They came for him. Three of them. Old friends. They charged forwards, howling, ghosts from his past, aiming at him through thousands of Goblins. For a second Garen was frozen, staring into each face. Then he reacted. He drew his sword and time slowed.
In battle, time always felt elongated to Garen. It wasn’t that he didn’t move as quickly, but his mind outpaced his body. He turned his Carn Wolf as the three came at him and saw his tribe react. Like him, they had been caught off-guard by the Halfseekers’ attack. But only for a moment. As they saw the Gold-rank adventurers going for their Chieftain, they moved to intercept, to bring the three down.
Just like Garen had taught them. In fact, his entire tribe had been forged, trained for this very moment. Garen had dreamed of a day when his past would catch up to him. He had imagined an army of adventurers, a war in the High Passes. Instead he fought in a quiet bend in the road, next to a cave, just north of Liscor. It changed nothing. The three didn’t so much as hesitate, though they had to know the odds.
They didn’t stop.
The first was Jelaqua. She ran ahead, so fast that she was running past Carn Wolves and Goblins on horseback as they turned to catch her. Her legs moved at a pace few creatures could match, Skills or not. She was wearing a Drake’s body, the skin dead and pale. But Garen knew her by the two-handed flail she whirled around her, and the look in her eye.
A Goblin raced at her, falchion raised. Spiderslicer slashed down at Jelaqua and she twisted. The whirling flail struck Spiderslicer’s Carn Wolf and nearly struck the Goblin in the face as Spiderslicer pulled back. He cursed—the other Goblins were caught by the spinning flail and screamed in pain. Jelaqua kept running. She was already rampaging, forcing her body beyond its normal limits.
She screamed his name. The Hob turned in his saddle. He was urging his Carn Wolf away, further behind his warriors. He couldn’t afford to fight her. Jelaqua was—she had been his Captain. When she was using a fresh body and rampaging, she was stronger and quicker than he was. Or, she had been. Her flail could strike from any angle. She’d stop him, and let the other two catch up for the kill.
The word came not from Garen’s mouth, but from Spiderslicer. The Goblin raced around Jelaqua, pointing at her. Goblins grabbed bows, and a Hob lifted his spear. Jelaqua ignored the threat. She crashed into a pair of riders who charged at her with stolen lances and downed both in a moment. Their horses collapsed, screaming. Jelaqua knocked one aside, looking for Garen—
And a spear struck her in the back. It passed through her leather armor and embedded itself in her right shoulder blade. The force made Jelaqua stagger. The Redfang warriors shouted in triumph and moved forwards to finish her off.
He bellowed at them too late. They came at her, eight of them from every direction. Jelaqua turned, and her flail spun.
Death. Garen heard the sickening thumps, saw his warriors fall. Jelaqua turned and the Redfangs faltered. The spear stuck out of her back, but she did not bleed. She looked around and Garen and Jelaqua both saw the other two faltering. Goblins were intercepting both. Jelaqua cursed.
“You two! Go! I’ll cover you!”
She ran back. The Redfang Warriors heard her of course, and moved to intercept. They were contemptuous, still. There were thousands of them, and they’d fought and killed Gold-rank adventurers before. What could one warrior do?
Everything. Nothing. Garen was looking for a spot to make a stand. He saw Jelaqua leap, bring down two warriors as her flail tore at the air. She landed and the other two ran past her. The other Redfangs were slowed by the zone threatened by Jelaqua’s spinning flail. They hesitated, realizing how suicidal it would be to charge. So instead they raised their bows and shot her.
Arrows snapped and spun as Jelaqua’s whirling flail caught some mid-flight. But she couldn’t strike them all down. Again, Jelaqua staggered as arrows struck her from all sides. One struck her in the cheek and the Redfang Goblins roared. Again they surged forwards. Jelaqua crushed the first wave and the second without slowing. The Redfang Warriors backed up, wide-eyed. An arrow struck Jelaqua in the chest and she didn’t slow. And then they realized.
She didn’t bleed.
Garen saw his tribe slow, bottlenecked by the Selphid. It wasn’t that they couldn’t run past her or around her, but she dominated the field. Redfangs didn’t run from a fight. But they had never fought a Selphid before. Jelaqua turned, the spear sticking out of her back. The spear splintered as the whirling flail struck the haft. The tip of the spear twisted in Jelaqua’s back. She turned and the Redfang tribe saw no fear in her eyes, no pain.
“Go! I’ll hold them here!”
She called at her companions. But it was a futile boast. Garen saw it. The other two were still far from him and Jelaqua couldn’t hold his warriors. Not alone. He dared to relax. He’d ridden around the perimeter of his tribe rather than charge in. Against any other adventurers he would have. But them? He met the burning gaze that hid behind Jelaqua’s body. The intelligence that lived in the dead body, Jelaqua’s true form, stared back.
Not them. Not her. He would let his warriors bring them down. Garen relaxed. He stared down at the strange thing they’d dropped. A door, lying on the grass. Strange. It was just a…door. As if someone had yanked it off its hinges. Garen frowned down at it. Why would they be carrying…?
Then he saw the white, glowing stone set in the door brighten. The door moved. It swung over in the grass. Garen’s Carn Wolf leapt back. He saw another place appear where grass should be. He stared down, into a room that looked like an inn—and then he saw something blue charging at him. The feathered adventurer leapt and Garen saw her dive forwards, and then she was flying up through the door and into the sky.
“Wings of Pallass! On me!”
Bevussa shrieked and the other three Drakes flew through the door. They shot up into the air and faltered—they had run through the door, but because it was on the ground, they had shot straight up. They turned and the Redfangs looked up, surprised by the sudden appearance of these strangers. But then Spiderslicer pointed and bows raised. Goblins drew back, aiming for the fliers.
The Wings of Pallass didn’t hesitate. As their leader shouted, they dove, and the arrows missed. They slashed down, striking, and four Goblins fell, struck from behind and above. The Wings of Pallass flew up again as more arrows flew, choosing another target as the Redfang tribe scattered, trying to adjust to this new foe. Garen snarled. He urged his Carn Wolf towards the door—
And then there was fire.
Another figure jumped out—a Drake wearing full-body plate armor. He spat blue fire and the Goblins retreated, Carn Wolves howling and bounding away to roll on the ground. More Drakes ran out of the door, leaping up and them stumbling, finding themselves oriented differently. The first group was like the Drake, and breathed fire. The next was a Human in armor. A half-Elf who began throwing spells, a Dwarf who climbed out of the door and pushed himself up.
Adventurers. They were coming from the open door, from another place! Garen roared and pointed at it.
“Break the door!”
His warriors moved to obey. They charged the adventurers. Garen turned. His Carn Wolf howled, and Garen swatted at the fire that had ignited part of its coat. He heard a voice coming from the open door as he backed away from it, eying the adventurers, looking for a weak spot. The Drakes in armor were tough, forming a wall. The [Knight] and Dwarf both wore heavy armor, but that half-Elf—
“Move the door! Move the fucking door! We’re jumping out the wrong way!”
Revi screamed as she and Griffon Hunt waited on the other side. Halrac was standing at the door as Dawil and Yvlon wrestled it upright. The [Scout]’s hand shot up and he snatched an arrow aimed at Typhenous out of the air. Revi ducked as the Redfangs began shooting arrows through the doorway.
“Get clear! Get the civilians outside or upstairs! And get the other teams! Tell Erin—”
Garen saw more adventurers gathered behind the team in the doorway. He snarled. A portal door? Well then, he’d break the door and cut the adventurers off. He pointed forwards, uttered a command. His Carn Wolf whoofed, and turned its head. Garen felt a prickle on his spine and turned as a shadow blocked the setting sun. His heart skipped a beat.
A huge head covered in thorns blocked the light. A body wreathed in an armor of vines reached out. Garen’s huge Carn Wolf, the largest of its kind, snapped and bit. The colossus swatted it aside, knocking Garen from the saddle. His staff swung—the Redfangs trying to charge him flew like broken toys.
There he stood. He’d simply run through the lines of Garen’s tribe. His eyes shone with the magic of the green. But he didn’t use magic. He just swung again, and Garen had to roll away or die as the staff thudded into the ground where he had been. He looked up, at the half-Giant who claimed the sky.
A fist punched down at him. Garen dodged left, cutting at the hand. Moore’s [Armor of Thorns] spell took most of the cut, but Garen’s crimson blade sheared through the thick vines. But Moore’s skin was barely cut. [Barkskin]. Garen twisted. He saw a staff swinging at him, and ducked rather than block. It whistled over his head. Moore let go of his staff as Garen charged forwards, trying to get past the half-Giant. He grabbed at Garen, bellowing.
“You! How could you? How dare you? They were your friends! We were your friends!”
Garen didn’t reply. He cut at Moore’s legs. He had to bring Moore down, get behind his warriors. Or else finish him.
Finish him? Garen hesitated. The half-Giant did not. One hand shot out. Garen reflexively stabbed at it. This time his strike was good.
The tip of his sword pierced Moore’s palm, with almost no resistance. Garen stared in horror at the splintered bone and flesh. He heard Moore scream. He tried to pull the blade out—then caught himself and began to twist. But the hand never stopped. It closed around Garen and he felt the thorns and vines dig into his flesh. Something squeezed him, grinding his bones and flesh together. Moore raised him up.
“Thornst! Keilam! Ukrina! Hallassia! Do you remember them?”
He slammed Garen into the ground, and Garen’s entire world went black for a moment. The Goblin woke up staring at Moore. The half-Giant’s fist was raised. Garen blinked at it.
He and Moore stood together in the bar. Or rather, what remained of it. The brief bar fight had carried them halfway out into the street, but given the wrecked walls of the bar, that meant they could still stare back inside. Two adventuring teams lay slumped over as the horrified bar owner stared around at the destruction.
The half-Giant groaned and massaged his knuckles. Garen grinned up at him. Moore looked a bit reproachful as he shook his head.
“Don’t say that. I regret it, Garen. Truly. That man shouldn’t have drawn steel on you, but this?”
He gestured to the devastation. Garen eyed it and wondered if it would mean they’d have to leave the city. Again. He hoped they wouldn’t have to pay for the damages; the City Watch would surely want someone to pay, but they were too afraid to approach right now. He could see them hanging back, calling for reinforcements.
“He started it. Captain will agree.”
Moore sighed. He ran one huge hand through his hair worriedly, as he often did when he was around Garen. Or Jelaqua. Or Ukrina.
“It’s not about who started what, Garen. We’re all adventurers. We should be working together, not fighting over issues like species. If we could show them that not all Goblins are monsters—”
He broke off, sadly shaking his head. Garen looked up at Moore, blinking. He didn’t often understand the half-Giant. Moore was a walking contradiction. He hated fighting, but he had just thrown a Gold-rank adventurer through a wall. He spoke of peace, but he slew monsters for a living. Garen didn’t know what to make of Moore. But he couldn’t help but like the half-Giant, for all he had been with the Halfseekers only four months. Moore was a gentle soul. He grinned and looked up.
“Want to kick them?”
The half-Giant’s fist fell downwards. Garen raised his arms, crossing them, trying to block. Moore roared a word.
The fist crushed Garen against the ground, a hammer blow that made the earth shake. The impact drove the breath from Garen’s body. He lay there, and saw Moore raising a foot. The half-Giant’s face was twisted in fury. Garen had only seen him like that—like that—
Move. Garen rolled and Moore’s foot missed him. The Hobgoblin grabbed his sword and stood. Without breath. He sucked in air and then cut Moore’s hand as it reached for him again. This time, Garen stabbed into Moore’s arm. The half-Giant screamed and Garen leapt away.
Moore charged after him. But more Redfang warriors raced around him. The half-Giant turned as someone thrust a spear at his side. He snapped the haft, grabbed the Goblin, and squeezed. Moore grabbed a Carn Wolf and hurled it over the heads of the other Redfang warriors. The other Redfangs hung back, out of reach. But they did not fall back. They surrounded Moore, and reached for a different weapon.
Rope. The first noose missed Moore, and then the second. But a pair of Redfang veterans clotheslined him and another snared his arm. More ropes flew and Moore roared as the Carn Wolves and horses strained to drag him down. The Redfangs shouted and dug in. They had fought Gargoyles in the passes. They knew how to bring giants down. But this one spoke.
He kept coming, dragging horses and wolves out of place, ignoring the arrows and blades that cut him from all sides. He bellowed, with enough fury to make even the Carn Wolves back up. He never looked away from Garen. The Hobgoblin staggered away from him, drinking a healing potion and reaching for the Ironhide bottle. He drank it down in one gulp and looked for his wolf. The adventurers were fighting his tribe, holding a position around the door. Garen stared at them, saw one of the Drakes point directly at him.
“Burn left! Aim for that Chieftain! On me!”
Keldrass and his Flamewardens took aim at Garen. As one they inhaled and opened their mouths. They were poised to obliterate everything in front of them. They commanded destructive power worthy of any Gold-rank team. But Garen sneered at them. As Keldrass opened his mouth, a Redfang warrior with a crossbow pulled the trigger. A crossbow bolt shot towards the Drake’s mouth.
Other archers loosed at the same time. Keldrass’ eyes went wide. He turned his head. The crossbow bolt struck the side of his helmet instead. Keldrass staggered, swore. The other Flamewardens raised their shields or covered their faces, unable to breathe.
They hunched behind their shields, unable to use their flaming breath. Garen turned away dismissively. He saw the [Knight] fighting three Redfangs at once, bellowing.
“Falene! Buy us an opening! Dawil, with me!”
“I’m trying! But—”
The half-Elf turned and her lips moved wordlessly. Another [Force Wall] rose as the last failed. The Redfang tribe was mercilessly assaulting the adventurers, giving them no quarter to press their attack. Ylawes stared incredulously at Spiderslicer as the Goblin held him back with two veterans.
“They’re elites! Pull back, lad!”
Dawil swung his hammer and shielded his face with one arm as an alchemist’s potion exploded, showering him with flaming liquid. The Redfang Goblins were using potions and alchemist weapons as well! Another flew towards Keldrass’ group, and an arrow shot it, making the Tripvine Bag explode harmlessly in the air.
“Hold the line.”
Halrac nocked another arrow, loosed it, and then took cover behind the wall of stone that Typhenous had raised. Revi’s summoned warriors held another gap, and another adventuring team came through the door. But even the teams trying to pass through the door had to come in slowly—the Redfangs were assaulting the door relentlessly.
It was their battle to lose. Garen knew that. But his eyes were scanning the milling Goblins, moving past the struggling Moore. The half-Giant was as obvious as the sun. But he never attacked where you expected it. He was silent. Relentless. Garen had always admired that about him. The Hobgoblin turned. He saw a black shadow flash, heard a Goblin shout.
A dark figure leapt over the heads of the warriors riding Carn Wolves. He flipped and landed in a gap. His crab arm moved at the same time as his left one, stabbing left and right. Into a horse’s side and a Goblin’s chest. The enchanted blades seared and chilled at the same time. He slid under the surprised Redfang warriors who tried to cut at him, leapt forwards and vanished between the press of bodies. And then he was there, thrusting at Garen’s stomach.
Garen deflected the first dagger that went for his stomach. He swung at Seborn’s chest, but the Drowned Man wasn’t there any longer. He had leapt and vanished, his body half-turning to shadows. Or smoke. It was an illusion. Garen whirled, and caught the second dagger thrusting for his face. A terrible cold chilled him—his left arm went numb for a second. But Garen felt the pain as soon as the dagger left it. Seborn’s slash opened up Garen’s arm. If not for the Ironhide Potion, it might have cut a tendon.
The [Rogue] danced back as Garen whirled his blade at his chest. Garen was too quick for Seborn to dodge fully—the enchanted blade nicked his own magical leather armor. The two enchantments clashed and Garen’s sword won, shearing through the leather and drawing blood. Just a scratch above the chest. The Drowned Man and Hobgoblin stared at each other. Seborn raised his blades and advanced. Garen—hesitated.
Garen was a [Warrior] and Seborn was a [Rogue]. Broadly speaking, it was impossible for Seborn to win a battle head-on. He and Garen were roughly the same level. It was insane for him to challenge Garen like this. But Seborn had never been afraid. And he left no opening for Garen to exploit as he came at Garen, blades whirling.
Left, right, head, knee. Stomach, side—Seborn’s daggers flashed, leaving glowing orange and blue trails in the air. He never stopped stabbing, cutting at Garen’s body, ignoring his own safety. That was what saved him. If he’d given Garen a single opening—
Instead he cut. Garen felt small slashes opening across his body. Light cuts, but they burned or froze him by degrees. He growled.
This time he used a Skill. [Frenzy Cuts]. Garen hacked, feeling his blade grow lighter, move faster, strike harder for a brief instant. The sword left red afterimages in the air. Each cut sought Seborn, but the Drowned Man dodged each one. He danced back, leaning, dodging, becoming shadow and mist.
[Shadowsteps]. [Blur Leap]. [Cat’s Evasion]. And then it was his turn. Garen saw Seborn feint left, then come close. The two were so close Seborn’s shoulder was at Garen’s chest. The Drowned Man looked up and met Garen’s gaze.
Fire and ice. Garen howled as the blades pierced his stomach and chest. He felt the tips strike a dozen times, seeking his heart. But too shallow—just—Garen stumbled back, slashing at Seborn. Reaching for a potion. The Drowned Man didn’t want to let him use it. He narrowed his eyes. Vanished.
[Rearward Cut]. Garen felt Seborn appear at his back. He lurched forwards, feeling the blades tear open his back. It didn’t matter. He drank the potion as Seborn cursed. The enchanted wounds refused to heal quickly. But they did begin to heal. Lucky. If Seborn had had his old blade—
“It’s worth buying.”
Seborn showed Garen the dagger. The Hobgoblin eyed the sickly green edge of his new dagger skeptically.
“Lots of money. Why not other dagger?”
The Drowned Man sighed. He and Garen had been arguing over blades for the last half-hour, and the [Blacksmith] was clearly growing impatient. Still, Seborn explained patiently. He was very patient. He didn’t speak much, but when it came to his opinion, he was as impossible to shift as the ocean he hailed from.
“It’s an acid enchantment, Garen. A weak one, I know, but it’s all I can afford. I have one blade enchanted with [Frostbite] already.”
“Could buy two new blades. Very fiery. See?”
Garen pointed out the longer, and decidedly more menacing daggers, both of which were enchanted with a higher-grade spell. Seborn nodded.
“I could. And if I was a warrior, I might. But I’m a [Rogue]. Acid works best. A thousand cuts that grow worse is better than a cheap fire spell. Anyone with an eye for fighting knows that, which is why this is worth twice as much as a regular blade. I saved up for this.”
He gestured to the acid dagger, which the [Blacksmith] had indeed priced much higher than the other daggers. The Drake grunted, which was a mark of approval. Garen still wasn’t convinced.
“Why all other daggers enchanted with other spells, then? Why not all acid?”
“Because it’s harder? That’s what I’ve heard. And [Enchanters] get to decide what they spell a blade with. Maybe the metal isn’t good for acid. Maybe they need something else. They probably think fire spells are more attractive anyways. Just let me buy this.”
Seborn watched as Garen grumbled and folded his arm, but the Hobgoblin didn’t object. The two often talked or argued, but it was a difference of opinion on how to do things. Garen liked hitting things and Seborn was the cold voice of reason in the group. And yet—Seborn flashed one of his rare smiles as he made his purchase.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a while. If we get another big payout, I can change my other blade to lightning.”
“Paralyzes, makes the muscles weak.”
“This blade is better. One strong enchantment is best.”
He tapped his own sword. Seborn smiled.
“Goblin’s logic. Isn’t two better than one, then?”
He showed Garen his two daggers. The Hobgoblin scowled, and Seborn laughed—
If he’d had his old blade, it would be over. Garen turned. White flames burst from his blade. Redfang glowed as Seborn cursed and backed up. He knew what was coming.
Garen whispered. His blade turned transparent. Seborn leapt, shielding himself—but Garen’s slash went through his enchanted armor. It cut down the Drowned Man’s side, laid open his flesh, sawed through the carapace that was his monster half, his aquatic self. Again, Seborn tried to block with his daggers, but it was futile. Garen’s blade could pass through lesser enchantments, cut even the thickest hides.
Blood. Seborn staggered. Like Garen, he reached for a potion, breaking the vial across his wounds before Garen could stop him. He stood up, panting. Garen waited for him.
It was over. Seborn had used two of his Skills. He hadn’t downed Garen, and the Redfang Warriors had caught up. The Drowned Man looked around as Goblins dismounted rather than try and fight him from above where he could dodge and disappear. He bared his teeth.
“Come on. Come on, traitor!”
He leapt at Garen. The Hob pivoted, taking another slice from the flaming blade across his chest. He kicked Seborn back. The other Redfang warriors closed in, attacking Seborn from all sides. The Drowned Man spun, slashing, cursing.
Garen bellowed at his warriors. He saw them adjust, slightly. Garen didn’t know why he’d said it. But he could afford to say it. The battle was going his way.
The Wings of Pallass dove and struck, again and again. Like hawks, they circled before finding unwary targets and striking. Or at least, they had for a minute. But the next time they dove, they had a surprise waiting for them. One of the Redfang warriors riding a Carn Wolf rode at the diving Drakes and Garuda. He shouted and his Carn Wolf leapt. The Redfang Warrior jumped from the back of his mount and caught one of the fliers. The Drake, Zassil, shouted in panic as the Redfang Warrior began stabbing at him, grabbing at his wings, trying to bring him down.
“Ancestors preserve us! Get off! Get—”
Bevussa grabbed the Redfang warrior and hurled him off. Zassil flapped higher and Bevussa shouted.
More Goblins were leaping, using their Carn Wolves as launching pads. Each time the Wings of Pallass dove, dozens of Goblins leapt for them, and more shot arrows, trying to intercept them on the wing. And now the adventurers were being pressed from all sides on the ground as well.
Moore was wrapped up in ropes. Seborn was downed. Garen walked forwards, feeling his wounds healing slowly. His Carn Wolf padded towards him. He reached for it, and stopped.
The adventurers still fought around their door. And the winged adventurers held the skies, posing a threat from above. But everywhere else the Redfangs were present. They filled the pass. They blocked every path towards Garen with their bodies. Despite that, she was there.
Arrows feathered her body like spores. Broken spears and swords and daggers torn out of their owner’s hands were still embedded in her flesh. She was damaged beyond any living creature’s ability to survive. But her body was dead. And she was still moving, coming towards him.
Garen stopped. He turned, and his Carn Wolf backed up. It couldn’t help it. It smelled Jelaqua’s dead body. And it saw her wounds. But she did not fall. And that terrified the animal, just as it frightened the Redfang warriors.
They surrounded her, every line in their bodies radiating uncertainty. Fear. The Redfang tribe had fought the horrors of the High Passes. They had fought creatures that looked like them, braved Creler invasions—even brought down the seemingly immortal colossi of stone and ice. But they had never met someone like her.
She grinned bloodlessly at him. Garen hesitated. Jelaqua was walking towards him. Just walking. But her body—he raised his blade.
“You can’t win.”
“Oh yeah? Prove it, you coward.”
Jelaqua rasped. She raised her flail as the other Redfangs drew back, trusting their Chieftain to win. Expecting him to. Garen wanted to be anywhere else in the world. Seborn’s blood still dripped from his blade. He and Jelaqua looked at each other.
“I trusted you.”
That was all she said. The knife twisted in Garen’s heart. Jelaqua ran at him and he raised his blade—
“Drop it, Goblin.”
Keilam pointed his wand at Garen. The Hob hesitated, his steel sword raised. The dead Eater Goat’s blood ran from his sword. It had been an easy kill, and one Garen was confident in doing. He’d earned his bounty—or so he’d thought. But he hadn’t expected company, and so his mask and hood had come loose during the battle. And they had seen.
Six adventurers. A huge, terrifying creature that looked like an oversized Human. A half man, half…crab? A Drake whose scales looked burnt, a regular Drake, at least, seemingly, and a Gnoll who looked like a cat. And—Garen’s eyes flicked to the last figure. A Human woman, or so she looked at first glance. But her skin was too pale. She looked dead. But it was she who stopped Keilam, the half-Gnoll, half-Cat, before he could cast a spell.
“Hold it, Keilam. See that? He’s an adventurer. Same as us. Bronze-rank.”
“No way. That’s a Goblin, Jelaqua!”
The half-Gnoll exclaimed. Jelaqua, the dead woman, ignored him. She studied Garen as the Hobgoblin backed up. He was ready to fight—or run. This wasn’t the first time he’d been discovered. But she didn’t seem hostile, just curious, and amused. Jelaqua eyed Garen.
“So this is the ‘terrifying monster’ everyone’s been talking about, huh? The scourge of local villages. Slayer of innocent sheep and cows everywhere?”
“Why would a Hob pretend to be an adventurer just to prey on livestock?”
The Drake with the ashy scales asked curiously. Jelaqua rolled her eyes.
“Not him, Halassia. That dead goat-thing. I think he got to the monster before we did.”
The adventurers stared at the dead goat. Garen heard them whispering amongst themselves.
“It really killed the monster? It’s…an adventurer?”
“But it’s a Goblin!”
“Now, now, Ukrina. Let’s not judge by appearances.”
“By—Moore! That is a Goblin!”
Jelaqua spoke calmly. She looked at Garen and he thought she could see everything that had led to this point. Him struggling to learn how to speak, figuring out how to disguise himself, give excuses, learn Human customs. Entering cities, being found out, running, pretending—trying so hard to fit in, to learn—all of the long months he’d endured were laid out in a glance. As if she could stare into his soul. As if she knew what it was like.
“Nice kill. What’s your name, friend?”
Garen started. He stared at Jelaqua and backed up a step. He saw the other adventurers tensing, but Jelaqua just smiled.
“The name’s Jelaqua Ivirith. I lead a team of Silver-rank adventurers. Well, we’re Silver-rank on this continent, but two of us are already Gold-ranks and Moore’d be Gold-rank too if they ever gave him a fair test.”
She waited, but Garen didn’t speak. The Human’s language came hard to him, not like his brother. He could still barely read. Jelaqua didn’t seem to mind, though. She looked around, and seemed to come to a quick decision.
“We’re a band of misfits. And we could always use a new member.”
“What? Jelaqua, are you insane?”
One of the Drakes, the normal-looking one, exclaimed. But the strange woman just turned to argue with her. Garen watched her face, her ready smile. Then he heard the shriek and turned. His heart sank. He’d forgotten about the others! He hadn’t time to poison the first Eater Goat’s corpse. Jelaqua looked up sharply as more Eater Goats emerged, scenting their comrade’s blood.
“Aha! Knew it. It had to be a pack. Hold on, strange Goblin guy. Halfseekers, to arms!”
They fought, then, as the Eater Goats came from all sides. As stupid and suicidal as their kind, but deadly. Garen finished them off, making sure each was dead. Eater Goats could survive incredible amounts of damage and heal fast. All they needed was food and a mate and they’d repopulate rapidly. He stood, wiping his steel sword, when Jelaqua came over to him. He froze again, but she just grinned at him.
“What’s your name, stranger? If you don’t want to say, that’s fine. But I’d rather know who fought by my side.”
He looked into her eyes, then. And he saw that her body was dead, but something lived in her. Garen hesitated, then took a chance. He held out a gloved hand, as he had seen Humans do.
She took his hand and grinned. And that was how he became a Halfseeker, an adventurer in truth. And in time he would lose his mask, walk openly as a Goblin and she and the others would pit themselves against the Adventurer’s Guild and other adventurers for him. For that he would follow her for years, into battle, trying to be her greatest warrior. Because he owed her nothing less.
Yes, it was that smile which had captivated him. That look. The age in her voice, the feeling that she understood him despite their many differences. She was the Captain of the Halfseekers, someone he looked up to. Admired. The only being in the world that Garen had ever called his—his—
He ran her through. Jelaqua’s flail struck his shoulder. Garen heard a crunch, but if it was a fractured bone, it wasn’t a strong one. He tore up with the blade and Jelaqua caught it.
“Not yet. Not yet!”
She kicked, and Garen felt his sword twist out of his grip. Seborn’s blood. He stumbled back. She was still strong. Jelaqua tore the sword from her stomach and tossed it behind her. She’d dropped her flail. But she still came at him. Garen grabbed her arms as they went for his neck.
Strong. Unbelievably strong! Jelaqua cursed as her arms slowly moved towards Garen’s neck. He tried to hold her off, but even now, even now she was stronger.
“Tell me why. Tell me why!”
He couldn’t answer. Jelaqua’s claws were around his throat, squeezing, talons digging into his flesh. He saw Redfangs shouting, striking at Jelaqua’s back, but she ignored the blows. She was squeezing, and it was all Garen could do to push at her arms. He pushed her claws off of him, and the two were deadlocked for a moment. But he was growing tired.
His arms trembled—and then he felt something tear in Jelaqua’s body. The Selphid’s right arm suddenly lost all its strength. She cursed as Garen began striking her chest, frantically, trying to tear open her wounds and expose her true body. She leaned forwards—
And she bit him. The Drake’s teeth tore at Garen’s skin and he roared and threw her off. Jelaqua fell back, and Garen struck her in the chest with his foot. She sat back.
Garen bellowed and a Goblin tossed his blade at him. Jelaqua looked up, bitterly.
“Just like the others, eh?”
He stabbed her in the chest. Jelaqua fell back. Not dead. She tried to move and Garen stabbed her again and again, aiming for her stomach, her heart. He knew she was in there. It was hard, very hard to kill a Selphid with a blade. But he could incapacitate her body. At last, Jelaqua lay still. She stared up at him and her mouth opened.
That was all. Garen turned, shaking, coughing. The battle was over. The Halfseekers were down. And the adventurers were in full retreat.
“Fall back. I said, fall back! Revi, buy us a window! Typhenous, webs!”
Halrac bellowed at the others. Keldrass stumbled towards the door, bearing one of his wounded teammates to safety. Garen saw the [Scout] shout into the door as more of the summoned warriors and a giant Face-Eater Moth held back the advancing Redfangs. They were moving slowly, pushing the adventurers back rather than risk losing their numbers. Wisely as it turned out.
“Get those undead through the door, now!”
Garen didn’t believe his ears for a second. Then he saw the first shape of yellowed bone duck through the doorway and unfold. A grinning bear’s skull looked down at him. Three of them. The Redfang Goblins backed up as a three-headed Bone Horror, nearly as tall as Moore, moved forwards, swinging multiple whip-arms of bone and striking at everything in range. The Redfangs bared their teeth, but didn’t retreat.
Undead, half-Giant, monster, adventurer. It didn’t matter. They could kill anything. They reached for their ropes, but this time added hooks, snaring the Bone Horror as it tried to advance. A cry went up from the Goblins at the front.
Two of them rode forwards on huge warhorses. The first Hob had a warhammer, the second a mace. As the other Redfangs snared the Bone Horrors with their hooks, the Hobs began smashing the creature to pieces, raining blows on the joints and hammering at the skull.
“Dead gods damn it! Retreat! Retreat!”
Halrac moved back towards the door. The Silver Swords were running back, blood running down Ylawes’ head, Falene half-dragging Dawil, who was roaring, trying to extinguish the flaming oil burning his face and armor. Ylawes half-turned at the door and shouted. Someone came through it. Several someones.
“Erin! What are you doing? Get back—”
He grabbed for her. Too late. A young woman ran past him. The Redfangs in front saw her running at them and raised their weapons, eying her dubiously. Spiderslicer lifted his falchion and aimed for her head, waiting for a trap. He saw the young woman look up, and then another figure ran forwards. They’d come from the door too. Spiderslicer turned, poised to strike—
And froze when he saw a Hobgoblin’s face. The Hob lifted his axe, protecting the young woman. The jade edge and golden axe gleamed, and the Hobgoblin’s muscles stood out as he swung, forcing the other Redfang warriors back.
A foreign Goblin? Why was he on the Human’s side? Spiderslicer snarled in surprise, raising his weapon. But—no! This Hob had the war paint of the Redfang tribe on his body! He stared, hesitating, as the young woman raced past him. The Hob looked up. His face was unfamiliar, and Spiderslicer knew almost every Goblin in the Redfang tribe. But the war paint was a pattern, unique to him. Spiderslicer’s eyes widened.
The Hob looked up at him.
The two gaped at each other. Then, Spiderslicer saw another Goblin he half-recognized run past. Was that Badarrow? Numbtongue, with a strange stringed instrument in his hand? Shorthilt—that had to be Shorthilt with the gleaming sword. And…who was that Goblin with the shining armor and the glistening red cloak?
Hobs. They were all Hobs. Spiderslicer faltered, so amazed he forgot about the Human for a second. But then he realized: they were shielding her! The young woman ran through the tribe of Redfangs, who turned, ready to cut her down. But each time her guardians were in the way.
The five Hobgoblins blocked them, shielding her with their bodies, shouting at the others. And the Goblins of the Redfang tribe recognized their own, and hesitated for that crucial second. The young woman ran forwards, towards the Selphid.
She skidded to a halt and knelt by the Selphid, wide-eyed. Jelaqua blinked up at her.
“Erin? What the hell are you doing—get away! Run! Moore told you to go!”
Erin ignored her. She knelt, hesitating, then grabbed Jelaqua’s nearly destroyed arm. She looked at the other Hobs desperately.
“Come on, come on. Someone help me lift—”
She was trying to pull Jelaqua up. The Selphid was shouting at her to go. That was when Erin turned and saw him. And he saw her.
Garen Redfang couldn’t have missed the strange sight, or the Hobs. He hadn’t recognized them as Spiderslicer had—he was focused on the Human. She looked familiar. A distant part of Garen told him he had seen her, but he was too focused on what she was doing. She was trying to drag Jelaqua to the door. Unacceptable. He snarled and advanced on her.
Jelaqua turned her head towards Garen. The young woman hesitated. The Selphid slowly sat up.
“Get away from her, you bastard.”
Garen stared at her, and then lifted his blade. Jelaqua lunged. For the third time, Garen ran her through. This time he aimed for the Selphid’s stomach and pinned her to the ground, impaling her onto the dirt. She grabbed his sword with both claws. Garen growled, let go of the hilt. He saw the Human girl raise a fist.
He stood up and struck her in the chest, twice. The Human stumbled back, choking. Garen paused. He’d expected her to be a Gold-rank of some kind, perhaps a high-level [Brawler] or a [Mage]. But she was too slow to be a Gold-rank adventurer. Silver-rank? She had no armor. She raised a fist again.
This time he hit her in the jaw and felt her teeth break. The Human fell back, making a pained sound. Garen advanced, kicking her in the chest. She tried to dodge. He saw that. But she was far, far slower than he was. He looked for his sword, then just aimed for her neck. He raised a hand and someone grabbed it. Garen twisted, outraged, and saw a Hobgoblin staring at him. An unfamiliar face. The Hob howled and grabbed Garen’s other arm as the Chieftain tried to punch him.
The strength! Garen roared as the unknown Hob lifted him up and then hurled him to the ground. He rolled as a foot stomped, nearly striking him in the chest, and got up. He caught a punch and staggered. The Hob was as strong as he was! He looked into two familiar eyes and received a head butt that made his head ring.
Garen shook his head, shoved the Hob back, and heard a shout. The Redfang warriors all around him had finally decided these strangers were not their allies, for all they wore their colors. They trained their weapons on the Hob and his allies, who froze. The Hob who’d struck Garen panted as the Chieftain shook his head to clear the stars. Garen clenched one fist, stared at the strange Hob, and then, at last, his eyes went to the war paint. He froze.
All the Redfang warriors not pressing the last of the adventurers into the doorway stared at their Chieftain. They saw his eyes go wide, his ears twitch, and then visibly jerk in shock. They waited, eyes on the strange Hobs as Garen peered at the one who’d struck him. The Chieftain of the Redfang tribe blinked.
Headscratcher jumped. He looked at Garen, half-afraid, but still burning with fury. Garen felt at his bruised forehead and remembered the strength with which he’d been thrown. He stared at Headscratcher and the others, who he recognized as well by their war paint. One of them, the one with chainmail, had a lot of his war paint obscured, but the rest were familiar from other clues.
Badarrow, Numbtongue, Shorthilt. And the last had to be one of the others he’d sent out, so long ago. Garen remembered. He looked from face to face. And then, to the surprise of his tribe, he laughed.
It was a joyous, amazed, relieved, happy sound. Garen laughed. He rose, laughing with delight and gripped Headscratcher by the arms, slapping him on the shoulder. The confused Hob looked at him, but Garen’s joy needed no reciprocation.
“Headscratcher! So long! And now a Hob! So much stronger! How?”
He looked at the other Redfangs.
“Put weapons down! It is Headscratcher! Badarrow! Numbtongue, Shorthilt! And…Rabbiteater?”
The other Redfangs blinked. They stared and more recognized their lost comrades. They exclaimed, and Garen greeted the others, no less exuberant. They blinked, and then smiled shyly. Here was their Chieftain. Their hero. And the rest of their tribe gathered around them. Until Garen noticed the young woman.
She had gotten up. She was trying to pull Jelaqua away. He snarled and turned on her. A hand gripped his shoulder.
Headscratcher grabbed Garen. So did Numbtongue, and Shorthilt. Garen froze, and the Redfangs did likewise. Numbtongue looked around, desperately.
“No. Chieftain—let her go.”
Spiderslicer gripped his falchion, eyes narrowing. No one laid hands on their Chieftain. Garen stared at Headscratcher. He looked down at the Human girl, who abandoned the Selphid and turned. She gave him a look without fear and raised a hand, made a fist. The Goblins waited as Garen looked back at the five Hobs. He hesitated, and then looked at the young woman.
She hesitated. She looked down at Jelaqua, and the Selphid croaked at her.
“Don’t be stupid. Run. I’ll—settle my tab later.”
The young woman hesitated. For a long second, Garen thought she’d stay. But then she ran, stumbling towards the door. She half-collapsed by it and the [Scout] dragged her through. Garen barked an order as the Redfangs loosed arrows at him.
The hail of projectiles stopped. The door closed. The Hob with the warhammer strode forwards and brought it down. The doorway splintered, and it was done. The Wings of Pallass flew south, and the Redfangs were left with their wounded and dead.
And the adventurers. There were three of them. The Halfseekers, bound and bleeding. And…the five Hobgoblins.
And a lot of Cave Goblins. They came north as Garen looked around, smiling once more. He blinked in astonishment at them as they stared in awe at this strange and powerful tribe. He listened to a garbled explanation from Numbtongue, and smiled and shook his head. He laughed—
And then he saw them looking at him. Moore. Seborn. Jelaqua. They sat under guard, bleeding, captive. But their eyes never left him. They looked just like he remembered—except for Jelaqua. But she was the same, if not in body. They were what he had dreamed of, what he had feared in his nightmares.
Garen’s smile faded. He turned away as memory became reality. The past had caught up and it was time. To put an end to it for good.
They were the Redfang tribe. Where they were didn’t really matter. It was who they were that mattered, how they fought. They had fought another battle and won. There was glory and that. But death, too. There was always death.
Many Redfangs had died fighting the adventurers. Over a hundred, and most to the Halfseekers. The adventurers at the door had been contained fairly well—it was only the half-Elf [Mage]’s spells and the [Scout] and his cursed enchanted arrows who had done a lot of damage. And the Garuda had killed a half dozen.
Too many. It was to be expected when one fought Gold-ranks, but it hurt. The Redfangs mourned their dead, even as they became food or were stripped of their gear. But unlike other Goblins, they had a different sort of culture. As the dead were laid to rest, Redfangs, the closest friends of the fallen, would bend down and collect blood from the fallen. Barring that, they would cut themselves and add markings to their body.
A stripe of blood on a cheek. An added bit of blood on an arm, or ear. The location didn’t matter, or the length of the marking. But the blood would stay. And when it faded, it would be replaced by paint. Forever. So long as the Redfang in question had access to war paints, he or she would decorate their body with their individual set of markings.
And they would never forget where they were, even if circumstances dictated that they be clean, or prohibited them from using their war paints. The red stripes would always be there. Reminders of failure. Of the fallen. It was a promise not to fail next time.
The new Redfangs earned their first stripes that day. It was a mark of shame and honor. They had survived a battle. The veterans had red paint all over their body. But they did not revel in the markings, like the young Goblins. It was a symbol, that was all. It made them unique. Stronger.
Five Hobgoblins sat in the center of the Redfang tribe. Unlike the others, they didn’t need to bandage their wounds or tend to their mounts. They hadn’t fought. Rather, they’d come through the magic door as soon as they’d heard what was going on. The Redfang Warriors—that was to say, the five Hobgoblins who stayed at Erin’s inn—sat uneasily, just across from their Chieftain. Or their former Chieftain?
Garen Redfang grinned at them, not put out one bit that Headscratcher had attacked him. He had even let Erin go. He was…just as they’d remembered. Larger than life. Glorious. And his famous blade hung by his side. He couldn’t stop looking at the five. Garen faced them, and deliberately did not look behind him. He didn’t listen to the three adventurers, who had been unceremoniously carried to the same spot and were under heavy guard.
Jelaqua could barely move and the broken weapons in her body protruded from her flesh. Seborn’s bleeding had stopped, but Moore was still injured from dozens upon dozens of wounds. Their voices were low.
“Can’t move my right arm. Ripped almost all my muscle fibers there. I’m torn up everywhere else too.”
“I’m bleeding, but I managed to heal up before they got me. I don’t have any weapons. They found all of my daggers.”
“He needs a healing potion.”
The half-Giant was breathing laboriously. Jelaqua looked up. She bit her lip.
“Think we’ll get him to let us use one before he axes us?”
Seborn stared at Garen’s back.
“Don’t count on it. If you can give me an opening—”
“Forget it. He’s expecting it. Let’s just…wait. Damn it. It’ll be over soon.”
“For what? I had the best shot. Damn arm gave out. I should have—”
Garen ignored them. He looked around instead, focusing on the Goblins who were sitting just outside the circle of his Redfang tribe. They were curious. Small, many of them smaller than even the average Goblin. They had greyer skin, but besides that they were identical to regular Goblins. He spotted what looked like emerging Hobgoblins among them. But what really stood out was their numbers.
The Cave Goblins of the dungeon sat, watching the Redfangs with awe. They had followed their five leaders north, not bothering with the door but streaming across the Floodplains, much to the horror of the Drakes in Liscor.
Garen didn’t know all the details, of what had happened to have so many Cave Goblins following his warriors, but he had gotten the details, at least a broad outline from Numbtongue. Pressed, the Hobgoblin had given a quick summary and Garen had gotten the basics.
So, his warriors had gone into a dungeon and liberated the Cave Goblins there? They’d fought strange primordial Gnolls—Raskghar—and triumphed. They’d become Hobs, all of them. Hobs!
He could remember them before they’d left. Tiny, regular-sized Goblins. Good warriors, some of his best, but infantry. Not his prized Carn Wolf [Riders] and not his few Hobs. Garen’s heart hurt. He remembered he’d sent Grunter to lead them, Grunter and seven more. He’d asked, but the silence had been enough of an answer.
Thirteen had left, five remained. As outcomes went, that was good for Goblins. And they were Hobs.
Garen couldn’t get over that fact. Hobgoblins only emerged as a result of great strength or triumph. Each of the Redfangs had a unique class. The other members of his tribe were glancing at them in awe, especially after they’d heard what their classes were.
“[Berserker]. [Weapon Master]. [Sniper]. [Bard]. And [Champion]!”
Garen spoke loudly, looking from face to face with overwhelming pride. Each of the Redfangs ducked their heads. Garen looked at Rabbiteater last, twice as amazed. Rabbiteater—now there was a shock. He was a good fighter, decent at most things, but a [Champion]? Those who knew him were beside themselves with surprise.
“And these…Cave Goblins? You taught them how to fight?”
“Small bit, Chieftain.”
Shorthilt answered for the others. He played with his sword, an action that was familiar to Garen, but with a different body. Shorthilt gestured and Garen saw a group of Goblins with sharp weapons raise them over their heads and cheer.
“Taught to fight like Redfangs. By a Redfang.”
Spiderslicer grumbled, seemingly unsure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. But Garen knew it was a good thing. He looked at the Cave Goblins.
Twenty thousand new Redfangs. That was what they were. Twenty thousand warriors—or the makings of them. He couldn’t help smiling.
“Tell me what happened. From the start. Not a summary. Tell me—all of it!”
He urged Headscratcher. The Goblin was bashful, embarrassed. He looked at the others and then hesitated. He had smiled with pure joy to see Garen, but now he was concerned.
He trailed off. Garen waited, smiling. Headscratcher looked at him. What was it? He looked so worried. And then Headscratcher said it.
“Where is Chieftain? Where is Rags?”
Garen—froze. So did the other Redfangs. For a beat Garen stared at Headscratcher, wondering what had possessed him to ask that? Chieftain? He was Chieftain! Why would Headscratcher—
He hadn’t been here. He didn’t know. None of them did. The rest of the tribe realized that and sat still, an army of statues. The five Hobs looked around, confused. They focused on Garen and he realized he had to say something. He spoke haltingly.
“Rags is…gone. Maybe dead. Her tribe split from Redfangs. Betrayed us.”
The five reacted in shock. The other Redfangs avoided looking at them. Garen ignored the question as well.
“They did. And then they were attacked by Reiss—by the Goblin Lord. He betrayed them, too. Rags disappeared in fighting. May be dead. Rest of her tribe is broken. Fleeing this way. We left too.”
The five stared at Garen, jaws agape, full of horror. They began to ask questions all at once, but Garen didn’t want to answer them. He shook his head, then raised his voice.
“No. No! It is in the past! They betrayed us. Rags is gone. The Redfang are the Redfangs. Same as before.”
Badarrow stared at Garen. The Chieftain avoided his gaze. It was true. He turned, seeking another topic. Three pairs of eyes stared at him. He froze.
“Chieftain. Who are they? Should we kill?”
Spiderslicer stared at the Halfseekers with hatred in his eyes. He fingered the handle of the falchion. The other Redfangs murmured agreement. Headscratcher and the other four Hobs looked uneasy. Rabbiteater opened his mouth and the others elbowed him quickly. Garen ignored that and shook his head slowly.
“I will deal with them. Myself.”
“Chieftain knows them?”
Garen nodded slowly. He couldn’t avoid it after all. He got up and looked at the Halfseekers.
“Yes. I do know them. And so do you.”
The Redfang tribe looked at each other. He couldn’t mean—they had all heard the old stories. They turned as one and focused on the Halfseekers and Garen walked over to them. He studied each face. Moore tried to sit up and groaned as blood ran from his wounds.
“They are my old team. The Halfseekers. Half Freaks. A Gold-rank team. The ones who betrayed me.”
An awed silence fell over the Redfang tribe. They stared at the Halfseekers, not with anger, but with amazement now. Garen’s original team. They all knew the story—or a version of the tale. They had heard how his team betrayed him, how he had retreated, formed a tribe in the High Passes. But to see them in real life was different. Garen stared down at his old comrades, and then heard a strangled laugh.
“We betrayed you? You damn liar.”
Jelaqua sat up. Her eyes focused unsteadily on Garen, one drifting slightly. But her voice was strong. Furious.
“You betrayed us. Don’t lie!”
The accusation made Garen freeze in place. He felt a hot flash of shame, and then fury go through him. He snapped back at Jelaqua.
“I did not! The others did!”
The voice came from Moore. He hauled himself upright. The Redfangs guarding him stirred uneasily. The half-Giant’s voice rose. He boomed, and the Redfangs instinctively flinched as he shouted Garen.
“You lie! You killed them! In cold blood! You murderer! You—”
He tried to break the ropes holding him, but failed. He sat back, face white as a sheet. Garen looked away from him. He clenched his claw into a fist.
“I did not betray. They did.”
This time Garen whirled and nearly kicked Seborn. The Drowned Man looked up at him. His voice echoed, quieter than the other two. But it was no less furious.
“We know what we saw. You ran, and we’ve been waiting for this day for years. If you had any courage you’d fight me. Give me a dagger, Garen. And we’ll end this.”
“No. You are my prisoners. I beat you.”
Garen clenched his fists. Seborn looked away.
“With numbers. Coward.”
The Redfangs rumbled. Garen roared.
“I am not a coward!”
He strode up to Seborn and grabbed the [Rogue]. Quick as a flash, Seborn lunged at him. He’d untied himself! Garen saw the claw go for his throat, threw Seborn back. The Redfangs tackled him. There was a brief scuffle, then Seborn was back in his bindings, worse for the wear.
“You are the coward. You—”
Garen was still breathing heavily. Seborn looked up at him, speaking around a bloody lip.
“No less than you deserve. Team killer.”
The whisper came from Moore. Garen howled in fury.
“I am not! They were! They were!”
He strode back and forth, trembling, unable to speak straight. His tribe watched, uncertain. They had never seen their Chieftain like this. They watched, and so did the Cave Goblins. They were all witness to the argument. But they had not been there.
Jelaqua looked up at Garen, silent, letting him vent his fury at the other two. She tugged at her bindings, but her right arm was torn. And Garen was quick. She looked around for anything, but there were hundreds of eyes on her. And yet—Jelaqua looked straight at Numbtongue, at Headscratcher.
They were watching her. All five of the Redfangs. Uncertainly, nervously eying their Chieftain, whom they’d just reunited with. Or was he their Chieftain? Jelaqua’s eyes narrowed slightly. She looked up as Garen rounded on Moore and spoke, her dead voice rasping, the broken body she was wearing slowly deteriorating every time she moved.
“You’re a filthy liar, Garen. Do your tribe know you’ve been lying to them all this time? Or have you told them your story of what happened?”
He turned on her, full of wrath. Just like she remembered in some ways. The same face, the same body. But not the same person. Selphids counted personality more than physical appearance, and this Garen was nothing like the one Jelaqua knew. He was uncontrolled, raging. Guilty.
“I told them the truth! The truth! I was betrayed!”
“Oh yeah? That’s not how we remember it. And we were there. Right, Moore? Seborn? You guys remember what went down.”
Jelaqua looked sideways at Moore and Seborn, hoping they’d understand what she wanted. The other two looked at her and caught on. As always. They glanced around, and abandoned their fury for one second. Seborn nodded.
“I remember. So does Moore.”
“In my dreams. Every night.”
The half-Giant rasped. Blood ran from his hand, his side. Jelaqua was worried. He’d bleed out soon. But Garen wasn’t about to heal him. So the Selphid spoke as quickly as she could. She looked up at Garen and raised her voice so everyone, all the Goblins both Redfang and Cave Goblin, could hear.
“Tell me, Garen. Did you tell your tribe what happened before we ‘betrayed’ you? Did you give them all the details? Because I remember that night very well. We’d just cleared that damn cavern. Gone deeper than anyone had ever gone before. Past the roaches and the other crawling monsters. Into the heart of the caves. I thought we’d die when we fought the things down there, but somehow our team made it out, in one piece no less.”
She looked around. The Redfang warriors were staring at her, listening to her words. Jelaqua nodded. Of course, they’d listen to any story about their Chieftain. She looked at Garen, and saw the Hob had stopped raging. Cold memory flickered in his eyes, the same one in Jelaqua’s own mind as she went on.
“Of course there were costs. We’d blown all our healing potions—and we took over a hundred bottles—wasted more alchemist brews than I could count. My body was almost destroyed, Seborn had broken one of his enchanted daggers, and Moore was throwing up all the bugs he ate.”
“I was sick. I remember being in my room until Seborn came to get me.”
Moore spoke guiltily. Seborn nodded.
“I was speaking to a [Blacksmith]. Jelaqua was the first to return.”
The Selphid shifted. She had perfect control over her body. But she still wanted to shake, to clench her hands.
“That’s right. I got back, in a new body. And I found the inn was surrounded by [Guards], and blood and corpses where my team should have been. I thought it was an attack at first. Or—or one of our enemies had hired an assassin. Or worse, the items we’d recovered had been cursed. But it was none of those things. The [Innkeeper] told us that he’d seen a Goblin running out of our private rooms with a bloody sword. And then he’d found the bodies.”
Garen was silent. Jelaqua shook her head as Moore bit back a sound.
“Seborn came running as soon as he heard and got Moore. We had to figure out what had happened. None of us wanted to believe it. But there were eye witnesses and nothing else could have happened. None of the items were cursed. They were all there, except for one small thing you’d taken. So we figured it out.”
Moore interrupted. He looked up at Garen, eyes wet.
“You killed them. You killed them and stole that key and ran. In cold blood. With no warning.”
Garen didn’t reply. He stood there, face pale. Jelaqua spoke quietly.
“You filthy traitor. We welcomed you into our team. We fought with you, side-by-side for years. And you killed your friends in a moment. For what? A key? We would have given it to you!”
“I did not betray.”
Garen repeated the words like a mantra. Jelaqua spat. She looked at the other Redfangs.
“False words, Garen. Do they know what you did? Did you tell them? Or are they just tools for you to throw away, like we were?”
The Goblins stirred. Garen started, and then stared down at Jelaqua. He seemed to realize what she was doing at last. A note of heat entered his tone.
“They are not! They are my tribe! I did not betray my team! I—it was not like that. It did not happen that way. I was betrayed.”
The word came from all three Halfseekers. Garen recoiled, and then he shouted back.
“You were not there! You did not hear! Only I was there!”
“Then tell us! What happened?”
Jelaqua hurled it at Garen. She strained against the ropes, not needing to act. Garen hesitated. He looked from face to face. And then he nodded. He looked around, at the watching Redfangs. At Spiderslicer, at the five returned warriors. He raised his voice.
“You want to know? Fine. This is what happened. This. This is how I was betrayed.”
The Halfseekers stared up at Garen. He saw them exchange glances, strain against their bindings, and then, slowly, relax.
For a second their anger faded, and Garen saw a burning hole. A yearning to know. He turned away. The memories rose in him, until he could remember the smell of the room, how he’d felt, even the smallest details, like the way his heart started to jump as they unpacked the treasure and he knew he was right.
Garen’s voice was hollow in his ears. He looked at Jelaqua. She had not been a female Drake, then. She had been a male Human, a castoff body, the only one she’d been able to find.
“Do you remember that day? Before the adventurer?”
Jelaqua closed her eyes. She spoke hollowly, replaying the memories in her own mind as they flashed before Garen’s eyes.
“Back then, I remember it was you that told us there was treasure at the bottom of the roach caverns. Other adventurers had cleared the caverns before, but given up. The place was—is—disgusting. No one ever wanted to go near the place. But you insisted. You told us you were certain. And when I asked, you said you’d learned it from another Goblin. A Chieftain. I remember thinking it was curious how a Goblin would know about the treasure, but I didn’t ask then.”
“We thought we knew the depths, but you kept insisting we go deeper. Farther down. You could drown amid the insects down there. But those were only the ones who lived near the surface. The ones who ate the roaches and other bugs lived deeper. And we had to fight through them.”
The Selphid’s voice was soft. Now all three—all four were in a sort of trance. The Goblins listened as the Halfseekers recalled that day and night. Jelaqua stared at another sight, and Garen heard the clicking, moving sounds, the shouting of voices, crunching.
“Walls of vines while we recovered. Halassia and Keilam had to burn us a path. If we hadn’t been at our best, we would have been overwhelmed. And when we got to the bottom and those things began crawling towards us—Seborn nearly died grabbing the chest. But he tossed it into the bag of holding and we ran for it.”
“We had the treasure.”
Garen spoke quietly. Jelaqua smiled without mirth.
“We did. We checked the treasure the moment we got out of the cave. Good stuff, but we decided to unpack it at the inn. We headed for the nearest city. Celebrating. We were happy.”
Moore hunched over. He looked up, his voice hollow.
“I remember I was so happy that day. For all I was as sick as a dog. And it was all thanks to you, Garen. A Goblin’s tipoff. A fortune, or at least, we hoped. It was a fortune, a small one at least. It paid for the funerals. For money to the families of Thornst, Keilam, and Halassia. Ukrina’s kin wanted nothing to do with her.”
“We left you in a private room we’d rented. That was the last time we were together.”
Yes. Garen closed his eyes. He looked up—
And dodged. Just in time. Moore spewed onto the table again. Halassia made a horrified sound and Jelaqua groaned.
The half-Giant wiped his mouth. Something crawled out of what he’d puked up and the half-Giant was immediately sick again. All of the adventurers had swallowed bugs in the caverns, but he’d been the biggest target. Garen patted him on the back as Ukrina went for another bucket and cloths. The [Innkeeper] had not been happy about them trooping into his inn covered in filth and insects, but they’d paid him enough. Well, probably enough.
“I think Moore’s done in, guys. And my body’s shot.”
Jelaqua looked tired. She gestured at her body—with her left arm. She’d left the right one behind, and her current body was not only bitten in a thousand places, but—infested. Moore avoided looking at her as he wiped his mouth. He looked pale and green. Garen silently plucked a wiggling bug off of Moore’s ear and popped it into his mouth.
Halassia covered her eyes. Moore looked at Garen and then covered his mouth. Ukrina sighed.
“Moore, please don’t throw up, or that [Innkeeper] will kick us out. At least he’s giving us enough soap and water and hot towels.”
Jelaqua shook her head.
“They’d better, with what we’re paying them. Moore, get yourself to your room. And uh, let’s get him a few basins. And a cleansing spell?”
“I’ll do it. I need to see if my dagger can be repaired.”
Seborn volunteered, lifting the broken acid dagger he’d sacrificed to distract one of the insects at the bottom of the caverns. Jelaqua nodded.
“Then I’ll haul myself off to the local crypt. I think the [Gravedigger] told me they’ve got a body that’s not too rotten…anything’s better than this. You lot think you can hold down the fort?”
Thornst, the half-Elf and newest member of their group, looked up hopefully. He was the oldest among them save for Jelaqua, but he acted like the youngest at times, younger than even Garen.
“If we can check the treasure—”
“Be our guests. But no fighting over the items until I get back, okay, kids?”
Ukrina rubbed her claws together in delight. Keilam, who had stayed out of range of Moore’s vomiting, leapt to the ground as the other three departed. He peered at the moldy, worn treasure chest that had been sitting at the bottom of the caverns. Garen eyed another bug that crawled from the edge of the chest, but decided he was full. Keilam prowled around the chest.
“Tell me what we got. If there’s a spellbook, I’d like—”
“No dibs, Keilam! Jelaqua just said! Hold on, let’s open it. Garen, do you want to do the honors? You did give us the lead on this one.”
Halassia smiled at Garen. Her dark, ashy scales were flaking off, and red, distressed skin, showed in placed where her scales had fallen off. But it was a familiar sight and Garen admired his teammate. He nodded, heart pounding.
“I will. It was good secret, right?”
The others chorused. Ukrina laughed. She slapped Garen on the back.
“A Goblin’s secrets! Every team should have a Goblin in it, right Garen? What other treasures does your kind know about? I should have been shaking down Goblins left and right instead of—uh, never mind.”
She trailed off awkwardly. Garen just shook his head.
“Goblins have few secrets. Just…a few. This one, and some others. But this is important. Think so, anyways.”
He shrugged uncomfortably. He was afraid, terribly afraid that he was wrong. But if he was right—his claws trembled as he reached for the lid of the chest. The others held their breaths. They’d done a quick inventory already, but this was different. Garen opened the chest and they sighed as a glitter shone from within.
“Well, would you look at that.”
Keilam prowled around the chest, reaching into it. Halassia slapped his paws away.
“Hands off! Let Garen pull them out.”
“Should we be careful of traps?”
Thornst asked the question a bit too late. Halassia shook her head.
“Seborn checked it already. Besides, it would have gone off when he grabbed it anyways, right? Go on, Garen.”
The Hobgoblin nodded and began pulling items out. Ukrina whistled as he lifted a large, golden yellow orb, translucent and set on a small bronze stand.
“Looks like a scrying orb. Nice size. And this—this is a fine set of gemstones.”
She eyed the handful of sparkling gems Garen pulled out. The next item made Keilam reach for it and earn another swat. His tail wagged back and forth as he peered at a studded silver gauntlet, shaped for a Drake’s claws rather than a Human’s hand.
“A gauntlet! I wonder what its enchantment is? And look, a wand! I call it!”
“Keilam! I told you no!”
Halassia sprayed a bit of water from the tip of her staff at Keilam. The half-Gnoll yowled and backed up, raising his paws. Halassia sighed, but then her face burst into a smile as Garen kept pulling out item after item.
“Would you look at this? Potions and gems and magical artifacts! We’re rich! This is twice as good as the treasure we got in Meribeth’s Sanctum!”
The others nodded. Halassia paused, a frown crossing her face.
“An odd collection, though. All of this stuff’s expensive, but who just packs this randomly into a chest? And leaves it at the bottom of a cavern full of bugs?”
Garen had reached the bottom of the chest. His breath caught as, at last, he found what he was looking for. He answered Halassia with a trembling voice.
“A distraction. Small treasure. Reward for getting chest. But this—”
He reached into the chest and came up with something. A small key, iron, or so it seemed. The other Halfseekers stared at it, perplexed.
“What? Are you serious, Garen? There’s no way that this is a distraction. You’re telling me that’s the treasure? How did you know about it?”
Ukrina looked skeptically at the key. Keilam’s ears perked up. Halassia blinked and Thornst leaned forwards.
“What’s that key for, Garen? What does it unlock? Is this another Goblin secret?”
Garen smiled at them. He hesitated, and looked down at the key. This was it. Every part of him knew it was the key. It was the same as the one he had seen in his memories. But should he tell them?
Yes. Every part of him said yes. Garen had debated this very question for months now, ever since he had taken a leave of absence from the Halfseekers and discovered his brother had given his soul away. But now even that memory couldn’t dampen his spirits.
Yes, tell them! His brother was wrong. His strange master couldn’t be trusted. Undead couldn’t be trusted. But Garen knew his team. He looked around and held the key up proudly. It shone dully in the light. It looked just like iron, and it didn’t seem enchanted, not on first inspection. But Garen felt the power in it. He looked at the others, practically trembling with joy.
“This is the true treasure. The one I knew of. It was hidden in caverns. Rest of the treasure is a distraction a…”
Halassia offered. Garen nodded.
“Yes. Decoy. But this. This is valuable. It is—it is the key of the Goblin King.”
The others felt silent. Their eyes went wide. Fixed on Garen and the key. He looked around, smiling at them. His friends. He waved the key.
“This is his key. I know it from memory. All Goblins who remember do. This is Velan’s key. One of two. And it unlocks a great, great treasure in the High Passes. The treasure of Goblins. Our hope. Our legacy. Will you help me find it?”
He waited for them to say yes. To smile and congratulate him. To agree. He waited, and waited. But that was not what they said. Instead, they broke Garen’s heart.
“The key of the Goblin King.”
Garen held it up. The little iron key was dull, worn. Small. But it had never broken, and he could still feel the power within. The Halfseekers, the living ones, stared at him.
“And that was it? You killed them for that?”
Jelaqua whispered through bloodless lips. Garen jerked. He twisted and looked at her.
“No! I told them what it was! I told you—”
“And then what? It makes no sense! Did you try and keep the key and they stopped you? Did you ask for it? We didn’t even divide the loot yet! Why did you steal it and run?”
Jelaqua cried out, frustrated. Garen clenched the key in his fist, feeling the teeth dig into his palm.
“I did not steal it! You didn’t listen! I told them exactly what I told you! I told them everything! I told them this key was the key of Velan. One of two! And it unlocked a greater treasure.”
Garen stared down at the key. Such a precious thing. Such a terrible weight. He had debated throwing it away a thousand times. It was a reminder. He put it in the pouch at his belt, closed it, looked around. His tribe stared at him. The Halfseekers stared at him. Did they not see it yet? Garen spoke quietly.
“I told them. Our hope. A treasure for my kind. The only thing Goblins have ever been left besides death. I thought they would be happy. But they weren’t. They tried to take the key from me. They said I should never have it.”
Garen didn’t look up. He stared down at his hands.
“That was what Halassia said. She looked at me. And Ukrina told me to give her the key or bleed. But Halassia said—she said—”
He swallowed. The words came back to him, burning, unforgettable. Garen looked up and stared into her eyes as she pointed a wand at his chest.
“This cannot be. And this can never be, Garen. I am sorry, but your species is too dangerous. Too monstrous. The world must never have another Goblin King, not if we can prevent it. Give me the key.”
He looked around, and there was silence. No one spoke. Garen stared at Jelaqua, at Seborn, at Moore. He looked around at his warriors, at the Cave Goblins, and then stared back years at Halassia’s face. He stared and stared, until a strangled, halting voice spoke. Moore looked up, shaking his head in denial.
“No, no. Halassia wouldn’t try to attack you. She wouldn’t do that. She was gentle. She would never—”
“She couldn’t! She would never threaten one of her teammates. You lie, Garen. She wouldn’t do—”
“I am not lying!”
Garen bellowed at Moore. The half-Giant opened his mouth. Jelaqua interrupted him quietly.
“I think she might have, Moore.”
He made a small noise. Jelaqua looked up at him, her expression bleak. She looked at Garen, shook her head.
“She said that? Exactly? Word for word?”
He nodded. Jelaqua closed her eyes.
“Halassia. She shouldn’t have—and Ukrina would—those idiots always did love their cities, even if they were outcast. They should have waited for me to…”
She trailed off. Moore looked at Jelaqua and then seemed to fold in on himself. The two sat there, and Garen felt a surge of—what? Vindictiveness? Triumph? Relief? It didn’t make him feel better. But then Seborn looked up.
The other two looked at him. Garen did too. Seborn shook his head. His eyes were cold. Unchanged. He looked at Jelaqua, then straight at Garen.
“So what? This changes nothing. They tried to take the key from you. You were the one who struck first. I saw their bodies. You stabbed the other three before they could so much as move. Only Ukrina fought.”
Garen remembered that moment. He remembered Ukrina pressing him, Halassia insisting. Reaching for the key. Reaching for hope. And the way their expressions changed. He remembered the sword in his hand, making a decision—
“It was not my fault.”
Garen shook. He looked at Seborn, at Jelaqua, and at Moore. He whipped his head back and forth.
“Wrong? Wrong? I did nothing wrong! They threatened me! They denied me! To my face! I told them all, the greatest Goblin secrets, and they told me I was wrong. They threatened to kill me.”
“To stop a Goblin King? Absolutely.”
Seborn nodded. Garen shouted at him.
“But I am not a King! I was a teammate! Part of—part of the tribe! A Halfseeker! It was not my fault! I fought with others for years! I gave all to team! But I was betrayed. Again. And again.”
He turned away from the Halfseekers, looked past his tribe. They stared at him, still, silent. Garen spoke, bitterly.
“I have always been betrayed. Before, I would have been my brother’s champion. Strongest warrior in a tribe. But I was betrayed. And then, I would have been part of my team, become Named Adventurer. Found the Goblin King’s treasure, shared it if it could be shared. But I was betrayed. And then I would have fought with Rags as Chieftain. But she betrayed me. Redscar betrayed me and others. And then Tremborag’s tribe betrayed. Reiss betrayed. It is all betrayal. All of you. I did nothing wrong.”
He looked around, pointing at the Halfseekers, at each face in turn. Garen waited for them to acknowledged their guilt, to agree, at last. Now the truth had come out. But they didn’t. They looked at each other. Each face was different. There was pain, regret, and shaken beliefs. But Jelaqua still shook her head. She looked back at Garen.
“But you killed them.”
Garen’s stomach turned over. The Selphid looked at him from behind the dead eyes, and her tone was bitter.
“You keep saying you were betrayed. And they did wrong, Garen. I can’t deny that. They shouldn’t have threatened their teammate. Not like that. But. You. Killed. Them. And that we do not forgive.”
She glanced down at her claws. Then she gazed up at him and her eyes were cold again.
“This changes nothing. Let us go and give us our weapons, Garen. We’ll finish this here in front of your precious tribe.”
He felt as if he’d been punched. Garen looked at Jelaqua. She shook her head.
The word struck him like a rock. Garen rocked back on his heels and saw a huge head lift. Moore hunched his broad shoulders. His voice was low, pained. He stared at Garen with grief and helpless anger. Regret.
There was no pity in Seborn’s eyes. He sat, motionless, his eyes burning. He spoke, his echoing voice a condemnation, a promise.
The Halfseekers stared at him. And Garen knew then that he would never hear anything else from them. Ever. They would never look at him differently. That knowledge was the bitterest poison on his tongue. He turned away from them.
“Fine. That is what you call me.”
He looked up. At his warriors, at Spiderslicer. Garen waved a claw.
Spiderslicer hesitated. He looked around. The other Redfangs looked from him to Garen, uncertain. Garen raised his voice, impatiently, hearing it break and hating that weakness.
Mechanically, Spiderslicer stood. He drew his falchion, and walked forwards slowly. The other Redfangs looked at Garen. They had heard everything. They had heard his betrayal, and seen how his comrades, his old team refused to understand. Refused to listen. So why did they look at him with such horror? Garen tried to look away, but they were all around him. Why, why—
A voice spoke up. A body rose. Headscratcher barred Spiderslicer’s way. The shorter Goblin stared up at him. Spiderslicer frowned.
Headscratcher didn’t budge. He spread his arms wide and looked at Garen.
“Chieftain Garen. Question.”
Garen looked up. The sun had set. The stars were coming out. A cool wind blew on his face. He just wanted it to be done with. The Halfseekers could die. Then he could forget at last and go…go to the High Passes. Leave this place and never come back. Headscratcher’s voice was insistent as he blocked Spiderslicer. The smaller Goblin hesitated, and then decided to stay put.
“Chieftain Garen gave orders to us. Redfangs sent on mission. To kill Human. Innkeeper.”
“I did. And you did. So what?”
Rags didn’t know about that. Garen stared blankly at the rising moon. He heard a noise from one of the Halfseekers. Moore? Headscratcher lowered his voice.
Garen turned. He glared at Headscratcher. The Hob hunched his shoulders.
“Didn’t. Met innkeeper. She was nice.”
Rabbiteater nodded. He spoke up, his voice trembling slightly.
“She is good. Very good!”
“And has name.”
Shorthilt glanced up. Numbtongue nodded.
“I told you to kill her.”
Garen’s voice was low. Furious. He glared at the Hobs and then realized the young woman he’d hit had been her. He’d wiped her from his mind, assuming she was dead. Garen thrust a finger at the Hobs, who flinched as one.
“You failed! Disobeyed orders!”
“Bad orders. And we tried.”
Badarrow met Garen’s eyes. The other Redfangs nodded. They spoke all together. Headscratcher was first. He summed up the entirety of the problem in four words.
“Got orders. Got lost.”
The other Redfangs groaned. They understood that. Garen held his tongue. Rabbiteater nodded quickly.
“Innkeeper left Celum. Couldn’t find trail. Many days walk.”
He gestured wildly, and Garen remembered that neither Grunter nor any of the warriors he’d sent had tracking Skills or classes. The other Redfangs nodded. Numbtongue spoke, his voice clear, as fluent as any Human. When had he begun talking so much? He used to refuse to speak so much as a word…
“We searched for her, and ran into a raiding party sent by the Goblin Lord. We found a city—Esthelm—”
He faltered at the magnitude of what had happened next. Shorthilt shook his head.
“Undead. City destroyed. Many Humans. Panic death. Goblin Lord forces come back, big fight, three sides…”
He spread his arms, trying to encompass the magnitude of what had happened. Then he looked at Badarrow. The [Sniper] cradled his bow and rasped.
“Grunter died. Orangepoo died. Leftstep died. Patchhelm died. Justrust died. Rocksoup died…”
The words were deafening. The Redfang tribe sat still. The five Hobs looked at each other. And then they began to tell their tale from the beginning. In whole, not just in parts.
Each one told a part of the story, gesturing, faltering, falling silent. Then another would take up the momentum, telling it to their audience, to Garen.
A skeleton with purple eyes. A [Knight] in shining armor. A girl who was a monster and a person. A battle for the city. Leaving the fallen. Wandering. Hiding. The Eater Goats. A village in danger, and the young woman who offered them food. Eating, becoming welcome. Becoming security, seeing plays, defending the inn. Fighting Raskghar, going into the dungeon. Leading the Cave Goblins. Fighting the strange Hob. Being arrested.
They had gone through so much. Garen listened with awe, surprise, and pride. He couldn’t help it. The Hobs had gone through a story of their own, as much as he had—more than he had when he was just starting out. And they had come through it together. When they finished, the other Redfangs looked at them as they looked at him when he told their own tales. The five Redfang warriors stood together, proud, tired, looking up at him.
Their Chieftain. Only, there was something different in their eyes. Chieftain Garen, they’d called him. Not just Chieftain. Headscratcher spoke at last.
“Chieftain Garen gave orders. But…”
He looked at the others. They nodded, giving him support. Headscratcher looked up and took a deep breath.
“Bad orders, Chieftain Garen. Rags was Chieftain, so old Chieftain’s orders not good. Rags liked innkeeper. Erin Solstice is good. Can’t kill her.”
That was all Garen said. He stared numbly down at the Redfangs. So they couldn’t kill her. Did they even realize why? It wasn’t just that she was good. He wondered. They were so young. Did they know they loved her? As much as any Goblin could love a Human. He had loved someone, once. As much as a Goblin could love a Drake.
What a bitter poison. Garen shook his head. He tried to think of something to say, and just gave up. He looked at the five and couldn’t find it in his heart to chastise them.
“Fine. Fine. Don’t kill her.”
The five relaxed. Garen pointed at Spiderslicer, who’d sat down to listen.
“But Halfseekers. They die. And then we go south. All of us. Cave Goblins, old Redfangs and new—we go south. Past Liscor, back to High Passes.”
Spiderslicer slowly got up. Headscratcher stiffened. Again, he shook his head.
Headscratcher struggled for words. He flushed, conscious he was in front of his peers, some of them Goblins who were far older than he was. And his Chieftain. He gestured, speaking slowly.
“If Goblin Lord is coming, Redfangs should fight! That what Chieftain Garen said to Rags, said to us! If Chieftain Rags is alive—should go to her. Chieftain is still Chieftain. Can’t abandon her. Would be not-Goblin.”
The Redfangs stirred. They looked at Headscratcher, ashamed, embarrassed, but no one said a word. Rags was Chieftain. And they had betrayed her.
That was true. You couldn’t deny that. Yes, Garen had usurped Rags’ authority. He had—done a Human thing. Pretended to be part of her tribe, then not listened to her orders. Gone behind her back. That was not a Goblin thing. And yes, she had left Tremborag’s mountain, betrayed him. But that was her betrayal. They had still abandoned her.
Betrayal, and betrayal again. Garen was angry. It was all that seemed to happen to him. He snapped down at Headscratcher.
“That was different! Rags was—not strong! Not enough! She could not be Chieftain! She was too weak! Who could lead the Redfangs but me?”
No one answered. Obviously, only Garen could be their Chieftain. There was no Goblin that could match him. No one could replace him, or defeat him. And yet, Headscratcher looked up steadily.
“That true, Chieftain Garen. But Rags was still true Chieftain. She was smart.”
Garen opened his mouth. He looked around, and the Redfang tribe gazed down at Headscratcher, ready to shout agreement. But for some reason the words didn’t come out. The five Hobs, Headscratcher, Rabbiteater, Numbtongue, Badarrow, and Shorthilt, looked around, their eyes steady. Confident that what they were saying was true, was right.
They had not been here for Tremborag, or the betrayal at the mountain. They had not witnessed the Human army bearing down on them, or felt the fear of seeing the Kingslayer staring down at them. They had not seen Tremborag fall, or Rags’ new tribe. Or Reiss’ betrayal. They had not seen…anything.
And they remembered a different time. A time when their tribe had been under Rags’ command, however tenuous. The other Redfang goblins shifted uneasily. How could you explain all that had passed to bring them here?
Garen croaked the words. He waved a claw.
“Just—enough. Rags is gone. Maybe dead. Won’t get to her tribe. Reiss defeated her. Too far, too many Humans and Reiss’ army in the way. We go. Kill Halfseekers.”
It sounded like a plea. Garen’s sword weighed at his side. He could do it himself, in an instant. But he couldn’t—no, he had given an order. But still Headscratcher barred Spiderslicer’s way. The smaller Goblin raised his weapon threateningly, but this time Numbtongue blocked him, guitar in hand. He looked around, his words loud, authoritative.
“No. The Halfseekers are her friends. If they die, she will be sad. They fought with us. They were your tribe.”
He pointed at Garen. The Chieftain felt a thrill of outrage and something else. The other Hobs nodded. Shorthilt polished his sword.
“Can’t kill own tribe.”
“They are traitors!”
Garen couldn’t believe he was arguing with them. He strode forwards, pointing at Headscratcher, who began to back up and then caught himself. Garen shouted at Headscratcher.
“I am your Chieftain! You do not argue! You obey!”
Headscratcher’s knees shook. But he refused to step back. He looked Garen in the eye, and Garen saw all their history together. He had taught Headscratcher how to fight. He had shown him how to work with his tribe to bring down larger foes. He had given Headscratcher everything that made him what he was. And Headscratcher saw the same thing. But still, he shook his head.
“Only Chieftain can give orders. And true Chieftain is Rags. Not you. Garen.”
You could have dropped a pin and heard the sound as the tribe stared at Headscratcher in silence. Garen’s hand closed over the hilt of his sword.
Headscratcher flinched. Garen looked at Spiderslicer, and the Goblin looked around. Redfang warriors got to their feet, uncertainly. Garen began to unsheathe his sword, waiting for Headscratcher to take back his words. Then he heard a sound.
Rustling. He turned his head and saw the sea of grey-green bodies get to their feet. Twenty thousand Cave Goblins stood up. Their crimson eyes gleamed as they hoisted weapons into the air. The Redfangs turned, warily.
Garen turned and growled an order. The Cave Goblins rippled and some began to sit at the authority in his tone. But they didn’t. He was a Chieftain, the only [Chieftain] present. But somehow, the Cave Goblins stood. They had overthrown their masters once. They stared down at the Redfang tribe, who stared back without fear.
They were Redfangs, and the Cave Goblins, for all there were five times as many, were far weaker. If it was a battle, the Redfangs would take to their mounts and ride forth until the last one was dead. But still—they looked at Garen, their Chieftain, and hesitated. It was in the air. Headscratcher looked Garen in the eye. He was afraid, terribly afraid. But he still barred Garen’s way.
“Can’t let you kill Halfseekers. Can’t let them die. Won’t go.”
Garen hissed at him. He just wanted Headscratcher out of his sight. But the Hob refused to budge. He shook his head.
“I am Redfang. We are Redfang. They are Redfang.”
He touched his chest, gestured at his four friends, and pointed at the Cave Goblins. They echoed the word, a whisper twenty thousand times.
Headscratcher nodded. He closed his eyes, and then looked at the others. They nodded too. Garen didn’t understand. Not until Headscratcher reached for his axe. He drew the precious, enchanted blade, and pointed it at Garen’s chest. He spoke softly, but in words every member of the Redfang tribe heard.
“Garen Redfang. I challenge you for Chieftain of Redfang tribe.”
For a moment all was still. Then Garen laughed. He threw his head back and laughed, surprising everyone present. Headscratcher looked at him uncertainly. Then Garen moved, in one motion, he drew his sword and pointed Redfang, the fabled blade at Headscratcher’s throat. The [Berserker] froze.
“You cannot challenge me. You are dead. Too weak! Too young! Bow! Or die!”
Garen shouted at Headscratcher. The young Hob wavered, but refused to budge. Garen’s grip tightened—and then Numbtongue stepped forwards. He brought his guitar down on the flat of Garen’s blade, knocking it down. The Chieftain stared at him. Numbtongue spoke, his voice echoing.
“I challenge you too.”
A blade slid from its scabbard. Garen turned his head and saw Rabbiteater draw his blade. The [Champion] held his sword up, pointing at Garen’s chest. His crimson cloak—liquid wine, a fine vintage—rippled behind him. He spoke, his voice quavering, his sword arm steady.
Another blade. This one barely whispered as it was unsheathed. Shorthilt held the sword in one hand, and a parrying dagger in the other. He smiled.
Badarrow calmly nocked an arrow and aimed it at Garen’s throat.
Garen looked around. The Redfang tribe was frozen in place. Headscratcher looked around and then smiled.
“We challenge you, Chieftain. All of us.”
They stood there, weapons bared, five of them. In the center of a ring of warriors. Garen stared from face to face. And then he sighed. He dropped his sword. It landed tip-first in the ground and slid into the earth like butter. The other Redfangs stared at it. Headscratcher blinked down at the blade. Garen grabbed his axe hand, threw him to the ground, and leapt at the others with a roar.
This is what Spiderslicer saw. He stood with the other Redfang warriors of the tribe, in a circle of bodies. Carn Wolves prowled restlessly and the horses shuffled, caught between sleep and wakefulness. The Cave Goblins stood and watched. And in the center of the ring, a challenge was fought.
It was without blades. Garen Redfang had dropped his, and he gave the other five Hobs no chance to use their weapons. Shorthilt’s sword went flying as he kicked it out of the Hob’s hand. He kicked Rabbiteater in the groin, threw Badarrow over his shoulder as the arrow went astray, and blocked Numbtongue’s guitar with one arm. He threw a punch and Numbtongue fell backwards, bleeding.
Perhaps there was mercy in it. But Spiderslicer saw Garen’s eyes. They were wide with fury. He caught Headscratcher as the younger Goblin rushed at him and kneed him in the chest, punched him twice, and then turned and backhanded Shorthilt. He wasn’t doing this to be kind. He could have killed all five Hobs in a moment. But he was making them submit. They would surrender to him. Or Garen would kill them with his bare hands.
It wasn’t a fair fight. Not even with their new classes. Not even five against one. Headscratcher roared as he swung at Garen. The two were as strong as each other, but Garen was faster, more experienced. He dodged the swings and struck as Headscratcher was mid-punch. The Hob collapsed and Garen turned and kicked. Rabbiteater choked as the blow drove into his stomach. He folded over and Garen kicked dirt into Badarrow’s face. He brought his hands down on the Hobgoblin’s back.
Flawless. Spiderslicer had seen Garen fight and knew he was beyond his abilities. Beyond Redscar, or anyone else. Garen stood over the battered Redfangs. He wasn’t breathing hard. He spoke one harsh word.
They lay on the ground, coughing. Rabbiteater was spewing, and Numbtongue might have a broken nose. Headscratcher had lost a tooth. He was flat on his back. He looked up, past Garen, and mumbled something.
Garen walked over to him. He stared down at Headscratcher. Spiderslicer edged closer. He heard a whisper, a cough, and then Headscratcher’s voice.
“She hugged me.”
Garen stared down at him.
Headscratcher didn’t respond. He pushed himself up, and Numbtongue sat up. He spat blood and growled.
“I played music.”
He rose. Shorthilt got up, shaking his head. He wiped blood from his nose.
“Every night, I sleep and feel safe. I smile. She gave me this.”
He patted the sheathed sword at his side and stood. Garen looked at him in disbelief. Badarrow rolled over. Badarrow, who wouldn’t pick up a sword if he could shoot a bow, made a fist.
“I met a friend who hunts for birds.”
He rose. Rabbiteater looked around. He wiped his mouth and looked at Garen, and then past him, at the Cave Goblins.
“They call me [Champion].”
They stood with light shining from their eyes. Garen looked from face to face. He shook his head and made an inarticulate sound. He lashed out and Headscratcher reeled back. The fight continued, but this time it was savage.
Shorthilt had trained with other Redfang warriors and with Garen. He had been battered, bloodied a hundred times. Broken bones. But this time Garen showed no mercy. He struck the Redfangs, knocking them down, hitting them hard enough to fracture their bones. Spiderslicer watched him snap one of Headscratcher’s fingers like that. He saw the Hob stumble, then throw a punch, broken finger or not.
Garen kicked him down. But Badarrow was next. He swung for Garen, ignoring the two punches he received. The third downed him. Shorthilt and Numbtongue jumped forwards and were knocked flat as Garen hurled Numbtongue into Shorthilt. And then Rabbiteater raised his hands. He threw a punch and Garen countered. He threw another punch and received a blow to the face.
He staggered. But he refused to fall. Garen lashed out. He struck Rabbiteater six times in the chest, face, groin. But Rabbiteater kept swinging. He struck Garen’s chest, took a punch in the ribs. He blocked a fist that went for his right shoulder, punched, sidestepped a kick. Garen blinked and Rabbiteater hit him in the stomach.
Rabbiteater. Spiderslicer remembered a little Goblin. He saw a [Champion]. The two traded blows for another second. Garen swept Rabbiteater’s legs out from under him and stomped. Rabbiteater’s ribs did break, then.
Headscratcher lunged at Garen from the side. The two went down, punching, grappling. Garen threw Headscratcher off him. He got up and received a punch from Badarrow. Shorthilt kicked him in the back. Garen seized the leg, gripped Shorthilt by an ankle and threw him into Badarrow. The blow sent both Hobgoblins down. The Redfang tribe winced as they saw the two writhing.
Numbtongue. The Goblin was on his feet. He lifted his guitar and struck. Garen blocked with one arm. Lightning flashed from the strings of the guitar and Garen recoiled. Numbtongue held up his guitar and Garen leapt. He kicked Numbtongue in the chin, snapping his head back. Down Numbtongue fell, like a rock. Garen landed, and Headscratcher was waiting.
One punch. The [Berserker] roared and caught Garen with a blow that lifted the Chieftain’s feet off the ground. He swung again and Garen hit him back. Headscratcher choked but didn’t fall. He swung and Garen knocked him down. The Chieftain turned, panting.
And Rabbiteater got off the ground. Numbtongue was shaking his head. Rabbiteater pulled him up. Shorthilt and Badarrow were getting up too. Garen turned. He knocked all of them down, but it wasn’t enough.
Again and again. Spiderslicer thought that each time one of the Redfangs fell it had to be the last time. They had broken bones now, and blood ran from their ears, noses. But still they rose, supporting each other, leaning on each other’s shoulders. Each time they were struck down, they stood up, battered, broken, but still rising.
It was an impossible foe. There was no way they could beat Garen Redfang. No way. But they took the fight to him, attacking as one. As a team. Garen was a blur, fighting them all at once. But it wasn’t Garen that Spiderslicer and the other Redfangs were looking at now.
It was them. They refused to fall.
It was the essence, the quintessential thing that defined the Redfang Tribe. Spiderslicer felt his eyes sting as he saw the five Redfangs fighting, bleeding. Garen hammered them down, kicked them, beat them as they struggled to land a single blow, two blows—
“Submit or die!”
Garen howled it at them. He stood over Headscratcher as the Hob knelt, too weak to stand. But the Hob still swung at Garen’s legs. A weak blow. Garen struck him and then turned. He strode over to the crimson blade lodged in the ground and drew it.
A groan ran around the circle. It was unconscious. Garen advanced on Headscratcher, kicking Rabbiteater as the Hob lunged at him. He pointed the blade down at Headscratcher.
Headscratcher looked up. He reached for an axe he didn’t have. Garen hesitated. He looked down and shook his head. He raised his blade.
To kill Headscratcher. His own tribe. Spiderslicer howled and it felt like every Redfang howled with him. The tale of the Halfseekers’ betrayal played in his mind again. His own tribe! Headscratcher looked up, baring his teeth, waiting. The other four were trying to get up, but they couldn’t. He couldn’t die. Spiderslicer saw Garen swing down, but no one was going to stop him. He couldn’t—
The rust-red blade fell. A sword swept up to stop it. The blade deflected the enchanted sword, swept it away. Spiderslicer stared at the sword. It was thin, a razor’s edge of a blade. A falchion, in fact.
He looked around. He was standing in front of Headscratcher. It was his hand that held the weapon. His falchion rang with the impact. Spiderslicer reflexively checked it to make sure the thin blade hadn’t bent—and then he realized what he’d done. He looked around. Redfang warriors stared at him. Garen looked down.
“Spiderslicer. What are you doing?”
Spiderslicer quivered. He looked up. He tried to move, to back away and leave Headscratcher. But he couldn’t help it. He trembled as he lifted his falchion. But a part of him screamed the words. He looked up at his Chieftain.
“Redfangs don’t fight alone.”
Garen stared down at him. The color drained from his face. He took a step back, and then what Spiderslicer said hit him. He closed his eyes and then looked at Spiderslicer. Bitter anger flared in his gaze.
Spiderslicer recoiled from the words. They tore at him, hot barbs reaching for his heart. They were the same words that Garen had spoken when Redscar and the others had left. And they cut no less deep.
The Goblin’s eyes blurred with tears. Spiderslicer looked up at his idol, his Chieftain. The hero who had taught him how to fight, had shown him how to believe in himself, believe he was strong. But that had been when Spiderslicer was young. Now he looked up and just saw a lost Goblin, who did the same things. He was strong, but he did not have a vision like Reiss. He was not confident of himself like Tremborag had been. He did not offer hope, like Rags.
And he meant it. With every fiber of his being. But still, he raised the falchion. Garen looked down at him. He looked at Headscratcher, at Rabbiteater, at Numbtongue and Shorthilt and Badarrow.
“Traitor. You are a traitor. All of you are.”
All six Goblins looked up at him. They shook their heads. Slowly. Sadly. How did he not see? Headscratcher was the one who said it.
“No, Chieftain. You are.”
Garen swung his sword. Spiderslicer raised his blade as he threw himself at Headscratcher. The two fell. Spiderslicer felt his sword sunder as Garen’s blade sheared through the steel. He got up and stared at the hilt of his sword. Garen pointed his sword at Spiderslicer’s chest. Then another Goblin stepped forwards.
The Hob who carried the warhammer stepped forwards. She looked down at Garen and shook her head. He turned towards her. On the Hob’s left, another Goblin drew a dirk. A pair of Goblin twins pulled cleavers from their waistbands. They gathered behind Spiderslicer. Garen stopped.
A veteran warrior made a sound of outrage. He moved behind Garen, his spear aimed at the Hob with the warhammer. But then another Goblin moved. He raised a halberd and joined the others behind Spiderslicer and Headscratcher. And another Goblin joined them. And another.
Garen looked around. The Redfang tribe slowly stood. They drew their weapons and walked past him. They formed a line, a mass. Thousands of Goblins stood, weapons drawn, forming a wall between him and Headscratcher and Spiderslicer. Some were weeping. Others were dry-eyed but shaking, holding their weapons so hard their hands began to bleed. But none of them looked away. They met his eyes, and there was nothing but grief there.
But they stood. Some of the Redfangs didn’t join the ones around Headscratcher. They stood at Garen’s back. But so few. Less than a hundred stood around Garen. Less than a hundred. They stared at their friends with shock in their eyes. It was a mirror of Garen’s own expression.
A Hob struggled to his feet, supported by Spiderslicer. Headscratcher coughed. He looked at Garen and his eye ran with blood and water.
Headscratcher fell silent. The Redfangs stared at Garen. He looked around, and his expression was hurt. Lost.
“You are my tribe.”
They didn’t answer him. They were his tribe. His. He had made them, given them everything. But still, he was wrong. He had been wrong. He had abandoned his first tribe, abandoned his brother and Rags. It was true. They had betrayed him. But he had betrayed them too. That was the great tragedy.
Sometimes your sisters and brothers struck at you. Sometimes they broke your heart. But he had shed blood first. He had given up on them. And Redfangs did not do that. He had taught them better. So they stood in opposition to him. Meeting his eyes until it became too much for him to bear.
Slowly, Garen began to back up. He stumbled on the uneven ground, no longer surefooted. He looked around and walked towards his Carn Wolf. The great wolf had watched all that had passed, anxious and confused. It had seen Garen sparring, but this was different. It lowered its head, nuzzling Garen. He stood with it as the few Redfangs that had joined him went to their mounts.
Garen began to walk away. Slowly, as if he was in a dream. He looked back once, and then twice. No one moved. Garen’s Carn Wolf whined, slinking over to Garen to lick at his master’s bloody cuts. The Hobgoblin Chieftain kept looking back. Spiderslicer could barely see him. Hot water ran down his face, though it wasn’t raining.
The Chieftain of the Redfang tribe was halfway down the road when someone called out.
He turned back. Hope in his eyes. But it faded as he saw who was walking towards him. Cave Goblins and Redfangs parted as three figures walked forwards. Jelaqua’s body was torn. Moore clutched at his side, partially healed by a potion. Seborn drew his reclaimed blades.
“We’re not done with you, Garen. Stop.”
He looked back at them, and now he seemed ready to run. But he held his ground and turned, sword in hand. The Halfseekers walked towards him, leaving a trail behind them.
Numbtongue moved to block them. The Halfseekers didn’t stop. The Hobgoblin tugged at Jelaqua. She stumbled unsteadily. Her innards were visible through her wounds and something orange and fluid pulsed through her organs.
The Hobgoblin looked from face to face. Jelaqua looked at him once. Then she shook her head.
“We swore an oath. We cannot forgive him. Move or die.”
And because they were his team, his tribe, and because they understood, the Redfangs parted. They couldn’t stop it. They could only bear witness. Garen waited, his eyes fixed on his friends. The Goblins stood back as the four figures stopped for a moment. Maybe they said something. But it was too late, after all. Years too late.
The Redfang tribe bore witness to the end. They stood in the middle of the road and watched as the tale of the Halfseekers drew to its close.
It was not raining. It should have been. The skies should have been dark and cloudy, and the wind should have blown and made the ground shiver and lurch. It should have been dark. But it wasn’t. The skies were starry, and it was a pleasant spring night.
They watched the end. Garen stood over a Drake. She was slumped, unable to move, staring up at him. A half-Giant lay on the grass, clutching at his side. Wet entrails glistened in the starlight. A Drowned Man lay, gasping, reaching for his daggers. Drowning in his blood.
A sword as red as rust, as sharp as memory, swung down. The Drake’s head rolled and her body slumped. The Hobgoblin turned. He looked at the three, as the half-Giant tried to move and failed. Then he climbed onto the Carn Wolf that waited for him.
Less than a hundred Goblins waited for the Hobgoblin as he slowly rode away from the cave. He rode slowly, then faster than faster. The few gathered around him as he headed north. Back. Perhaps to death. Or to something else. Perhaps he just couldn’t ride past them all, or there was nothing left for him to the south. But they saw him go, and knew he was going.
Their Chieftain. The one who defined them. Going. Going. But what hurt most was the flash of crimson that kept appearing in the distance, even when he was a distant shape. It meant little until you remembered that a Goblin’s eyes were crimson. Until you thought of Garen, riding faster and faster as the wind blew across his face. But always the crimson light shone towards the Redfangs gathered there. It meant one thing that hurt most of all.
He kept looking back.
“Hold. Hold still!”
Pisces trembled as, in The Wandering Inn, he bent over Erin. The [Innkeeper] was half-conscious. Bleeding from her mouth. Pisces was working as quickly as he could, but he dared not apply a healing potion. Not until her teeth were mended.
They weren’t bones, but a [Necromancer] could manipulate any natural part of the body in theory. But it was a thousand times harder to do that to a living person and Pisces was sweating. He’d already fixed broken bones and helped stave the worst of the injuries off.
The inn was bloody. Adventurers lay on the ground, wounded by arrows. Some, like Dawil, were burned, and others had been rushed to Liscor for a [Healer]. Pisces’ hand shook as he tried to mend Erin’s teeth. If only he had the broken fragments.
“It’s not enough. I can’t do it without excess material. If I try to mend it—I’ll make the teeth as fragile as glass. Enough. Enough. I’ll send my undead through the doorway.”
He strode towards the magic door. Erin half-lurched up, but it was Ceria who caught Pisces.
“Don’t be an idiot! A bunch of Gold-rank teams just got torn apart! Sit down and figure something else out! If you can’t fix Erin’s teeth, let her use a potion!”
Pisces clenched his hands, but some of what Ceria was saying got through to him. He stalked back over to the doorway. Bevussa was lying on a table, an arrow that had gone through her side lying in front of her. She looked at the door.
A red gemstone was set in the door. It was open to the Redfang’s cave. It was practically right next to where the fighting had been. Despite the smashed door the Halfseekers had been carrying, they could go back to the spot. But no one had dared open the door.
And yet, Erin had insisted on keeping it open. If the Redfangs, their Redfangs needed a way out, it was there. So the door was set. But closed. And every adventurer was keeping an eye on the door. Halrac had an enchanted arrow nocked and he was sitting, facing the door’s entrance.
“I’ll—try and fix your teeth. It would be possible if I mixed teeth from another skull, but adding a foreign substance to a living body seldom works well. Still, if it’s just a…a cap on your teeth…I have bear teeth…”
Pisces muttered to himself. Erin murmured something and spat some blood. Mrsha offered her a cloth and Erin wiped at her mouth.
“Not a normal tribe. That wasn’t normal. I’ve only heard of Goblins riding wolves in stories. That had to be the Redfang tribe. But I never expected—”
Keldrass was muttering to himself. The other adventurers were groaning, or whispering, but making very little noise. It felt like a vigil. A wake. The Halfseekers had been gone. And the odds of them coming back were shrinking by the moment.
But no one wanted to say it. Pisces was bending over Erin, mending her teeth by attaching shaped enamel to her broken teeth and cursing the blood when the door crashed open. Halrac stood in a flash as everyone spun. He drew the arrow to his cheek and froze.
A figure stood in the doorway. A bleeding shape. Moore staggered into the room, but something was wrong. He moved awkwardly, in jerking motions. And he was holding something. A dark shape, bleeding.
Moore whispered. He placed the Drowned Man on a table. Seborn jerked. Blood was spilling from his mouth. Pisces fought off the paralysis and rushed over to him.
Bevussa was there before him.
“His lungs are shot. Someone suck out the blood—”
“Me! [Vacuum Sphere]!”
Falene knocked both aside. Seborn choked as blood rushed out of his lungs, funneling up into a swirling vortex in the air. Pisces grabbed for a healing potion. Bevussa snared it and poured it down Seborn’s throat. He choked.
“Get him upright—”
“Dead gods, his wounds!”
“Someone help Moore!”
Lyonette shouted. Pisces turned. He saw the half-Giant swaying. Then his eyes went to Moore’s side. He saw entrails spilling out of a cut in his side. Pisces swore. There was no blood coming from the wound. Moore was—he had to be—
“Body. Need a body. She needs a body.”
Moore gasped at the others. He looked around. Two voices seemed to come from his mouth. Both were his voice, but one was—different. A different inflection. Pisces froze. His eyes went to Moore’s side as his mind connected the dots. Surely not—
“Moore, you’re dying. The blood—”
“Stopped. I stopped it. It’s fine. She needs a body.”
The half-Giant looked around. He sagged to the ground. Pisces stared at him.
“A body? Where would we find a host for—”
“Basement. It’s the basement.”
He turned. Erin staggered to her feet. Her partially fixed teeth moved around her bloody mouth. She looked at the others.
“Raskghar in the basement. Get one. Hurry.”
For a moment no one moved, then Yvlon got up.
They ran to the trapdoor. Moore was sitting on the ground, surrounded by other Gold-rank adventurers. They tried to pack his insides back into his body before applying the healing potion. All the while, the second voice whispered to them, telling them what was wrong. Moore’s eyes were rolling back in his head.
Yvlon came out of the basement, dragging a huge body behind her. Pisces’ heart jumped as he saw a Raskghar’s head and Ceria swore. But Moore lurched over to it. He bent, exposing his open side towards the body.
“Don’t look. Don’t look!”
At first the others didn’t know what he meant. Pisces did, and he watched in horror and fascination as something slithered out of Moore’s open wound. The half-Giant groaned and passed out, but the orange, semi-liquid…thing flowed towards the Raskghar’s body.
Yvlon and Ylawes backed up as it crawled down the creature’s mouth. The other adventurers watched in horror. The Raskghar began to jerk, and then a voice began to speak from its mouth, though the gaping muzzle never so much as twitched.
“You didn’t see. Didn’t see it.”
The voice was confused. Female. It didn’t sound like a voice that came from lips. The Raskghar kept twitching as the thing—the Selphid began invading its nervous system. The adventurers looked at each other.
“What didn’t we see?”
Ceria looked around in confusion. The voice—Jelaqua, whispered again.
“They’ll kill us for it. Didn’t happen. You didn’t see. Please.”
Bevussa looked around. The Garuda understood, and she spoke decisively.
“We saw nothing. No one will tell anything.”
Pisces nodded. The others began to understand, at least in part. Jelaqua was talking about how she’d entered Moore’s body. To invade a living host, willing or not, was the height of Selphid sin.
The Selphid had almost gained control of the Raskghar’s body. It began sitting up, raising its arms, blinking, as if going through a test. It was unnatural to see. But for all the precision, it seemed like the controller was—damaged. How could she not be? She kept whispering, forgetting to use the Raskghar’s vocal chords and lungs.
“I didn’t break the rule. I didn’t—”
“What happened? Are the Goblins still there?”
“What about Headscratcher?”
Halrac and Erin pressed Jelaqua. The Raskghar’s head turned and stared blankly at them.
“Garen. It was Garen. His tribe. Others alive.”
The name evoked confusion in some of the other adventurers. Pisces felt his heart skip a beat. Dawil, his face burned, sat up from his cot.
“That was their old teammate, wasn’t it? I heard about a Goblin Chieftain that no adventuring team had managed to bring down. But he was supposed to be in the High Passes.”
Jelaqua didn’t respond. Halrac looked at the body, then at Seborn and Moore. He stared at the door.
“What in the name of the Five Families happened?”
Erin shook her head. She looked back at the Halfseekers. They were all breathing, but just. She stared at the door, closed again.
“I don’t know. But I think—I think something happened with the Redfangs. I mean, Headscratcher and the others. And Garen. They swore to kill him.”
“By the looks of it, he killed them.”
Revi commented softly. A strangled laugh rose from the Raskghar. All of the adventurers jerked as Jelaqua finally spoke with the Raskghar’s growling voice,
“He couldn’t do it.”
Erin bent down towards her. Jelaqua looked up at her. She laughed again, weakly. Hysterically.
“He couldn’t kill us. He tried, but he didn’t. Who beheads a Selphid?”
She laughed, and then tears began seeping from the Raskghar’s eyes. Not water; the Raskghar’s body was dead. But a thin, yellow substance, like a mucus. Erin drew back. Jelaqua kept laughing, a weird giggling sound like a hyena’s laugh.
She was laughing and crying in the Raskghar’s body. It was a strange, unnatural sight and sound. But the sobs that quickly usurped the laughter and the tears were all too familiar.
The adventurers sat and stood in silence. Erin looked around. She was bloody, battered, and the others were hurt as well. She ran her tongue over her broken teeth and winced. She shook her head. For once, no witty quotes came to mind. She just sat down and put her head in her hands.
“I need a drink.”
The Redfangs stood outside the cave. Four thousand of them and twenty thousand Cave Goblins. They looked at the five swollen and bruised Hobgoblins among them. They had splints and were keeping still, most of them. Even the best healing potions didn’t go so far.
Garen Redfang was gone. And with his absence, a void had opened up in the tribe. After all, no one Goblin could equal Garen Redfang.
And that was the problem. It had been a problem even when Rags was there, and Reiss. But the Redfangs had realized there was a solution.
No one could replace him. That was a fact. But five? Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badarrow, Numbtongue, and Rabbiteater sat together. And the Redfangs looked at them. Headscratcher spoke slowly, around a swollen mouth.
“We are Redfangs. We were, and are. And will be. Garen is gone, but he was not us. We were, are, us.”
There was nothing else to say. The Redfangs sat there, as night fell. Wondering what they would be tomorrow.
So night fell. The Redfangs and Cave Goblins sat, talking, debating. Erin Solstice and the adventurers lay in their inn, not understanding all of what had gone on. And Garen Redfang rode away, haunted by regret, words echoing in his mind. Those were their concerns.
The issues of a small Human city just north of Liscor was more immediate. Esthelm, the city that had fallen and then reclaimed its honor, was in a state of high alert. They’d reported the Redfang tribe riding past their walls. Now they locked their gates, and put everyone they could fit on their walls. They sent a [Message] spell to all the cities, a dire warning.
The Goblin Lord’s army was coming. They were within range of Esthelm’s walls. The news sparked alarm through all the cities, who had expected the Goblin Lord to arrive days later.
Only, it wasn’t the Goblin Lord’s army. They were close behind, but this band of Goblins had outrun them. It was an army large enough to fool Esthelm, but it was not Reiss’ Goblins.
Instead, it was a tribe. Redscar, Poisonbite, and Noears led the broken, bloody Flooded Waters tribe south, running ahead of death, despairing. Their Chieftain was missing. Alive, but lost to them. In her absence, they ran south, past Esthelm, continually on the move, fleeing the traitorous Goblin Lord who was slowly following behind them with the Humans.
They were despairing, hurt, betrayed. Most were half-dead from running all day and all night, but they dared not stop lest the Humans on horseback caught up. In their desperation they’d outpaced even horses, not stopping to sleep or rest or eat. It felt like the end of all things, and all the Goblins could do was keep moving, one step after another, late into the night until they collapsed of exhaustion and woke, only to feel the same fear again. They ran and ran, without purpose or hope.
On the eleventh day, they reached Liscor.