She knew. Before the sun rose, Rags knew. It was a gaping hole in her heart, a certainty of loss. It was fury and grief. And tears.
Goblins didn’t cry. It was a waste of water. But despite knowing that, despite knowing that the Goblins clustered around her were watching their Chieftain, she couldn’t stop. Nor could she explain the pain in her to her anxious tribe.
She just knew, that was all. So she told them to search.
The first thing they did was run a check on the patrols. But nothing had disturbed the camp’s perimeter during the night. So Rags told them to search for something else. Pyrite, Redscar, Noears, Poisonbite, and the other Hobs did just that. Dawn was just breaking when they realized someone was missing.
Quietstab. There was nothing too unusual about that—Quietstab was a [Rogue] and good at hiding. But he hadn’t turned up and he would have with the entire camp abuzz with concern. That was when Rags knew.
She knew, but she didn’t know. She didn’t want to know. So she told the others to look for him. She busied herself with getting her camp packed up, readying her tribe for the day’s march. But the tears wouldn’t stop.
The other three tribes were rousing themselves as well. Tremborag’s Mountain City tribe, Garen’s Redfangs, and of course the army of the Goblin Lord, Reiss. Rags could see Goblins staring at her camp. They could tell something was wrong, too. She saw Reiss’ warriors moving to relay that information to a senior Hob, and Garen’s warriors watching with clear confusion. But Tremborag’s Goblins were different.
They looked amused as Hobs and Goblins from Rags’ tribe started combing the camp systematically. They gathered, a vast mass of Goblins, the only group large enough to rival Reiss’ army, and watched and laughed. As if they knew something.
Dark fear and suspicion wormed its way into Rags’ stomach. She knew, but she didn’t want to put the pieces together. Not yet. The tears had stopped by the time the first [Fireball] exploded overhead. It was time to move.
But Quietstab was still missing. Rags strode around her camp, watching Reiss’ army take the lead and Garen’s small tribe begin to move as well. Tremborag’s Goblins were still watching. And her tribe—
Noears looked slightly nervous as he glanced at the line of mounted Humans beginning to approach from the south. More [Fireballs] were exploding overhead, warning the Goblins to move or die. Rags knew that the [Mages] would begin lobbing spells at them in minutes if they didn’t move. But she knew.
“Not yet. Wait. Find Quietstab.”
The earless Goblin [Mage] hesitated, but he didn’t argue further. Rags saw her Goblins glancing more and more rapidly at the coming Humans. Now even Tremborag’s tribe, usually slowest of the four tribes, was moving. The Humans were yet ten minutes away from reaching the spot where Rags stood at the speed they were travelling, but they were in range of the [Mage]’s spells. Any Goblins who got too close to the front line of advancing riders would die.
And yet, Rags refused to move. She waited, watching the glittering line of horses and humans draw closer. Her Goblins looked to her nervously. Now they were alone, a small group of stationary Goblins compared to the mass of marching Goblins ahead of them.
A spell exploded overhead, making Rags look up. She saw another spell—a long, sinuous cloud of green smoke—twist over the heads of the Goblins. It was shaped like a worm, but it had a Dragon’s face. It’s eyes were red and it roared at the Goblins, although the sound was silent. Below it, the Goblins backed away.
Poison. Or something close to it. The [Mages] were getting impatient. And still, Rags didn’t move. She saw her warriors spreading outside her camp, searching, calling out at each other. And then one group approached the latrines. And stopped.
Rags saw the ripple go through the searching Goblins without the need for words. The ones near the latrines waved their arms frantically as the Hob recoiled, his entire posture displaying shock and horror. And grief. In an instant, Pyrite was there. He stared down at something and then turned. Rags was already riding towards him.
He met her halfway. The other Goblins were converging on the spot. But Pyrite blocked Rags’ Carn Wolf from going any further. She slid from the saddle, but Pyrite gently blocked her.
“Is Quietstab there?”
Pyrite nodded. He blocked Rags with one huge claw. Rags looked up at him. Pyrite’s eyes were troubled. She took a breath.
It was not an order. Pyrite hesitated, but then he moved aside. Rags strode forwards, pushing Goblins aside. Since she was smaller than most, they had to realize she was pushing them and move aside for her.
Goblins were crowded around the shallow ditch that was the latrines. Hobs, warriors, all looking down. All silent. Rags pushed a Goblin aside. She glanced down into the ditch and saw something lying down there. For a second her eyes didn’t put together the strange form that was lying there. It wasn’t dirt, or even a bad poo. It was green, twisted. It almost looked like—
Rags recoiled. She stumbled away, her mind rejecting what it had seen. But just as quickly, shock became certainty. Rags heard pounding feet. She saw Poisonbite appear. The Goblin looked down and screamed in horror and fury. Noears was there, his eyes wide. Pyrite just looked down, his gaze finding the body that had been a Hob. Redscar rode forwards through the ranks of Goblins. He took one look and drew his sword.
And Rags knew. She looked down into the pit that held a body. The form bent, twisted. And the head had been turned around, snapped. But she recognized the face. Quietstab looked up at her, his expression terrified. Rags felt the empty spot in her heart.
But she had no time to look longer. She heard a scream and saw the poisonous serpent was swooping lower. Now she could feel particles of the gas spell drifting down, burning her eyes and skin. Pyrite blinked upwards and turned. He didn’t wait for Rags to give an order.
The Goblins around him started. They took one look at the Humans approaching and realized they were too close. They began to stream away from the pit, taking one last look. Poisonbite had to be grabbed by Noears. Redscar saluted the body with his sword, then rode away, shouting at the Goblins to move.
Pyrite stood next to Rags. He spoke urgently, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the dead body. She didn’t move, even when Pyrite shook her. Only when he lifted her up did she react. Pyrite effortlessly heaved Rags up and onto the back of her Carn Wolf. He poked the wolf in the side and the animal growled. Pyrite growled back and the Carn Wolf bounded after the Goblins. Rags almost turned him back. Almost. But she didn’t have the strength to look at the miserable form lying there.
Quietstab was dead. It had happened so suddenly. As they all slept. It didn’t seem possible. It didn’t seem right. Yet Rags was certain she knew the moment he had died. And then the shock gripping her faded. She asked the second question that was growing louder in her head.
He had died. So someone had killed him. Who?
And she already knew the answer. It was obvious. Rags rode with her head bowed, hearing more shouts as her tribe began to rush after the others. She slowly, painfully put together the conclusion in her mind, checking it for errors. But there were none. She rode at the head of her tribe, passing by her Goblins, her people. They watched her anxiously. Because now they knew.
And then she looked up and saw him. He was marching in the center of his tribe, head and shoulders taller than the others. By his side walked his Hob liutenants, smug, wearing magical weapons and armor. And amid them was Ulvama, her nearly bare skin painted with symbols. But Rags had only eyes for Tremborag.
He was watching her. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain was looking at her, at the Goblins in her tribe, watching as Pyrite ushered them forwards. And then he looked at Rags as she slowed to stare at him.
Redscar drew up besides Rags. His sword was still bared. He peered at Tremborag. Yes, it was obvious. Tremborag wasn’t trying to hide it. He grinned with all his teeth, a massive face consumed with satisfaction and malicious glee. And then he laughed.
There were tens of thousands of Goblins between him and Rags. An army, his tribe. Enough Goblins to overwhelm her smaller tribe by sheer numbers. And there he was, bloated, obscenely gloating. Rags glared at Tremborag. He laughed at her and then said something. She could not hear him, far away as they were and with the [Mage] spells roaring behind her. The roar of her blood in her ears would have drowned it out. But she could read his lips.
See, child? Do you see?
And she did see. Rags focused on Tremborag. Redscar grabbed her arm, looking worried. But Rags had no eyes for him. She stared at Tremborag. And she knew then that she would watch him die, or he would watch her. And she would write that promise a hundred thousand times in blood if need be. Rags lowered her head and Redscar relaxed. Then she grabbed her sword and screamed.
Reiss rode ahead, but he looked behind. At her. The small Goblin who was somehow a child and adult as any Hob at the same time. Rags, the Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe. He could scarcely believe it. She was only a child, even by Goblin standards. But she was a Chieftain, and her tribe impressed him. If she had been born at the same time he and Garen had, would she have become…?
No, not necessarily. Reiss shook his head. There was more to a Goblin Lord than just the size of a tribe. But there was something in Rags that hinted at that potential. It was raw, and she was too young. But Reiss thought he saw it. It gave him hope, or it had. But today, Reiss was guilty.
He had watched Rags’ tribe moving about in confusion as dawn broke. All the Goblins had. They could sense the trouble in the Flooded Waters tribe, even if they didn’t know the reason. But Reiss did. He watched in silent agony as Rags sent patrols searching her camp, and then as they found the latrine where Quietstab lay.
It wasn’t hard to understand why none of the other Goblins had spotted him in the early morning. They had all been asleep, and the pit was hardly a place where Goblins would investigate normally. But they found him. After that shock spread through their tribe. Shock and grief.
And rage. Reiss sat on the back of the undead shield spider, watching Rags. She was fixed on Tremborag. So she’d put together who was responsible. That wasn’t hard. What came next was important, though. Reiss forced himself to watch; he couldn’t reveal that he knew what had happened. Not yet.
Rags was very still as she sat on the back of her Carn Wolf. Reiss could see her looking at Tremborag. The Great Chieftain was laughing, surrounded by his warriors. And why not? It didn’t matter if Rags knew. His tribe was a sprawling mass of marching Goblins, lacking the discipline of Reiss’ black armored warriors, but too many to count. And he knew it.
There was another Goblin riding next to Rags. Small, not a Hob, but one of her lieutenants. Reiss tried to remember his name, but couldn’t. He saw the Goblin arguing with Rags, pulling at her arm. Reiss watched, a lump churning in his stomach. But Rags was too still. She lowered her head. And then she grabbed her sword and tried to charge.
“No. Stop her!”
The Hobs, Reiss’ personal escort, looked up at their lord in confusion. Reiss forced himself not to move. His claws dug into the palm of his hand as he watched. The other Goblin—Redscar?—seized Rags before she could charge at Tremborag. Rags fought him, but he was clearly strong and he shouted for help.
Hobs grabbed the Carn Wolf and slowed it. The fat Hob who knew too much, Pyrite, ran forwards. He knocked Rags from the saddle. She fought him and Redscar, screaming, though she was too far away for Reiss to hear. Her tribe encircled their Chieftain. And Tremborag and his Goblins watched the entire thing and laughed.
Reiss lowered his head. He felt sick, but at least Rags wouldn’t charge to her death. He’d wondered what her reaction would be. And it had been genuine. Reiss turned in his saddle and looked around.
The other Goblins could hardly miss what had occurred. They were glancing back at Rags’ tribe, clearly confused. Reiss turned and called, fighting the nausea.
One of the Goblins riding ahead of him turned. Snapjaw rode her horse towards Reiss. He eyed the ground and leapt from the back of his Shield Spider, landing with a grunt.
Snapjaw looked wary as she peeked at Rags’ tribe. Reiss shrugged. He glanced back at Rags’ tribe, pretending again not to know.
“Go to the Flooded Water tribe. Ask what is happening.”
Snapjaw turned her mount and whistled. Immediately, several of the Goblins under her command—Goblins who’d mastered horseback riding—joined her. She raced back towards Rags’ tribe. Reiss knew it would take her a while to come back. He looked at the mindless Shield Spider, moving forwards blindly. He didn’t want to ride it and pretend in front of all of his tribe. So instead he looked around and made eye contact with one of his Hobs.
“Take me to her.”
The Hob nodded. He poked his companion and conferred. Then he pointed through the crowd of Goblins. Reiss nodded. He followed the Hob as the Goblins parted for their Lord.
There was no need for Reiss to say which ‘her’ he meant. The Goblin Lord walked through the ranks of his tribe, trying to smile at his subjects as they looked to him for reassurance, strength. He reached for something in his pocket, hunched his shoulders. He saw a group of burly Hobs part in front of him. And then he saw her.
Osthia Blackwing was marching in the center of the ranks of Hobs. Her wings were bound, but both her hands and legs were free. She’d insisted on it. She’d told Reiss plainly that if she had to sit in a covered wagon all day, she would bite her tongue off. So he’d let her walk.
The Drake looked up and met Reiss’ eyes challengingly, as she did every time they met. Reiss nodded.
He glanced at the Hobs surrounding them.
“Give us space. Warn me if anyone approaches.”
They nodded and spread out, forming a bubble of space around him and Osthia. Reiss waited until they were all clear, and then outlined a space in his mind. He whispered.
Instantly, the world went quiet. The sounds of the Goblins marching, of metal touching metal, even the sound of the wind itself—vanished. Reiss and Osthia walked in a bubble of silence. The Drake looked around and then at Reiss.
“Worried someone will hear you?”
The Drake blinked. It was still slightly amusing to Reiss how she reacted when he told her the truth. But Goblins almost never lied to each other and Reiss lied only when he had to. The Goblin Lord sighed.
Osthia glanced over her shoulder. She couldn’t see what had occurred with the Flooded Waters tribe, but she was sharp enough to pick up on the reactions of the Goblins around her. Reiss even thought she’d picked up a few words of the Goblin’s dialect. He shook his head.
“Tremborag killed a Hob from Rags’ tribe. Last night. They found the body this morning.”
The Drake went still as she processed that. Her eyes flicked to Reiss’ face, and then she craned her neck, trying to see over the Hob’s heads. That was impossible. Her wings flexed a bit in their constraints.
“I see. Tremborag’s the huge Hob you showed me. And Rags is—the small one?”
“What’s she doing about it?”
“Nothing. Yet. She tried to charge his tribe alone when she found out.”
Osthia snorted contemptuously.
Reiss ignored that comment. After a moment, the Drake glanced at him.
“Well? What are you going to do? I assume that this Tremborag violated some kind of Goblin law, didn’t he?”
“It was not good. But there aren’t any ‘laws’ against it. His tribe will celebrate it and the other tribes will be furious. Especially the Flooded Waters tribe.”
“Ah. So they’ll want revenge. So what will you do? Unless you’re coming to me for advice.”
The Oldblood Drake glanced sidewise at Reiss. She was his enemy. And she hated him, but she hated his master more. That made them unlikely allies; Osthia would help Reiss, if only so that she could survive and escape when the time was right. Reiss had consulted her for advice, and the Drake had good ideas, even if she lied to him more often then she told the truth. Reiss shrugged, knowing she was trying to find out everything she could from him.
“I will do nothing until Snapjaw comes back and tells me Quietstab is dead.”
“Why would she do that?”
Reiss turned his head slowly to regard Osthia.
“Because I do not know Quietstab is dead and that Tremborag murdered him. Rags knows just now. I knew last night.”
The Drake frowned. Her brows snapped together.
“You knew? How?”
For a second Reiss debated not telling Osthia. It was a risk. But he—the knowledge burned in his gut. He felt guilty, so against his better judgment, he confessed.
“I watched him die. I could have stopped it. But I did not. Because one Hob’s death will help me save tens of thousands of lives.”
Osthia’s eyes widened. For a moment she was surprised. But then contempt replaced surprise. She was not shocked. It was almost a relief. She had no expectations of Reiss.
“I see. You were there?”
“Invisible. I watched it happen. It was a necessity. It will make Rags’ tribe and my army allies.”
It was an excuse. And it was the truth. But sometimes it felt like he was becoming more like his master with each passing day. Reiss closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them, Osthia was still looking at him with narrowed eyes.
“I see. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else from you. Goblins betray even their allies, it seems. Just like your race.”
For some reason, that nettled Reiss. He looked over at Osthia.
“My kind does not sacrifice their own. I learned that from Drakes. I studied your wars. You send a hundred to hold a gap and know they will die. You kill your own for advantage, just like me. I did not learn such things from Goblins.”
He regarded Osthia coldly, basking in his anger for a moment. The Drake bristled, and her manacled wings stirred with anger.
“Drakes—our leaders know when sacrifice is necessary. But that doesn’t mean—”
Reiss turned his head. He heard Osthia inhale and altered his spell. The world around him grew silent for a minute. Reiss was alone with his thoughts. He bowed his head.
Quietstab had died in front of him. He had been there, on a nightly errand when he’d seen Tremborag stalking the Hob. He had watched the confrontation. The rapid murder had surprised him. But he could have stopped it. If he had so much as raised his voice or revealed himself, Tremborag would have retreated. If he had cast a spell—
He hadn’t. Reiss was sure, quite sure, that even his best spell wouldn’t kill Tremborag outright. He was a [Necromancer] and lacked the raw power of other [Mage] classes. So he had let Quietstab die because it would benefit his tribe, convince Rags to ally with him. It was necessary. But it was such a Human thing to do. Reiss felt the guilt gnawing at him. What was he doing. Was he really becoming—
He saw a flicker of movement and turned his head. Osthia punched Reiss. He staggered and saw a Hob roar soundlessly and charge Osthia. The Goblin Lord raised a claw and dispelled the [Quiet Air] spell.
The Hob skidded to a halt before he could slam into Osthia. The Drake was ready. She glared at Reiss as he rubbed his cheek. That had hurt. But it was no less than he deserved. And he’d forgotten how touchy Drakes could be.
The Hob hesitated, and then moved back, giving Osthia the evil eye. Reiss reapplied his silencing spell and then looked at Osthia.
“Punch me again and I can’t guarantee my Hobs won’t seek revenge.”
The Drake sneered.
“All they do is poke me with sticks. Ignore me again and I’ll hit you somewhere else.”
Reiss looked around. He couldn’t see over the top of the tall Hobs he’d selected to screen Osthia from sight, but he knew that Snapjaw would be returning any moment with the dire news. Reiss shook his head.
“So you’re going to use this to tie that little Goblin’s tribe to you. What next after that?”
Osthia looked at Reiss. He glanced at her, and then sighed. His shoulders felt heavy. But cold certainty filled him.
“He killed her subordinate. So I will help her bring him down. As allies.”
The Drake’s eyes widened. Reiss nodded. It was time. Whatever the Humans had planned, it would surely mean the end of his tribe. But if he could face them with combined forces—
Garen was an obstacle, but his tribe was small. Tremborag was the real threat. If he fell, his tribe would splinter. That was Reiss’ chance. The Great Chieftain had to die. Somehow.
That reminded Reiss. He fished in his pocket and pulled something out. He turned and offered it to Osthia. She blinked down at the thing he was holding.
“Here. I made it at last.”
It was a ring, a white band of wood. It had been carved carefully and it shone in the daylight. Osthia hesitated. Reiss pushed it at her.
“I don’t want—”
“Take it. I told you what it does. I didn’t lie.”
The Drake suspiciously took the ring. She turned it over, although Reiss knew she had no ability to detect magic.
“If you enchanted it with anything but what you said—”
Reiss nearly growled. That was the problem with Drakes. They were touchy and suspicious.
And kind. Some of them could be—he growled, pushing the memories back.
“I did not. Put it on or I will make you wear it.”
Osthia glared at him, but she slipped the ring on with ill grace. She blinked at the ring.
“It’s a perfect fit.”
“Obviously. It was made for you.”
The Goblin Lord sighed. He shook his head as Osthia growled. Maybe he should have made a necklace. He’d forgotten how touchy Drakes and Humans were about rings on fingers. Didn’t it mean something when they put it on a certain finger? Oh well. He dispelled the [Quiet Air] spell a second time and heard the hubbub around him. Snapjaw must have returned. The Goblin Lord glanced at Osthia.
“I must go now.”
“Don’t stay on my account.”
Osthia growled. Her face was irritated, but her tail curled up a bit, betraying her true emotions. Reiss had learned to read Drake’s emotions in their tails. He pretended to be scratching an itch as he read her body language. She was lonely. Lonely, bored, and…worried. For him?
Of course not. Reiss nodded.
“I will let you know what happened tonight. Or sooner if Rags wishes to talk.”
“Yes, yes. Go away.”
The Drake turned her head. Reiss nodded to her and turned. The Hobs parted before him and closed, creating a wall of black armor. Reiss strode back through his tribe. Snapjaw was waiting for him, anxiety clearly written on her face. In response, Reiss quickened his footsteps. But only half of his mind was on the act. As he moved, he raised his right claw and pressed a fingertip to his temple.
Master? Are you there?
He heard nothing. As usual. Reiss held the connection open, waiting. But there was no response. At last, Reiss lowered his hand. He met Snapjaw and Eater of Spears as they came to him. He became Reiss, the honest Goblin Lord. He was shocked, enraged, and then concerned. He sent Snapjaw back to speak with Rags, played his part so well that for a moment he really was burning with righteous fury. But that faded as Reiss climbed onto the back of his Shield Spider. Thereafter he sat, half miserable, half calculating as he studied the other tribes.
All the Goblins were marching. Reiss’ army moved ahead smoothly, although he could sense the ripples spreading as the Goblins told each other what had happened. There was shock, anger, sympathy—but generally, the Goblins just kept marching. They knew there would be battle with Tremborag’s tribe in time, and Quietstab’s death changed nothing. It had just happened.
The other tribes reacted differently, though. Garen’s warriors rode ahead of Tremborag’s forces, back straight with fury and indignation. Some were arguing, but the ones around Garen Redfang were deathly quiet. Sullen. They stared at their Chieftain’s back and Reiss could almost hear their thoughts. Again, the pride and warrior spirit that Garen had taught them went at odds with their alliance with Tremborag. Some were even glancing at Rags’ tribe now and then. That was unexpected. And promising.
And Rags’ tribe? Well, they marched fast, catching up with Reiss’ forces. Their postures were tense, their expressions dark. They were furious. Reiss saw some pausing to poop in the path of Tremborag’s tribe, but the rest just kept moving, because there was no other option.
And Tremborag’s tribe marched in the rear, as always. They laughed, in the best of spirits and their Great Chieftain was loudest of them all. He walked amid his Goblins, proud to have killed his fellow Goblins. Reiss watched him, thinking dark thoughts. He promised himself it would be soon. He told himself that it was necessary. But he still couldn’t forget Quietstab’s gasp and the sound in the night. Reiss lowered his head.
Some days he wondered if Garen was right. But he had come too far to stop now. Reiss waited for his moment. He waited and waited and watched Rags. Waiting for her to see what had to be done.
Tremborag was laughing. His huge voice boomed across the heads of his tribe as he laughed. He was eating and drinking as he walked. His feet hurt and he considered using a healing potion. But though the Great Chieftain normally resented being forced to march with a burning hatred, he was in good spirits. He chewed on the salted beef and drank wine, feeling some run onto his chest.
“Look at them run! Cowards! Weaklings!”
He bellowed, pointing at Rags’ tribe. They were moving ahead of his tribe, marching fast. The Goblins around Tremborag laughed and jeered as well. They all knew what had happened last night and they were all happy.
Well, most. Some who knew Quietstab hadn’t been pleased. But Tremborag didn’t care. A traitor was a traitor and ending that wretched Hob’s life had shown everyone the truth. Sit-abouts? Working together? It was all meaningless. This was all that mattered. Defeating your enemy. Crushing them. Hurting them. The slave Goblin Lord, Garen, Rags—they could all see the truth. Tremborag felt his spirits rise.
“Look at them, running to hide behind the Goblin Lord. They’ll hide in their camp tonight. Plot and scheme like the—the cowards they are. Conspire with that slave who pretends to be a Goblin Lord. Pretend to be friends. Hah!”
Spittle flew from Tremborag’s mouth, spraying the Goblins in front of him. He could see Ulvama flinching out of the way. His [Chief Shaman] looked displeased as Tremborag waved her closer. The Hob continued, reaching for another wine flask as he walked forwards.
“The Goblin Lord will probably take the child’s tribe in. Only, she won’t be his Chieftain. She’ll be his puppet. He pretends to be concerned with the good of Goblins. A kingdom? Peace with Humans and Drakes? There is no peace. There is no working together. There is only killing your enemies. Redfang should know that. Where is he?”
Tremborag looked around vacantly. Garen’s tribe was marching far ahead of them and to the left, keeping pace with Reiss’ forces. Tremborag scowled.
“Fool. If he was half the warrior he claimed to be, he would have slain his traitors already. Ulvama, bring him here. And give me a healing potion.”
The [Shaman] made a face.
“Great Chieftain, Garen Redfang is angry.”
“He will not come. And we have only a few hundred healing potions after—”
Tremborag turned and Ulvama flinched. The Hobs around him drew back warily.
“Redfang. Healing potion.”
The Great Chieftain’s crimson eyes flashed. Ulvama nodded rapidly. She beckoned and a Goblin raced over with a healing potion. Tremborag fumbled with it, watching as a group of Goblins were sent racing ahead to summon Garen Redfang. He noticed Rags’ tribe had slowed their pace somewhat.
The small Chieftain had actually tried to charge him. Tremborag had nearly died of laughter when that happened. If she had tried to attack with her tribe, he would have been only too happy to rip her apart. Her tribe was a speck compared to his. Her fancy pikes and crossbows were useless against his warriors. She’d even deployed her pikes to her rear, as if she was afraid he’d charge her. That was an amusing idea. Maybe he should try that.
For a second Tremborag contemplated the thought, but he knew that would be a mistake. Killing Quietstab was one thing, but if it came to a battle, Reiss and the damned Humans would intervene. But if he could send Ulvama or one of his stealthier Goblins to pick off another of Rags’ lieutenants…and what could she do about it?
Tremborag was so caught up with the idea that he didn’t notice that Rags’ tribe was slowing even further. Only when he noticed the gap between them was shortening from a few hundred paces to less than a hundred did he frown. He saw the back of Rags’ Goblins with pikes marching ahead of him. Tremborag raised a lazy arm, about to order his tribe to push the Goblins forwards faster. And then he heard a shout.
The back rank of Rags’ forces turned. The lines of Goblins with pikes turned to face Tremborag’s oncoming tribe. And then the pikes lowered. A wall of spikes faced Tremborag’s front ranks. The Goblins froze, and the ones behind bumped into them. Tremborag halted. His jaw opened. What was—
He heard a scream ahead of him. Then he saw a flicker run through the Goblins behind the ones with pikes. A black hail flew up from the ranks of Goblin’s tribe, and then fell towards Tremborag’s tribe. He gaped as they struck the Goblins in front of him. He saw a Hob raise a hand, and then jerk as one of the black shapes struck him. The Hob blinked down at the crossbow bolt that had impaled itself through his hand. And then more bolts were failing, like rain—
Tremborag looked about wildly as he heard Goblins screaming. His tribe froze in their tracks and his celebrating warriors grabbed for their shields, tried to back away. All around Tremborag was chaos, confusion. Disbelief. This couldn’t be happening! But it was.
They were under attack. The first deadly rain of crossbow bolts left hundreds wounded or dead. But before Tremborag could blink, the Goblins with crossbows had reloaded and sent another arc of deadly missiles into the air! Tremborag blinked as more fell around him, and then felt a stinging pain in his shoulder. He looked down and saw an arrow had penetrated his shoulder. It had barely gotten through the first layer of his fat, but the pain woke him up. He gawked at Rags. Then he roared.
His warriors flinched and came out of their trance of stupefaction. They surged across the grass and churned up soil towards Rags’ forces, roaring. A wave of crossbow bolts cut down the advancing Goblins. And then the pikes were there. Rags’ pikes charged the first rank of Tremborag’s warriors and skewered them. The twenty-foot long pikes impaled Goblins, knocked others off their feet. And what few Goblins made it past the jabbing, deadly tips found Hobs and Goblin warriors waiting for them. Tremborag saw his warriors backing away as the second rank met the same fate as the first. Rags’ pikes advanced, threateningly.
But they didn’t go further than a dozen steps before they suddenly retreated. The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe planted themselves firmly in the ground, pikes raised, Hobs fighting or loosing arrows among the smaller Goblins. And the crossbows fired again, and then again, reloading and sending hundreds, over a thousand bolts into the air each time. Tremborag roared in fury.
“Push into them! Cowards! Push!”
He whirled as his Hobs tried to force the Goblins in front of them to charge into certain death. Tremborag took a huge breath and bellowed.
The [Shaman] was there in an instant. Tremborag pointed.
“Break their pikes!”
The female Hob nodded. She grabbed her staff and strode forwards, protected by two Hobs with massive tower shields. She raised her staff and aimed at the front rank of pikes, perhaps to enchant Tremborag’s warriors or destroy the pikes directly. Either way, she never got the chance to cast. As she raised her staff, a bolt of lightning shot towards her. Tremborag saw Ulvama’s eyes widen and she swept her staff up.
The jagged lightning curved up and Ulvama screeched and threw herself to the ground as the bolt earthed itself just past her. Tremborag saw a Goblin standing amid Rags’ tribe. He threw another bolt of lightning that blasted one of the Hobs and sent the smoldering body crumbling to the ground.
“Kill that mage!”
Tremborag roared, but his Goblins were in disarray. They finally managed to loose arrows of their own, but by that time the Goblin had disappeared.
“Chieftain! What do we do?”
One of Tremborag’s lieutenants screamed at him. The Great Chieftain snarled and backhanded the Hob. He bellowed so his entire tribe could hear him.
“Advance! Kill the traitors! Any Goblin who runs I will kill myself!”
Slowly, his warriors advanced. They battled the pikes, pushing forwards slowly. Tremborag whirled and ordered his archers forwards. Now his Goblins began exchanging arrows with Rags’ crossbows. And yet, his advance was stymied once again by his warrior’s pragmatism.
It was one thing to loose arrows back at the other Goblins, but charge into a wall of pike tips? Tremborag bellowed and struck his Hobs, but even they couldn’t motivate his warriors to pay the price in blood to take the pikes. And the Great Chieftain wasn’t willing to stay within range of the crossbows. Five had already struck him and the lightning mage had sent two bolts at Tremborag that Ulvama had barely deflected. So Tremborag took the only other option he could think of.
“Shields up! Archers, kill them!”
Thousands of Goblins with bows raced into place behind Tremborag’s warriors with shields. They began loosing thousands of arrows. At last, Tremborag saw Rags’ tribe begin to waver. His tribe didn’t have the disciplined ranks of crossbows, but they outnumbered Rags’ forces practically ten to one. Rags’ warriors started falling as arrows showered them. Slowly, they began to pull back.
“Kill them! Cover them with arrows and slaughter them by the thousand!”
Tremborag was howling with glee. He could see Rags’ tribe faltering as his massive tribe began to outrange them in the archery duel. The Great Chieftain was impatient, pacing behind the lines of his stationary Goblin warriors. He would kill her for this. That child dared to attack him? He’d break her tribe and send his warriors to claim her. Alive. Garen thought she was smart? She was a fool. She’d attacked the wrong foe. No matter what she did, there was no way she could win—
The Great Chieftain felt the heat before the screams. He turned and saw the gout of flame a moment before the burning wheel of flames engulfed a group of Goblins at his rear. Tremborag blinked. Then a [Fireball] blasted apart another section of Goblins, sending burning body parts flying. He saw a glowing comet smash into his warriors. At the back.
The back? But how had Rags’ tribe done that? Tremborag’s face went slack for a moment. And then he realized what was happening. Slowly, he looked up and saw the Humans. They were approaching from the north, a line of riders. And mages. They were the ones lobbing spells at him, forcing the Goblins to move. Only, they couldn’t move. And so the Humans had stopped firing warning shots. Now the spells were striking his tribe.
Tremborag saw a serpent made of poisonous gas descend on his back ranks as more spells began striking his warriors. He stared at Rags’ tribe, hunkered down in their path. They were fighting, holding his warriors at bay, firing their crossbows. And meanwhile, the Humans were blasting apart Tremborag’s rear.
“That is strategy.”
Reiss eyed the two battling tribes with something akin to awe. Not at the plan, but the daring of it. The way it worked. Rags’ tribe was holding Tremborag’s in place, less than ten thousand facing Tremborag’s full army. They would perish in a moment in a pitched battle. But all they had to do was stall Tremborag for a few minutes. Already the Humans were blasting Tremborag’s rearguard apart.
And she’d done it herself. Without speaking to him. Within two hours of Quietstab being discovered. Was she mad or overconfident? Or—
Reiss’ forces had stopped marching. So had Garen’s. Both tribes were watching the conflict to the north. Reiss stood with his two top lieutenants, Snapjaw and Eater of Spears. He turned to them.
“She’s slowing him down. And the Humans are chewing him apart from behind. They’re willing to kill a few thousand Goblins to force Tremborag to move.”
Snapjaw looked impressed. Her jaw was open slightly, revealing her metallic rows of teeth. But Eater of Spears looked worried. He shook his head and rumbled.
“It is a bad idea. Tremborag has no choice but to advance.”
Snapjaw glanced up at Eater of Spears, surprised he’d said anything. But he was right. Reiss looked back at the conflict and nodded slowly.
“They’re going to be overrun. Unless they retreat.”
It was true. Despite the pikes, Tremborag’s warriors were pushing forwards, realizing that there was no safety in staying still. Reiss saw several points in Rags’ rear opening up. But before Tremborag’s forces could overwhelm her, he heard a horn blow. Instantly, Rags’ tribe began moving again.
Snapjaw’s addition to the commentary was to point out the obvious. The female Hob hopped up and down, watching anxiously as Rags’ tribe disengaged. They retreated, running after Reiss and Garen’s forces. Thanks to Rags’ [Fleet Foot] Skill, they outdistanced Tremborag’s desperate Goblins.
“They’ll have to run fast. Tremborag will chase.”
Eater of Spears frowned, eying Rags’ tribe. Reiss nodded. If she’d wanted to anger the Great Chieftain and give him a bloody wound, she’d done it. But she’d have to run fast. He began calculating her trajectory, wondering if he should put his tribe between hers and Tremborag’s.
“He has to get free of the Humans, first. No time for fighting.”
Tremborag’s tribe was moving as more spells rained on them from behind. They surged forwards, following Rags’ tribe. Reiss saw both groups of Goblins coming at him like a green wave—and then Rags’ tribe halted again. They turned, and he saw the small Chieftain raise her sword.
The Goblins with crossbows raised their weapons and loosed another wave of bolts. Then they turned and kept running. Tremborag’s forces wavered as the crossbow bolts landed among them. Some tried to return fire, but they were still under attack from behind! And the sudden attack had slowed them. Rags’ tribe ran for another fifty feet with ease. They turned, bent to reload their crossbows, and fired again.
“Hm. Good plan.”
Eater of Spears grunted approvingly. Reiss just watched. Rags was fighting on the move! That too wasn’t surprising as a tactic, but—he focused on the small Goblin. What was she doing? Was she really trying to kill Tremborag’s entire tribe? She couldn’t. It was impossible. And yet, the small Goblin turned and waved her sword again and again, and her tribe continued loosing quarrels. And Tremborag’s Goblins had no choice but to advance and die or die.
Rags screamed the word at her warriors. She pointed, and saw the crossbows rise. Her Goblins cocked their crossbows, slapped bolts into place, and fired. Then they turned and ran after her as she wheeled her Carn Wolf and raced forwards.
It was a rhythm, a deadly rhythm that sang in sync with her heart. Stop, turn, loose, and run again. Rags pointed at Tremborag as his warriors surged towards her tribe, ignoring the sporadic arrows flying towards her tribe and screamed.
A hundred crossbow strings snapped in agreement. The bolts soared up and fell around Tremborag. Rags saw him raise a huge hand to shield his face and roar in fury. She saw a dozen bolts strike him, but none penetrated deeply. They were too far away, the crossbows were too weak, and he was too big. But he was hurt. Rags raised her own crossbow and fired.
The arrow shot up and arced toward Tremborag’s face. At the last moment it snapped in midair. Rags saw a Hob with a staff pointing and recognized her. Ulvama waved her staff urgently, chanting. Rags growled as she waved her staff.
The spell the [Shaman] cast made Tremborag and the Goblins around him flicker and turn hazy. Rags saw multiple Tremborag’s appear and then felt her eyes slide away as he became a green, indistinct blob. The Goblins with crossbows around her wavered; it was hard to even look in his direction.
Rags ordered them. Her tribe ran, turned, and loosed. This time they aimed at Tremborag’s front ranks. More Goblins fell. Rags heard them screaming. She didn’t care. Her blood was on fire. It was only when she heard a shout that she looked up and saw the falling fireball.
This was no ordinary fireball, the size of a torso, or even a [Grand Fireball], which was a ball of roiling flames as tall as a Human in every direction. This was like a second sun. Rags had seen it once before. It was falling towards her tribe, almost lazily. Her eyes widened.
Her tribe ran, scattering before the fireball could land. When it did, the explosion kicked Rags in the back and made her Carn Wolf howl in pain. She looked back, wondering if it was a missed spell. But then she saw more spells falling from above. The Humans were beginning to lob spells at her warriors now as well.
“Chieftain! We have to run!”
Redscar pulled up beside Rags. He was staring at the sky. Rags knew he was right. She turned and waved at her tribe.
“Run fast! Fastest! Don’t look back!”
The Goblins hesitated, but Rags urged them onwards. She kept her eyes on the sky, and Redscar’s mounted warriors did the same. They screamed orders and the tribe split to avoid the falling spells. Rags rode with them, racing ahead. Reiss’ army was on the march and as soon as they drew close to them, the spells stopped falling. Rags turned and saw Tremborag’s tribe was running in their wake, also free from attack for the moment.
“Humans saw what we were doing.”
Noears gasped as he jogged over, his face sweaty. Rags nodded. She looked around and saw her tribe was gasping for air. All of them were tired and many were hurt. She looked back and saw a trail of bodies behind her. For a second she felt numb. Then she looked up and saw Tremborag’s tribe.
They were hurt. But he was still there. Rags glamced at the huge Hob who was running, bellowing at his Goblins to move faster. Then she turned as she heard a commotion from the front.
“Chieftain! Goblin Lord coming!”
Poisonbite shouted. Rags nodded. She saw Pyrite wearily approaching from the rear, holding a wounded Goblin and waved at him. The Hob laid the Goblin with an arrow in his leg on a wagon and strode forwards.
Reiss rode towards her on his headless, undead Shield Spider with Snapjaw and Eater of Spears flanking him. He stared at Rags for a moment as if he’d never seen her before, and then looked at Tremborag’s approaching forces.
“You attacked him.”
“He killed Quietstab.”
Reiss nodded slowly. He looked at Rags.
“But you attacked him.”
“Because he killed Quietstab.”
Reiss stared at her. After a moment he nodded uncertainly. Rags nodded as well, conscious of the eyes on her. That was all there was to it. He killed Quietstab and so he had to pay.
“You bloodied him. He won’t forgive that easily.”
The question threw Reiss. He glanced at Tremborag’s tribe again, and then at the Humans.
“So you can’t attack him. The Humans will force you to stop.”
“Stop? Why? This is not stopped. This is waiting.”
Rags glared at Reiss. He opened his mouth, flicking his eyes to her, then to Pyrite, Redscar, and the others. They all stared at him silently.
They weren’t going to stop. Not until Tremborag was dead. Why would they stop? He killed Quietstab. One Hob, yes. One Goblin. But he had been of Rags’ tribes. He had been her subordinate, her trusted aide and lieutenant, even if he wasn’t the greatest of them. He had been her friend. And he was dead. So she would kill Tremborag or die trying. It was a simple as that.
Her tribe understood all of this without Rags having to say it, but Reiss didn’t seem to. He opened his mouth again and his black eyes fixed on Rags’ face.
“What will you do?”
“Keep marching, stupid.”
The answer made Reiss frown in vexation and Snapjaw grind her teeth, but Rags was in no mood to bandy words. She turned and pointed at Pyrite.
“Get wounded in wagons. Ready to march. Use healing potions on bad hurt—so not die. Not full heal. Get food and ready rear. We march fast, ahead of Mountain City tribe. Get more bolts for crossbows and get ready.”
“Another fight, Chieftain?”
“Not now. Tonight. He dies tonight.”
Reiss inhaled sharply. Rags ignored him. She looked around.
“Redscar, Pyrite, Noears. Can you win if fight?”
They hesitated. Poisonbite bristled, but Rags ignored her. Pyrite looked back at Tremborag. He shrugged.
“Chieftain Rags. Are you serious?”
Rags turned and stared at Reiss. The look in her eyes was all the answer she needed to give. She turned back.
“How many Hobs you need? Or Redfangs?”
Noears glanced at Redscar. The warrior was frowning and checking the edge of his blade. Noears shrugged.
“Lots. Tremborag is strong. Saw him kill six Hobs in a fight once. When he gets big, too strong? Need Pyrite to hit hard. Or Redscar stab in eyes?”
The mounted Goblin nodded.
Rags nodded slowly.
“Lots of Hobs, then. And get free of others. Poisonbite and I will hold off others. Have to kill fast. Surprise attack.”
She turned and glared at Reiss. He was staring at her.
He hesitated. He looked so…surprised. Why? The instant Rags had known that Quietstab was dead and Tremborag was to blame she had sworn to kill him. Why would she wait? For a better moment? For the right time? Those were Human ideas. Rags would kill Tremborag. And she wouldn’t stop. Ever.
Reiss finally understood that. Or he realized it was fruitless to argue. His eyes flickered as he stared at Rags’ tribe, and then glanced at his lieutenants. Then he stared past Rags at a small group of a few thousand Goblins, who had watched the conflict without intervening.
Garen Redfang sat on his Carn Wolf, staring at Rags and Reiss. The Goblin Lord pointed at him.
“If you continue to fight, Garen will intervene.”
Rags gritted her teeth. She was trying to figure out how to catch Tremborag off-guard tonight. Could it be tonight? Or did they have to wait until he’d lowered his guard somehow? His tribe would be on alert, but if she could figure out a way to poison their supplies or take them off-guard somehow—how could she slow Garen and keep him from intervening?
“If you plan to attack at night, you’d have to cut into Tremborag’s camp and attack him in the center of his warriors.”
“Only if I have stupid plan.”
Rags muttered under her breath. Reiss paused.
“If you need a distraction, I will help you. My warriors can attack Tremborag’s tribe from the side while yours cut in. I will help you kill Tremborag.”
The small Goblin froze in her saddle. Then she looked at Reiss and narrowed her eyes. The Goblin Lord met her gaze steadily, unblinking.
“Tremborag has no…he is not-Goblin. I will help you. I can stop Garen myself. As for Tremborag—I can lend you Eater of Spears and some of my best Hobs and the Draug I have remaining for the battle.”
Rags blinked. Eater of Spears and Hobs and Draug? She remembered some of the hulking undead she’d seen. If she had those—she glanced at Pyrite, who raised his eyebrows. Redscar was frowning, but Rags had mastered her face when she looked back at Reiss and nodded.
“Yes. Thank you. We will fight together.”
“Good. Tremborag must fall, after all.”
Reiss smiled at Rags. She nodded, but didn’t smile. She saw the Goblin Lord’s eyes shift towards Tremborag. His gaze was cold as he fixed on the distant Great Chieftain. Rags knew—she thought she knew—that he was serious about aiding her. Tremborag dying would help Reiss, after all. And Rags would accept his help. But all the trust she’d had in Reiss was teetering on the edge of sudden doubt.
Not because she suspected him of lying to her. And not because she thought he’d betray her. No, it was just because of how surprised he was. Of course it was insane to attack Tremborag’s tribe. Of course it was strange, suicidal even. All of his reactions were normal. But while those reactions were normal, they were what Rags would expect from someone like Erin. Reiss was acting more like a Human than a Goblin. And that, more than anything, bothered her.
Rags turned her Carn Wolf and pointed ahead. Tremborag’s tribe was catching up at last.
“Come. We move. And plan attack.”
“I will ride with you. Snapjaw, lead my army. Eater of Spears, take a thousand Hobs to the rear of Chieftain Rags’ tribe.”
Reiss immediately snapped at his Goblins. They nodded and disappeared. Reiss rode next to Rags, looking down at her and clearly wondering how they should talk with him several feet above her head. Rags ignored him as her Carn Wolf padded forwards. Her mind was racing, trying to fit Reiss’ forces into a plan that would end with Tremborag’s death with the least amount of cost.
Because it would cost her. Who would die killing him? Redscar? Noears? Pyrite? No. Rags’ heart hurt at the very thought. But she also knew she couldn’t not kill Tremborag. He had killed Quietstab. He had killed her Goblin. Her friend. For that, she would set everything ablaze and slaughter his tribe to the last.
Like last time. Like the Humans.
Rags remembered a burning house. She remembered screaming Humans, the smell of blood, and a blind [Emperor]’s words. And she hesitated. It was the same and not the same. For a second Rags wavered. But there was only vengeance and death. That was what she had to do.
As Goblins do. As Goblins have always done. Rags felt something familiar about what she was doing and felt uneasy. She saw a pattern in her mind, a pattern that she had seen play out again and again. But it faded as she looked back and saw him. Tremborag.
Her blood was rage, her heartbeats pain. She looked at him and knew one truth.
He had to die.
Lord Yitton Byres found Tyrion Veltras standing next to his mount. Yitton was on foot himself, having left his mount with a [Groom] during the break. The main company was moving onwards, pursuing the Goblins, but Tyrion had called a halt to assess the situation in light of the morning’s events.
It was something Yitton would have liked time to think on himself. He shook his head as he strode towards Tyrion. The man was alone and several of his aides were keeping a wide space around him. From the way his lips blurred and the way Yitton couldn’t hear a thing he was saying even as he approached, he was probably under several anti-spying spells as well.
One of the men assigned to keep everyone back hesitated when he saw Lord Yitton. But for whatever reason he let Lord Yitton past. That was a curiosity in itself, but Yitton Byres had accepted that Tyrion Veltras held him in some esteem. At least enough to let Yitton into the protective spell bubble and hear Tyrion speaking.
He was conversing with his personal aide, his [Mage], Jericha. Yitton paused with both hands behind his back. Tyrion glanced at him and gave him a slight nod of acknowledgement, then returned to speaking with Jericha.
“And the number of dead?”
“Our [Scouts] estimate it at around eight thousand dead, Lord Veltras. Mostly from the ah, Great Chieftain’s tribe, although several hundred were killed in the…Flowing Waters tribe. Mainly from arrows, not the spells cast by our mages.”
Tyrion grimaced, although Yitton had only the barest inkling of an idea why. By all rights, eight thousand dead Goblins should be a step in the right direction. But the man had plans, and if what Lord Erill had told Yitton over their cups last night was true, then the man would want as many Goblins alive as possible. If it were true.
Yitton had no intention of asking Tyrion that. He stood patiently with both legs braced as Tyrion kept talking. The head of the Byres family kept one ear on the conversation while he thought about what he’d witnessed. Goblins laying traps for one another. Using formations. That had been a classic pike wall with crossbows firing over. And then one of the tribes had used mobile harassing tactics!
It bothered Yitton to see anything like strategy coming out of the Goblins. But those Chieftains seemed every bit as dangerous as the Goblin Lord. What he couldn’t understand was what had set them against each other. Yitton frowned, and then realized that the topic of conversation had shifted when he hadn’t noticed. Jericha was perusing a piece of parchment in her hands.
“We’ve received several concerned [Message] spells inquiring about your grand strategy, Lord Veltras. Nothing that merits a reply, but I have just received a missive from Lady Magnolia Reinhart, and ah—”
She paled for a second as she read the transcribed [Message]. Lord Tyrion raised one eyebrow.
“Pass it to me.”
The [Mage] hesitated only for a second before handing the parchment over. Tyrion read impassively. Yitton saw his eyebrows raise just once. For the man, it was as good as an exclamation. Tyrion stared at the parchment, then folded it up and handed to Jericha. She silently burned it in her hands with a small spell. Tyrion shook his head.
“That was surprisingly direct. Give Reinhart my regards, Jericha. Inform her—politely—that I will not be swayed from my course. Any attempts she may make I will counter to the full extent of my ability.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
“Good. I will peruse all the other [Message] spells tonight. And have we received any [Messages] from the Drakes?”
“Nothing but polite inquiries from the [Strategists] of some of the Walled Cities, sire.”
Tyrion closed his eyes for a moment and folded his arms. He nodded once, and opened his eyes.
“Keep me informed of any changes. Now, onto more pressing matters. Lord Yitton?”
He turned briskly to the other man. Yitton Byres snatched one hand down from his beard.
“Lord Tyrion, the company is continuing to pursue the Goblins. They’ve stopped fighting although our [Mages] had to fire more warning spells, but both tribes are keeping a distance now.”
“I’ve consulted with our [Scouts] familiar with Goblins. They’ve given me their assessment and I agree—those two tribes are about to clash and one of the Chieftains is going to kill the other by night’s end. I intended to ask if you wished to separate them to prevent a conflict.”
Tyrion’s brows drew together. He drummed his fingers restlessly against his side while keeping still. Then he shook his head.
“No. Splitting up the Goblins would only increase the complexity of our task and make it likely that one tribe would attempt to escape. Did the [Scouts] have any speculation about why the two tribes began fighting? The conflict was between—”
He glanced at Jericha. The [Mage] raised her head briefly.
“The Mountain City tribe led by the Grand Chieftain and the raiding tribe that assaulted Riverfarm, Lord Veltras.”
A spark of interest entered Tyrion’s eyes.
“Yes, I recall that tribe. And that Chieftain. Lord Yitton?”
Yitton hesitated, frowning.
“The [Scouts] drew the conclusion that it was the death of one Hob that sparked the conflict, Lord Byres. They observed the Flooded Waters tribe gathering around a dead Goblin that had been hidden in a latrine. The [Scouts] speculate that he was killed by a member of the other tribe, which sparked the conflict. Our [Strategists] disagree, however. They believe it was a conflict over resources, as this Mountain City tribe has consistently consumed far more of the supplies we’ve placed in their way than the other tribes.”
“I see. Well, the reason matters not. This fighting will wear down both sides, especially if the Goblin Lord involves himself. As for the delays—unacceptable.”
Tyrion shook his head. Yitton waited. Jericha looked up, having sent her [Message] and frowned.
“Lord Veltras, we may be able to force both tribes to move and camp separately. It would require our [Mages] to create a neutral zone and enforce it, but—”
She broke off as Tyrion raised a hand. The [Lord] was staring at nothing, frowning. Then he looked up.
“No. This may serve our purpose, Jericha. Rather than tire out our [Mages], I intend to solve the matter directly.”
He turned and looked at his aide.
“Summon the Gold-rank adventurer captains immediately, to meet me at the front within twenty minutes. Provide them with mounts if they are marching with the foot.”
Jericha nodded and raised a finger to her temple.
“And Miss Arcsinger?”
A flicker of expression passed across Tyrion’s face, so quickly that Lord Yitton couldn’t read what emotion it had been. Tyrion shook his head briskly, his face impassive.
“No. We have an arrangement. Let her continue onwards—I will request her use of Skills as needed. That will be all. Lord Yitton, I would value your input if you would ride with me.”
He strode towards his mount and briskly mounted himself. Yitton looked around, cursing and wishing he’d kept his horse nearby, but it was already being brought. Tyrion watched as Yitton swung himself into his saddle and then the two [Lords] were riding quickly to the front. Yitton saw the ground flash past him as he rode under the aegis of Lord Tyrion’s Skills.
“You have a plan, Lord Tyrion?”
“I do, Lord Yitton. I intend to send the Goblins and our watchers a message.”
Yitton glanced sharply at Lord Tyrion as the man calmly surged up and down in his saddle with his horse.
“A message, Lord Tyrion? Of what kind?”
Tyrion looked back at the older man and almost smiled.
“The simplest of messages, Yitton. The kind even Goblins understand.”
“Can’t win with spells. Bad idea.”
Pyrite grunted as he jogged along with Reiss, Rags, and a cluster of the other high-ranking Goblins in both her tribe and the Goblin Lord’s army. The Hob pretended not to notice the glares both Reiss and Noears gave him.
“Why not? I can weaken Tremborag with death spells.”
Eater of Spears nodded as he stumped along. Smaller Goblins and Hobs stared up at him as they ran around him. Both Rags’ tribe and Reiss’ army were marching far ahead of Tremborag’s tribe, and quickly too. The Humans had pushed them hard and the Goblins were tired despite it being just past midmorning.
Rags wasn’t tired. Her mind was buzzing with ideas. The impromptu war council was deliberating hard about how to attack Tremborag successfully. She looked at Pyrite.
“Why no spell?”
Pyrite ducked as Snapjaw threw a pebble at him. He rumbled, and explained as he fished out a speckled blue egg and began to eat it raw, shell and all. He offered one to Eater of Spear, who took it with a grunt of satisfaction and popped the entire thing into his mouth.
“Tremborag is old Hob. Very strong. Knows how to fight adventurers. If [Mage] casts spell, may hurt. Won’t kill. Then Tremborag comes and tears head off. Very quick.”
He gestured at Noears and mimed the very action. Noears felt at his head, looking concerned. Reiss frowned.
“I could fight Tremborag myself.”
Pyrite glanced impassively at Reiss. This time Snapjaw growled and leaned out of her saddle, ready to punch Pyrite. Poisonbite tugged her back and Reiss frowned. It was Rags who nodded.
“Too risky. Can’t have one or two. Better to have Reiss fight Garen.”
“Why? Goblin Lord not strong enough?”
Snapjaw challenged Rags angrily. She just shrugged.
“No. Garen too annoying. Reiss stop Garen. That easy. Hard part is get Tremborag alone. How about—”
She glanced up and frowned. So did the other Goblins. They turned as they heard a horn blaring behind them. Only, it wasn’t a Goblin horn. It was coming from the Humans riding behind them.
The difference in sound was minimal, as both Goblins and Humans made the same instrument. But it was the oddity of the sound that bothered Rags. She stared as first one horn blew, and then two, then a dozen.
And then a hundred. The advancing line of cavalry stopped as all four Goblin tribes halted and stared back at the Humans. The flanking parties of Humans riding to either side of them paused as well. Rags stared as, in the distance, she saw the lines of Humans part.
“What’s going on?”
Reiss stared hard at the Humans. He looked around and Rags saw his undead Shield Spider crawl towards them. No one else moved as Reiss swung himself up into his saddle for a better look. Rags saw the Humans part. And then someone appeared between the lines of riders. A flash of golden hair. And a silver bow. Though she was far away, Rags could see the figure had pointed ears. And when she looked up—
Fear. It ran through the Goblins like a physical thing. They shuddered as they remembered. Golden hair. A bow. A fallen King.
Elia Arcsinger. Kingslayer. She stood at the head of the ranks of Humans. And someone else rode up to join her. A man with dark hair, his armor gleaming. He looked like any other Human in one sense, but Rags recognized him.
Tyrion Veltras. The [Lord] regarded the mass of Goblins ahead of him. Rags could see Reiss reconsidering his vantage point and swinging himself down into the safety of the mass of his warriors who surged forwards to put themselves between him and Elia. But it was not at the Goblin Lord who Tyrion looked at. His gaze swept past Reiss, past Garen who sat on his Carn Wolf, teeth bared. He looked at Rags first and she felt a shudder. She thought that Tyrion was smiling, but she couldn’t see his expression so far away. And then the [Lord] looked down, at the sprawling tribe of Goblins, half of whom were sitting, imitating their Chieftain.
Tremborag, Great Chieftain of the Mountains, sat on the ground, footsore, furious. His skin was healed and the crossbow bolts had been plucked out, but his gaze was still malevolent fury as he stared at Rags. He ignored Tyrion Veltras and the Humans, his back a solid mass of contempt. He was not afraid of them, or so his posture said. So he never saw Elia Arcsinger raise her bow. He never saw the arrow.
It struck Tremborag in the back. A single arrow, fired hundreds of feet. It flew straight and true and embedded itself in Tremborag’s flesh, just above his shoulder. He howled, more from shock then pain, and whirled. His eyes widened as he saw Elia Arcsinger lower the bow, and his hand reached up, trying to grab the arrow.
“She shot him?”
Reiss’ voice was incredulous. The arrow had struck the Great Chieftain precisely, and Rags couldn’t imagine she’d missed. But it hadn’t done more than wound Tremborag slightly. Frankly, it wasn’t even a good shot if the half-Elf had been trying to kill him. But as Tremborag yanked the arrow from his back and stared at the red, dripping point, Rags felt terribly uneasy. She looked up and saw Elia Arcsinger turn away. And Tyrion Veltras pointed.
At Tremborag. The Great Chieftain froze, his expression outraged and confused at once. Another person, a woman, a [Mage], stepped up besides Tyrion. Rags watched her, feeling her pulse thudding in her ears. She saw the [Mage] link arms with two others, a woman and a man, and then saw the fire.
This was how she spun the fireball. Out of air a wisp of fire appeared, a thin tendril. Then it thickened, curled in on itself and other strand appeared. Like yarn, it knitted itself together, twisting into a ball of fire, only this ball was ever-shifting, the cords of flame shifting around together. And the blaze grew until the fireball was as large as the woman, larger, as large as a horse. Larger still.
The Goblins watched in silence. Tremborag slowly got to his feet. He stared at the [Mages], incredulous. Rags stared at him and then at Tyrion. At the Humans. They were all looking at Tremborag. The Great Chieftain looked around. Now the fireball was floating overhead. He backed up a step, his face written with incredulity.
He did not want to believe. He did not want to know. But it was too late. The [Mage] let go of the other’s hands and pointed. The [Siege Fireball] shot forwards, a blazing inferno as bright as the sun. Tremborag turned. He began to run. The Goblins around him ran too. Rags heard not a word from them. They just ran, streaming away from the spot. And then the fireball touched the earth where Tremborag had been, as the Great chieftain tried to flee. Rags saw a flash—
Then she felt something kick her in the chest. Hot air blasted Rags’ face and she heard cries as the Goblins were bombarded with light, heat, and sound. When Rags could see again, she saw Tremborag lying on the ground. He was alive. He’d dove to avoid the blast. As he got to his feet, shakily, a horn blew. Rags turned and saw the Humans advancing. Only, it wasn’t a steady trot.
They were charging. [Mages] standing behind the ranks of Humans on horseback began throwing spells. Crackling lightning and shards of ice rained down from the sky, as the earth broke underfoot. Goblins screamed and ran, but Rags stayed where she was. So did her entire tribe. Because the onslaught was not aimed at them. The center of the storm, the one figure that the Humans encircled, cut off from his tribe and threw spells at was the huge figure, the Great Chieftain of the Mountain.
He looked around, bellowing in fear and fury. He turned to run, but a line of [Riders] and [Knights] cut him off. He shouted for his Goblins, but his warriors who rushed to surround him were blown to pieces, feathered by arrows, cut down by swords. Tremborag roared. He turned and saw the watching Goblins, the three tribes who stared at him.
Tremborag went still. His eyes went to Reiss, who stood amid his warriors, his face impassive, to Garen Redfang, who looked shocked. And then to Rags, who met his eyes. Tremborag looked back at the Humans who were attacking his tribe, sending his warriors fleeing further and further away from their Chieftain. He looked around and saw Tyrion Veltras, riding towards him. And then he knew.
“They’re going to kill him.”
Reiss breathed the words incredulously as he watched Tremborag’s tribe disintegrate before his eyes. The Mountain City tribe had scattered in the face of the first spell. Now they were trying to reform, but the wave of Humans that crashed into their backs forced them to keep running. Spells hammered the ground, enforcing the imminent threat of death behind them. The Goblins turned and ran, but they could hardly ignore the bellowing voice behind them.
“Warriors to me! Protect your Chieftain! Ulvama! Kerist! Qent! Where are my Hobs?”
Tremborag shouted, running, thrusting aside Goblins, trying to put anything and everything behind him and the Humans racing to cut him off. He was fast, and he barreled through a rider and horse, knocking both aside, though the impact made Tremborag stagger. He ran forwards, trying to get away. But the Humans were aimed only at him.
“They are going to kill him.”
Noears stared at the scene with amazement and delight. He and the others watched as Tremborag’s tribe fled towards them. Rags could see tens of thousands of Goblins streaming away from Tremborag. Few turned despite his shouts. And those that did—died.
It wasn’t a fair battle. It wasn’t even a battle. If a Goblin or Hob turned to strike or cast a spell, a [Knight], a dozen [Knights], would ride down on them and hack them to shreds. Or a [Lord] would use an artifact, or an adventurer loose an arrow, or a [Mage] a spell. No matter what Tremborag said, no matter how he threatened and ordered, he couldn’t force his Goblins to turn and fight that.
“Stop! Obey me! Turn and fight for your Chieftain! Fight for your tribe!”
Tremborag caught a Goblin warrior who was fleeing. He stared at the Goblin’s terrified face, and then hurled her at the oncoming Humans. The Goblin disappeared with a scream beneath the oncoming horses. Tremborag looked around desperately.
“Ulvama! My Hobs!”
There they were, fleeing ahead of him. Tremborag roared at them and for a moment they turned. Ulvama with her staff, the Hobs wearing their precious, looted gear. They looked back at their Great Chieftain as he labored to run after them. Tremborag raised a claw, calling. Imploring.
And the Humans were behind him. Surrounding him. They formed up at his back, and on his sides, creating a passage edged by steel. They held their position there, daring the Goblins to run back. There was a clear path between them and Tremborag. But if they went back—the Goblins of the Mountain City tribe stared at the lines of Humans. They looked at death and death looked back.
Ulvama stared at Tremborag. He looked at her, his face desperate. It was an expression few of the Goblins in his tribe had seen. They looked at their Great Chieftain. And then Ulvama turned away.
She was the first. Then one of the Hob lieutenants turned his back. And then a warrior. And then a child. Tremborag stared as his Goblins turned and began streaming further away.
All of them. Ulvama, his Hob sub-Chieftains, his warriors—they fled as the Humans raced past him on horseback. They pursued the Goblins, chasing them towards the other three tribes that were watching Tremborag. And then the Great Chieftain was alone. He stared around at the Humans. They watched him, faces hidden behind visors, mask of hatred. But they didn’t attack.
More movement. Tremborag started, whirled as the Humans in front of him parted. He stared in disbelief as the lines of Humans moved aside, giving him a path towards the Goblins to the south. He looked in disbelief at the Humans, and then narrowed his eyes. A trick?
No. The Humans drew back, waiting. Tremborag turned as a man in armor rode up behind him. Lord Tyrion Veltras drew his sword and pointed past Tremborag, towards the waiting Goblins. The Great Chieftain turned and saw his tribe staring back at him. Along with the other Goblins. A [Fireball] exploded over their heads and the Goblins started, began to run. South, again.
Then Tyrion pointed at Tremborag. The Great Chieftain met his eyes, snarling, defiant. But Tyrion didn’t order the attack. Instead he raised one hand and shouted an order.
“Advance at a trot!”
The Humans around him moved. Their horses began to trot forwards, at Tremborag. The Great Chieftain backed up. He turned, and looked at the Goblins moving swiftly south. Then he looked at the Humans, advancing behind him, slowly. And then it became clear.
They wanted him to run. To run until he fell. Tremborag’s claws clenched. Red fury rose in his eyes and for a second he turned back to the front ranks of Humans. For a second. Then the fury dimmed. He looked back at his tribe, so far away in the distance. And he turned and ran.
At first, it was one mile. Rags and her tribe raced across the rocky landscape until it turned to grass. Then it was two miles. She heard the scream of spells overhead, saw her tribe start to mix with the other Goblins running. They couldn’t help it. The Humans drove them onwards faster than they ever had before. Rags saw the wagons jolting as the animals strained to keep up, saw Goblins trip, fall, and be trampled or blown to bits.
And then it was five miles. Six? She lost count. The Goblins slowed after a time. The frantic pace eased. Because the Humans weren’t chasing them. Not just them. It was the figure in the distance, always a thousand feet or so behind that they were concerned with.
Tremborag. He ran as hard as he could, his body heaving with effort. He stumbled and fell and got up, he gasped for air. He ran, but the Goblins ahead of him were always out of reach. The Humans forced them to keep away from the Great Chieftain. And he was tiring. Of all the Goblins, he was the largest. And his footsteps grew ever more slower, his breathing harder.
He collapsed after the eighth mile of running. The Hob fell to his knees as the Humans slowed to a snail’s pace behind him. They threw spells over his head, blew their horns. But he could run no further. Tremborag panted, so dehydrated that the sweat had stopped rolling off his body. He looked behind him and saw the Humans approaching slowly, so slowly, at a leisurely walk.
Like hunters moving in for the kill. Tremborag turned and bared his teeth.
“You damned Humans. You think that this—”
He tried to heave himself up and failed. Tremborag sprawled onto his back. He stared up at the sky and made a noise. It might have been a growl of frustration. But it sounded like a sob.
“Like this? Like this? Without my tribe? Those cowards—like this? Impossible. I cannot die here. Not like this. It should have been—I should have—”
He scrabbled at the grass and dirt, trying to pull himself up. He stared at the Goblins, who’d paused to look back at him, no longer hounded by the Humans. Tremborag stared at his tribe, at the faces in the distance. He tried to shout, but his lungs were too exhausted.
“Damn you. Cowards! Traitors, every one! I am your Chieftain! I am Tremborag! I—”
His voice faltered. Tremborag sagged. He stared at the Goblins. They made no move to help him. They watched, as the Humans drew closer in the distance.
All except one. She kicked her Carn Wolf forwards, ignoring the warnings of her tribe. She raced past the Goblins who tried to catch her. A small Goblin riding a Carn Wolf. Tremborag’s eyes widened as he saw Rags riding at him.
She had a black crossbow in her hands, a short sword and buckler at her side. Her eyes blazed as she stopped her Carn Wolf in front of Tremborag. She raised her crossbow.
Rags agreed softly. Tremborag stared at her. Then he pushed himself up. He sat back and laughed.
“So! The child comes in the moment of my death. Not Redfang or the slave, but the child. How pathetic. How fitting, isn’t it? For this?”
He waved a claw back at the Humans. Rags narrowed her eyes. She raised her crossbow and aimed at Tremborag’s chest.
“Didn’t come here to talk.”
“No. You came to kill me before the Humans did.”
Tremborag grinned at Rags, his chest heaving painfully. He tapped his chest.
“Well? Go on. Shoot me. Kill me! End the Great Chieftain of the Mountain here, child! End it! I have outlived our last Goblin King! I have built my tribe, seized the home of Dwarves and seen the rise and fall of legends! End it with one pathetic little piece of wood and metal. And ride away until it is your turn. Know the truth.”
Rags raised her crossbow.
“Truth? Truth is that Humans won. You die.”
Tremborag laughed hoarsely. He sat forwards, his shoulder drooping. The Great Chieftain looked beaten as he shook his head.
“You think so? This—this was never about Humans. This was about Goblins. About pride. About our destiny.”
The small Goblin paused. Rags had been aiming carefully, choosing her shot. She stared suspiciously at Tremborag.
“Destiny? What destiny? This is your fault. You lose mountain, fight Reiss. You run, now Humans kill you for trouble. You die.”
“You think so? This started—all of this started with that damned Goblin. Greydath. You met him. You know what he’s capable of. Do you think he couldn’t have stopped the Humans? Or—or challenged Reiss to battle? Or led the tribes? But no, he stayed in my mountain. Hidden. It was only when you appeared. You and Redfang and the slave. When you came, he had no more use for me. So—it ends.”
He gestured around aimlessly. Rags frowned.
“Greydath did? How?”
“By doing nothing.”
Tremborag hissed. His chest was fire. He clutched it, trying to breathe more steadily.
“Do you think—he was just sitting in my mountain, pretending to be Greybeard—for nothing? No. The world is vast. You think this army is frightening? I have known greater. Far greater. And our King—even he was not enough to face it all. See the truth, child. The Goblin Kings are pawns. Not of Humans or Drakes—but of the Goblin Lords.”
Rags had settled on Tremborag’s nose. Her finger hesitated in the trigger.
Tremborag heaved one pain-filled breath, and then another. He sat forwards as Rags uncertainly moved her Carn Wolf a step forwards, and then back.
“Yes. But not like the slave. Reiss is a lord, but the true ones…why do you think Greydath sat in my mountain for so long after his King’s death? When the others died? No—the true Lords—don’t trust them. They are not Goblin.”
He breathed hard as Rags hesitated. Was Tremborag insane? But he was speaking urgently now, leaning forwards and despite herself, Rags listened.
“What do you mean?”
Tremborag’s breathing was weaker. He gestured Rags closer, gasping for air.
“Greydath. The true Lords search for a King. Not because we need one, but because they can use them. You do not remember. You—Curulac listened and they used him. Velan did not and he died less than a year after becoming a King.”
Rags shook her head.
“Curulac? But he lived only hundred days. Curulac of Hundred Days.”
Tremborag sat back, and laughed once, hoarsely.
“You think that was all he lived? You have not seen his past. He lived longer than Velan. For years! But when they were done with him, the Lords—they betrayed him. They turned him against the Humans for a hundred days of war! That is the fate of kings. But Velan didn’t listen. So they sent only one of their number with Velan. Greydath of Blades. The other lord were lesser. Not like Greydath.”
None of that made sense. Rags knew of the Second Antinium War, at least, parts of it. She remembered.
“Other Lords were strong. There was—Tallis. Stormbreaker.”
He had been powerful. But again Tremborag laughed. He scooted forwards, coughing, looking at Rags. The Humans were drawing closer now. Rags could see them watching her and him. Her attention wavered between the riders and Tremborag.
“Tallis? Tallis wasn’t one of them. He could have been. But he rose at the same time as Velan. He was Velan’s friend. He told me the truth. And I begged Velan to reconsider. But he didn’t. And the Lords conspired. They let him die.”
Tremborag’s voice was softer. Rags drew closer, ignoring the warnings ringing in her mind that she should run before the Humans reached her. She stared at Tremborag. He had known this? Why didn’t he tell the others? Or was that why Greydath had been in his mountain for so long? He had begged—
Tremborag? Beg? Rags wavered. She opened her mouth and realized Tremborag was right in front of her. Then she saw the Great Chieftain look up and his eyes flare blood-red.
He lunged. Rags yelped and her Carn Wolf leapt back, barking in surprise. Tremborag swiped at her and the tips of his claws nearly caught Rags. Nearly. She felt the wind as they missed her and turned her Carn Wolf. It leapt back as Tremborag cursed and swiped at her again. But the wolf bounded back and Rags paused, panting, twenty feet away.
Tremborag coughed and roared at her. Rags raised her crossbow in one trembling claw. Nearly. He’d nearly got her. She stared at Tremborag with pure hatred.
“You are a stinky wolf poo! Was it a lie? All?”
She waved her free hand angrily. Tremborag was lying on his back, covered in sweat and dirt. He stared up at the sky. When he spoke, it was angrily.
“A lie? What does it matter?”
He heaved himself up, panting with effort. Tremborag glared at Rags, ignoring the crossbow aimed at his eye.
“Why do I need to tell you anything? Truth? Lies? I owe you nothing, child! Why do you need to know my past? I am Tremborag! And you are worthless. Just like that traitor. Quietstab.”
Rags felt the word strike her like blow to the chest. She reeled, and her eyes narrowed.
“You are not-Goblin.”
“Am I? Then kill me, nameless child! Shoot me! Or are you afraid?”
Tremborag grinned at Rags. He lowered his voice. The Humans were so close now. Rags could see their faces, looking at her like Tremborag. Like monsters. And Tremborag was whispering to her.
“You think Quietstab was loyal? He told me everything about your tribe before the end. Everything, every scrap he could before he perished, to save his miserable neck. Should I tell you about how he begged me when he died? How I made him suffer at the last?”
Rags saw flashes of red. Her finger trembled on the crossbow’s trigger. Tremborag spread his arms, daring her. He was right there. She could kill him. It didn’t matter if she died. She just wanted to hurt him for hurting her. Hurt him and hurt his tribe. And then they would attack her, and she would kill them, and—
She barely saw Tremborag’s claw sliding into the ground in time. Rags shouted and pulled the crossbow’s trigger. Her bolt went wide, but Tremborag jerked and the handful of soil he was about to hurl at her and Carn Wolf missed. He lunged again, but Rags danced back.
She shouted at Tremborag, trembling. He just laughed.
“Come on! Strike me! You coward! You traitor with no name!”
He wanted her to kill him. He wanted her to attack. Because if he did, he could kill her. And Rags would gladly do it. But she could see the future, not because of a Skill or magic, but just because she knew what would happen. She would kill Tremborag. Or he would kill her. And then his tribe would try and kill her, or the Humans would kill him. It didn’t matter who killed who. Someone else would do more killing.
Just like Riverfarm. Just like the burning. Like the [Emperor]. He killed her Goblins. So she burned the Humans. And so he sent his army to kill her. It was what the fate of Goblins. Kill and be killed and kill again.
As Goblins do. As Goblins have always done. Rags’ eyes opened wide. She looked Tremborag, who was watching her, teeth bared. Then she looked around. At the Humans, at the watching Goblins. And slapped her forehead.
“Oh. A circle.”
Tremborag blinked at her. Rags stared at him blankly, then looked down at her crossbow. It wasn’t even reloaded. She absently patted her growling Carn Wolf on the head and looked around.
“Okay. Going now. Bye.”
“What? No! Come back and finish this!”
Tremborag looked incredulous as Rags turned her mount. He rose up, managed to get to his feet. He stood straighter and Rags realized he’d been pretending to be more tired than he was as well! Tremborag’s voice grew deeper and he shouted at her.
“You coward! Don’t you want to see me dead?”
Rags shrugged. She stowed the crossbow on the holster on her back.
“Humans will do that. I don’t need to.”
“You—is that how you fight? Hiding behind Humans? Running? I challenge you, Chieftain to Chieftain!”
The huge Hob pounded his chest. But now Rags looked at him and didn’t feel angry. She shook her head as Tremborag lumbered a few steps towards her and kicked her Carn Wolf, keeping a distance between him and her. She spoke slowly and deliberately to Tremborag’s snarling, desperate face.
“Tremborag. You are big. And fat. And stupid. And ugly. And smelly. And have bad breath.”
He looked at her. Rags met his eyes and for a moment the two Chieftains just glared at each other. A child riding a wolf and the exhausted Goblin of the Mountain. For a moment Rags thought she knew Tremborag. Because she recognized the terrible fear and desperation in his eyes. She looked away.
Rags kicked her Carn Wolf in the side and it bounded away, towards the Goblins in the distance. Tremborag watched her go. He stared at the distant shape, a bounding red wolf and green rider. Then he turned.
The Humans had stopped to let him finish his conversation with Rags. Perhaps they’d been hoping she’d kill him. Humans loved stories like that. Now they rode forwards. Tremborag saw a group of Humans dismount from their horses and spread out. He saw glowing armor, grim faces. Tremborag glanced over his shoulder at Rags.
He wished he could have killed her. The Great Chieftain’s claws clenched as the Humans spread out. More were dismounting, regular [Soldiers]. And he could see a winding column behind them, moving fast. The Human’s infantry, armed with spears, swords. So many of them. An army far too large for even a Goblin Lord. Or at least, one of Reiss’ caliber.
That struck Tremborag as funny. He laughed and then wheezed as the blood in his lungs made him cough. He wiped at his mouth and glanced around. There were two dozen men and women, all armed with magical artifacts encircling him.
Gold-rank adventurers. Tremborag saw the first, a man with a bow, step forwards. He looked like any other Human, really. Save for the enchanted gear, Tremborag wouldn’t have recognized him as different from the others he’d killed over the years. Even his voice was the same.
“We remember you, Goblin. We owe you death a hundred times over for our friends. So this will be slow.”
Tremborag sighed. He turned and looked back at Rags. She was still riding towards his tribe, towards her tribe and the Goblin Lord’s army and Garen Redfang’s warriors. But he thought she was looking at him. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain stared at Rags and imagined crushing her head between his claws for a second. Then he felt a sharp pain in his arm.
He looked back. The Human had shot him! Tremborag glanced down at the arrow. It wasn’t enchanted. Stupid Humans. He plucked the arrows from his arm.
So this was how it ended. Tremborag looked back at the distant Rags, tuning out the Humans again. He looked at his kind, watching him, and felt the Goblin Lord, sitting there like a mountain in his mind. But the true mountain was ahead of Tremborag. He looked over the angry Gold-rank adventurer’s head at the mountain far off in the distance, so far away.
His home. How far he’d come. Tremborag glanced back at Rags again, and growled. So the child fled. Fine. But let her see one thing at least. Let her look. He turned as the Gold-rank adventurer, indignant at being ignored, raised his bow.
He was ten paces away from Tremborag. Ten Human paces. Or a single bound for the Hob. Tremborag leapt. The sweaty fat on his body rippled. Muscles grew and his face contorted. A claw reached out and seized the Human before he could leap back. Tremborag bent and pulled. The Human’s head screamed and screamed before it crushed between his fingers. Tremborag dropped the body and looked around.
Gone was the fat Hob that had stood there moments before. A monster rose, teeth shining, muscle and flesh rippling. Tremborag’s voice was booming as he turned to the shocked Humans.
“Slow enough for you, Humans?”
They backed up away from him, and then remembered they were here to kill him. The Gold-rank adventurers raised their weapons and the [Soldiers] aimed bows and trained spears on Tremborag. The Great Chieftain of the Mountains laughed. He spread his arms.
“Let me show you fear.”
Then he leapt. The tip of a spear pierced his stomach. The adventurer hacked at his arm. Fire faced down his body and light exploded in his eyes. Tremborag roared and bit the Human in two. He swung his arm and sent soldiers flying. He pounded a Human with a shield to paste and flung another screaming into the air. The Gold-rank adventurers swarmed around him, but they were slow. Their magic was weak. He grabbed them, tore their arms off. Then they fled. The soldiers attacked Tremborag from all sides, but their arrows were weak. Their steel bent.
The [Mages] burned him. They struck him with missiles made of light. Tremborag charged one and felt his body shiver as it struck a barrier. He broke it and bore the mage to the ground, biting him, tearing him apart. The soldiers drew back. Tremborag flung the guts at them, roared—
And then saw them pull back. The flames burning him went out. Tremborag turned, his blood boiling, and saw him.
Tyrion Veltras. The [Lord] sat on top of his mount, lance in hand. For a moment the Great Chieftain hesitated, then he grinned savagely. Better than the child. He made a mocking bow.
“Greetings, Lord Veltras.”
The move surprised Tyrion. The Human stared at Tremborag as his soldiers pulled back, forming a ring around Tremborag.
“You know of me, Goblin?”
Tremborag grinned. He was bleeding. But he made his voice mocking.
“Even we wretched Goblins heard of the mighty Tyrion Veltras. And his fallen wife. Did she trip off the balcony, boy? Or did one of your enemies push her? And do you fill your bed with another woman or do you sleep alone?”
His insults struck home. Tyrion’s cold face twisted into fury and the Humans behind him shuddered. The [Lord] slowly reached up and lowered his visor. His voice, when he spoke, was barely controlled with fury.
“There is nothing you know of me.”
“I know how you bleed. Come, boy. Show me how strong Humans are with your enchanted weapons and magic.”
He spread his arms. Tyrion didn’t wait. He kicked his mount forwards and sped at Tremborag, lance aimed for his heart. But the Goblin was ready. He turned and struck like lightning, trying to punch Tyrion off his mount. The [Lord] raised his shield and the fist met the enchanted metal.
A thunderous impact made the watchers wince. The horse reared and Tyrion reeled back in his saddle. Tremborag roared as swiped again, but Tyrion lashed out with his lance.
The lance tip struck Tremborag’s raised arm. But instead of sending the Great Chieftain flying backwards, it was Tyrion’s mount that was thrust back. The horse reared and danced, but the [Lord] fought it down. He circled Tremborag, checking himself as the Great Chieftain growled.
“Was that it? Come on, boy. Save your life with another Skill. Did you fail to save your wife? Or was she a nuisance?”
He expected Tyrion to charge again, but the [Lord] didn’t. Instead, he rode his mount back towards the edge of the circle. There he turned and set himself. He was going to charge. Tremborag grinned. He made a fist.
One Skill. One Skill would do it. He waited as Tyrion lowered his lance. Then the [Lord] charged. He came at Tremborag from the left, his lance aimed at Tremborag’s shoulder. Before he was in range, Tremborag roared.
He cut at Tyrion and his horse with a blow that severed the air. The ground tore. Tremborag saw Tyrion raise his lance and he heard a calm voice. As calm as ice.
And his horse blurred. Tremborag saw it blur around his claw. Tyrion appeared on his left, circled, charged again.
So quick. Tremborag lashed out once more, but his claws were so slow. And Tyrion’s lance flickered in his hands. He changed directions as he switched his grip. Suddenly his horse was galloping right and his lance was aimed—
A cold tip pierced Tremborag’s chest, just above his heart. For a second Tremborag blinked at it, watching the lance move slowly. So slowly. He looked up and saw two blazing eyes staring at him through the visor. Then time returned.
The lance went through his chest, shattering bone and piercing flesh. Tremborag stumbled. He raised a claw, gasped. The pain was—he tried to grab Tyrion, but the [Lord] had one hand on the lance. He twisted it and pulled it from Tremborag’s chest. And the Great Chieftain fell. His knees struck the ground and he lay on his back.
So quick. It had been just like—just like—like—
“Tremborag. Join me.”
Velan the Kind stood in Tremborag’s throne room. Alone. His Goblin Lords had left him. His legions of warriors were camped outside Tremborag’s mountain. That left only Tremborag with Velan, and the Goblin King was small, barely taller than any other Hob, really.
But it didn’t make Tremborag feel any less small. The Chieftain of the Mountain City tribe hesitated. He was huge, a giant among Hobs. Or perhaps something else. Velan had brought other Goblins like him, Goblins who were more than just Hobgoblins. Hulking creatures of muscle and teeth, as close to half-Giants as anything else. Like him.
But for all his strength and height, Tremborag felt crushed by the Goblin King. Velan stood in front of him, looking up and looking down on Tremborag all at once. He repeated himself.
“Join me, Tremborag.”
Tremborag’s voice trembled with the effort of saying it. He had nearly quailed in the face of the Goblin Lord. To say it to the Goblin King was a thousand times harder. But he had his reason.
He did not want to die. And he was prepared to grovel or argue to beg or bribe. But Velan just nodded.
He turned away. Tremborag gaped at him. Velan looked around the grand throne room, centuries of neglect and filth turning rich Dwarven work into a Goblin’s home.
“Will you stay here?”
“Yes. I will not march. I will hide from the Humans. This mountain will be my home. Forever.”
Again, Tremborag expected Velan to argue, to call him a coward. To say anything. But all the Goblin King did was smile as if he was pleased.
“Good. Hide here. It will not be many months, before it ends, I think.”
He looked around the throne room again. Tremborag gaped at him. The question slipped from his mouth before he could stop it.
“Why are you doing this? What is the reason for this war? What is our purpose?”
Velan turned back to Tremborag. His gaze flickered and Tremborag quailed. A memory of Velan’s rage made him look to his doors. If he were to be engulfed in his fury, only the Goblin Lords would be able to calm him. But Velan did not rage. Instead, he looked up at Tremborag and shrugged. It was a very Goblin thing to do.
“We have no purpose. This war is not to create or fill any task. Just to end. Just because must be.”
Tremborag stared at Velan.
“Then why—why fight? You made peace on Baleros. Why fight?”
Velan didn’t answer him. Not at first. The Goblin King looked up at the ceiling and at Tremborag’s throne. And there was sadness in his eyes. Sadness, and a regret that haunted Tremborag’s dreams ever after.
“We fulfilled our oaths long ago. We were there when the world betrayed itself. And we brought death to the world in return. We won that war, though it cost us all. Our family, our people, our King—all of it was worth the price. And now, what remains is vengeance.”
The Goblin King gazed past Tremborag, straight through him. He touched his eyes and shook his head. When he looked at Tremborag, dark rage filled his eyes, a rage so hot that it could burn Dragons.
“Rage consumes me. Stay in your mountain. Let the children hide here. The children and the next. I have failed. All I can do is plant the seeds for the next. If you would be one of them, seek these out.”
He turned abruptly and reached for something at his side. He showed Tremborag the keys. They were ordinary, apparently made of steel. But they captured the light. Velan looked at them sadly.
“One day there will be a King again. And they will follow in my footsteps. Forever. Until all Goblins perish or all others do. We cannot help it. We cannot forget. But maybe next time…”
He trailed off. Velan turned towards the doors and walked away. Tremborag sat on his throne, feeling small. He half-rose and shouted after Velan.
“What should I do, then? What is my purpose? To hide? To wait? To seek?”
Velan turned at the doors. His eyes captured Tremborag’s and he shook his head.
“Live, Chieftain of the Mountain. Just—live.”
And then he was gone. Tremborag never saw Velan again, but he remembered the keys. He remembered the past. And he wondered—
He wondered if Velan had known all along how it would end.
Tyrion Veltras shook blood off of his lance as he slowly rode back. Cheering filled the air and the Humans raised their weapons and shouted wildly. The gigantic Goblin lay on the ground, a bloodied mess. Tyrion was checking his mount and offering his lance to Jericha when the body stirred.
The cheering stopped. Slowly, Tremborag sat up. He blinked down at the hole in his chest and touched the blood running to the ground like water. Tyrion paused as Tremborag rose to his feet. The Great Chieftain stared at the [Lord]. Tyrion spoke calmly.
“You are dead, Goblin.”
Tremborag laughed. He shook his head and bared his teeth at Tyrion. His voice was hoarse. His face pale. But he stood and opened his claws.
“I am Tremborag. And only I decide when it is time to die.”
Tremborag took a step forwards. Bows twanged and arrows sprouted from his body from all sides. He laughed as more struck him and Humans rushed forwards. He turned and brought his claws down, crushing metal and bone. He raised his arms as a fireball exploded, burning away part of the flesh on his chest.
“Come, Humans! Come with your armies! Bring your thousands against me!”
He swept the Humans away. He crushed them with his feet. He bit and roared as they cut at him.
“I am TREMBORAG! Chieftain of the Mountains! Come! Show me death!”
And they tried. They brought steel by the hundreds, piercing his flesh. They shot arrows into him, seeking his heart. Tremborag rampaged through their lines, leaving crimson in his wake. Bleeding it.
Fire rained from the skies. They broke the earth. Spears of magic pierced his flesh. Metal shattered his bones. Tremborag felt none of it. He burned, cutting, snarling, tearing. And a thought grew in his mind.
Is this what you saw, Velan? Is this the fate of Goblins?
There were so many. Every Human he killed seemed to spawn another one. But there was one Tremborag was looking for. His eyes were filled with blood. Then one was gone. But he could see Tyrion Veltras at last. Standing in front of him, sword drawn. There were…Humans in front of him. Tremborag strode towards him, ignoring the pain, the shadows that tore parts of him away.
A little bit further. A little bit. The Human was standing in front of him, surrounded by steel and spell. But his eyes were only for Tremborag. The Great Chieftain lurched forwards, teeth bared. He had to do it. Show them what a Goblin was. What a real Chieftain was.
Show them—show them—
Show who? Tremborag looked around. He couldn’t remember who he was trying to show. And now he was alone. He couldn’t see anything anymore. It was all dark.
Why was he here? Tremborag tried to remember. He blundered around. And then he saw it. Sitting there, just a little bit away. A giant heavy thing. Something to focus on. A beautiful piece of stone.
His mountain. His small home. Why wasn’t he there? Tremborag belonged in his home.
He walked forwards, stumbling. The world had gone quiet around him. He walked towards the mountain, stumbling, falling, getting back up. He was getting tired and the mountain was so far way. Why had he left it?
He was so tired. Maybe if he had a nap, he’d feel better. Tremborag looked around. It was so quiet. So dark. So…peaceful. He sat down and closed his eyes. He’d just sleep a little bit. Until he could wake up. His mountain wasn’t going anywhere. And Tremborag would return. He would. He had made his home there. A place to live. He sat, exhausted.
The air was so warm—
At last he stopped. Rags saw the Goblin, the Great Chieftain of the Mountain, sit down. His back was to them. The bloody, torn figure wasn’t green anymore. It was black. And it looked nothing like a Goblin. Nothing like anything, really. Arrows covered Tremborag’s body and mages and warriors had torn him apart. But still he’d fought.
Now he sat, facing north. Away from the Goblins. Away from the Humans, who’d just let him walk away. Tremborag sat, what remained of his head bowed. Facing a small shape on the horizon. A mountain.
He didn’t move. He didn’t stir as the Humans stared at his back. At last, one of them shot an arrow into his back and another approached and stabbed him in the back. Tremborag didn’t move.
He was dead. He had been dead for a while. But somehow he had kept moving. Now he’d stopped. It still took the Humans a long time to believe it. The bloodied Humans surrounded Tremborag, until one of them climbed up and removed his head. Then the head was raised with three Humans holding it and the army cheered raggedly. Desperately, as if to say it was worth it.
But the blood that stained the grass told a different tale. And the Goblins who watched saw the Humans turn away after cheering briefly and mourn their dead. But the Goblins could not enjoy that either.
Because they were weeping. Rags was, at least. She couldn’t see through the tears. And though she brushed the water away, it kept coming.
It made no sense. Tremborag had been a monster. He had deserved to die. But she couldn’t help it. She wept, not for him, but for Goblins. And she saw the same tears in the eyes of her tribe.
Reiss did not weep. Neither did Garen. The two Hobs stood facing each other, at the head of their tribes. They waited, and eventually the Goblins realized there was a choice to be made.
The Mountain City tribe had lost their Great Chieftain, but they were intact. The Humans had spared almost all of them to slay only Tremborag. Now the tribe looked and saw the two Hobs, standing on either side.
Garen and his Redfang Warriors. And Reiss, the Goblin Lord and his army. Two kinds of Goblins stood, waiting. The Mountain City tribe looked from Garen to Reiss as the Hobs waited, expectantly. And then all eyes turned to Rags.
She wiped tears from her eyes as she stood on the back of her Carn Wolf. She looked at the Mountain City Goblins, at Ulvama who was weeping too, at the Hobs who she had tried to kill and the Goblin warriors who wept for Tremborag. She raised her voice and shouted raggedly, pointing at Tremborag’s body.
“This is Goblin! This is our end! We kill Humans and they kill us! Drakes kill us and we kill them. But they come back. Every time. This is how Goblins die.”
The Goblins looked up at her. Despair made Rags’ throat close up, but she forced herself to keep going.
“Tremborag was not-Goblin! But he died as Goblins do. As Goblins always do. But it is not how we have to die.”
They looked at her, disbelieving, but waiting for her to go on. Rags closed her eyes. She thought of burning houses, of the blind [Emperor], and of Tremborag. Then she opened them.
“I have seen our past and future. And it is a circle. It goes around and around. But if Goblins want to live, they cannot go in a circle. They have to change. They have to—stop.”
The Goblins of the Mountain City tribe stared at Rags. Her Flooded Waters tribe gazed at their Chieftain. Garen’s Redfangs looked up at Rags. And the Goblin Lord’s army looked at the small Goblin. Reiss’ looked shocked, Garen incredulous. But slowly, the Goblins moved. The Mountain City tribe slowly streamed towards Rags.
Not all of them. Maybe just over a half. But while some went to Garen and some went to Reiss, the rest went to Rags. They spat hatred at the Goblin Lord and shook their heads and turned away from Garen. And they flocked around Rags who wept for the Great Chieftain of the Mountain. And the Goblin Lord turned, furious and shocked and confused at once and saw a Drake was standing to one side, staring at him.
“Does she mean a cycle?”
Osthia Blackwing pointed at Rags. Reiss nodded. The Drake’s expression cleared.
“Ah. That makes a lot of sense. Looks like they trust her more than you.”
She paused, smirking at Reiss, then frowned.
“Why do you look like you’ve seen a ghost?”
“That was what he said.”
Reiss spoke softly. Osthia frowned.
“Velan the Kind. Before he became the Goblin King. He called it the cycle that bound all of Goblinkind, of violence and retribution. He tried to break it.”
The Drake’s eyes went round. She looked at Rags and suddenly her expression was worried. Wary.
“Do you—do you think she’s like him? Could she have the potential to—Reiss?”
Reiss didn’t look at Osthia. He’d gone completely still. The Drake looked back at Rags, then at Reiss. Her nerves turned to anger.
“Well? Is she like Velan? Could she be a Goblin King?”
He didn’t respond. Angrily, Osthia reached out and shook Reiss. And then he turned his head. His eyes were black and the pupils white, as always. But someone else gazed out through the white pupils, as if they were a window.
“That child? She is nothing like the previous Goblin King.”
Osthia recoiled. Reiss looked around. Only it wasn’t Reiss who spoke. His voice was completely different, as was the way he moved. And looked at her. The person who wore Reiss’ body turned and regarded Osthia coldly.
“I recall you, Drake. I ordered my apprentice to slay you. Another failing. Another moment of disobedience.”
That voice. Osthia remembered it. She couldn’t forget it. Her claws tightened into fist. Her tail thrashed.
Reiss’ finger rose. He pointed at her chest.
A ripple of darkness shot from his finger and passed straight through Osthia’s chest. She gasped, and then, soundlessly, collapsed. Az’kerash, or Reiss, or some mixture of the two, idly kicked her onto her back.
Osthia Blackwing lay on the ground, her eyes opened wide in surprise. Her mouth was slightly agape. Her face was pale, almost white. Drained of life. One of her claws—the one with the black ring on it—was clenched into a fist. Az’kerash, wearing his apprentice’s face, studied the body dismissively and then looked around.
“I see much has changed since we last communicated, my apprentice. Walk with me and tell me what has occurred.”
Slowly, jerkily, Reiss began to move. He walked past the Goblins clustered around Rags, head turning to inspect the fallen form and the Human army. Snapjaw and Eater of Spears stared at their leader, and the Goblins around Reiss drew back. Garen turned his head and bared his teeth. He reached for his sword.
Lord Tyrion Veltras stood in front of the misshapen head that had been Tremborag. He regarded the shape, wrinkled his nose at the burnt smell of flesh and turned away.
“Enough. Jericha, allow the soldiers to parade the head about if they wish. I doubt any of the nobility would care for it as a trophy in its current state. Now, prepare a short missive to be sent to every city in the north.”
“At once, sire.”
Jericha readied the spell as Tyrion stood surrounded by his army. Tyrion Veltras waited until she signaled she was ready and spoke curtly.
“The Great Chieftain of the Mountain is dead. He was slain by Human hands, on Human lands. Let his death be a message to all those who would threaten Izril. The Goblin Lord is next.”
He nodded to Jericha. And that was it. The [Message] spell was sent to every Mage’s Guild by magic, and within moments it was speeding to Drake cities, across the world. The news was distorted as it went from person to person, even with magic. It captured some of the meaning, lost some of the nuance. But it was ever the same.
The Great Chieftain is dead.
Tremborag has been slain.
The Great Chieftain of the Mountains is no more.
Tremborag of the Mountain has fallen. The Goblin Lord flees ever onwards. And the Great Chieftain of Dwarfhalls Rest, the Goblin who knew Velan the Kind, the Chieftain of the Mountain City tribe, Tremborag, is gone.
Just like that.