So. This was how it went down. None of them had really expected it. Not like this. Then again, they hadn’t expected to expect. Foresight wasn’t a huge ability of theirs by and large, at least for the grand things. Small things—the way a nick in a sword caught in a sheathe and held just too long, presenting an opening, or where an old rabbit’s nest presented a foothold that would give at the right moment—they were masters of that. But the large things they left up to chance.
It was more entertaining that way.
So Rags was dead. Or if not dead, then defeated. Her tribe was broken—taken by Reiss the Goblin Lord or running south, led by Redscar, a desperate bunch fleeing death. They’d probably survive. All of them agreed that Redscar was good enough for that. He had been one of them, once. The best of them, really. They didn’t know why he’d left, but he had to have reasons.
Not good ones, but reasons nonetheless. And it was all moot, anyways. They were leaving too. The Humans were stuck fighting Eater Goats, but they’d be along shortly. They were headed south, through the only pass in the mountains. Past Liscor. Nobody really knew what would happen when they reached the Drake city, but there was a rumor going around that there would be a fight. That made sense.
There was always a fight. It was just a shame then, that the Redfang Tribe wouldn’t be part of this one.
They rode. Four thousand of them, or nearly. They’d taken casualties in their last battle. It happened. But they were larger than they’d been this morning. Some of the old guard, the first Redfangs who’d abandoned the tribe for Rags had returned to them. Some of Tremborag’s Goblins too. They rode horses.
The Redfang Tribe laughed about that. The veterans, the originals, clung to the Carn Wolves as the huge, bounding beasts loped across the ground. Carn Wolves were tireless, their teeth as large as your hands. Their breath stank of meat, and their fur was coarse. Rough. Painful to hold, even; it could turn away a weak thrust from a blade or protect them from arrows sometimes. But Carn Wolves were playful. Intelligent.
It would be a mistake to think that this pack lived with the Redfang Tribe bore their riders just because of a Skill or because they’d been domesticated. They hadn’t.
They were wolves. And unlike dogs, wolves didn’t seek masters. Respect had to be won. Newborn pups, or older Carn Wolves had to be trained to follow orders, persuaded through might and kindness to obey. It wasn’t the same as making pets. The Redfangs had to show they were superior—teach their companions not to bite or snarl and to listen. And they had to be kind. That part was easy.
As the Redfangs rode they offered their wolves scraps of meat, patted them, whispered into their ears. In bad times, a Redfang warrior would offer his food to his wolf first. Or an arm. After all, you could fight with one arm, but you couldn’t fight without a friend.
Laughter. One of the Redfangs laughed as his Carn Wolf cleared a boulder in a single bound, perched there for the briefest of moments, then leapt again. The other riders whooped and cheered. Laughing. Like a frog! The other Goblin clinging to the back of the leaping wolf didn’t laugh. He’d nearly fallen off. And his Carn Wolf was dead. He was not crying so loudly it hurt to look at him.
Shouts and a thump made the laughter stop. Heads turned. The Redfangs saw a bloom of magic, like a flower explode behind them. They saw the petals of gold-green light open up. A beautiful thing. But the brightness blinded, and whatever the petals touched turned to ash. A burning spell, but limited. The Redfangs shook their heads. Better to use a [Fireball]. Besides, the spell missed. They saw a group of Humans on horseback charging out of the smoke. Wearing armor.
Knights of the Clairei Field. The Redfangs had clashed with them once, and knew them by their insignia. A stylized stalk of wheat blowing on an open field, only, the grains on the wheat were sharp like swords. The Clairei [Knights] wore bright green chest plates with their insignia etched on the front in silver, and their shoulders, arms, and leggings were bright blue. Their helmets were the same green, deep and majestic as a deep forest, gilded with gold.
Showoffs. The Redfangs sneered, but only a bit. The Clairei Knights lost points for dressing up, but they were fast. Faster than even the bounding wolves or the Goblins riding horses. They could outrun birds on the wing. And in a charge, that made them deadly. Worthy foes.
They were coming. Either they hadn’t heard the call to breakaway and face the goats, or they had ignored it. Either way, they were out for blood. The Redfangs looked ahead, at the largest wolf running at the front of their tribe. It was the largest by far, a beast that could easily bear its rider, a full-grown Hob.
He rode in front. He wore cheap leather armor, scarred by battle, and he didn’t bother with a helmet. Some of the Redfangs wore far better gear than he did. But his sword was red, pure rust, and the edges caught the light. Garen Redfang looked back at the charging [Knights] and spoke.
They didn’t hear it. The wind caught words and tore them away. But they didn’t need to. They saw the word spread from rider to rider, quick as thought. The riders broke up. Eighty of the rear-most Redfangs, a dozen veterans on Carn Wolves and the rest newer recruits on horses. They turned back to meet the dozen or so [Knights] and the [Mage Knight] riding with them. The Clairei Knights hesitated as the Redfangs charged them.
Eighty versus twelve? It was an insult. On both sides, as it turned out. The Humans regarded seven-to-one odds as an insult, especially against Goblins. Didn’t they have enchanted gear, high levels and a [Mage] on their side? The Redfangs saw it the same way. Obviously they’d lose one-on-one, but eighty of them was overkill. Sixty, or even forty would have been fairer odds. But that was battle for you.
The fight was over quick. The Clairei Knights were good, but they weren’t used to fighting the Redfangs. They had their lances out—first mistake. They thought they could hit and run, like they were fighting mindless monsters or slow, uncoordinated Goblins. The second mistake was trusting their armor. It was enchanted—but for lightness, not strength. The Clairei Knights were speedy attackers, skirmishers, not like the Knights of the Petal or a more heavily-armored group. And the Redfangs were experts at taking down high-level enemies, even ones who wore fully enchanted armor.
There were ways. More ways if both sides were mounted, actually. Horses couldn’t wear full armor like Humans. They left too many spots exposed. Legs, underbellies. Eyes. It was a pity, but you did what you had to in battle.
Horses reared. Carn Wolves howled. There was very little clashing of metal and no locking of swords. A few screams. The main Redfang tribe watched. Goblins died. Humans died.
The Clairei Knights fled. Three galloped away. A fourth stood, dismounted, guarding the bodies of her friends. She was ready to die. Fifty three Goblins circled her, some dismounted. One claimed the rearing horse of a fallen Clairei Knight.
The Human screamed a challenge. The Redfangs waited. They saw the way she was holding herself. Armor torn in the left side. She’d taken an arrow to the shoulder point-blank but her armor had held. The mace to the side of her helmet made her stagger. But still she stood, guarding her friends.
The nine surviving veterans conferred. They nodded to each other, and then whistled. The other Redfangs turned and moved back. The [Knight] looked around, bewildered. She set herself for an attack—and none came. The Redfangs nodded to her and turned away. The Clairei Knight stood there in disbelief, watching as they raced to catch up with their tribe.
Over two dozen dead Redfangs lay on the ground as the attack group returned to their tribe. Those who’d lost their mounts were shuffled onto fresher horses or Carn Wolves, and what bandaging was needed was done on the march. The wounded horses were left behind.
It was lucky—if you could call it that—that of the three veterans who had died, their Carn Wolves had died with them. If one had been wounded or injured beyond a healing potion’s power, their rider would have stayed with them, tried to hide and catch up later. The odds of them surviving would have been remote.
The attack group fell into position with the others, tossing a few weapons from the fallen at those who needed better gear. A healing potion that hadn’t been used. Scraps of meat cut quickly from a dead horse. No loot from the Clairei Knights.
No one commented on it, although some of the new Goblins looked confused. The other Redfangs ignored it and congratulated the victors on their return. The newbies would get it soon enough.
Obviously the armor and enchanted weapons would have been nice. And the potions. Not to mention the horsemeat. But the knights had put up a good fight and the survivor had been defending her comrades. You had to respect that, sometimes. Other tribes wouldn’t. The Mountain City tribe, the Goblin Lord’s army, the Flooded Waters tribe—they’d probably all loot the dead. Kill the [Knight].
Actually, Tremborag’s tribe would kill her. Or capture her, which would be worse. The other two tribes might kill her, but the Flooded Waters tribe would probably capture her too, only not in a bad way. Anyways, none of them would ride away. But that was because they didn’t respect their opponents.
They didn’t have honor. But the Redfangs did. If you didn’t have honor, if you didn’t respect the battle and your opponent, what did you have?
The Redfang tribe rode on. Evening was swiftly approaching and the cool spring winds blew wet moisture into their faces as they rode south. The High Passes loomed above them, tall mountains casting long shadows. The Redfang Tribe kept moving, talking sparingly—using hand signs and body language to communicate. Through the winding pass they would run, past Esthelm, the last Human city and then to Liscor, where the rains had just stopped and the floodwaters were still retreating, leaving mud in their wake.
The Redfang tribe did everything on the go, pausing only briefly to rest their mounts. Everything the Goblins needed to do could be done in the saddle, or on wolf-back. Eat, talk, sleep, poo—although that was an advanced technique that was extremely dangerous if you were riding ahead of others.
And in between the loping stride, the rush of wind and the draining of adrenaline from their bodies, the Goblins spared a thought for their fallen brothers and sisters. Mostly brothers—the Redfang tribe was unique in that it had mainly male Goblins in it. But both genders fought and died equally in battle, and there had been deaths today, for all the Redfangs had won every battle they’d fought.
They’d died in the fight to break the Human’s encirclement. More had died fighting the Clairei Knights and other pursuers just now. The fallen were remembered in the Redfang’s way. But no tears were shed, and the deaths were accepted. Not celebrated. And there was mourning. But it was to be expected. Deaths happened. The Redfangs knew they would die in one battle or another.
Fight well as you go. That was the Redfang Tribe. They were the strongest warriors. The quickest, too. It was actually strange—they accepted only the best warriors into their tribe. Regular Goblins as well as Hobs. In fact, Hobs were actually rarer in the tribe because they had to be able to ride these days, and there were some types of Hobs, like Pyrite, for whom no horse would bear their weight.
That was a change from the old days. Before, the Redfangs had been both riders and infantry. But ever since the betrayal, the split, Garen had made theirs a fully-mounted force that could fight on the ground if need be, but prioritized movement.
The split had changed a lot of things. It had been the hardest challenge the Redfang tribe had ever faced. Harder than their first war against the Eater Goats until they’d managed to imprint a kind of truce into the goat’s minds. More strenuous than fighting Gargoyles, or even the other horrors lurking at the bottom of the High Passes. More deadly than going above? No—but it had taken just as many of their number without a single blade being drawn.
Rags or Garen. Garen or Rags. He’d submitted to her, let her become Chieftain, but everyone knew he’d thrown the battle. He’d tested her, and the Redfangs knew she was a…better leader. At least, in areas not relating to battle. She was good at strategy, keeping the wolves fed—Garen was a warrior and his skills in every other area were beyond lacking. And they had made her their Chieftain. They owed her loyalty, so that even if it meant leaving Garen, it was right. Because she was a Chieftain?
No. Yes. The Redfangs were still reluctant to talk about that. They’d stayed because they couldn’t leave the tribe, even if parts of them had thought that was the right thing to do. Redscar and all the ones who’d seen it that way had left. But they’d stayed.
All the things that had gone before had been …not good. Messy. Abandoning their new Chieftain, Rags, having to sit in Tremborag’s mountain while his Goblins disgraced themselves, running from the Humans—all of that wasn’t good. The Redfangs didn’t talk about it. They didn’t like to think on it, really. But they stayed because they’d made their choice. And of course, there was their Chieftain.
Who could replace him? No one Goblin was his equal. Not Tremborag, not the Goblin Lord, not Rags—not even Greydath of Blades. He was their hero. He defined the tribe. They couldn’t leave him. When he called, they answered. They were his warriors, and the Redfangs didn’t desert their own. Not the first. Not the one who had forged them, given him their name to shout, to be proud of.
The Hobgoblin who had been a Gold-rank adventurer.
The brother of the Goblin Lord.
After another twenty minutes more of riding, Garen called a halt. It was time to change things up, especially if he wanted to pass by Liscor tonight. His tribe came to a standstill as they circled around him, Goblins jumping off of Carn Wolves. Those with horses had to do more work; temporarily unsaddling their mounts and rubbing them down. There wasn’t much grass about—the area around the High Passes grew rockier the further in you went. So dried hay was broken out and the horse handlers munched on a few stalks while their affronted mounts quickly ate the rest.
Garen’s Carn Wolf lolled on the ground, panting lightly. It wasn’t winded from the run, but some of the other wolves were younger, had less wind. Garen understood that. He knew his tribe’s ability to move, how much they could fight, and what kind of enemies they could take on most easily. He knew war. Little else but that, but it was enough.
He was Garen Redfang. Leader of the Redfang tribe. Former Gold-rank adventurer. And he had been betrayed.
Again. The taste was bitter in Garen’s mouth, like bile. He remembered the Goblins staring up at him, Redscar looking towards Garen. Turning away.
It had happened again. First in the mountain, then after Tremborag’s death. And then today. And before that—and before that too—
Garen’s life was a litany of betrayals. Of false friends. The memories were still with him. They surged in times like these, and he let them pass through his head as he squatted, offering his wolf a handful of meat scraps. It ate them greedily, licking his hand. Garen smiled and scratched his wolf behind the ears. You could trust a Carn Wolf. They were ferocious and if they didn’t respect you they’d kill you. But loyalty, once won, was never lost. His wolf wouldn’t leave Garen.
Everyone else would. That was what Garen had learned over the years. You couldn’t really trust anyone. Not your fellow Goblins, and certainly not other species. Not even your own tribe, apparently. Redscar, his right hand, had left him. Another lesson.
Garen looked up. He saw his new second, Spiderslicer, walking towards him. Garen nodded and stood up.
Garen nodded. He grunted.
“Time. Get treasure. Pile.”
The other Redfangs looked up. The new recruits didn’t understand what was going on, but they followed along willingly. They didn’t have to be told; they’d learn by watching. The Redfangs congregated around Garen. They tossed items on the ground at his feet. A sword snatched from a Human’s hand, a potion bottle ripped from a belt. Magic rings, armor, and so on. The spoils of war. Each Goblin did it. There were a lot of them, so it took a while, but soon there was a pile of every object they’d snatched in the latest battles.
Garen looked down at the pile when it was done. He squatted down and pushed items back and forth. He’d seen most of what had been dropped, and he knew he only wanted a new potion. He found a strong healing potion, or what seemed like one and tested it. He grunted and corked the bottle after one swig.
“Bleh. Mana potion.”
He tried again with another. The Redfangs nudged each other, pointing out what they’d taken, laughing at their leader’s expression. The second potion was a healing potion and the third surprised Garen.
He blinked down at the bottle of greyish liquid which tasted like metal and looked like sludge. Garen stowed it on his belt at once and stood up. He nodded at the others, indicating that it was their turn. He had no need of other weapons besides his sword and he hadn’t seen any lightweight enchanted armor that would fit him.
Spiderslicer went next. He looked through the items, found a potion like Garen, and stood up with it. The other veterans, the oldest Redfangs who rode Carn Wolves had had been fighting with Garen for years followed him in a group. They found rings they were willing to try on as an experiment, potions, and a magic buckler. Then came the newer Goblins, who took armor and weapons. The last ones, the recruits who had joined today, got to argue over what was left at the end.
Garen watched the new Goblins pick up weapons and test them out. They looked surprised; there was still good iron and steel weapons left over, and bits of armor for them. They needn’t have been, though.
This was how the Redfangs divided loot. Garen had first pick, and then the more experienced Goblins. They usually took potions unless there was something really good that had been found. And they left weapons, even good ones, for Goblins who needed it. Not all of Garen’s warriors had enchanted weapons—only a few, really. But all of the ones who’d ridden with him for a few years wore steel and carried as much gear as any Silver-rank adventurer.
The Redfangs equipped the last of their weapons, replacing damaged bucklers, spears, swords, and other pieces of gear too badly damaged to mend, and stood up. What was left they let lie. It was a haul for another tribe or anyone who chanced upon the collection on the ground. But the Redfangs wouldn’t carry it. They had secondary weapons, spare blades, but they didn’t carry anything else. They moved and travelled light. And neither would they hoard their new artifacts and potions either. In the next big battle, they’d use up most of their potions.
The Redfang tribe had no motto. But if they did have one, it would probably be the opposite of ‘be prepared’. They used everything they had right away. Anything for an edge. You won the battle in front of you and let everything else work itself out. Beyond that, you just trusted that the next fight would be coming soon.
That was how it worked. The Redfangs followed Garen into battle and didn’t sweat the rest. They trusted him to lead them to bigger opponents. After all, he was Garen Redfang. He had made them into what they were.
Warriors. Elites of the Goblin world. You could see it if you looked. The Goblins sitting around Garen, the original Redfangs, were head-and-shoulders apart from the new ones. Tremborag’s Goblins, the new recruits gained in the mountain and on the road—they were good. The best in the mountain, probably. They could probably boast any number of kills and some of them even had weakly enchanted gear, a mark of their status. But they weren’t Redfangs. And it showed.
Muscles, a honed body beyond regular Goblin warriors. Economy of movement. A fearless walk. And coordination in battle. Redfangs trained in their off time, where regular Goblin warriors just lazed about. Even now, as Garen walked about, stretching his legs, he saw the new warriors talking with the old ones. About the last battle, about tactics. Learning. Watching the veterans stretch, swap stories, laugh. In time, they’d become reflections of the best. If they lived long enough, that was.
They made Garen proud. The Redfangs were his tribe. His family, the ones who he trusted. Never mind the ones who’d left. He’d taken them and changed them from weak Goblins into warriors. He’d given them pride, strength. And most importantly, brotherhood.
One of the Goblins caught Garen’s eye as he walked around the sitting warriors. He spotted a younger Goblin, a full Redfang, but newer. He was clutching something.
The severed stump of his left hand. The skin was nearly healed—a healing potion had been used, but it couldn’t regrow what was lost. The Goblin looked up as Garen paused.
Garen looked down at him. The young Goblin nodded. He bared his teeth as Garen squatted down. The Chieftain looked at his hand.
“[Knight] cut off, Chieftain. Bad block. Sorry.”
Furgatherer looked down at his hand. One of the other Redfangs punched him softly in the shoulder. Garen looked at the young Goblin. Furgatherer was trying to keep a strong face up, but anyone could tell he was upset. His Carn Wolf padded around him, too upset to rest, licking him.
“You left handed?”
That explained it. Furgatherer gave Garen an anguished look. He’d lost his dominant hand. Fear was in his eyes. Fear of being useless. Crippled. Garen thought for a second, then reached out. He plucked Furgatherer’s mace from his belt.
“Try right hand.”
The young Goblin took the mace awkwardly. Garen made him swing at him. Furgatherer adjusted his grip, attacked fast and hard, but awkwardly. Garen blocked the blocks with his sword as the other Redfangs turned to look.
“Slow! Faster! Hit high low, faster!”
He spun, dodging a blow to the face, and kicked. Furgatherer stumbled back, wincing. Garen let him charge back towards him and blocked a strike to his chest, groin, arm—he knocked the mace down and Furgatherer stopped, panting. He looked up at Garen, afraid. And his Chieftain smiled.
“Good! Not bad for right hand.”
The other Redfangs called out encouragement as well. Furgatherer flushed, and then his face fell. He gestured at his missing left hand.
“But Chieftain—can’t fight on left.”
Garen challenged him. He kicked at Furgatherer’s left side, dismissively.
“Can’t fight on left? Fight on right! Let others fight on left! Find partner. Doesn’t matter.”
Furgatherer nodded, but he wasn’t convinced.
“But if weak—”
He got no further. Garen punched him lightly on the shoulder. He roared, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“If weak? If weak, get stronger! Other Goblins guard left! Doesn’t matter! Redfangs don’t fight alone!”
He turned. The other Redfangs knew the cue and raised their weapons. They shouted, and Furgatherer looked up. More Goblins came around him, critiquing his stance, the way he held his mace.
“Wear buckler. Tie to arm. Can still block.”
One of the older Redfangs, a female Hob, advised Furgatherer. She winked at Garen, who nodded as Furgatherer found himself supported. He turned away, reassured the younger Goblin wouldn’t do something stupid like get himself killed on purpose or run away. The other Redfangs grinned at the sight as Furgatherer sat among his peers.
Redfangs don’t fight alone. It was what made them strong. They didn’t abandon their own. It was what Garen had taught them. The Chieftain’s own smile lasted for a few more seconds. Then his mood grew dark again.
He’d taught them that. So why had Redscar left? He’d never gotten a chance to ask him. Why had he and so many of the others abandoned Garen, after all he’d done for them? That was like last time.
Annoyed, but determined not to show it, Garen walked back over to his Carn Wolf and lay down. Just for a few minutes. He turned his face towards the fur of his wolf. They’d have to go soon. This was only a short break. And then they’d go…to Liscor, right? There weren’t many other options, not with the Humans behind them. And what about after there? Which way?
The memory stole over Garen, too fast to stop.
Garen looked up. He heard a male voice, unfamiliar for a second. Then he remembered and recognized it was Jelaqua who was speaking to him.
“Garen? Which way now? North? South? West? East? Pick a direction, would you? I’m out of ideas and Seborn keeps bugging me about which way we’re headed.”
Garen turned. He blinked at Jelaqua as she grinned at him, her pale face Human, at least for now. She pointed down at the map. Her fingers were hairy. She wore a male Human’s body, big and burly. She wasn’t comfortable in it. Neither was he, but he edged over anyways and stared at the map.
Jelaqua didn’t often ask him for advice. Well, she did, but he seldom gave it. As the newest member of the Halfseekers, he felt out of place still, even though he’d been with them for a year already. He shrugged, a tad uncomfortably.
“What about others?”
“Oh, you know what Halassia and Ukrina always want. Go south, as if we’d find more work around the Walled Cities. Moore’s still moping over that girl, and Keilam’s snoring away upstairs. I’d get Seborn to pick a spot, but he keeps telling me it’s my choice. Jerk. So uh, why don’t you pick a good spot?”
Jelaqua’s finger slid across the map, tapping spots as she talked conversationally.
“We could go to Invrisil. Always work over there. Or hey—why don’t we head towards Celum? They dug up some treasure in Albez. Or the bug caverns? I hate that place, but heck, I’m sure it’s not fully explored. Just pick a spot and I’ll pretend it was my idea, okay, Garen?”
The Hobgoblin opened his eyes. For a second he didn’t know where he was. Then he recognized Spiderslicer staring at him. He sat up as the past faded away.
“Which way, Chieftain?”
Spiderslicer looked a bit uncomfortable asking. Garen spotted several Redfangs behind him glancing their way and then pretending to be chattering. So they’d gotten Spiderslicer to ask the question on everyone’s minds. He rubbed his face, trying to erase the past. But it was impossible. He heard an echo.
“Crawling caverns sound good.”
Spiderslicer stared at Garen. The Redfang Chieftain shook himself.
“Nothing. We go south. Past Liscor.”
The other Redfangs stirred. Spiderslicer frowned.
“Not going to High Passes, Chieftain?”
“Yes. But going other way. Past Liscor. Down south into Drake lands. West, back through High Passes from other side.”
Garen grunted as he sketched a quick map. They’d have to go through Liscor and loop a long ways around to get to the other side of the High Passes. Spiderslicer made a face.
“Better than fighting hungry Eater Goats and Humans. Too many. Too much slaughter.”
Spiderslicer grimaced and nodded. All that slaughter had called the Eater Goats down from the High Passes. They’d be ravening, and might even attack the Redfang tribe, red stripes or not.
“And after that, Chieftain?”
Garen gave Spiderslicer a blank look. He shrugged.
“After that—we’re in High Passes. We’ll fight. Train. Push Gargoyles out of territory. Expand up, maybe. Find more Carn Wolves instead of horses. Normal stuff.”
That was all Garen wanted. A return to normality. He saw Spiderslicer nod, but hesitantly.
The Goblin squirmed. He looked back at the others and they waved him on, clearly saying ‘get on with it’. That was Spiderslicer’s trouble. He was an excellent warrior, but he was no Redscar, brave with words as well as battle. Spiderslicer muttered to himself, and then looked at Garen.
“Chieftain—we not fighting Goblin Lord? Or Humans?”
Garen scowled. He looked around and raised his voice a little louder, so all could hear.
“Too risky. Too many Goblins. Too many stupid Humans.”
The others nodded. It was suicide, even for Redfangs to fight that many. Still—they looked at Spiderslicer. He hesitated.
“Could have fought with Flooded Waters tribe, Chieftain. Reiss—Goblin Lord—was exposed.”
They could have cut towards him. Garen knew that. His scowl deepened.
“Yes, but—too risky. No way out. No. Let Reiss fight. Don’t need to waste lives.”
Some of the Redfangs nodded, but most looked confused. Risky? That wasn’t what Garen would normally say, and both they and he knew it. Garen growled. Spiderslicer eyed him, but the peer pressure was too great for him to drop it.
“So Chieftain. We go back. Then we fight Gargoyles. Get more wolves. And…use key?”
He gestured obliquely to Garen’s side. Instantly, the chieftain clamped a hand to the small key he carried on him at all times. Spiderslicer sat back on his heels. Garen tried not to glare at him. He trusted Spiderslicer. He was just asking. He forced himself to respond normally.
“Not yet. Other one missing.”
“Okay. We get?”
“Not yet. Later. I—I’ll come up with plan. Later.”
Garen growled. Spiderslicer nodded. He seemed to sense Garen’s patience was at an end and looked back towards the others.
“Okay, Chieftain. Past Liscor. We ride soon?”
“Yes. Get ready.”
Garen watched the Goblin move back. He saw him exchange looks, not quite glance back at him, and begin a rapid and furtive conversation with the others. Garen didn’t need to know what they said. They were probably debating his words.
They could sense it too. Garen didn’t know what he’d do after he got back home. The High Passes always had something to fight, something to do. But he didn’t have any plans beyond surviving there. He just knew he was done. Done with Rags and Reiss and the Humans. Done with betrayal. After all, what reason did he have to stay? It wasn’t his battle. It wasn’t his war. Reiss could die fighting for his master. Garen didn’t care anymore.
He was going home.
Olesm had seen armies passing by Liscor. Human ones, going to battle in the Blood Fields. Recently he had seen the Goblin Lord’s army, a vast host passing in the darkness. And he had seen Skinner’s undead—the hordes of Face-Eater Moths. Each time he’d been cowed by the numbers, but he had trusted Liscor’s walls to hold.
However, today he felt uneasy for a reason that had nothing to do with numbers. The army of Cave Goblins spread out in front of him, twenty four thousand strong. Enough Goblins to cover the muddy hills. They were spread out, camped on the wet Floodplains. Some were fishing from the water. Others were milling about, kicking mud at each other. A few were trying to spar. But the rest were motionless.
They were staring at the city. Thousands of Goblins, just standing or sitting. Staring. Olesm recognized the Hobgoblin leading them. Numbtongue.
“What are they doing now, Olesm?”
He turned. Wing Commander Embria was standing on the walls next to him. She was staring at the Cave Goblins. She could see as well as he could, but he stated the obvious for both their sakes.
“Nothing yet, Wing Commander. They’ve stopped chanting, but I expect they’ll start up in a few minutes.”
The Cave Goblins were indeed silent. But that wouldn’t last. For the last thirty minutes, they’d been chanting. A single name.
Redfang. They would shout it as one, scream it at Liscor’s walls, and then go silent. But it would start up again, Olesm knew. He looked around.
The battlements were occupied. Full, in fact. The City Watch manned the walls with bows, Gnolls and Drakes ready to unleash volley after volley. But not just them. Embria’s 4th Company also held the walls, and Olesm saw four of her [Captains] taking posts along the wall. And spread out between Watch and Liscor’s army were other [Soldiers] in yellow armor. Pallassian troops, the ones brought through the door before it had been sabotaged. And if Olesm looked over his shoulder—
He looked and wished he hadn’t. A crowd of faces, furry and scaled, looked up at him. Liscor’s citizens had gathered by the eastern wall, and they were staring up at Olesm’s back. They’d heard the chanting of course, and you’d have to be blind as a Dropclaw Bat to miss the Goblin army camped outside the walls. There had been panic at first—people had thought it was the Goblin Lord’s army. But Zevara had restored order and now everyone was watching. Wary and silent.
“Could you take the Hob out with a spell? Would that disperse them, do you think?”
Olesm looked up. Embria was eying the set of key-scrolls that triggered the enchantments on Liscor’s walls. He covered them with one claw.
“I don’t have perfect accuracy, Wing Commander. And I don’t think that would be wise. The Goblins might disperse if Numbtongue dies. Or they might rush the city all at once.”
“Hrmph. I see.”
Embria looked disgruntled, but she dropped it. Privately, Olesm doubted the Cave Goblins would do something as stupid as attack the walls, but he was sure, absolutely sure that blasting Numbtongue was not in Liscor’s interests. He drummed his claws on the stone battlements and then heard a voice.
“Watch Commander on the walls! Wall Lord on the walls!”
He turned. Zevara and Ilvriss were striding up the battlements. The Gnoll who’d called them out, as per military rules, stepped aside. The two made a beeline for Olesm and Embria.
“Wing Commander. Olesm. What’s the situation?”
“Unchanged, Watch Captain.”
Olesm eyed Zevara. She looked tired, grumpy, and sleep-deprived. Not much different than usual, really, but she looked even more stressed than normal. Ilvriss looked better—but even he seemed at a loss as he stared down at the Cave Goblins.
“The citizenry have calmed down. We’re not in danger of a panic any longer. I have also reassured the Walled Cities that were alerted by those scatterbrained idiots in the Mage’s Guild that we were under siege.”
Ilvriss grumbled as he adjusted his armor. He was wearing a blood red cloak made of what appeared to be liquid. Olesm eyed it, but forbade comment. Ilvriss turned to him.
“So. The Cave Goblins have left the dungeon. And there are quite a bit more of them than any of us expected. I take it this is related to the four Hobgoblins in Liscor’s dungeon? And Miss Solstice, no doubt?”
“Yes, sir. I uh, think they’re angry. I didn’t know it would lead to this, I truly didn’t. If I had known—”
Ilvriss shook his head.
“The fact that one of them got away is distressing, but it was the right move to make. We could hardly have Hobgoblins running about, especially in light of the Antinium Queen’s wrath. Not to mention this mysterious bearded one in your report. My only concern now is this situation. How do we resolve it? Thoughts?”
He looked at Zevara and Embria. The two female Drakes were silent. Zevara was thinking. Embria looked at her, and then stood straighter.
“Give me command of the Pallassian forces and a thousand of the Watch and I can rout the Goblins, Wall Lord. With fire from the walls and spell artillery, we can easily defeat the Goblins.”
Olesm’s jaw fell in horror. His tail curled up as Embria glanced sideways at him. If Embria slaughtered the Goblins, Erin would never talk to him again. Ilvriss also looked concerned, but for different reasons.
“You think you could achieve a victory with just two thousand soldiers and your 4th Company, Wing Commander Embria?”
The fiery Drake nodded. She folded her claws behind her back.
“I told you we could take on a regular army twice our size, Wall Lord Ilvriss. These Goblins lack Hobs—fully grown ones at any rate. With archery support and at least two of Liscor’s wall spells it would be easy to take them down in droves.”
“But that’s not a good idea. Respectfully, Wing Commander, Wall Lord.”
Olesm hopped from one foot to another in his urgency. Ilvriss looked at him.
“How so, Swifttail.”
Embria looked annoyed as well. Perhaps she thought he was disputing her abilities. Olesm tried to explain as fast as he could.
“I have no doubt that Wing Commander Embria could achieve a victory. But it would cost hundreds of casualties, at least. Casualties Liscor cannot afford. Moreover, Wing Commander Embria would rout the enemy. That doesn’t mean the same thing as obliterating the Cave Goblins.”
“True. It would be impossible to slaughter them all.”
Ilvriss stroked his chin with a claw. Olesm nodded frantically.
“—and while that works with regular armies, it just means the Goblins would go to ground and hide. And if they do, then they’ll heal up and pop out when the Goblin Lord’s army gets here. So then we’ll have a bunch of angry Cave Goblins—”
“—as well as the Goblin Lord and the Humans to deal with. Indeed. I don’t suppose you could encircle and obliterate the entire tribe, Wing Commander?”
Ilvriss sighed. Embria looked unhappy.
“No, Wall Lord. That would be impossible, I’m afraid. Or, as Strategist Olesm said, not without excessive casualties. I could take down that Hob in a lightning strike though…”
“Indeed. But that’s not the issue, is it? I doubt the Cave Goblins will disperse from the loss of one Chieftain—if that Goblin even is the Chieftain. There are five of them. We need to drive them off somehow without incurring losses to the city. Perhaps it would be possible to—”
Embria and Ilvriss began to debate. Olesm watched them anxiously. He saw Zevara look up from her study of the Cave Goblins. She glanced at him and lowered her voice.
“That’s the Hob at Erin’s inn, right, Olesm?”
“The one with the guitar?”
“What do you think he wants?”
“At a guess? His friends back.”
Zevara grunted. Olesm’s tail twitched nervously. This was all his fault.
“This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have arrested them.”
“I would have. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“But maybe if—”
Olesm’s next words were cut off. He saw Numbtongue raise his guitar out of the corner of his eye and his body was already wincing before the roar of noise came up from the Cave Goblins.
It was one word, a roar of sound. Zevara recoiled and both Ilvriss and Embria reached instinctively for their weapons. The City Watch half-raised their bows, then forced themselves to hold. Numbtongue raised his arms and the word rolled across the Floodplains again.
This time the cadence was different. Zevara frowned and turned towards the others.
“They’ve been shouting that all this time?”
“Yes, Watch Captain.”
Olesm watched Numbtongue lower his guitar, his stomach churning. Zevara frowned. Her own tail was very still, but Olesm could see it slightly squirming. She had to be holding it still so she wouldn’t alarm anyone else.
“I see. Then it seems to me, Wall Lord, Wing Commander, that the Cave Goblins want a parley.”
The other Drakes looked astonished. And affronted. Zevara nodded.
“They haven’t assaulted the city and that isn’t an aggressive formation. They’re out of bow range and all they’ve been doing is chanting a name. The name of the Redfang Goblins, in fact. We have four Hobs in lockup. They’re the leaders of this tribe. Or allies. Or something.”
“So, what? We should release them under duress? Unacceptable.”
Ilvriss snapped. Olesm hesitated.
“Well…I did arrest them on a technicality. They were Goblins in the city, which is illegal, but they were helping Erin—”
“And they’re Goblins. You’re not suggesting we accede to their demands, surely, Watch Captain?”
Embria stared at Zevara. The older Drake glared at her.
“And what would you propose? An assault? This is an army we do not need right now. The Hobs staying at Erin’s inn are reasonable—for Goblins, or so I’ve been given to understand.”
She shot a quick glance at Olesm, who nodded slowly. Zevara shrugged.
“In that case, what do we have to lose by giving them what they want?”
“But if we return their leaders—”
Zevara brusquely interrupted Embria. She addressed Ilvriss, who was staring down at the Goblins with narrowed eyes.
“Four Hobs won’t make a difference in the battle for Liscor. Twenty thousand Goblins might. I propose we make a deal with them. If we can force them to retreat south, towards the Blood Fields in exchange for letting the other Hobs go—”
“We’d keep them from reinforcing the Goblin Lord. A sound idea, Watch Captain.”
Ilvriss spoke slowly. He looked up, at Olesm, Zevara, and Embria.
“As options go, I think that is the best one in front of us. Unless you have any better suggestions, Wing Commander? Strategist Olesm?”
Neither one did, although Embria looked upset. Ilvriss nodded.
“In that case, I would agree to Watch Captain Zevara’s proposal. It is unprecedented—but it seems precedent is damned around Liscor in any case. I have only one objection, though.”
Zevara looked sharply at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord frowned.
“We do not negotiate with monsters. It is beneath us as a species.”
Olesm groaned internally. Zevara opened her mouth, but Ilvriss forestalled her. He raised a claw, and then looked around.
“Someone get the Human.”
After a few more minutes of rest, Garen ordered his tribe to keep moving. They had to cover ground fast—not because they were afraid of the Goblin Lord or the Humans catching up, but because Garen wanted to outrun his nagging thoughts. So the Redfangs took a different strategy. Rather than gallop on wolf or horseback the entire way, they jumped off their mounts and began running alongside them.
It was a trick mounted units had used throughout the ages. The Redfangs kept up a quick pace, letting the wolves and horses take up a slow gait, for them. And when the Goblins tired, they leapt on the backs of their wolves, resting until they were able to run again. It paced both rider and mount. The only thing faster would be if Garen had multiple Skills that could enhance his tribe’s speed all the time, like Rags. Or if they had enough stamina and healing potions to run at full-sprint all day and night.
They did not. And it didn’t matter anyways, because their progress was lightning-fast compared to the slow pace they’d taken while on the march with the armies on foot. In no time, they were running down the wide pass. Sparse trees and grass mixed with the rugged terrain. There was little of worth here, although there were a few mining spots in the area, and space enough for grazing or limited agriculture. Some people had thought it was worth settling, because quick enough, Spiderslicer called out to Garen.
The scouts had spotted the sole city in the pass before it opened into the Floodplains and Liscor. Garen saw the distant city as he passed by a bend in the mountainous pass. He spoke a word.
“Thought it got smashed.”
One of the Hobs commented. Garen shrugged. He’d heard the same. But the city was standing and populated. There was damage along its walls, but it looked repaired, and the walls were sturdy. And now that he looked twice, there were a lot of Humans on the walls.
A Redfang shouted a warning. The Humans had spotted their tribe and a few were loosing arrows even now. They fell far short of the approaching Redfang tribe, but it was enough to make Garen eye Esthelm twice. The city was small, but its defenders looked ready for a fight. They must have retaken the city. By the laws of leveling and classes, that meant they would be tougher than before. Not a city he would assault if he had a choice. And he didn’t need to anyways.
“Go around city. Ignore it.”
“Watch out for arrows.”
One of the older Hobs instructed the others. He looked to Garen, his one good eye flashing at his Chieftain out of a scarred face.
“Chieftain, what to do if Humans shoot arrows?”
Garen turned his head. He looked for the grizzled Hobgoblin’s face, and saw a Drake grinning at him instead.
Her scales were blackened, as if by soot. Many were missing, so her burnt flesh stood out instead. On a Drake, it was a disturbing sight, but her entire body was like that. Burned, ashy. Scarred by her nature. She was of the Oldblood, but cursed by it. Fire burned within her and unlike the Drakes who could breathe flame, it had ravaged her. She was an outcast among Drakes, a Scorchling, rumored to be cursed or tainted. But those were only rumors. To Garen, she was his friend.
Halassia Evergleam smiled as she thought about his question. She shrugged lightly and tapped the wand at her side.
“Shoot arrows at you? Don’t worry about it. If they try, I’ll block the arrows with a spell.”
“And I’ll swat them down, don’t worry about it!”
Another Drake, also female but broad-shouldered, laughed and slapped her chest. She was a full Drake, but she was an outcast in a different way. For different reasons. Ukrina had been exiled from Drake society for what she was known for, rather than her looks. She was a Turnscale, a word Garen didn’t quite understand. But it qualified her for the Halfseekers, who accepted anyone who was outcast from society.
The two Drakes nodded. Garen turned and saw Jelaqua, riding ahead of them and wearing a Gnoll’s body, turn.
“You still worried, Garen? Relax! You say this every time we visit a new city.”
The others laughed. Garen hunched his shoulders.
“Went to this one before. Got caught.”
“Well, you didn’t kill anyone, did you? No? Then relax. It’s best to relax on trips, yes? Relax, take a nap…do we have to work today?”
A purring voice from Garen’s left made him look. Keilam, the group’s third [Mage] if you counted Moore—who doubled as a front-line fighter—draped himself over his disgruntled mare. He was half-Gnoll, half Cat-tribe Beastkin. He had inherited his feline ancestry, but there was enough Gnoll to make him both sinuous and strong. Too barbarian for the Cat-tribe, and too strange for Gnoll tribes. Wit and laziness came to him in equal measures.
“Could still shoot arrows.”
Garen wasn’t convinced. Seborn shrugged. Moore stroked his chin, looking worried. He had to walk; there wasn’t a horse large enough for him. Garen was walking too, in solidarity. He hated riding horses anyways. They bit.
“I know the feeling. Some villages would shoot arrows at me. They thought I was an Ogre or a Troll. Can you believe it? Me, a Troll?”
“I can believe it.”
An amused voice from Moore’s right made the half-Giant look down, crestfallen. The half-Elf walking with him laughed up at him. Thornst, a half-Elf from Terandria and the newest Halfseeker, grinned up at Moore.
“It’s not an insult, friend Moore. But you must admit, you’re a startling sight to anyone who’s not seen a half-Giant before. They’ll panic, and when they panic, the first monster that fits comes to mind.”
“I suppose so. It’s hurtful, though. But at least they hesitate. I can’t imagine what it would be like to—”
Moore broke off and eyed Garen. The Hobgoblin pretended not to notice. Halassia cleared her throat, shedding an ashy scale.
“Just stay behind us, Garen. Let me do the talking. We’re a Gold-rank team. If they want to start a fight with the Adventurer’s Guilds, let them.”
“That’s right! Here’s to Gold-rank! I knew we’d make it! Let’s have another party!”
Keilam waved a paw. The other Halfseekers grinned. Seborn just sighed.
“Some of us were Gold-ranks before we joined the team. It’s just that we’re a certified team, now. It was going to happen.”
“Yeah, but there’s always time for another drink.”
Jelaqua grinned and slapped Seborn on the back. The Drowned Man glared, but Jelaqua just laughed.
“Come on, everyone! To the city! And if Garen gets shot, we’ll buy him a round. Watch for arrows, now!”
Garen grumbled as the others laughed. But he followed them, not as worried as he normally was. After all, for his team he’d gladly take an arrow, or a dozen—
Reality came back in a moment. Garen stared at the Hobgoblin with the missing eye for a moment, and then came to his senses. It was like the Chieftain’s memories, but stronger! He realized he’d been staring too long. The others were looking at him. Garen raised his voice.
“Ignore arrows. Don’t shoot. Keep out of range. Get moving.”
He turned back and kept riding. Why was this happening? It didn’t happen often in the High Passes. But these flashes of memory had been growing stronger day after day. At first it had just been moments, or replayed conversations. But now—
He’d never heard of another Chieftain remembering their own life like this. But he knew some of them, like Rags, had dreams or visions of past Goblins, uncontrollable ones. Sometimes it was need, or seeing a familiar scene that brought it on. In Garen’s case…it was nostalgia. Unresolved business.
Some days he wanted to ask them why. Why it had gone down like it had. But the dead were dead and the living—impossible. Garen had been a Halfseeker once. No more.
Reiss had called him a traitor. So had Greydath. But that was all wrong. What had happened was—Garen closed his eyes.
No. It didn’t matter. It was in the past. He’d left it behind. He’d become a Chieftain, gone back to his kind. He’d leave it behind him. Rags too. And Reiss. Go back to the mountains. Forget. Garen urged his Carn Wolf to go faster. But the memories kept coming back and back. Growing stronger. He didn’t know why.
In the end, three of them went to get Erin. Embria stayed on the walls just in case. Olesm, Zevara, and Ilvriss walked together.
“Getting her to deal with the Goblins will be a hassle. But then again, I’d expect nothing less.”
“Will she be willing to help is my question.”
Zevara muttered. She glanced at Olesm. The [Strategist] shrugged.
“I think—she does care about Liscor. But she cares about the Goblins. So…I don’t know what to say.”
“If she cares about the Goblins she will tell them to move. Need we do anything else besides release them?”
Ilvriss strode ahead of them, towards Liscor’s dungeon. Olesm coughed and eyed the red cloak on Ilvriss’ back meaningfully.
“We might have to return their possessions, Wall Lord. Weapons and armor at least.”
The Wall Lord of Salazsar took a moment to figure out what Olesm meant. He stopped and put a claw on the flowing cloak.
“But it would be a crime to—you don’t suppose I could provide a different cloak in exchange? No?”
Zevara and Olesm exchanged a glance.
“That cloak’s not that valuable, surely, Wall Lord? It’s one of a few artifacts the Goblins have. That damn bell, the axe that I have never seen before, that cloak—it’s just a liquid cloak, right?”
“Liquid cloak? It’s not a—Great Ancestors. Have neither of you any understanding of what this is? This is a Cloak of Plenty! It’s an incredibly valuable artifact! Far more expensive than an axe!”
Ilvriss brandished the cloak at the two Drakes. Zevara raised her brows and Olesm restrained the urge to whistle.
“A Cloak of Plenty? Are you serious, Wall Lord?”
“I tested it myself. It can replicate mundane liquids. Nothing magical or complex mixtures, which rules out alchemical liquids, but with it you could provision a thirsty army with water, or create a nourishing broth. Or supply [Mages] with blood or other liquid reagents. Of course, that’s hardly the only function of such a cloak. I would have it for myself.”
“How do you mean?”
Olesm couldn’t see Ilvriss needing a fresh supply of water, which was the standard use for objects of plenty. He’d heard of cornucopias that dispensed free food each day, which was a boon to armies and adventurers alike. Although if you ate too much of the enchanted food alone, you’d eventually grow sick. Ilvriss sighed.
“It’s wine, Swifttail. Wine. There are fine vintages—incredibly fine ones—that have no magical component to them at all. In fact, non-magical wines are preferable to magical ones. When did the custom of adding magic to every dish arise? As if that guarantees better taste—anyways, I digress. With a single drop of a quality vintage, I could serve my guests the most delicate bouquets at my estates each night without it costing a copper penny. Even I would consider that a windfall in saved coin, although of course I’d have to keep the cloak secret…”
He broke off, clearing his throat. Olesm and Zevara exchanged a glance. That was Wall Lords for you. Ilvriss stroked the cloak.
“I suppose I must give it up?”
“I don’t think the Goblins care to trade, Wall Lord. Although I can ask Erin if she’d be willing to intercede—I thought the cloak kept changing properties, though. Wouldn’t that be inconvenient?”
Ilvriss looked mildly insulted.
“Changing properties? Oh, you mean if it comes in contact with another liquid. That isn’t an issue, Olesm. Willpower is enough to fix the cloak into whatever property I wish. In this case wine.”
He raised a fold of the liquid wine cloak. Olesm blinked.
“Have you been sampling that cloak all day, Wall Lord?”
Ilvriss looked mildly abashed.
“Not me. I’m not drinking—I had my subordinates test the quality of the cloak. Along with the [Innkeeper] in my inn and a number of interested patrons. I believe they’re all asleep at the moment. The changing nature of the cloak was not an issue. I knew what I wanted.”
“Really. In my talk with Erin, as uh, translator, she said the cloak kept changing and the Hob who owned it—Rabbiteater—couldn’t get it to stop.”
“The flaw of being open-minded, one supposes. Curiosity will inevitably lead to change. Ah well, if we must give it to the Goblins…I’ll ask about it later. Dealing with this issue takes priority.”
The Wall Lord ignored the look Zevara and Olesm gave each other and undid the claps of the cloak. He reluctantly handed it to Olesm and kept walking.
A few [Guards] met them at the prison, along with the rest of the Hobgoblin’s gear. Zevara eyed the collection of weapons and armor.
“Put it in a holding spot. We’re not letting them go just yet. How’s the Human?”
The Drake on duty grimaced.
“Good, Watch Captain. Although we had to shut her up several times last night and this morning. She kept trying to get the other prisoners to sing.”
Zevara stared at the Drake. Olesm sighed. That said it all, really.
“No, Watch Captain. Nothing from the Hobs. Or the Minotaur. The Gold-ranks are clamoring to be let out, though.”
“I bet they are. Release the overnight prisoners then, with a warning. We’ll see to the Human ourselves.”
The [Guardsman] nodded. He handed Zevara a key and followed them into the prison. The three Drakes walked down the line of cells as those with menial offenses were let go, provided they’d paid their fines. They walked down to the major holding cells and Olesm froze as he saw a tall, horned figure standing silently in his cell. Ilvriss stared at the Minotaur who stared blankly at them and looked away.
The Drakes turned to a cell just before Calruz. Four Hobs sat or stood in their cells, watching the Drakes warily. A young woman lay on a cot. She’d been standing, talking to the others, but she’d scrambled into her bed. She stared up at the ceiling, hands folded behind her head, as Zevara paused before the cage. She didn’t look up. The Watch Captain eyed Erin Solstice and looked at Olesm. He cleared his throat nervously.
She didn’t respond. Olesm looked at Zevara. The Watch Captain made a face. Was Erin upset? She hadn’t been here more than a single night. Olesm called out to her.
“Erin, we’re going to let you go. You’ve uh, served your sentence and there’s a situation we might need your help with.”
“I can’t go back.”
Erin spoke slowly, not looking away from the ceiling. Olesm paused.
He saw Erin’s head slowly turn towards him. The young woman spoke in a slow, monotone voice.
“I can’t go back, Olesm. I’ve been in here too long. Prison’s changed me, man. I’ve seen things. How can I return to the outside world?”
The Drakes stared at her. Olesm scratched the back of his head.
“This is an act, right? You’re doing something like those plays again.”
Erin stared at the ceiling.
“Erin, this is an emergency. We don’t have time for—any of this!”
Erin blinked. She sat up a bit and eyed Olesm.
“It is? Okay, just a few more.”
To Olesm’s consternation, she lay back down and stared at the ceiling.
“It’s funny. I was an honest [Innkeeper] before all of this. I had to go to prison to become a [Criminal]. [Thug]. Whatever. This is a [Thug]’s life, y’know?”
Zevara slammed the cell door open.
Erin swung herself up. She walked over, stretching. Then she blinked at Ilvriss.
“Hey, Wall Lord. Hey, Zevara. Olesm. How’s the eye? Are you letting me and the Redfangs out? Or just me?”
The Drakes looked at each other. Ilvriss glanced severely at the watching Hobs.
“That remains to be seen. For now, you will come with us. There’s a situation that has arisen that—strangely—we believe only you can resolve.”
“Really? Me? Well, okay then. Let’s go. Hey guys, I’ll be back soon! Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here, even if I have to bake a cake! If I do—don’t eat the entire thing, got it?”
Erin waved at the Hobs. They waved back. She smiled at them as she left the prison, and then looked at Olesm. She didn’t smile then.
“So what’s the problem?”
Olesm shuffled his feet. He couldn’t look Erin in the eye. He’d been—upset—yesterday. And maybe he’d made some rash decisions. But she had hit him. However, Olesm was certain that he wasn’t going to be receiving an apology any time soon.
“You’ll see. Follow us, and keep up.”
It wasn’t that Erin resented being in jail for so long. Okay, she resented it a bit. It was already past midday and quickly becoming evening and she was sick of staring at the stone walls of her cell. Walking through the streets of Liscor did feel great by comparison. Maybe there was something to going to prison after all that gave you a new lease on life.
Anyways, Erin wasn’t about to hold a grudge. At least, not right now. Something was up, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out it had to do with Goblins. Or that it was serious. Drakes and Gnolls were doing that ‘standing in the streets’ thing that meant something was occurring that city life couldn’t work around. And they were coming up to Zevara and Ilvriss, or trying to.
“Keep moving! Watch business! Clear the streets!”
Zevara barked orders and her [Guardspeople] headed off anyone trying to get to her. The people of Liscor stared at her. And at Ilvriss. And Olesm. And at Erin. She could hear them whispering, and caught fragments of what was being said.
“—Watch Captain and Wall Lord. And the Strategist—”
“—the Human. You know, the one who runs The Wandering Inn? The one with—”
“—friends to Goblins. Think she’ll—”
“—Goblin Lord camped right outside—”
Erin looked around nervously.
“So uh, what exactly is going on?”
Ilvriss glanced impassively back at Erin. The Drakes led her up to the eastern wall, past a large gathering of people. And Erin did see, then. She stared at the Goblins, thousands of Goblins standing on the hilltops. She listened to the roar as they shouted the Redfang’s battle cry. She blinked.
“Huh. That’s a lot of Goblins.”
Erin stared at the Cave Goblins. Her eyes found Numbtongue. She looked around at the grim Drakes, the wary Gnolls.
“So what did you want me to do, again?”
“Get them to leave. Speak to that Goblin. Tell them we will only release the Hobs once they march south. Fifty miles, perhaps. We’ll release the prisoners then.”
Ilvriss folded his arms. Erin stared at him. She looked at Numbtongue, brave Numbtongue holding his guitar aloft like a banner. He still had the manacles attached to his arms, the cuffs at least.
“And then what? They just leave?”
“If they return to the Floodplains we’ll bombard them. They cannot remain here when the Goblin Lord arrives.”
Zevara’s eyes were hard as she stared at the Goblins. She glanced at Erin.
“You need to make them understand that.”
Erin looked at Olesm. He looked uneasy and kept glancing at her. She gazed at Embria, who was watching her warily, and then looked back at the Goblins.
It can’t be this way forever. Erin had said something like that to Headscratcher in jail. And yet, when she looked at Numbtongue, at the Cave Goblins—her heart hurt. They’d done no wrong. No wrong, if you understood that they had been slaves to the Raskghar before that. And now they were marching on Liscor, peacefully, all for Numbtongue’s friends.
“You’ll do it? In that case—”
Zevara turned, relieved. Erin shook her head.
“No. Take me back to jail.”
She held out her hands. The Drakes froze.
Erin looked at Olesm.
“I can’t deal with them. And I can’t get them to go. So…take me back to jail. I hear we’re getting beef stew for dinner.”
“You cannot do that.”
Zevara stared at Erin. The young woman smiled, a bit mockingly.
“Oh yeah? Why not? I’m not cooperating. What’re you gonna do, arrest me twice?”
“We could kick you off this wall for aiding the enemy.”
Embria offered. Ilvriss quieted her with a look. He stared at Erin and then sighed.
“What do you want, then?”
“You’re willing to talk instead of give ultimatums?”
“If there is no other choice…my patience is limited, however. As are the concessions I’m willing to make. The Goblins leaving is paramount. Tell me your demands.”
Ilvriss looked down at Erin. She nodded.
“In that case, give the Redfangs back their gear and get ready to let them go. And let me negotiate with Numbtongue. On my own terms.”
“You’ll get them to leave? Really?”
Olesm looked at Erin. She hesitated.
“I think so. He’s not an idiot. But you have to let the Redfangs go. I’m positive Numbtongue won’t budge unless we do.”
A grinding sound came from Embria. She did not like this plan, any more than the others did.
“And if we refuse? If we attack the Goblins or don’t release our hostages?”
Erin shrugged. She stared at Embria without blinking.
“If you kill them, or hurt them or refuse to let them go? I guess he’ll stay put. Without hurting anyone or doing much more than this. Horrible, right? He probably won’t hurt me or attack my inn. But I’ll bet you that when the Goblin Lord arrives, Numbtongue will join right up. So there you are.”
She waited. Ilvriss looked disgusted and resigned by turns. Zevara just nodded.
“We’ll get the Hobgoblins out of prison. We have some terms of our own.”
She outlined them succinctly. Erin shrugged.
“I’ll tell him that. Now, if you could let me get back to my inn? And give me a key for Numbtongue’s shackles. Oh, and get me a new guitar. His is broken.”
Erin climbed down a ladder down to the muddy Floodplains. She still couldn’t leave the city via the gates—not because of the water, but because of the Goblin ‘threat’. She grimaced as her feet landed in the mud.
At least the bridge to her inn was still there. The valleys were still flooded and Erin could make out dark shapes swimming in the murky waters. She crossed her bridge, trying not to slip on the wooden slats as she clung to the damp ropes. Her inn was farther away than she remembered it being—then again, she’d been used to the magic door so she’d forgotten it was a ten minute walk.
For some reason the magic door hadn’t connected to Liscor no matter how long Erin had waited. So she made the journey on foot, key in hand. Zevara had refused to get Erin a guitar and she hadn’t let Erin go buy one either. Erin was nearly at her inn when the door flew open and someone rushed out. Several someones, in fact.
“Mrsha, no, don’t jump—”
Erin yelped and nearly tumbled down the hill as Mrsha leapt at her. Her feet skidded in the mud and Erin nearly fell butt-first into the mud. She was only saved by Lyonette grabbing her. The two girls skidded halfway down the hill, then saved themselves.
“Erin! You’re back! Are you okay?”
“I’m good! Mrsha, you’re covered in mud! Let’s get to the inn!”
Erin shepherded the muddy Mrsha up the hill and entered the inn. Lyonette was speaking rapidly the entire time.
“You’ve seen the Goblins, right? Numbtongue is leading them! And there was an attack on the inn while you were away, Erin! Someone stole the door!”
“I heard. Olesm told me some of it. And we got the door back?”
“Yes! But the mana stone that connects us to Pallass is—”
“—gone. Which puts Liscor up poo creek without a paddle.”
Erin succinctly summarized the situation. She stared around her inn as Mrsha went to roll on some white towels. She saw heads turn.
Her inn was full. Not of her regular clientele, but adventurers. The Horns, Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords…even teams like Bevussa’s Wings of Pallass were there, sitting together. It seemed as though all the teams in Liscor had congregated in Erin’s inn—they were the only ones willing to leave the city with the Goblins so nearby.
“Erin! How was jail? Wait—how’s Bird? Lyonette asked at the Hive and they only said that he was alive!”
Ceria stood up. Pisces sniffed as he passed by Mrsha.
“It seems we’re both fellow victims of incarceration now. Has your sojourn in prison kept you from noticing the obvious, Erin? There are quite a number of Goblins roaming the Floodplains.”
Erin laughed as her friends greeted her.
“Hi Ceria, hi Pisces. Yvlon, Ksmvr. Hey Halrac, Revi—yes, I saw the Goblins, Pisces. I’m actually supposed to do something about them. Bevussa! I just saw you and Keldrass in jail!”
The Garuda raised a mug and Keldrass nodded to her. Both teams were sitting far apart and giving each other the stink-eye now and then. It had been a brawl between a number of adventuring teams in the guild that had landed them in prison.
“What are you going to do, Erin?”
The young woman paused. She was wiping away some mud with a towel—not that it would matter since she was going right back out in the thick of it. She scratched her head and shrugged.
“Talk to him. That’s all. I think it’ll be fine. But I need to go now, before Zevara burns my inn down. I’ll be back in a moment to talk with you all.”
The adventurers exchanged a glance. Ceria cleared her throat.
“Need an escort? We have some things we need to tell you, Erin.”
“We’d be honored.”
Ylawes sat up. Erin frowned. She glanced around her inn and noticed a conspicuous absence. And Lyonette was giving Erin a meaningful look.
“No…I think I’m good, Ceria, Ylawes. Adventurers make Goblins uneasy. I’ll go and be back soon. Lyonette, can you walk with me part of the way? Just for a few minutes. Not you, Mrsha. You have to stay.”
The Gnoll cub didn’t like that, but Yvlon picked her up and even squirming as hard as she could, Mrsha couldn’t get free. She whined as Lyonette and Erin left the inn. They walked down the hill and Erin grimaced.
“Ew. There’s a path, but it’s mud.”
Indeed, to get to where the Goblins were standing, Erin would have to go up and down the hills, which meant walking through the mud and occasionally through knee-deep water. If she slipped, Erin would tumble to the bottom of the hill—which meant a reintroduction to water if the valley was deep.
“There are boots and a special type of stick they use to walk around in. Do you want me to try and get one?”
“No. I’ll walk. It’s a big mess and I can’t delay.”
Erin sighed. She and Lyonette began to slip their way down a hill and up the first one. As they walked, Erin talked.
“So who stole the door? Any ideas?”
“No one knows. But some people came through it, from Celum. That’s why Olesm confiscated the mana stone leading there. None of the adventurers were happy. Also, this isn’t proof, but the night the door was stolen, that [Magician]—Eltistiman—he vanished.”
“What? But I liked him.”
Erin’s face fell. Lyonette pursed her lips.
“He might be innocent. Or a victim.”
“You think so?”
“No. And neither does Olesm. There’s a bounty on his head.”
Erin cursed. It felt wholly insufficient to the moment. She glared at nothing, remembering the smiling, charming illusion-mage.
“Eltistiman Verdue. I’m gonna remember his…face. Not the name. If I see that guy again, he’s gonna get what for. Okay, what’s the next problem?”
Lyonette glanced back at the inn.
“The door to Celum’s out. And so is the door to Pallass. All the adventurers are stuck in Liscor and they want out.”
“Oh, is that why they’re all at my inn?”
“Yes. They won’t say as much to Watch Captain Zevara—much less Wall Lord Ilvriss—but I think that even the Pallassian adventurers don’t want to stay and fight. They all want to leave.”
“Makes sense. But Liscor will be under attack. And my door’s outta juice. So what’s their plan?”
Lyonette glanced around again. But there was no one nearby. Just the watchers on Liscor, the adventurers following their slow progress in the mud—and the Goblins on the nearby hills. They were staring at Erin and Lyonette, although not with hostility. So many watchers. It made Erin’s shoulders itch. The [Princess] whispered to her, keeping a wary eye on the Cave Goblins.
“They still want to use your door. They’re trying to leave Liscor, Erin. They’re going north. Towards Celum.”
“All of the adventurers!”
“You’re kidding. And Olesm is okay with that?”
“He doesn’t know! They’re taking a door with them with a new mana stone embedded in it. I objected—so did Typhenous and Dawil and Ceria. They wanted you to weigh in before they started this. But the other teams said they had to go now, or at least get started.”
“Oh boy. That’s not good.”
Erin’s stomach, already a bit seasick from all the churning, began to make gastric butter. Lyonette nodded.
“Remember how you got here from Celum? They’re doing the same thing—but in reverse. They’re trading it off, going back through the door so only one team has to carry it each time. They’re going to try and get to Esthelm and hire horses—or a wagon to move faster—by tonight. They think they can get out of the pass before the Goblin Lord’s army arrives.”
“Wonderful. At least it’s a tried and true method. And how far are they?”
“Jelaqua’s team was the first shift, and they left this morning. I think they’re nearing the edge of the Floodplains by foot. It’s slow progress right now, but soon—Erin, what are we going to do?”
“Tell Olesm. Or maybe not. I dunno. Liscor needs to be defended, but the adventurers don’t want to fight. I’ll think about it. Right now I have to deal with the Cave Goblins. You want to go back?”
“I’ll stick with you.”
Lyonette squared her shoulders. Erin smiled at her. The two climbed a hill. And then they saw the Cave Goblins spread out ahead of them.
It was a strange sight. Goblins sat about on hilltops, twenty odd thousand of them scattered in different spots. Some were cooking or sitting around the fires, others fishing, or just…going about the task of living. Erin saw some of them diving around the rift to the dungeon and hauling stuff up. The Cave Goblins were everywhere.
“Holy smokes. I knew there were more than I thought, but this many?”
Erin blinked at the Goblins. Lyonette shook her head in wonder.
“There are so many. How are they feeding themselves? There’s no way the food you were giving them was enough!”
“I think they had food from the dungeon. And—oh wow. Yeah, they have food. Just not good food. Look at that.”
Erin pointed. She’d spotted the Cave Goblins bringing up something from the underwater rift to the dungeon. Lyonette saw what they were lugging across the muddy floodplains to a waiting fire. She put a hand over her mouth.
“Uh huh. That’s a dead, giant caterpillar. A dead caterpillar with hair. They’re sautéing it.”
Lyonette turned green. Erin felt her stomach lurch.
“Well, I guess monsters from the dungeon are like…half of their food supply. I did wonder what all that salt and oil was being used for. And they’ve got fish here, cooking equipment…”
Pleasantly, the only smells the two girls were inhaling were coming from a nearby cook fire, where some Goblins were frying up muddy fish they’d scooped from the valley-lakes. Erin stared at them, to get the image of Goblins sawing chunks off the caterpillar out of her head.
“I’m going in. You stay put, Lyonette. Or go back. That caterpillar’s gonna smell soon.”
“What does Zevara want you to do?”
Lyonette called after Erin as the [Innkeeper] began to walk down the hill. Erin didn’t respond.
What did Zevara want her to do? What did Ilvriss and Olesm want? Well, they wanted her to wave her hands and make the Goblins go away. They were about to fight a war. A war. And Erin was going to be caught up in it.
It didn’t feel quite real. Erin had trouble taking it seriously. War was coming to Liscor? Actual armies and a siege? She couldn’t imagine it. She’d never seen an army—well, the Goblin Lord maybe—but the idea of a bunch of Humans, her people, coming to attack Liscor? It was too much to imagine.
Erin thought of Magnolia and her incredible mansion. She remembered the landscape flashing by as she rode with Reynold. Hundreds of miles of land she’d never set foot on. An entire world and politics and people she knew nothing about. Liscor was her home. She’d only gone to Pallass, and even then, she’d barely explored the city. All she knew was this one place.
In some ways, Erin knew so little of this world for all the time she’d been in it. She wished Ryoka were here, to give her some perspective. She wished she knew more of what to do. But as she walked down the hill and the Cave Goblin’s heads turned, she knew there was no one who could give her advice. She saw a ripple go through the Cave Goblins, and then a tall figure appeared at the top of a hill. Erin stared up and smiled.
He walked down the hill towards her, his eyes wide. She smiled up at him as Cave Goblins poured over the sides of the hills. They watched as Erin and Numbtongue met. The Hobgoblin [Bard] and Human girl stared at each other. Then Erin smiled.
Numbtongue was oddly shy. Erin smiled. She reached out and hugged him. A susurration ran through the Cave Goblins. Numbtongue froze, and then patted Erin on the shoulder. Erin stared at his hands. The shackles had been broken—snapped by a bunch of impacts by the looks of it. She dug in her pocket.
“I’ve got a key for those cuffs. Let’s go find somewhere dry to sit, okay?”
The two found a dry spot to sit. Next to a fire, actually. The Cave Goblins had found some kind of fuel supply—made it, rather. Erin saw dried grass pellets being tossed into fires along with the precious and scarce wood. She asked Numbtongue about it.
“They dragged it from the pass.”
He pointed north. Erin’s blinked.
“That’s far! And they carried all that wood here?”
“Lots of wood is easy to carry. If you have lots of hands.”
They sat together in silence for a bit. A small Goblin with a huge chef’s hat came by and offered Erin some roast fish. To be polite, Erin nibbled it and found it was actually really good.
“Thanks, Pebblesnatch. You’ve outdone yourself!”
The Cave Goblin beamed with pride. She adjusted her hat and walked off self-importantly. Numbtongue watched Erin spit out a fish bone. At last, he came out with it.
“Are they alive? Is Bird alive?”
“Yes, and yes. They’re both fine. Bird’s in the Hive. Klbkch won’t say how he’s doing, but he made it. And the Redfangs are in prison. I was with them just now and they’re fine.”
Numbtongue breathed out slowly. He relaxed, and some of the tension in him that had been there all day slowly eased. Erin looked at him.
“You did a lot while I was in jail, huh?”
“Yes. I did not know what to do. So I did—”
Numbtongue waved a claw at the Cave Goblins. Erin looked at them. Some were carrying weapons. Others were even sparring, practicing fighting in the mud. Some were cooks and some—
“Are they making guitars?”
She pointed. Numbtongue glanced at a group of Goblins energetically carving at a piece of wood and fumbling with pieces of string.
“Maybe. Will Liscor let my…will they let the Hobgoblins go?”
“Yes. I think so. But it’s tricky. You scared them, Numbtongue. You know what’s happening, right?”
The Hobgoblin shrugged again.
“The Goblin Lord is coming. Humans are forcing him to attack Liscor. A big war is coming. Dangerous. For Drakes, for Gnolls…for Humans too.”
“That’s about it. How do you know about what’s going on?”
Erin was impressed. Numbtongue didn’t look that surprised by what was happening. He tapped one ear.
“People talk in the inn all the time. No one pays attention to listening Goblins. Even big Hobs.”
“Huh. Okay. So…what is your tribe going to do?”
“If they let the others go—”
“—then we will go south. No point staying here. It would be a pointless-death. Against Humans. Against the Goblin Lord.”
Erin glanced sideways at Numbtongue.
“You wouldn’t join up with him?”
He bared his teeth.
“No. He is our tribe’s enemy.”
“But you don’t know where your tribe is.”
Numbtongue hesitated. He bowed his head.
“No. Don’t even know if Chieftain is alive. I think she is. But I don’t know.”
Erin was tempted to ask who his Chieftain was. She’d never gotten a chance to talk. In fact, this was the most Numbtongue had ever said to her without being coaxed. She thought about what he’d said.
“Okay. So you’re going south.”
“Yes. We’ll take Cave Goblins south. Go west, towards High Passes. That is home. Maybe our tribe went back. Maybe—we know how to live there.”
“That’s a long way away.”
Numbtongue looked towards Liscor, and then past it. He looked at Erin.
“Liscor will let my brothers go?”
“If they don’t, you’ll stay here. And that would be bad for them. They think you might join the Goblin Lord. So yeah, they’ll let Headscratcher and the others go.”
Numbtongue nodded a few times. Then he hesitated. He looked at Erin.
“The Human army is coming. The Goblin Lord is coming. They’ll kill a city and start a war. Will you stay? Will you run? We can protect you.”
The question caught Erin off-guard. She hesitated.
“I—I’m not going. Not yet. But I don’t want to leave you guys. I was thinking—I’ll send a magic doorway with you. How about that? That way, you can stay at my inn.”
“You’d do that?”
“Of course. I heard how you protected my inn. And got the door back. Thank you for that.”
Erin smiled at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin looked abashed. He waved a claw.
“We saw the door. Saw Humans—[Rogues]. Ambushed them. It wasn’t a fair fight.”
“Well, that’s the best kind of fight. And I was in jail the entire time. It’s not actually that bad in there. But I got out early because you showed up.”
Erin laughed. Numbtongue smiled, and for a second the two sat together. Erin had so many things she wanted to say, or ask, or do. But she thought of the adventurers marching north and knew she couldn’t. Regretfully, she stood up.
“They’ll let the other guys go now. Zevara says she’ll do it as a sign of goodwill—but if you’re not gone by night, she’ll start bombarding you with spells. So…I guess that’s sorta nice. For her.”
“For her. We’ll leave as soon as I see the others.”
Numbtongue agreed. He stood up with Erin and looked towards Liscor. She saw movement on the battlements and waved her hands. That meant ‘yes’, or so she’d agreed with Zevara. Numbtongue stood beside her. He hesitated.
“Is it a good idea? Going away? We—I feel like it’s running away.”
Erin frowned. She looked at Numbtongue.
“But this isn’t your battle. It’s a silly Human thing. And a Drake thing, I guess. The Goblin Lord’s a Goblin, yeah, but he’s not your problem.”
For a long time the Hobgoblin hesitated. He looked at Erin. He opened and closed his mouth and then whispered hoarsely.
“Yes, but you’re—”
He didn’t get to finish. Erin jumped up excitedly.
“Hey. There they come! Look, look!”
Numbtongue’s head snapped around. He saw four shapes appear on the battlements. The Cave Goblins leapt to their feet. The figures were tiny, but familiar. Numbtongue watched as a rope ladder was lowered, and the people on the wall exchanged brief words with the Hobgoblins. Then, slowly, they began to descend.
“There they are! I told you! Headscratcher and Badarrow and—whoa! Where’s everyone going?”
The Cave Goblins charged across the muddy plains as one. On the walls, the Drakes readied themselves, but the Goblins weren’t headed towards them. They swarmed towards the four figures that walked towards them. The Redfang Warriors were surrounded in an instant. Numbtongue and Erin stood together. Erin was smiling. Numbtongue couldn’t contain his grin either. She turned to him.
“Well, that’s that. You guys should start going south. But stop by my inn—I need to get a door and a mana stone. Or—can you bring the one from your cave? I’ll get in contact with you tonight, but I have this thing with adventurers…”
He looked at her. There were so many things Numbtongue wanted to say. And do. Not least of which was hug her again, but he was too embarrassed. But if he could talk to her—he hesitated.
She smiled at him. A kind smile, a happy one. The kind that lit you up from your toes to the top of your head.
“Sorry, Numbtongue. But it’s okay! I’ve got a magic door. We’ll see each other tonight. Just get somewhere safe. You and the Cave Goblins shouldn’t get mixed up in all this mess.”
“What about you?”
She was already marching down the hill, back towards her inn. Numbtongue could see his friends, his companions, running towards him. He saw Erin turn. Heard her call out.
“I’m not leaving. Not yet.”
And then she was gone. Erin took two steps, slipped, and cursed as she slipped and fell down the side of a hill. Numbtongue listened to her swearing a blue streak, and then turned. His four brothers came towards him, surrounded by a tribe. Only, they weren’t Chieftains. Not proper ones. And they had no purpose or place. Except here. Numbtongue narrowed his eyes. He stared back at Erin. At her inn. And at Liscor.
Well then. It was time to speak with Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badarrow, and Rabbiteater. And really figure out what they were going to do next.
The Redfang tribe was rounding the last bend in the pass leading to Liscor. They could already smell the moisture ahead of them, the mud and evaporating water in the air. Their Carn Wolves panted, and Garen wondered if they’d have to swim across the Floodplains. Probably not. Rags had said it would drain around now. Was that why the Humans were driving Reiss’ army this way? What was their plan?
Not that he cared. Not that it mattered. It was just that if Reiss was going to die, Garen would like to know. He was going to fail, obviously. His master was deranged and a monster. Reiss would never realize his stupid dream. He might have, with Garen’s help. With his help, Garen could have defeated any enemy. But he’d betrayed Garen.
Just like the others. Just like—
They came up across one another as the Redfang Tribe raced past a cave set into the side of a mountain. Strangely, it looked like there were Goblins around here, and the Redfangs had paused to investigate. They were heading inside the cave, noting the archery targets and deforestation of the area—sure signs of a growing tribe—when one of the sentries whistled.
Travellers on the road. Three!
Garen relaxed. Three travellers—no matter who they were—weren’t a match for his warriors. Still, he decided to check them out himself, in case it was three [Mages] or something dangerous. He rode his Carn Wolf down the road and saw a strange sight.
Three people were headed up the road, talking to each other, laughing. They weren’t your run-of-the-mill wanderers either. One was huge, a man, but a giant as well, easily eight feet tall, possibly nine. He wore patchwork clothing, smaller strips sewn together to fit his frame. He walked with a staff in hand, and under his arm he carried a wooden door of all things. Inset in the door’s frame was a glowing white stone.
Beside him walked two smaller folk, but both just as unique. One was a Drake, or at least, appeared to be a Drake on first glance. Her scales were too pale, and no blood flowed beneath her skin. She was dead. Or at least, her body was. She carried a flail on her shoulder, but wore only light leather armor.
The last was a man who seemed to blend with the shadows, even in the light. He wore dark clothing and half his body was carapace, his left hand a crab’s claw as opposed to his hand. His face, his leg—his left side looked like it had merged with some kind of crustacean from the ocean. And indeed, it was from there that he had come. He seldom laughed, but he did smile, if you looked for it.
The three were adventurers. And they had been walking for a while to judge by the mud stains on their clothing. Nevertheless, they were in good humor. They walked easily. Until they saw the Goblins, that was.
The Redfang Tribe spread out in front of the cave made the adventurers freeze. But rather than scream, flee, or panic, they moved at once, setting themselves together and preparing for combat. Their leader, the Selphid, shouted for the half-Giant to send a [Message] spell. The Redfangs roused themselves, sensing a fight. They looked to their leader, waiting for the order to attack.
But it didn’t come. Garen Redfang sat on his Carn Wolf, frozen. He stared at the three adventurers. They were here. As if his mind had called them into existence. Or perhaps they had called to him. Almost exactly as he remembered them. And as the three adventurers looked around, weighing the odds, bracing themselves for the worst, they looked up and saw him.
All three froze. Garen stared into Jelaqua’s eyes as she went limp with shock. At Moore, who froze, door half-raised like a shield. At Seborn, who gripped his daggers and uttered an oath. At his friends. And he saw hatred—and the knowledge of what he’d done. The blood—
The blood was on his hands. It ran from the tabletop, dripped onto the floor. Blood. It splashed across the rest of the room as well. The private sitting area the Halfseekers had requested to divide up their loot was painted with it.
Blood. So little of it was Garen’s own. It dripped from the bodies. Four of them. Garen looked around. Slumped shapes. Twisted expressions, caught in their final moments. And then one of the bodies moved and he realized she was still alive.
Halassia Evergleam croaked, blood running around her bloody scales. For once they weren’t ashy or black. Red and black mixed as she tried to raise the wand, not realizing that her clawed hand was severed. Torn flesh and bone stared at Garen as he looked down at her.
“They’re all—all dead.”
Dead. Yes. Garen looked around. Keilam lay in a pool of his blood, dead before he’d been able to chant a spell. Thornst was fallen, bow in hand. Like Keilam he’d not been able to attack in the brief moments before his death. Ukrina’s body lay in the center of the room, surrounded by destruction. She hadn’t fallen half as easily. And she had fought until her body was nothing but tatters.
The last was Halassia. He’d thought he killed her in the first moments, but she’d survived. The Scorchling gurgled, and blood ran from her mouth. She looked at Garen, and the hate in her made him flinch.
“We never should have taken you in. Never. We shouldn’t have trusted you. You can’t trust—they’ll get you for this. You. Traitor. I hope you and every last one of your kind burns in—”
She raised her stump of a hand and Garen saw a flash of magic. He moved unconsciously, reflexively. The crimson blade he had named Redfang buried itself in Halassia’s chest. She jerked once, fell still. And then it was over.
Garen stood in the room, surrounded by his friends, his companions. Blood ran over the treasure they’d worked so hard to acquire that day. It ran over the key he held in his trembling left hand. He stared down at his bloody blade, the key, and then at his team. Four out of the seven people he trusted more than anything in his life. Dead. By his hand.
Garen screamed, then. He screamed and screamed, until his throat was raw. Then he ran, key in hand. He fled the city, ignoring the Humans who panicked at the sight of him, covered in blood. He ran and ran, knowing there was no way back. But it wasn’t his fault. He had been betrayed. He had done the killing but it wasn’t his fault.
It wasn’t his—
“Hey. Is that who I think it is?”
Jelaqua spoke dreamily. She looked at Moore and Seborn and shook herself. The other two were staring. Jelaqua stared at the Hobgoblin sitting astride the Carn Wolf. She blinked. Rubbed at one eye. Then she looked up.
“I’ve gotta be dreaming. Moore. Moore. Hit me!”
The half-Giant blinked. He looked down and swatted Jelaqua across the back of the head. The watching Goblins heard a tremendous thud, slightly hollow. Jelaqua fell over. When she got up, there was a dent in the back of her head. She felt at it and grinned.
“Yeah, I’m definitely not dreaming. That’s Garen.”
The name made the other two start. Seborn straightened. Moore ground his staff into the ground.
“Here? After we looked for so long?”
“Yeah. And here I thought we’d have to go into the High Passes with an army one day. And here he is. Funny coincidence, that.”
Jelaqua smiled. She looked at the other two.
“You up for this? Moore, you might wanna cancel that [Message].”
The half-Giant put a finger to his temple. He let the door fall onto the ground with a soft thump. Seborn eyed the watching Goblins. The Redfangs hadn’t moved from their spot. They were looking at Garen and at the adventurers, waiting, but growing more and more confused by the second. And Garen was just watching, his eyes flicking from face to face.
The two turned to each other. They shook hands. Then Moore lowered his fingers from his temple. He breathed out raggedly.
“I told them. It’s done. Let’s go.”
Jelaqua slapped Moore on the arm. Seborn touched the half-Giant’s elbow. The three walked forwards. Jelaqua smiling. Moore’s eyes on Garen’s face. Seborn reaching for the daggers at his sides.
“Hey Garen. Long time no see!”
Jelaqua called out cheerfully. Garen started. He looked down as the Selphid walked towards him. The Goblins and Carn Wolves growled warningly, but the Gold-rank adventurers had no eyes for them. The four thousand Goblins could have been dust to Jelaqua. She looked up at Garen and smiled.
His former captain. His former friends. They spread out, adopting an old formation. Only, there were five empty spaces. So it wasn’t a formation, but a memory. A calling. Jelaqua beamed up at Garen as she gripped the flail with both hands. For a moment she was the Jelaqua he remembered. She spoke softly, her eyes meeting Garen’s.
“We’ve been looking for you.”
Then she screamed and leapt for him. Seborn drew his blades and Moore bellowed. It was a sound that made the howling Carn Wolves fall silent, that sent a cold jolt of fear through Garen’s heart. A sound as loud as grief, a cry torn by years of anguish, of hatred and rage. Jelaqua took up the cry and Seborn charged, silent. They came for him, with all the fury in the world.
Old friends. Garen drew his sword. Familiar faces. Friends for life. The flail whirled towards his head. Twin daggers sought his heart. His family. A staff fell towards his head like thunder.
Together at last.