At dawn, the Gold-rank adventurers entered the dungeon in grim silence, dropping beneath the water into the shadowy halls where monsters flooded forwards, resisting them step by step. Later that day, Yvlon would awaken and together with Pisces, Ksmvr, and six other Silver-rank teams, enter the dungeon. The adventurers would go forwards bringing spell and sword to cut their way through the dungeon and search for both the missing Gnolls and Ceria.
They would all fail. However, at the same time, another expedition took place. It began in Celum, with a young woman banging on the door to the smithy of the best [Blacksmith] in the city. She was accompanied by a nervous Drake, who peered at the sky—still dark since it was just past dawn.
“Hey Erin, it’s really early. Don’t you think we should wait a bit? Maybe until it’s a bit lighter, I mean? I know I wouldn’t like to get up this early, and uh, we are trying to buy from this Human, right?”
Erin turned to Drassi. The [Innkeeper] wasn’t smiling. She looked worried. Tired. Stressed would be too calm a word for her current mood.
“This is the best [Blacksmith] in the city.”
“According to Octavia and Wesle, yes. Although you did wake both of them up, so they might have said that just to get you to go away.”
“Right. But they said that. And this is the right spot.”
Erin turned and began kicking on the door.
“Open up! I know you’re in there! I can see the candle you’re holding!”
She began shouting, and Drassi winced as she saw lights appearing and someone throwing open their windows. The Human began shouting obscenities which Erin ignored. Drassi was less comfortable. She was a Drake in a Human city and while they weren’t at war with the Humans right now, their species had a history. You heard things about Humans. Most of which weren’t true, granted, but…
“Alright, alright! Stop shouting!”
At last someone yanked open the door. The best [Blacksmith] in all of Celum turned out to be a man with arms like melons. In that his muscles were huge, not that his skin was jaundiced. He glared at Erin, one fist clenched, the other holding a candle lamp.
“You’ve got some nerve! My shop opens in the day. If you’re here about a broken pot or something, I’ll call the Watch—”
“I’m here to buy weapons. Hey, move back. I want into the shop.”
Erin put her hand out and to the big man’s surprise, pushed him backwards. He stumbled back and Erin marched into the shop.
“You’re the best [Blacksmith] in Celum, right?”
“I told you, we’re not—”
“Are you? Or do we have to go to your competitor? Jelaqua told me she needed quality steel for her flails. And I’m not buying from anyone but the best. I could have gone to Pallass, but my door can’t handle the magic.”
The burly Human blinked a few times. He opened his mouth, and Drassi could see him trying to process Erin’s sentence. But he got the important bits. Pallass, someone named Jelaqua, flails, and something about magic doors.
“You’re that [Innkeeper], aren’t you? The one everyone’s been talking about? I heard you were a loon who fired hardworking folk and ruined Miss Agnes’ business. And that your inn’s the only place where the Players of Celum perform. Is that true? I’ve been meaning to see Hamlet again, only I heard your inn was closed because of how poor the food and service was.”
“Who told you that?”
Drassi peered at the Human. She loved good gossip, and this sounded malicious. Scandalous, even! Erin was looking around the shop. The [Blacksmith] had a forge, but his best pieces were hanging on the walls. They looked like good steel, although Drassi wasn’t nearly as good at judging such things as Selys was.
She was friends with Selys. Well, friends was a simple word. If Drassi had to explain it to someone who’d never met her before—and she loved to explain things and talk about the latest rumors, that was practically what she lived for, you know—she would have told her audience all about how she and Selys shared a lot of the same friends and grew up in the same neighborhood.
Of course, they’d grown up and Selys had gotten a nice job in the Adventurer’s Guild thanks to her grandmother, and Drassi had bounced from job to job. She’d been fired each time—not for ineptitude! Certainly not. But she talked a lot, and that was a problem when she sometimes forgot to take orders or wait tables. So when Selys had told her about her Human friend who was looking for a [Barmaid], Drassi had been desperate enough to take the job.
And what a good thing it was that she’d taken the job! Erin was fun to work with and let Drassi talk all the time. And there was always gossip-worthy material at her inn. Which mattered a lot to Drassi because she had the [Gossip] class. Yes, really. Most people thought she was lying, but Drassi never lied. Lies ruined juicy gossip and Drassi was a connoisseur of chat.
And yes, she talked a bit too much, but she knew how to keep her mouth shut. Anyways that was enough about her. The Drake peered at the Human expectantly. Where had this obviously false rumor about Erin’s inn come from?
The [Blacksmith] shrugged.
“One of the [Innkeepers] told a customer of mine that. Apparently uh, her inn had huge rats. Food so foul no one could keep it down. Any of that true?”
“Um…no. Erin’s got a big bee in her inn, but her food is amazing. Really, I eat it all the time. And she’s got a packed inn most nights because the Players of Celum are putting on wonderful performances! I mean just great. Sounds like someone’s been lying to you, friend.”
Drassi shook her head and tsked. The Human man frowned.
“You think so?”
He seemed to forget he was speaking to Drassi, a Drake, just past dawn in the middle of his shop as Erin was poking around his swords and pulling them off the racks. Drassi smiled like an old friend.
“I know so. In fact, I bet I know who started that rumor. An [Innkeeper], you said? Was your friend eating at the Drunken Swordsman or Blazehound last night?”
“Yes. Yes he was! He was in The Drunken Swordsman last night. How did you know?”
The Drake smiled triumphantly as the [Blacksmith] gaped at her. She was a [Gossip]. A high-level one, in fact. Being a Level 17 [Gossip] wasn’t bad, especially since most people had never heard of the class. And she had Skills. She wasn’t actively using them now, but [Time to Chat] and [Trusted Voice] meant she could almost always slip in a word edgewise when she wanted to.
“Timbor Parithad’s the [Innkeeper] who runs that inn, isn’t he? He had a run-in with my boss—Erin, right there. She kicked him out of her inn. They were having a dispute over two [Barmaids] she hired—from Miss Agnes’ inn. Do you see the picture I’m drawing? Anyways, those two Humans—uh, I mean, [Barmaids]—were just awful. Let me clear the facts for you. Hey, do you have a place to sit? ”
The [Blacksmith], whose name was Joiah Kellisman, didn’t quite know how it happened. First he’d been at his door, ready to knock senseless whomever was making that racket. The next thing he knew, he’d been nodding as Drassi told him about how awful Maran and Safry had been and agreeing that Erin’s inn—which he’d never visited—really was unique. Over a cup of tea, no less. He jumped when Erin dumped five swords onto his counter.
“I’m done. Hey, how much are these?”
Joiah looked around. He saw the young woman waving one of his best swords—which had been pride of place hanging above his counter—at him. She had four more of his best blades.
“Hey! Hold on, those aren’t for sale!”
The [Blacksmith] looked around, realized he had a cup of tea in his hands, and put it on the table. Drassi sipped from hers as Joiah tried to regain some kind of mental balance.
“You can’t just come in here and buy my weapons! Why did I open—if you want to talk blades, I can forge you a few or sell you some of my other swords, but this is far too early! It’s not even light out!”
Erin crossed her arms.
“I’m in a hurry. These are your best blades, right?”
“Good. They look like good steel. And Jelaqua needs at least two flails. You can make those, right. Two-handed flails? Steel heads? Sharp and pointy?”
Joiah paused. For the first time the name Erin mentioned rang a bell.
“Hold on. Jelaqua? As in Jelaqua Ivirith? The Gold-rank adventurer? She wants a flail?”
“Two. And I want swords. And Jelaqua happens to stay at my inn. There wouldn’t be a discount on these swords, would there? I’ve got the gold to pay for it all.”
Erin had a hefty bag of gold. She opened it as she put it on the counter. Joiah looked from her to Drassi.
“I don’t have flails in the shop, but I could make a pair—but these are my best blades!”
“And I’m sure Jelaqua wants your best flails. If she shops here. Which she will if I tell her how awesome the swords I just bought were.”
Erin pointedly nudged the tip of a sword on the counter and cut herself. She swore. Joiah stared at her. The young woman in front of him looked harried. He would have said distressed, but she looked ready to hit something rather than cry. And she clearly didn’t know swords, because she’d cut herself on one of his sharp blades.
“Jelaqua Ivirith of the Halfseekers stays at your inn. And she’ll buy from me on your say so.”
“That’s right. Well, I’d suggest it, but I bet she’ll buy here. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
Joiah opened his mouth to say how stupid that claim was. He nearly had the words out when Drassi leaned forwards, clasping her tea with both claws.
“It’s true! Jelaqua’s been staying at Erin’s inn since before I started working there. And she listens to Erin. I’m sure she’ll be by. In fact, I guarantee it. Erin wouldn’t lie. And I never do.”
Joiah looked at Drassi. The Drake gave him a toothy smile. He looked at Erin. He looked at the bag of gold. He pointed at Erin.
“Let me get some sheathes. And in the name of the Five Families, don’t hold that sword like that! You’ll split your head right open!”
“One down. The bow’s next.”
Ten minutes later, Erin had a bundle of swords in her arms. She handed two to Drassi, who lifted them and found they were very light. She’d always expected swords to be heavy, but apparently a good sword would never weigh over five pounds at most. She’d learned that from Joiah during their talk. She liked meeting new people.
“That was a lot of money you gave him. But he’ll probably earn even more from having a Gold-rank adventurer commission those flails. Jelaqua is going to go to his shop, isn’t she, Erin? I don’t lie to people. I told you that, right?”
“You did. And Jelaqua will. Good job, Drassi.”
Erin began striding down the street. The sun was still rising, but Erin moved so fast that Drassi had to jog to keep up.
“Thanks. Wait, what did I do?”
“You convinced that guy that I was telling the truth. Selys told me you were good with words.”
“Well, I am a [Gossip]. Did I tell you how I got my class?”
“No. And you’re not telling it now.”
“Aw. Hey—why are we running around Celum before dawn anyways? What are these swords for?”
Erin turned her head.
“I’m not telling you.”
“Because you’ll run and tell Selys exactly what I told you.”
“…No I won’t. Okay, yes I will. Darn, I can’t lie. How did you know that?”
Erin stared at a street sign and turned left, marching rapidly across the cobblestones which weren’t soaked with rain. As they would be in Liscor where it was raining at this moment.
“I saw you and Selys talking. You’re here to keep an eye on me, aren’t you? That’s also why Imissi’s staying the night at the inn, isn’t it? To make sure Lyonette doesn’t do anything crazy.”
Drassi cursed a bit inside. Then again, her volunteering to stay the night at Erin’s inn had been fairly obvious. She glanced at Erin.
“You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you? Because I promised Selys I’d stop you.”
Erin turned her head back. Her eyes were very serious. They’d lost her normal humor ever since Mrsha had been missing.
“If I did, could you stop me?”
The Drake nearly choked on her tongue. Her tail curled up anxiously, but Erin had already turned away.
“Come on. We need a bow and arrows.”
A flotilla of boats rowed quickly across the lake that surrounded the city of Liscor. Gold-rank adventurers dropped into the water, watched by Zevara and the [Guardsmen] on the walls. At the same time, another boat rowed east. It was not crewed by typical adventurers. Nor was it headed towards the rift. Rather, it was moving steadily across the basin of water. Heading towards the edge, in fact.
During the rainy season in Liscor, travel was practically impossible. An assault with most armies was almost certainly unfeasible. It was one of the things that made Liscor so hard to assail. Consequently, only Couriers or the truly desperate would contemplate finding a boat and rowing across the entirety of the waters to reach the other side. But the journey was possible. Just not pleasant.
Hollowstone Deceivers, or as they were known to Erin, Rock Crabs, hunted in the rainy season. They were four times as deadly when they could hide underneath the water and ambush unsuspecting fish or people from beneath their shells. Other fish had also entered the ecosystem—Lurkersnatch Fish, the octopus-like fish who sported thick, black skin and had tentacles strong enough to crush heads. The obnoxious Quillfish who could put an eye out and cause damage in large numbers. Walker Carp, Bloat Bursters, Erin’s nemesis, the toothy and aggressive Flatfish…
Of course, a lot of the fish weren’t dangerous at all. But the ones that were made things tricky. So even Liscor’s best [Fishers] liked to stay within view of the walls. But one group had already crossed the lake by boat, braved the treacherous waters to reach the land and the road that headed north to Esthelm.
Only, they hadn’t gone down that road. Yes, if they had kept going, they would have gone north, crossing into drier terrain and out of the rain. Esthelm would have been the first city they spotted until they fully entered Human lands, where cities such as Celum, Remendia, and Ocre were spread out. And if they’d gone further still, they would have passed countless other Human settlements, perhaps even passed by Invrisil, headed a bit north and to the west and encountered a small village named Riverfarm and seen thousands of Goblins running for their lives.
But they hadn’t done that. The group had stopped, barely a few miles away from Liscor, in fact. They’d travelled along the mountain pass, looking for the cleft in the rock they’d known was there. And they’d found it.
It was a gap in the rock. A natural fissure that had opened up at some point. Subsequent centuries and erosion had turned it into a cave. It was fairly large as caves went, and quite defensible. But a few factors made it unique.
The first was the population of Dropclaw Bats that had made the cave their home. These bats were large and fearsome. For bats. They were a danger to the casual explorer. The second thing was the hastily-built wall of stones and dirt on the far wall of the cave. If someone were to knock in the wall, they would find themselves in a room full of smashed statues. In a dungeon, in fact. In the dungeon.
The group of Goblins knew all this. They had never been in this cave. Not the five Redfang Warriors, or the dozens of Cave Goblins who meekly followed them. But Goblins were social creatures. In their way, they were more social than Humans or practically any other species.
The Redfangs had never been in this cave, the cave that Rags and her tribe had found ages ago when they’d seen Toren running out of the dungeon and made one exploration attempt into the dungeon before closing the hole up. The very same cave that Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers had found when exploring the dungeon, right before they’d encountered the Shield Spider nest.
But as luck would have it, Rags’ tribe had encountered the Redfang tribe and once Garen had submitted to Rags, his Goblins and Rags’ had gossiped. As Goblins do. And if there was one thing Goblins talked about, it was about bolt-holes and places to hide from Humans.
Naturally the Redfangs knew about the cave. And when Erin had asked for a place for the Cave Goblins to go, they had immediately thought of it. So they had taken a few boats left outside the inn, herded the Cave Goblins into them, and made the journey across the waters to the cave. They’d marched in, made short work of the Dropclaw bats stupid enough to attack them, and begun setting up a camp.
This was Plan G. Erin had hit on it with their help after meeting Pebblesnatch. She’d realized the dangers of having so many Cave Goblins around—not to mention the likely response that would come from both Liscor and the adventurers. So she’d asked the Redfangs for help, since her basement wasn’t big enough. And here they were.
Headscratcher, Shorthilt, and Badarrow walked about the cave, checking the walls by tapping on them with their stone weapons (and Shorthilt’s prized iron sword) for faults. They’d already known about the sealed-off entrance to the dungeon, but they wanted to be sure this camp was secure.
Next, Badarrow began chasing the rest of the Dropclaw Bats out with precise shots that felled each bat. Shorthilt went to work on the entrance to the cave, designing a way to block it off in a hurry if there was danger—from the inside or out. And Headscratcher went looking for wood. He ended up giving up on finding branches and just knocked down a small tree.
As each of the Hobs walked around, they were followed by a group of Cave Goblins. The smaller, greyer Goblins stared in awe at the Hob’s backs. They followed hesitantly, at first running each time one of the Redfangs looked around. But within an hour they were helping the Hobs with their tasks, piling up rocks with Shorthilt, gathering the dead Dropclaw bats that Badarrow shot, and picking up sticks as Headscratcher tried to figure out how to drag an entire tree back to the cave.
It had to be said that the Redfang Warriors knew what they were about. True, they were inept trackers, but securing a camp and setting up basic defenses was something every Redfang knew about. The High Passes had made them tough—compared to their home, Liscor was a land of milk and honey. Quite literally, when Erin handed both to them in a hot mug.
The cave wasn’t as nice as her inn. But it was defensible and there were resources around to fortify it and set up all the essentials. Badarrow looked up and threw a rock at Headscratcher when the Hob returned, dragging a young tree in with all the Cave Goblins. The [Archer] made Headscratcher take it outside and denude the tree of all the leaves and then chop it up with his stone axe. They had to dry the wood first. The cave had no ventilation, so smoke would rapidly become an issue. Badarrow made all this clear with a few rude and pointed gestures.
Shamefaced, Headscratcher got to work. His stone axe looted from the Raskghar was not meant for chopping, and he ended up splitting the tree, more from the force of his blows than the sharpness of his axe. By the time he was halfway done, his handle was slightly fractured. Headscratcher groaned, knowing it was probably no longer good as a weapon. He wandered back inside the cave and hopefully pointed at Shorthilt’s sword. It was very sharp and would chop up the tree.
Shorthilt grabbed his sword and kicked at Headscratcher. His body language and expression told Headscratcher that he could have Shorthilt’s sword…never. Shorthilt’s possessiveness of good blades and his care for his weapon was why he alone had a sword still—all the other Hobs had damaged their weapons and had to find replacements.
Glumly, Headscratcher walked back outside and saw the Cave Goblins breaking branches off the tree and ferrying them inside. That made him brighten up a bit. He kept forgetting he was a Hob now!
Hobs had privileges. Or maybe the right way to think about it was that Hobs were leaders while regular Goblins were followers. There were exceptions, like Redscar, Garen’s second-in-command, but in general, Hobs bossed around regular Goblins. Their job was to boss, which meant they had to work less.
All Headscratcher had to do was show the Cave Goblins how to break up the log by hammering a sharp rock into it and cracking the wood and they were on the job. He had to lend a hand with the heavier parts that required his strength, but he found himself enjoying standing around with his arms folded while the Cave Goblins industriously swarmed over the tree and disassembled it.
Soon, the Redfang Goblins had a supply of firewood ready to dry out around a fire, a rockslide trap that could seal the cave off, and dead Dropclaw bats. The three of them squatted around, grinning at each other. Now this felt like the good old days. No inn, no fancy beds or food. No Erin, just living on what they could scavenge.
After a few minutes, their smiles faded. Badarrow grunted and fished a sharp stone out that had impaled itself in his butt. Headscratcher looked at the dead Dropclaw bats, which weren’t cooked, were still leaking a bit of blood, and were most definitely not marinated. Shorthilt eyed the ground, which some Cave Goblins were laying grass and bits of brush on to make a bed.
This did feel like the good old days. And it turned out that the good old days weren’t that good. Headscratcher recalled his soft bed—his personal bed—and his feather pillow. Badarrow’s stomach reminded him of manicotti and a cold drink of ale. Shorthilt stared at the dried firewood and tried to remember how to make a fire. The Hobs looked at each other. It was a good thing that this wasn’t all of Plan G.
The second boat that travelled across the waters, heading east towards the water’s edge moved a lot faster than the first group of boats had. Numbtongue and Rabbiteater rowed furiously. They knew where they were headed—they’d gone with the others to begin with, and had come back to report on the progress to Erin’s inn. Now they were rowing as fast as they could.
Bad things had happened. Very bad things. Rabbiteater didn’t have the vocabulary to express how bad it was. Numbtongue did, and he shouted expletives. Mrsha was gone! Ceria was kidnapped! The Raskghar were being led by a Minotaur who was also an adventurer! They’d attacked the inn! Erin was crying!
The two Hobs made the boat fly across the water, ignoring the attention they attracted. They had no time for it. They practically crashed the boat into the grass and leapt to shore. They saw Shorthilt, Badarrow, and Headscratcher were there to greet them with the rest of the Cave Goblins.
“Has food? Blankets?”
Headscratcher pointed hopefully at the boat. Rabbiteater and Numbtongue stared at him and then remembered. That was why they’d gone to Erin’s inn. Plan G had been to provision the Redfangs and Cave Goblins in their new home. The Cave Goblins swarmed over the boats, exclaiming in awe at the bags of flour and salt and potatoes and hauling them up and hurrying towards the cave with them.
“Good food. Eat much.”
Badarrow and Shorthilt crowded around the provisions. Shorthilt shook his head glumly.
“No Erin cook. Bad taste.”
Badarrow nodded reluctantly. He put a finger into one of the bags of flour and licked his finger and grimaced. Numbtongue and Rabbiteater exchanged glances. They waved their hands for everyone’s attention. The three other Hobs glanced at Numbtongue as the Hob drew in a huge breath. Then Numbtongue screamed.
All the Goblins stopped what they were doing and stared at him. Numbtongue took in another breath. He screamed again. It was the best summary he could think of. He drew in air for a third scream and Rabbiteater clapped a hand over his mouth. He waved his hands, wide-eyed, and the other three Hobs realized something was very wrong. They ran back towards the cave. Rabbiteater and Numbtongue led the way after pausing to grab something strange from the boat. A large, wide plank of wood. They didn’t waste time once they got to the cave. Numbtongue summed up the situation in a few terse sentences as Rabbiteater gestured and provided context.
“Raskghar attacked during the day! They’re smart during daytime too! They attacked the inn—took Mrsha. And attacked the adventurers in the dungeon! Ceria—the half-Elf with bone hand—is gone. And the Raskghar are being led by a Minotaur! A former adventurer. He is Chieftain. Erin cried.”
The other Hobs gaped at him. They asked questions, demanded to know more details. Numbtongue and Rabbiteater recounted all they had witnessed and finally dragged in the Cave Goblin who’d been passed out in their boat. The terrified Cave Goblin was still unconscious from his interrogation by the adventurers.
As dawn changed to morning, the convivial attitude shared by the Redfang Hobs was no more. A mood of great tension had descended over the cave. The Cave Goblins watched as Rabbiteater paced back and forth. Headscratcher was punching one of the walls, shaking with frustration and rage. Shorthilt was sharpening his blade. Badarrow was checking his arrows. Headscratcher whirled as Numbtongue grabbed him to stop him from breaking his hands on the rock wall. Numbtongue stared—Headscratcher had shattered the stone with his bare fists.
Headscratcher turned and roared the words. He drew his cracked stone axe. Shorthilt and Badarrow leapt to their feet. There was no hesitation. Erin had asked them. She had asked them to find Mrsha. As adventurers. As Goblins! There was no question they would go. Headscratcher strode towards the wall that separated the cave from the dungeon and began to kick it down. Numbtongue shouted.
Headscratcher did not want to wait. Rabbiteater pulled him back. The Hob turned with a snarl, but Rabbiteater swirled his magic cloak and caught Headscratcher’s punch in the water. His water cloak made the other Cave Goblins gasp in awe, but Headscratcher just yanked his arm out and glared at Rabbiteater.
Rabbiteater raised one placating hand. He hurried over to the flat plank of wood and leaned it against the cave wall. He fished in his pockets and pulled something out. Headscratcher frowned. Did Rabbiteater have a…doorknob?
Yes he did. Rabbiteater stuck the doorknob into the piece of wood, hammering it in with one solid blow. The doorknob stuck into the wood, functionally useless, but completing the rough look. Rabbiteater turned and pointed at Numbtongue. The other Hob pulled something out of his pocket and threw it at Rabbiteater. The Goblin slapped it to the door. It was a stone. A mana stone, glowing bright red. Rabbiteater nodded. He threw open the door—
And stared at the blank wall of the cave. The other Redfang warriors stared at the door. Rabbiteater faltered, closed the door, opened it, and closed it again. He scratched his head.
“Not time yet.”
Numbtongue grunted. He sat down on the ground and began to pluck at something. His guitar, crudely mended. Headscratcher wavered. He pointed at the door. Numbtongue nodded. The guitar sang. Jolts of electricity flared to life on the strings. Headscratcher gaped. Numbtongue played a riff. Sparks of lightning shot from his guitar, grounding themselves on the cave floor. The Hobs stared.
“[Electric Chords]. We wait.”
The [Bard] began to play. His guitar sang like no other guitar could. It did not, in fact, sound like an electric guitar from Erin’s world. Numbtongue had heard Erin singing songs from her world, but none of them had been rock or featured an electric guitar. No, his guitar sounded like he was playing chords out of thunder. He strummed and the air crackled and snapped.
Lightning flashed between his strings. It didn’t seem to bother Numbtongue, but when an entranced Shorthilt reached out to touch the guitar he shouted in pain and drew his hand back. Numbtongue grinned as Shorthilt threw dirt at him. But the grin vanished. His fingers plucked restlessly over his strings. The music the guitar made was urgent, quick. The other Goblins listened, their hearts beating faster for the music.
Music. Shorthilt, Badarrow, and Rabbiteater looked at each other. They glanced at Headscratcher, who was massaging his scraped knuckles and staring blankly at the door and Numbtongue who was making music. Both had new classes. Both were…well, beyond the other three Redfangs. Beyond most of the Redfang tribe, in fact.
They had unique classes. [Berserker] and [Bard]. The Hobs had heard of [Berserkers], mainly from Garen and they could appreciate how dangerous and how impressive that class was. But a [Bard]? They couldn’t think of any Goblin, any Goblin that had ever had that class. It made the two special.
There were Hobs in the Redfang Tribe. But just based on his new class, Headscratcher would have been an elite among elites. As for Numbtongue—well, Shorthilt wasn’t sure about [Bard] as a combat class. But after staring at the electricity shooting from the guitar, the Hob concluded that Numbtongue was as close to a [Shaman] as the Redfang Tribe had ever had. That made him…
Incredible. Inspiring. The Hobs were ecstatic for their friends. And jealous. They’d all felt the pulling, the sense of standing on the edge of something. All three wished they’d gotten a class like that. But not yet.
Maybe not ever if they went into the dungeon. That went undiscussed, but it was there. The Hobs remembered the fallen. This seemed like another suicide mission. One they would take on willingly, but still. They looked at each other and nodded. Then they glanced at the Cave Goblins.
Over sixty sat in the cave, staring at the Hobs. They shifted uneasily as the Redfangs looked at them. But their eyes never left the five. The Cave Goblins had never seen Hobs before. They had forgotten there could even be Hobs. They had accepted the Raskghar as their masters—worse, as their tribe. They followed a Minotaur as their Chieftain. They were not-Goblin. But at the same time, they were still Goblins. So the Redfangs sat a bit taller. To show the Cave Goblins what a true Goblin looked like.
The door opened when the sun had cleared the mountain tops. The sky lightened and the pouring rain grew lighter. And an inn appeared in the open doorway. The crude door that Rabbiteater had built revealed a room filled with dim light from the fireplace. And a young woman. The Cave Goblins cried out in fear and flinched as Erin strode through the door. Behind her came Drassi, clutching a pair of swords. The Drake flinched when she saw all the Goblins lined up.
“Oh, Ancestors. What is this place? Erin, this is getting a bit crazy!”
The Hobs scrambled to their feet. Numbtongue looked up from his guitar and leapt to his feet. Erin looked around. She took in the pile of firewood, the cave, the wall to the dungeon, the Cave Goblins, the dead Dropclaw Bats, and the Redfang Warriors. She nodded.
“Numbtongue told me you were set up. Did he tell you the rest?”
Numbtongue stood. All the Hobs stared at what Erin was carrying. She held three swords in addition to the two Drassi bore. And she had an unstrung bow hung over one shoulder. Erin shifted.
“Someone take this off me. Badarrow, this bow’s for you.”
The Hobs looked at each other. Badarrow pointed to himself, stunned. Erin nodded.
“It’s yours. The rest of you, check out the swords. Let me know if it’s good. I got it from the best [Blacksmith] in Celum. Go on.”
She shifted to let Badarrow cautiously take the recurve bow off her shoulder. The Hob stared at the bow, running his fingers down the oiled wood. He flexed the bow, his usually dour expression now one of complete surprise.
Headscratcher stared at the sheathed blades. The leather sheathe was plain, but when he unsheathed the blade—he nearly dropped the sword as he saw steel glinting at him. The Hob drew the sword, mouth open wide. The other Redfangs did the same.
Five steel swords flashed in the cave. Shorthilt stared at his blade. Tears sprang into his eyes. He looked at the worn, lovingly cared for sword at his waist and slowly took it off. He looked at Erin. She stared at him, the tiniest glimmer of a smile on her face. Her eyes were very serious, but her voice lightened a bit.
“Do you like it?”
The Hob hesitated. Then he hugged her. Erin yelped—Shorthilt’s grip was strong—but then the other Redfangs crowded around her. They didn’t quite dare to hug her, but they patted her on the head and shoulders. Rabbiteater patted Erin on the chest by accident and got a light slap.
Erin stopped the moment after a few seconds. She smiled wearily. Sadly. At once, the Hobs remembered what was wrong and straightened. Erin pointed to the swords.
“That’s my investment. That’s my fee. I’m asking you as adventurers, as Goblins…find Mrsha. Find Ceria. Go into the dungeon. The Raskghar have both. The Cave Goblins have to know where they are.”
Numbtongue began. Erin cut him off.
“I know, the camp moves. But they have to have an idea, right? At the very least, they know where traps are. Get them to help you. We were planning on rescuing the Cave Goblins—as many as we could anyways. Well, I’m amending Plan G. Find Mrsha and Ceria first. Bring them back. And if you find the camp and Calruz—he’s the Minotaur—”
Erin hesitated. She looked from face to face.
“—Try not to kill him. But do what you have to. Bring them back. Please.”
She bowed her head. The Redfangs reached out. They grabbed Erin by the shoulder, on her arms. She looked up. The Hobs smiled. Erin wiped her eyes.
“Thank you. I know what I’m asking. I won’t send you in unprepared. Drassi! Bring the crate in.”
The Drake jumped. She hurried into the inn, conscious of all eyes on her. It was very strange. The Silver-rank adventurers in the inn and Lyonette hadn’t noticed where the door was connected to. Why should they? People went through to Liscor and Celum and even Pallass all the time. But if they’d come over, they would have seen the ranks of Goblins. Drassi almost shouted at them. Almost.
There was a small crate of glowing potions on the nearest table. Drassi grabbed it and hurried back through the open door, conscious of all the Goblin eyes on her. She offered it to Headscratcher, who blinked at the potions.
“Stamina potions, a Tripvine bag…but mainly healing potions. Octavia’s best. That’s all I can afford. There’s two for each of you. Is it enough?”
Erin looked anxious. The Redfang Warriors lifted the bottles, sniffing at the cork stoppers. They glanced at each other and nodded.
“Enough. More than enough. We will do it. We will go.”
Numbtongue spoke for the others. Headscratcher sheathed his sword. Badarrow strung his new bow, casting his old one aside. Shorthilt placed his iron sword on the ground, stroking the handle once before buckling his new sword to his belt. Rabbiteater’s magical cloak swirled around him as he squared his shoulders. Erin looked at them.
“Be careful. Just go in and try to track down the Raskghar. Don’t fight if you don’t have to. Don’t die. Please.”
The Hobs nodded. They turned and Headscratcher barked an order. The Cave Goblins jumped. Three of them approached out of the mass. The rest looked unhappy.
“We keep rest here. They stay or run. We go with three. Smaller. Faster.”
Numbtongue told Erin. She hesitated. That wasn’t Plan G, and the Redfangs knew it. But they had no choice. They had to go in as one group. The Cave Goblins would probably flee, but it wasn’t as if this cave mattered. And Erin’s inn had adventurers in it. The Raskghar had already attacked it.
“Fine. I’ll try to keep them here. You go.”
The Hobs paused. They looked at Erin. She gestured at the Cave Goblins. Numbtongue opened his mouth to protest, but looked at Erin and closed his mouth. He strapped the guitar to his back and nodded.
He turned. The Redfangs marched to the wall connecting to the dungeon. They paused, running their hands down the packed dirt and stones. Months ago, Rags’ tribe had created this very wall. Now, five Hobs stood in the same spot. Headscratcher closed his eyes, and then he drew back his fist. He punched the wall, cracking the dirt. The other Redfangs broke down the wall, kicking aside rocks, pulling the weak masonry apart. Then they stepped into the room with the crushed remains of the statues and the corpses of countless Shield Spiders. They stared around as the Cave Goblins inspected the room and jabbered to each other. Then one of the Cave Goblins pointed and the Hobs followed. They disappeared.
Erin stood behind as the Cave Goblins shifted uneasily. Drassi looked around, her heart thundering as the little Cave Goblins stared at both her and Erin. But the [Innkeeper] only had eyes for the Hobs. She stood there until the last of their footfalls had vanished. She whispered a prayer.
At first they were eight. Five Hobs, three Cave Goblins. The Redfang warriors strode ahead, following the three Cave Goblins who glanced around nervously, their postures wary. But the Hobs were calm. Unnaturally so. They were afraid, but they felt the same icy cool sweep over them that sometimes occurred in the moments right before a life or death battle.
This reminded them of the old days. And by that, they meant four months ago, when they’d been part of the Redfang Tribe back in the High Passes. Back when everything had been simple and there was only death or life and Garen knew what to do.
Of course, simple didn’t mean easy. Back then, the Redfang Tribe had fought against groups of monsters as dangerous as the Raskghar. To maintain their position at the base of the mountain range, they’d often clashed with Eater Goats, Gargoyles, feral Carn Wolves—and those were just the monsters who roamed the lower altitudes.
Normally they’d want at least a hundred more Redfangs at their back and at least a dozen more Hobs. Carn Wolves would be nice, too, even in the confines of the dungeon. None of the five Goblins present had been [Riders], but they deeply respected the massive rust-red wolves and their ability to fight. Plus, Carn Wolves made for lovely pillows at night.
However, all they had were the five of them. The Hobs knew they couldn’t assault the dungeon head-on. They were a strike team, with a clear mission. Track down the Raskghar, get Mrsha and Ceria, and escape. They had few distinct advantages. A few healing potions, steel swords. Numbtongue’s guitar. Headscratcher and Numbtongue’s new class. Rabbiteater’s cloak. And the bell.
The Hobs hadn’t taken the cursed necklace for fear of what it might do. But they did have the bell of pain, for what it was worth. Yes, ringing it caused unbelievable agony to everyone in earshot. But…well, that could be a good thing. And in the dungeon, the Redfangs needed every edge they could get. Badarrow had possession of the bell and he had a plan for it.
Five Hobs versus a dungeon’s worth of monsters and traps. It wasn’t good, but it did feel a bit normal. Headscratcher pointed at the Cave Goblins.
“Move tribe! Move tribe not know where! Go find?”
The Cave Goblin squeaked nervously. Headscratcher nodded. The Goblin scurried forwards and conferred with his two fellows, glancing at the Hobs nervously. At least the Redfangs had guides. The Cave Goblins were in awe of the Hobs. And even if they had forgotten much of Goblin culture, a bit of their heritage was asserting itself. The Cave Goblins were naturally predisposed to obey the Hobs over the Raskghar. So long as the Hobs remained within eyesight, at least.
“You know where we are?”
Numbtongue looked around the dungeon sharply. They were standing in a room full of crushed statues. The Hobs had heard Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers talking and they knew this room had been where all the statues had come to life. And beyond that—
The Hobs stopped when they saw the wall. It had been made a lot stronger than the wall that connected cave to dungeon. Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers had bricked up the wall and covered the rest with a quick drying cement mixture they’d purchased from an [Alchemist]. They’d meant it to seal off the Shield Spider nest and the undamaged wall told the Hobs they’d succeeded. Unfortunately, it appeared as though the Cave Goblins hadn’t expected the wall. They stared at it and one of the Cave Goblins kicked the wall and then pointed.
“New wall. Must go through. Big Goblins break?”
She stared hopefully at the Redfangs. The Hobs exchanged a glance. For the first time they wondered if the Cave Goblins might try to get them killed. That seemed incredible—Goblins surely wouldn’t do that to other Goblins! At least, not unless their [Chieftains] ordered them to do battle. But maybe these Goblins were still obeying this Calruz? The Redfangs huddled up. The Cave Goblins tried to join the huddle but were waved back.
Headscratcher looked at Numbtongue. The Hob grimaced.
“Maybe. I’ll ask cunning questions.”
The Redfangs nodded. Numbtongue turned. He put on his most friendly smile and pointed to the wall.
“What’s behind that wall?”
The Cave Goblins scratched their heads and conferred. One answered for the others.
“Big long fall death room. And hidden death monster room. And secret down-down room. Is good passage if not die. We show?”
“Hidden death room?”
Numbtongue looked wary. The Goblins nodded.
“Invisible bad-bad things inside. Invisible monsters.”
Again, the Hobs looked at each other. This time they were worried. Invisible Shield Spiders? That sounded even worse. Numbtongue frowned and the Cave Goblins cringed.
“Bad route! Find us another one?”
The Cave Goblins looked panicked.
“Cannot! Behind is many-room traps. Unescape death! Trick death! Cannot go. This way only way!”
Numbtongue raised a fist, hoping it were true. The Cave Goblins cowered, shielding their heads. Numbtongue hesitated, and Rabbiteater grabbed his arm. He signaled that he wanted to take over. Numbtongue nodded and Rabbiteater crouched. Of all the Hobs, he was best at making people smile. He gave the Cave Goblins a very friendly smile and they stopped shielding themselves.
“Only way? Through death-invisible room?”
They nodded. Rabbiteater pointed.
“What in there? Invisible monsters? Big crawly spiders?”
They paused, then shook their heads. The Cave Goblins frowned.
“Only invisible. No spiders. Big empty room. Long drop. And invisible monsters. And secret passage.”
Rabbiteater frowned. He looked back at the others. That didn’t seem like the room the adventurers had described. He frowned, but in the end he nodded.
It wasn’t like they had any choice. The Redfang Warriors glanced at each other, and then looked at the wall. They had to break a gap. Headscratcher lifted his shiny new sword and Shorthilt smacked him. He made it very plain that damaging the wonderful swords that Erin had given them would not be tolerated. Instead, he grabbed a broken piece of statue and began bashing it on the wall. The other Redfangs did likewise and the three Cave Goblins joined in.
The wall was sturdy, but it had been made rapidly and as a stopgap. It would fool a Shield Spider into thinking there was nothing but wall there, but a determined Goblin could scrape away the mortar and pull the bricks out. Which is what the Hobs did. They opened a hole in the wall large enough to squeeze through and found a blank, empty room on the other side.
A very large, suspiciously clean room, perfectly circular and without any doors on the other side. The Hobs stared at it as the Cave Goblins squeezed through the gap. One beckoned.
“IS good! Follow! No step further than here!”
He pointed to the ground. The Redfangs exchanged a wary glance and pushed through the gap one at a time. They swore as the bricks scraped their shoulders and Badarrow kicked the wall in a bit more so he could get his bow through without banging it. When the Hobs were on the other side they stood at the very edge of the room. The Cave Goblins motioned for extreme caution as they showed the Redfangs what to do.
“Walk here. Grab edge—put feet into here. See?”
One of the Cave Goblins showed Headscratcher a set of tiny grooves worked into the wall, practically invisible. Headscratcher saw the Cave Goblins latch onto the wall with practiced ease. He understood. You could use the grooves as handholds to get across the room. But—Headscratcher’s brow wrinkled—why couldn’t you just walk to the other side?
“No walk! Bad fall death! Bad, bad! Do like this!”
The three Cave Goblins exhorted the Redfangs to follow their lead. They were very serious, and the Redfangs listened to the tone in their voices. They obediently clung to the walls and began to slowly edge around the room. It was no real challenge. The grooves were easy handholds if you knew they were there, and Headscratcher had grown up climbing the High Passes. He wondered what all this was about. Was this really the spider room the adventurers had found? If so—
The Hobs and Cave Goblins were halfway around the edge of the room when the floor vanished. The Hobs gasped as one and held on tighter to the grooves as the floor disappeared and revealed the drop of a lifetime. A mile-deep chamber lay below them. And filling the room, clinging to thick webs and tending to the thousands, millions of eggs, were—
Shield Spiders. Headscratcher’s heart caught in his chest as he clung to the handholds and looked down at a Shield Spider as large as Erin’s inn. His arms froze and his fingers desperately held onto the handholds as he imagined letting go and falling, falling, until he landed in one of the webs and the spider swarmed all over him.
“Is normal! Come, come!”
One of the Cave Goblins smiled at him. Headscratcher turned his head and gaped at it. The Cave Goblin pointed down as it clung to its handhold.
“See? Empty room! Very long fall. Invisible monsters below.”
It looked up and gave Headscratcher a big smile, practically radiating its eagerness to please. Headscratcher gaped at the Cave Goblin and then pointed, realized what he was doing, swore, and grabbed the handhold for dear life.
“Lying! Shield Spiders below!”
The Cave Goblin’s eyes went wide with horror. It looked around wildly.
“Where? Cannot see!”
Headscratcher and the other Hobs gaped at the Cave Goblin. The three Cave Goblins looked around wildly, not seeming to see the tens of thousands of Shield Spiders nested below. Headscratcher pointed at the largest one, a giant brood queen who still bore marks of Typhenous’ comet spell.
“That one! Big one! Right there?”
The Cave Goblins stared at Headscratcher and shook their heads. He opened his mouth, and saw the Shield Spider look up. Instantly, all the Hobs fell still. The Cave Goblins hissed.
“Too much talk! Hurry! Invisible monsters attack if make sound or have smell-food!”
They began climbing rapidly around the edge of the room. The Hobs saw several of the Shield Spiders stirring. A few crawled upwards idly, as if looking for what had made the sound. But incredibly, they seemed as oblivious to the Goblins as the Goblins were of them. Headscratcher saw a Shield Spider look right at him. His body tensed, but the Shield Spider didn’t react.
He was invisible. And as the Hobs shakily followed the cheerful Cave Goblins, they realized that had to be what was happening. Neither group could see the other. They could hear—but not see. Smell too, probably. One of the Cave Goblins reached the far end of the room, exactly opposite the hole in the wall. He tapped at a stone and then pulled it out.
The wall next to him swung out and the Hobs saw to their immense relief that a stone stairway lead down. The Cave Goblin climbed into the stairwell and helped his friends join him. Headscratcher’s fingers hurt, but he dared not loosen his death-grip for one second until he could swing himself onto the stairwell. Then he hugged the stairs until Numbtongue hissed at him to move.
All five Hobs found themselves on the stairwell in the end. They were covered in sweat and breathing hard, compared to the Cave Goblins who looked as relaxed as they had been in the cave. More relaxed in fact. This was their home. The Cave Goblins grinned at the Hobs.
“Long drop not scary! Only bad if fall—or have hand pain!”
The Hobs glared at the Cave Goblins. Numbtongue pointed.
“That is a Shield Spider nest! Invisible to you—not to us! We see monsters!”
The Cave Goblins went round-eyed. They stared at the Hobs. The Cave Goblins looked at each other and murmured in awe.
“Special Hob power?”
The Hobs chorused as one. Then they paused. Probably not? A bit of uncertainty ran through their group. Did Hobs have the power to see things normal Goblins couldn’t? That might explain why they were always grumpy.
No. Badarrow shook his head and reminded the others that the adventurers had seen the same thing. It was only the Cave Goblins who were blind. The Hobs nodded. This was a puzzle, but at least it meant that they had an advantage of sorts. Not that it had bothered the Cave Goblins—they knew there was danger there, just not what kind.
“We go down?”
Rabbiteater pointed at the Cave Goblins. They nodded.
“All down! Into many-tunnels. Long way down. But good secret entrance! Not even Raskghar use! Is good?”
He looked to Rabbiteater for approval and reached out to touch Rabbiteater’s water cloak. The Hob smiled and let the Goblin do it.
“Is good. You lead.”
The Cave Goblin smiled.
“Good! One last thing! Fun thing to do! Watch!”
Excitedly, he went to the other Goblins. One of them looked around and handed the Cave Goblin a stone that had broken off from the wall. The Cave Goblin showed it to Rabbiteater. The Hob frowned. The Cave Goblin pointed to the nest of Shield Spiders. The Hobs stared at the rock, the Cave Goblin’s excited expression. All of them lunged for the Cave Goblin, but too late. He hurled the stone into the nest of Shield Spiders.
The stone fell for several long seconds. The Hobs waited, heard a distant impact, and then an unholy chittering from a million mandibles. The Cave Goblins danced about, laughing, and then ran down the stairwell. The Hobs stared back down into the cave. A hundred thousand Shield Spiders raced upwards, searching for whatever had disturbed their nest. The Hobs stared down in transfixed horror, and then fled after the Cave Goblins.
There were no more trials as bad as the Shield Spider nest. After the Hobs had descended the mile of stairs, they stumbled out into the dungeon proper. A long tunnel lay out before them, this one filled with brightly colored tiles. The Cave Goblins, who’d been thoroughly chastened by the angry Hobs, looked around warily, and then pointed.
“Follow steps! No step wrong one or boom!”
They waved their hands then danced out onto the tiles, choosing their next step seemingly at random. There was no pattern to their steps, but the Hobs followed the Cave Goblins precisely. That was the first corridor down. After that, the Hobs found themselves standing in an intersection between four tunnels. A fountain of water sprayed upwards, the sides bearing faded engravings in the marble. The Hobs stayed far away from the fountain, but the Cave Goblins rushed forwards. They laughed at the Hobs.
“No trap! Just water! Drink!”
They offered some to the Hobs. However, the Hobgoblins refused to drink. They were in battle mode and water would slow them down. Plus, if there was one thing Liscor didn’t lack at the moment, it was drinking water.
“Where are the Raskghar? Do you know?”
Numbtongue asked the Cave Goblin the same question the adventures had. The Cave Goblins shook their heads.
“Chieftain move camp! Always move. But know where camp was yesterday! And maybe where camp might be. Check many spots. If Goblin lost, must check. Probably die.”
The Hobs nodded grimly. That was what they’d expected. Headscratcher checked his sword. It was sharp. And it gleamed. He ran his finger down the blade and cut himself. Headscratcher admired his reflection in the blade and then found some dirt. He began to scrub it into the mirror polish and the other Hobs did the same. Dirty swords looked less wonderful, but they wouldn’t reflect light nearly so well. He nodded to the Cave Goblins.
“You take us to Raskghar. Keep silent if see. We want to see Chieftain. And Gnolls. And uh, pointy-eared Human with bone hand.”
The Cave Goblins nodded eagerly. They set off, taking the tunnel across from them. The Hobs followed, spreading out into a formation. Headscratcher and Shorthilt in front, Badarrow in the middle, and Numbtongue and Rabbiteater in the rear. They looked in every direction for monsters, trusting the Cave Goblins to look for traps.
They found the first monster band twenty paces in. The Hobs froze. The Cave Goblins kept moving. The giant maggot oozed forwards. Headscratcher hissed.
The Cave Goblins froze in terror. The maggot raised its front. It was three times as big as Headscratcher and the trail it left looked caustic, some kind of rust-orange ooze. Headscratcher urgently motioned the Cave Goblins back.
Headscratcher pointed. The Cave Goblins stared blankly at the maggot. They couldn’t see it. They could see the trail it left.
“More invisible monsters? Hobs see? Lucky! Walk through dungeon is sudden-death sometimes!”
The Cave Goblins stared at the Hobs in awe. The Redfangs looked at each other. They stared at the maggot. It could clearly hear, but either it was blind or it couldn’t see the Goblins either. Any of them. The Goblins stared as it oozed past them and made way. The maggot navigated past them. Badarrow raised his bow, but Headscratcher shook his head. Slowly, the Goblins moved on.
They encountered a pair of Children next. The two little white monsters didn’t look like the children of Humans or Drakes when no one was around. They bared their teeth and sniffed the air as the Goblins sidled past them, but again, didn’t seem to see the Goblins. The group of eight Goblins marched around a corridor and ran into a Face-Eater Moth eating something dead.
This time, both groups saw each other. The Cave Goblins screamed and the Redfangs charged with a roar. The Face-Eater Moth reared up and Badarrow shot it through the mouth. Shorthilt whirled his blade and cut off two legs. Rabbiteater stabbed into the moth’s abdomen together with Numbtongue. Headscratcher roared and gave into the rage. When the rage veil of mist cleared from his eyes he was standing over the dead moth. Someone—him—had ripped its head clean off.
Headscratcher looked around. The other Goblins were standing far back, staring at him. The Cave Goblins’ mouths were open. Headscratcher stood up and realized he had blood all over him. The moth’s, not his. Numbtongue frowned.
“[Berserker]. Too much crazy. Don’t do that unless it’s important.”
Headscratcher nodded. He stared at the moth’s corpse.
“What did I…do?”
Numbtongue eyed him.
“You ripped its head off. After stabbing it many times. And then you hit the dead body for a minute.”
He pointed to Headscratcher’s hands. The Hob looked down and saw gore on his hands. He bent and wiped his hands on the dead moth. Then he straightened.
“We saw that. And little Goblins saw.”
The other Redfangs nodded. They looked at the Cave Goblins who nodded furiously. They’d all seen it. Headscratcher frowned and stayed true to his name by scratching his head. Curious. One of the little Cave Goblins glanced around.
“Noise is bad-bad! More things come. Invisible and others. We go?”
The Hobs nodded. They vacated the spot as fast as they could. True to the Cave Goblin’s words, they passed a group of monsters already scenting the violence. The maggot and two of its friends. They didn’t see the Cave Goblins. Nor did the next group of monsters. Or the next.
The Hobs quickly realized there was something to the invisible monsters theory. It wasn’t that all the monsters were invisible to each other. There were times when the Hobs and Cave Goblins clearly saw monsters. In those moments they would retreat or, if it came to it, fought. But at least sixty percent of the monsters were mutually invisible to each other.
That didn’t mean they weren’t aware of their presence. The Hobs saw an incredible battle between a group of Shield Spiders and a Face-Eater Moth that had run into each other. Both sides clawed the air and lunged at each other—clearly not able to see the others, but aware that something was attacking them. In the end, both groups retreated, warily lashing out at the air. And from the way the Cave Goblins moved—slowly, one of them waving a stick ahead of the others—they were also aware of the danger.
But why were they invisible? The Hobs had no answers. They understood why they were invisible with the Goblins, though. They were all Goblins. True, the Cave Goblins weren’t Hobs, but they were all the same species. Apparently that counted. And it meant the Hobs could do what the adventurers could not.
At the same time the Gold-ranks were pulling out of the dungeon, the Hobs were traversing tunnel after tunnel. Thanks to the Cave Goblins, they knew where most of the traps were, and the Goblins were very careful not to go down tunnels they didn’t know like the back of their claws.
The Hobs stared at a tunnel made of earth where strange flowers grew out of the ceiling and ground, a bright, almost antiseptic room full of white tiles that the Cave Goblins refused to go near, and through empty rooms and others which had clearly been designed for some purpose before they had been destroyed.
It was these rooms the Cave Goblins led the Hobs to, again and again. The dungeon was vast, but over the countless years since it had been built, some of the trap rooms had lost their lethality. Other rooms had never been trapped at all, and it was there that the Raskghar, Cave Goblins, and other monsters made their lairs. Unfortunately, none of the rooms the Cave Goblins checked were where the Raskghar had made their camps.
There were signs of their passage. In one large room which was slanted at steep, almost thirty-degree slant, the Goblins saw the remains of camp fires and bone fragments. And poo. They sniffed at the dried excrement and wrinkled their noses, but it was too old to offer any clues. The Cave Goblins led them on, pointing out dangerous places, places that the Raskghar had tried to rob of treasure and failed again and again, safe spots—
The Redfangs tried to memorize all the spots, but even their memories began to fail. Despite themselves, they were impressed. The Cave Goblins might not have many Goblin qualities, but they had adapted for life in the dungeon by memorizing all the dangers around them. And they were legion. It was easy to see that the Cave Goblins and Raskghar could live in the dungeon by preying on weaker monsters and avoiding the strong ones—with a bit of luck that they didn’t run into invisible monsters—but if there was one thing they weren’t prepared for, it was the adventurers.
The Goblins heard the sounds of battle as they approached the dungeon’s water entrance. The thump of impacts, shouts, ringing steel—and then a roar of crackling fire all broke the silence of the dungeon. The Hobs winced every time they heard a shout. Not for their sakes, but because they clearly saw what the effect the noise had.
The monsters heard the sound. And like Face-Eater Moths drawn to an unbitten face, they swarmed towards the adventurer’s locations, searching for prey. The Hobs saw roving monster packs streaming down the corridors, sometimes running into each other and doing battle, but often running into adventurers first.
The dungeon was a huge ecosystem. And the adventurers, as a totally foreign presence had managed to unite all the monsters against them. The Hobs on the other hand were largely unnoticed. And eventually that paid off for them. They encountered the first Raskghar group two hours into their hunt.
Badarrow hissed at the others. The Goblins flattened themselves against the walls and Shorthilt peeked around the corridor. He saw a group of four Raskghar following six Cave Goblins. This group was heading down a corridor, and by the looks of things, they were hunting for food. The Raskghar were making four of the Cave Goblins carry a dead rat-thing twice as large as a fox, and two more Goblins were scouting the way with sticks. It looked like the Raskghar were using the Goblins as guides.
Rabbiteater’s cloak swirled as he knelt with the others. Shorthilt scratched his jaw, thinking. There were only four Raskghar and the Cave Goblins might know where their camp was. He looked at Headscratcher. The Hob bared his teeth as he stared at the Raskghar. The bestial creatures were striding along, at ease.
They growled at each other, grinning, perhaps communicating in their language. They weren’t carrying the dead rat-thing, though the Cave Goblins were staggering under the weight. One of the scouts slowed as it inspected a tile and the Raskghar kicked it savagely. The Cave Goblin scuttled forwards, keening softly. Headscratcher’s heart beat harder in his chest. He bared his teeth and saw the other Redfangs were doing the same.
The ambush was textbook. Or it would be if the Goblins used textbooks. The Raskghar were moving behind the Cave Goblins, relaxed, sniffing the air but not worried. They weren’t near the distant fighting with the adventurers. They did pause as they rounded an intersection and one of them raised a hand. The Raskghar in front sniffed the air as it picked up a foreign scent, but then it relaxed. It smelled only Goblins. It sauntered forwards, bow in hand, and then saw something flash.
Badarrow’s arrow struck it in the head. The Raskghar dropped. The other three Raskghar jerked backwards. They saw a group of four Goblins charge them. Only, they weren’t normal Goblins. These ones were tall, muscled, and they had sw—
The Raskghar never had a chance. The Redfangs ran them through in moments, sending the bestial creatures tumbling to the ground. The superior intelligence, speed, and strength of the Raskghar didn’t matter to the Hobs with surprise on their side. The harder trick was keeping the Cave Goblins from fleeing in every direction.
The little Goblins panicked and screamed when they saw the unfamiliar Hobs kill their masters. They would have fled, but the three smaller Cave Goblins called out and reassured the terrified six other Goblins that the Hobs were, in fact, Goblins. And best of all, they didn’t hit or kill Cave Goblins for fun!
It took a few minutes for the Redfangs to explain what they wanted. The wary Cave Goblins shook their heads when they were asked for the main camp. To the Redfang’s dismay, they learned that this particular group had come from one of the smaller camps of Raskghar. They hadn’t been to the main camp. But they did know where their camp was. The Redfangs brightened and immediately told the Cave Goblins to lead them there.
Then they were fourteen. The Redfangs hurried down the tunnel, following the route the Raskghar had intended to take. The rat-thing lay abandoned with the Raskghar corpses. After a while it got up and began to eat the Raskghar, but by that time the Cave Goblins and Hobs were gone. They turned left, went straight, went through two rooms, and then saw the camp.
There were two dozen Raskghar here. Instantly, Badarrow drew back and signaled that there was no way the Redfangs would be able to take the camp. Headscratcher and the others nodded, but they stopped to stare at the Raskghar camp from the shadows. If they couldn’t fight, they could at least know their enemy. What they saw made their blood boil.
This camp of Raskghar was small. Barely more than an outpost. But despite having only two dozen Raskghar, there were at least fifty Goblins assigned to the camp. That made sense; the Redfangs had speculated that there had to be countless Goblins in the dungeon. But these Goblins—
Oh, it was cruel. The Raskghar were lounging about, secure in their camp which was being watched by Cave Goblin sentries. For fun, they’d tied up a small Cave Goblin and were taking turns throwing rocks at it. They aimed at its head and groin as it screamed and flinched. The Raskghar threw the stones with bone-breaking force. And worse—Shorthilt pointed to a limp body and the other Hobs drew in breath.
They were eating the Cave Goblins. A half-consumed corpse lay at the Raskghar’s feet. The beasts laughed and battered the dying Cave Goblin with stones. They beckoned and another Cave Goblin came forwards dully. The Redfangs waited for the Goblin to run or fight, but it let the Raskghar tie it to another stick.
Slaves. The Hobs had heard of the word, but they had thought it was a Human thing. They could never have imagined something like this. The Cave Goblins weren’t just defeated. They seemed to believe the Raskghar were their version of—of Hobs. They leapt to obey the Raskghar and cringed as the beast-people ordered them about. But what a travesty. A Hobgoblin would never do something like this. The Redfangs knew it. Never. If a Hob had done this in their tribe, Garen would have cut his head off. If Grunter had ever been like this—
Two dozen Raskghar. And the camp definitely contained no Gnolls. There was no point in assaulting it. It was far too dangerous. The Redfangs had a mission. A sacred one, entrusted to them by Erin herself. They couldn’t risk their lives. And yet—they stared as the second Cave Goblin flinched and the Raskghar began hurling stones at him.
Headscratcher felt a hand on his shoulder. Badarrow was gripping him, telling him with his eyes what had to be done. Headscratcher bit his lip so hard he felt his teeth meeting, but he nodded. He turned—and the Cave Goblins were staring at them.
Nine of them. They stood together, looking at the Hobs. Looking at the Redfang Warriors, and at the Raskghar. Looking between the two. There was no judgment in their eyes. They were Goblins. They understood how Goblins thought. But when they looked at the Hobs, there was hope in the depths of their gaze. They looked at the Hobs, giants, a new kind of Goblin. A Goblin who did not fear the Raskghar. Who spoke of Goblins leading Goblins. Who claimed a tribe, spoke a name.
Headscratcher looked at Numbtongue. Numbtongue closed his eyes and lifted his guitar. He checked it and glanced at Badarrow. The Hob reached for the bell. Shorthilt grimaced, but only for a second. He lifted his sword. The Hobs looked at each other, and then at Rabbiteater.
The Cave Goblins stared at Rabbiteater. Blood had fallen on his cloak from an earlier skirmish, and now it swirled, liquid crimson hanging from his shoulders. Rabbiteater straightened. He looked around, and then turned to the Raskghar. The cloak swirled around him as he looked at his fellows. They nodded.
Rabbiteater smiled. He turned to the watching Cave Goblins and gave them a thumbs-up. Then, as the other Hobs moved back, he strode forwards.
The Raskghar were enjoying their target practice game. It was unclear whether they enjoyed hearing the Goblin scream or the challenge of placing their shots more. They didn’t pay attention to the smell of more Goblins in the air. Yes, they smelled different, but Goblins were Goblins. They were relaxed, indolent, confident that they were unchallengeable while the moon gave them power.
They heard the guitar scream and whirled. They didn’t see the origin of the music, but they saw the Hob. He stood in the light, a crimson cloak swirling around his shoulders. The Cave Goblins scurrying about the room turned and stared.
Rabbiteater drew his sword and stuck a pose. He grinned as the guitar sang. Two dozen Raskghar stared at him. Rabbiteater beckoned with his sword. In his other hand he grabbed his cloak and whirled it. The Raskghar stared at him and then scrambled for their weapons. They grabbed them and rose, laughing, and saw the second Goblin appear over Rabbiteater’s shoulder.
Badarrow lifted the cursed bell and carefully took aim. He’d tied the bell to the tip of his arrow. The arrow sagged, but the Goblin was more concerned with keeping it from ringing. He drew the arrow back and gripped the bell’s clapper tightly before letting it fly.
The Raskghar dodged as the arrow flew towards them. The curve was bad and the bell weighed it down. It landed harmlessly and clanged off the ground.
The sound screamed through the air. The Cave Goblins screamed and fell to the ground, writhing, their ears bleeding. The effect on the Raskghar was even worse. They howled and half dropped their weapons. The other half screamed and tried to charge. Rabbiteater pointed his sword. He charged as Headscratcher and Shorthilt roared and sprinted out of the darkness.
The three howled as they charged, three versus twenty six. From his position behind them, Badarrow loosed arrows as fast as he could draw them. Raskghar fell, arrows sprouting from their eyes and throats.
The Cave Goblins scrambled up. Ears still bleeding, they fled backwards. They were supposed to defend their masters, but these strange attackers looked just like them! They saw Headscratcher charge the largest Raskghar. It was shaking its head, but it had recovered from the bell. It roared as Headscratcher lunged at it. The Hob’s blade pierced the monster’s shoulder, but the Rasgkhar knocked Headscratcher’s arm aside with a stone club. It brought the club down and Headscratcher caught the not-Gnoll’s arm.
The Hob’s arms trembled as the bestial warrior bore down on him. It was taller than Headscratcher by a head and larger too. The Cave Goblins cringed, expecting the Hob to buckle. The Raskghar was biting at him as it tried to crush him. The Goblins saw Headscratcher’s legs buckle, then the Goblin’s eyes flamed a deeper red. He howled and the Raskghar’s club began to move back. Alarmed, the monster tried to pivot. Headscratcher turned, and, with one hand, threw the Raskghar across the room.
Over three hundred pounds of Raskghar went flying. It crashed into the cooking fire and screamed. Headscratcher turned and brought his sword down on another warrior, splitting its head open. Next to him, Shorthilt’s sword flashed. He chopped at a Raskghar who tried to block with a buckler, his sword went through the enemy’s shield and the bewildered Raskghar stared at the bloody stain in his chest. Shorthilt turned and slashed. His blade was sharp. The Cave Goblins watched as he dueled two Raskghar at once, seamlessly shifting between attacking and parrying attacks.
It was four. No, five. Every eye turned as the Goblin playing the guitar strode into the room. Numbtongue’s guitar crackled with lightning as he played. The music was fierce and the sound of it made the air crack. Numbtongue’s voice was loud as he sang.
“Goblins walk, here, beneath this sorry rock!
Redfang warriors all, to serve an [Innkeeper]’s call!
You monsters who hunt, we fear you not.
We are here, and we died long ago.
This dungeon is a fine death, this trap in which you are caught—
Will be your end. Now fight! You craven vermin.
The sound was more than just music. It seemed to inspire. Headscratcher, Shorthilt, and Rabbiteater moved faster, struck harder. The Raskghar hated the sound. Two charged Numbtongue. Shorthilt whirled and called a warning. Numbtongue hadn’t unsheathed his blade! The Hob turned to face the two of the not-Gnolls. He shifted his grip, grabbed the guitar in both hands and swung.
Lightning flashed. The Cave Goblins shielded their eyes and cried out. There was a musical twang and one of the Raskghar stumbled back, crying out. Its fur was singed and Numbtongue assailed the second with his guitar as the strings flashed with lightning. The Goblins watched, open-mouthed, as Numbtongue charged with a scream, guitar in one hand, sword in the other.
Five Hobs fought. Badarrow kept shooting as the dazed Raskghar struggled to surround the Hobs. Headscratcher and Shorthilt joined Numbtongue and fought with backs to each other. But it was Rabbiteater who attracted every eye. He leapt onto a makeshift table, blood cloak flying around him and hacked at the bestial warriors as they tried to drag him down. His magical cloak absorbed their furious blows, the blood splashing in the eyes of those who struck the liquid cloth. Rabbiteater shouted as he fought.
The cry was taken up by the other Goblins. They howled the word, and Numbtongue struck his guitar, thumping out a beat.
The Raskghar tried to swarm the Goblins. But they were deafened, and the Hobs fought together, using the terrain against the Raskghar. And there was the music. The beat of Numbtongue’s improvised drum echoed through the room. And while it gave the Redfangs heart, to the Raskghar it was discordant sound, distracting, disconcerting. Numbtongue howled.
“Redfang! Fight! A Goblin’s pride! A warrior’s right! Redfang! Redfang!”
Headscratcher roared. He cleaved a Raskghar’s arm from the body and roared. A Raskghar seized him—he broke its grip and head-butted the Raskghar until its face was a bloody mess.
Shorthilt’s blade was never sharper. He swung the steel and cut through bone and wood as if it were cloth. He whirled and saw another of Badarrow’s arrows take down another Raskghar. None of them had come close to the [Archer]—he coolly drew another arrow and loosed it, downing a charging Raskghar with an arrow to the groin.
Rabbiteater swirled his cloak, his bloody sword spattering blood. He whirled for enemies on his left, looked for them on his right, and then turned all the way around. It was a moment before the thunder in his ears cleared and he realized all the Raskghar were down.
They’d won. The Cave Goblins stared at the five Goblins as they stood, bloodied, injured, but victorious. They stared at the fallen Raskghar, some still gasping for life. The Raskghar, at the height of their power during the full moons. But the Hobs were triumphant. One raised his sword, the red cloak hanging from his shoulders. The [Archer] walked forwards and the five looked around.
In that moment, they looked like giants to the Cave Goblins. Taller than anything. Stronger than anything. Beautiful and wonderful. Undefeatable.
Heroes. Goblin heroes. The Cave Goblins crept forwards, staring up at the Hobs. They flinched fearfully as the Goblin in the crimson cape turned, but his smile was warm. The Goblins flocked to him, stepping over the dying Raskghar.
And then there were dozens.
Above, in the cave. Erin stared around. The sixty-odd Cave Goblins stared at her. She looked from face to face and recognized one.
The little Goblin jumped and tried to hide behind the others, who immediately abandoned her. She stared at Erin, clearly wary. Erin wondered why the Redfangs hadn’t taken her with them. Maybe because she was too young? Or she didn’t know the way as well as the others?
It was hard to tell how old any of the Goblins were. They were all small. Although, Erin noted that some were clearly more adult than Rags. She stared from face to face and felt—conflicted.
“The Redfang Warriors—the Hobs—are going into the dungeon. To fight the Raskghar. They’ll be back. You don’t go anywhere, understand?”
The Cave Goblin stared at Erin. She detected not a flicker of comprehension in their eyes. Not a bit of trust, either. Erin’s jaw clenched. She realized she was making fists at her side. She unclenched her hands—with effort.
It was hard. Very hard. Erin had preached understanding the Goblins, but the memory of finding Lyonette lying on the floor and shouting for Mrsha was fresh in her mind. And Ceria—she knew the Goblins weren’t the ones who’d ordered the kidnapping. That was Calruz. How could he?
But the Cave Goblins were part of it. And yet, they were slaves. Tools for the Raskghar. Erin knew that, but right now wasn’t the time her brain wanted to be reasonable. She was angry. She’d put all her hopes in the Redfang Warriors and the Gold-rank adventurers finding Mrsha and Ceria. But all these Goblins—
The Drake jumped. She was staring at the Goblins, wringing her claws together. Erin looked at her.
“Uh—yes Erin? What are we supposed to do? I mean, with them?”
Erin studied the Goblins. Having them run away would be a decidedly bad thing. She gritted her teeth and thought.
“I guess we’ve got to keep them here.”
The Goblins shifted uneasily at that. Drassi looked uneasy too.
“Keep them here? How?”
“I don’t know. Feed them? Make them sit around until the Hobs get back? I’ll think of something. I need you to go into Liscor. Or Celum. Grab more food. This is a lot of Goblins and I gave the Redfangs almost all of our ingredients. We’ll have adventurers in the inn tonight—I need to cook.”
The Drake hesitated.
“But Selys said—”
She wavered as Erin looked at her. The [Innkeeper] folded her arms.
“I’m not going into the dungeon. You saw what my crazy plan was. I’ll be right here. Keeping an eye on the Goblins. But I need you to get food. Lyonette’s in no condition. And I am paying you.”
Drassi’s mouth shut as Erin stared pointedly at her. She looked around, but there was nothing for it.
“Right. I can go shopping. Uh, I’ll take coin out of the money stash. Okay?”
The Drake backed away towards the door. The Goblins were staring at her and Erin. Drassi knew that Erin was friendly to the Goblins, but seeing so many still made her…nervous. Even after hearing Erin’s chess analogy.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to get someone to um, come through? Like a Silver-rank? Or a team, maybe?”
“Then they will run. Go on. I’ll be here.”
Erin practically shoved Drassi out the door. She waited until the magical door had deactivated, leaving only the stone cave wall behind. Then Erin looked around.
The Cave Goblins stared at her. Erin folded her arms. She glanced around the cave, wrinkled her nose at the dead Dropclaw Bats, and then walked over to the entrance to the cave. She stood in front of it, and eyed the Goblins.
“Well? Your move.”
The Goblins looked at each other. They shifted. Some began edging for the entrance to the dungeon. Instantly, Erin strode towards them. They froze and then ran out of the way.
“Oh no you don’t. You’re staying here. Here! Understand?”
Erin raised a threatening fist. The Goblins flinched back, but a few began to glance surreptitiously at one another behind Erin’s back. They were all feeling the same thing.
Certainty was gone. The reassuring presence of the Hobs had vanished, leaving the Cave Goblins aware of how alone they were. And how furious the Raskghar would be if they found them. Suddenly, all that had happened, being taken prisoner, and then following the Hobs—felt like madness. What were they doing? They had to return to their tribe. Their Chieftain would kill them if they didn’t return. They looked at each other, hearts suddenly pounding, and stared at the Human. A Human female. An enemy.
Erin was breathing hard. She was trying not to be angry, but she couldn’t help it. It wasn’t the Goblins’ fault! But this lot had been part of the attack on her inn! They’d helped the Raskghar! How could they? How could—
Something made a gurgling sound. Erin looked around sharply. Which Goblin had made that sound? She couldn’t tell. She could sense the Goblins moving around her. Not in response to her, but in a coordinated fashion. Erin felt a tingle on the back of her neck and turned. A Goblin was staring at her. She heard an alarm sound in her head.
[Dangersense]. Suddenly, Erin didn’t feel so safe. She glanced towards the door and realized she’d made a mistake. Drassi had closed the door! Of course she had—she’d gone to Celum or Liscor and she had to change destinations. Erin was cut off until she got back.
Well, that was fine. Erin’s teeth gritted together. Her anger was like a red hot piece of metal in her chest. If the Goblins wanted to play rough, she could be a big angry Hob too. She kept turning, making the Goblins scatter. But they were moving deliberately now. And she couldn’t keep an eye on all of them—
Erin heard a sound. A louder gurgle. She looked around, dropped her guard for an instant. One of the Goblins jumped forwards, a small, rusted knife in hand. She turned around and clocked him so fast the Goblin was still shouting as he tumbled over into an unconscious heap. The other Goblins leapt back and Erin whirled, fists raised.
The Goblins backed up, hands raised. But they stared at her. Erin glared from face to face. She wanted to hit them. Of course she did! Was it easy being nice to people all the time? No! Did she sometimes think that Goblins were dangerous? Of course! She waited for the next attack. Next time she’d use [Minotaur Punch], teach them a lesson. Next time—
One of the Goblins moved. Erin whirled.
Pebblesnatch froze and cowered. She dropped her outstretched hand and dropped into a ball on the ground, covering her head. Erin stopped her fist. She stared at the Goblin. Pebblesnatch quaked on the ground, clearly ready to be hit. She’d dropped something.
A potato. She’d been offering it to Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared at her. Then at the potato. She heard the same sound and realized what it was.
Her stomach. It was growling as loud as Erin had ever heard. She looked down and realized she hadn’t eaten in…well, at least nine hours. She stared at Pebblesnatch and realized she was hungry. And tired. And stressed. And afraid. And—
And Pebblesnatch was shivering. Shaking. She looked up at Erin, fear in her eyes. Fear from Erin. But at the same time, there was something else. Trust. Maybe the Goblin understood that Erin had been the one who saved her. Maybe she’d just seen Erin talking with the Hobs and associated the two. But something had made her reach out and offer Erin a potato.
The young woman stared down at the Goblin. Pebblesnatch was very small. And very skinny. She couldn’t have been eating anything good in the dungeon. And the Hobs had been just as thin when she’d first met them. She’d fed them feasts and they were only now looking properly healthy. And here she was, beating the Goblins up. Just like a good adventurer.
Suddenly, Erin felt like a fool. She looked down at Pebblesnatch. The little Goblin looked up fearfully at her. She cowered as Erin knelt.
“No, don’t be scared. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—look, I’m not going to hit you. I thought you were going to stab me. Thank you for the potato. I’d eat it, but it’s raw, see?”
Pebblesnatch looked up with wide eyes. She saw Erin kneel, and then a smile appeared on Erin’s face. The Cave Goblins stopped tensing and paused. They’d never seen a Human smile at them before. Most hadn’t seen Humans until now, except as skeletons, really. They saw Erin Solstice bend down and offer her hands to Pebblesnatch. The Goblin crept closer, and then squeaked as Erin lifted her up. She froze in terror, but Erin only smiled.
“You’re light. And you’re just a kid. I’m not going to hurt you. And I like potatoes. Do you?”
The Goblin stared at Erin. She didn’t answer, but her stomach did. Erin heard a rumble and laughed. Again, the Goblins froze. But this time in curiosity.
“You’re hungry too! I bet you didn’t have any food. I was sending breakfast with Numbtongue and Rabbiteater until—why don’t we fix that? If I eat something I’m sure I won’t feel like hitting everything.”
She turned and paused.
“Ah, damn. The door’s gone. Well…poop.”
Erin looked around, frowning. Then she stared at the firewood piled up. The Cave Goblins had neatly arranged her supplies next to the firewood that Headscratcher had obtained. It bothered her a bit that they’d piled up the Dropclaw Bats as rations as well—right next to the salt—but it struck her with an idea. She stared down at Pebblesnatch, who was experimentally feeling Erin’s arms.
“Hey, can you make a fire? I suck at making fires. But I’m a great cook. What say you and I make something?”
The Goblin stared at Erin. She didn’t respond, but this time she hopped out of Erin’s arms. She scampered over to the wood pile and selected a log. Then some dry bark, a few dried leaves—and then she ran over to another Goblin. She argued with the Goblin as Erin watched, and then came back with a rock. She showed it to Erin.
“Ooh. Is that flint? Mind starting a fire?”
Erin smiled as Pebblesnatch nodded eagerly. She watched the Goblin run over to the fire and begin smacking the rocks and creating sparks. Erin still felt—well, she felt shaky and irritable with hunger, but now she knew that was part of what she was feeling. And with that knowledge came a bit of clarity. Erin looked around, pricked again by her [Dangersense].
The Goblins were still spaced out around the cave. And a group of them had been sneaking up on Erin’s back. Several had sharp rocks and rusty weapons in their claws. Erin looked at them and they guiltily hid them behind their backs.
“Try to stab me and I’ll hit you. Don’t stab me and I’ll feed you. Okay? Give me ten—five minutes.”
The Goblins hesitated. But Erin was suddenly confident, and her confidence made them rethink rushing her. The unconscious Goblin at Erin’s feet also added a bit of uncertainty to the mix. They drew back as Erin walked over to the fire.
Erin muttered to herself, feeling her skin prickle. She kept a smile on her face, but she watched her back. The Goblins still might try and get her. They were—well, they weren’t saints. They were people. And people attacked when they thought they were in danger. If she’d struck Pebblesnatch or began banging heads together, they might have swarmed her.
A crackle and light caught Erin’s eye. Pebblesnatch had started the fire! The Goblin pushed twigs and dried pieces of wood towards the blaze and soon she had a fire going. Erin nodded approvingly as Pebblesnatch looked up.
“My turn. Pass me that pan, would you? And the oil? And the salt. And a knife. Watch this. You’re going to be impressed.”
The Cave Goblins watched as Pebblesnatch ran about, doing what Erin said. She had a way about her. An aura that made them hesitate. Slowly, more and more put down their rocks. When they saw what Erin was doing, even more laid down their weapons.
She was making food. First, Erin peeled the potato. She let Pebblesnatch greedily eat the skin, and then flicked thin slices of potato into the pan. She poured oil onto the cast-iron surface, a generous amount, and then held the pan over the fire. Erin added salt, again, a good pinch, and soon had the oil bubbling and spattering. Pebblesnatch scrambled back, yelping as hot oil got on her cheek.
“Watch out! Hot stuff! Hey, I need a fork!”
Erin flipped a potato slice. The sizzle as it landed made all the Goblins look up and realize how hungry they were. Erin looked around.
“Forks and a plate. Well?”
There was a moment, just a moment in which they contemplated rushing Erin. The orders of their Chieftain, the authority of the Raskghar still had sway over them. Two tried it. Erin flicked hot oil into their eyes and the screaming Goblins writhed on the ground.
“Hope that didn’t blind you. But I am not playing games. Never mess with a chef and hot oil. Plates! Forks! My potatoes are already crispy!”
Goblins rushed to do her bidding. Erin slid the fried potatoes onto a plate. She bit one slice and nodded.
“Oily. Salty! I wouldn’t serve this at my inn, but it tastes great here. Here, have some.”
She offered one to Pebblesnatch. The Goblin took it, nearly dropped the hot slice, and bit into it. Her eyes went round.
It was possible the Cave Goblins had never learned to fry food. Cook, yes, but oil was probably rare in the dungeon where the only place they could extract it was from dead things. And Erin bet that Raskghar and Cave Goblins ate their food raw. The Goblins crowded around her plate, snatching at the fried potatoes. Soon it was gone. The others groaned and fought the ones who were eating.
“Stop that! I’ll make more!”
The Goblins stared at Erin in awe. She smiled.
“I brought a bag full of potatoes. There’s food for all. And if you’re nice, I’ll feed you all. No one will go hungry here, understand? If you’re good. I won’t hurt you if you don’t try to hurt me. And I have more food. We can make bread—and I’ve got veggies! I bet we can even make something out of those disgusting bats. I make a great fried bee, after all.”
The Cave Goblins looked at Erin in awe. She took a potato that Pebblesnatch eagerly brought her and expertly peeled it.
“Food. Is good. Food makes people feel better. I can’t save Mrsha or Ceria. I can’t fight Raskghar. But I bet I can feed you. And I just bet you’ll stay for that. What do you say?”
Erin smiled. She tossed the potatoes into the pan and the smell filled the cave. She gestured, and Pebblesnatch brought over some veggies and a bit of dried meat. Erin tossed it all together and stirred the pan with her fork.
“There’s more pans and more food. And hey, we have more wood over there. I bet we can make three fires at once and not smoke ourselves out. Or cook outside. Wait—it’s raining. Nevermind. Hey, you. Want to learn how to cook a stir fry?”
She offered the pan to a female Goblin. The Goblin jerked back, but then, slowly, took the pan. Erin helped her lift it.
“That’s right. Not too hot. Say, can we make a little stove to hold the pan? And I’ll show you how to bread fish. I think I saw a dead one lying over there. Are you with me?”
Erin Solstice looked around. Her smile was expectant. Her voice was soothing. The Cave Goblins couldn’t remember hearing a voice like that in…they looked at each other. They looked at Erin and thought. They thought about how the Hobs had clustered around her, waited for her. They looked at her hands, at the three groaning Goblins.
Strong. A leader. And then the Cave Goblins closed their eyes. They smelled something new. Something alien to the dungeon and the blood. They looked around the cave. At the magic door. Her magic. And then they looked at each other.
The Cave Goblins didn’t speak. Goblins didn’t usually need to speak. But they broke into groups. Some went to build more fires. Others grabbed pans, a few more cooking knives. A few disappeared into the dungeon. The rest followed Erin, watching. Learning. And perhaps—trusting.
Drassi hurried into Erin’s inn, closed the door, and began fiddling with it. She nearly dropped the mana stone for Liscor.
“Hurry, hurry! Oh no, Selys is going to be so mad at me. But Erin will be fine. Yes? Yes! She told me she once scared away a bear by screaming at it. That’s got to work on Goblins, right?”
The Drake was so preoccupied with the door that she barely noticed the commotion in the inn behind her. Vuliel Drae was arguing with the remaining Silver-rank adventurers.
“What were we supposed to do? It was just our team! And did you see those skeleton things?”
“Never mind that! We didn’t do what they wanted! They’re all going into the dungeon! The Gold-ranks are going to kick our tails so far up our butts that—”
The Drake jumped. She looked around and saw Lyonette.
“Oh, hey Lyonette. Are you—”
Drassi bit her tongue. Anyone could see that Lyonette was not okay. The [Barmaid] looked like she hadn’t slept. She looked closer to undead than alive and tears had reddened her eyes. Lyonette stared at the door.
“What’s the red stone?”
Drassi’s claw closed guiltily over the mana stone.
“That? Uh, that’s—”
“Erin’s doing something, isn’t she? With the Goblins? I saw you leave this morning.”
Lyonette stared piercingly at Drassi. Her red eyes focused a bit. Drassi hesitated.
“Will it bring back Mrsha?”
Lyonette’s tone was urgent. Drassi hesitated. She never lied. Not even when it might help. Because truth was more powerful than lies. If you couldn’t believe in truth, what was the point? She shook her head.
“I don’t know. But I think it will help if anything can. Erin’s sent the Redfangs into the dungeon. They’re going to try and find Mrsha too.”
That was all Lyonette said. She swayed on her feet and then stared. Drassi was fumbling with the green stone for Liscor.
“What are you doing?”
“Going to Liscor. Erin wants food. She gave most of her ingredients to the Goblins, you see. I was going to go shopping—”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Oh, no. You should stay. I don’t think Erin would want you to leave the inn—”
Drassi glanced at another Drake who was watching Lyonette. Imissi was trying to wait tables and keep an eye on the [Barmaid]. Lyonette glared.
“I’m going. You don’t know what to buy, anyways.”
That was true. Drassi had planned on peeking her head into Erin’s kitchen, but she never cooked so she had no idea what was needed. Helplessly, she threw up her claws.
“Okay, but we go and come back quick, alright? Erin’s waiting! Imissi! I‘m going with Lyonette! It’s okay! I think!”
The two went through the door to Liscor. It was wet. It was raining. Lyonette strode forwards, purposeful, Drassi lamely trying to make conversation.
“So…do you think you’ll sleep?”
“I uh, I’m really—”
Even [Gossips] knew when to shut up. Drassi glanced about. Liscor was quiet. Of course it was. No one could be out and about, much less cheerful after the second Raskghar attack. She expected everyone would be indoors, especially the Gnolls. But to her surprise, that wasn’t the case. There was a gathering down Market Street. A large gathering.
An unhappy gathering. Gnolls and Drakes were gathered around, visibly upset. Some looked as red-eyed and as lost as Lyonette. Nearly eighty Gnolls had been kidnapped. And while Liscor was home to tens of thousands, Gnolls were a tight-knit community. Everyone was someone’s friend or relative. And the Drakes were no less worried. Their loved ones had died to the Raskghar.
Given all the strife, it wasn’t hard to see what was happening. The crowd stood in the rain, some under awnings, listening to a few loudmouths speak. Drassi didn’t like it. She was a [Gossip], but it had to be said, a principled one. She was no agitator and she recognized a bad rumor mill when she saw it. Her heart sank even further when she saw who was speaking at the center of the group, standing on his stall.
“—And the Watch said they would keep us safe! They said it after the moth attack and then after the Raskghar attacked us the first time! But did they? Where were they when the Raskghar were slaughtering us in the streets!?”
Lism, the Drake [Shopkeeper] who was one of the most vocal anti-Human Drakes in the city shouted at the crowd. He wasn’t getting wild cheers, but the silence and the fact that no one was telling him to shut up was ominous. Lism pointed around the crowd.
“They failed us! You lost a loved one, Miss? Didn’t you? And you—err, no? What about you? Yes? Yes! Hah! The army came back and we’re still dying! Why? Because those Human-lovers are in charge! This all started when the Humans came! Mark my words—if we’d kicked out those damn adventurers, none of this would have happened!”
His angry shouting attracted some nods. Drassi frowned. This was bad. Lism had the crowd on his side. It wasn’t hard to see why. People were angry, afraid—and there wasn’t anyone speaking out against him. Drassi could see Krshia, who could normally blow the wind out of Lism’s sails any day of the week, standing at her stall, head bowed. Lism went on.
“The worst of them all is that Human! You know the one I’m talking about! Not only does she employ undead, she lets Goblins—the same Goblins who joined the Raskghar, mark you—work at her inn! How do we know she’s not responsible for this? Maybe it was some of her Goblins who told the Raskghar where and when to strike!”
“That’s not true!”
Lism turned and nearly fell off his wet stall. Lyonette strode forwards, face pale. She pointed a trembling finger at Lism.
“Don’t lie! Erin would never do that! She protected the city! She warned you all about the second Raskghar attack! If she hadn’t—”
“Oh yes? I see one of her workers is here! Aren’t you the same Human who destroyed half of Market Street? You stole from our shops! How dare you come to the city?”
Lism sneered down at Lyonette. The [Barmaid] couldn’t go paler, but she bit her lip. Lism pointed down at her, clearly happy to have a visible target.
“Sure, people say the [Innkeeper] helped, but did she really? Ask yourselves that! Why have all these problems started after she appeared? Maybe she’s not so helpful after all. Maybe she’s a Human spy. I heard that she met with Magnolia Reinhart. That Reinhart. What kind of [Innkeeper] meets with Human nobility? Why do we let her stay outside the city, anyways? Maybe we should do something about it.”
“Maybe you should shut up, Lism. Maybe that would be for the best, no?”
Krshia spoke up at last. Her voice was flat as she stared at Lism. The Drake locked gazes with Krshia.
“You’re friends with her, Silverfang. Afraid you’ll be tarred with her crimes?”
The Gnoll rumbled. Some of the Gnolls in the crowd growled, but far too few. Drassi would have normally expected every Gnoll to jump to Krshia’s defense. That they didn’t was bad, and Lism knew it. He folded his arms.
“Why is that Human here? Why are any of these Humans here? No—let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Why are those damn Goblins here? They’re enemies! Monsters! They killed Zel Shivertail!”
He’d been saving that for his trump card. The rumble that ran through the crowd was angry. Lism smiled. He opened his mouth to fan the flames. Lyonette looked around helplessly, and Krshia hunched over her stall, clearly searching for something to refute Lism.
And it was at this point that Drassi stood up. She couldn’t help it. She was a mediocre [Barmaid], a chatterbox, and yes, she spent too much money. But all that aside, she was a [Gossip] and Erin’s friend and employee. And if ever there was a moment for her, it was this.
“Excuse me? Excuse me! I’d like to say a few words!”
Every head turned at Drassi’s bright voice. She stood up on an empty stall. Lism blinked.
“Uh, what are you doing?”
Drassi waved at the crowd. She liked being the center of attention.
“I just want to clarify a few details! Hello Krshia. Lism. Is that you, Miss Fairfaw? Mister Zeil, what are you doing in the rain? Hello Tellis, oh, and you’ve brought your daughters with you!”
The Drake called names out in the crowd. The Gnolls and Drakes looked up at her. Drassi smiled. Lism was clearly unhappy about sharing the same head height.
“Get down from there! I’m trying to tell the people about the threat to our city! This is no place for one of that Human’s cronies to—”
“Excuse me, I’d just like to clarify a few details.”
Drassi interrupted Lism with years of practice. She smiled around and raised her voice, speaking as if she were chatting with each of the people here one-on-one.
“Point of fact. Erin did warn Olesm and Zevara about the second Raskghar attack. If she hadn’t, they would have taken the walls. I heard Olesm say that myself. In fact, I was there when she tried to raise the alarm. And she does employ Hobs at her inn. Hobs, not Cave Goblins. They helped fight the Raskghar off. In fact, they captured some of the Cave Goblins and made them talk. Without them, we wouldn’t know half of the things about the dungeon we know right now.”
“That’s—don’t confuse the issue! Those Goblins are a menace!”
Lism turned red as the audience stared at Drassi. The Drake calmly shook her head.
“No, they’re not. They’re quite nice, actually. I’ve been around the Goblins countless times and not once have they done anything dangerous. Did you know that one of them can play the guitar? Totally true. And Erin’s working just as hard to fix the problem as anyone else.”
“Ah, you say that, but do you have any proof?”
The [Shopkeeper] glared at Drassi. She sighed.
“How am I supposed to prove that? Wait—I could get Numbtongue to play his guitar, but he’s not here. I don’t have to prove anything, Lism. I’m telling the truth.”
“Hah! As if we’d believe someone hired by the Human—”
“You think I’d lie? Me?”
Drassi’s outraged voice made Lism hesitate. Drassi spread her arms.
“I don’t lie! Everyone knows it! I gossip, but I don’t make things up! Isn’t that right?”
The Drakes and Gnolls looked at each other uncertainly. It was true that Krshia was a known figure in the Gnoll community, and Lism was a loudmouth, but in her own way, Drassi was just as well-known. A Drake muttered to his friend.
“That’s true. Drassi never lies.”
A Gnoll nodded.
“Ever. She’s always honest, yes.”
“Wait, but she—”
Lism realized he was losing the crowd. He tried to shout, but Drassi talked over him.
“That’s right! And I’ve been at Erin’s inn! I’ve seen everything and let me tell you—what’s happening is totally different! Let me tell you—wow, where do I begin? Okay, it started with the Raskghar attack—which Erin did not cause! Believe me, folks. I’m bringing you the facts! Just the facts! Okay, and a story. Here’s what really happened.”
She started shouting to the crowd as they turned to listen her, anxious to hear the truth. Lism kept shouting but eventually he was drowned out and someone knocked him off his stall to get him to shut up. Drassi beamed.
A Level 17 [Gossip] had Skills. One of them was [Social Network]. When Drassi had a story to tell, she could pass the information through her friends circle at the speed of rumor, which was probably faster than the speed of light, sound, and passing wind combined. She grinned and winked at Lyonette who was staring at Drassi with amazement in her eyes.
“Get shopping, Lyonette. Oh, and take this mana stone. Erin’s waiting. I’ll be a while. Tell her I’ll consider this overtime.”
Something was happening. Erin kept cooking food with the other Goblins, teaching them how to cook, really. But every time she looked around there were more Goblins. She didn’t understand it. But then she saw them coming through the dungeon entrance.
First in small groups, and then in a stream. Not because of her—well, not just because of her. The Cave Goblins had entered the dungeon and spread word. Of a group of Hobs—of Goblins who fought Raskghar. And more were in the dungeon, had seen the Redfangs fighting the Raskghar. They followed the band of five, joining the swell of Cave Goblins who flowed after the Redfangs.
The Hobs tried to shoo them away, but it was impossible. They had to abandon their pursuit of the Raskghar for fear of attracting monsters. They made the long journey to the surface, only to find that Erin’s cave was packed.
And then there were hundreds. Erin stared around the heaving cave. Goblins sat on every surface, gobbling from plates while more cooked away on the camp fires. It was hot. So hot that the Shield Spiders who’d crept out of the hole in the dungeon wall had actually decided not to attack. There were eighteen fires blazing in the cave and the dungeon and a group of Cave Goblins armed with sticks was poking back any smaller Shield Spiders trying to enter.
“Did you find—”
Erin’s face fell when the Redfang Warriors reappeared. They were all wounded, but safe. Still, her heart sank as she saw that Mrsha and Ceria weren’t with them. It was foolish to expect them to be, but she had hoped.
“We’ll go in again. But too many Cave Goblins—can’t go without lots of fighting. We tried to get them to go away, but they followed.”
Numbtongue explained, shamefaced. Erin looked at the Cave Goblins, who were staring at her and the Hobs with open-mouths. Then they filled those mouths with hot food. The Hobs were staring at Erin’s cooking fires with much the same expression.
“I uh, got them to stay. And I don’t know if I can afford to feed you all. We may have to get the Goblins to find food. Can they fish? Are Shield Spiders edible?”
Erin tried to give the Hobs an upbeat smile. But it slipped a bit. She looked down at her feet.
“…Did you find any clues? Anything?”
She didn’t want to make them feel bad. But to her surprise, the Hobs did smile. They motioned and called out. The stream of Goblins entering the cave wavered, and then a group of Cave Goblins pushed forwards. They stared anxiously up at Erin. Numbtongue smiled.
“This group here. We found them. They know where camp with Mrsha and Ceria is. Not where will go, but where it is. Tonight.”
Erin gaped at Numbtongue. He looked slightly pleased, but shook his head.
“Could have tried to get, but it was too hard. Too many Goblins—”
He jumped as Erin hugged him. She laughed in delight as the Goblins stared.
“Never mind that! They know where the camp is?”
The Hob nodded, blushing a bit. Erin tore over to the door. It was connected and Lyonette was staring at the Goblins as she passed them bags of flour. Behind her, the Gold-rank adventurers were sitting around, looking exhausted and unhappy. Erin burst into the room and shouted.
“Hey Halrac! Jelaqua! Everyone! Get over here! Now!”
The adventurers looked over. Pisces, slumped over at his table, sat up and stared sharply at Erin. His eyes focused on her and the Goblins and suddenly he was on his feet. The other adventurers who knew Erin gave each other wide-eyed looks and they stood up.
The Cave Goblins backed away. So did the Hobs. Erin turned, beaming, and realized the Cave Goblins were ready to run. The adventurers, the same ones who’d slaughtered both them and the Raskghar, were headed right for them. The Goblins bolted for the dungeon.
“No, please don’t run!”
Erin shouted. The Goblins paused. Erin held up a hand, forcing the adventurers in the inn to slow with her aura. Slowly, she bent down. A little Goblin was poised to run into the Shield Spider nest room.
“No one will hurt you. Not if you don’t try to hurt them. Not when I’m around. Come on. I’ll feed you. And you’ll be safe.”
Erin bent and held out a hand. The little Goblin stared at her. She stared at the Hobs, who were standing around Erin, at the other Cave Goblins, at the lack of Raskghar, and smelled the strange, inviting scents in the air. She stepped forwards. Erin smiled. The Cave Goblin stared at her. Her lips twitched a tiny bit.
Slowly, she reached out and took Erin’s hand.
A last detail. Sometime after the panic Erin’s news had caused, before the night raid, the Cave Goblins lay in the cave, bloated, fuller than they could ever remember. The Hobgoblins were there too, lying on mattresses dragged in from Erin’s inn. They’d insisted. After all, the Cave Goblins weren’t suddenly tamed from a single feeding by Erin, no matter how good the food had been. They needed Hobs to prevent them from running into the dungeon.
So the Hobs slept. And as they slept, two of them heard voices.
[Warrior Level 24!]
[Warrior → Weapon Expert Class!]
[Skill: Sharper Edge obtained!]
[Skill: Bleed Cuts obtained!]
[Archer Level 25!]
[Archer → Sniper Class!]
[Skill: Doubled Range obtained!]
[Skill Change – Keen Eyes → Eagle Eyes!]
[Skill: Eagle Eyes obtained!]
Badarrow and Shorthilt shot out of their bedrolls as if someone had kicked them. They looked at each other wildly and threw up their arms. The other Goblins panicked as the Hobs began shouting excitedly, but they soon caught the reason for the Hobs’ rejoicing and clustered around them excitedly.
Rabbiteater sat up as Shorthilt and Badarrow shot to their feet. He looked around hopefully and then shut his eyes and perked up his ears. Rabbitear listened for the sound of his new level. He heard a voice from above, that clarion call in his mind.
[Warrior Level 19!]
He waited, eyes closed, tense with expectation. After a minute he cracked one eye open. He saw Shorthilt and Badarrow dancing about, the Cave Goblins surrounding them. He listened, but he heard nothing more. Rabbiteater sagged.
Headscratcher patted him on the back. Rabbiteater looked around, grumbled, and rolled over and covered his head with a pillow.