans. Pyrite looked around. Poisonbite and Quietstab were running towards him. They would do.
“Quietstab. Walls. You shoot Humans. Aim for archers. Poisonbite, sides. Keep Humans from entering city.”
Quietstab nodded. Poisonbite took one look around in disbelief.
“City has big holes in walls! By myself?”
Pyrite nodded absently. Poisonbite opened her mouth to shout and he looked at her. Something must have been on his face, because she waited for him to speak.
“You guard holes. Take some pikes. Your raiders. Guard. We go out.”
The Goblin stared at Pyrite. He nodded. He raised his voice.
“Pikes! Outside city! Hobs! Follow! Redfangs! Here!”
The Goblins didn’t hesitate. They were trained and more importantly, they respected him. They rushed out of the city, shouting, as Hobs followed them. Pyrite saw a group of Goblins with red stripes on their cheeks and arms approach.
One of them, a female Redfang, glanced up at him warily. Pyrite nodded.
“Special job. You follow. Rest go fight.”
They listened and then ran past Pyrite as he strode past the gates. The Goblins were all clustered in front of the city. The Human army had slowed its advance, clearly surprised. Pyrite was not. He pointed and shouted.
“Big walls are back-shield! Move there!”
The Goblins understood. Instantly, they backed up, until their backs were to the walls of the shattered city. Pyrite nodded. Yes, this made sense. Defending a city with big holes in its walls was hard. Especially since a lot of the weapons the Goblins used would be cumbersome on the battlements. The Humans had reach and the numbers to flood the gaps. But fighting with their backs to the walls would prevent the Goblins from being surrounded. And the Goblins with crossbows now had a massive height advantage over the Humans with bows.
The Humans were coming. Pyrite stared at the rows of pikes. The Humans had nothing like them. Long, twenty plus staves of wood, sharpened to a point and capped with metal tips. Oh, the Humans had spears and shorter pikes of their own, but Rags had drilled her Goblins to use these extreme versions in combat.
They hadn’t done much good against the Humans before. The nighttime raids, the way the Humans had picked apart his defenses—all of that had driven Pyrite to despair. But as Rags had pointed out, that wasn’t how the pikes were meant to be used. And back then his tribe had been suffering from the poison gas. Most hadn’t been able to breathe.
They could breathe now. Pyrite strode towards the front of the army. He passed by rows of Goblins. They looked at him. Some waved. Pyrite nodded to them, grunting. He wished he had something to chew. But he’d choke on that.
There was a line of a hundred Hobs waiting just behind the front row of pike Goblins. They turned as Pyrite walked past them. They were all veterans of battle. They all came from different tribes. They grinned as Pyrite passed. A Hobgoblin with feathers behind both ears sharpened her iron axe. Another, gaunt and thin, squatted with two spears in hand. He stood as Pyrite passed and spoke a word.
He was from Pyrite’s tribe. Another Goblin with a crude piercing in her ear grinned at him. She had brighter red eyes than most. Yet another Hob reached out and Pyrite touched fists gently. The Hob grinned, exposing a missing gap in his teeth.
Friends. Pyrite knew some by name. Others had no names but he knew their face, the way they ate. Pyrite strode to the head of the unit of Hobs and stared at the Human army. Closer now. They were slowing and he could hear someone shouting orders, trying to time their charge.
Now would be the time. Pyrite looked up at the sky, and then around. A sea of green faces and red eyes stared at him. There was fear there. Trust too. Pyrite knew this was the moment. But he was still not angry. Not yet. So he looked up and searched the lines of Humans until—
Ah. There. He saw a familiar Human among the rest. One of the riders were covered in steel armor. So was his warhorse. He was gesturing excitedly. Pyrite remembered him riding through the camp, cutting down Goblins, shouting at his soldiers to slaughter them in the dark. The Chieftain felt something jump in his chest.
Then he saw the Human woman in the pointed hat. He remembered her too. He remembered poison, a dark cloud stealing over the camp. He remembered the sound of Goblins choking, the burning in the air. He remembered the dead. He remembered a grieving child.
That was enough. Pyrite lifted his battleaxe. It didn’t feel so heavy now. He let the feeling build in his chest. Helplessness. Fury. Anger. Grief. He had told Sir Kerrig, told Welca Vis that his tribe didn’t fight Humans. But that wasn’t true. Mostly they’d run. But sometimes you fought. Sometimes it was fight or die. Sometimes it mattered. Pyrite took a deep breath and roared.
There was no word. The sound froze the Humans. It tore through the air, a bellow, a blast of sound louder than the drums, the thump of a trebuchet firing. It was the sound of rage. Pyrite roared again and saw the Humans flinch. He pointed his battleaxe. His voice was raw as he bellowed.
The Goblins did. The stunned Humans were over a hundred feet away. It was bad to run so far. But it was worse to stand and watch something coming at you. The nerve of the front row broke. They charged, ignoring their officer’s calls to wait for the signal.
Pyrite was not in the first wave. He heard the Goblins screaming, a high-pitched sound mixed with the roars of the Hobs. He saw the pikes reach the Human lines, saw the Humans trying to slow, raise shields. Too late. The front row of pike Goblins speared the Humans and then the second wave ran past the pikes and attacked the survivors.
The scream came from Human lines. The pike charge was deadly. Across the battlefield the front rank of the Human army collided with the Goblins and disappeared. Then the second wave of Goblins rolled in, fighting with the thrusting pikes.
Pyrite roared as he charged forwards. The Goblins in front of him heard the sound and moved, some dropping their pikes to get out of the way. The Human soldiers rushed into the gap, and then saw Pyrite leading a hundred of the biggest Hobs straight at them.
Most Humans had not seen a Hob before. They laughed at the idea of a Goblin as big as they were. They screamed as Pyrite charged. The Hob lifted his battleaxe and swung it at the first Humans holding a tower shield. He felt the enchanted axe slice through the wooden shield and felt resistance. He bellowed as he swung through and saw the Human go flying in two pieces.
The battleaxe wasn’t like his old axe. When Pyrite swung it, he had to put every inch of force he possessed into the swing. No one could stand around him. With each swing, Pyrite cut down Humans, the enchanted axe burning through flesh, setting Humans ablaze. He struck the earth and watched flames burst from the axe head, scaring the Humans.
Forwards. Behind and around Pyrite the Hobs charged the Humans overwhelming them. The Hob with feathers behind her ears grabbed a shield and pulled it aside before cleaving a skull in. The Hob with two spears charged, throwing one before impaling someone else on the second. The lines of Humans wavered as Pyrite led his group forwards.
But that was one spot on the battle. Pyrite stopped after advancing fifteen paces and stared around. Where was—
There. The Human in armor was circling. He hadn’t been part of the clash of infantry. His cavalry were aiming for the Goblin’s weak spot. And he had found it! An unguarded right flank. The pike Goblins were pressing forwards, forgetting to watch their right in their excitement. And in the Humans came. They charged forwards, whooping, holding their shields up as the Goblins on the walls pelted them with arrows, trying to slow them. Too late. They hit the Goblins from the side.
“We’ve got them! Those damn pikes don’t mean a thing if they aren’t pointed our way! Hit them and cut in!”
Beniar shouted as he charged into the group of Goblins. He looked down at the first Goblin and was rewarded with a green face staring up at him in horror. His blade slashed down—
And the Goblin blocked it. Beniar felt his blade bounce off a buckler. As the momentum carried him forwards, Beniar half-turned his head to stare back. He saw the Goblin stagger with the blow, and then turn. And grin. And then Beniar has to twist in his saddle or be impaled on an enchanted spear aimed for his belly.
The charge of his cavalry had stopped. The Goblins were fighting back! Some had been killed in the first charge, but the rest were dodging and parrying and blocking strikes from above and cutting back with skill. Beniar felt his stomach lurch. These weren’t ordinary Goblins! And then he saw the red stripes painted on the Goblin with the spear that was trying to unhorse him.
Redfang Goblins. They abandoned their pikes and disguises and drew their weapons. Beniar’s cavalry found themselves surrounded by veterans. They shouted in panic, trying to wheel, but the Redfang Warriors darted past them, hamstringing horses and swarming the individual riders.
“Fall back! Retreat!”
The [Captain] howled the words and tried to turn. But the Redfangs refused to let his force go, and then Beniar saw another group headed towards them. Not Humans. Goblins mounted on Carn Wolves. Beniar fought desperately to break free, slashing a Redfang Warrior across the head and cutting down another. He and his [Riders] raced away as the Carn Wolves chased them. They had to pull back towards the safety of their army, which meant that the mounted Redfangs were free to attack with no one to chase them.
Pyrite heard a howl as the Redfangs mounted on Carn Wolves rode past him. They charged into the Humans’ flank from the right. Pyrite pointed and bellowed.
Instantly he and his Hobs charged towards the same spot. The Humans were crushed between both forces and broke, screaming. Pyrite pointed and the Redfang [Raid Leader] nodded. She whistled and her warriors broke away. They rode back to another spot on the battlefield where the Goblins were struggling to fight the Humans.
Across the battlefield, Pyrite could sense the Human [General] struggling to keep up. He bared his teeth, feeling the blood on his chest and arms cooling. It wasn’t so easy, was it? Not in a fair fight. An ambush was one thing, but this? This was strategy! This was tactics! And his tribe was better than the Humans. He turned, ready to slash across the Humans now their right flank was gone. That was when he saw her.
Among the Humans there was little variation in height. They were tall and they were short, but compared to the Goblins and Hobs they were uniform. Except for one. A tall, grey-skinned…warrior was fighting on the left flank. And she was the tallest person Pyrite had seen save for Tremborag himself.
Her skin was grey, like stone. It had cracks in it, as if her body were still part earth. But though her shoulders were broad and she wore thick leather armor, she was clearly female. A crude metal helmet guarded her face and she carried a massive wooden club and a shield that looked like it had been a door once. Even Goblins would agree that her equipment looked patchwork. But when she swung her club—
Pyrite saw a Hob try to guard against the swing. He saw the Hob raise a round shield, saw the club smash into the shield, deform the metal, crush the Hob’s head. The next swing battered the dead Hob aside as if he were a leaf. The warrior with the club turned and swung at a series of pikes rushing towards her. The blow shattered the thick wood and tore the pikes from the Goblin’s hands. The second swing scattered Goblins, breaking their line.
Humans rushed past the grey-skinned female as she took a breath. She raised her shield and blocked a flurry of crossbow bolts aimed at her. One passed by her shield and struck her in the shoulder. She staggered, but the bolt fell from her shoulder. It hadn’t managed to puncture her skin.
Pyrite stared. What was that strange warrior? She was no Human. He tried to fit her appearance, but it was only after he heard her bellow and swing again that the image clicked in his head.
Troll. Or rather, half-Troll. She was too small to be a true Troll. But half-Troll or not, she was single-handedly pushing his tribe back! Pyrite saw her swing and kill a group of five Goblins charging her. His eyes narrowed. Pyrite pointed.
His Hobs turned. They stormed after Pyrite as he charged across the battlefield towards the half-Troll. She turned as he approached and a warning went up.
“The Chieftain’s coming! Durene, get back!”
She refused to run. Durene, if that was her name, spread her arms and raised her bloody club and shield. Pyrite roared as he charged towards her. They met in a clash as he swung his battleaxe and she swung her club.
His swing was too slow. Pyrite realized it halfway and changed his grip. He lifted his battleaxe instead to catch the club as it came down towards his head. He caught the blow on the steel haft of the battleaxe. He was ready for a crushing blow. He braced and then—
Something struck Pyrite from above. He heard a crack as his arms gave way, and then the force of the blow knocked him off his feet. He hit the ground harder than he could remember in years. Pyrite blinked upwards, dazed. His arm felt—bad. Then he saw the club rising and heard the cheers. Pyrite watched it go up and then fall down. Then he remembered he should dodge.
He rolled and heard another thud. The impact alone made his bones vibrate! Pyrite got up, reached for his battleaxe, and realized it was on the ground. He reached for it and saw a wall of wood coming at him.
Durene charged Pyrite with her shield up. Instinctively Pyrite grabbed it to push her back, but she slammed the shield into his face! Again, Pyrite felt his head go white. He reached up and grabbed the arm as Durene raised her club to strike him. He saw her arm tense—
With one twist, Durene flung Pyrite backwards. He crashed into two Hobs who cried out from pain as he landed. Pyrite felt them push at him and got up slowly. He stared at Durene as the Humans around her cheered.
Strong. Far, far too strong. Pyrite had seen Trolls fight. He’d fought a Troll once. Durene wasn’t as strong as a troll. She was stronger. Somehow.
How? Pyrite’s mind raced as he saw Durene adjust her grip and come charging towards him. His mind worked frantically even as his body ran forwards. It had to be a Skill. A strength Skill. Imagine a Troll with [Lesser Strength] or—
Another swing from the club. This one came from the side, right at stomach-level. Pyrite dropped and rolled under it. He heard a grunt of surprise—Durene must not have thought he could move that fast. On the ground, Pyrite stared up. She was turning, arm raised for another killing blow.
Confidence in her eyes. She knew she was strong. She must not have ever met anyone stronger. And she wouldn’t on this battlefield. Pyrite knew he was too weak. He didn’t have his battleaxe. Still. He stared as the club began to fall and stood. As he did he grabbed the half-Troll girl’s inner knee and pulled up.
It wasn’t easy. Durene was as big as Pyrite and heavy. She was braced and poised well. Another Skill? But Pyrite was strong and he had her leg. He just had to pull up and then Durene was standing on one leg. Her club struck his shoulder hard and Pyrite groaned as he felt another crack, but she had bad posture. Durene waved her arms and cursed and Pyrite pulled her leg up a tiny bit more.
Down she went. Durene felt as the Humans and Hobs fell around her. She lost her grip on her shield, dropped her club to break her fall. She surged up as Pyrite stood and checked himself. He nodded as Durene grabbed her club. Then he kicked her in the face.
She didn’t expect that. Pyrite was fat, but his legs were strong and he was good at balancing. Durene staggered back, tried to stand, and tripped as Pyrite stepped on her foot. She shouted something, fell on her back, and then Pyrite stomped on her stomach. He put all of his body into the blow and felt her spasm. Durene curled up into a ball and puked. Pyrite wandered away.
Strong. Very strong. And tough. She nearly killed him. But she wasn’t experienced. Pyrite thought about trying to keep her on the ground but he’d cut his foot open kicking her in the helmet and he was worried she could tear his leg off if she caught it. So he went for his battleaxe. It was lying in the mud, the head burning. A Human tried to stop him and Pyrite casually punched him. When he lifted the battleaxe Durene was on her feet. And she was angry.
She’d grabbed her shield. With her club in hand she roared at Pyrite. There was no words, just rage. Pyrite nodded. He waited. This time he waited until she was swinging. Durene came at him with another vertical smash. Pyrite planted his battleaxe in the ground, aimed the head, and ducked.
The club crashed into the head of the enchanted battleaxe. The blow drove the butt and haft of the battleaxe into the earth, but the weapon didn’t break. It was magical. And the head bit into the club and set the bloody wood aflame. As Durene jerked it back with a shout of surprise and horror, the weakened club broke in her hands. She stared at the handle in horror and saw Pyrite raise his battleaxe. She lifted her shield and he swung.
The scream that Pyrite heard came from two places. The half-Troll girl staggered backwards, a hand over her chest. Red blood and smoke dripped from the place where he had cut her. She stared at Pyrite. He raised his axe for another blow and saw the armored rider charging him.
“Face me, Goblin!”
Beniar howled as he charged Pyrite. The Hob shifted his stance and swung. Beniar swore as he turned his horse too late. Pyrite cut down the horse and would have killed Beniar if it weren’t for the last-minute change. Beniar fell to the ground but was up in a moment. He faced off against Pyrite with sword and shield in hand as Humans rushed to pull Durene back, screaming for healing potions. Pyrite saw the Human shift. He was wearing good armor. Pyrite saw his hand lower, and then Beniar stabbed towards Pyrite’s chest.
The Hob caught the sword in his hand. Beniar jerked, and stared as the blade pierced Pyrite’s hand but failed to enter his chest. The Hob lifted his battleaxe with his other hand and swung. Beniar raised his shield. The metal crumpled. His armor crumpled. His ribs broke. He collapsed and Pyrite yanked the sword from out of his hand. Pain made his head swim, but he raised his axe again.
Bright flames burnt Pyrite’s face. He roared, trying to smother the magical flames that enveloped his face. But the conflagration didn’t go out. Pyrite’s hands shot towards his belt and he grabbed the little glass bottle there. He smashed it against his head and the soothing healing potion extinguished the magical fire. Howling in pain, Pyrite looked around as he felt his burnt skin healing. He saw a row of Humans in front of him, felt an arrow strike his shoulder and another land in his gut. He saw them pulling Beniar and Durene back and then saw the [Witch].
She was standing, aiming a wand at him not twenty paces away. Rows of Human [Soldiers] separated the two. She opened her mouth for another spell and Pyrite ducked. The bright flames missed his head. Pyrite saw a Human charge him and felt another lancing pain in his side. He growled and a Hob tore the Human’s sword away and slashed across his face with an axe.
Twofeather covered Pyrite as more Hobs rushed forwards. They fought with the Humans as the [Witch] cast more magic. Hobs retreated, burning and howling while the rest fought. Twofeathers urged Pyrite back. He didn’t want to go.
“Pyrite! Danger, danger! You go back!”
She pointed back a few paces, where Goblins were rushing past him. Pyrite growled, but then stepped back. Only when the bloodlust cleared from his head did he realize how close he’d come to death. It felt like the last few moments had taken hours, but in truth bare minutes had passed. He looked around.
The Humans were losing. Across the battlefield the Goblins were pushing them back. It wasn’t a victory everywhere, but the numerical superiority of the Humans had failed before the Goblin’s superior tactics and experience. The Humans couldn’t face the Hobs or the experienced Redfang Warriors. And with both their cavalry leader and Durene out of the picture they were losing hope.
Pyrite saw it all clearly from where he stood. The [Witch] or [General] or whoever she was still held the line, but she had attracted Noears’ attention. From the walls of the city Pyrite saw a flash and then a lightning bolt blasted apart a group of Humans near the [Witch]. She was forced to flee further back as Noears shot more lightning.
It wasn’t victory. Not yet. But Pyrite knew it could be taken. He just had to push further in, cut the Humans in two. Overwhelm them from all sides. He could do it. But for a moment, a brief moment, Pyrite leaned on his battleaxe. He was tired. Hurt. He could smell his blood, burnt skin, and tell he had cracked bones the healing potion had yet to mend. Pyrite stared at the battlefield, at the Humans and Goblins bleeding and dying, and looked up. Absently he thought of a poem.
Ah, how red, how red
The living and the dead
Dying here with blue sky
Yet for my people living and dead,
Until my last drop is shed,
I’ll dye my hands this crimson red.
Then he came back to himself. Pyrite lifted his battleaxe and roared a word.
The Goblins heard him and cheering, rushed forwards. The Humans retreated. Pyrite strode forwards and his gaze turned west. It was a battle here. One he would win. It wasn’t one Rags had expected, but she had prepared him, prepared her tribe for it nonetheless. He hoped she would win her own battle.
Pyrite murmured. Then he lifted his battleaxe and swung. The Humans fell back, screaming, running before him. It was probably something on his face.
As the Flooded Waters tribe fought with the Unseen Empire’s army, a separate group of Goblins raced out of the forest. They had been camped around a broken totem, a wooden marker chopped down and then burnt to charcoal. They had been hiding, moving from marker to marker while sending small groups ahead to destroy the ones ahead. But they were close enough to their destination now. They abandoned their cover and raced out of the forest.
Sixty Goblins riding Carn Wolves rode down the dirt road, shouting, urging their mounts to race faster. They abandoned silence and their wolves howled. Fear raced ahead of them. The Goblins were coming. But not to slaughter. Not yet.
Rags had made that clear. She had told Redscar that if he wouldn’t follow her orders he could stay behind. That he was riding with her now at the head of his Redfang warriors meant he was obeying…or pretending to. She glanced at him as she rode up and down in her wolf’s saddle. His face was set, his teeth bared as he raced next to her with his enchanted sword unsheathed.
No. He had been Garen’s second-in-command. He obeyed and because he was a true Goblin, he obeyed even the orders he didn’t like. It would take truly terrible orders for him to rebel as he had once done to Garen. Something that went against both pride and common sense. And this was not a mistake. This was Rags’ plan.
The village was smaller than Rags expected as she rode towards it. Not that she’d expected a village. She’d assumed the [Emperor] would live in a huge palace. Or a castle. At the very least, a city. She hadn’t believed Pyrite when he’d pointed out the village named Riverfarm as the likeliest spot where the Unseen Emperor lived. But Sir Kerrig had gone straight into the village so Rags was certain.
She had also anticipated defenses, but the most the Humans had come up with was a thin line of stakes at the entry points around the village. They must have truly been caught off-guard. Rags saw a group of Humans installing the crude palisades at another entrance to the rows of houses race into the village, calling an alarm. The rest were already gathered at the eastern gate as she slowed. A sea of Human faces stared up at Rags, most white with terror. A few looked calmer, but all were tense. Her eyes flicked from face to face. Now, which one would be the [Emperor]?
A voice shouted at Rags in fury. She looked and saw Sir Kerrig. He was breathing hard. He’d raced here on his horse. If Rags hadn’t had her [Fleet Foot] Skill that allowed her to rest her warriors while running to keep up with the Carn Wolves, they might have been just as tired.
The [Knight] was mounted and holding a plain iron sword and shield. He looked angry. Sir Kerrig pointed the tip of his sword towards Rags’ heart as Redscar surveyed the crowd and silently pointed, spacing his warriors out.
“You lied to me.”
Rags stared calmly at Sir Kerrig. She considered his words and then shrugged nonchalantly. It was a Goblin shrug. Sir Kerrig stared at her, face pale with fury.
“I trusted you to keep your word. I trusted your honor!”
The small Goblin grinned at Sir Kerrig. She bared her teeth.
“And this is how much I trust Humans.”
With that she turned and ignored Sir Kerrig completely. Which one? She looked for those without as much fear to begin with. She spotted a woman in a [Maid]’s dress staring at her in the crowd. No. She saw an old [Lady] standing at the head of a group of rich nobles. Rags eyed them, but all the male nobles looked ready to pee. No.
Then Rags spotted an odd group. A woman in a rich dress, an older man who looked like a [Farmer]. A young man with a hand protectively over his sword and…Rags felt a jolt. It was him.
It was easy in hindsight. Out of the entire crowd, only the [Emperor] wasn’t looking at her. His head was turned east and his eyes were closed. The Unseen Emperor slowly turned his head and Rags felt a prickling chill run down her skin. He wasn’t looking directly at her. His eyes were closed. But she knew he was looking nonetheless. This was the feeling she’d felt the entire time she was in his lands. The feeling of being watched.
The Humans stared at Rags as Redscar tilted his head and nodded. His Carn Wolves were surrounding the entrance to the village. There were wooden spikes set into the ground and a lot of the villagers were armed, but few had armor. These weren’t soldiers. If Rags ordered the attack it would be a slaughter. The Goblin Chieftain assessed the crowd, eyed Sir Kerrig and nodded to him. Redscar positioned five of his warriors to face off against the [Knight].
Good. All was set. Rags reached for the crossbow at her back. When she drew it, all the Humans tensed. She saw the Human with the sword move in front of the [Emperor]. Rags casually pointed her black crossbow with two hands towards the Unseen Emperor, her elusive foe. She grinned in the silence.
“Time for peace talk?”
The first time I hear her voice is a shock. At first I can’t believe that this is the Goblin Chieftain. I recognize her of course. Dimly. I have sensed all the Goblins who came onto my land. But while I noticed the fat Goblin with the battleaxe, the one with the enchanted longsword and scar, and so on, I never expected this one to be the Chieftain who has done so much harm.
She’s so small. And when she speaks I know she’s also young. It’s not just her words. All the Goblins apparently sound like non-native speakers. But her voice is so…
A child. A child leading monsters. A child monster. Only—a child and a monster don’t go together. For a moment I’m frozen with shock. But I can’t process the emotions running through me. A crossbow is aimed at my chest and while I’m sure Gamel would throw himself in front of the bolt, it would probably go through him and me. So I stand and brush him aside.
“You are the Chieftain of this Goblin Tribe? The…Flooded Waters tribe?”
The small Goblin looks slightly surprised. She must be wondering how I can see her without eyes. But she nods as if blind men aren’t the strangest thing she’s seen today.
“Am. Am Rags. Chieftain.”
I hear a murmur behind me. I ignore it.
“I am Laken Godart. [Emperor] of these lands.”
How casually she says the word. The response it provokes among my people is instantaneous. Half shout in outrage. They might have done more than raise the weapons they hold, but the snarling Carn Wolves made them hold back. I raise a hand for silence.
“Some people would argue that one cannot murder Goblins. Some would say they are not people.”
It’s a calculated risk. I sense the Goblin with the scar on his face recoil, sense the way his hand tightens on the hilt of his sword and the other Goblins tense. But the small Goblin tilts her head thoughtfully.
“Can say that. I say same thing about Humans. There.”
It’s almost funny. For a sick moment I’m tempted to laugh. Then I remember myself and so I laugh anyways. The others stare at me. But they don’t matter. Not right now. In this moment it’s only this small Goblin and I. Rags? We stand alone, talking to each other.
“I thought all Goblins were monsters. You see, a raiding party attacked my empire. They killed my people. They would have killed us all.”
“You have nothing to defend their actions?”
A touch of heat enters her voice.
“Why do I need defend? Humans do same to Goblins.”
I nod slowly. Gods. All the pieces are falling together. Listen to her talk! She sounds so—what have I been doing? What have I done? An angry voice shouts out behind me.
“This is absurd! Goblins are not the same as Humans!”
“Lord Tourant, be silent.”
I hear the [Lord]’s voice muffle itself and ignore the scuffle behind me. Rags is tilting her head, inspecting me carefully. Without fear. She’s curious.
“Why close eyes? Bad eyes?”
Head tilt. She squints at me. All the while the crossbow never wavers.
“How can see?”
“Skill. Special [Emperor] Skill.”
She pauses. I wait a beat but she doesn’t ask anything more. I want—if there was a way—but not now. I fear what will come, but I try anyways.
“What you said? About peace treaty? You want talk?”
She scowls. I sense that quite clearly. She points at me with one hand while she keeps the other hand steady, balancing the crossbow on her wolf’s head. It whines softly.
“No talk bad! I can talk like you. You do not talk like I do!”
“Very well. What do you want? Peace? This is hardly peaceful.”
“Is it not? This way is best way! Peace! I point this at you and if you don’t make peace, I shoot you.”
Outrage around me. I smile. There’s something so refreshing about that.
“If you shoot me, my people will kill you. You will not escape these lands alive.”
Rags gives me a long, blank look.
“Right. That why peace works.”
A stalemate. I slowly nod.
“So then. What is your peace, Chieftain Rags?”
She pauses. It hurts to sense how delighted she is to be called Chieftain. My chest burns with pain.
“Peace is simple. You take army away from city. I take my army away from lands. Your army not follow. I go. You let leave.”
Again, Rags’ words provoke an uproar, but not from my people. Rather, it’s the nobles and Lady Rie who react. She whispers urgently into my ears.
“Your majesty, she can’t be serious! If we let a Goblin tribe roam free your reputation—”
He pulls Lady Rie back, ignoring her outrage. I tap my chin with a finger.
“And your proof that you won’t turn back and continue raiding my lands?”
Another shrug. It seems very Goblin.
“No proof. You send army if I come back. We fight again.”
“That’s not good enough.”
She shifts on her wolf’s back testily.
“Not good enough? Goblins are stinking cowards. We run away! I make peace. Don’t have to. Could kill you now.”
She lifts the crossbow as proof of her bona fides. I sense Gamel tense again. If it comes to it…Bismarck is waiting behind one of the houses. I have close to a thousand of my subjects here. The rest are hiding with those unable to fight. The nobles have their entourage as well. Not enough. Sixty elite Goblins plus their wolves…that’s like a hundred and twenty warriors. It will be a slaughter.
“How would the peace work? I tell my soldiers to go? What will you do?”
Rags bares her teeth. They’re sharp. Small.
“You send message. Tell them to go. Then we go. We stand here one hour. Then I go.”
She wants us to stand here for an hour? It might work. It could work. I want to laugh. I want to tell her to lower the crossbow, to sit, to let me apologize and ask her—but I shake my head.
“It’s a good plan. It might have worked. But I’m sorry, Chieftain Rags. There will be no peace.”
Behind me, Lady Rie inhales sharply. I see Rags waver. For the first time she looks surprised. Uncertain.
I wait before responding. When I do, my voice is steady. I can say the words now. Pain—pain has already done its work.
“You came too late, Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe. Our armies have already fought. Someone ordered my army to assault your tribe. The battle is lost. Your tribe won.”
A moan rises from the crowd. I feel the horror rise around me, see faces turn to me with terror mounting. Rags stares at me. The crossbow wavers.
“My tribe won?”
I nod. In my head I sense Humans fleeing, drawing back, fighting around the totem. Where is Durene?
“Is winning, rather. They’re retreating. Your tribe is chasing them.”
The Goblin with the red scar leans over to talk urgently to his Chieftain. Rags listens, half shaking her head. Is he suggesting to kill us now that they’ve won? Rags looks back at me and now her voice is very uncertain.
“Tribe won. Is good. Humans wrong to attack. Stupid. Can still…make peace.”
I smile at her. She stares at me, just like a child.
“You slaughtered my people. You killed them. And Durene—I think you’ve taken too much from me, Rags. Your race started this war. I escalated it. For that I am sorry. But too many have died.”
I spread my arms. I can sense them. I can remember. Each person her Goblins slew. Each child burnt in a building, or mother killed while fleeing. Each father or son or daughter who died. It hurts. And I cannot sense Durene.
Rags lifts her crossbow.
“You fight and you die. Your people die.”
“There are thousands of my people here and sixty of you. I have soldiers too.”
“Emperor Laken, your majesty, let us not be hasty here. Surely there is something we can do to avoid conflict.”
To my greatest surprise, someone interrupts Rags’ reply. An old voice. Lady Bevia. She speaks up as the [Mage] next to her urgently whispers. She brushes him aside and treats me and Rags to a charming smile. I can feel myself growing calmer.
“Chieftain Rags, was it? Your Majesty, this young Goblin speaks sense. I would hate to see needless bloodshed—”
The [Mage]. He’s whispering to her. What does she know? Why is she trying to defuse the situation? I turn towards Lady Bevia and sense Rags spotting the same things I have. She shifts her crossbow’s aim for a second.
“No talk! Stop using Skill!”
“I am only trying to—”
“Be silent, Lady Bevia. There is no more room for negotiation. I have made up my mind.”
Around me I sense a vibration in the air. The atmosphere is taut. My people have gone deathly still. They are waiting. Rags hesitates. She lifts her weapon uneasily.
“I have crossbow. You surrender. Now!”
I laugh. There’s a bit of madness there. He was right. An [Emperor] can do many things. But some things—no.
We stare at each other, the small Goblin and I. Without eyes. For a second I waver. So young. If we had met another way, we might even have understood each other. But my empire bleeds. My people are dead. And when I look at her in my mind’s eye, truly look at her, I don’t think she wants peace either. There’s a monster in both of us. Waiting. So I let it out.
“Take the Goblins. Do not let them escape. Do not rest until they are all dead.”
I hear a howl. I sense Rags jerk, see the red scarred Goblin point at me, Sir Kerrig leaping into motion. I can sense her finger pulling the trigger, sense the crossbow aiming at me. I feel Gamel lunge at me, knock me down. The bolt grazes my left cheek, goes into someone behind me. I hit the ground as people rush around me. And I hear the screams.
Rags saw the first bolt miss the [Emperor]. The second wasn’t aimed at him. It took the [Mage] she’d seen straight through the neck. He dropped, nearly falling on the old [Lady] who’d spoken. Rags saw the woman stumble backwards, face grey as her warriors surged forwards. Rags pointed and threw fire into the crowd as she struggled to reload.
Where was he? There! He was moving backwards, fleeing into the village! Rags heard a terrifying roar and turned her head to see a giant green bear charging out of the village towards her warriors. Three Redfang Warriors turned to ride at it. The rest were fighting the crowd. Five were dueling Sir Kerrig!
She howled the name as she struggled to reload her crossbow. The Humans were shielding the [Emperor]. She’d never get a clear shot! Redscar looked at her, his sword bathed in blood. Rags pointed.
The [Emperor] turned his head as Redscar charged. The current leader of the Redfangs rode a Carn Wolf larger than all but Garen Redfang. He had raised the wolf cub since he had been born. Now he charged into the Humans with cleavers, pitchforks, and other weapons, ignoring their attempts to unseat him. His Carn Wolf snarled and leapt over the crowd, crushing more where it landed. Its fur resisted the blows around it and Redscar slashed left and right, cutting Humans down. But with each passing second the [Emperor] was drawing further away.
“Stop! Stop this madness!”
Sir Kerrig was trying to fight his way to Rags. She ignored him. Her eyes were on Redscar and the Emperor. Laken. He had run a dozen feet down the street. He was headed for one of the houses. If he could get inside he’d barricade himself in with all the other Humans. Redscar was racing at him.
A Human stood in the way. A young man with a sword and padded jerkin. He was inexperienced but he swung well. Redscar leaned back and slashed him across the chest as he passed. The young man fell, bleeding but not dead.
Next, the woman in the dress. She fled to one side. Next an old man, the [Farmer]. He had a sword too and swung clumsily at Redscar. The Carn Wolf rammed into him, knocking him flat.
The [Emperor] was last. He had run down the street but Redscar charged him. Ironically, Laken’s order had sent his subjects racing towards Rags’ warriors in a blind rage. There was no one to save him. Rags waited as Redscar raised his frosted blade. The [Emperor] was turning. He knew he wouldn’t escape. He turned and stared at Redscar. Rags heard him speak.
For a moment Redscar did. He froze and his Carn Wolf skidded to a stop. Then Redscar cursed. He leapt off his Carn Wolf and ran at the [Emperor]. Laken ran once more. Rags cursed, but Redscar was a trained warrior. He was still closing on the Human. Closer, closer—
Rags heard the voice. Her head turned. She saw something flash past her Redfang Warriors, heard the galloping hoofs. She turned, raised her crossbow, and shot. Too slow. Her bolt missed the target.
Redscar was sprinting towards Laken. His sword was ready to slash across his back. He raised it as he reached Laken’s back and turned his head as Rags screamed a warning. He saw the blur approaching on horseback and struck anyways. Too slow.
The galloping figure rode down the village street faster than an arrow could fly. Faster than Rags’ fiery magic. Faster than Redfang’s sword. He rode as if the rest of the world were underwater. A lance was in his hand and he aimed it at Redscar. The Goblin saw it coming and tried to dodge. Again he failed.
The lance pierced Redscar’s shoulder. The momentum of the strike spun the Goblin and Rags saw the rider flick his lance casually. Redscar slowed and she saw a hole in his right shoulder. He stared at it and fell, his sword still held in his left hand. The [Emperor], Laken, looked up. The Redfangs stopped fighting and the villagers of Riverfarm stopped too. They turned their heads and saw him standing there. Larger than life. Exactly on time.
Lord Tyrion Veltras. He removed his helmet and offered Laken a slight, stiff bow. Behind Rags, she heard a clarion horn sound and heard more drumming hooves. She turned and saw a hundred riders in full armor charging straight at her. She screamed an order and her Goblins broke away. Tyrion Veltras pointed and the armored [Knights] and [Lords] charged the Goblins. He turned back to Laken Godart.
“Emperor Laken Godart? I believe we have yet to meet. I am Lord Tyrion Veltras. I have heard of you. I believe we could be of mutual benefit to each other.”
Laken stared up at the man. Lord Tyrion was tall, and his hair was black. He had a trimmed goatee and clean-shaven upper lip. His armor glowed slightly in the light and he held himself strictly, almost painfully upright on his horse. There was no smile on his face and his dark blue eyes were cold. Nevertheless there was an urgency to the way he moved, a purpose. Tyrion turned his head, looking east.
“I understand your forces are in full retreat following a clash with this tribe. My escort passed by the conflict less than an hour ago. I instructed the rest of my force to ride into battle as soon as they caught up.”
“The rest of your…?”
Tyrion Veltras nodded. His gaze flicked upwards towards the sun, and then travelled across the breadth of Riverfarm. It took in the fleeing Goblins, the hundred or so armored Humans in pursuit, and the lone Goblin racing towards them. Tyrion watched as Rags flung herself from the saddle towards Redscar. He made no move towards them as his lance tip dripped blood onto the ground. Rags dragged Redscar up as the Goblin’s own Carn Wolf approached, whining. She shouted a command and both Carn Wolves began to run, one carrying the fallen Goblin.
Lord Tyrion turned his head and called at one of the men dressed in silver armor. A tall [Lord] with red gold hair rode up.
“Lord Veltras! What can I do for you?”
The scion of the Veltras family calmly nodded towards Rags and Redscar, who were both fleeing towards the other Redfang Warriors.
“Mark both targets. The one with the enchanted sword and the small female with the crossbow. Remember your orders.”
“By your leave, Lord Veltras. Formation on me!”
Lord Matthews called out and a wedge of [Knights] and [Lords] raced after him. Laken stared at the fleeing Goblins and the Humans.
“You came all this way for…how did you know about me? About the Goblins? My army—Durene—”
The [Lord] turned his head slightly. He nodded towards Lady Bevia as she stood at a distance. The older lady curtsied slightly.
“I have my informants. Moreover, I received an extraordinary messenger. Your army will be saved, Emperor. I did not come with a hundred soldiers alone.”
The cavalry that drew reign in front of the battleground spotted the fleeing Humans and advancing Goblins from a distance. Their mounts were sweaty, exhausted, and the riders looked just as tired. But the commander seemed confident, casual, even. He shaded his eyes as he peered at the Goblins chasing the Humans down.
“That’s the tribe you informed Lord Veltras of, Lady Vis? Do you see your comrade among them?”
Welca Vis gasped for air and wiped sweat out of her eyes. She stared down at the Goblin army and then shifted her gaze to the city.
“I don’t see Sir Kerrig anywhere, Lord Pellmia.”
The [Lord] nodded.
“A pity. But we may still have hope that he is alive within the city at least. Men! Ladies. On my order we will charge the Goblins! Form a wedge on me. [Second Wind]!”
As he spoke, Welca felt energy flood back into her limbs. It was a nervous, temporary rush, but it made even the horses canter as the cavalry moved into place. She lowered the visor of her helm as Lord Pellmia pointed.
“Remember your orders! Scatter the Goblins first and find me the commander of the Human army! On my mark! Charge!”
Pyrite was marching after the Humans, ordering the tribe to harry them when he heard the horns. He turned his head and saw a wall of silver and steel descending a distant hilltop. His blood ran cold. He screamed an order and the Goblins saw the danger. They turned and ran for the city. They ran and ran as the Humans descended on them. Pyrite stared at the Humans as he ran. Where had they come from? Why were they here?
Where was Rags?
Lord Tyrion was speaking to a bevy of soldiers, his people. He had dismounted and was at the center of attention. Laken was sitting. His knees had gone out. He saw Tyrion listen to a report coming straight from the fighting around the city. The Goblins were running! They’d retreated back into the city.
Just like that. Just…in an instant. Now Tyrion was speaking to one of the [Mages] who’d rode with him.
“Convey my gratitude to Lord Pellmia. Tell him I will return to appraise the situation shortly. Now, I require a second [Message] to be sent to my aide Telmia. Send the message with the identifying passphrase: Benivald Veltras. Await her counter signal identifying him as the 52nd second-son of the House Veltras. Inform her to begin the operation on my mark.”
The flurry of activity around Tyrion ceased. He glanced up at the position of the sun and waited a beat. All was still. Laken felt the world pausing. Tyrion nodded.
In the mountain, the Goblin Lord and Tremborag met for the second time. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain taunted Reiss from above as his Goblins loosed arrows and threw stones down from above. The crisscrossing network of rope and wood bridges were filled with Goblins as the undead and Reiss’ forces fought below, trying to push upwards.
“You will never take my home, False Lord! Not you, nor your armies! You are too late! The Humans come for you! They will never break my home! I outlived the Goblin King and I will live in my fortress until all is dust!”
He roared down at the Goblin Lord. Reiss stared up, his eyes narrowed and shot black bolts of magic upwards. But Tremborag just laughed and backed away from the edge. Reiss knew he was right.
“Lord, lots of Humans are coming! Lots and lots of Humans!”
Snapjaw was tugging at Reiss, trying to get him to pull back. Reiss snarled, feeling blood running down from the side of his face. Garen had nearly gotten him in the last ambush. He saw his Goblin fighting with Tremborag’s forces in a narrow gap. They couldn’t push in! They had to retreat! But the Humans—
A roar from the left interrupted him. Garen Redfang rode out of a large tunnel with his Redfang Warriors, cutting again for Reiss. This time Eater of Spears charged at him and the two Hobs fought in a shower of blood. Reiss snarled.
“Pull Eater of Spears back! Garen is aiming for him!”
The Redfang Chieftain was cutting the larger Hob, bleeding him! He locked eyes as Reiss pointed and the Shield Spider he was riding turned. The two Goblins surged towards each other and then looked up. They felt it at the same time.
Danger. The other Goblins with [Dangersense] looked up as well. They stared up and then saw a flash of crimson light. Heat billowed up and Tremborag turned his head. A network of bridges had burst into flame! As the Goblins watched, they saw a group of distant figures perched high overhead.
Humans. One of the [Mages] aimed a wand down and shot a stream of lava at another network of bridges. The Goblins there screamed in agony as they burned and more fled. Too late. The bridge collapsed, sending hundreds of Goblins falling to their deaths.
“Humans! Pathetic adventurers! Kill them!”
Tremborag was furious. He pointed and thousands of Goblins swarmed upwards. Too many even for teams of Gold-rank adventurers to handle! The [Mages] instantly threw up magic barriers as the [Warriors] closed ranks.
Garen stared up at the Gold-rank adventurers coldly. They were fools. They’d be forced to retreat and some would die because of that poor decision. Goblins weren’t like monsters. They knew how to fight adventurers. Tremborag himself was racing higher. He would tear a score of the Gold-ranks apart by himself. But then why was his [Dangersense] still active? He frowned and then saw a flash of magic. Someone had used [Lesser Teleport]. He saw a distant figure appear high overhead. A flash of blonde hair, a pale face. Pointed ears. And suddenly, Garen was afraid.
Not just afraid. Petrified. He stared up and again the Goblins stopped. Something was…off. They knew fear. But the sight of the half-Elf standing above them filled them with a fear they couldn’t shake. All Goblins were afraid. They learned to conquer fear or die. But this?
Tremborag had halted too when he saw the half-Elf. She stood with a group of four other companions, all of whom held bows. Only one was a half-Elf like her, and that archer was far younger. But it was the blonde half-Elf Tremborag stared at. His voice, normally a grand echo in the cavernous mountain, shook as he stared up at her.
The half-Elf had a bow. It glowed brightly with a fierce, silvery light as she drew an arrow from the quiver at her back. The adventurers around her stepped back. Tremborag pointed up at her. Now his voice was a shout, but it was filled with horror. And dread.
“You. I know your face!”
The half-Elf glanced at him dismissively and then away. Tremborag backed up. The huge Hobgoblin was afraid. He spoke, his voice filling every ear.
“You were there! You shot the arrow! You have come for me! Destroyer! Bringer of doom! You are she! Arcsinger! The one who slew Velan the Kind!”
Garen felt his heart stop. He stared up as Ellia Arcsinger aimed her bow down, searching the faces of Goblins. Tremborag pointed. He screamed a word, the name no Goblin had ever forgotten.
And then he fled. Tremborag leapt from his place, falling, crashing onto the ground of a lower tunnel. He disappeared into it. And behind him Goblins screamed. They wailed and threw down their weapons, turning and running in a panic. Tremborag’s Goblins and the Goblin Lord’s forces. There was no thought behind it. They were gripped by madness. Primal fear. The Kingslayer stood above, the one who had killed Velan the Kind. Even the Redfang Warriors ran, their Carn Wolves howling in panic.
“Stand and fight! Stand!”
Garen roared at his tribe. But his knees shook as he stared up at the half-Elf with the silver bow. He saw her eyes flash towards him and he felt true terror grip his heart. He turned, cursing, and ran.
“Lord! Lord, run!”
Snapjaw was screaming in Reiss ear. He had leapt from his Shield Spider’s back and was running with the other Goblins. They sheltered him, even in their panic. They knew. He knew. She was searching for him. Reiss took one look back above as Ellia Arcsinger looked down below. He shuddered. And that fear was not only of her.
Tremborag’s mountain was lost. Both the Mountain City tribe and the Goblin Lord’s army fled in the face of the Human army. Not just because of the army. Not just because of the danger. Because of her. Because of the memory they could not erase. They fled in a panic on first sight of her, forgetting everything.
All according to plan.
“Excellent. Continue as planned and notify me of any developments. I will return by nightfall.”
Lord Tyrion finished speaking through the spell and turned. He walked over to the young man who was sitting in the dirt street. Laken could still remember where the sword had been. Just a hand’s breath away from his chest. It took him a moment when Tyrion bent to realize the man was offering him his hand.
“Your majesty, there is much I would like to discuss.”
It looked like it pained Tyrion to address Laken by his title, but it would have pained him more not to. Laken looked up into his eyes. He did not immediately take Tyrion’s hand.
“I have heard that you are a dangerous man, Lord Tyrion Veltras. A certain [Maid] came by to tell me not to trust you by any means.”
Tyrion could have been remarking on the weather. He spoke coolly, never taking his eyes off of Laken.
“There are many rumors about me. I would advise you to judge the truth of them for yourself. I have no doubt that many of my detractors have valid points. But I am first and foremost a [Lord] of Izril. I protect my people. This Goblin threat has prompted me to action.”
“Took you a while, didn’t it?”
Lord Tyrion paused.
“Indeed. It is the unfortunate nature of the times. One cannot act without understanding the truth about Goblins. And it is with that understanding that I do execute my plans according to necessity, not compassion.”
“Truth? What truth about Goblins?”
The hand was still outstretched. He should have looked silly, waiting for Laken to take his hand, but Tyrion merely looked expectant. He spoke slowly as Laken stared up at him.
“The truth about Goblins, Emperor Laken Godart, is that they do not matter. Not Chieftains or Lords or Kings. Only one thing matters.”
“And that is?”
“People. Humanity. Responsibility to one’s lands. Safeguarding the continent. Uniting against a common foe, be it monsters or any other threat. We are both men of duty. And I would have your help, Emperor Godart. I offer you my hand. Will you take it?”
Laken stared. He opened his eyes and stared into Tyrion’s own. The [Lord] looked back calmly. After a moment, Laken slowly reached out. The man hauled him up and Laken stood face-to-face with Lord Tyrion Veltras. He slowly nodded.