Garen Redfang saw the axe spin through the air. He saw the silver flash, the way Reiss recoiled. And the way the Goblin Lord stared dumbfounded down at his severed stump of a hand. He didn’t see the second one coming.
The leader of the Redfang Tribe growled. But he was sitting on his Carn Wolf, separated by tens of thousands of confused, screaming Goblins. Too far to shout a warning even if he had been so inclined. And he wasn’t. Reiss was his enemy. He served the Necromancer.
But still, he couldn’t die like that. Garen saw Reiss look about. The second whirling axe missed him by what had to be a foot. Garen saw Reiss jerk in surprise. He stared at the Hob who had thrown the axe and nearly fell from his seat on the undead spider. Garen looked too.
Pyrite, the former Goldstone Chieftain, the second-in-command of the Flooded Waters tribe, turned. Garen saw him say something to the huge muscle-bound Hob, Eater of Spears. He reached for his battleaxe. Too late. Eater of Spears grabbed him, roaring with fury, and hurled Pyrite through the crowd of Goblins. Garen watched as Pyrite slammed into the ground.
“Mistake. Should have killed. Snap neck.”
He commented to one of the Redfangs sitting on a Carn Wolf next to him. The scarred veteran Goblin grimaced and nodded. He was named Spiderslicer and was Garen’s second. He had been the third-strongest Redfang in the tribe, but with Redscar’s absence, he was now second. And he clearly resented it.
Spiderslicer frowned into the mass of panicking Goblins. One of them wasn’t just staring. Redscar and the traitorous warriors around him had seen the [Deathbolt] spell and Reiss’ treachery. They were charging towards the Goblin Lord, but there were thousands of the black-armored Goblins in the way. Spiderslicer stared at Redscar and looked at Garen. He fingered the thin, deadly falchion at his side.
“We going in, Chieftain?”
He clearly wanted to settle the old score between him and Redscar. Not only had the other Goblin beaten him time and time again, but he had abandoned his tribe for Rags, leaving Spiderslicer eternally second-best. Garen watched as both the Flooded Waters tribe and Reiss’s army became a confused melee. He shook his head.
“Not yet. We watch.”
Spiderslicer nodded sourly. He relayed Garen’s orders, bellowing at the other Redfangs milling about. The warriors grunted, but didn’t respond—Spiderslicer was not Redscar, and lacked the other Goblin’s leadership qualities.
Garen eyed his Redfangs, sitting and watching with half an eye as both tribes began attacking each other. His Carn Wolf flicked its ears and growled, but didn’t move about restlessly. Nor did the Redfangs, for all they clearly wanted to join the fray. They were disciplined, albeit overeager for a fight. They hadn’t done any fighting since the siege of Tremborag’s mountain. A few Eater Goats didn’t count.
But Garen didn’t intend to draw his sword. Not now. He stared at Reiss and Rags. The small Goblin Chieftain had retreated, swaying, as her Carn Wolf tried to carry her to safety. The animal was intelligent—it bounded away as the Goblin Lord’s personal escort of Hobs tried to bring it down, howling and surrounding their leader. Garen watched Rags clinging to the wolf’s back. He had given her that wolf after she’d refused the rare, albino pup he’d offered her.
Garen gritted his teeth. He wasn’t riding to her aid. And neither was he going to try and kill Reiss. There were too many Goblins between him and the Goblin Lord. Besides—Garen cast an eye to the north. Even Reiss and the Necromancer weren’t the biggest problem.
The Human army had halted for the Eater Goats attack. They’d been on the march, but this sudden battle between the Goblins had caught them off-guard. Garen could see them milling about, waiting for their leader, Tyrion Veltras, to make a decision.
“Stupid Human [Lord].”
Garen had seen the Human. He’d watched him fight. And—it was hard to admit—Garen had realized Tyrion was stronger than he was. By just a bit. He had enchanted gear like an adventurer, and his Skills had overwhelmed even Tremborag. And he had his army.
So long as he was watching, Garen would stay where he was. Besides, this battle was to his advantage. Garen turned back to stare at the battlefield.
See. Rags was retreating, shouting at her warriors who were trying to move into their formations. But the Goblin Lord’s army was besieging them, and Rags’ tribe was patchwork. Tremborag’s Goblins fought, but without the discipline and cohesion that made her tribe strong. And all her lieutenants were too far away from her.
Pyrite was retreating from Eater of Spears. Redscar was fighting, caught in Reiss’ forces, pressing them back, but mired. Poisonbite was screaming. She and Snapjaw had been riding together and now she was fighting with Snapjaw as the Hob’s horse reared in panic. And Reiss was looking down. For what? His hand?
He could die here. Garen watched, seeing Rags scream and point at the Goblin Lord. She was weak, pale, but at her command the Goblins with crossbows around her aimed at her target. The Goblin Lord looked up—threw himself from the back of the Shield Spider. Hundreds of bolts struck the undead Shield Spider, which recoiled, but didn’t fall.
Reiss could die here. Rags could kill him. Garen gripped the hilt of his sword. If Reiss died it was good. If Rags died, he would lead the Goblins against Reiss. Against the Necromancer.
And if Rags died, he would control her tribe. They wouldn’t go to Reiss. They hated him. They should have gone to Garen to begin with. Ulvama, Tremborag’s lieutenants…why had they turned to Rags instead of him?
Garen was angry. Furious. He hated Reiss because he was a traitor, because he had given his soul to a monster. He hated Rags because she had betrayed him, because she had taken his tribe and because they had gone to her. He hated the Humans because they were treacherous. And sometimes he hated himself.
Why was he here? Why had everything gone wrong? Garen remembered smiling faces. Laughter. Friends, or people he’d thought were friends.
His team. His first…tribe. The Halfseekers. And then—living in the mountains. Forming his own tribe, making them strong. It had all been so simple. And now it wasn’t. Now—Garen stared across the battlefield. He wanted to act. He was a warrior. But he couldn’t find a place to join in. He was not on Rags’ side. He was not on Reiss’.
He was alone.
Flying hurt. Landing hurt more. Pyrite wished he’d fallen on his back, or at the very least, been tossed in a more vertical arc. If he’d been thrown down, he could have landed on his back, stared dizzily at the sky, and then gotten up.
Instead, he felt himself strike the ground, roll, cutting his back and shoulders open as he landed on several armed Goblins. Wearing armor. Holding weapons. The impact lacerated Pyrite’s flesh. The rolling impact tore more from him. He didn’t bother staring at the sky—when the world stopped moving, he stared face-down at a pile of torn-up dirt. Then he pushed himself up.
Battleaxe. Where was…? It was still holstered on his back. Pyrite grunted. He freed it from its sheathe and looked around.
Goblins in black armor stared at him. Eater of Spears had thrown Pyrite into the ranks of his own army. The Hob blinked. The Goblins uncertainly raised their weapons. Some of them looked around.
A Hob—not Pyrite, one of Reiss’ Hobs—bellowed and pointed at Pyrite. He’d seen the entire thing. But some of the Goblin Lord’s warriors still hesitated. Half of them hadn’t even seen Reiss’ betrayal. They were supposed to attack their allies? But a Hob was a Hob, so they began to approach.
Pyrite grunted. He swung his battleaxe at the nearest three Goblins, putting his weight behind it. He felt the axe slice through one of the Goblins, and then another. The third screamed as the blow tore open his chest.
The other Goblins stared in horror at the three. They looked at Pyrite. The Hob staggered with the force of his swing. Then he swung, backhanded. More Goblins died. He roared and the Goblins backed up.
Treachery. Pyrite looked around. He could see his tribe fighting now, skirmishing with Reiss’ army. But where was Rags? Pyrite turned back and saw the Hob charging at him, sword and shield in hand. He bellowed and Pyrite swung the tip of his enchanted axe into the dirt. The axe head ignited as it struck earth and grass and a plume of smoke billowed up. The Hob recoiled. Pyrite tore up with his axe and the Hob fell back, cut from groin to chest.
Where was Rags? Pyrite whirled. The smaller Goblins backed up. Pyrite cast about, saw a familiar giant spider. He charged towards it, bellowing and swinging his axe. Most of the Goblins before him scattered. But a few were brave or suicidal. They attacked Pyrite and he cut them down.
Reach. Strength. Speed. Greydath had taught him how to fight. With a greatsword, with a battleaxe, you could cut down almost anyone before they got to you. And Pyrite’s was enchanted. Flesh, steel, it didn’t matter. The weapon bit through both and the flames burned whatever it struck.
Death. Pyrite cut through the ranks of Reiss’ army. Goblins fled or died. He stared at their faces. They hadn’t asked for this. They hadn’t tried to hurt him. But their leader had betrayed his honor. And so they had to die.
Later, Pyrite would think on what he did. For now—Rags. He looked around. Where? There.
She was clinging to her Carn Wolf, face pale, but still shouting orders. She was trying to organize her army in the chaos. And Reiss was on the ground as his elite Hobs pressed Rags’ warriors back. He was looking for something. His missing hand. Pyrite bared his teeth. He heard a shout and turned his head.
“Pyrite! Get to Chieftain!”
Redscar shouted above the chaos. He and Pyrite were separated by about a thousand Goblins. The Redfangs were attacking from the flanks, driving Reiss’ warriors back. Without them there, the Goblin Lord’s army would envelop the Flooded Waters tribe. Redscar pointed and Pyrite nodded. He began to run—then heard a roar from behind him.
Few things scared Pyrite. He had fought Trolls and other monsters before. He’d seen Greydath angry and had witnessed Tremborag’s furious beast form. But as the Hob looked over his shoulder, he added another image to haunt his nightmares.
Eater of Spears. The Hob sprayed spit as he opened his mouth and bellowed. His gargantuan body flexed as he ran towards Pyrite. His eyes were locked on the smaller Hob and his mouth was open. He was coming. Pyrite stared for a second and then began to run.
Eater of Spears was throwing Goblins aside, charging at him, heedless of who was in the way. Allies and enemies scattered as the huge Hob came onwards. Pyrite cast a glance over his shoulder, heart thundering wildly. He wasn’t going to reach Rags in time. He had to turn and fight. He did not want to turn and fight. Eater of Spears wouldn’t go down from a single swing. And if he got his hands on Pyrite, he’d tear Pyrite’s head off this time, rather than just throw him.
He was coming. Pyrite had to turn. The Hob looked around for something, anything that would give him an edge. He patted his belt. Healing potions. His bag of gemstones—could he eat one? No, the magic wouldn’t slow that. He braced himself, raising his battleaxe. He had to go for a leg and run—
Eater of Spears was flexing his hands, lowering himself for a leaping charge. Pyrite braced—and saw a row of Goblins run in front of him. He nearly cut them down, and then realized they weren’t wearing black armor. Eater of Spears pulled up as, suddenly, he was looking at a row of metal-tipped pikes. Aiming at his chest.
“Hold ground! Stop big Hob!”
A voice shouted from behind Pyrite. He whirled and saw Noears, pointing as more Goblins with pikes formed a second layer in front of him and Eater of Spears. The muscular Hob bellowed in fury and Reiss’ warriors tried to close in, but more and more of Rags’ Goblins poured forwards, fighting or setting up a longer line of pikes.
Pyrite could have hugged the Goblin [Mage]. Noears grinned. He raised a hand and crackling electricity began to gather in his palm. He pointed at Rags.
“You go. We stay!”
Pyrite hesitated. Eater of Spears was roaring, knocking aside pikes and coming onwards. But Noears was drawing more electricity out of the air. He pointed at Eater of Spears. The Hob was too furious to notice, until he saw the flash. He stopped, raised his arms—
Noears shot a bolt of lightning and the sound it made as it struck Eater of Spears made all the Goblins around Pyrite duck. The Goblins with pikes ran back as Eater of Spears staggered. His flesh was black and charred and his body jerked as the electricity grounded itself through him. But even that couldn’t fell the Hob. He stumbled forwards. Noears turned.
He pointed as more electricity gathered around his fingers. Pyrite didn’t hesitate. He ran as Eater of Spears bellowed and Noears shot more lightning.
Now Rags’ tribe was forming a battle line. Pyrite ran through his allies as they fought with Reiss’ warriors—Goblins they had just been laughing and marching with. Newfound friends died and Goblins without weapons on both sides fled backwards, screaming in fear.
No one had expected this. No one but Reiss. And Pyrite. And even he had been surprised at the speed of the betrayal. It was unexpected. Not-Goblin. Surely not even Tremborag would have betrayed his allies so suddenly. They had joined forces! Doing something like this—it was something a Human would do. And that was Reiss’ fault. He was too much like his master.
And look what it caused. Pyrite caught flashes as he ran through the battlefield, cursing his weight and the battleaxe that slowed him down. He saw Redscar fighting, trying to hold off the bulk of Reiss’ army before it could bring its superior numbers to bear. He heard more thunder as Noears dueled Eater of Spears. And he saw another tragedy play out to his left.
A fallen horse. A Hob with a head that was too large and huge, metal teeth. Snapjaw. Her mount was dead, stabbed in the sides by poisoned daggers. And facing her, tears in her eyes, was a small Goblin with a pair of daggers.
Poisonbite had unhorsed Snapjaw. Now the two female Goblins were facing off, Poisonbite using her female raiders as backup while Snapjaw fought with her riders.
Tears. Betrayal. Treachery. Someone had to answer for it. And Pyrite knew who. He reached Reiss, at last and saw a line of Rags’ warriors in their scrap armor battling with Reiss’ Hobs, who were advancing despite the crossbow bolts hammering them. And behind them, holding something to the severed stump of his right arm, was Reiss.
Pyrite slowed, breathing hard. He saw Rags, riding backwards, ordering her own Hobs forwards to hold the line. He couldn’t hear her voice over the roar in his ears. All his attention was on Reiss. Rags couldn’t fight him. He was a Goblin Lord with death magic and she—
What was he doing? Pyrite stared at the thing Reiss was holding. Then he saw. It was his hand. The severed hand was pressed against Reiss’ bleeding stump. And the bone was moving. As Pyrite watched, Reiss took his hand away. The severed hand stayed in place. He’d fused the bone somehow. And he was uncorking a healing potion, pouring it over the wound and pressing his hand to the mending bone.
He was reattaching his hand as he ordered his warriors to surround Rags! Pyrite spared one moment to curse [Necromancers] and healing potions and then he lifted his battleaxe. He couldn’t feel the weight. He couldn’t feel the pain from his injuries, or hear anything. All he could focus on was Reiss. He had to end it here. He had to do it. He ran forwards. He might have been screaming. He saw Reiss look up and was rewarded by a glimpse of fear in the Goblin Lord’s black eyes.
The Goblin Lord raised his hand as he backed up.
Yellow bones sprang from the ground, knitting together, rising and forming a pattern, a wall several feet thick that grew up between him and Pyrite. The Hob roared as he swung his axe.
The enchanted edge of his battleaxe sliced through the bone wall, igniting the bones. The second blow hacked bone fragments out of the wall, which quickly began to vanish. Reiss backed up as Pyrite struck the wall a third time and then rammed the wall. The weakened spots caved in as the entire assembly of bones cracked. Reiss looked around.
“Hold him back!”
The Hobs turned towards Pyrite. They advanced towards him, trying to shield themselves as Rags shouted and more crossbows loosed deadly bolts at them from the side. A Hob fell, a crossbow quarrel in his cheek. Another groaned as one struck him in the shoulder, penetrating his armor, but came on regardless. Pyrite buried his axe in his chest and charged at the others.
A Hob in black armor tried to block him, thrusting a spear at Pyrite’s shoulder. The steel tip pierced the Hob’s flesh, tore skin and drew blood. Pyrite ignored the wound and brought the battleaxe down, bellowing. The Hob in black armor’s head disappeared and Pyrite roared again.
Pyrite turned. He saw the black, flickering light shooting at his chest and raised his battleaxe. The [Deathbolt] glanced off the enchanted battleaxe, splashing harmlessly against the magicked metal. Reiss lowered his hand.
He leapt backwards, nearly falling as Pyrite took a swing at him. Again he shot a [Deathbolt] and again Pyrite blocked it.
Armor was no good against that magic. Shielding spells would fail. But if you held a piece of metal out far enough or stood behind a tree, the [Deathbolt] would dissipate before it reached you. Pyrite charged Reiss, bodily checking a Hob who tried to seize him. And Reiss retreated.
The Flooded Waters tribe battled the Goblin Lord’s army. Friend versus friend. Former allies fighting, not knowing why, only that someone had betrayed the other. It was all chaos and confusion. But like a magnet, the conflict at the center of both tribes drew attention. Goblins turned.
They saw the Goblin Lord, shooting magic at a Hob with a flaming battleaxe. They saw him retreating, falling back. Reiss’ warriors faltered. The Flooded Waters tribe cheered and pressed forwards. It wasn’t Rags, their Chieftain who advanced. But it was someone they recognized. Someone they knew. Pyrite roared as he charged the Goblin Lord, and Rags held the Goblin Lord’s Hobs back. Reiss retreated, running.
He was losing. Garen stared in disbelief. Reiss was stumbling backwards, casting his death magic as Pyrite came on. But it was futile. The other Hob was pausing to block, using his battleaxe as a shield. Garen had no idea you could block death magic like that. But the enchanted axe was broad and so long as Pyrite was that close, Reiss was in danger every time Pyrite swung his axe.
Garen saw Reiss point at the ground. He couldn’t hear Reiss, but he saw one of the fallen Hobs rise back upwards. It lunged at Pyrite. The Hob turned and saw the Ghoul. He brought his axe down and split the undead in two. He whirled—more undead were rising. Reiss frantically backpedalled, trying to claim any distance, but Pyrite swung his axe and the undead died just as fast. He advanced and Garen clenched his fists.
“No. Idiot! Make more walls!”
What was Reiss doing? Undead would slow a warrior like Pyrite down for only moments. At least the bone walls bought time. Why didn’t he order his undead spider forwards? Headless or not, it could at least block Pyrite!
One of the Redfang warriors glanced at Garen and he gritted his teeth. He wasn’t Reiss’ ally. He wanted Reiss to lose. Right? Right. But this wasn’t the Reiss that Garen knew. He was panicking.
Small wonder. Reiss ducked as Pyrite nearly took his head off with a horizontal slice that took down a Hob. Even with his bodyguards, Reiss was being pressured. By one Hob! Rags was sending her warriors forwards, distracting his other warriors, but still—
“Who is he?”
Garen stared at Pyrite. When he’d first met the Goldstone Chieftain, he had seemed so…ordinary. So normal. Why had he been hiding his true abilities in his tribe for so long? Why hadn’t he tried to become a powerful Chieftain? Why was he like—
Greydath? Garen watched Pyrite parry a blow from a Goblin and kick them in the groin. He wasn’t as strong as Greydath. Or as fast. But he fought a bit like him. Could he kill Reiss? He was advancing. And then Reiss made a mistake. As he stepped backwards, throwing bone shards that cut open Pyrite’s arms and chest, he collided with a Hob engaged in fighting behind him. Reiss half-turned—and Pyrite lunged.
The Hob swung his battleaxe, shards of bone protruding from his arms. And Reiss staggered. Garen saw a charred line open on his chest and blood begin to pour down. Pyrite had been too far away for a fatal cut. But the Goblin Lord stared at the blood in shock as Pyrite was tackled by two Hobs. He staggered back, reaching for a potion as Pyrite fought both Hobs off him. Garen watched Reiss moving back, eyes wide, stumbling.
He couldn’t die here. He couldn’t. He was going to win, Garen was sure. Even if Pyrite was in range, even if he was a [Warrior] and Reiss was a [Mage]. Even if—
He was a Goblin Lord. He was Reiss. He couldn’t lose to anyone but Garen.
He was bleeding. Reiss felt the searing pain run down his chest. He looked up and saw him standing there.
Reiss couldn’t obey the words. He forced himself to leap backwards and duck away, pulling himself with his hands. The Goblin behind him took the blow. He—she—fell, dead. Reiss had not known whoever it was. But they had answered his call.
They were dying. For his sake. His brave warriors. And he was running. Retreating. From a single Hob.
Pyrite strode forwards. Reiss ducked behind a pair of struggling Hobs, robes covered in mud and watched Pyrite’s head turn. Spells ran through his mind, one after another. Raise Draug? No. Blindness? He had to touch Pyrite. Bloodbats? The Hob could probably survive one casting.
He was too close. Each time Reiss tried to get away, Pyrite lunged at him. And each time he got nearer to ending Reiss for good. He ignored Reiss’ spells. His flesh was lacerated from a spray of bone shards. He’d taken wounds from Reiss’ bodyguards. Half the skin on his back was torn off from being thrown by Eater of Spears.
And still he came on. Indomitable. In that moment Reiss hated and admired Pyrite for everything he was. He was what Goblins could be. He was a leader.
But Reiss couldn’t die here. He’d sacrificed too much. Too much. He’d slaughtered innocent Drakes and Gnolls, killed his own kind. For what? For his dream. And if he let it end here, it would be for nothing.
So Reiss waited, crouched, as Pyrite cast about. Another Hob approached Pyrite, swinging a mace at his side. Pyrite turned, roared.
Reiss felt the impact. And another of his warriors was gone, like that. The other Hobs were afraid to approach. They could not see him. Reiss could feel his entire army wavering. They had seen him run.
But what was he supposed to do? Reiss closed his eyes. He had to fight. But this enemy was—
Undefeatable? Indestructible? Overwhelming? Reiss looked back at Pyrite. The Hob was roaring, challenging Reiss.
No. He was mortal. But his image called to mind another figure. Not here. But as Reiss looked at Pyrite, he recalled.
A swell in the fighting opened up a gap behind him. Reiss looked at it. He could run. Pyrite had lost him. He could run and let the other Goblins bring him down, or Snapjaw. Or Eater of Spears. But he couldn’t, could he?
“No running. A Lord cannot run from a Goblin.”
But he, Reiss, couldn’t win. Not at this distance. So Reiss could not fight. Someone else would have to. And Reiss knew who.
Memory. The Goblin Lord turned. He gripped his reattached hand with his other one and muttered, pulling the mana out of his body. Remember. He needed to remember. And it was easy. How could he forget?
“[Bone Claws]. [Fortified Body]. [Draug Strength].”
Pyrite heard the spellcasting. He saw Reiss stand. His eyes narrowed and he braced, but none of the spells were aimed at him. He blinked as the Goblin Lord stepped forwards. White bone had grown around the tips of Reiss’ fingers, on his hands. Sharp, wicked talons. And Reiss’s body felt stronger. He was taller, for a moment.
Reiss walked forwards, abandoning his fear. He flexed his claws and beckoned to Pyrite. The Goblin Lord wore a wide smile despite the blood running down his chest. Around him, Goblins turned. They saw their Lord and drew strength from the sight of him.
A Lord had to be strong. A Goblin Lord had to be a hero. Reiss spread his arms wide and waited for Pyrite. The Hob hesitated, sensing something was different. But there Reiss was, so Pyrite attacked. He shifted his grip on the battleaxe, then swung fast and low, aiming for Reiss’ legs. At the last moment he twisted and cut diagonally up.
Reiss ducked backwards from the blade, then rushed forwards. But Pyrite had been expecting that. He punched as he let go of the battleaxe with one hand. The blow was fast. It caught Reiss on the cheek, snapped his head back.
It hurt. But it was just a punch. Reiss staggered, then rammed Pyrite. His claws came up. One slash opened up Pyrite’s chest, a shallow wound. The second cut across his arm. Both cuts drew blood. Pyrite howled in pain and surprise and swung again. But his battleaxe was slow. Reiss danced back, light as a feather. The tip of the axe barely missed his stomach. But it did miss.
Pyrite felt at his chest. His eyes narrowed and he lashed out with his axe. Reiss stepped forwards, but the blow was a feint. It came back at him from the side. Too quick to dodge. So Reiss leapt and Pyrite had to move back or the claws would take out his throat. He did, and Reiss cut him.
Left, right, left—his claws cut across Pyrite’s chest and arms, shredding armor, tearing flesh. Pyrite struck at him. Reiss was gone. The Goblin Lord danced back and grinned. Pyrite stared at him. Reiss beckoned him again. Blood spattered the ground.
Garen watched Reiss charge Pyrite. He watched the Goblin Lord attack, and cut Pyrite. One-two, fast slashes that opened up Pyrite’s arms, bled him. The Hob tried to cut Reiss in half with his battleaxe and received a kick to the stomach. A heavy one. Reiss punched him, backed up before Pyrite could cut him, and raised a fist. The Goblins around him roared.
The Redfang warriors looked at Garen, equal parts surprised and uneasy. They saw it too. Garen shook his head.
“Who is he?”
Reiss faced Pyrite again, not trying to take his distance. And he was different. The way he fought, the way he moved was different. Garen watched, blinking, confused. Reiss had always been good at learning. At copying others. He had even copied Garen’s way of fighting with a sword. He could do it with anyone. But who was he mimicking now?
Pyrite didn’t know. The Flooded Waters tribe didn’t understand. But Reiss did. His warriors saw it. They roared as Reiss turned and raised a fist. Bloody claws opened. He pointed at Pyrite. And when he stood, when he smiled, he was not him.
He was playing a part. Calling a memory into life.
An echo of a giant. A fearless smile. Reiss grabbed Pyrite’s arm as the Hob tried to bring his axe to bear and caught the other arm. Pyrite tried to kick. Reiss kicked him back and then head-butted Pyrite. His forehead collided with Pyrite’s and both Goblins stumbled back. But Reiss kept coming.
How would he do it? He’d never retreat. He’d punch like this, smile here. He wouldn’t fall back. He’d keep coming until he was dead. Stronger. Faster. Pyrite stumbled back, on the defensive. His eyes were wide and he was trying to keep up. But he wasn’t fighting Reiss. He was fighting a shadow of someone else.
A fearless Drake. A [General of the Line]. A hero of the Antinium Wars. Tidebreaker.
Reiss roared as he shoulder-charged Pyrite. He was smaller, but the impact still pushed Pyrite. He slashed across Pyrite’s chest. The other Hob struck him. This time the blow made Reiss’ ribs creak. So Reiss hit him back. Pyrite slid backwards in the mud. He clutched at his battleaxe and stared at Reiss.
The Goblin Lord was breathing hard. Focus. He flexed his claws. His voice rasped.
“I have had greater enemies than you.”
Pyrite looked at Reiss. Then, slowly, he abandoned his battleaxe. He tossed it to one side and raised his fists. Then he nodded.
The two said nothing else. They waited a beat, then came at each other. Reiss hit Pyrite first. The Hob hit him back and Reiss staggered.
Heavy. Pyrite knocked Reiss back. Without magic, without enchantments. His fists felt like falling mountains. But Reiss punched back. Pyrite was strong. As strong as any Goblin that Reiss had met. But he lacked one thing. He didn’t know—
A blow across the face. Pyrite grabbed Reiss’ neck, tried to twist. The Goblin Lord roared.
He didn’t know what it meant to be a Lord. He broke Pyrite’s grip. Claws tearing flesh. Pyrite raised his fists. Reiss was faster. Was it Zel who punched or him?
The first punch stopped Pyrite in his tracks. The second made the entire Hob’s body shudder with the impact. The third lifted his feet off the ground. Reiss felt Pyrite’s ribs break.
The Goblin Lord hurled Pyrite back. The Hob fell and rolled. He tried to get up. But it was done. Reiss roared and his warriors screamed as they raised their weapons. The Flooded Waters tribe stared at Pyrite. Rags looked at her champion, disbelieving.
Pyrite was getting up. He had a small sack in his hands and he was reaching into it. Reiss whirled. Time to end this.
“You should have stayed down.”
The Hob paused. He looked at Reiss and sighed.
Pyrite lurched forwards, raising something to his mouth. A healing potion? But Reiss had taken a position across from him. The Goblin Lord raised a finger and aimed at Pyrite’s chest.
The magic shot through Pyrite. It left a dark trail in the air, and passed through Pyrite before dissipating. A line of pitch-black. A moment of death.
Color ran from Pyrite’s face. He gritted his teeth and moved forwards. He had no axe. He was torn. But he charged Reiss. The Goblin Lord sighed.
The second bolt brought Pyrite to his knees. The Goblin Lord stared down at Pyrite. He heard a scream. He looked up and met Rags’ eyes. She was riding towards him, aiming a crossbow at his chest. She pulled the trigger. The bolt went wide. Reiss met her eyes and looked back at Pyrite. The Hob looked up and met his eyes.
“I am sorry.”
Pyrite gritted his teeth and said nothing. He tried to stand—he pulled at the ground. But for once his body betrayed him. He slumped, staring up at Reiss. The Goblin Lord pointed down at him.
“[Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt].”
Four times. Four black streaks of magic shot from Reiss’ fingertip. Pyrite jerked. Rags screamed. The Hob froze, half-risen. Reiss stared into his eyes. He watched something drain away. A bright spark, quiet intelligence. A smile.
A final streak of black magic shot through Pyrite, but it didn’t matter. The Hob was already collapsing. Reiss stepped back, staring. He was sure Pyrite was dead. Almost completely sure. But still he waited.
The Hob didn’t get up. He lay there, slumped forwards on the ground. There was no last surge of life. No dying flame. He was gone. Just like that. And the wail that arose from the Flooded Waters tribe was despair and grief incarnate.
Gone. Reiss closed his eyes and felt the world grey out around him. He felt like collapsing. Drained.
No, he had to stand. The Goblin Lord fumbled at his belt. He found a bottle. A mana potion. He drank from it and wiped his mouth. Then he turned and aimed at Rags. She was staring at Pyrite in shock. For a moment Reiss’ heart pinched.
Glowing black bats with red eyes shot through the air. They took wings and arced towards Rags. She jerked. Her crossbow raised. Her Carn Wolf reared. It bounded back, but the magical bats struck it in the side. Tearing. Absorbing blood. Rags screamed as the Carn Wolf howled and tried to shake itself. Reiss’ warriors were running at her. The Goblin Lord aimed at her chest.
The black magic shot across the battlefield. It passed over the heads of Reiss’ warriors, past the running Hobs. It was a good shot. Reiss had always been good with spells. But this time he missed. The [Deathbolt] didn’t strike Rags. It was aimed at her, but the wolf she rode caught it instead. The Carn Wolf had been howling, throwing off the bloodbats conjured by the spell, trying to shake them off. Perhaps in desperation it leapt—
And the spell struck it in the side.
The Carn Wolf landed, bleeding weakly. Garen watched it stumble. He saw Rags slide from the saddle, grabbing at the wolf’s fur as it lay down. It would have been easy to pretend it had taken the spell meant for her. But it hadn’t. It curled up and the little Goblin clutched at it. Crying, trying to get it to rise.
It was useless. The Carn Wolf, the faithful creature that had born Rags since Garen had given it to her, died. Garen watched as it sank to the ground. The Hob clenched one hand. Rags had refused to name it. Refused to become a [Beast Tamer].
She clung to it as it lay on the ground. Garen saw her look up. Reiss’ warriors were charging. Rags’ tribe surged around her, making a stand. But their spirits were broken. Pyrite was dead. And Rags was—
The two sides met in a roar. Rags disappeared from sight. On his Carn Wolf, Redscar turned. He roared and his warriors charged towards her. Noears whirled, standing in front of the kneeling Eater of Spears. Poisonbite looked around.
Garen waited. He saw Reiss aiming for the same spot he was looking. The place where Rags had been. Goblins fought in a bloody melee, sliding back and forth, smaller Goblins fighting Hobs. Hobgoblins gutting each other, killing their brethren. Seconds passed. A minute. Then both sides fell back, leaving the dead.
When the clash ended, Goblins lay strewn on the ground by the hundreds, lying in piles, where they had died. Blood painted the ground. And Rags was gone.
Garen waited for her to appear. He looked for her at the same time Reiss did, searching for a small figure among the retreating warriors. On the ground. But he couldn’t see her. Neither could Reiss.
Neither could her tribe. They all searched for her, breathless. Waiting. But Rags did not appear. A groan ran through her tribe. They wavered. And then they broke and ran.
It began with Tremborag’s Goblins. His former tribe broke formation abandoning their places, shouting.
“Chieftain is dead! Chieftain is dead!”
The other Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe hesitated. But as hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of Goblins streamed past them, their nerve left them. They began to run as well.
They’d lost. It wasn’t the first time Garen had seen a tribe break up after their Chieftain had fallen. But this one—he watched, jaw clenched. The Goblins were all running now, as Reiss’ army advanced.
Some threw down their weapons and surrendered. Others just turned to flee. Reiss’ soldiers pursued them, forcing Goblins to submit, join the tribe, or die. In pockets the fighting still continued, but it went only one way.
Redscar’s voice echoed as the former Redfang lieutenant tried to rally the Goblins to him. He was pulling back. He had no choice. But he had not surrendered. Garen saw him pointing, shouting orders. His warriors formed a screen, held back Reiss’ warriors as more of the tribe flocked around him. That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. They were supposed to either flee or submit to Reiss. But this wasn’t an ordinary battle between Chieftains.
Garen kicked his Carn Wolf in the side. The wolf looked up, and then bounded forwards. Garen heard Spiderslicer shout and his tribe streamed forwards. Not towards Reiss, but towards the running Goblins.
“Flooded Waters tribe!”
The Goblins screamed and halted as Garen rode towards them. But the Redfang Chieftain did not draw his blade. He raised a fist as Rags’ shattered tribe stopped. Staring up at him. Garen shouted.
“Join me! Fight Goblin Lord! Follow!”
Redscar froze. Poisonbite, Noears—the Goblins of Rags’ tribe halted in place. Tremborag’s former Goblins. All of them stared up at Garen. He waited. Now they would come. He waited and waited and waited—
And they began to run. Not towards him, but around him. Garen stared in disbelief.
Goblins streamed to the left and to the right, avoiding his tribe. His warriors stared, the Carn Wolves growling uncertainly. Countless thousands of Goblins ran past Garen, fleeing Reiss’ soldiers. Garen looked for Redscar, but the other Goblin was shouting orders. Trying to lead Rags’ tribe. Not going towards him. Poisonbite and Noears were doing the same.
They’d refused him. He was Garen Redfang. But they still turned away. Garen sat on his Carn Wolf as the Goblins streamed past him. They were running.
Spiderslicer’s uncertain voice made Garen look up. He saw Reiss’ soldiers advancing. And behind them, the Human army. They’d witnessed the conclusion of the battle and now they were advancing. They weren’t going to let the Goblins run.
For a moment, Garen felt a surge of despair rise in his chest. Then—reckless anger replaced it. So that was it? He turned and drew his sword.
The bellow made his warriors look up. Some of his former Redfangs, the ones around Redscar, turned. Garen waved his sword.
“Redfangs, follow! We ride!”
The call was familiar. Urgent. And this time, it worked. Some of his warriors streamed towards him. But the ones around Redscar did not. The smaller Goblin looked at Garen and bared his teeth. He pointed and shouted in fury. Despair.
And so he did. Redscar fled, and Garen looked back towards Reiss’ army as well. He growled, and then pointed south. He was done with Reiss. Done with all of this.
He was going home.
They were all running. Reiss staggered to his undead spider, pulled himself up. He was injured, exhausted. He could barely crawl up the spider’s back, and there he lay for a moment.
A familiar voice below him made Reiss look down. He saw Snapjaw riding towards him. She was riding a different horse than her beloved grey mare. Reiss stared down at her.
“Snapjaw. I won.”
It didn’t feel like a victory. Reiss looked about. He could see the entire battlefield and all he saw were dead Goblins. Dead Goblins, and fleeing Goblins.
The Flooded Waters tribe was running. They’d refused to join him. The core of Rags’ tribe, the loyal ones were fleeing south. But the new additions, the former Tremborag Goblins weren’t as committed.
Some, yes, some of Tremborag’s tribe joined the fleeing Goblins. But more and more surrendered, joining Reiss’ tribe. And a few just…left. They ran in every direction, ignoring both the fleeing Goblins heading south and Reiss’ army. They were truly broken. Gone.
“We won. Big victory! Reiss! You need healing potion. You, get [Healer]!”
Snapjaw was talking urgently to the Hobs around Reiss. The Goblin Lord shook his head. He stared at the running Goblins. The Flooded Waters tribe, the real tribe, was still in one piece. They were still moving, running even without their Chieftain.
Even without her? Reiss’ eyes narrowed. They were moving…fast. Outdistancing even his mounted warriors, who were being slowed up by all of Tremborag’s surrendering Goblins. Too fast.
Snapjaw was circling his spider with her horse. Reiss looked down at her. It had to be that.
“Rags! She is still alive. Find her. Kill her.”
The female Hob’s mouth fell open. She looked around.
Reiss didn’t know. He stared at the place Rags had been. Just dead bodies. But maybe—
“Search dead. Chase the running Goblins! She is out there somewhere. Kill her!”
Snapjaw shot away, riding on her mount and screaming orders. Reiss saw Eater of Spears, stumbling towards him, chest blackened with the damage from Noears’ spells, turn. Reiss’ army began to assault the Flooded Waters tribe from behind. Reiss clenched his jaw. He saw the tribe fleeing. Garen was running too. He’d left sometime during the battle. Why hadn’t he joined Rags?
It didn’t matter. Fast as they were, the Flooded Waters tribe wasn’t getting away. They had fought a bloody battle against his army, but they had forgotten they were being watched. As he stared south, he saw a line of silver charge the green figures from the side. Cutting them off.
“Charge the Goblins! Force them back until Lord Veltras can send reinforcements! [Knights], on me!”
The [Commander] in charge of the advance group raced his mount through the lines of Goblins. Two thousand riders followed him, cutting down Goblins, trying to force them back. His was the forward scouting group, meant to deter the Goblins from advancing too far. The [Commander] had seen the fleeing Goblins and was trying to stop them until reinforcements could arrive.
It was a futile effort. The Humans hacked down Goblin after Goblin, but the panicked mass of running Goblins were too frightened to stop. Some fought the Humans; the rest just ran around them.
Desperately, the [Commander] cut down a fleeing Hob and then speared a Goblin through the back. The others just ran around his horse which reared, panicked by all the monsters. The [Commander] turned. Where was his relief? Lord Veltras had to have seen—
There. More riders were racing to intercept. This group was far larger. They were on a collision course with the Goblins, [Knights] and [Mages] standing out. They’d break the Goblins and either wipe them out or force them back. The [Commander] smiled in relief—and then lost the smile as he heard a howl. He turned, raising sword and shield in his saddle. A red blade cut the top of his head off. Garen Redfang bounded past him on his Carn Wolf’s back. He stabbed a [Knight] through his unenchanted armor and raised his blade up into the air.
“Redfangs! Kill them!”
The Humans turned as more wolves howled. Goblins on Carn Wolves screamed and charged them, not part of the fleeing Goblins. The howls from the Carn Wolves made the untrained horses rear, and Garen led his warriors through the Humans on horseback, cutting them down and knocking them from their saddles.
“Grab weapons and move! Follow!”
Garen bellowed at his warriors and led them through the Flooded Waters tribe. Garen bounded out of the chaos of Goblins on foot and saw his Redfang tribe struggling to catch up. He looked ahead and saw the second group of Humans. They were probably six thousand strong? Already they were casting spells, bombarding the Goblins with [Fireballs]. And they’d seen Garen tearing apart their friends.
“Kill that Hob!”
An authoritative voice shouted and Garen snarled as both arrows and spells began targeting his position. He whistled and his Carn Wolf ran in the direction he pointed. The Humans raced after him, thinking he was heading south. Garen’s warriors knew better. They raced ahead, pretending to be making a break for it. Then Garen turned his head.
He pointed right and his entire tribe turned. The surprised Humans had only a second to react. He could see them waver. Garen’s tribe was about the size of theirs. Surely he was going to run. After all, they were Humans. They had [Knights] and [Mages].
They were dead. The Humans on horseback tried to turn, but Garen roared and his Carn Wolf howled. The poorly-trained horses reared and Garen’s Redfangs raced forwards, led by Garen himself. He was laughing. Garen led the howling Goblins straight towards the advance group. He cut down the first [Mage] he saw, ignoring the man’s scream, and hunted down the female [Commander], then another [Mage]. Then the [Knights].
The Humans were good, but they weren’t a match for his Redfangs. They broke up, fleeing back towards the rest of the Humans as Garen turned, counting his losses. Redfangs looted the dead. Those who’d lost their mounts paused beside their companions, then joined other riders and rode doubled-up, or secured a horse. Garen nodded, and then eyed the fleeing Goblins.
He’d inadvertently given them a chance to flee as well. Not towards the High Passes or away from the mountains. The Human army was galloping to both sides, trying to envelop them. There was only one way the Goblins could go. South, ahead of Reiss’ army. That wasn’t where Garen was headed. He stared west, towards the High Passes. The gaping fissure in the mountains called to him.
“Chieftain! We go home?”
Spiderslicer grinned, blood running down his blade. Garen smiled, but he didn’t order a rush towards the welcoming mountains just yet. He was eying the Human army. They were mad now. Wings of cavalry were breaking off to the left and right, around Reiss’ army. They were trying to contain Reiss and catch up with the running Goblins. Garen wasn’t worried about that. He was more concerned with the vanguard around Tyrion Veltras. They were aimed at Garen, and he didn’t know if he could reach the High Passes before having to turn and fight.
The Carn Wolves were quick, but they couldn’t beat horses on flat ground. Garen knew that. He was calculating how far to go to the High Passes, to safety. If he couldn’t get to the passes in time, he’d take his tribe up the slopes. Carn Wolves could bound up the rocky terrain, while the Humans’ horses couldn’t. They’d have to dodge mage spells though. If they could make a break for the High Passes…
Garen stared at the gaping fissure in the mountains and his eyes caught something. A distant speck, no, many specks moving in the mountain range. His eyes widened and he turned to look back at the Humans and Reiss’ army. They were still cutting down the last of the Flooded Waters tribe that were fleeing, forcing them to submit or die. Garen looked back at the High Passes and shook his head.
“No. We outrun. South!”
Spiderslicer’s jaw dropped, but he didn’t question the orders. Garen was already turning. He pointed south, past the Flooded Waters tribe. He narrowed his eyes as he saw another group of quicker Humans trying to cut them off again. They’d have to fight. But not for long.
“We break through. Come! Show the Humans the strength of Redfang Tribe! Follow me!”
Garen pointed and his tribe rode south. Away from the High Passes. It wasn’t what Garen wanted, but he could always return, loop past Liscor and go back to the passes from the southern side, through Drake territory. Besides, it wasn’t wise to go towards the High Passes at the moment. Even Garen had battles he wasn’t willing to fight.
Lord Yitton Byres saw the third forward group disappear as the Goblin riders charged into them. He sucked in his breath, but didn’t dare speak. He was riding hard, right behind Tyrion Veltras and an inadvertent comment might cost him his tongue. He did hear curses from those less cautious, and, yes, a stifled cry of pain as someone bit their tongue while they galloped.
“It’s the smaller Goblin tribe! The one on Carn Wolves! They’ve killed [Commander] Geim, [Commander] Helica and [Knight Commander] Sir Meilmen!”
Lord Tyrion snapped as he stared ahead at the tribe of Goblins. Yitton couldn’t take his eyes off them either. There had to be less than seven thousand of them, but they were all mounted, on the monstrous Carn Wolves or stolen horses. And—they were strong.
The Redfang Tribe was tiny compared to the Goblin Lord’s army. But they’d cut through three groups of riders nearly equal to their size without slowing down. And their chieftain was a monster on his own. He’d killed all three commanders himself.
Yitton Byres had read the reports. He knew who was leading that tribe. Garen Redfang, a Goblin with the most unusual of pasts. A former Gold-rank adventurer who’d proven Goblins couldn’t be trusted. Leader of the Redfang Tribe, a group of notoriety that preyed on travelers from the High Passes. But not an active danger—one that kept to the mountains and rarely troubled populated cities. He had dismissed the Hobgoblin as a lesser threat compared to the Goblin Lord—or Tremborag, the Great Chieftain. And that had been a mistake.
He had never seen Garen Redfang fight. Neither had Tyrion Veltras. Or any of the other Humans riding with him. Now their ignorance was costing them lives.
“Two monsters. Two. First that Great Chieftain, now this one. Have the Goblins been hiding—”
Yitton heard a voice from ahead. One of the [Strategists]. Tyrion Veltras turned his head. He glared at Garen Redfang’s distant form.
“Not for long. [Knights], on me! We will pursue and bring down that Chieftain.”
He clicked his tongue and accelerated. Yitton watched as Tyrion effortlessly pulled ahead—as if he was riding a legendary Pegasus or magical steed in a different class from the horses around him. At his words, a shining lance of [Knights] rode forwards, propelled by the same Skill.
The group that pulled ahead of the main force was about three thousand strong, give or take several hundred. It was small, but elite. The [Knights] in Tyrion’s vanguard wore gilded armor, marking their order and allegiance. They rode ahead, following Tyrion’s back, lances in hand, shields raised. Their gear was enchanted. Not one of them was below Level 20. Most were above Level 30.
Even so, this was a mistake. Yitton raised his voice, praying he wouldn’t bite his tongue.
“Tyrion! Don’t be a fool, man! Let the [Knights] fight that Chieftain! Don’t risk yourself!”
He was outnumbered two-to-one! The rest of his riders were tangled up trying to contain the Goblins. Tyrion Veltras glanced back at Yitton and didn’t respond. Yitton, cursing, tried to catch up, but he had no Skills and might as well tried to fly. He was looking about for Tyrion’s aide, someone who could stop the man. He’d taken a risk with Tremborag and he had been wounded. If Garen Redfang managed to unhorse him or surround him with his tribe—
“Lord Veltras! Lord Veltras! We’re under attack!”
A panicked voice called out from the left. Yitton saw a [Scout] racing towards them, trying to catch up. Reluctantly, Tyrion slowed and Yitton managed to force his mount to catch up.
“Report! Where is the attack?”
Tyrion scanned the Goblin army. So did Yitton. Was the Goblin Lord attacking? No, he was pulling his Goblins back. He’d won his battle. Was it Garen? Again, no. He and the other Goblins were just running now. Both [Lords] looked at the frantic young woman. The [Scout] pointed at the High Passes.
“It’s not Goblins! It’s them! They’re back! They’re coming down from the mountains! Tens of thousands of them! I don’t—”
The frantic voice didn’t register with Yitton for a second. He stared blankly at the High Passes. Who was back? Who was—
Then he saw it. They were racing out of the mouth of the passes. Coming down the cliffs. Like last time. Only this group was much, much larger. A wave of brown came out of the High Passes. And as they charged the Humans and Goblins from the side, they began to scream.
Eater Goats. They ran by the tens of thousands, a group far larger than the last one. The predators of the mountains had smelled the bloodshed. And they were coming to eat. In the distance, they took up a warbling shriek that sounded almost Human—but too wild and horrific at the same time. Yitton’s mount snorted, eyes wide, and he patted it. Around him horses reared.
“I see them.”
Tyrion Veltras scowled at the Eater Goats. He looked ahead at the fleeing Goblins. Yitton could almost see him calculating the odds of catching Garen Redfang. But the Eater Goats were headed towards the last battlefield, and there were too many of them to fend off without numerous casualties. Tyrion turned his horse around. Did Yitton hear him curse? Surely not.
“Halt the advance. [Mages], begin bombarding the goats! Pull back the cavalry to contain the Goblin Lord’s army—let the other tribes flee ahead. Send word to the infantry, to prepare for combat! Lord Pellmia and Lord Gralton will attack from the northeastern flank. [Knights], on me. We halt the advance of these monsters. Anyone without sufficient defensive Skills or enchanted gear will fall back! Ride!”
The Human army began to pull back. They turned to meet the Eater Goats, who ignored the numbers and common sense. They took the first charge from Tyrion Veltras, swarming around him and the nearly impervious [Knights] on their warhorses, then broke up for easier targets. Some headed towards the fleeing Goblins, the rest fell upon the Humans and Reiss’s army.
Eater Goats. The scourge of the mountains. For ten that died, another would stagger back to the mountains, bloated on meat, ready to breed and replenish their numbers. Fearless to the point of suicide, they attacked everything. Everything except for one group of Goblins.
Garen Redfang and his tribe rode past them, as the Eater Goats saw their red war paint and the Carn Wolves they rode and grudgingly avoided them. They fell on the fleeing Flooded Waters tribe, on Reiss’ army and Tyrion Veltras’ force. Only when the Humans began to blow them to shreds, when the bodies of their kin began to pile up like firewood did the goats break off. And only because they were more interested in eating their dead.
In the aftermath, Yitton wiped blood off his sword and saw Tyrion Veltras riding past him, his stallion steaming in the cool air. There was no wiping blood off of his armor; it was splashed liberally across his greaves, chest plate, arms—a [Mage] had to wash him and the other [Knights] off with water.
“It seems the Goblins have gained a lead, Lord Veltras. Should we pursue?”
One of the [Knights], a member of the Order of Clairei Fields, inquired politely. She was one of the fastest warriors on the field, armor or not. She pointed at the distant Goblins, who had kept running while fighting. Yitton eyed them.
They were about a fourth as large as they had been just this morning. The Goblin Lord had well and truly shattered them, and absorbed the bulk of their army into his own as a result. What had possessed him? Was it just more Goblin infighting? Yitton had seen the Goblins react with shock. It had seemed like—a betrayal. An odd thing to imagine.
Tyrion bit off the words as he offered his tired horse a feedbag. He stared at the Goblins.
“That Redfang tribe has escaped. They may circle around cut your people off. No, let them run. Our army will spread out as it approaches Liscor and ensure the Goblins cannot double back. The Goblins will run past Liscor and head into Drake lands or be dealt with at Liscor. ”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
The Clairei Fields [Knight] nodded and turned away. Yitton dismounted and walked stiffly up to Tyrion.
“I don’t appreciate being given orders, Lord Byres. Even well-intentioned ones.”
Tyrion looked up coldly. Yitton flushed.
“Very well. Your disposition?”
Yitton stroked his mustache and glanced back at the Goblin Lord’s army. They’d remained stationary after the fighting, but he could see them milling about. Reorganizing. Absorbing the defeated Goblins into their ranks. He wondered if there was any ill-will. Another odd thought to have.
“I—what do you think that was, Veltras? Silver and steel, I thought the Goblins were getting along.”
“Apparently not. Either this Goblin Lord decided to consolidate his forces, or they had a falling out. Either way, their numbers have been reduced, but we’re left with a single tribe now. No more Chieftains will oppose the Goblin Lord. The last one—Garen Redfang—ran. And I didn’t spot the small Chieftain. I suppose she perished.”
“And does that affect your plans?”
Tyrion paused as he stroked his stallion’s head. He looked back at the Goblins.
“There are enough to serve.”
That was all he said. After a while, Yitton walked away. Tyrion Veltras stood and counted losses, gave orders for the march to continue immediately. He didn’t stop.
And neither did Reiss. He couldn’t. He sat on his Shield Spider as the last of the Goblins joined his army and were absorbed into his warriors. He looked down at the hand he’d reattached and flexed it slowly. His nerves sang with phantom pain.
He did not feel good. He felt sick at heart and ill with what he’d done. He kept remembering Pyrite trying to stand. He had been a good Hob. A good second-in-command. Loyal.
He was still lying there. So was she. Reiss was certain of it. He could feel Garen ahead of him, heading south, a burning flame in his mind. And behind him was another flame, burning even brighter. Reiss looked back.
The battlefield was filled with dead goats and Goblins. Humans too, but they’d found most of their dead and cremated them. Now they were driving his tribe onwards. But he could still feel her there.
Behind him. He stared back towards the bloody battlefield where corpses lay in piles. She was alive. And so long as she was alive, perhaps her tribe would keep together. But it didn’t matter, did it? So long as she was behind them, without her wolf, without allies, she’d be helpless.
Reiss stared back at the battlefield. He wanted to say something to Rags, though she couldn’t hear him. Something that would explain everything. Tell her why it had to be like this. He sat there, staring, as his undead creation crawled forwards and he drew further and further way.
He never finished his sentence.
She lay among the dead. That was how she’d survived. Wet fur covered her, almost suffocating her. It was wet and more wetness dripped down from above.
Blood. Rags lay still, listening to the thunder of marching footsteps die down. Tens of thousands of Humans on foot had passed by here. The infantry of the Human army. She’d heard voices—laughter—weeping. They sounded so familiar. Not like Goblins, but like her.
They were all dead. Rags knew it. She lay beneath her Carn Wolf, the brave wolf who she’d never named. And she knew the other bodies, the cold things touching her were dead. Reiss’ warriors. Her own.
Pyrite. Rags struggled to move. She had to—he couldn’t be dead. He just couldn’t be. She pushed at the furry body on top of her, tried to worm away. She kicked—and then felt horribly guilty.
Slowly, painfully, Rags pulled her way out of the dead. She staggered upright and saw the setting sun. It was orange and sinking below the horizon. It should have been red. But there was enough around her.
Dead. Goblins stared up at the sky through blank eyes. Hobs lay on the ground, their armor shattered. And in front of her—Rags stared at her Carn Wolf. He was far larger than she was. He was curled up, his rust-red fur torn from where Reiss’ spell had laid into him. Gone.
Rags knelt. She looked at the Carn Wolf, at his blank half-open eyes. She hugged him one last time, stroking the cold, wet fur of her Carn Wolf’s head. Then she let the body drop and stood up.
She stumbled across the battlefield, staring at faces she thought she recognized. Where was he? She passed by dead Carn Wolves, a Human half-eaten by something. Eater Goats? There were small shapes roaming the battlefield. They took no notice of Rags; they had enough to gorge on.
She found him lying on the ground on his back, staring up at the sky. Pyrite looked almost peaceful as he lay there. His jaws were closed. The bloody injures he’d taken still glistened, half-scabbed over. Rags fell to her knees.
She’d seen Reiss kill him. [Deathbolt]. That stupid spell. Again and again it had struck Pyrite, too many times for anyone to survive.
It wasn’t fair. Rags pounded the ground. She couldn’t cry. She wasn’t going to. She had to be strong. But her tribe was gone. Her wolf was gone. She’d lost her warriors, her people—
And her friend. Rags felt the first hiccup of pain force its way out her throat. She gagged, sobbed, and began to cry. It was so childish. So—useless. It wasn’t Goblin.
But she couldn’t help it. Rags crawled towards Pyrite. She hammered on his chest.
No one answered her. Rags shouted.
“Why? Why does it—why?”
She buried her head on Pyrite’s chest. He still felt warm. He still felt alive. She sobbed. And then she heard a sound.
It was loud. A thunderous cracking sound, like grinding gravel but a thousand times louder. A horrific grinding noise. Rags leapt back. She saw something move.
Pyrite pursed his lips, turned his head, and spat something onto the ground. Rags stared as a handful of glittering, bloody fragments landed in the mud. The Goldstone Chieftain regarded them for a second, then put something else in his mouth. He began to chew again, and the grinding sound continued.
He opened his eyes and blinked up at her. Rags stared at him. She was staring at a ghost. Pyrite chewed, and then spat out more of whatever he was eating.
She kicked him. Pyrite grunted. He made a sound. Almost as if he were alive. She poked him in the side and saw blood run from one of his scabbed over wounds. Pyrite frowned reproachfully.
“That hurt, Chieftain.”
Pyrite grunted. He fumbled for something, and his head lolled back. He tried again, but he seemed too weak to even grab for—whatever it was.
“Need another. Give.”
Rags was dreaming. She stared at the thing Pyrite wanted. It was a rough, plain hemp sack. Worn, dirty. Spattered with his blood. She recognized it. It was Pyrite’s special sack of gemstones.
He repeated the words, faintly, but urgently. Rags delved into the sack and pulled something out. An emerald as large as a fist. She offered it to Pyrite. He grunted.
Shiny? Rags peered into the sack. She saw something flash at her, despite the lack of light. She reached in and pulled out a glowing bit of blue quartz. It had…a mote of light that danced inside the crystalline structure. Rags stared at it. Then she heard Pyrite’s voice.
She looked up. He was dead. She had seen him die. He’d been hit by too many [Deathbolts]. But then how—? She handed the stone to him and Pyrite slowly lifted it to his mouth. He opened his jaws and let the glittering quartz fall into his mouth. Then he began to chew.
The sound he made was horrendous. Even Rags, who had eaten bark and dirt and bugs, winced. Pyrite chewed and chewed and then turned his head and spat. Blood and bits of quartz expectorated onto the ground. Rags stared at the shards. They were bloody. And the mote of light was gone.
Pyrite’s voice was weak. Rags stared into the sack.
“No more? Bad.”
Pyrite wheezed. He lay there. She realized he was breathing, but faintly. His face was pale. But he was breathing. Could he really be…?
“How? How are you…”
Rags knelt over Pyrite. Now she remembered her healing potions and fumbled for them. Pyrite grunted weakly.
“Had stupid idea. Knew [Deathbolt] coming. Tried stupid thing.”
“What? What try?”
Pyrite groaned as Rags dumped a healing potion on his wounds. He must have used one already, because his wounds had been half-scabbed already.
“Shiny stones. Magic. Put in mouth. Thought could eat magic.”
Shiny stones? Rags remembered. Pyrite had his magic gemstones. She stared down at him.
The Hob blinked reproachfully up at Rags.
“Think it worked. Tell me if I’m dead.”
She stared at him. And then, shakily, she laughed. Rags sat back and began to laugh. She heard a rumble. Pyrite chuckled. Rags lay on her back and giggled, then guffawed. She heard Pyrite laughing and the two of them laughed until it hurt and they were quiet. Then Rags wiped at her eyes. She kicked Pyrite in the stomach.
“Don’t do again. Ever.”
The two sat there. Well, Pyrite lay on his back. Rags wiped at her eyes. After a while, Pyrite spoke.
It wasn’t a question. Rags nodded.
“Yes. I…hid. Knew die if showed face. Reiss won. Tribe ran.”
That was all Pyrite said. All he could say. Rags sat there, and buried her face in her hands. It was over. Pyrite lived, but her tribe was gone. She laughed again, but this time with bitter bile.
“I am stupidest, smallest, worst Chieftain ever.”
She kicked Pyrite again. She wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. She just wanted to curl up next to Pyrite and sleep until she was dead. It was really over.
“All gone. I fail. Reiss wins.”
Pyrite spoke insistently. Rags looked at him.
“You can’t move. I lost—wolf. Tribe. Crossbow.”
She looked around blankly for it. It was gone. Her beloved black crossbow was gone too. Somehow that hurt almost as much as the Carn Wolf. Rags patted her belt.
“And sword. And shield. And everything.”
She looked around the battlefield. Had someone torn it off her? Was it lying in the mud? It didn’t matter. Rags bowed her head.
“Lost everything. Have nothing.”
“Still have one. Me, Chieftain. Not done yet.”
Rags glared at Pyrite.
“What good is one Goblin? What good is stupid Chieftain without tribe?”
Pyrite was silent for a long moment. Then, slowly, he sat up. His body groaned and creaked with the effort. His face was pale as it rose, but he did rise. He looked at Rags, tired, weary. One foot in death. But he smiled and when he did, Rags thought the world seemed brighter.
“I’m not stupid. Just fat. Not ugly, either. And Chieftain has no tribe. But has me. [Magestone Chieftain].”
Her breath caught.
Pyrite nodded. He rummaged in his sack for a gemstone and lifted it up. The emerald flashed in his fingers. It had been dull, just a pretty bit of rock when Rags held it. But as Pyrite lifted it, a flicker of light ran between the faults in the gemstone. A curving trail of energy.
Rags stared at the gem. Pyrite smiled, and then groaned. The light went out and he lay back with a whumph. Rags stood up.
“You not able to walk. I—what can we do? Humans gone. Reiss gone. Heading to Liscor. No way to catch up.”
“Just rest today. Tomorrow I follow.”
Pyrite groaned. Rags shook her head. He was talking nonsense.
“Make sled with Eater Goats?”
The Hob winced before Rags kicked him this time. That was a stupid idea. As stupid as anything she’d heard. Only someone like—like her would come up with that. Rags wanted to laugh and cry. She wanted Pyrite to meet Erin. She wanted—
She bowed her head and sat by Pyrite. She was out of plans. Out of fancy ideas and schemes. She was alone. But that was the thing about Goblins. They were never truly alone. Not when there were two.
And then Rags heard crunching in the dirt. She turned and reached for a sword she didn’t have. She saw dark figures moving towards her. Hobs. Goblins. Rags scrambled up. Pyrite tried to sit up again and groaned.
Rags’ voice felt small and quavery. She clenched her fists and reached for her magic. There were at least two dozen shapes. They held still, just out of sight. And then one of them, a tall figure with curves, stepped forwards.
Ulvama, her tribal paint smudged, her face dirty, stepped forwards. Hobs followed her. Goblins who Rags recognized. Not hers. Not her Goblins, but Tremborag’s. Goblins who had joined her tribe but owed no allegiance to her. Goblins who’d fled when she’d fallen. They surrounded her and Pyrite.
And more Goblins appeared, those who had hid like Rags, or escaped the Humans in the fighting. Ulvama stared down at Pyrite. She stared down at Rags, leaning on her staff. Rags waited for something. Anything. Then, Ulvama bowed. She bowed low in her skimpy feathered outfit, and the other Hobs bowed too. Ulvama smiled as Rags blinked at her. There was mischief in her eyes. Mischief, relief, and something else. A spark that if Rags didn’t know better, she would have called hope. Ulvama gestured around at the other Goblins.
“What now, Chieftain?”
It was a time of endings. Numbtongue knew it. He had come so far, from the little Goblin he’d been. The one sent to kill an [Innkeeper], who had gotten lost. He had grown. He had lost friends. He had won and lost and become someone different. And perhaps, yes, perhaps it was time to run again. To flee.
But he didn’t want to. He couldn’t. He knew in his heart that Goblins couldn’t live among people. He knew that the inn was a dream, and that reality would cut him down in time. But it was a beautiful dream. And she was beautiful. And he couldn’t run any longer.
He had seen the bright star shining above Liscor. He had felt it give him strength. A bit of determination. Courage to do what he had to do. So Numbtongue walked out of the cave. And his followers joined him. The other Cave Goblins joined him. They flooded out of the cave. They swam out of the dungeon. They appeared out of holes in the ground, from hiding places only they knew. And they followed him.
The first person to see anything on the walls was Olesm. He was walking up and down the walls, muttering to himself and trying to calculate ranges based on a report he’d obtained from Zeres about the trebuchets they had. He was trying to figure out if there was time, and eyeing the floodplains.
The water level had fallen so far that only the valleys contained any water now. That still meant there was a lot of water, but the hilltops were muddy instead of underwater, and the fish that hadn’t been smart enough to escape to…wherever they went…were now trapped in the valleys. They’d be scooped up by Liscor’s fishers for food, or eaten by predators like the Rock Crabs. Or they’d die when the waters became too stagnant or finally evaporated.
Right now Liscor was a mud pit. A watery mud pit, which gave Olesm some hope. The [Mages] would have to dry the land and shore it up or the recoil from the trebuchets would literally send them flying into pieces. Maybe they didn’t know about the dangers. It would also slow their advance. But for each good came an ill. Would the Antinium be able to tunnel and attack the trebuchets in this water? Klbkch had not been responding to Olesm or Zevara’s requests to speak. Was something wrong?
Olesm was staring at one spot in particular from the walls. The rift that led down into the dungeon. That concerned him greatly. Mainly because…it was one of the few ways down into the dungeon and it was currently flooded. Of course, there was the main entrance, but that led through a series of randomized, trapped rooms that hadn’t been cleared. If you were going to move thousands of people through there, it would be suicide.
But the rift was flooded. And if he wanted to bring people into the dungeon—hypothetically—it would be impossible with that much water. That only left the Antinium’s entrance, and what were the odds they’d let anyone into their Hive? Olesm paced back and forth. Could he get a [Mage] to heat the water, boil it away, perhaps? Or—what about Erin’s door? Could they drain the water somehow? Maybe—
Something rose from the watery, muddy waters of the rift. Olesm froze. He saw a little green head poke out of the water. The rift was miles away, but Olesm recognized the green skin and distinctive head anywhere.
No, a Cave Goblin. Olesm stared at it, wondering if it had gotten lost or something. Then he saw another Goblin surface and gasp for breath. And another. And another. The first Cave Goblin clambered out and tugged its fellows out of the water. And then more surfaced and began swimming to land. More and more and more—
Olesm looked around. There were dozens, no, nearly a hundred Cave Goblins surfacing now, and more heads were popping up by the second. Was this some kind of evacuation of the dungeon? Was something happening? Should he tell someone? He looked back at the rift and then his eye caught another source of movement on the plains.
A Rock Crab. It was scuttling up the side of a hill, quite rapidly. Olesm blinked. Rock Crabs normally didn’t move that fast unless they were hunting. But they would have enough to eat in the valleys with the captive fish. Why was it going so fast? Then he realized the Rock Crab wasn’t hunting something. It was running.
The first of the Cave Goblins crested the hill. Olesm stared. The little Goblin had a spear. It raised it over its head and it was joined by another. It was carrying a bow. A third joined it. Was it holding a lute? And then the hill filled with Goblins. They surged over it. And then another hill had Goblins. And another.
Olesm’s vision slowly began to fill with green. He saw them climbing over other hills, swimming out of the dungeon. Some had swords, others clubs, or bows, or improvised spears. Some had frying pans and others carried musical instruments. And there were thousands of them. Each second more poured over the hills. Olesm backed up.
They spread out, marching up the muddy hillsides around the valleys full of water. Some peered at the desperate fish swimming in the little lakes. Others stared up at the city ahead of them, the only structure of stone in the entire area. They walked ahead slowly, picking their noses, chattering. Following a tall shape that Olesm recognized. The [Strategist] went running and the [Guardsmen] on the wall sounded the alarm. Again.
At first Ilvriss didn’t understand the confused message Olesm garbled at him. Neither did Zevara. Cave Goblins? They reluctantly abandoned their discussion and came to the walls. Then they saw them.
Cave Goblins. Tens of thousands of them. By Olesm’s count, at least twenty four thousand, some of them extremely tall. As if they were emerging Hobs. And at their head stood a Goblin with a guitar. He wore a sword at his side and he stared up at the battlements of Liscor with narrowed crimson eyes.
Numbtongue. Olesm stood on the battlements with the whole of the City Watch, all four thousand of them. And the eight hundred-odd soldiers that had been sent through from Pallass on the first day. And Embria’s hundred or so 4th Company. They stared down at the army of Goblins, a precursor of what was to come. Olesm saw Numbtongue raise his guitar overhead. The Cave Goblins raised their weapons. As one, they roared a word.
The word reverberated from the Floodplains. It echoed across Liscor and made the citizens look up in alarm. It was a call to arms, a cry for justice.
Numbtongue howled the word. The Cave Goblins screamed it. They weren’t running. They weren’t going to leave. This wasn’t Numbtongue’s home. He didn’t belong here. But—he looked at the inn on the hilltop. But he wanted to stay. And so he screamed the word again and the Goblins roared it. Calling for their leaders. For their friends.
In a prison, sitting behind the bars of her cell, Erin Solstice scratched at one arm and regarded her meal. It was a good one, all things considered. Well, for prison food. She’d expected moldy bread and maybe a dead rat or something. The dead rat obviously being optional if you could kill the ones in your cell. Instead, she’d gotten a rather decent meal.
She’d have preferred to be let go of course, but no one seemed to have remembered she was in here. She’d asked the guards who served food about it, but he’d said there was an incident with the magic door and that Olesm was busy. So Erin looked at lunch instead. She frowned as her ears picked up a distant sound and glanced up.
“You guys hear something?”
Badarrow paused as he ate from his tray. He looked around and scowled.
Erin waited a beat, and then shrugged.
“Okay. Hey, Headscratcher? I’ll trade you my sausage for your cheese and crackers. Mine’s too fatty.”
The Hob looked up. He nodded and Erin tossed her sausage at him. She clumsily caught the cheese and crackers and began to munch on hers as Badarrow grumbled, sipping from his cup. Erin sighed and stared at the bars of her cell.
“…I wonder when we’ll get out of here.”