5.53 – The Wandering Inn

5.53

Happy. Of course, Goblins had a word for the feeling. They understood happiness as well as any other race, no matter what other species thought of them. They had a word for happy and more words for grief and anger than could be expressed in the limited language of the common tongue. But they had only one word for happy.

That was because happiness to a Goblin was ever fleeting. It was not a long term state of being; to them it could not be. They could be happy, but they were aware that it would never last. Even if a Goblin tribe was strong, or had hidden from enemies, even if they were safe as safe could be, someday, they would be found. Someday they would die.

So their word for happiness wasn’t a blanket statement. To a Goblin, happy was a temporary, fleeting moment of perfection. A moment of paradise in the darkness. A second where everything was right. Happy was not forever, and so it was all the more precious because of it.

And the Redfang Goblins were happy. Madly, deliriously happy. So much so that they expected each day to wake up and for it all to be a dream. But it wasn’t.

They lived in the Dropclaw bat cave now, which was now free of Dropclaw bats and filled to the brim with Cave Goblins. In fact, they weren’t just occupying one cave. After it had become clear that only so many Goblins could sleep on top of one another before someone died of suffocation, the Goblins had gone scouting nearby and found more caves.

It wasn’t as if Liscor lacked for caves. Given that the city and the surrounding area was a basin formed in the center of the High Passes, there were hundreds of smaller caves that opportunistic monsters or animals could lair in. And while many had flooded with the rains, there were still many more that remained above the water line.

In fact, the road north had several good spots to hide out in, although as you went north and eventually passed by Esthelm, the pass would widen until you left the mountains behind entirely. The Cave Goblins hadn’t bothered to go that far; they’d found two other caves with ample elbow room and settled there. They had to evict the former occupants; a group of very upset Face Eater Moths who were even more upset when their burgeoning nest was smashed into oblivion and they themselves became dinner for hungry Goblins.

And now the Redfang Hobs woke each day with small Goblins around them. They ate, and then trained. And the Cave Goblins followed them and learned.

Were they Chieftains? The Hobs had no idea. They felt as though they were in a sense. They taught the Cave Goblins and gave them orders and there was no question they were in charge. But none of them had gotten the [Chieftain] class and they all considered themselves part of Garen’s tribe. Too, there were five of them and even if Headscratcher was their leader at times, he was only the first among equals.

They’d discussed the issue multiple times but given up because it was a headache and besides, it didn’t matter. The Redfangs instead focused their energy on doing what they did best: training. They hadn’t even meant to train the other Goblins at first. They just went around their daily routines until they noticed that there would be hundreds of Cave Goblins watching them and copying them at any time. And so the Redfang Hobs had begun teaching the copycats, just like Garen Redfang and the older Hobs had once trained them in their youths.

Each taught the Cave Goblins according to his strengths. There was no planning to it; the Redfang Goblins had no idea how to lead a tribe, so they just did what they’d always done, and the Cave Goblins followed them about. In that sense there were five mini-tribes, all of whom coexisted peacefully in the cave and dungeon. Cave Goblins came and went using the secret passages known only to them.

The Shield Spider’s nest had been carefully altered to make a walkway for easier passage to and fro from the surface to the dungeon. Sometimes Goblins still fell, and when they did, the Shield Spiders feasted. But the invisibility that protected the Goblins hadn’t dissipated with the defeat of the Raskghar. And now that they were free, more and more looked to the surface.

To the Hobs. If you were a newcomer Cave Goblin, who’d just made the long journey to the surface, there were five splendid camps you could choose from. It was a difficult choice but once the Cave Goblins committed, they didn’t switch leaders. In that sense it was very much like a separate tribe, and each one had their nuances.

Those who followed Headscratcher, the [Berserker] with the enchanted axe and the ability to burst into tears while watching a play in Erin’s inn were fighters to the core. They trained relentlessly, following the Hob as he exercised and fighting much like Headscratcher did, creating crude axes out of stones or using looted weapons in training.

They had the closest bonds and fought like brothers. Or like sisters. Like a family. The Hob told them stories of his family, the fallen. Bugear, Grunter, Leftstep…and he trained them as hard as he’d been trained. Harder. So they would never stand alone.

On the other hand, if you were a Goblin who eschewed simply hitting things as hard as you could, you went to Shorthilt’s mini-tribe. The Goblins who flocked to him were warriors as well, but of a different kind. Like the Hob, they believed in finding the sharpest, most effective weapons to use in battle and even thought about things like ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy’ in battle.

They were both armorers and weapon smiths. Shorthilt had gotten a small armory of weapons from Erin and the best Goblins used those. The rest created a terrifying arsenal out of wood, bone, and rock. With Shorthilt’s help, they learned that you could put an edge on an entirely wooden axe that could cut as finely as any metal one. His Goblins trained and worked on their weapons for all five tribes, although they only used blunt weapons while sparring. Because no one wanted to lose an arm.

If those two were the frontline warriors factions, the other three Goblins occupied more useful roles, at least when it didn’t come to the fighting. For instance, Badarrow’s group was comprised solely of [Archers]. While it was the smallest of the five factions due to the Hob’s grumpy nature and the complexities of wielding a bow, Badarrow and his archers did almost all of the hunting. They could kill fish with their arrows and any bird flying overhead was soon a pincushion.

In his quest for the perfect arrow, Badarrow and his tribe slowly knocked down every tree in the area, obsessively fletching and shooting the precious arrows at targets both night and day. Badarrow could usually be found on the roof of the Dropclaw bat cave, shooting arrows at targets with his students. If you were lucky, he’d slip up and you’d catch him smiling.

While Badarrow’s faction was the smallest, the largest by far was the group of Goblins that followed Rabbiteater. Like the other Goblins, they learned to fight Redfang style, but that wasn’t the focus of their group. No, instead they cooked.

Yes, cooked. Rabbiteater spent more time copying Erin’s food and learning from the master herself than he did training. As such, his Goblins wielded the ladle and spatula and learned how to debone fish, fry bird meat, and wash their hands before every meal.

Rabbiteater also taught them how to look for traps, forage for food, weave nets, and make the most comfortable beds, as befitted a Goblin who had truly been the jack-of-trades among the five Hobs. Now of course he was a [Champion], but to his admirers, the ability to produce tasty food and create dental floss far outweighed mere combat. Rabbiteater’s group was thus envied and scorned by the other four factions, although no one complained when it was time to eat.

And the last faction was Numbtongue’s. Unlike the others groups, they didn’t spend their time copying the Hob’s every action. Rather, they generally just sat around and listened. And learned.

Numbtongue sat in his cave and played on his guitar. He had an audience; hundreds of green bodies sat around him. Crimson eyes followed his claws as he played a song he’d learned from Erin. But no one made a sound. The Cave Goblins listened as Numbtongue played a classic from Erin’s world. Or something close to it.

“I don’t know exactly how it goes. But it uh, sounds like this. Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo…no, that note’s a bit higher. Hey, do you want me to write this down?”

Of Erin’s many talents, writing sheet music and playing instruments weren’t one of them. But she could at least hum the melody and Numbtongue would spend hours recreating the songs. Now he strummed the guitar and brought a song from her home into this cave. It was a melancholy song if you were sad. Or a beautiful one if you weren’t.

His guitar sang. Sparks of electricity shot from the chords and danced across Numbtongue’s fingers as he played. The battered, twice-repaired guitar echoed in the cave. The bass was deeper than it should be for the size of the instrument. The notes echoed as Numbtongue sped up, switching to another song. And his audience listened, captivated.

Curiously, none of the Cave Goblins joined in. They just listened as he played. When Numbtongue stopped they’d make music. His group had begun hitting rocks together, making crude drums, and trying to replicate the guitar without success. They’d kept the other Cave Goblins up at night with their racket. But when Numbtongue spoke or played, they just listened.

It bothered the Hob, to be honest. Because his Cave Goblins were acting much like he did around Erin. He had a deep suspicion that they’d listened to every word he’d said to Erin—and everything the Human said on her daily visits to the cave. His faction was probably at least semi-fluent by now, but like Numbtongue, they refrained from speaking except when excessively poked.

Music, speech, and obviously, fighting. Those were his Cave Goblins. And they were his. Numbtongue had never felt as protective of a group of Goblins before. They were like children, although some of the Goblins were older than he was. But he was a Hob and they looked at him like…like…

Like he’d looked at Garen. As a small Goblin looked at a hero. Someone who they aspired to be like. That bothered Numbtongue because he knew he was no Garen. But no matter how many times he tried to shoo the Cave Goblins away, they kept following him. So in desperation he tried to be the leader they expected of him.

He should probably show them how to hit things now. Probably. But Numbtongue played on. His fingers danced along the guitar strings. It was so unlike the rapid, brutal way of fighting he’d learned. That was an art too, but a violent one, with sudden starts and stops and blood. This—this was beautiful.

The cave was dark. Rabbiteater had moved his cooking fires outside because of all the smoke. But the flashing electricity illuminated the cave each time Numbtongue played a chord. That was why he was given a respectful distance by his audience. Numbtongue didn’t know why he’d gained the [Electric Chords] Skill or, as he’d become a Level 25 Bard, [Lightning Melody]. Both Skills were clearly related to his class, but why were they electricity-based?

Erin had speculated that it was because Numbtongue had been playing the songs she’d taught him on the guitar. Why or how that mattered was a mystery, but apparently Humans played on guitars that used lightning all the time in Erin’s home. She’d tried to explain it to Numbtongue, but her words had made no sense.

No sense, unless you noticed how sometimes Erin would say things about her home that everyone else paid attention to. Pisces, Ceria, Typhenous…all the Antinium…they knew something about Erin. And the Hobs knew that they knew, although they didn’t know what it was they knew. She came from somewhere far off. Somewhere unlike anywhere in this world. From…another world? How? And why?

Thoughts like that made Numbtongue’s head hurt so he played another riff on his guitar. Fine, [Electric Chords] was a good ability to have, even if using a guitar in combat wasn’t the smartest of life choices. But [Lightning Melody]? How would that work?

He’d woken up to hear the glorious announcement in his head today. Unlike the other Hobs, Numbtongue and Rabbiteater had been leveling fast; both had gained two levels this week alone somehow. It was probably because they were fulfilling the requirements of their class. Shorthilt, Rabbiteater, and Badarrow could train, but they didn’t level nearly as fast as they would fighting monsters. On the other hand, Numbtongue had all the time to play his guitar in front of an audience. And Rabbiteater…well, he might just be leveling up by existing.

And now Numbtongue had another Skill. Was [Lightning Melody] a powerful one? He thought it was. Part of him had been worried he wouldn’t get any useful Skills for fighting, but his new Skill seemed to indicate he could summon lightning. Like a [Mage].

But surely it wasn’t that easy, right? Numbtongue frowned and shifted his grip on the guitar. He shifted up the tempo of his playing and chose a fast-paced song. If Erin had been present, she would have recognized the tune Numbtongue was shredding on the guitar.

Fast. Faster. Numbtongue imagined calling the electricity flying from the tips of his guitar and into the instrument. He could hear Rabbiteater cooking outside, smell roasting fish. On the roof of the cave Badarrow was shouting at his students as they fired arrows—

No, focus. Draw in energy into the guitar. Numbtongue’s clawed fingers flew across the guitar. Electricity shot from his hands, making the nearest Cave Goblins flinch back. Sweat began to bead on Numbtongue’s forehead. He reached the climax of his solo and shouted as he raised the guitar up over his head.

Hiyah!

All the Goblins in the room ducked. A few errant sparks of electricity shot from Numbtongue’s chords and hands, but nothing happened. The Hob stared at his guitar, and then looked around. His students stared back at him. Sheepishly, Numbtongue lowered the guitar. He began to strum a gentler song, coughing in embarrassment. Maybe he needed to sing? He knew all the words to a lot of the songs Erin had taught him, but it was embarrassing to do it in front of an audience. Especially if they joined in.

There was still a feeling of tension in the guitar, though. Numbtongue frowned as he played on. It did feel like the electricity was gathering, but how was he supposed to unleash it? Maybe he needed this ‘electric guitar’ Erin kept talking about?

The Hob played five more notes and lightning shot down from the sky, blowing Badarrow off his perch and sending his students fleeing. Numbtongue looked up when he heard the screams and raced outside with the others. He paused when he saw Badarrow lying on the ground, weakly waving his arms and legs and stared at the smoldering crater that marked the spot where lightning had struck.

Uh? Uh?

That was all Badarrow said for a while until the color came back to his face. When he did finally manage to sit up and got an explanation from the babbling Goblins around him, he chased Numbtongue about, shouting and kicking at his back. By the time Badarrow had vented his considerable pique, Headscratcher had returned with his group. The Hob slowed to a stop as he ran towards the crowd of Goblins. Sweat was covering his bare chest and he was naked save for a pair of pants and the enchanted axe on his belt.

He’d taken his group on a run. Headscratcher stared at Numbtongue’s guitar as they explained what had happened, and then he nodded.

“Sit?”

The four Hobs present looked at each other. They nodded. Numbtongue looked around.

“One of you find Shorthilt. Tell him we are going to have a war meeting.”

 

—-

 

War meeting. This was another thing they were teaching the Cave Goblins, something the Redfangs had learned from their tribe. The five Hobs sat in their cave while Goblins crowded around them. Many had to sit outside, but whatever was said or done was instantly conveyed to them.

Numbtongue shifted uncomfortably as he sat next to Shorthilt and Rabbiteater. This was an old practice. It was a Redfang tradition after encountering a tough foe in the High Passes. The entire tribe would sit together, just like this and come up with a plan to defeat their enemy—or avoid them. It was just like this, except it wasn’t like this.

Normally Redscar would be…there. Right across from Garen Redfang himself. The best warriors and Hobs would be sitting in the center, with the weaker ones slowly radiating outwards. Instead, it was the five Hobs sitting in the center and all the Cave Goblins watching. It felt different. Wrong. And yet, it was all the Hobs knew.

Headscratcher opened the war council up by clearing his throat. The Hob couldn’t speak the common tongue well, so he defaulted to the Goblin’s tongue and sign language. Only Numbtongue spoke in common for the benefit of his faction.

Lightning attack good. Is good Skill. Not hurt Badarrow is good too.

The other Hobs nodded. Badarrow growled.

Stupid Skill.

Good Skill. Powerful. Like Silver-rank spell. Tier 3.

Shorthilt shook his head. He nodded at Numbtongue who nodded back. Badarrow folded his arms and grunted moodily. Rabbiteater grinned.

Powerful! Can do again? Many times?

No!

All the Hobs reacted when Rabbiteater pointed to the guitar. Numbtongue shook his head.

“It takes a while to work. The Skill is not…convenient. But I think I can do it again. It’s probably stronger on cloudy days.”

The Goblins glanced towards the cave entrance. The rainclouds that haunted Liscor were still pouring. It was definitely a phenomenon of the weather; in their cave outside of Liscor they often got showers, but only in the floodplains were the rains ever-present. Headscratcher nodded.

Is good. Skill good. Could hurt Gargoyles with lightning.

Mm.

The other Hobs nodded. That would be useful. Shorthilt looked around in his seat at the watching Goblins.

Gargoyles tough. But new not-tribes strong. Maybe enough to fight in High Passes?

The other Redfang Warriors considered the question. They glanced at their factions, assessing. Of course, they were all regular Goblins and thus a lot weaker than a tribe with Hobs, but Numbtongue thought that was a temporary situation at best. Recently, several Cave Goblins in his faction had begun eating far more than the others. And some were getting…big.

My warriors strong. Could beat regular Goblins in fight.

Headscratcher nodded decisively. Shorthilt raised his brows.

Good. My group could kill Eater Goats. Maybe.

The two Hobs stared at each other appraisingly. Badarrow rolled his eyes.

Going to High Passes?

He interrupted the beginning of an argument. Both Hobs quieted down. At last, Headscratcher shook his head.

Good food here. Nice…place.

The other Hobs nodded in agreement. This was a nice place. And yet—what came next? They’d agreed on the essentials. Their Goblins were getting stronger. Numbtongue being able to call down lightning however sporadically was good. But what came next?

Fight in dungeon? Hunt down hiding Raskghar? Eat fish? Train?

Rabbiteater counted down their options. The Hobs nodded. Each option sounded good. And yet they knew that these were all transitory activities. Numbtongue was the one to say it.

“When the rains stop, what will we do next? We’re in the middle of the road and close to the city. And Erin cannot feed us forever.”

The other four looked at him with expressions of resignation and dismay. Numbtongue felt guilty himself. Why did he have to say it?

None of them wanted to think about what would happen soon. They knew this wasn’t sustainable; despite Rabbiteater’s faction constantly fishing and Badarrow’s group bringing in food (and Headscratcher occasionally killing something while on his runs), Erin was essentially paying to feed all the Goblins. She was constantly bringing in bags of flour, produce, and so on  through her magic door. And while she claimed she was ‘good for it’ thanks to the bounty Ilvriss had paid out, Numbtongue was aware of how much she had to be spending per day.

“It’s a lot of money.”

He hunched his shoulders. Headscratcher nodded slowly. He looked towards the far end of the cave. There, propped up against the wall, was the door. While the Cave Goblins had placed bedrolls and supplies practically everywhere else, the spot around the door was kept clean and no one was allowed to sleep there. It was like a shrine, although the Goblins had no understanding of what a shrine was. But they venerated the spot nonetheless because of where it led.

Can find more shiny metal in dungeon. Probably.

How much?

Shorthilt wrinkled his nose. The Goblins knew in abstract how much gold was worth, but they hadn’t placed any value on it. The reaction of the adventurers had told them what they’d given away, but the Goblins couldn’t bring themselves to covet the useless, glittering stuff. Headscratcher frowned.

Don’t know. Numbtongue find out? Go get food and check?

He looked carefully at Numbtongue. So did the others. Numbtongue froze.

“Why me?”

The other Hobs rolled their eyes. Only Numbtongue could read, obviously! Rabbiteater kicked Numbtongue in the side and Badarrow leaned over to poke him. Numbtongue growled, but in the end nodded.

“Fine. I’ll see what the menu says. Or ask.”

He stood up. The other Goblins moved back as Numbtongue moved to the door. He glanced back at the other four Hobs as they began to discuss more training and the idea of hunting something bigger down, like a Rock Crab. But that was all for show. He knew that Headscratcher’s idea about finding money to pay Erin with was just that: an idea.

It still didn’t solve the problem. It still didn’t change the fact that there were too many Goblins and they didn’t know what to do. Numbtongue knew that and it weighed on him. Soon, very soon, they would have to do something. He placed his hand on the door and felt the trembling that told him it was connected. He wished, at times, that he wasn’t the only one who could speak Erin’s language. Because that meant that  someday, perhaps very soon, he would have to be the one to tell Erin goodbye.

But for today at least…he stepped through the doorway into The Wandering Inn and inhaled slowly. The air was warm and the inn was bustling. Gnolls and Drakes waited tables while a smattering of people sat and ate. Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, all looked up when Numbtongue stepped through the door. There was a moment of hesitation, but just that. Then they turned back to their food. No one screamed. No one grabbed a weapon. And Numbtongue felt safe here.

That was happiness.

 

—-

 

“Numbtongue! Are you here for today’s lunch? Sorry, it’s not done just yet. I’m showing Pebblesnatch how to make it. Mind waiting for a bit? Can I get you a beer? I have a dark lager.”

“A what?”

“Um…a kind of beer? Here, I’ve marked the keg so I know exactly which kind it is. Hold on, Ishkr, toss me a clean mug! We’re all out over here!”

Numbtongue blinked as Erin waved energetically at a Gnoll heading out of the kitchen. He saw Ishkr toss a mug in a lazy arc at Erin. The [Innkeeper] jumped up for it. And missed.

“Uh oh—”

The Hob snagged the handle of the mug and handed it to Erin. She smiled sheepishly at him.

“Thanks, Numbtongue.”

“You’re…welcome.”

The Hob felt awkward, but Erin just grinned and filled the mug with the dark liquid. She handed it to Numbtongue.

“There. Have a taste and let me know how it is. I think it’s awful, to be honest. But I don’t drink alcohol. [Immunity: Alcohol], you know. I could disable the Skill of course, but what’s the point of drinking alcohol anyways? Fruit juice tastes better.”

“Mm.”

Numbtongue sipped from his mug as he leaned against the bar. The dark lager was indeed not nearly as sweet as an ale or fruit juices, but he thought Erin was doing it a disservice. It was certainly better than stagnant pond water or drinking blood. Actually, if that was your standard than a lager was the greatest drink in the world.

“How’s everyone doing in the caves? Eating enough? Do you need me to go on another supply run? And by me, I mean getting Ishkr and the guys to do it?”

Erin stood and chatted with Numbtongue as they looked at her busy inn. She was busy but not at the same time; there were any number of people Erin could chat to, and she could cook in her kitchen or help wait tables, but she didn’t have to do anything. Her inn staff was now large enough to take on all the roles needed and Lyonette was cooking more and more of the dishes with Mrsha as a ‘taste tester’.

“They’re…good. I learned to play another song.”

Numbtongue decided not to bring up nearly frying Badarrow with lightning. Erin smiled.

“Ooh! Which one?”

“The one about fire.”

“You mean, I See Fire? By Ed Sheeran?”

“Mm. Yes, that one. Good song. Relaxing.”

“You should have seen the music video. It was made for The Hobbit, you know. I really liked those movies, no matter what everyone else said. They’re so long that I could play chess and just watch them on my laptop…but you don’t understand what I’m talking about, right?”

“Nope.”

Numbtongue leaned back, mug in hand. He tried not to smile. Erin’s ramblings were enjoyable to listen to. But he didn’t want to let her know he enjoyed them. The [Innkeeper] shot him a sidelong glance.

“Okay, I know this is a lot, but I’ve explained electric guitars to you, right? Well, you see, movies are these things that run on electricity. Sort of. They’re these pictures that appear on a screen. Like magic. Actually, that’s the best way to describe all of this. It’s all these magic moving images with sound that tell stories. And the Hobbit’s about…oh, hey Pawn!”

Erin broke off and waved. Numbtongue looked over and saw that the magic door had opened to let Pawn and several Soldiers in. Drassi waved them through and then adjusted the door to Celum. She opened it, checked for waiting visitors, and then closed the door. Erin had come up with a rotation system so that no one would be left waiting longer than ten or so minutes in any location. Now Erin smiled at the rain-soaked Antinium.

“Sorry Numbtongue. I’ll be back. Hey Pawn! How are you doing? And hi Yellow Splatters, who’s this pink guy?”

The young woman walked over to greet the Antinium Worker and Soldiers. Numbtongue stayed where he was, sipping his drink and watching. He saw Erin usher the Antinium over to a seat and call for food. Then she began pointing back at him. He saw her return.

“Sorry about that! Where were we?”

Numbtongue blinked at Erin. He glanced at the Antinium, who were alternatively looking at Drassi who was heading towards them with a trio of steaming bowls of soup and at Erin.

“You aren’t going to stay with them?”

Erin frowned.

“Well, yeah, of course I’ll go back to chat. But I was talking with you. We don’t see each other anymore; the least we can do is chat for a bit. You want a snack while we’re chatting?”

“No. Thank you.”

The Hob blinked at Erin. She smiled and took a seat on a bar stool.

“Okay then. Where was I? Movies, that’s right. Let me know if I’m boring you. Or you want to talk. But the thing about movies is—”

She began telling Numbtongue a strange story about small not-Dwarves going on a mission to steal treasure from a Dragon. Interspersed with her commentary, Erin kept interrupting to give Numbtongue context about her home, about a place called Hollywood and why everyone didn’t like the movie as much as the original movie, which was about a bunch of small not-Dwarves going to deliver a ring to a volcano. Numbtongue listened, grunting where appropriate. He was enjoying himself and couldn’t help smiling, so he covered it by drinking two lagers in quick succession.

After a few minutes of chatting both Erin and Numbtongue simultaneously realized they had company. Goblin and Human turned to look at Pawn, who was silently standing behind the bar. Listening to them.

“Uh, hi Pawn. Is something wrong?”

The Worker shook his head. He glanced sideways at Numbtongue.

“No, I am just standing here, Erin. Listening. Please continue.”

Erin wavered. She looked at Pawn and then at Numbtongue.

“Well—okay. But I’m sort of talking to Numbtongue here. It’s not anything secret but—I’ll come over to talk with you guys soon, okay?”

Pawn nodded. He didn’t budge. Erin looked at him.

“Pawn?”

The Worker folded all four of his arms.

“What? I am standing here. I would not wish to take away time from Numbtongue. So I will simply stand and listen here until you have time to join us. Please ignore my presence.”

Erin and Numbtongue exchanged a slow glance.

“Do you want to speak with Lyonette, Pawn?”

The Antinium shook his head.

“She is busy. And I have spoken to her already yesterday. I am perfectly content not speaking with Lyonette. I will just wait here until you are done, please.”

His tone was surprisingly hostile. Numbtongue eyed Pawn warily. He’d never really talked to the Antinium, and the Worker was giving him a long look. Erin narrowed her eyes as she looked from Pawn to Numbtongue. And then, suddenly, she blinked.

“Are you…jealous, Pawn?”

“…Maybe.”

The Worker shuffled his feet. Erin gaped at him, and then laughed.

“Why? I’m only talking with Numbtongue!”

Pawn looked down at his feet.

“Yes. But you talk with the Goblins often. And sometimes it feels as though you speak more with them than with us. Statistically, you spend 271.08% more time with Goblin individuals as a whole than with Antinium.”

“That’s because I talk to the Hobs when they come over, Pawn. And you always bring a crowd. Your statistics are a lie!”

Erin threw up her hands, visibly amused and bemused at the same time. She looked helplessly at Numbtongue.

“I didn’t know the Antinium resented me talking with you guys. Pawn, why didn’t you say anything? And why are you jealous? It’s not like I don’t spend lots of time with you all!”

The Worker looked embarrassed. He muttered as he looked down at the floor.

“It is just that we were the only species you spent time with before they came. Now there are Goblins and we wonder which group you like more. Evidence points to the Goblins being the preferred group.”

What evidence?

“…Circumstantial evidence? You give them beers.”

“That’s because it’s made of wheat! For the love of—come on, Numbtongue, Pawn. We’re going to settle this right now.”

Erin marched the two over to the table with the Soldiers and sat them down. Numbtongue suddenly found himself staring at a bunch of very large Soldiers who were silently eating from their bowls. The largest of them, Yellow Splatters, stared silently at Numbtongue. The Hob had the distinct impression he was being seized up and immediately did the same. He didn’t like what his brain told him.

“Okay, we’re all sitting together now. Goblins and Antinium, see? No one’s being left out.”

Erin sighed as she looked from impassive face to face. Pawn sat in his chair, defiantly sipping from his bowl of soup. The Worker shook his head as he stared at Numbtongue. He had no eyelids, but his look was definitely a glare.

“I don’t think we’re alike. There is very little to support your claims, Miss Erin.”

“Come on, Pawn…at least try.

The Worker hunched his shoulders at the reprimand in Erin’s voice. At last, he opened his mandibles grudgingly.

“We play chess. Do you play chess?”

Numbtongue shook his head. Erin had taught some of the Cave Goblins how to play and Shorthilt had expressed an interest, as had Badarrow, but the game wasn’t for him.

“No. I play music. On the guitar.”

Pawn nodded. He looked at Erin and folded two of his arms.

“There. The judgment is clear. There is no relationship at all.”

Pawn…

The Worker looked huffy but said nothing. But Numbtongue wasn’t gazing at him. He was staring at Yellow Splatters. The Soldier was just inspecting him now. And strangely, Numbtongue thought he did share something in common with the Soldier.

He had heard of the Antinium battling the Raskghar from Erin and Pebblesnatch. He knew not all of them had survived. And in Yellow Splatters he sensed a kindred spirit. The Soldier had no lips. He had no eyelids. He had no nose or eyes that could shed tears. But Numbtongue sensed that he too was a fellow warrior that had seen the battlefield. So the Hob hesitated, and then broke his cardinal rule of standoffishness. He looked at the Soldier—at the other seven Soldiers sitting at the table and spoke slowly.

“Dying hurts. Friends dying…hurts.”

Pawn and Erin both froze. The Soldiers just looked at Numbtongue. As one, they lowered their bowls of soup. The Hob nodded.

“You fought Raskghar. We respect that. They killed many, many Goblins. Soldiers killed many Raskghar. Fought bravely. Respect.”

He tapped a fist against his chest. Yellow Splatters stared at Numbtongue. Then, suddenly, the Soldier brought up his fist and copied the gesture. His chitin clicked softly as it met his chest. Pawn gaped.

Numbtongue eyed Yellow Splatters’ bowl. The Soldier hesitated, then pushed the bowl to him. He heard a gasp from Erin, but didn’t hesitate. Carefully, Numbtongue raised the bowl and took a sip.

It was good. A hearty fish broth of some kind, made very spicy. Numbtongue found a chunk of fish and chewed it. He slid the bowl back to Yellow Splatters and nodded.

“Food is good.”

“It is.”

Pawn spoke quietly. His animosity of earlier was forgotten as he stared between Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. The Hob and Soldier sat together. Then Numbtongue smiled. Yellow Splatters’ mandibles moved up slightly. Erin held her breath. Pawn looked between the two and his entire posture relaxed. He seemed to sigh, and then raised his voice.

“…Did you say you played music?

 

—-

 

Half an hour later, Erin circled her inn, waiting on tables, talking to Olesm and Zevara who were quite busy for some reason, and glancing at the table with the Goblin and Antinium. They were engaged in a conversation that was as much sign language as verbal communication. They’d been talking non-stop for a while now, and Erin had to admit, she was a bit lonely.

After they’d broken the ice, Numbtongue and Pawn had begun to talk so much that she’d barely been able to get a word in. And they’d been so engrossed that they had barely noticed when she’d left.

“Huh. That’s actually sort of hurtful.”

Erin muttered as she walked into her kitchen. She looked around and saw a Cave Goblin standing at the stove. Pebblesnatch was stirring the pot with a big spoon. The Cave Goblin was wearing a big chef’s hat that Erin had bought for her and an apron. Erin smiled.

“Pebblesnatch, how’s the soup?”

The Goblin looked over and grinned at Erin. She held a clawed thumb up. Erin went over and smelled the soup.

“Ooh. That’s good. Yeah, we’re ready to send it back. Can you take the pot? You’re sure? It’s not too heavy? Okay, then.”

She walked back into the inn. Numbtongue was playing guitar at his table, much to the amazement of the enraptured Antinium. Erin felt bad, but the soup was hot and she knew the other Goblins got upset if they had to wait. Reluctantly, Erin raised her voice.

Hey, Numbtongue! Order up!

The Hob looked over. He reluctantly abandoned his guitar and came over. The Antinium stood as well.

“I’m sorry guys, but I’ve got lunch for the other Goblins.”

“We understand. But perhaps we could come back tomorrow? To talk?”

Pawn looked at Numbtongue. The Hob smiled. So did Erin.

“I’m sure the Goblins could join you at any time. But for now—Pebblesnatch?”

The Cave Goblin trundled out of the kitchen holding the big pot between two gloves. Erin let her come over and offered Numbtongue a bowl of the soup.

“This is fishy minestrone soup with a side of hot garlic bread. Share it; Pebblesnatch can teach the others how to make more, okay? Oh, and take some baking soda. And some flour. Krshia just sent me a shipment via boat. And you’ll need some vegetables. Oh, and pepper. And do you have enough plates?”

Numbtongue grunted an affirmative and sighed as Erin began grabbing things to hand him. He glanced back at the Antinium and saw Pawn wave. He waved back and then began balancing the mass of objects Erin wanted him to carry through the door.

“Sorry, I know you wanted to chat, but I remember you telling me how there was a big fight last time the food was late. If you want to come back, I can open the door—”

“No. We talked enough. They will come back and we will talk more. With the others.”

Numbtongue grunted. His arms were trembling a bit despite himself. Did Erin have to make him carry everything at once? The [Innkeeper] fumbled with the mana stones in the bowl.

“Okay. I’m really glad you two liked each other. Hold on—the door’s nearly open. Give my best to the others! Tell them to come through sometime! Obviously not with all the Goblins but—hey, we should do a Goblins-only night at the inn sometime!”

“Yes. Good idea. Goodbye.”

Numbtongue edged through the open door. He heard Pebblesnatch follow him and then he was immediately beset by all sides.

“Food!”

Headscratcher roared as he lifted a sack of flour from Numbtongue’s arms. He passed it to a group of Cave Goblins who spirited the sack to Rabbiteater’s waiting cooking team. Pebblesnatch growled and spat and kicked to keep the other Cave Goblins clear of her bowl.

“You know how to make?”

Rabbiteater looked at Pebblesnatch as she put down the pot in the center of the room. The Cave Goblin adjusted her hat importantly and nodded. She marched out of the cave importantly, already screeching orders at the others. As the one Cave Goblin allowed to stay in Erin’s inn, she was practically as important as the Hobs.

“What is?”

Shorthilt pointed with interest at the multi-colored soup as other Cave Goblins jostled for a look. Numbtongue shrugged.

“Minestrone soup. With fish. Also garlic bread. It has garlic in it and butter.”

The Hob chortled as Numbtongue showed him the buttered bread. Immediately all six sat down and began dividing the bowls amongst themselves. Some of the other Cave Goblins fought for a place, but they let the Hobs fill their bowls and grab the hot bread first before taking their share.

That was how it worked. Erin brought some freshly-made food for the Hobs and some of the Cave Goblins and let Pebblesnatch disseminate the recipe for the rest of the Goblins to cook in a huge batch. The Hobs began eating greedily, tearing into the bread and dipping it into the soup, trying to both savor the food and scarf it down at once. As they ate, Numbtongue related his exchange with the Antinium to his interested audience.

“Good fighters.”

Headscratcher nodded as he chewed a big mouthful. The Hobs practiced speaking the common tongue with Numbtongue when they could. Headscratcher smiled when Numbtongue told him the Antinium could read Goblin sign language almost as well as Goblins. And he smiled wider when Numbtongue told him about Erin’s fascination with dark lager.

“We get keg? It taste good?”

“I’ll ask at dinner. It’s tasty.”

“How much cost? In coins?”

Numbtongue froze. He swallowed slowly and avoided meeting Shorthilt’s eyes.

“Um…I forgot to ask.”

The Shorthilt tsked. He reached over and jabbed him in the side. The others laughed and chucked tomato bits at Numbtongue. Numbtongue yelped and glared, but endured the Hob’s laughter and ribbing. Rabbiteater sipped from his bowl and frowned.

“Good. But add more salt?”

“No. You put in your bowl. Stupid.”

Badarrow slapped Rabbiteater’s claws away from pot. Sighing, the newly-minted [Champion] added the coarse grains of salt to his bowl. The other Hobs kicked him silently. Rabbiteater liked things too salty. Headscratcher filled up his third bowl, smiling with delight.

“Good. Make more!”

His comment was aimed at the cooking team who was already hard at work gathering water, deboning fish, and so on. The Hobs kept eating, listening to the loud chattering and Pebblesnatch shouting orders and sometimes insults at the Goblins as they prepared the meal for the others—until suddenly, everything went silent outside.

All five Hobs froze in place. The sounds of Goblins cooking and milling about had cut off abruptly. Something was wrong. Headscratcher set down his bowl and Numbtongue reached for his sword and guitar. The others stood up and the Cave Goblins scrambled for their weapons as well. They stared towards the cave entrance. Had the Goblins spotted something? Monsters? Or an adventurer? If it was an attack they’d be fleeing inside and screaming. But what—

Something moved at the mouth of the cave, blocking the sunshine. It was tall, and moved forwards slowly. Cautiously. The Hobs held still as they waited. Numbtongue’s claws hovered over the strings of his guitar. Badarrow slowly put an arrow to his bowstring. And then they saw whatever it was step into view. All five Redfang Warriors, all the Cave Goblins, paused.

A Hobgoblin stood in the entrance to their cave. He was tall, as tall as Headscratcher and lean. His muscle stood out on his bare chest  and he wore only a long-hanging loincloth and belt. His body had many scars and the Hobgoblin carried a greatsword on his back, a steel blade notched and dinged in places but still straight as an arrow. But what stood out about him most was his beard.

It was grey. And long. It ran down onto his chest in a wispy point. It was slightly matted and dirty from the road. But it was a beard.

The other Goblins stared. They had never seen a Goblin with a beard. Not the Cave Goblins or even the Redfang Warriors. They had never seem a Goblin with facial hair of any kind, to begin with. Some had hair, but a beard? It was so strange.

For a second the Redfang Warriors were amazed. But then they were wary. They stood up slowly as the Hob stood in the entrance to the cave. He wasn’t making any dangerous moves, but there was only one thing he could be.

A wandering Hob. They were rare, but it did happen. Goblins who left their tribes or were the only remnants of a tribe destroyed would wander about, looking for new homes. Generally they would be killed or assimilated into the first tribe willing to have them, but wandering Hobs were different.

Some were outcasts who had challenged their Chieftain and failed. Others were simply independent by nature and trusted to their own strength to live alone. In any event, they could be dangerous as they obeyed no Chieftain of their own. Garen Redfang had been challenged by many wanderers searching for fame or wanting to control his tribe. Had this one come to steal the Goblin’s supplies or fight them for leadership?

All eyes fixed on the old Hob, waiting for him to make the first move. He looked around slowly, not reaching for the greatsword on his back. The Hob caught sight of the five Redfang Warriors and raised his claws. Slowly, he reached for his belt and pulled something off it. He tossed the bag towards the Redfangs Warriors. It landed with a soft thump, scaring away the Cave Goblins near it. The bag was open slightly and from it leaked a familiar odor. Numbtongue was closest. He carefully walked over and bent to pick it up. He opened the bag and pulled out what was inside.

A wheel of goat’s cheese. It was soft, crumbly, and a slice of it had been cut out. It must have been the old Hob’s food on the road. He was giving it to them as a peace offering.

It wasn’t a challenge. The Goblins relaxed as one. Numbtongue looked at Headscratcher. The Hob blinked and realized he was being asked to say something. So he spoke.

Old one, come. Eat.

The bearded Hob had been looking warily at the Hobs, but at the invitation his face broke into a smile. He walked over and took a seat, bowing his head and cackling thanks as Numbtongue offered him a bowl. The Cave Goblins watched the old Hob warily, but they soon picked up on what was happening.

The Redfangs made room and offered the Hob a seat around the steaming pot. Numbtongue broke the cheese and placed it in his bowl with some bread. It went well with the garlic bread. Meanwhile the old Hob was smiling as he received a bowl of soup loaded to the top and a big heel of bread.

Very kind! Chieftain is generous!

He smiled and bobbed his head to Headscratcher. The Hob blinked, but didn’t correct Greybeard right away. He hesitated and looked at his companions, wondering what to say. It was Shorthilt who took the lead this time.

Old Hob is wanderer? I Shorthilt.”

“Greybeard. Yes, this old Hob wanders far. You have name? Is good name.”

He grinned at Shorthilt, showing a few missing teeth. The other Redfangs introduced themselves. Greybeard nodded to each in turn.

Did not think tribe would be here! Saw Goblins cooking, came by. Many days travel! Hungry for good food! This best food!

He gobbled his soup, smacking his lips loudly. The Redfangs nodded proudly. This was indeed the best food they’d ever had, bar none. Garen had kept the tribe fed, well, most of them, but he hadn’t bothered with cooking much.

What brings old wanderer down here?

I travel far. No tribe. No home. So I go south. Hear of big fight north. Bad-death north. Many Goblins running from Humans. So I go south. Hear strange things of Goblins in dungeon. Come here.

Greybeard explained as he refilled his bowl. He pointed at the soup, still agog.

Good food! You make?

The Redfangs exchanged a quick glance. Numbtongue lied for them.

Yes.

It was too hard to explain Erin to another Goblin. Greybeard didn’t seem to notice the moment of hesitation.

Amazing! Good-good food! Best tribe food I ever eat! What is this tribe? Never knew one was here. Thought Flooded Waters tribe was, but Flooded Waters is gone.

The Redfangs froze at the mention of Rags’ tribe. They exchanged a quick glance. What was their tribe? Numbtongue thought quickly.

 “This is…Wandering Inn tribe. New tribe. Very new. Many Goblins come. From dungeon?

From dungeon? Where?

Greydath listened with opened mouth as the Redfangs gave him an abridged version of events that had led to them taking control. He shook his head.

Bad not-Gnolls? Big dungeon full of invisible-death? Too much for old Hob like me. But young Hobs very strong! Very strong!

He patted Rabbiteater on the shoulder, pointing at the Hob’s cloak which had transformed into a cloudy soup-cloak. Only, there weren’t any vegetables or chunks of fish in the cloak, just somewhat opaque broth. Some of the Cave Goblins were dipping their bowls into it even so. Rabbiteater preened a bit. Numbtongue rolled his eyes. He offered Greybeard the last of the garlic bread.

Old one, eat more. We have lots. You give cheese, we feed. Where are you going? Travelling south? Much rain and water to swim through. Dangerous fish-monsters too.

Greybeard accepted the bread gratefully. He tore into it with his good teeth as he replied.

Maybe go south. Maybe. Not stay long and eat tribe’s food. Very generous, but not stay. Not unless…Chieftain needs old Hobs? Can fight.

He glanced at Headscratcher quizzically, hope illuminating his craggy features. Headscratcher hesitated. This time he replied awkwardly.

Old one is wrong. I not Chieftain. Wandering Inn tribe…have no Chieftain.

The other Redfangs looked at Headscratcher. He could have accepted the role and they wouldn’t have denied it. But Headscratcher clearly felt as they did. They had no Chieftain, and this wasn’t a tribe. Unless…was Erin…?

The old Hob choked on his garlic bread in surprise. He coughed and spat out a hunk onto a Cave Goblin, who promptly ate it.

No Chieftain? How so many Goblins, then? All should run off!

The Hobs shrugged. That was the mystery, wasn’t it? By all rights they should have created a Chieftain or disbanded. But perhaps it was the Cave Goblins being used to multiple Raskghar masters that had kept them functioning as a tribe without a Chieftain.

Don’t know. But tribe is good. Has good food. And getting stronger. If you want to stay…could stay? At least few days.

Numbtongue looked at the others for support. It was a risk, but the old Hob seemed friendly and he looked battle-scarred and tired from the road. The other Redfangs nodded, albeit a bit hesitantly. Badarrow glanced towards the door and raised his eyebrows at Numbtongue.

What about Erin? What about the inn?

Numbtongue made a face, taking care not to let Greybeard see. He flicked his claws towards the cave’s entrance.

We can keep him in another cave, not show him Erin.

Then he shrugged.

Or show her.

She would probably like the old Hob. Badarrow nodded slowly. Greydath had missed the entire quick exchange. He looked around and then nodded rapidly, beaming eagerness.

Will stay. Will work hard! I know many tricks. Can teach. Maybe help even strong, young warrior Hobs!

Good! Old Hob should sit, though. Is long road. Sit and watch!

Headscratcher beamed and slapped Greydath on the back. Then he looked at the other Hobs. They’d eaten their fill and were sitting around in post-meal content. However, there was a look in Headscratcher’s eyes that Numbtongue recognized.

Should show old Goblin and Cave Goblins our tricks! Fight!

He glanced challengingly at Shorthilt. Instantly, Numbtongue wanted to slap himself. He realized he’d missed something in the time he’d been sitting in Erin’s inn. Shorthilt stood up slowly and gave Headscratcher a slow grin.

Good idea.

Resigned, Numbtongue looked over at Rabbiteater and poked him for confirmation. When the Hob looked over Numbtongue rolled his eyes and pressed together his forefingers. Rabbiteater sighed and nodded.

That said it all, really. Headscratcher and Shorthilt were friends, but they were fellow warriors as well. And they were easily the best at physical combat of the five Redfangs. Badarrow was dangerous too of course, but in his own way. And Headscratcher and Shorthilt couldn’t be more dissimilar in how they fought. Shorthilt would use the best weapon he could find and use it with precise, killing strikes. Headscratcher by contrast favored big, heavy weapons and battered his opponents down, as befit his [Berserker] class.

Normally they got along fine, but their recent class changes and the rivalry between their sub-tribes had ignited their sense of competition. Now they wanted to prove who was better. Numbtongue rolled his eyes. Was this a good idea? But then he glanced at Rabbiteater who was stretching and he had to admit. He was a bit curious.

The Redfang had sparred every day at Erin’s inn and on the road. They knew the order of strength. It went like this: Shorthilt, Headscratcher, Numbtongue, Rabbiteater, Badarrow with physical weapons, but Badarrow was really closer to the top since he could shoot arrows. But now they all had different classes.

And Rabbiteater was a [Champion]. As the Hobs and Cave Goblins trooped outside and saw countless Goblins eating in the sun from the boiling pots, they began changing their gear. Numbtongue unbuckled the precious steel sword that Erin had bought for him and checked the quality of the leather armor he was wearing. Headscratcher put on some padding and then a dented breastplate salvaged from the Raskghar’s armory as well as a helmet. Badarrow and Shorthilt declined to wear armor to begin with and so just kept stretching. And Rabbiteater changed into his chainmail.

Greybeard and the Cave Goblins gasped when Rabbiteater put on the rusted and slightly holey chainmail. As it slid over his shoulders it changed, growing longer to fit him precisely, and the missing patches closed together. The chainmail even looked lighter and when Rabbiteater turned, it shone as if he’d polished it with oil. His sword looked just as beautiful when he unsheathed it, but when he laid it on the ground it turned back, growing shorter and developing a slight warp in the blade.

[Champion’s Gear]. Numbtongue eyed Rabbiteater enviously. Meanwhile, Shorthilt was giving the other Hob the stink eye. One of Rabbiteater’s new Skills made it so that everything he held became stronger, more durable. Sharper. It made someone like Shorthilt who coveted the best blades and religiously maintained his gear envious. And Rabbiteater also had [Grand Slash].

He’d always been one of the weakest of the Hobs in a fight. But now, was he better than Numbtongue? He might be. Numbtongue was a [Bard]. But was he better than Headscratcher? Than Shorthilt? Rabbiteater accepted a club from one of his followers and Numbtongue watched as the crude wood grew thicker and visibly sturdier in his hands. Numbtongue turned as his faction cheered loudly for him, sitting down in a wide ring as the other four Hobs prepared as well. With his liquid cloak and his enhanced body armor he looked like…an adventurer.

“Give me an axe. And shield.”

Numbtongue muttered to one of his Goblins. The Cave Goblin scurried off and came back with a crude stone hatchet and shield made of bark and wood. Numbtongue nodded. Greybeard called to him as he strode to the center of the circle.

No use sharp weapons?

“No. It’s too dangerous.”

Numbtongue shook his head. While the other Hobs had kept the armor they would use in a real fight, they wouldn’t spar with naked blades. They were too strong and they could kill or maim each other with an incautious strike. Badarrow would use arrows without tips and the other Hobs would use sticks or blunt stone weapons.

Sparring! We prove who is best fighter!

Headscratcher called out to Shorthilt, lifting his axe with two hands. Shorthilt smiled and twirled the long quarterstaff he’d picked out.

Fine. We fight. Ready?

Badarrow grunted. He took a position farther back as Rabbiteater grinned, clearly nervous. He locked eyes with Numbtongue who set himself with his axe and shield in hand.

Ready.

The Redfangs tensed. They stared at each other in silence as their audience watched with baited breath. There was no one who shouted ‘go’. One second the Hobs were tensed, the next all five charged as one. Numbtongue raced towards Rabbiteater. He saw something fly at his head and lifted his shield, snarling as he blocked one of Badarrow’s missiles. He lifted his axe as Rabbiteater charged him.  He raised his club, ready to strike—

[Grand Slash]!

That was all Numbtongue heard for a while. Eventually he landed on his back and realized he’d fallen down. After some more time he realized that he really hurt. He got up shakily and saw Rabbiteater was advancing on Numbtongue, using his cloak as cover. Numbtongue stared at Rabbiteater, heard the groans of Goblins and cheering and saw Greybeard cackling as he pointed at Numbtongue. The Hob groaned and lay back down on the ground.

After some Cave Goblins had dragged him off the field, Numbtongue saw the rest of the battle play out fairly predictably. Confronted with Rabbiteater’s cloak, Badarrow couldn’t do much more than retreat from the Hob. He did manage to hit Rabbiteater a few times, but ultimately went down to the [Champion]’s club just like Numbtongue.

At the same time Headscratcher and Shorthilt were dueling, trading blows and dodging back faster and faster, trying to get an edge. Overconfident or perhaps thinking he could join forces with one or the other, Rabbiteater charged towards them—

And was promptly laid out flat by a joint attack from both sides. He stumbled off to one side as the duel between Headscratcher and Shorthilt got hotter. Headscratcher roared as he swung his axe, forcing Shorthilt to retreat. He was stronger and faster than he’d ever been! The trouble was that Shorthilt was too.

And he had a quarterstaff. The weapon gave him reach on Headscratcher, and an edge. Time and again, Shorthilt would batter the Hob from afar, keeping a respectable distance or spinning the staff to his Headscratcher from an unexpected angle. And the more times he struck, the angrier Headscratcher got. And accordingly, the stronger he became.

The breaking point came when Headscratcher charged Shorthilt, ignoring the blow that struck him on one shoulder and struck at the other Hob’s chest with a roar. Shorthilt blocked with his quarterstaff in desperation. The sturdy wooden shaft splintered as Headscratcher connected—and so did Headscratcher’s axe. The crude wood couldn’t bear the strain and so both weapons broke with cracks that sounded like thunderclaps.

“Draw!”

Numbtongue shouted, laughing as Shorthilt backed up. The [Weapon Expert] grinned, raising his hands, but Headscratcher didn’t. The [Berserker]’s eyes flashed. He charged Shorthilt with a roar and tackled the Hob to the ground. Then he sat on Shorthilt’s chest and began pounding at his face!

Stop! You win!

Shorthilt shouted, exasperated and angry. He blocked Headscratcher’s punches as Numbtongue and Badarrow shouted for him to get off. But Headscratcher didn’t stop. He roared as he struck Shorthilt repeatedly, and his punches weren’t for show. The other Redfang Warriors froze up as they realized he’d lost control.

Stop! Stop!

Rabbiteater ran towards Headscratcher. He tackled the bigger Hob, but Headscratcher threw him off. Badarrow swore and the Cave Goblins swarmed around Headscratcher, trying to drag him off Shorthilt whose arms were rapidly failing him. But Headscratcher was lost to his fury. Numbtongue looked around desperately. What could he do?

Guitar!

Rabbiteater scrambled up and threw the guitar at Numbtongue. The [Bard] caught the instrument, eyes widening. Of course! Music to sooth the savage beast! He put his claws on the strings, blinked, and then had a better idea. He charged over to Headscratcher and brought the guitar down on the back of Headscratcher’s head. He heard a crackle of electricity, a roar of pain, and then silence.

Slowly, Headscratcher rolled off of Shorthilt. The other Hob sat up slowly, spitting out blood that ran from his bleeding nose and cut face. He stared at Headscratcher as the [Berserker] stared at his bloody fists. It wasn’t all Shorthilt’s blood. He’d cut his skin open with his wild punches.

All the other Goblins stared at Headscratcher as well. They backed away from him as he looked around. Headscratcher looked desperate, shocked, and then terribly, terribly guilty. He looked at Numbtongue as blood dripped down from his hands. Numbtongue didn’t know what to say. But then he heard someone else speak.

“Now I see. You five are a fragment, aren’t you?”

The voice was unfamiliar. And it was speaking in the common tongue! Numbtongue whirled around. He saw Greybeard standing behind him. The old Hobgoblin was grinning. And he’d drawn his greatsword. He gestured at Headscratcher, at Shorthilt who’d gotten to his feet and was frozen in using one of the healing potions Erin had given them.

“I dreamed of five not-Chieftains. Of five seeds not grown. And I did not know why. Now I do. You aren’t independent. You’re copying your tribe. But what worked when you were lowly warriors isn’t working now. You are too large to be common Goblins, but you haven’t grown into your new roles. You are incomplete and so you are fragments. And these lost children are just like you.”

Greybeard walked forwards. The Goblins around him drew back slowly. Everything about him was different. The way he walked, the way he spoke—before he had appeared old, tired, broken down. Now he was confident. And dangerous. Numbtongue stared at Greybeard in shock. The Hobgoblin looked at him as if he were a speck and went on.

“Everything about you is awkward. You still move uncomfortably in your new bodies. And you—you can’t even control your class.”

He pointed at Headscratcher. The Hob jerked. He looked uneasily at Greybeard.

“Old one. What are…? You are different, Greybeard. How?”

“Not Greybeard. Greydath of Blades.

The old Goblin shook his head. The name meant nothing to the five Redfang Warriors. But they shivered when they heard it, as if something in them did know. Greydath studied the five, staring from face to face.

“Not children. Not slaves. Not traitors. And not cowards either. Fragments? No. There is a better word for you. I do not know it yet. But you are too weak. And too content.”

He shook his head, looking annoyed. Numbtongue found his voice at last. He scowled at Greydath, though every instinct was telling him to back up, despite the Goblin being out of reach.

“Old one, what are you talking about? Why did you lie to us? We offered you food. Put down your sword.”

Greydath ignored him. He leaned on the tip of his greatsword and spoke, almost conversationally.

“I watched you five for a day. Train. Eat. Sleep. Good enough for other species, but not for Goblins. You are complacent. Lazy. And it is her fault.”

He nodded back towards the cave.

“Who is that Human you speak to? The one who visits your cave? The one in the inn with the magic door. She is not your master. Is she your friend? A friend to Goblins? It is because of her you are holding back. You are relying on her too much.”

He knew about Erin. He had been watching them. Numbtongue felt a thrill of unease run through him. He looked over and saw Badarrow staring at Greydath. The Hob slowly backed up and Numbtongue saw he was going for his quiver of real arrows. Greydath glanced at Badarrow and the Hob froze. But Greydath just grinned.

“Grab your arrows, archer. But tell me. That Human you love so much—if I tried to kill her, would you stop me? Would you fight your own kind for her? Is she your Chieftain? Or is she just convenient? Do you want to bed her? Or do you want her to turn you into Humans?

Badarrow froze. His face twisted into a snarl and he lifted the quiver. Quick as a flash he drew an arrow tipped with steel and aimed it at Greydath.

Stay away from her.

Greydath turned his back on Badarrow as if the drawn arrow were nothing but an empty threat. He looked at the others. Headscratcher and Shorthilt slowly stepped back. And they too were reaching for their weapons.

“Erin is…good. She is a friend. A friend to Goblins. No one hurts her.”

Shorthilt spoke slowly. He drew his steel sword. Headscratcher nodded. He had his enchanted axe.

“Put down sword, old one. Go…go away.”

“Or what?

Greydath’s words were a challenge. And then a sigh. He looked at Numbtongue as the Hob lifted the guitar. Greydath swung his greatsword around effortlessly with one hand, scattering the Cave Goblins around him.

“Could you stop me, children? Show me what you five can do.”

“We don’t want to fight.”

Numbtongue wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or if he was lying. Greydath had tricked them. He’d eaten their food, pretended to be someone he was not. Was that Goblin? Surely not! And he had threatened to hurt Erin. That was unforgivable. But something in Numbtongue told him fighting was a bad idea. Greydath grinned at him.

“You don’t? But I do.

He spun and raised his sword. Badarrow’s arrow glanced off his sword and Shorthilt leapt forwards at the same time as Headscratcher. Greydath whirled his greatsword as Rabbiteater came from the other side. Numbtongue was slowest as he charged the Hob with nothing but his guitar for a club. He saw Greydath blur, and then Headscratcher was lying on the ground, Shorthilt was stumbling back, and Rabbiteater whuffed as the flat of the greatsword swung into his ribs, knocking him sideways.

Numbtongue gaped, and then swung as hard as he could. He saw Greydath’s head blur around the base of his guitar, and then the Hob was gripping him with a hand like an iron vice.

“A [Bard] does not fight like that, child.”

Then Numbtongue was flying again. He landed and rolled, feeling his back sting with the impact. When he got up, Greydath was dueling Shorthilt and Rabbiteater, laughing as they tried to stab him from both sides. He deflected both blades, dodged an arrow, and then blocked Headscratcher’s slash. His old greatsword deflected the enchanted axe head with ease.

“Slow, too slow! You think you’re strong because you defeated monsters? You are weak. Any Gold-rank adventurer would eat you. Show me more, lost Hobs! Show me strength!

He brought his sword down and Shorthilt tried to parry. Instead, the greatsword flattened him. Shorthilt stared up at the sky, dazed, as Numbtongue ran forwards again. This time Greydath just sent the guitar spinning from Numbtongue’s grip with a flick of his sword. Headscratcher bellowed as he swung his axe horizontally at waist-height.

Duck!

Numbtongue threw himself flat at the same time as Rabbiteater. The magical axe cut through the air as Headscratcher roared. Numbtongue felt the tip pass over his head. He looked up and saw Greydath’s eyes narrow. The Hob leaned back until his entire body practically touched the ground. The axe passed straight above his chest. Then Greydath pulled himself upright. Headscratcher stumbled as the force of the blow carried him off-balance. He brought the axe back up and Greydath kicked him.

Headscratcher flew. Numbtongue saw the Hob launch off the ground and into the air, as if he were a bird. He crashed into a group of Goblins heavily. And Greydath laughed. He turned as another arrow shot at his back and caught the shaft. Badarrow lowered his bow in disbelief. With one hand, Greydath cracked the arrow in two.

“You are weak, archer. Weak. Your arrows can kill only by surprise, only by numbers. All of you are weak. [Champion]? I have seen Goblin [Champions] and they were legends.”

He spat at Rabbiteater’s feet. Slowly, the Redfang Warriors got up. They looked at each other, and the same knowledge filled all of their eyes. Whomever this Greydath was, he was far beyond their level. He wasn’t taking this seriously at all.

The sinking feeling in Numbtongue’s chest was familiar. It was his instincts pointing out everything he knew. It told him that they were outmatched. It felt like Garen Redfang was standing in front of Numbtongue and they were small Goblins again. But what could they do?

“Stop—”

Numbtongue croaked. Greydath looked at him. Numbtongue raised his voice.

“Stop. We do not want to fight. There is no reason. No point.”

Greydath’s eyes flashed.

“There is all the reason. You think you are safe, Numbtongue of the Redfang tribe. But you are not. And until you believe, my work is not done. You must become more. You and all the Goblins. Even your glorious Chieftain.”

“Garen?”

Numbtongue’s chest felt tight. Greydath nodded. He smiled wide, showing his pointed teeth.

“I met your Chieftain. You still think you are from his tribe, aren’t you? Garen Redfang. I met him and challenged him. We fought.”

“And?”

The five Redfangs stared at Greydath. The Cave Goblins were just confused. Greydath shrugged casually. Arrogantly.

“He could not best me. I humbled him.”

They wanted not to believe. They wanted to say Greydath was lying. But the Redfang Warriors couldn’t. For all of Greydath’s earlier deceit, everything about his body language now told them he was telling the truth. And they way he’d moved—even Garen couldn’t move like that.

Had he really beaten Garen? Numbtongue felt a fire burning inside him. His hand tightened on his sword’s hilt this time. Greydath grinned at him.

“Not enough? Fine then. The Human girl.”

“Don’t—”

Headscratcher made a strangled noise. Greydath turned. He stared out across the basin filled with water at the distant shape of Liscor. And then at the tiny inn on the hill. The rain had stopped. The Goblins could see the inn clearly from here. So could Greydath. He looked back at them.

“If I kill her, you would not change. But if I hurt her, would you grow stronger?”

Numbtongue didn’t realize he’d run forwards. He didn’t hear the scream until it left his mouth. He swung his sword at Greydath’s head and the Goblin blocked. He grinned as Numbtongue’s hand quivered, straining and the sword rang from the impact.

“Better. But not enough. Shall we make a game of it? Chase me, you five. And you five alone. Scratch me and I won’t hurt her. Fail, and I’ll cut her once.”

He leapt away as Headscratcher jumped at him with a roar. Greydath ran, laughing as all five Hobs ran after them. There was no time to plan, no strategy. Badarrow loosed arrows at the running Hob as the other four ran after him. Greydath charged to the water’s edge, running twice as fast as his pursuers. He leapt into the water and began swimming. The Hobs followed.

The water was cold and things darted away as Numbtongue dove in. He swam hard, not caring if he attracted attention. All of his focus, all of his being was on catching up to Greydath. But the Hob was fast. He swam through the water like a fish himself, until suddenly he vanished upwards. Numbtongue’s head broke the water and he saw Greydath standing on one of the hills above the water line. The Hob had drawn his greatsword.

“Come! Stop me!”

He was laughing as the five Hobs emerged from the water onto the hill. They didn’t wait for Greydath to say anything more. They charged with a roar. This time they went for the kill. They surrounded Greydath, striking together, aiming for his head, his arms, his legs—desperately trying to cut him. Just once.

They failed. Greydath was a whirlwind of steel, too quick to catch. He knocked them back into the water and leapt into the air. Before they could stop him he was swimming to the next island. The Hobs looked at each other and then dove in after him. Greydath was waiting by the time they reached the next hill that stood above the water. Again they fought. And again he defeated them, untouched by their desperate blades. Again he fled and again the Hobs pursued. But each time they caught up to him they were more tired, and each time they drew closer and closer to the inn.

It was a game to him. Numbtongue could hear Greydath laughing. The weary Hobs swam desperately after him, staggered onto the hill, fought—and failed. Greydath kicked Numbtongue back into the waters as the Hob tried to tackle him. He struck Shorthilt with the pommel of his greatsword, mocked Badarrow by snatching his arrows out of the air. And he laughed as if this was all some game.

But he was going to hurt her. Hurt Erin. So the Hobs chased him. But now they knew they couldn’t scratch Greydath. They were growing tired and he—he looked as fresh as he had when they had first locked blades. He was closing in on the hill where The Wandering Inn lay now. They were seven hills away. Six. Five.

Four.

“Stop. We will change. Don’t hurt her.”

Numbtongue gasped as he tried to cut at Greydath’s legs. The old Goblin grinned and shifted, letting the sword Shorthilt had tossed out of desperation miss him by inches.

“You say that. But you will not. Not unless you have no choice. You are too soft otherwise. And she is too bright. You think I do not know what you feel? You think other Goblins have not met ones like her? But she is not forever, Numbtongue. She cannot protect you. And worse, you cannot protect her.”

Greydath’s mocking smile vanished for a second. He looked down at Numbtongue as the Hob panted, straining to push Greydath’s blade back.

“If you could, I would think twice. But happiness for one Goblin is despair for all. You must change, boy. And if it means pain, then it must be. That is why I came here. Hate me. But—”

The old Hobgoblin looked up sharply. He spun, and twisted as an arrow flashed past him. For a second Numbtongue thought that Badarrow had somehow gotten the drop on Greydath, but the angle was all wrong! It had come from above and from the direction of—

The inn? Numbtongue whirled and saw another arrow curve around him. Greydath frowned and deflected the arrow. He stared towards the inn. Towards the top of the inn, and the lone figure standing there with bow in hand.

Bird. The Antinium [Archer] was a faint silhouette at this distance. But as Numbtongue watched, he was a flicker in the air. A third arrow shot towards Greydath. The Goblin dodged left, and the arrow curved to catch him.

“Antinium.”

Greydath sliced the arrow in half. He looked around and twisted. Badarrow cursed as his arrow went wide. Numbtongue stood straighter. He charged Greydath and Headscratcher lunged up from his hiding place on the far side of the hill. Greydath knocked them into the water. He grinned.

“Who is she? She has Antinium defending her inn. She’s tamed that one and you. What is she? Where does she come from?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Shorthilt rose, water dripping from his blade. Another arrow sped from the inn’s tower. This time Greydath had to dodge Shorthilt’s blade as he cut Bird’s arrow; he couldn’t dodge them. But still, the old Goblin didn’t seem concerned. If anything he seemed to relish the challenge.

“Better and better! You five plus the Antinium! Come!”

He dove into the water again. Bird fired an arrow, but somehow Greydath dodged underwater. Numbtongue stared at the tower. He waved his arms desperately. Somehow Bird could tell they were fighting Greydath. But he had to warn Erin!

Unfortunately, his signal didn’t seem to register with Bird. The Antinium kept loosing arrows at Greydath as the Goblin appeared on another hill. The Redfang Warriors pursued him, hope desperately rising in their chests. Maybe if they had Bird’s help, maybe then—

No. It was impossible. On the third hilltop, Greydath stood over the panting Hobs. He shook his head. They were too exhausted, too beaten to raise themselves. He blocked the arrow Bird shot at the back of his head dismissively.

“Look at you. The same as that hollow black thing sitting in the tower. Are you Goblins? Or just that Human’s…pets?

“No. We are her…friends.”

Headscratcher levered himself up with one arm. His body was covered in water, and not just from the lake. He panted hoarsely. He’d swum and fought non-stop for nearly an hour. So had Numbtongue and the others. They were at the limits of their endurance. But somehow they found the strength to rise. Greydath couldn’t hurt her. He couldn’t—

“Friends? Humans don’t make friends with Goblins. Do you think you’re the same as the others? Even Antinium have a place. But we don’t. You don’t. If it came to you or her other friends, would she choose you?”

Greydath mocked Headscratcher as he parried the other Hob’s slow strike. Numbtongue rose, his legs shaking with exhaustion and pain.

“She would never hurt us!”

“Then show me you won’t hurt her. Show me you can protect her!”

The old Goblin roared. He swung his sword and Numbtongue tried to block it. He gritted his teeth as he went tumbling. Again he rose. And Greydath laughed. Badarrow lifted the last of his arrows and aimed at Greydath’s side. Shorthilt and Rabbiteater advanced slowly as once.

“Come! Show me you can change! Grow stronger! Reach! Or she suffers!”

They had to fight. The Hobs forgot the pain in their bodies. They charged, slashing, clawing, desperate, unwilling to give up. Greydath knocked them down. He mocked them. He was laughing as he dodged arrows from two directions at once and fought the other four Hobs.

And then the arrow flew from the tower unlike all the rest. Perhaps Bird had recognized that his arrows weren’t working at last. Maybe he had simply forgotten he had this particular Skill to begin with. Numbtongue looked up as he saw the rotating arrowhead speeding at Greydath from behind. The Goblin Lord was still laughing as he turned. His eyes widened as he recognized the signature spiral the arrow traced through the air.

[Piercing Shot]. It was a single arrow, loosed at Greydath’s head. He’d been so busy fighting that he’d given himself virtually no time to dodge. And by coincidence or design, Bird had aimed it at a single spot.

At Greydath’s left eye. Numbtongue saw the old Goblin freeze. And in that moment, something struck Numbtongue.

A memory.

Velan charged through the smoke of magical fire. His lungs burned. His body was blackened, torn by a thousand spells. But still he charged. The Archmages of Wistram lay before him. The archers from five continents and mages called from every part of the earth were in his reach. He raised the sword with a howl as the first rank of archers came into view.

And then he saw her. Golden-hair blowing in the wind, face pale with fear. Her pointed ears and terrified eyes met his as her arrow left its bowstring. One arrow among thousands. But this one sped true.

[Piercing Shot]. Velan locked eyes with Elia Arcsinger in the moment of his death. For a second he looked at her and wavered. And the arrow pierced his left eye and sank into his brain. The Goblin King fell as the fleeing archers and mages turned and looked back in disbelief. The Goblin King died and his death spread across the battlefield in an instant. Dead, dead, DEAD!

The Goblin King was d—

Numbtongue jerked. The scream of agony left him, a raw, terrible sound that tore his throat. The memory of the Goblin King’s death tore open a wound in his heart he didn’t know was there. He saw Greydath jerk as the arrow shot towards his left eye. So close. The arrow’s tip made contact with Greydath’s eye—

And he turned his head. The arrow slid past his face and slipped into the water. Greydath held still. His eyes had gone wide, wide with shock. And then they burned with rage. He opened his mouth and howled. The rage and grief beat down on Numbtongue, so loud it seemed no other sound could exist in the world. Greydath screamed at the sky, with such fury that even the distant Antinium was frozen by the raw emotion. And then he turned and hurled his greatsword towards Bird.

The sword flashed through the sky like a javelin, an arrow made of steel. Bird was hundreds of feet away. The greatsword covered the distance in less than a second. Numbtongue saw the sword flash towards the tower, heard a crash, and then saw the tower collapse. He did not see Bird. His heart stopped dead in his chest.

The tower on top of The Wandering Inn collapsed. Half of it had been blow away by the impact. What remained cascaded to the ground, sliding off the rooftop, landing on the earth. Something black fell with it. Something black landed on the ground and did not move. The Redfang Goblins stared in horror at the silent figure. Then they looked at Greydath.

The Goblin was panting heavily. He was still untouched, but the fury on his face was still there. For a moment longer. Then he seemed to come back to his senses. He stared at the inn and the broken tower, and looked at his hands. Only now did he seem to realize what he’d done. A look of chagrin stole over his face.

“Oops. I didn’t mean to—”

Numbtongue heard a scream. Greydath turned. Badarrow lunged at him. He stabbed, and the arrow he held embedded itself in Greydath’s shoulder. The Goblin Lord snarled in surprise and shock. His eyes flashed and he backhanded Badarrow. The [Sniper] spun and dropped, limply rolling down the hill and into the waters.

“You struck me!”

He stared down at the arrow planted in his shoulder. Greydath plucked it out and stared at the red, dripping tip. He blinked at the other Redfang Warriors.

“You managed to strike me.”

“You killed him.”

Numbtongue stared at Greydath. The Goblin hesitated. He seemed as surprised as Numbtongue by what had just happened. He shook his head and looked towards the inn. The tower was still collapsing.

“That was a mistake. That was—you struck me. By accident. But you did. I will—go. But this will do, I think.”

He shook himself. His voice grew firmer.

“You cannot be here. You cannot stay here. Are you Chieftains or just lost Hobs? You must decide.”

He looked down at the Redfangs. The five. They looked up at him. Numbtongue shook his head.

“We know.”

Greydath paused. His eyes flicked from Numbtongue, to Badarrow, barely conscious and supported by Rabbiteater and Shorthilt, and then to Headscratcher. Numbtongue’s voice quivered.

“We know. We knew we could not stay. We knew it had to change. But why—why—”

He stared at the broken inn, and then at Greydath.

“Why did you have to take that from us? Why you?”

Greydath hesitated. He stood above the five, and looked old. Old and weary. For a moment he looked sympathetic.

“Because we are Goblins.”

That was it. Then Greydath turned and dove into the waters. The Redfangs saw him begin swimming, not towards the inn, but away. As fast as an arrow himself. He was leaving. His work was done. They stood there and knew what he meant.

He’d done it. Destroyed what they had here. Because they were Goblins. And happiness was like a moment in the sun. No matter how long it lasted, someday the clouds would come again.

The Redfangs looked at each other. They looked at the inn. At the black shape lying on the ground. For a second they wanted to scream. They wanted to weep and throw themselves into the water. They wanted to go back to this morning. But there was no time. It was over.

They ran.

 

—-

 

Erin had just gone back into her inn after the rain had stopped. She’d been thinking of sending someone after Olesm with his letter, not least to find out what he was so worried about. Maybe that someone should be her? She was about to ask Lyonette to take over when it happened.

She heard a terrible crash from above. Her inn trembled—Erin felt a terrible wrenching in her gut, as if something was breaking. And then she heard the creak of wood, and…the sound of things falling. Erin looked around wildly as some of her guests cried out in alarm. Lyonette rushed out of the kitchens and Mrsha howled in alarm. But all of that was background noise. Erin felt it.

“The roof? What—”

Erin ran up the stairs. First floor, second floor, third—she froze when she got to the door that led up to the tower. The door was ajar despite her telling Bird repeatedly to shut it. But the sky had been clear so he must not have thought it mattered. But where the stairs should have spiraled up there was nothing.

Just broken wood and sky. The place where the sturdy tower should have been was just…missing. As Erin watched, a piece of wood fell down the stairs. For a moment she was paralyzed. Then fear engulfed her.

“Bird?”

He hadn’t been in the tower. He’d been in his room or on the ground floor. Erin flung open the door to Bird’s room. He wasn’t there. The cubby hole made of blankets had fallen over from the earthquake. Erin stared at it and then ran downstairs.

“Bird! Bird!?

He wasn’t in the common room either. All of the guests were on their feet. They called out to Erin, but she had no time for them. She ran outside. And then she saw him.

He was lying on the grass, still wet with rain. Pieces of the tower lay around him with roof tiles. Bird was lying on his back. He was still clutching his bow. And he was mostly there.

Something had torn away his left side. Bird’s left arms were missing. His shoulder was gone, exposing his bleeding chest. He lay on the ground in a pool of green blood. He wasn’t moving.

“No.”

Erin stared at Bird. She stared at the blood pumping out of his body beat by beat. This couldn’t be happening. She wasn’t seeing this.

It was supposed to be an ordinary day. Erin heard someone open the door behind him.

“Erin? What was—”

“Potion.”

Erin heard a rushing in her ears. She saw Lyonette standing in the doorway, her eyes going to Bird. Widening in shock. The young woman recoiled in slow motion. Erin was running at her. She threw Lyonette aside and ran into her inn. She looked around.

Faces staring at her. Eltistiman, Drakes, Wesle, guests. Ishkr coming towards her. Where?

There. Erin ran, feeling the air drag at her. She thrust people aside, running for the box of potions. She scrambled through them, searching, then grabbed the entire crate. Too slow! Erin ran back for the door. Faster, faster—too slow.

Mrsha ran out behind Erin. She was howling, but Erin couldn’t hear it. The young woman ran to Bird. She skidded to a stop and fumbled with the potions. Which one? She’d labeled them, but the words ran together. No, don’t cry. Erin couldn’t cry. She fumbled with the corks, ripped one out.

Bird, drink this! Bird!

He wasn’t moving. No, he was jerking. Erin sloshing the potion onto his mandibles. She poured it onto his missing side. Parts of his body began to close. Too slowly. Erin emptied the potion bottle. She reached for another.

Speak to me! Lyonette, help me! Get more potions! Get Octavia! Get—

A potion bottle slipped from her hands. Erin’s hands were bloody. She was trying to stop the bleeding. Why was Bird still bleeding? Why wasn’t the potion working? Why—

Someone grabbed the potion. White paws. Mrsha tore the cork from the bottle and poured the healing potion on Bird. His side was closing up. But he was still bleeding. Erin grabbed another potion. She could see Lyonette in front of her, screaming at her. Erin tried to listen.

“There’s too much damage! His body can’t heal itself! Stop, Erin, the potions aren’t working!”

The [Princess] was shaking Erin. The [Innkeeper] realized she’d emptied four bottles onto Bird. The Worker was shaking. He was—he was alive.

“Ow. Ow. Ow.”

Bird’s voice was weak. Erin hovered over him. Part of the gaping hole in his body had closed, but Lyonette was right. A significant part of the injury was just…open. It was refusing to close, as if the magic of the potions wasn’t enough.

“We have to stop the bleeding.”

Erin whispered. She knew that was the important thing. The bleeding. Lyonette looked around. She tore off her shirt and pressed it to Bird’s side. The Worker shook and Erin nearly lost control. But then she held Lyonette’s top there. The cloth was quickly bloody.

“It’s not working. We need to heal it!”

How?

“We need—Bird, stay awake! Do you hear me?”

“It hurts, Erin.”

“I know. I know. Just stay with me. Lyonette, Mrsha, someone—

Erin was trying to think. Bleeding wouldn’t stop. Mrsha was trying to get Bird to drink. A healing potion? Stamina potion. Would it help? How could they—

“Who did this? How did it happen?”

No one answered her. Bird lay on the ground. He stared up at Erin. He spoke slowly and distinctly, so that even her panicking mind processed what he said.

“I am dying.”

“No.”

Erin tried to deny it. But the proof was there in front of her. Both of his left arms and his shoulder were gone. Blood was pumping out of his chest. And she couldn’t stop it. The potions were putting something back in Bird, but he was losing more by every second. This couldn’t be happening.

It was supposed to be an ordinary day.

“What do we do?”

Lyonette looked at Erin. The young woman didn’t know. She felt the cloth dripping. Then she looked up. Liscor sat above them, the stone walls still wet with rain. Liscor. Rain.

Antinium.

“The Hive. They can save him. We have to get—”

Lyonette stared at Erin as the young woman gabbled. She didn’t understand! She had to understand! Erin began trying to lift Bird, trying to cover the wound. But he was ungainly and his body was open—

“Help me!”

Mrsha understood at the same time as Lyonette. They began trying to lift Bird. But he was heavy. And he was holding onto his bow.

“Bird, let go of the bow. Bird, let go. We need to carry you—someone help!

Erin screamed back at her inn. Bird was mumbling to her. Protesting.

“It’s my bow. My bow. I am dying, Erin. It hurts.”

“I know, just hold on! Hold—help!

She turned and screamed back at the silent figures standing at the door to her inn. Why weren’t they moving? Erin had never hated anyone more than the shocked guests in her inn. She saw some of them moving, but too slow. Erin turned—

And there was Numbtongue. He stumbled out of the waters, pale, trembling. She stared at him. The Hob looked down at Bird and fell to his knees.

“No.”

The Hob looked stricken. The other four Redfang Warriors emerged from the waters. Where had they come from? No—Erin grabbed at Numbtongue, trying to staunch the bleeding.

“He’s alive! We need to get him to the Hive! Now!”

A flicker of understanding ran through Numbtongue’s eyes. He leapt to his feet. The other Hobs didn’t waste time. They moved as one, grabbing Bird. Headscratcher shoved Erin aside and took hold of the bloody wad of cloth. He pressed mercilessly and Bird made a terrible sound. But he was alive. And the bleeding stopped.

“Go.”

Shorthilt pointed. The Hobs charged up the hill. Erin ran after them, seeing Mrsha dart up the stairs. The Hobs knocked aside the guests, ran for the door. Mrsha was already there, scrambling at the bowl with paws soaked green with blood. Erin grabbed the mana stone and pressed it against the door.

Liscor opened in front of her, the streets damp but no longer rainy. The Hobs stared into the streets. For a second they hesitated and looked back at Erin. They had never been there. She spoke, her heart tearing out of her chest.

Go.

They ran. Four of the Hobs carried Bird between them. The fifth, Numbtongue, raced ahead of them through the streets. Erin and Mrsha were with him. They didn’t know where to go! Erin screamed directions and Mrsha howled.

She could see people staring at them as they ran. Erin heard voices from above, almost like she was in a theatre watching herself run while an audience commented on her every move. She heard an exclamation, then a shout.

Goblins in Liscor! Sound the alarm!

“No, it’s just—”

The [Guardsmen] hesitated. Erin saw figures running along the walls, and then a horn blow. She didn’t care.

Klbkch! Tell Klbkch!

She screamed into the face of a passing Gnoll then ran. Mrsha was howling, not one long howl but a series of panicked notes. Erin heard answering calls in the distance. It mattered and didn’t at the same time. All of her energy was put into running, staying with the Goblins. Numbtongue ran with her, chest heaving. He looked exhausted. So did the Hobs. But they stayed with her every step, refusing to slip. Blood dripped in their wake, leaving a trail on the wet cobblestones.

They were running out of time. Erin couldn’t hear Bird anymore. She spotted the Hive at last and ran towards it.

“Go there! Find Klbkch!”

The Hobs ran for the entrance. They ran down the sloping entrance and then stopped. A wall of Soldiers charged out of the tunnel, slamming into the Hobs. Erin screamed as Bird nearly fell. Numbtongue went sprawling as a Soldier leapt on him, punching him. She screamed at them.

Stop! Stop! It’s Bird! Stop!”

She tried to push them. But she wasn’t in her inn. The Soldiers kept attacking, and the Hobs backed up. They moved back until, suddenly, the Soldiers froze. They straightened and moved aside.

Erin!

A familiar voice snapped. Erin looked up and saw him striding towards her. Slender, two hands on his swords. Klbkch paused. He was shaking with fury.

“You cannot take Goblins into the Hive! The Soldiers nearly killed you! What—”

He froze when he saw Bird. The Antinium was curled up in the arms of the Goblins. Erin pushed forwards.

“It’s Bird! He was hurt! I don’t know what—the bleeding won’t—we used potions and—”

“I see. Soldiers, lift Bird.”

Klbkch raised one of his hands and Erin went quiet. The Soldiers gathered around Bird. They lifted him. One grabbed the bloody bandage, but there was so little blood flowing from Bird. He didn’t respond as Klbkch bent to inspect him. The [Guardsman] stared for what felt like forever at Bird, then he looked up at Erin.

“He has no chance, even if I were to apply a regenerative gel. He has lost too much blood. His only hope lies with my Queen.”

He turned to the Soldiers.

“Run. Take him to her. Clear the Hive.

His words seemed to ring. The Soldiers didn’t hesitate. They charged down the tunnel, disappearing out of view. Erin wanted to run after them, but Klbkch blocked her with one arm.

“Bird. Will he be okay?”

She wanted Klbkch to say ‘yes’ so badly. But all the Antinium did was shake his head.

“Erin. My Queen is familiar with Antinium biology. If she wishes to save Bird, she will. And I believe she will. She has an…attachment to him.”

“But will she—”

“I do not know. He may live. Or he may not.”

“Can you bring him back? What about the Rite?”

Erin clung to that idea. Klbkch hesitated.

“I do not know. Only Prognugators undergo the Rite, and only the strongest. He must have enough levels and his mind—I do not know, Erin. But tell me.”

The Antinium looked around and his hands moved to his swords.

“Who injured Bird?”

Erin sagged. She felt like someone had cut her strings. Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe. Her legs were on fire. She looked down and saw the green blood on her hands.

“I don’t know. I heard a crash and I—I don’t know what happened.”

“We do.”

A quiet, wretched voice answered for Erin. Klbkch and Erin turned. Numbtongue stood with the Redfang Goblins. He bowed his head. His face was shadowed in the tunnel as he spoke.

“It was a Goblin.”

“A Goblin?”

Erin stared at Numbtongue. She felt the bottom drop out of her world. Klbkch said nothing. He just drew his swords. Erin turned to him, and heard the shouts from above.

Erin!

Olesm was on the surface. Thirty of the City Watch surrounded the tunnel. Erin saw the Redfangs emerge into the sunlight and freeze. More [Guardspeople] arrived, training bows and spears on the Hobs. Olesm stood behind the first rank. His face was pale.

“Olesm—it was Bird—”

The [Strategist] turned as Erin lurched towards him. He held still as Erin tried to make him listen. At last, he nodded. She didn’t know what she’d said, but Olesm gently held her.

“Erin, I understand. Senior Guardsman Klbkch—”

He motioned to Klbkch. Erin turned and saw the Antinium had drawn his swords. The Redfang Goblins stood together, staring at her, staring at the ground or the sky. Erin caught her breath.

“What—”

“It’s not just the Goblin, Erin. I’m calling a full city-wide alarm.”

Olesm looked at Erin with terrible pain in his eyes. She looked at him and only now heard the horns blaring a warning. Far too many horns for just six Goblins. She looked around and saw Gnolls and Drakes looking upwards. Olesm stared at Erin. He spoke slowly and carefully, enunciating every word.

“The Goblin Lord is coming to Liscor. He’ll attack the walls. The Humans…the Humans are going to give him a way to attack our city.”

“What? Olesm, I don’t—”

He went on, slowly.

“As [Strategist] of Liscor, I have no choice. Under military law I am confiscating your door, Miss Solstice. A detachment of the Watch will be sent to collect it. As for the Goblins, I cannot risk them endangering the city. We will find this Hob and kill it. As for these five—”

Olesm turned. A Gnoll with a pair of iron manacles approached the Redfang Goblins. Olesm swallowed as she looked at him. Erin opened her mouth to say something. Anything. But Olesm went on. He looked at Numbtongue as the Hob stared at Erin. The Gnoll slowly closed the manacles over Numbtongue’s wrists. Olesm bowed his head.

“They are under arrest.”

 


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