On the tenth day, it was three Goblins who made a difference. As the sun rose, the Humans led by Tyrion Veltras drove the Goblin tribes south once more. Today was the day that they moved by the entrance to the High Passes, the home of Garen Redfang’s tribe and one of the most inhospitable environments for people of any kind to settle. If the Humans were going to push the Goblins into the pass or trap them there, it would be today.
No one expected them to. Everyone who was anyone knew that they would be turning and marching along the flatlands, following the mountain range to the second pass that ran through Liscor instead. And in just three days they would be at the city and if all went according to the various plans in motion, Liscor would be under siege.
Everyone knew that. [Spies], [Informants], and [Scouts] were all watching the movement of the army, relaying each move Tyrion Veltras made to interested parties. Hundreds of thousands of Drakes were marching north, some flying or riding at breakneck speed to get to Liscor in time. The Antinium were digging. Magnolia Reinhart was kicking over tables and swearing. The Necromancer was meditating. Again, everyone knew.
Except the Goblins. They woke up pretty much as usual. By now some were even sleeping through the morning’s volley of fireballs and had to be kicked until they got up. They ate, began to march, and generally trusted that their leaders would sort things out. When you had death behind you and no way to escape, there was really nothing else you could do.
However, if you were one of the leaders, life wasn’t that easy. And it was Pyrite who woke up worrying, which was his wont.
Actually, it wasn’t his wont. He didn’t want to worry at all. Pyrite had lived a very happy life as a [Mining Chieftain] with his Goldstone Tribe for years and he had devoted energy and effort into ensuring his life was as stress and death-free as possible. He’d hidden away from most Humans, cultivated an interest in rocks, and kept from massacring the occasional Silver or Bronze-rank team that was sent to slaughter his tribe. Of course, he’d been running away, but it had been fun while it lasted.
Now though, Pyrite regretted the months he’d spent chipping away at stones and finding gemstones to give to the children of his tribe. He’d leveled of course; he had quite a number of Skills, all of which allowed him to find gemstones, cut and polish them—even find the extremely rare stones that glowed or had magical auras, the ones infused with mana. Like the ultra-rare teleporting citrine he’d found just once—
Pyrite sighed as he walked along, battleaxe on his shoulder. One of the smaller Goblins gave him an affronted look, and Pyrite flicked a finger, indicating that it wasn’t about them. Reassured, the Goblins moved around him. Pyrite trudged on, feeling the weight of the enchanted fiery battleaxe on his shoulder.
Yes, he’d leveled, but he’d gotten the wrong Skills and he knew it. If Greydath were here—he’d—he’d—
Probably laugh and pat Pyrite on the head. He would understand. He’d never told Pyrite what to do. He’d given the young Goblin a chance, that was all. And Pyrite had squandered it.
“Pyrite. Chieftain wants to see you.”
A Goblin rode up to Pyrite on a Carn Wolf. Pyrite didn’t have to look to know it was Redscar. The Hob grunted and looked around. Normally it would be easy to spot Rags, distinctive as she was, but today was a bit different. Because today, their small tribe of thousands had…
Pyrite’s forehead wrinkled. What was the word? If you took something and multiplied it by eleven, what would you call that? Double, triple…what came after that?
Elevenuple. Pyrite decided that was the word, though it didn’t sound good to him. Yes, they’d elevenupled yesterday. Tremborag had fallen. His tribe had split in three parts, and the lion’s share had gone to Rags. Pyrite was just a bit proud of that.
And worried. There were now thousands of Hobs marching in the Flooded Waters tribe and regular Goblin warriors who had served Tremborag. Not to mention Ulvama and a handful of [Shamans]. All of them were new, and all looked to Rags. And Pyrite didn’t like it one bit.
He looked up at Redscar. The smaller Goblin was looking about with much the same look on his face that Pyrite felt. He had to be wary too; both had seen the strange Goblin politics of Tremborag’s mountain and the way treachery and infighting had turned the Goblins there into something else. He pointed.
“There. We go together. Chieftain wants us.”
By ‘us’, he clearly meant Poisonbite, Noears, as well as himself and Pyrite. The Hob nodded and began walking in the direction of the small Goblin on the back of the Carn Wolf. Redscar let his mount pad alongside him and the other Goblins got out of the way as the two walked forwards. Redscar lay on the back of his wolf, speaking quietly to Pyrite.
Pyrite nodded absently, completely failing to carry his end of the conversation. He was too busy thinking.
Redscar, now there was a Goblin who’d done the right thing, at least in how Pyrite understood classes and leveling. Greydath had never been too clear on the subject no matter how Pyrite asked. Pyrite suspected that Greydath hadn’t known as much about that subject either—probably because he didn’t pay attention to any class outside of combat-related ones. But he had been clear on what made someone strong, and Redscar was an example of that.
He had only two classes as far as Pyrite knew. [Beast Tamer], and [Raid Leader]. Both were directly useful to whatever Redscar wanted to do and all his Skills were highly practical. Pyrite had seen Redscar fighting and short of Garen Redfang, Reiss, or Eater of Spears, he thought Redscar was the best fighter among all the Goblins marching here.
If it came to a fight between Pyrite and Redscar, well, Pyrite would win if he and Redscar both had more or less equal footing. But only the first time, because Redscar would be caught off guard. And because Pyrite would go for his wolf, Thunderfur, first.
Anyways, the point was that in terms of potential, Redscar had done himself all the favors he needed to keep getting stronger. Pyrite was certain that in time his two classes would merge if Redscar lived long enough. He’d become a—[Beastraider Leader] or something. Pyrite didn’t know. He was bad with coming up with names.
But what would Pyrite be? He had a mining class and he wasn’t going to put that to use any time soon. He had to fight. He had to be strong, and he’d wasted half his levels and Skills. All he had to show for it was his pouch of shiny gemstones, which were shiny but—
Pyrite was feeling at the little pouch of gems for one of the magical gemstones he had left—he’d lost the teleporting citrine years ago—when he felt someone poke him. He looked up and saw Redscar was glaring and poking him with the tip of his sheathed sword.
The Hob realized he’d abandoned the conversation. He shrugged apologetically.
“Mountain City tribe will be trouble. But Chieftain can probably handle.”
“Yes. But needs protect.”
From Reiss? Garen? No—Pyrite realized Redscar meant from Tremborag’s Goblins stabbing Rags in the back. He scratched at his belly.
“True. But not yet. Tremborag Goblins will wait and see how strong Chieftain is. Form alliances. Or try. At least a few days before stabbing in back. Or challenge.”
Pyrite nodded. Redscar relaxed slightly. He grinned, exposing his teeth.
“You know. You were in tribe once. With Greydath.”
He said the name almost reverentially. Pyrite winced. For someone like Redscar, meeting Greydath of Blades had to be awe-inspiring. Pyrite nodded warily.
He did not elaborate, and Redscar didn’t press him, despite clearly wanting to. The Goblin warrior just nodded and urged his Carn Wolf to keep up. Pyrite shut his mouth.
Secrets. It was un-Goblinlike to have them. But Pyrite had as many secrets as he had gemstones. He wished he could tell Redscar everything. And Rags. Especially Rags. It would make things so much easier.
And why not? It wasn’t like they were grand secrets. It was just that they were private things. Shameful. Mysterious. Clues that had made Pyrite doubt Greydath when he’d heard them, had driven him from Tremborag’s mountain. Knowledge that hurt and made Pyrite wonder whether Velan had been betrayed. Or whether he and Greydath had known something about Goblin Kings that no one else did.
It didn’t matter. Not right now. Rags was all that mattered. Pyrite forced himself back to reality. He looked up as he and Redscar approached their Chieftain. The little female Goblin was issuing orders as she rode. She was so small. So young. And yet, she led them. And Pyrite saw in her something worth following. A leader, or the makings of one worth fighting for. He only wished he were strong enough to be her second in command.
Rags looked up at the two of them and gave her customary put-upon scowl. She waved at another duo of Goblins, Poisonbite and Noears as they approached. The five Goblins stood together, and Pyrite realized that he was the only Hob among them.
Of course, Quietstab had been one of the lieutenants as well. But it was something, that a tribe this large and this strong could be led by more regular Goblins than Hobs. Pyrite walked alongside Noears on Rags’ left, nodding to the Goblin [Mage] and getting a grin in response. Rags muttered to herself as Poisonbite and Redscar took a position on her right and then came out with her first grievance.
“Food is low! More Goblins means more eat, and fat Tremborag ate too much!”
Pyrite nodded. The Goblins who’d flocked to Rags’ tribe had brought their supplies, but a quick inventory had revealed that they’d stockpiled a lot less than Rags had. They’d relied on the herds of cattle and supplies the Humans drove or dropped into their path for food, which wasn’t wise. Rags pointed at Noears, who was in charge of the bag of holding.
“Noears has problem with Hobs. What?”
The [Mage] frowned.
“The Mountain City Hobs keep asking for a snack, Chieftain.”
“Said that, Chieftain. But they said—”
He broke off as Rags waved her arms in the air.
“No snacks! Eat when time to eat! If want snack, dig up bugs while marching or shoot birds! And move in formations! Must practice.”
“Can practice tonight before sleep.”
Poisonbite looked uneasy.
“They not like that. Tremborag Goblins don’t practice. Only if lieutenants do. Not together.”
“Too bad. They practice or go away. Redscar you and Redfangs in charge of Mountain City tribe. They march in formation or you—”
Rags mimed smacking the back of a head. Redscar grinned and nodded. Rags turned to Pyrite.
“Need to figure out how to fight. Big tribe. Different strategy.”
Pyrite nodded. That was Rags. She’d already realized they couldn’t operate like they used to—holding ground with pikes and using the Redfangs and Hobs to break enemy lines while the crossbows operated from the back. Now she had a bunch of Goblins with traditional weapons who weren’t able to move and conduct her precise tactics. He leaned in.
“Mountain City tribe does know how to fight, Chieftain. But knows Tremborag way of fighting. You saw. Regular Goblins go in, then Hobs. Can teach them how to fight Flooded Waters tribe style with same tactics. Just have to make groups with leaders.”
“Like they have.”
Redscar and the others looked at Pyrite. He nodded.
“But different. Make factions—sword and shield faction, archer faction, naked Hobgoblin [Shaman] faction—”
Rags snorted and glanced towards Ulvama. The [Shaman] was riding on a wagon, having refused to walk. Pyrite didn’t know why she’d joined Rags instead of Garen—the Hob would have never gone to Reiss, he was certain—but he regarded her as a huge asset, albeit a dangerous one. Rags nodded.
“Good idea. But will work?”
“Appoint strong Goblins as leaders. Choose from old lieutenants for new ones. Other Goblins fight them instead of you.”
Rags brightened up at the prospect. She looked at Pyrite approvingly and nodded. Redscar, Noears, and Poisonbite all liked the idea too.
“Good! Will do. Send Tremborag lieutenants here. They compete. I pick.”
Rags cackled, and Pyrite wondered if she’d have an impromptu competition on the march. It wouldn’t be the worst idea. She pointed around, giving orders.
“Redscar, go tell Tremborag Goblins. Have Redfangs divide up. Noears, go to supplies and hit stupid Goblins trying to steal. Poisonbite, go solve problems over there.”
She waved a claw. The other three Goblins nodded. Poisonbite sighed as she got what was the worst job in any tribe—being the one the Hobs went to when they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve. That was how it worked. Regular Goblins solved a problem or went to a Hob, who in turn solved it or went to a smarter Hob or a leader like Poisonbite in this case. And if she couldn’t solve it, it went to Rags.
The others dispersed, leaving only Rags and Pyrite for a moment. And the hundreds of Goblins marching around them in earshot, but they didn’t count. Pyrite and Rags glanced at each other. Then both simultaneously looked across the heads of marching Goblins.
Pyrite pointed out two figures, marching on their left and right respectively. One was a Hob riding a Carn Wolf, leading a much smaller tribe, most of whom were mounted. Garen Redfang looked furious as he stared at Rags’ suddenly engorged tribe. And on the right rode another Hob, seated on the back of a headless undead spider. Reiss, the Goblin Lord. His army had grown as well, but now it was rivaled by Rags’ tribe. He stared ahead, lost in thought.
Rags smiled gleefully. Pyrite nodded.
“But not cause trouble now. Too small.”
It was odd thinking of the famed leader of the Redfang tribe that way. But in a very real sense, yesterday had shown that to everyone. Garen hadn’t inherited Tremborag’s warriors as he’d clearly expected. They’d gone to Rags instead, and even to Reiss. Because, in a way no Goblin could quite articulate, for multiple reasons, Garen was wanting as a leader. The Hob was a mighty warrior, perhaps the strongest of all the Goblins who rode here. Certainly in physical combat now that Tremborag was dead. But he could not be a Chieftain like Rags or Reiss. But the Goblin Lord—
Rags’ smile faded as she looked at Reiss. If Garen was not a danger now, at least in the sense of threatening her tribe, Reiss was a different matter. She looked at Pyrite.
“Last night. What he do?”
“I don’t know.”
Pyrite stared at Reiss. Last night after Tremborag’s death, the Goblin Lord had been possessed by something. They’d all seen it. At first it hadn’t been clear, but as Reiss had begun walking around and looking at the Humans, at the Goblins here, he’d started talking to himself. Only, one of the voices that left his mouth wasn’t his own. And his posture, his way of moving, all of it, had changed.
It might not have been obvious to another species, but to Goblins it had been apparent that someone else was in Reiss. Talking to the Goblin Lord. And it had not taken any stretch of the imagination to figure out who. When they’d realized what was going on, all the Goblins—even Reiss’ own tribe—had given him a wide berth.
Pyrite remembered Rags wavering over going up to Reiss last night. He’d talked her out of it, not least because when Garen had found out what was happening, he’d drawn his sword and stared Reiss down. The Goblin Lord and Necromancer had both ignored him, though. Pyrite had wondered if Garen would charge Reiss, but the other Hob had held himself back.
It was wise, too; Pyrite had never felt so ill at ease around another Goblin. Whatever had been looking out of Reiss’ eyes had been cold and dangerous. It had been late last night when Reiss had finally stopped talking to himself. Near the end, his words had gone silent and Pyrite suspected he’d cast a spell to avoid being overheard. But whatever he’d discussed with his master, the Necromancer, nothing had come of it so far.
“He said he would ask his master about Humans. About what they do. Think he knows?”
Rags looked speculatively at Reiss. Pyrite shrugged.
“Could ask. Want me?”
He saw Rags hesitate. Then she shook her head.
“I’ll ask later. After choose new lieutenants. You go ahead lead tribe forwards.”
Pyrite nodded. He wasn’t sure he was relieved or not. He stared again at Reiss, and then glanced at Garen. Now Tremborag was dead, there were only three Chieftains left. And while Rags was in a better place than before—Pyrite didn’t like it. As her second-in-command he felt her position was precarious. Both from within, with Tremborag’s Goblins, and from the other two tribes.
Rags paused as she began to ride towards Redfang, who had already marshaled Tremborag’s old lieutenants and had them moving her way. She shot a quizzical glance back at Pyrite. He nodded to the approaching Goblins.
“Tremborag Goblins think like Tremborag did. Respect strength.”
“Will respect me.”
“Yes, Chieftain. But need to see tribe is strong. Chieftain is strong.”
A worried look crossed Rags’ face. She was strong, for a Goblin of her age, but both she and Pyrite knew she was far, far weaker than someone like Reiss, or Garen. Or even Redscar.
“How can show?”
Pyrite smiled. She didn’t see that she’d already done some of the showing, in the brief attack against Tremborag’s forces yesterday. He dipped his head.
“I will, Chieftain. After choose lieutenants, let me.”
Rags studied Pyrite. Then she nodded slowly. He walked away, keeping his back straight. The enchanted battleaxe felt heavy on his shoulder. That was right. He had chosen poorly with his classes, his Skills, and he had wasted too many years of his life. But he could still be her second-in-command. He could still show Tremborag’s Goblins what they needed to see. And when he couldn’t, when his mistakes caught up with him—
Well, that was why Redscar was around, wasn’t it? Pyrite moved faster, striding through the Goblins until he reached the front. And at last, he stared ahead and saw not the backs of Goblins and Hobgoblins, but the open sky, the High Passes—
And the Humans.
There was an advance force moving ahead of the Goblins, guiding them and ensuring that if they made a break for it, they’d be penned in. There were smaller groups of riders to the left and right as well, acting as guides while the vast majority of Humans marched behind the Goblins. Pyrite stared ahead at the Humans, who were leading them on a track right past the High Passes. He shrugged, sighed, and began to trudge after them.
Rags had ordered him to lead the tribe while she handled matters. It sounded like a lot of work, but in fact, it was the easiest thing to do out of all the jobs—assuming nothing came up. In fact, it was easy.
Here was how Pyrite did it. He walked and the tribe followed. The Hob set an easy pace; thanks to Rags’ Skill, the tribe could fast walk rather than jog and still move fast enough for the Human’s needs. Every time he moved left or right, the entire tribe rippled as it changed directions to follow him, wagons turning, Goblins riding horses moving left, smaller Goblins changing course, following the Goblins ahead of them.
Pyrite kept walking, undeterred by the importance of his job. He glanced at Reiss’ army keeping pace with him and saw a tall figure approaching him. He grinned. Someone had noticed he was in front and was coming to see him.
Eater of Spears strode towards Pyrite, followed by Reiss’ army. Pyrite walked left and the two met, both of their tribes walking side-by-side now. He glanced up at the much taller Hob and grunted. Eater of Spears flicked his ears and gave Pyrite a pleased grin.
Eater of Spears was slowly striding along and the Goblins in armor were marching hard to keep up. The huge Hob was the biggest that Pyrite had ever seen—aside from Tremborag. He looked like someone had carved muscles out of a green wall and only added a head as an afterthought. But Eater of Spears was deceptive. Much like Pyrite, actually. Perhaps that was why the two got along so well.
“Eater of Spears.”
The two nodded at each other. They didn’t need to say much. Both understood the economy of words, and so they kept their chatter to a minimum. But they did touch on important topics, delicately saying what they could without betraying their Chieftains’ trust. Pyrite nodded back towards Reiss.
Eater of Spear looked troubled. Pyrite nodded.
“Sometimes. Is good stay away.”
“Mhm. Drake got hit by spell.”
“Mm. But also good.”
“Really? Necromancer uses Goblins. How good?”
At this point Eater of Spears had to break their nearly monosyllabic rapport.
“Reiss is wise. Necromancer does not know all. He sees, but not everything. But he tells Reiss what he knows, about the Humans. About their plans. And now Reiss has his plan.”
Pyrite’s ears perked up. A plan? He didn’t like that. Not one bit. Casually, he looked at Eater of Spears.
“What kind of plan?”
The Hob looked down at Pyrite and shook his head reluctantly. He was barehanded, unlike Pyrite who carried an battleaxe. He didn’t need weapons; Pyrite thought he could kill anything he needed to just by punching it. If Redscar had to fight Eater of Spears he might lose unless that enchanted sword he had was capable of slicing through the Hob’s bones. If Pyrite had to fight…well, he’d want the drop on Eater of Spears. Preferably from the top of a cliff with a bow and arrow.
“Cannot say. Reiss will say to your Chieftain.”
Pyrite nodded. He’d expected as much. But he silently glanced back towards Reiss. If he had to fight Reiss, or if Reiss fought Rags…Pyrite didn’t enjoy playing out life-and-death battles in his head. But as Rags’ second-in-command he had to protect her. Which meant he had to assume the worst.
He noticed Eater of Spears looking at him and realized he was staring at Reiss for too long. Pyrite said a few Human curse words inside his head. He’d fallen for the same trap people usually fell into around him! Never forget the big Hob isn’t stupid. To cover for his mistake, he fished at his belt and pulled out a sack. When he opened it, Eater of Spear sniffed. A savory smell was coming from the bag, the scent of roasted meat. Pyrite pulled an object out and held it up.
Eater of Spears stared down. Pyrite was holding a rat. A dead and roasted rat. He blinked.
“Where find that?”
Pyrite grinned. After a second, Eater of Spears laughed.
“Good place for them. You dig?”
“Mhm. Have more. Here.”
Pyrite handed the morsel up to Eater of Spears, who delicately crunched the morsel whole. The Goblins from both tribes looked jealous, so Pyrite opened his bag and passed more rats around, much to the delight of all present. He had over three dozen rats in his sack, many small, but some of a good size. Pyrite was relieved to get rid of them as they were heavy, but he’d been saving them for this purpose. He supposed this was one use of his Skills, a small boon.
That was because for Pyrite, digging was easy. Pyrite had found a nest of burrowing rats practically right next to him when he’d settled in for a nap. With his ability to hunt for gemstones, locating their nest and plucking them out had been easy. The real trick had been finding a [Cook] willing to accept only two of the rodents in exchange for roasting them. Most wanted three or four, but Pyrite knew the value of a good rat.
“Mm. Good. I have nothing to give.”
Eater of Spears looked guilty. He tried to object, but Pyrite made him take three more rats. The former Goldstone Chieftain shrugged.
“Isn’t hard to get rats. Digging easy. Not like rocks. Have to use pickaxe for that. Very tricky to get.”
Pyrite shook his head.
“Stone ones break too easy. Need iron or steel. Have to take from Humans. Very hard to sneak.”
“How do it?”
“Get shiny gold rocks. Dump in mining camp. Shout. Let Humans find and start huge fight. Then grab pickaxes and run.”
He winked and Eater of Spears grinned. Both Hobs laughed and Eater of Spears slapped his chest, making a thwacking sound that one didn’t normally expect to come from flesh. Pyrite eyed the Hob. Now those were muscles. Pyrite was confident of his strength, but sometimes he wished he’d been able to turn into a pillar of physical might like Eater of Spears or even Tremborag.
Greydath had told him that Tremborag’s ability to turn into a monster hadn’t been due to a Skill or class. He’d probably been enhanced by his class, but his ability was actually part of Goblin heritage, albeit largely unknown. In fact, Tremborag had been weak according to Greydath, which was why he couldn’t maintain the transformation. But Eater of Spears was in his prime, and so he had to be getting close. If Pyrite told him—
No. They were friends, but Pyrite wasn’t sure. The Hob kept his mouth shut as Eater of Spears finished laughing and spoke.
“My tribe, Rockbreakers Tribe, was not so good as yours. I told you. Not enough food for…”
He indicated Pyrite’s layers of fat, clearly envious. Pyrite nodded, although he privately thought that any tribe that could sustain someone of Eater of Spears’ size had to be doing well. He and Eater of Spears had swapped stories before. Apparently, before he’d joined Reiss, Eater of Spears had led a tribe of less than eighty Goblins, almost all Hobs. They’d been the terror of the cliffs and beaten Wyverns to death for food. Eater of Spears crunched another rat and went on.
“Anyways. One time, had to get healing potions for bad injury on many after big fight with Wyverns. So went to Drake city. Small city, but dangerous. Had to scare away Drakes on walls, but not enough stones.”
“So what did you do?”
Pyrite smiled. Eater of Spears grinned and flex an arm.
“Got dead Wyvern heads. Threw them. Drakes scream and run, and we climb walls.”
Pyrite chortled. Eater of Spears smiled, and then his face fell, grew somber.
“Had to kill many Drakes after that. Got potions, but Drakes sent army. Tribe had to flee. Go high up into mountains. Bad things there. Worse than Wyverns. Over half tribe died.”
The two Hobs felt silent. Pyrite had known similar disasters. He searched for something to say, and then raised his voice lightly.
“One time, when mining, I found a shiny yellow gem. When I reach for it, it disappeared. Found it lying on ground behind me. Teleporting magic stone. I chase after it—”
Eater of Spears brightened a bit as Pyrite told the embellished story of how he’d nearly died when chasing after the elusive teleportation stone and figured out a way to stop it from moving about. The two Hobs kept swapping stories for nearly an hour as they walked, until both spotted something unusual happening ahead of them.
The High Passes was a gaping rift, a steep incline that quickly became cliffs, leaving only a valley between two mountains. It was clearly the result of some fissure in the mountains, perhaps caused by a seismic rift in the past. Whatever the case, it was narrow, winding and jagged. The Humans had been steering the Goblins past it without issue—until something came out of the High Passes for a snack.
Eater of Spears pointed at the advance group of Humans. They were blowing their horns and racing about, clearly fighting something. Pyrite checked his grip on his battleaxe.
“Don’t know. Redfangs!”
He bellowed and both Garen’s tribe and the Redfang warriors in Rags’ tribe looked around. Pyrite pointed and a pair of his warriors took off. Not to be outdone, Garen pointed and a band of his warriors raced ahead as well. Both Pyrite and Eater of Spears exchanged a look and stopped, halting the progress of the Goblins. It was risky, but they weren’t about to advance without knowing what was going on.
The scouts came back within minutes. The pair of Redfangs Pyrite had sent halted in front of the two Hobs. One of them pointed towards the fighting Humans.
Pyrite and Eater of Spears exchanged a look, Pyrite’s of concern, and Eater of Spears’ a blank one. Pyrite knew of the dangerous, all-consuming goats of the High Passes. He’d killed a few that had wandered into his tribe’s territory and he knew the goats, while not individually as powerful as say, a Hob, were more than capable of ripping anything to shreds given enough numbers. They could eat a Gargoyle and they were without fear.
And there were lots of them. Thousands, in fact. They’d charged into the Humans from the side, completely ignoring the spells and arrows that had blown a number of their brethren apart. Now they were engaged and the Humans were getting the worst of it. Their horses were not at home fighting enemies that low to the ground, and the Eater Goats could jump and chew through armor. Plus, they screamed.
The Goblins listened to the report with no lack of satisfaction. At last the Humans were in trouble! Pyrite was about to suggest to Eater of Spears they get moving and let the Humans shield them when he heard horns blowing from behind. He saw the Humans break up and race away.
Eater of Spears grumbled. The Humans were running, and the Eater Goats were breaking away from their pursuit of the faster horses. They’d just spotted their second dinner in the form of the Goblin army and they were charging towards them, never mind that there were only a few thousand goats and hundreds of thousands of Goblins. To them, that just meant there was more to eat.
Eater of Spears roared and the Goblin Lord’s army turned to face the goats. Pyrite strode through the ranks of his Goblins as well, and heard a familiar voice.
“Crossbows and bows front! Big shields forwards! Hobs and warriors behind! Redfangs to side!”
Rags surged forwards, shouting and pointing. Her tribe set itself up, preparing for the goats. They were right in the path of the oncoming monsters. Pyrite took his position behind the line of pikes, thinking fast. Rags was employing both her old and new Goblins, but she was relying on a rank of Goblins with tower shields to slow the goats down while the bows went to work. She screamed an order and the first ranks of crossbows and bows fired.
A stream of arrows rained down and struck the first wave of goats, eliciting braying screams. Some fell, but even the ones with arrows sticking out of their legs and torsos kept running. Rags shouted and another volley fell, and another. The first rank of Eater Goats struck the Goblins with shields and bounced back. Some leapt, but were skewered before they landed. The Eater Goats circled as they tried to find a way into the defensive formation. They nipped and bit—the Goblins with tower shields held their ground.
Rags shouted at the Goblins warriors pushing the goats back. Pyrite saw a wing of her archers and warriors moving to the left side. She was going to pin the Eater Goats down and shoot them to death without risking her warriors. That was a smart move. Someone—Redscar—must have told Rags how dangerous it was to fight Eater Goats up close.
Pyrite saw it all happening as the Eater Goats began biting through the shields. Goblins shouted and screamed as they tried to force the goats back. He knew some of them would fall, but this tactic Rags had come up with was the safest. Only—Pyrite looked around.
Every eye was on Rags. Tremborag’s former Goblins were assessing her. They could see she was a genius when it came to strategy, but like Pyrite had told her, it wasn’t enough. They needed to see strength as well as intelligence. Pyrite stared at the Eater Goats fighting the Goblins with shields. Then he groaned.
The Hobs around him looked confused. Pyrite turned to them and took a deep breath. He bellowed.
They straightened. Pyrite pointed ahead and roared.
“Charge! Shields back! Archers back! Hobs charge behind me! Redfangs charge!”
The Goblins gaped and Pyrite heard an exclamation from Rags. This was not part of the plan! But Pyrite was already moving. He charged forwards and Goblins scattered in front of him. The first rank of shields was folding as the Eater Goats leapt up, biting, ripping at the wood and metal shields, Pyrite thrust a terrified Goblin aside and raised his battleaxe.
There were thousands of the goats. They screamed, a hoarse, piercing shriek magnified from a thousand throats. Pyrite roared and charged at them. The Eater Goats didn’t expect that.
The enchanted battleaxe left Pyrite’s shoulder. He swung it and flame burst from the edge of the axe. Five Eater Goats leaping for him were caught by the swing, and the pieces landed around Pyrite. He charged forwards, kicking a goat head-over-hooves and bringing his axe down on another. The goat gurgled and Pyrite swept his axe.
Hobs charged through the ranks of Goblins behind him. They clashed with the front rank of Goblins, but Pyrite was still running forwards. Eater Goats were all around him. They leapt and Pyrite swung his axe. Greydath had taught him how to use weapons. Swinging with huge strikes would get Pyrite killed. And it wasn’t necessary—his enchanted axe could cut through the goats easily. He swung the axe as fast as possible instead, covering the area ahead of him. High, low, high, low—
It was like he was a farmer with a scythe and the Eater Goats were wheat. But the wheat moved and bit. Pyrite roared as a goat got past his guard and tore a chunk off his shoulder. But he didn’t stop. He kept moving, swinging the axe with one arm as he tore the goat—and more of his flesh—off and hurled it to the ground. If he stopped they’d swarm him. He could only move forwards and trust the Hobs to his back, forwards and forwards, screaming that one order.
Where were the Redfangs? He should have called them up earlier. Something bit Pyrite on the leg and he kicked, shaking it off. Blood ran down his arms and he could smell burning, the stench of cooked meat. At the very least they’d have food. Pyrite saw the goats leaping at him, swung his axe. He slipped—
And a bounding red wolf leapt and bit the Eater Goat, snatching it out of the air. The massive wolf, Thunderfur, worried the goat and threw it to one side. On its back, Redscar turned, his blade flashing. He leaned down and sliced an Eater Goat across the neck, killing it instantly, then turned and stabbed a leaping goat through the mouth. Redfangs bounded past him, screaming war cries and attacking the goats from the side.
Redscar bellowed. Pyrite stood up and raised his axe. He swung it wide and the goats in front of him vanished. Redscar blinked as Pyrite pointed.
“Attack! Don’t stop attacking!”
He charged forwards and Redscar and the Redfangs were with him. The Hobs could barely keep up as they scythed through the Eater Goats. Pyrite kept running, swinging the heavy axe though his arms burned and his chest hurt. He only stopped when he looked around and realized there was nothing ahead of him. He looked back and saw the last of the Eater Goats being finished off behind him.
A red trail marked his passage through the monsters. Pyrite leaned on his axe, gasping, then remembered. He stood up straight as Redscar rode back towards him. The [Raid Leader] had an odd look in his eyes as he fished something from his belt and tossed it at Pyrite.
Pyrite caught it and blinked down at the green healing potion. He looked down and realized the goats had torn chunks out of his arms, shoulders, and legs. Absently, he drank the potion and tossed the bottle down.
“How many lost?”
“Few. Eater Goats got surprised. No good when defending. Think they started to run.”
Redscar grinned. He patted Thunderfur and let the Carn Wolf begin to eat one of the goat’s corpses in front of him. But he was still looking at Pyrite. He wiped his blade with one hand.
“That was—good. Impressive. Not like you.”
He nodded to Pyrite. The Hob silently wiped blood from his arms and chest. He was drenched in it. Pyrite nodded shortly.
“I know. Had to do.”
“To show them.”
Pyrite pointed. The Hobs were panting, while the Redfang warriors of Rags’ tribe were cleaning their weapons or letting their Carn Wolves eat, tending to their injuries. But the Goblins behind them—the Hobs from Tremborag’s tribe—they were all staring at Pyrite. At the Hob who’d just cut a hole through a thousand Eater Goats by himself.
Redscar grinned at Pyrite. He understood. It was only Rags who didn’t. She rode up to Pyrite, swearing and looking ready to murder him.
“What that? That was not plan! Why attack?”
“Pyrite showing off, Chieftain.”
Redscar grinned and saluted Rags with his sword. She gave him an evil look and then looked at Pyrite.
Pyrite shrugged tiredly. His arms hurt.
“Have to show them, Chieftain. Show them you are smart, but also strong. I am second-in-command. Have to be strong. Show them—and show others.”
Rags looked around blankly. Then she noticed the other tribes.
The Eater Goats had split up in their attack. Most had gone for Rags’ tribe, but two groups had split off and attacked the other two tribes. The last of them were dying on Reiss’ side now.
The Goblin Lord’s troops had fought the Eater Goats well, although without half as much flashy tactics or aggression as Rags’ tribe. Eater of Spears was pounding the Eater Goats flat while the warriors in black armor supported him. On the other side, Garen’s warriors were already dissecting the Eater Goats that had attacked them.
Pyrite murmured. He hadn’t even seen Garen’s tribe fight. Redscar shook his head.
“They didn’t attack. Garen attacked them when he saw you—”
He mimed Pyrite swinging his axe. Rags and Pyrite both looked confused.
“Why not attack?”
Redscar looked a bit sad. He glanced over at Garen then tapped a streak of red on his green skin. He had a slash of crimson paint running down his left cheek.
“Warpaint. Garen tribe has it. Mark of Redfangs. Eater Goats see, they don’t attack. Know it means death.”
Rags blinked. Pyrite saw Redscar was right—every Goblin in Garen’s tribe was wearing their signature war paint. Rags frowned, musing.
“Good to know. Could use, maybe.”
Then she looked over at Pyrite and scowled again. She poked one of his healing wounds and he winced. Redscar chortled as he left them alone to order the Goblins to butcher the dead goats for food. Rags and Pyrite looked at each other.
“Took big risk.”
“Yes, Chieftain. But did show them. I think.”
Pyrite felt at his shoulder, pulled out a tooth so the flesh could regrow. He flicked it to the ground and looked at her.
“Did it work? Did it seem strong?”
He hoped it had, or else he’d taken a big risk for nothing. Rags hesitated, then smiled.
“Looked like scary monster to me. Scary, big, fat Hob.”
“But not smelly.”
“But not smelly.”
They laughed. Pyrite walked back, noting the difference in the way the Goblins looked at him. One of the Hobs he recognized, a lieutenant of Tremborag’s, had been part of the fighting. Pyrite slowed and stared at him. What was his name?
The Hob blinked. He nodded slowly. He had a wicked maul and steel cuirass on his front, as well as a reputation for picking fights.
“Pyrite. Good fight. Knew Flooded Waters tribe was right choice.”
“You think so?”
Pyrite tilted his head quizzically. Hammersteel grinned and spat.
“Think so! Garen not smart, but Chieftain Rags is. Better than traitor lord. And has strong second! Pyrite with the axe!”
He pointed to the axe and cackled. Pyrite smiled a bit. Hammersteel looked envious. He made a circumspect gesture.
Pyrite nodded. Hammersteel approached—and was promptly shoved out of the way. Ulvama appeared, smiling widely. Pyrite blinked. The [Shaman] of Tremborag’s tribe wore very little in the way of clothing, and instead had colorful paint on her skin instead. She smiled seductively at Pyrite as she kicked Hammersteel, forcing him back.
“Strong Hob. Didn’t know so strong! Good second for Chieftain Rags. I am Ulvama. You are Pyrite? We should talk. Meet each other.”
She laid a hand on Pyrite’s arm, brushing at the blood and ignoring the flies buzzing around Pyrite. He noticed the flies though, and resolved to wash himself as soon as possible. He hated being dirty. Pyrite stared at Ulvama’s soft touch and grunted.
“We have met before. Long time ago.”
Ulvama’s smile slipped.
“Mhm. Back in Tremborag tribe. I was Goblin. Small. You were small Goblin too. Apprentice to Chief Shaman. Remember you getting in trouble for using paints.”
Ulvama’s jaw dropped. Hammersteel cackled with laughter. She turned and pointed a finger at his groin, and he yelped as the air grew subzero rapidly and fled. Ulvama turned back to Pyrite. She tilted her head.
“You were Tremborag’s?”
Pyrite met her eyes. Ulvama hesitated. He could see her thinking. Her gambit to tie herself to the highest-ranked Goblin in Rags’ tribe wasn’t going well. But she didn’t give up—mainly because she had no choice. Noears had been in Tremborag’s tribe so he was well aware of Ulvama’s ways—and he didn’t get along with Tremborag’s Goblins to begin with. It was why he’d left and why he was called Noears to begin with. Poisonbite was female, as was Rags, and neither of them were interested in other females in a way that would help Ulvama. And Redscar liked male Goblins. So Ulvama tried again.
“You want sex?”
Goblins didn’t do much subtlety. Ulvama’s first attempt had been as subtle as it got. Pyrite shook his head.
She stared at Pyrite suspiciously. He shrugged.
“Too busy. And don’t like you. You go back to wagons now. We keep moving.”
He shooed Ulvama away, ignoring her hissing and threats. Pyrite walked back to the front of his tribe. Eater of Spears was there, rubbing at a chunk taken out of one bicep. Pyrite nodded and began walking. The tribe marched after him, hurriedly packing away the meat from the dead goats. It was just one thing in a day.
But it mattered. Pyrite could sense Eater of Spears looking at him. The Hob absently swatted a fly trying to lick blood from his skin.
“Never saw that before. Strong. Cut goats apart so quick even Garen Redfang looked scared. Why do it?”
Pyrite paused. He looked around and saw Garen Redfang was staring at him. He shrugged and looked ahead.
“It was a warning.”
“To Garen? To Tremborag Goblins?”
Pyrite looked up at Eater of Spears. The Hob paused. Then he nodded. The two walked on. Pyrite found his water skin and tried to wipe off the blood with a little bit of water. Eater of Spears silently offered him his water skin and Pyrite grunted in thanks. He noticed Eater of Spears hadn’t healed the bites he’d taken—not that the Eater Goats had been able to do much damage to his skin.
“No. Have, but not waste. Will heal quick.”
The Hob shook his head and tapped a bottle on his belt. He had three potions, actually. A sign of how important he was. For the first time, Pyrite noticed that Eater of Spears had a number of objects on his belt. A little band of feathers, a token of some sort, his own belt pouches, the water skin—and two glittering hatchets.
“What are those?”
Eater of Spears blinked down at his belt. Then he grinned.
“Throwing axes. Weak enchanted. Sharp. Reiss gave as reward.”
“Any good with axes?”
Pyrite was intrigued. He glanced back at Reiss, and then at Garen, and had another thought. Another bad idea, or perhaps, a good one. He raised his eyebrows and Eater of Spears grinned.
“Have Skill. And class! Was a [Thrower] before. Can hit flying Wyverns with rocks. Don’t level class much anymore, though. But this good for [Mages]. Threw at fast-fast flying pink thing, but missed.”
Flying pink what? Pyrite decided to ignore that. He pursed his lips, and then spoke casually.
“I have another class. [Blademaster]. Only Level 3, though.”
Eater of Spears’ brows shot up. He looked impressed, as anyone might. Pyrite shrugged.
“Was taught by Greydath of Blades. You know?”
“I do. He taught you?”
“Yes. But no good with sword. Axes better.”
Pyrite sighed. No matter how hard he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to get past Greydath’s ‘basic’ training. Which was still something. He looked speculatively at Eater of Spears and decided to tell him another secret.
“Trained a bit. Didn’t learn much, but…in fight. I can see when someone is going to hit. And where, sometimes. Not a Skill. I learned it from Greydath.”
Eater of Spears was fascinated. His eyes flickered, and Pyrite was sure that information was going straight to Reiss later. Not necessarily maliciously—but it was definitely important. The big Hob looked at Pyrite, and the Hob waited. Wait—wait—
He saw the movement and raised a fist to block as Eater of Spears threw a fist. The Hob stopped before he hit Pyrite, which was a relief. Pyrite had known the punch was coming, but blocking it—
Eater of Spears blinked and some of the Goblins who’d been watching and listening murmured in awe. No doubt they’d pass this on as well. That was how the Goblin social network functioned. But Pyrite didn’t care about them. He focused on Eater of Spears and smiled.
The Hob grinned, delighted. He nearly forgot to keep walking as he stared at Pyrite.
“How? Can teach?”
“Very hard. Took long time to master, even with Greydath show. All about muscles. Arm position. Stance. Easy on Eater of Spears because muscles are easy to see.”
Pyrite smiled and Eater of Spears laughed. The Hob smiled too. And in his mind, from his glittering treasury of secrets, Pyrite plucked a pair of gems and offered them up. Two secrets he’d given. And in return, he gained something back, invisible though it might be.
Trust. Eater of Spears quizzed Pyrite on how the trick worked, and about Greydath. Pyrite answered politely without going into details, and then casually pointed at Eater of Spears’ axes when he found a break in the conversation.
“Greydath taught more than just sword. Like axes. Not Skill, but can throw. Let me try?”
Eater of Spears hesitated, but then he willingly unhooked an axe and handed it to Pyrite. The Hob grunted as he lifted the throwing axe. It was superbly balanced and it felt sharp enough to cut through anything. A gift indeed. He looked around, spotted a target, and then turned and hurled the axe. Eater of Spears roared in surprise and Goblins looked up and threw themselves flat.
Ulvama was sitting in her wagon, growling to herself, when the blade of the axe embedded itself into the wooden frame next to her. Pyrite winced—he hadn’t meant to throw it that close. He saw the [Shaman]’s eyes go wide.
Ulvama screeched, leapt away from the quivering axe, and then stared across the heads of Goblins at Pyrite. She starting screaming insults at him. Pyrite ignored her as he lowered his hand. He looked around and saw that every Goblin around him, Reiss’ Goblins and Rags’ tribe, were staring at him with open mouths. He looked up at Eater of Spears, who was gaping at him.
“Good at throwing things too. Want to play game?”
The Hob blinked, then he bellowed with laughter and slapped Pyrite on the back, nearly knocking him over. The axe was returned and Eater of Spears handed the axe to Pyrite. The two began throwing at objects ahead of them, aiming at birds, rocks, any target that came to mind.
Pyrite threw economically, Eater of Spears with less accuracy but enough force to split almost any object in two or shatter stone. It was just as well the axes were enchanted. So the two Hobs walked together and Pyrite knew he was at the center of attention. He’d done all he could. He’d prepared, and sent…a warning. As clear as he could make it.
He just hoped it would be enough.
The black light had struck Osthia. She had fallen as it sapped the life, the very core of energy from her. She lay on the ground, motionless, breathless, eyes still open wide and mouth slightly agape. The Necromancer studied her for a moment, then walked off.
It took a while for the Goblins to dare retrieve her body. When they did, she was loaded onto a wagon with other dead Goblins and animals, to be made into food for later. After all, they couldn’t waste food. There Osthia lay as night passed to day, until the wagon was bumping and threatening to knock her onto the ground.
The Goblin driver was dozing until Snapjaw rode over and snapped an order. The Hob leapt onto the wagon and found Osthia’s corpse. She eyed the black ring on Osthia’s claws, bent, tugged it off, and waited.
Nothing happened. Snapjaw scratched her head anxiously. She bent to listen by Osthia’s mouth and heard no intake of breath. She poked Osthia in the chest, then poked her in the cheek. Snapjaw gulped, then saw one eye swivel towards her.
“Do you mind?”
The Hob nearly leapt off the wagon. She lurched back as Osthia sat up, gasping and coughing. The Drake spat—several dead flies shot out of her mouth. She looked around, blinked at the sunlight streaming down, and then turned to Snapjaw.
“What in the name of the Ancestors—how long was I out?”
Snapjaw shrugged. Osthia gaped.
“Half a day? Your leader told me I’d be recovered in minutes! Do you know how dangerous it is to keep someone under the [False Death] spell that long? Why the hell—”
The female Hob picked at her teeth with one claw, looking embarrassed. Osthia inhaled, and spat another fly out.
“You forgot? You forg—”
“Necromancer took long time to go. Long time. So forgot. Remembered before you got eaten.”
Snapjaw said it as if that righted all wrongs. Osthia balled her claws into a fist, then looked around.
“He’s gone? Then where’s Reiss?”
The Hob glared at the Drake. She enunciated her words carefully.
“Goblin Lord Reiss is busy. Big thinking after plan.”
“Plan? What plan?”
Osthia looked at Snapjaw. The Hob closed her mouth. Osthia tried to sit up, but her body refused to obey her.
“What plan? What are the Humans going to do? What is the Necromancer doing? What is Reiss—”
She was trying to get up. Snapjaw scratched her head, and then brightened.
“Oh! Remember the second thing I was supposed to do.”
Osthia turned to glare at her. Snapjaw scooted forwards. She picked up the black ring, its charge exhausted, and then looked at Osthia. Reiss had come up with the ring after worrying she might be killed. He was reasonably certain she could survive a single [Deathbolt]—it killed all those under Level 30 when Az’kerash used it, and all those under Level 15 when he used it—which meant it would take multiple casts to kill Osthia. But he hadn’t wanted to risk it. She didn’t know why he liked the Drake so much, but orders were orders.
“What second thing?”
The Drake glared at Snapjaw. The Hobgoblin shrugged.
She brought her head forwards and head-butted Osthia. The Drake’s head snapped back and she reeled.
She tried to spit acid, but Snapjaw struck her in the face with a second head-butt, then a third. She shook her head as Osthia fell back, unconscious. Snapjaw looked down at the prone Drake and sighed.
“Reiss says sorry.”
Then she turned to the Goblin driver.
“Put in chains. Hands, feet, mouth. Hobs guard. Don’t let run.”
She hopped off the wagon and onto the back of her waiting horse. Snapjaw rode away, rubbing her aching head. She headed straight for Reiss, visible on the back of his shield spider. Snapjaw couldn’t wait for him to tell the others, so she could tell Poisonbite. It was time. It was finally time. She grinned, showing all of her metallic, enhanced teeth.
Time for war.
The second Goblin was Reiss. He sat on his Shield Spider and thought. He thought about tactics, about a city called Liscor, about the undead and the Chosen of Az’kerash. And most of all, he thought about Garen. He didn’t look up, lost in thought as he was. When Eater of Spears sent a Goblin to relay his curious exchanges with Pyrite, Reiss barely took notice, though the news would have fascinated him another time. When Snapjaw told him about Osthia, he just looked up.
“Thank you, Snapjaw.”
She grinned at him. Reiss did not smile back. He couldn’t feel happy about Osthia. But it had to be done and he didn’t have the courage to confront her. She would not understand. Or worse, she might understand all too well. Either way, she would have tried to kill him. Because he was going to take Liscor. Reiss was only afraid—
That he’d have to kill Garen to do it.
Tell them. Force them to kneel, and bring one army to take Liscor. His master’s last injunction echoed in Reiss’ mind. He knew it had to be done. His army was strong, but Rags had an army roughly two thirds as large as his. And Garen? Well, his warriors were few, but they were elite.
How had it happened? Tremborag’s tribe had gone to Rags rather than Reiss or Garen. It had shocked him, although his conversation with Az’kerash had put it out of his mind. Now Reiss wondered. He supposed it made sense; Tremborag’s tribe blamed him for losing their mountain, but why had they passed over Garen?
It didn’t matter. Both tribes had to ally with him. They didn’t have to be his—his master was wrong there. Forcing Rags to submit to him would be close to impossible, and Garen would be truly impossible. They just had to fight together. He could convince Rags of that when he told her the full scope of the plan, Reiss was certain.
Garen would be the obstacle. That was why Reiss hesitated to tell him. When Garen Redfang learned of Az’kerash’s plans, he would oppose them on principle, regardless of how they made sense. He might even try to kill Reiss. Or run.
If they fought—if Reiss had to kill him—the Goblin Lord closed his eyes. They were brothers. Brothers, still, after so long.
“It will not come to that. He will see reason. I just need—to force him to agree. If Rags agrees, he must.”
They’d surround his tribe. In the night. Give him an ultimatum and force him to agree. And if he fought, if he resisted—they could capture him. Alive.
It wasn’t as if his tribe was necessary in the battle. Important, but not necessary. And it might not come to that. Garen was stubborn, but he wasn’t a complete idiot.
Reiss told himself that again and again. Then, at last, he decided it was time. Rags had to know, then Garen. He forced himself not to tremble as he sat up and directed his Shield Spider to crawl towards Rags’ tribe. It was time. Time at last! Time for war. Time to take Liscor and find a home.
“Chieftain Rags! Gather your lieutenants. I must speak with you.”
Reiss shouted at the small figure riding on Carn Wolf. He saw Rags’ head turn, and felt a hush go through both his and her tribe. The Goblins could tell something was happening, even if most did not know what. He saw Rags hesitate, then nod. She rode to join him with her four most trusted lieutenants. Eater of Spears and Snapjaw joined Reiss. He wished the others were here. But they had died at Invrisil, in battle. So many dead. But the end was in sight.
Rags stared up at Reiss, her eyes narrowed. She knew he had spoken with Az’kerash. But not about what. The Goblin Lord took a steadying breath. Garen was watching suspiciously.
“I have spoken with my master. He has discovered the Human’s plans. What they intend. My master is certain they are moving us to Liscor. Not to slaughter us there, but to use us. With trebuchets they will tear open Liscor’s walls. Then, they mean to force us to take the city. And once it has fallen, rush in and slaughter us to the last.”
The Goblins went silent. Rags’ eyes went wide and Noears uttered a curse. Redscar turned to look at the Humans, Poisonbite gulped, and Pyrite narrowed his eyes and glanced at his Chieftain. Fear, sharp and electric ran through all the Goblins around Reiss. He could feel it, but kept calm. So did the Goblins in his army, sensing his confidence, drawing resolve from it.
Snapjaw ground her teeth together, almost dancing from foot to foot with glee and Eater of Spears waited silently. They knew what was coming next. Rags looked pale as she looked at Reiss.
“Okay. That bad. Necromancer has a plan?”
“Yes. We will take the city and hold it. With his aid. He will resurrect every warrior that falls in battle. He will provide us with his elite undead warriors, his Chosen. With them, we will take Liscor, and when the Humans attack, we will hold it and beat them back.”
Reiss saw the eyes of the Goblins widen around him. Some reacted in shock, others horror or disbelief. Rags just blinked. Reiss went on, outlining the plan Az’kerash had given to him.
“Liscor can be taken. It can fall. With your tribe and mine, we can secure the city. My master can raise walls of bone to hold the breaches, seal the Humans in when they attack and cut their army in two. Chieftain Rags, join your Flooded Waters tribe to mine and claim Liscor. Your home. It will be the first city of Goblins.”
Rags’ eyes flickered. She looked at Reiss, then at Snapjaw’s grin, Eater of Spears slowly nodding. She looked around at Reiss’ warriors, who were caught up by his words, and then at her own uncertain tribe, who looked to the Goblin Lord with apprehension and a bit of—hope. Reiss waited, his eyes going to Garen. What would he say? What would he do? Would he run if he heard the news being spread? No, he’d come to say something even if it was a refusal. Would he—
The word was quiet, and so soft Reiss’ thoughts kept going until they got tangled up on the word. The Goblin Lord blinked. He looked down at Rags.
“No. We will not fight.”
Rags folded her arms. Her lieutenants looked at her. Poisonbite in disbelief, Noears frowning, Redscar uneasily. And Pyrite? The Hob smiled.
“You are not serious.”
Reiss refocused on Rags. She had to be telling a joke. But the little Goblin just shook her head.
“I told you. Goblins live in circles. We kill Humans. Humans kill us. We kill Drakes, Drakes kill us. Adventurers come to kill us, we kill them, so more come. It never ends. That is the circle of Goblins.”
Reiss automatically corrected her. Rags shrugged as if to say the words were the same. Reiss scrambled to say something.
“I know. But this will break the cycle. Chieftain Rags—taking Liscor will mean a safe haven for Goblins! If we hold Liscor, no one will be able to take it. It is one of the most defensive cities on the continent—”
“Mhm. So Humans and Drakes both want it. And not very safe if we can take it. Sounds like we put big ‘stab me’ sign on back. Not doing it.”
The little Chieftain scratched at one ear. Reiss stared at her.
“You don’t have a choice. The Humans will slaughter all of us to force us to attack Liscor. Tyrion Veltras wants to take the city.”
“So? Let him. We won’t fight. We will run. Into mountains, maybe. Fight big battle while other Goblins climb.”
Rags pointed to the mountains. They were high and practically impassable. Reiss tried to imagine forcing over two hundred thousand Goblins up the slopes. They’d have to abandon everything while they held the Humans off.
“Okay. Then another plan. We go into dungeon. There is cave. Dungeon is…probably big. Could hold some. Or go around Liscor. Fight Humans and get away. But not attack city. Bad idea.”
“You will die if you attempt that. Why not take Liscor? Why not fight to hold it? With all the advantages my master can bring to the battle—”
Reiss stared down at Rags. She scratched her ears, not looking directly at him or anyone else. Finally, she muttered.
“Don’t want to kill people in Liscor.”
This time the question was a chorus. Everyone stared at Rags. Her points about not fighting had been good, if scattered. But this? Reiss shook his head, growing angry.
“What has Liscor done for you? Chieftain—the Drakes care nothing for you! They have killed our people for thousands of years, just like the Humans!”
“They have. And they are stupid poos. Especially Relc.”
Rags agreed. She sighed, and scrubbed at the back of her head. Then she looked around. Two tribes stared at Rags, hung on her words. She looked at Reiss, who was trembling, unable to believe what she was saying. Rags sighed louder, then raised one claw.
“Okay. This is why. There is a Human there. In Liscor.”
Everyone stared at Rags. She raised her voice as she went on, not speaking just at Reiss, but to Pyrite, to Redscar and Poisonbite and Noears and all the others. She spread her arms, speaking to the hundreds of thousands of Goblins who listened to her.
“Her name is Erin Solstice. And she is good. She lives in Liscor—in a little inn outside it. And she likes Goblins. She is my…my friend. And no one is going to kill her.”
“A Human? That’s not—Humans aren’t friends with Goblins.”
Reiss whispered. Rags shook her head.
“That was what I thought! But—she is different. She kills, but only to defend. She does not attack. And she does not let others attack. She has—she has a sign by her inn! I have seen it! It says ‘No Killing Goblins’. No killing Goblins in her inn. She is my friend and she is friends with Antinium and Drakes and Gnolls. She is good.”
The other Goblins stared at Rags. A friend? A Human as a friend? It sounded like a joke. Some of Tremborag’s former Goblins began grinning, but Rags didn’t laugh. She was as serious as could be as she met Reiss’ eyes. And slowly, it dawned on the other Goblins.
She was telling the truth. Because, after all, Goblins didn’t lie. There was a Human in Liscor who was friends with a Goblin. The murmurs began to spread. Reiss looked around.
“That is one Human. One Human cannot save you!”
Rag agreed readily. She nodded, looking around.
“Don’t expect her to. But she could help. She could do…something. Anything?”
Reiss raised his voice. He heard the sarcasm in his tone, the anger. He couldn’t help it. He pointed down at Rags.
“What could one Human do? What could any Human do?”
She shrugged. It was the most classically Goblin thing she could do. She looked up at Reiss and smiled.
“Don’t know. But she is my friend. You have your Necromancer. I have Erin. You have your Human, and I have mine. I will not fight Liscor. I will run or hide or do whatever it takes. But I will not fight. The destiny of Goblins is a circle. And it must stop.”
For a second Reiss couldn’t speak. He was lost with fury, indignation at the stupidity of what Rags was saying. Then he heard a cheer.
Everyone’s head turned. They saw a little Goblin standing on a cart, cheering and waving. It was alone at first, and then a Hob raised her arms and bellowed as well. Goblins around them began to cheer too. Reiss stared as Rags’ tribe began to laugh and shout. They were cheering. Cheering her, celebrating.
They didn’t want to fight. He looked and saw more Goblins on their feet. And they were shouting.
“Rags! Rags! Rags!”
Her name. Rags flushed with pride and looked around, puffing her chest out. Her lieutenants took up the call. Reiss stared around. He saw thousands of Goblins cheering, and Garen’s tribe staring. Garen Redfang himself sat on the back of his Carn Wolf, staring at Rags. He was glaring. The Human army had halted, perhaps wondering what the strange cheering was for.
Rags turned away. Her lieutenants dispersed, and the Goblins moved ahead, hurrying to keep going before the Humans started throwing spells. Snapjaw and Eater of Spears stayed back, looking anxiously at Reiss. He didn’t move. At last, they left too. Reiss sat on his undead spider’s back as the Goblins flowed past him. And only darkness filled his mind.
A Human for a friend? Breaking the cycle? Running? It was unacceptable. They had to fight. They had to take Liscor. His master would not accept anything else. He would not accept anything else. It was right in front of them. A city. A kingdom! And she was wrong.
Something black was in Reiss’ chest, making his heart beat faster. It was welling up in him, dark intentions. He looked around and saw his army marching ahead of him. And Rags’ lieutenants and his people.
They’d all gone back to each other. His tribe and Rags’. His lieutenants and hers. Snapjaw and Poisonbite were talking to each other, arguing, but talking, riding on her horse. And Eater of Spears was throwing axes with Pyrite, speaking. Reiss’ heart hurt.
Eater of Spears spoke with no one as closely as he was speaking with Pyrite. There were so few Hobs like him, but he had found a kindred spirit in the fat Hob. And Reiss was going to—
No. They could still walk together and smile. Nothing needed to change. It was just her. Reiss looked up. At Rags, who was riding along, arguing with the [Shaman], Ulvama. She was the one who led this tribe. And she was the one who was wrong.
A home for your kind. His master’s words echoed in Reiss’ mind. It was so close. He had sacrificed so much for it. And Rags would run? No. No, it couldn’t be. It wouldn’t be. He would not let her.
Slowly, Reiss rode his Shield Spider forwards. This time he was fixated on Rags. Something dark whispered to him. It sounded like his master, but it had his voice. Reiss felt pitch blackness spilling forth, beating from his heart, in his veins, his blood. He was rigid with the horror of what he was going to do. But he was going to do it anyways.
This time, when she turned, Rags paused. The Goblins around her paused as well. They stared back at Reiss’ face and grew silent. Snapjaw looked up. Eater of Spears paused, pointing out a target for Pyrite to hit. Rags looked back at Reiss.
Reiss was calm. Very calm. And cold. He looked at Rags and then past her, at the mountains and the sky. Not a few hours past midday. Plenty of time. He spoke pleasantly, feeling the magic growing in him, running down his arm.
“Do you remember my dream?”
“About Goblin kingdom? Yes. Silly dream. But nice one.”
Rags nodded. Reiss smiled. He looked down at her.
“It is. But there’s something I didn’t tell you about it. I have that dream some nights. A dream of a Goblin kingdom, a place where Goblins are safe and live in peace. But in that dream, the Goblins have no faces.”
She blinked. He nodded. The magic ran down into his fingers and gathered there, as thick as sin, as dark as midnight.
“None. I look around in my dream and see no one I recognize. Not Eater of Spears. Not Snapjaw. Not even me. I look at my reflection and see another Goblin’s face. Do you know why?”
She held still, looking at him.
Reiss smiled sadly.
“It is because for my dream, I would sacrifice anything. Anything and anyone. I have my dream, and it is worth all the pain in the world to make real. So I am sorry for this.”
He raised his hand. Rags blinked.
The black energy shot through Reiss’ fingers, coalescing into a line of energy that sucked away the light. It shot through Rags at point black range. She swayed, gasping, her face drained of color. She swayed, put a hand on her saddle.
She was still alive. Reiss had hoped she’d die right away. She kept looking at him, kept trying to say something. But there was nothing left to say. She was trying to turn her Carn Wolf, but she was too weak. The Goblins around her were just staring, shocked by the suddenness of it all. Reiss raised his fingers and pointed at Rags’ chest. Then he looked up. He heard something.
A whirring sound. Something tugged at his hand. Reiss blinked and stared at the silvery axe that softly thunked into the breast of a Hob standing next to him. The Hob blinked and fell. Reiss stared at the axe. He’d given that to Eater of Spears. Then he felt an odd sensation. He looked down at his hand. He couldn’t see it.
It was missing. Reiss stared down at the stump of his hand as blood began to gush from the severed arteries. He looked around, and saw the Hob. The second axe passed by his face and Reiss nearly fell from the back of his undead spider. He blinked and stared at the thrower.
Pyrite. The Hob straightened. He saw Reiss catch himself, saw Rags reeling backwards and her Carn Wolf bounding backwards in fright, howling. He looked up and saw Eater of Spears staring at him, face white. Pyrite sighed.
He reached for his battleaxe. His hands closed around the haft too slow. Eater of Spears grabbed Pyrite and roared. Pyrite felt something slam into him and saw the world spinning around him until he slammed into the ground. Goblins screamed, and both the Flooded Waters tribe and the Goblin Lord’s army broke ranks and began to fight as everything descended into chaos.