(Due to the next chapter being delayed, 5.62 will come out on Saturday, March 2nd.)
He rode on through the night. The wind cooled the blood spattering his body. It soothed the burning wounds he’d taken, and the sweat. The land passed by him, grass turning to dirt, to inhospitable stone. Garen rode towards the High Passes.
They were always there, in the distance. If you looked, you could see them. A speck at first, if you were very far away. But they would grow until they were closer and closer, keep growing until it seemed like they were too large.
For the High Passes, the mountains of Izril had never been climbed. No one had ever returned from them, had ever climbed to the summit. Then again, perhaps some brave souls had made the journey. But it was not one they had come back from.
He had climbed the mountains. Garen was sure of it. The Goblin King had gone there, to plant his great treasure. His secret left for his people. Why? And what was it? Garen didn’t know. But the idea had fixed in his head since he had heard it spoken from the mouth of the Ghostly Hand Chieftain. Beyond the clouds, in a place uncharted, lay the greatest treasure of Goblins.
And yet tonight, he saw only clouds. Only dark mountains. Garen rode with the last of his tribe. The last warriors who had stayed with him. Under a hundred had left with him and broken north. Eight now remained. Eight. Enough to start a tribe with.
Only—Garen slowed, and his loyal Carn Wolf panted. He stared ahead at the dark mountains, beyond which lurked the passes, the home of the Redfangs, a place where even he tread lightly. He stared ahead and saw nothing.
Nothing. No vision for the future. No idea of what would come next. No tribe. How would he restart the Redfang tribe? Even Goblins feared the High Passes. Would he stay there? What would he do beyond surviving? Garen had no idea. He looked back, over his shoulder, and saw a small group of Goblins in the distance. They were headed south. To Liscor. And, in Garen’s heart, he knew, to war.
He could feel it in the air, like a physical thing. Or maybe it was his tribe he felt. They were gathered there, at Liscor. And they would fight, be it the army of Reiss, the Humans, or the Drakes. They would fight and die and so would Headscratcher, the other four Redfangs, the Cave Goblins…
And her, Rags. Garen stared at the small figure. She would fight. She could have run. In fact, she should. She was cut off from her tribe, defeated by Reiss, and an entire army of Humans lay between her and her people. She should run. But she still went.
And Reiss would be there. His brother, slave to the dark thing that called itself his master. And he would destroy Liscor or die there.
They would be there too. The Halfseekers. His team. Garen stared back, and then shook his head. Rags’ words still lingered in his mind.
“Not too late to try! Never too late! Otherwise you run forever!”
But what could he do? Garen shook his head and looked back towards the High Passes. But no matter how long he stared, he saw no future there. And if he turned his head back he saw…everything. Everything he had ever hated and loved and cared for.
Garen realized he’d come to a stop. He heard panting and looked down. His Carn Wolf was tired. Garen had pushed both his wolf and himself hard these last few hours. He scratched his wolf between the ears and heard it growl softly. It, or rather, he, was a good Carn Wolf. He would have been an alpha of his pack had he not been tamed.
He had no name, despite being Garen’s companion over two years. That was because Carn Wolves often fell in battle, the same as their riders. Garen had buried four wolves before this one. So he had stopped naming them. If you didn’t grow too attached, people couldn’t betray you by dying. Or leaving.
Garen rubbed his Carn Wolf, and then noticed something. Movement. The Redfang Warriors who’d kept pace with him, his loyal eight, were talking amongst themselves, looking back. And then they turned. Garen sat up.
“What are you doing? Keep moving.”
He began to urge his Carn Wolf forwards. But one of the Redfangs, a veteran who’d been with Garen for six years, shook his head. He had watched dozens of his friends fall in battle an hour ago, and the stripes of red war paint were still drying on his body. He looked at Garen.
“No, Chieftain. We go back.”
Garen stared at the warrior. He saw the others nod. A lance of pain shot through his heart, to join the other wounds.
“You betray me too? After all…”
He gestured back at the road they’d followed. The warrior—his name was Starstarer, wasn’t it? Not a proper warriors’ nickname, but he had chosen it nonetheless. Starstarer shook his head again.
“Chieftain, Redfangs ride to war. All of them. We go too.”
“But you left them. They betrayed you.”
Garen’s voice sounded plaintive in his ears. His Carn Wolf whined and the other wolves sniffed the air and growled uneasily. Starstarer nodded.
“Yes, Chieftain. They did.”
The Redfangs looked at each other. As one, they shrugged. It was a Goblin expression. Starstarer looked at his Chieftain, and there was regret and grief and something else in his eyes.
“Because they are Redfangs. They are we, Chieftain. And we do not ride alone. If brothers and sisters go to battle, we must go back. Sorry.”
Sorry. It was the first time Garen had heard anyone apologize to him while betraying his trust. The Chieftain, the Gold-rank adventurer, the Hobgoblin, stared as the Redfangs began to ride backwards, south, chasing Rags and her group. Now he was alone. He shouted at them in despair.
“So you leave too! You and all the others! Who taught you to betray? Who told you other Goblins were more important than Chieftain? Than me?”
Starstarer paused. He looked back at Garen and pointed.
Garen stopped. Starstarer and the other seven began to ride faster and faster. Their Carn Wolves howled and Garen’s own wolf whined. It wanted to go back, but Garen wouldn’t let it. He turned to look back at the High Passes.
“All gone. All gone. I am betrayed.”
The words were carried away by the wind. I am betrayed. They came back to him.
I betray them.
It wasn’t what he wanted to admit. Garen struggled, but the events of yesterday, of all his conversations, crystalized in his head. The words whispered around him as the wind blew.
I betray them. I betray their expectations. I betray, not them. And then I run away.
He whispered. But the wind couldn’t be fought. Garen looked back. His entire world lay south of him. And nothing but darkness and regret ahead. Why was he going this way? Why didn’t he go back?
Because…he was afraid. How could he make up for what he’d done, even if he tried? The moment he’d struck at Halassia, in his rage and despair, the instant he had attacked Reiss and struck Headscratcher—they were moments he couldn’t take back. Time could not be undone. What could he do?
There was only one thing Garen could think of. One thing he was good at, really. Garen looked down at his most prized possession. His sword. It hung at his side, red as rust, still sticky with blood. He drew it, held it out. His Carn Wolf tilted its head up and licked it. It whined as its tongue touched the edge and was cut.
Garen scolded his Carn Wolf. He rubbed its head again, and looked south. Then he sighed. He clicked his tongue and urged his Carn Wolf around. He stared south.
“I can do one thing.”
And one thing only. Garen shook his head. Then he shrugged, as Starstarer had done, and laughed. It was a short laugh, bitter, tired, but also relieved. Garen couldn’t remember when he’d last laughed. But once it had started, he couldn’t stop. His Carn Wolf pricked up its ears. Surprised by the odd sound coming from its master, it began to lope forwards, and then run as Garen urged it to go faster. Its tongue lolled out and it panted. Now it was happy, running in the cool night, following its pack.
The Redfang Warriors were following Starstarer, debating how to get back to their tribe. They agreed they would follow Rags, ask for her forgiveness. She was their old Chieftain. And if she didn’t take them…they’d try the mountains. If they climbed high enough, they could go around the Humans. It would take a long time, but it could be done. They were talking about how they should greet Rags, when they heard the laughter. They turned their heads.
They saw Garen bearing down on them, sword in hand. They heard his laughter and feared. The Redfangs turned, grabbing at their weapons. They braced, expecting the worst, but Garen just rode through them. The former Chieftain of the Redfangs stared down at the smaller Goblins. They looked up at him, uncertain and wary. He pointed.
“Why are you waiting? Faster! Go faster! Redfangs don’t ride slow.”
They looked up at him. Garen stared down at them and for a moment they saw straight through him. Into his beating heart, his bare soul full of guilt. And the difference, the way he sat. The calmness in him. Garen bowed his head to Starstarer.
“I was wrong.”
That was all. Garen said no more, but began to ride on. He was bad at apologies, too, as it turned out. But it was enough. Starstarer looked around. The Redfangs exchanged glances and grinned. They shouted as they urged their Carn Wolves after Garen, whooping and cheering. It had taken a while, and cost them much. But it had happened at last.
Their old Chieftain was back.
Garen rode across the grasslands at breakneck speed. He moved south, and soon he was upon the small group of Goblins. They cried out in shock and turned. Garen stopped in front of the small Goblin as the large, fat Hob and the attractive [Shaman] barred his way. He looked down at the small Goblin, the small Chieftain, and the wary way she stared up at him.
“What you want?”
Garen hesitated. He looked down at Rags and a thousand things crept up on his tongue. A thousand things unsaid. And for once, he said them.
Sorry. It felt good to say. Garen looked at Rags, and her eyes widened a bit. She blinked at Garen, and then smiled. It was good to see. Garen gave her a grin, and jerked his head.
“Want a ride?”
She blinked up at him. Garen saw the other Goblins staring at him with suspicion, but then the Hob, Pyrite, raised one hand.
Garen’s Carn Wolf blinked in alarm. So did Garen. Rags laughed, and that night Garen found himself running for once, alongside his Carn Wolf. The other Redfangs ran too, as six of them dragged Pyrite on a sled, and another carried Rags and Ulvama together. Garen laughed and laughed as he raced south with the Goblins. South, hoping, praying, that he wasn’t too late.
He had something he had to do.
On the thirteenth day, Erin woke up and felt the drum beats echoing in her mind. Her [Dangersense] thundered at her, and she knew why. She got up, dressed, and stared out the window. The Floodplains were quiet. Empty, save for all the mud, and stagnant water. And the Goblins. But they were packing up, moving south.
Erin stared north, across the hills and valleys towards the road leading to Esthelm. It was deserted. She nodded. So she had time. A bit.
There wasn’t much left in the pantry. Lyonette had bought just enough for a few meals. Erin made do. She greeted Lyonette and Mrsha as they came down the stairs with a heaping plate full of waffles and the last of the Ashfire Bee honey. Lyonette blinked and Mrsha sniffed the air.
“Wow. That’s a lot.”
“And it’s for everyone, so share, Mrsha. I thought today would be a waffle day. Let’s eat up.”
Erin smiled at the two of them. She heard adventurers bumping around upstairs and what sounded like Pisces swearing as he ran into something. She gestured at the table as she looked towards the window. Lyonette did too.
“Do you think…?”
She glanced down at Mrsha, who was oblivious and eager to eat. Erin stared out the window and nodded.
“Let’s have breakfast. And then…I’ll lock up.”
She sat down as Lyonette, Mrsha, Apista, the Halfseekers, and the Horns of Hammerad came downstairs. They greeted each other warily. Ceria stared out the window. Those without [Dangersense] picked up on the mood. But they held their tongues. They smiled and talked about inconsequential things instead. They had one last meal together in the peace of the inn.
And then the drum beats began echoing across the Floodplains. The drum beats. And the first of the Goblin Lord’s army began pouring into the valley.
Pebblesnatch saw them first. She was in the old cave, the one that lead to the dungeon. She wasn’t supposed to be there. She was not, and she knew it. But she couldn’t help it. She’d come back for the door.
The door. The red mana stone glinted in the wooden door that had provided the Goblins with a way to The Wandering Inn. They hadn’t taken it with them, and so it still sat in the cave. Pebblesnatch stared up at it.
She knew it was useless. The Drakes had taken the door and they wouldn’t ever open it to this cave. But it was a reminder of all that was good. It was a treasure, the only kind that Pebblesnatch knew. As valuable as food and a safe place to sleep. So she had to come back for it. Pebblesnatch went over to the door and wrestled it away from the wall.
It was hard. The door was a slab of wood and Pebblesnatch was tiny. She eventually managed to throw it on its side, and then she had to prize the mana stone from the wood. She chipped at the door with a little stone dagger, avoiding the mana stone. She nearly had it out when she heard the drums.
Pebblesnatch froze. She heard the first boom of the war drums echo through the cave, and then another. The beat rolled across the passes. It made her shiver. Pebblesnatch forgot the mana stone. She crept towards the entrance to the cave and froze.
There were Goblins. Only, they weren’t her tribe. These Goblins marched in ranks. They wore armor tarred black with resin, and they marched in silence. They were as unnatural to Pebblesnatch as monsters. She shivered as she looked at them. No Goblins marched in ranks! And what was that which walked and shambled past them? Pebblesnatch went white with fear.
The undead. Thousands of them, fallen Goblins, reanimated Eater Goats, moved in a separate column. The dead and the living kept away from each other, but they moved with one purpose. Pebblesnatch froze in the entrance to the cave. So many. They filled the pass, moving shoulder-to-shoulder so some passed within feet of the cave’s entrance. And they kept coming. More and more of them. Thousands. Tens of thousands. More.
The little Cave Goblin quaked in fear. She hid, praying they wouldn’t go into the cave. And the Goblin army didn’t. Any other tribe would have checked the cave, but this one was under command. They marched on, and then Pebblesnatch heard the thunder of hooves. She peeked out again and this time didn’t even bother to stare. One look at the countless Humans riding on horses and the ones marching on foot, bearing arms, was enough to send her hiding again.
The second army was even larger than the first. And both began moving across the Floodplains. Pebblesnatch stayed where she was, terrified. The little red mana stone was clutched in her claws as she peeked outside. Now she was stuck. Pebblesnatch went back to the cave and wondered if she could get through the dungeon, but when she heard the clicking and agitated sounds coming past the walled-off section she froze.
The Shield Spiders, who were quite invisible to her, were angry. They’d heard the drums and movement and were agitated. Pebblesnatch backed up and hid in the cave. She hid and quaked. She shouldn’t have come here. She shouldn’t! She was separated from the others. And she was stuck here.
Pebblesnatch was afraid. So she hid and tried to make herself as small as possible. The chef’s hat made a pillow as Pebblesnatch curled up. Waiting. She heard the sounds of the drums, and marching, and then silence. And then she heard thunder and war.
“The Goblins have moved away from the inn. They’re heading south. Small mercy for that.”
Ilvriss studied the map and sighed. One less problem. He spoke into the small scrying orb he held in one claw. The figure on the other side spoke tersely.
“It will help, but the real problem is how long you can hold out for. They’re early.”
That was all Ilvriss said. He didn’t need to go to the battlements to see, or even listen to the reports coming into the war room he’d set up. He’d seen the Goblin Lord’s army, and behind it, the Human one. They were here.
In thirteen days. Even faster than anticipated.
“Tyrion Veltras is nothing if not punctual. How soon may we have reinforcements?”
The hesitation on the other end was all the answer Ilvriss needed, really. The head [Strategist] of Salazsar checked his reports.
“The…the nearest group is the Winged Riders of Oteslia. They might arrive by nightfall, but they’ve been moving nonstop. They’ll be half-dead—if they had a day to rest—”
“And the next? Are there any armies? At all?”
“A—a local force of cities plus Pallass’ main force is set to arrive. If they march through the night, they could be here in two days. Secondary forces are moving behind them and should trickle in the next three days, which is when Manus predicts their force will arrive. If all goes well, Salazsar, Zeres, and Fissival could all converge a day after that, but it depends on luck as much as anything.”
“So two days.”
“At least. Pallass’ army can’t…they’d be able to provide relief, but until Manus and the other armies get here—can Liscor hold for two days? Five?”
“We shall see, won’t we?”
It would either be a matter of hours, or days. Ilvriss didn’t know which. No one did.
“They have trebuchets. But if we can hold the gaps, we might make it. Then it will be attrition. First the Goblin Lord, then the Humans. They’ll be fresh so we’ll face two waves.”
“If Liscor falls—it will be war. The Walled Cities will declare it at once. Liscor falling will not stand.”
The choice of words was darkly amusing to Ilvriss. He stared at the scrying orb.
“Hasn’t it always been war with the Humans?”
The Drake on the other end hesitated.
“Yes. I suppose so. But this will be all-out war. And we haven’t had that in…Ancestors. Decades, at least. At least half a century. A full-scale war? It’s not something we want, to be honest. Not right now. The Antinium complicate matters. Those damn bugs. We can’t even have a proper war without looking over our tails to make sure we don’t fight on two fronts. They changed everything.”
“Yes. They did.”
Ilvriss moved over to the window of the war room. From the third floor of Liscor’s city hall, he could see the eastern wall. It was filled with bodies. Drakes, Gnolls, a few adventurers…and Antinium. Over two thousand Soldiers stood on the walls, and four thousand more held the streets, along with a few hundred Workers armed with bows. The Hive had committed a majority of its forces, or so Klbkch had claimed. Those not present were preparing to assault the trebuchets.
“I will inform you of any changes at once. But keep the lines clear. We have visuals—one of the Gold-rank adventurer [Mages], Falene, has agreed to transmit everything she sees from the walls. I trust you have another orb to view the battle from?”
“We’re broadcasting it as we speak, Wall Lord. The entire world is watching.”
“Good. Maybe they’ll see the Human’s treachery for what it is.”
“Perhaps. But Lord Tyrion’s army has no such visuals. He must have banned any [Mages] in his army from casting the spell.”
More pretense. It would be easier to deny what was going on. Ilvriss grunted.
“The truth will out.”
There was silence from the other end. Then the Drake spoke.
“You could leave the city, Wall Lord. There is the door set up. You could flee.”
Ilvriss looked at the scrying orb. His grip tightened.
“No, I could not. I am a Wall Lord. I could not run.”
“…I suppose you couldn’t. Well then. Ancestors protect you, Ilvriss.”
Ilvriss lowered the orb. He stood at the table and felt warm and cold. Cold, because he knew what was coming. Warm because—his eyes went down to the shining breastplate on his chest. The Heartflame Breastplate glowed. It did not burn—but he would activate the enchantment soon. To give those who saw it hope. He wore the legendary armor, the pride of his people on his chest. He hoped he would be worthy of it.
“This must not fall into their hands. Not again.”
Ilvriss murmured to himself. He straightened, and looked up as the door flew open. A panting Street Runner, a Gnoll, spoke, ignoring decorum.
“Wall Lord! Watch Captain Zevara wants you on the walls! The army’s getting closer and—”
“I’m on my way.”
Ilvriss strode for the door. He left the scrying orb behind, and the war table. There would be time for strategy when battle was joined. Right now, he was waiting. They were coming closer.
Niers stood at his table, or rather, on a platform over it. He stared down at the three-dimensional, magical map of Liscor and looked around. His students stood with him, pieces in hand. They were ready to recreate the battle as it happened and they had the scrying orb placed right next to the map. Niers could look through the eyes of the [Mage] casting the spell and hear what was going on the other side, plain as day. Right now he was hearing a lot of swearing and conversation between the adventurers.
“Holy hells. Is that—how many are there, do you think?”
“A lot of them. That’s what. You seeing all this, sharp ears? Want to get a better look for all the people watching?”
The [Mage] casting the spell shifted.
“Be silent, Dawil. They can hear everything you say.”
“Can you turn down the sound on that thing until we need to hear what’s going on?”
One of the students obeyed. They had to cast a spell to reduce the sounds coming from the scrying orb. Niers grunted. You needed a spell to activate even the best orbs, and you needed more spells to tune them. Anyone with magic could cast the spells if you learned them, but it was inconvenient. Why couldn’t there be a…a knob or something to change the volume? Well, that was magic for you.
“The Goblin Lord’s army is approaching the city. It’s larger than we’d anticipated. Closer to…a hundred and sixty thousand Goblins. But Tyrion Veltras’ army dwarfs them, with respect to Dwarves. Can Liscor survive the onslaught? Venaz?”
“It depends on how well their trebuchets work. If they’re any good, they’ll take down the walls, even enchanted ones, within the hour. But I don’t trust Human [Engineers]. Minotaur ones would do the job, but these? They might not even take down the walls in a day.”
The Minotaur frowned at the image of the Human army, barely visible and still streaming into the valley. There was no sign of the trebuchets, but Niers didn’t expect them to appear until they were closer.
“True. That’s one concern. But in terms of numbers alone, they outnumber Liscor’s defenders by a score. If it comes to breached walls—and it will—how well will they hold? Marian?”
The Centaur trotted back and forth restlessly. She hated battles like this.
“If—if they can plug the breaches, they could push the Humans and Goblins back. Again, it depends on how fast the walls go down, but they have Antinium in the city. They’re excellent builders. If I were the [Strategist], I’d have teams ready to fill any gaps. The main thing is to create choke points. Again, it’s all down to how quickly the walls fall.”
She eyed Niers nervously, perhaps worried that she’d given the same answer as Venaz. But it was the only answer you could give wasn’t it? Niers cursed himself. Why was he nervous?
“Correct. I suppose we’ll have to wait.”
He paced back and forth, staring at the orb and at the map. It was just another battle. And yet—he wondered if his opponent had fled. If he or she or it was in Liscor. Were they Olesm Swifttail? No, absolutely not. But were they there? The chess set had moved last night. But that meant…nothing. He forced himself to stand still. Wait. He had done this dance a thousand times and he wasn’t even fighting this battle. Wait…his heart grew calmer.
“Professor. There’s something from the orb.”
Niers looked up. He saw the viewpoint shift. The student fumbled with the spell and Niers heard the last of what was being said. It came from the Dwarf standing in front of the half-Elf. The one called Dawil.
“What in the name of beard oil is she doing? They have to leave!”
“I don’t know. Haven’t they seen the army?”
The view had shifted as the half-Elf controlling the spell looked away from the advancing army. Down towards an inn. The inn. Niers’ heart jumped. The two adventurers were joined by a third voice, out of sight, male.
“They must have seen the army. They’ll be here soon, Falene, Dawil. Don’t worry.”
“If you say so, lad. But they’re taking their sweet time about it. If I were them, I’d be running.”
“They’ll be here. If they aren’t, we’ll get them.”
“Sooner, rather than later?”
“Give them at least five minutes.”
Niers frowned at the inn. He saw the viewpoint shift a bit as someone on the walls shouted at the adventurers. The perspective shifted, panning past rows of silent Soldier Antinium and [Guards]. One of Niers’ students, Wil, shuddered as he saw the Antinium.
“Hey Falene! Are you broadcasting your image? Look over here!”
A Human with a warhammer raised it over her head. She waved her other hand.
“My name is Earlia, and I’m the captain of Gemhammer, a Silver-rank team. If anyone wants a powerhouse melee team who can—”
The viewpoint shifted back to the inn as the shouting continued. Niers’ lips quirked into a smile. He distinctly heard the half-Elf mutter.
“Idiots. We’re at war and they’re showing off.”
“They’ve never seen a war before. Let them have their fun. And hey, while I have the ears of the world, if there are any eligible Dwarf women—or ladies of any persuasion—”
The sound abruptly cut off, and Niers guessed that the half-Elf had muted her own spell somehow. He stroked his beard and smiled.
“That was a smart move, announcing their names.”
The tiny Fraerling commented. The other students looked at him. Umina hesitated.
“They uh, sounded like fools to me, sir. And that’s hardly a good endorsement for their team.”
“True. But the name of ‘Gemhammer’ was just spread across the world in a single moment. To everyone listening. There are monarchs, [Generals], and even adventuring teams of renown that can’t boast of the same.”
His students looked at each other. Niers just smiled.
“The world stage. Remember it. And remember this. All of this—”
He waved at the map and scrying orb.
“—will change the world you’ll live in. Soon. As quick as lightning. If Liscor falls, even Balerosian companies might be hired on.”
“Will they fall, Professor? How do you think the battle will go?”
All the students looked at Niers. He knew at least one of them was probably transmitting or recording his words to send to those interested. Such was the nature of fame. But the little [Strategist] just shrugged. The Titan stared down at the scrying orb and spoke quietly as the Goblin Lord’s army poured across the Floodplains, slowly, towards Liscor. He could hear drum beats echoing across the plains.
“I wouldn’t care to wager. Not yet. Let’s just wait.”
He shifted from foot to foot. Waiting was hard. It felt like he’d been waiting a long time. But it was nearly, nearly—
The Free Queen spoke the words and knew it was true. Xrn and her army of three Hives was in place. Her Hive was secured. The army of expendable Soldiers was above and another force prepared to assault the Humans—and fail. She could hear Klbkch speaking in her mind. He was on the walls, addressing the Drake who called herself Watch Captain. And the Drake Wall Lord.
“Our Antinium are committed, Wall Lord Ilvriss. However, we have run into complications.”
The Queen whispered the words aloud, repeating Klbkch verbatim for the sake of the Workers gathered in the room. Belgrade, Anand, Pawn, and Bird were all present. Bird lay next to the Free Queen, immobile, while Belgrade and Anand poured over their maps, ready to direct the Antinium. Pawn hovered about the table, nervous. Even Garry was listening, peeking his head out of the kitchen.
Ilvriss’ voice was terse. Angry. The Free Queen could sense Klbkch facing him, cool and collected above. His words were steady as he replied.
“The water has yet to drain from the ground. As such, the Antinium are fighting to move through the muddy terrain. It will be far more difficult to assault the trebuchets. Regrettably, we have already taken hundreds of casualties simply tunneling towards the Human army.”
The Queen heard a curse from the Drakes. In the Hive, Bird looked up.
“We did? Will we not destroy the trebuchets?”
The Free Queen bent her head affectionately.
“No, Bird. That was never our design. The Antinium will fail to destroy more than one or two trebuchets on purpose. But we must lie to the Drakes in order to show good faith.”
“Oh. So we did not lose hundreds of Workers already?”
The Queen shook her head, amused.
“Of course we did.”
All the Workers looked up at her.
“It was necessary. The Wall Lord uses truth detection spells. All the Drakes do when conversing with Klbkchhezeim. So he speaks only in truths. We are more than capable of moving through wet earth if we must, and we can vent water. But for this illusion—we sacrificed what we had to in order to make true his words.”
She waved her feeler at the dirt ceiling. Bird stared up at the Queen. She looked down at him, and then remembered what he was. She hastened to reassure him.
“Of course, you would never be one of the Workers chosen for such a purpose, Bird. That would be a waste. Nor would the Individual Workers be used either. The others were simply Workers. Expendable.”
The Workers didn’t respond. Bird just looked up at the Queen. His voice was very small.
The Free Queen could hear Klbkch discussing more matters with the Drakes, but nothing of consequence. She sat back, tense, too impatient to even eat.
“We will not see battle joined for a while. The Soldiers above are expendable, though Anand and Belgrade will ensure their losses are minimal.”
Another female voice spoke up. The Free Queen turned and saw the other five Queens, five in one, and their vessel, holding the mirror up. The other Workers watched the mirrored Queens carefully. The Grand Queen’s voice was impatient.
“Klbkchhezeim insisted on sending more of a force than was necessary to defend Liscor. More than I projected for.”
“A necessary ruse. If Klbkchhezeim believes it so, we must trust him.”
“So it appears. However, will the Hive lack for defense?”
The Free Queen answered shortly, before the Flying Queen and Twisted Queen could voice their opinions as well. They were merely watchers, and noisy ones at that. She bent down to Bird, ignoring the voices coming from the Queens.
“We have time. When the Hive must be defended and Liscor’s citizens moved into it, the other Worker…Pawn…will take charge of the Painted Soldiers and other Antinium and lead them into the Hive. Until then, we wait. So then Bird, will you sing for me? For us?”
The little Worker looked up. He stared at the Queen and shook his head.
“I don’t want to.”
“I am worried. And I am sad. And I am worried and sad for Erin.”
The Worker called Pawn made a strangled sound. He had only been informed of the Hive’s plans in the last hour. He stared at the map.
“What if she’s in danger?”
“She will retreat to the city. It is only logical. And our Soldiers have orders to guard her person. So long as she is away from the walls, neither the trebuchet fire nor Goblins or Humans will threaten her until the evacuation is called.”
Belgrade reassured Pawn. Anand nodded.
“We will have Soldiers protecting her, Pawn. And Yellow Splatters and Purple Smile are ready to deploy if needed. She will be fine—we can even carry her into the Hive early if need be. She is quite safe in Liscor, right, my Queen?”
He looked up at the Free Queen. She hesitated.
The Workers looked up as one. Bird tried to sit up.
“Where is Erin? She has left her inn? Right? Right?”
“She…will soon. Klbkch is asking about that. She will be in Liscor momentarily. Probably.”
The Workers stared up at the Free Queen. She stared through Klbkch’s eyes. He was looking at the inn. And he wasn’t worried…but he wasn’t entirely calm either. The Goblin Lord’s army was drawing nearer.
“Let’s go! Everybody out! Don’t wait—get what you need and move!”
Jelaqua roared at the adventurers. Her team and the Horns were packed and ready to go. They had been already; the bags of holding with their treasure from the dungeon was in Seborn’s possession, they had their gear on them and their possessions—the instant the Goblin Lord’s army had appeared they were ready to move. But as luck would have it, the Flooded Waters tribe had still been milling about the inn and slowly moving south, past the city.
Since they were dragging their heels, the people in the inn hadn’t wanted to try and make their way through the crowd. Now they were feeling a tiny bit panicked. The Goblins were still far distant, half-an-hour away from the inn at their marching speed, but the sight of the muddy valley slowly filling with bodies was not a fun sight.
Added to the problem was a recent delay. Lyonette had insisted that they bring the faerie flowers in their soil beds, and so the adventurers were trying to unhook them from the walls. Mrsha was sitting, holding a buzzing Apista in her paws by the door. Jelaqua swore as Moore tried to unhook a flower bed.
“Just leave the damn thing, Moore! We can always grow more flowers, but not more heads!”
“Says the Selphid. We have time, Jelaqua.”
The half-Giant was calmer than Jelaqua was. She was remembering battles in Baleros and not happy. At this range they could still be hit by a long-range spell, if there was a high-level [Mage] among the Goblins. There probably wasn’t, but every instinct from her time in her home continent said to leave now.
“Everyone done? You have the damn flowers? Okay, go, go, go!”
She thrust open the doors. Moore followed her out, protectively shielding Lyonette and Mrsha. Pisces and Yvlon were hot on their heels, and Seborn and Ksmvr were next. Ceria stood in the inn, heart pounding, and waved at Erin.
“Erin? Are you ready? We have to go!”
“Just a minute!”
The [Innkeeper] called from the kitchen. She hadn’t been nearly as panicked as the others, which Ceria could respect, but she was taking too long. Ceria paced back over to the kitchen.
“Erin? I know we have time, but we should be in Liscor now! come on!”
“I’m nearly there! I just need to get something!”
“Can I help?”
Erin poked her head out of the kitchen.
“No, just go ahead! I’ll be right on your heels!”
“I can’t go without you!”
Ceria protested, even though she wanted to go right now. But Erin was calm. She stepped out of the kitchen and faced her friend.
“Look, Ceria, Liscor’s right there. It’s just a jog and I can climb up a ladder in no time. Give me a minute and go ahead without me. I just need to grab—uh, something.”
The half-Elf hesitated. Erin was being cagey, but she was making sense.
“You’ll be right along? You’re sure you don’t need help?”
“Absolutely. I just need to uh, lock the doors. And make sure the windows are bolted. I’ll be fine, Ceria. Look, if I’m not out in five minutes, come get me, okay?”
“Sure. But you will be out!”
The young woman smiled. Ceria tried to as well, but her heart was racing too fast. She nodded.
“Okay then. But hurry up!”
She left the inn. The Horns were waiting for her by the city as Ceria ran over.
Pisces stared at Ceria. The half-Elf pointed back at the inn.
“She said she was getting something?”
“I don’t—look, she’ll be along! Let’s get up the ladder, though! One of us can get her if we really need to, but the less people scrambling up near the end, the better!”
That made sense. The Horns began climbing the ladders that had been thrown down for them. Moore, who’d had to create his own vine ladder to support his weight, was the last to arrive on the walls. Ceria felt a hand pull her up and stared at a familiar face.
“Dawil? What are you doing here?”
She exclaimed as the Dwarf hauled her up with surprising strength in his smaller body. He grinned and slapped her on the lower back.
“Ah, that’s for our glorious leader to explain.”
Yvlon stared at her brother as he pulled her up with a grunt. She came over the wall and the [Knight] nodded to her.
“You said you were going!”
“I did say that.”
Ylawes looked half-ashamed as he shook his head. he hesitated, and then sighed.
“I—had a change of heart. Yvlon, I can’t force you to do anything. But as your brother, as family, I won’t abandon you. If you’re staying until Liscor is lost or holds—I will too. And you can’t stop me from making that choice.”
He looked firmly at Yvlon. Dawil smiled. Ceria did too. Yvlon looked at her brother, and slowly nodded.
“I—thank you, Ylawes. For everything.”
“Oi! If you’re done with the touching reunion, move out of the way! Falene’s broadcasting!”
A voice snapped at the adventurers. Ceria turned and saw Revi sitting next to Typhenous on some chairs. Halrac was standing at the battlements, bow in hand. The adventurers glanced at Falene, who was deftly ignoring all of them, and hurried over.
“Moore’s having trouble climbing. Hey Lyonette! Get Mrsha off the walls!”
“We’re going to Krshia’s house! Tell Erin to meet us there!”
The young woman called out. Ceria nodded. Revi scanned the press of bodies as one of the Drake [Guardswomen] shouted for hands to haul Moore up.
“She’s—coming. She’s just grabbing something.”
Halrac turned. He glared at Ceria.
“You left her behind?”
“She’s coming! The Goblins are at least twenty minutes away, even if they were running!”
“True. Okay, let’s go over places. Ceria, you need to speak to Olesm. He doesn’t want your team on the walls because you’re not ranged. You get to sit in the city with the Flamewardens and the others, lucky you. Go talk to him, he’s over there.”
Revi pointed. Ceria nodded.
“Just as soon as Erin gets up. Is she out of the inn yet?”
She went back to the walls. Halrac stared down at the muddy ground. Ceria could hear reports coming in.
“Goblins—uh—neutral Goblins are still moving around the city! Slow pacing!”
“Just keep an eye on them!”
“In the inn. I haven’t seen her leave it yet.”
Halrac stared down at the inn, a frown on his face. So did Ceria.
“I could go back down and see—”
“I’ll go if anyone has to. I am the swiftest.”
Pisces volunteered, sniffing. Halrac just frowned.
“What did you say she was doing?”
Ceria’s heart was pounding and she couldn’t make it stop. She saw Olesm and Zevara, Ilvriss, and Klbkch coming towards them. The [Strategist] raised his voice and called out to them.
“Everyone on the walls? Ceria, where’s Erin?”
“In the inn!”
“She’s not out?”
“No, but she told me—”
Ceria tried to explain. She stopped as she remembered how calm Erin had been, even with the Goblin Lord’s army bearing down on them. Slowly, Ceria turned and stared across the Floodplains.
There they were. Over a hundred thousand Goblins, marching towards the city. An army of green and black. The Goblins marched in ranks, the undead shambling ahead of them. Straight towards Liscor. As if they knew what was expected of them. And behind, the Human army spread out.
“Watch Captain! Wall Lord! We have a hail from the Humans! A [Message] spell!”
Ilvriss snapped at the Drake [Mage]. The Drake spoke up loudly enough for all to hear.
“They’re—they’re sending an apology, Wall Lord!”
Zevara looked incredulous. The [Mage] nodded.
“They’re saying that they, uh, regret that their pursuit of the Goblin Lord has carried them this far. They’re attempting to engage the Goblins now, but will respect Liscor’s authority if we wish to initiate combat first.”
A roar of indignation went up across the wall. Zevara’s tail slapped the ground.
“Who sent that, Tyrion Veltras? That insolent bastard.”
“Send a counter-message. Inform them that we will allow them first opportunity at the Goblins. And ask what their plan of attack is.”
Ilvriss calmly replied. The [Mage] did so and came back instantly.
“They say they’ll engage the Goblins at distance, Wall Lord. With a number of new weapons.”
Ilvriss looked directly at Falene and spoke slowly.
“Tell the Humans that under no circumstances will we allow the use of such weapons around Liscor. For fear of…incidental fire.”
“I’ve said so, sir. But the Humans—they’re politely stating that they don’t wish to take ‘unnecessary casualties’. They’re assuring me that no mistakes will occur.”
A silence fell over the walls. Ilvriss nodded.
“Well then. We’ll see how good their word is, won’t we?”
Zevara spat over the battlements. Ceria looked from Ilvriss’ grim face, to Klbkch’s unreadable one. Ksmvr edged away from Klbkch and Olesm stared around.
“Well—well then, I suppose it’s time.”
Time, yes. The song and dance was over. Ceria stared at the Goblins. So did the others.
“What’s taking Erin?”
“I’m going to get her—”
Pisces spoke at the same time as Jelaqua, Halrac, and Bevussa. The adventurers looked at each other, and then Ceria pointed.
“There she is!”
Relief filled the half-Elf as she saw the door to the inn open at last. Erin came out, holding something bundled in her arm. And what looked like a quarterstaff. Ceria blinked as Erin fumbled with her burden and tried to lock the door. She heard a few curious voices behind her.
“What’s she holding?”
“Someone get a ladder!”
“Took her sweet time, didn’t she? Well, that’s just like her. Humans in general, really—”
“It would be like her to fall, begin drowning in one of the valleys and have us go rescue her, wouldn’t it?”
“Can she swim?”
“Did she bring a bed sheet? What, is she expecting to sleep through the siege?”
“Someone’s got to. Or did you think we’d man the walls all day?”
“Looks like she’s got a quarterstaff as well. What’s she doing with the—wait. Where is she going?”
The people on the wall stared. Erin was fumbling with the bed sheet and pole. And she was walking. Around her inn. Not towards Liscor. Ceria’s heart began to beat faster.
“Uh—maybe she’s going to the outhouse?”
“With the Goblins approaching?”
“Hell, I could pee off the walls.”
“She’s—not going to the outhouse.”
They stared. Erin was walking past the outhouses. Around the inn, down the hill. Away from Liscor. And she was still fumbling with the bed sheet. She was trying to insert the pole into it. Ceria’s mouth went dry.
“What’s Erin doing? Where is she going?”
The others looked at each other. Moore craned his head uncertainly.
“She’s heading towards the Goblins.”
“Is she insane?”
The question was entirely rhetorical. But even for Erin this was—her audience was frozen in place. Spellbound by something that wasn’t a spell, but pure madness. Erin was going towards the Goblins. And now she had the pole on the ground and was running the sheet down it. And—Ceria squinted. It looked peculiar. Familiar. The bed sheet was white, and the pole was quite, quite long. And as Erin hoisted it over her head, it looked just like—
“Oh no. Oh no.”
Ceria took a step back. The others took a moment to see what she was seeing, then Halrac swore.
“Someone get down there and stop her!”
“She can’t be doing that! No!”
Olesm clutched at his neck spines. Ilvriss’ jaw fell open. Falene just stared and the world stared too. Pisces looked down at Erin, and his eyes were wide.
Ksmvr appeared and stared past Pisces. He nodded.
“It appears Miss Erin has a flag. A white flag. I believe she is going towards the Goblins in order to negotiate.”
“What, our surrender?”
The others stared at Ksmvr. Then Klbkch turned and snapped.
“Someone stop her. Now.”
Ceria lurched into motion at the command in his tone. She saw Bevussa spread her wings as Pisces put one leg over the battlements. Revi conjured one of her summoned warriors and the wall sprang to life. Then someone blew a horn.
It came from behind them. Ceria’s heart nearly came out of her mouth. Zevara snapped around.
“What the hell was that? Report! Are we under attack?”
“Is it reinforcements?”
Olesm whirled around. A [Guardsman] was sprinting towards them. He skidded to a stop.
“Watch Captain! It’s the southern wall! They said the Goblins—the other Goblins—they’ve changed course!”
Zevara stared at the Gnoll in horror.
“They’re doing what?”
“Spread out. Send word to Lord Pellmia and Lord Gralton. I want the left and right wings to advance two hundred feet. We will encircle the Goblins from behind. If they deviate from the city, bombard them with spells. The instant we open a gap, Miss Arcsinger will employ her Skill and pull them towards the city. Inform [Emperor] Laken that I want the first volley to land on the eastern gates.”
Lord Tyrion snapped orders as his army deployed around him. The ranks of infantry took positions behind the riders, whose horses were pawing at the muddy ground nervously. Still—the [Riders] weren’t even mounted yet. They soothed their beasts and the officers in charge allowed the soldiers to stand casually. They knew their turn wouldn’t come yet.
Everyone knew the plan. But only Tyrion could execute it. He saw the left and right wings moving forwards smoothly, filling the valley until the mud and grass turned into steep inclines. The Goblin Lord had no way to retreat.
“The Drakes are hailing us, sir. They want assurances that your trebuchets will not hit the city. We’ve received threats from Zeres, Oteslia—now Manus as well—”
“Lady Reinhart is issuing you a direct message, Lord Veltras. She offers you one last chance to—”
“—congratulations from King Theil of Terandria. He wishes us the best of luck—”
“—at least one [Mage] transmitting the battle from the walls of Liscor. Wistram is picking up the spell despite our requests to have the broadcast stopped. Do you wish to—”
Voices surrounded Tyrion, all begging his attention. But he was looking towards Liscor. There it sat. A large city, a Drake city. There were larger and more fortified cities, but Liscor was key. Strategic. Within its walls were nearly a hundred thousand souls and it had withstood the Necromancer, the Antinium, and any number of Human armies over the years. But none of them had what Tyrion did. Trebuchets, weapons of war that did not rely on magic, and Goblins. They were marching ahead of Tyrion.
“Strange. They’re not trying to move around the city.”
“Perhaps they’re resigned to their fates. Or perhaps they knew what’s coming.”
The [Strategists] debated quietly to Tyrion’s left. He saw something buzzing past them, a green, flying insect.
“Watch yourselves. There are acid flies in the air. This is their season for breeding.”
The two men recoiled. One swatted at the acid fly, swore, and Tyrion sighed.
“Healing potion. Jericha, the progress on the trebuchets?”
“Nearly complete, sir. [Emperor] Laken is oversee—I mean, commanding the [Engineers]. We have the ammunition ready too.”
Tyrion turned his head. He saw massive chunks of stone, shaped into projectiles, being dragged into place. They had been quarried and hauled from the High Passes, and there was enough of them to besiege Liscor day and night. But he didn’t intend to sit around.
“Have the enchantments held?”
“Yes, sir. Lady Ieka assures me that the first enchantments are all at full strength. We have unenchanted stones for the first two volleys. We can begin ranging shots on your order.”
“Hold, then. Wait for my signal. And keep an eye on the ground. Have our Gold-rank teams ready.”
Tyrion could feel the vibration in the air. He rode forwards a bit, staring at Liscor. The Goblins were approaching cautiously. They might now be in range of a shot from a particularly experienced [Archer], or from Liscor’s enchanted walls, but not from regular bows. The Goblin Lord had to be getting as close as possible so he’d spend as little time being hit from Liscor’s walls before he was at the city. Tyrion stared at the mass of Goblins. Yes, they’d gone straight for the city. He’d expected to have to pin them between his mages and archers, funnel them towards Liscor. But there they were, marching along neatly.
“You are aware of what is happening, aren’t you?”
Perhaps the Goblin Lord was counting on holding the city. It didn’t matter. It all suited Tyrion’s plans. He saw them advancing, and nodded.
“Move up two hundred feet. And then inform [Emperor] Laken to wait for my command.”
The army advanced another two hundred feet. They gave the Goblins a good gap, but they were well within range of Tyrion’s [Mages] and the trebuchets and only minutes away if his cavalry charged. But none of Tyrion’s forces were near enough to be targeted by Liscor. Tyrion nodded.
Now would be the time. He turned to Jericha, and heard a raw voice. A man galloped towards him, sword in hand. Tyrion saw Jericha raise a wand and point at Yitton Byres’ chest.
She stopped. Yitton halted in front of Tyrion. His face was a mask of both terror and pain. He raised his sword and Tyrion subdued the urge to reach for his own sword.
“Lord Byres. What is the meaning of this?”
Yitton Byres gestured to the city behind Tyrion. A few of Tyrion’s escorts moved to surround him, but Tyrion motioned them back.
“They are in Liscor?”
“Both Ylawes and Yvlon. I know it! Tyrion, you cannot allow them to—you must hold off the attack, give them time. Let me ransom my children, or petition Liscor to let any noncombatants go! I beg of you!”
Jericha stiffened in outrage. Tyrion shook his head.
“Lord Yitton, I cannot oblige your request for two reasons. Firstly, time is of the essence and I do not intend Liscor time to stall. Secondly—I remind you that this is not an assault. Yet. The Goblin Lord’s army is our target, not Liscor. To claim or insinuate otherwise openly would be problematic.”
“Do not lie, Tyrion!”
Yitton shouted. The man pointed his blade at Tyrion’s chest and Jericha’s wand glowed with energy. Yitton took no notice. His face was pale.
“I thought you were a better man than this. Don’t stoop to subterfuge. You know what you are doing.”
The words stung Tyrion a bit. He shifted on his horse’s saddle.
“Very well. It is an assault, Byres. But what would you have me do? Call it off? For two people?”
Yitton shook his head. He looked at Tyrion and there were tears in his eyes.
“My children are there, Tyrion. What would you do for them? Please.”
Lord Tyrion Veltras paused.
“I know. And I am sorry, Lord Yitton. But some things require sacrifice. If it were my own children—”
He paused for a long time and stared at Yitton’s face.
“—It must be done.”
“Then I am sorry too. Because I cannot let you do this.”
Lord Yitton’s grip tightened on his sword. He urged his horse forwards with a shout. Jericha lifted her wand.
Tyrion turned his head. He saw the flash out of the corner of his eye, heard Yitton cry out. Several [Knights] rushed forwards and restrained the [Lord] as he half-tumbled from his saddle, his armor glowing where Jericha’s spell had struck him.
“Escort Lord Byres behind the lines. Keep him there. And assure him that if I can save his children, I will. Jericha, my thanks.”
“At your service, Lord Veltras.”
The two sat on their mounts as Lord Yitton was taken away. Tyrion heard him shouting, but he tuned the man’s voice out. He stared at Liscor. Now would be the time. Tyrion raised a hand—
A [Scout] galloped towards him. This time Tyrion’s brows creased in annoyance.
“Lord Veltras, there’s—a complication. Someone’s raised a white flag!”
Tyrion’s jaw nearly dropped. The [Scout] shook his head. He pointed back across the Floodplains.
“No, sire. It’s—it’s a Human! A young woman—she’s approaching the Goblin Lord’s army with a white flag! And she’s shouting for a temporary truce!”
Tyrion stared at the man. His eyes bored into the [Scout]’s head. Then, slowly, as the entire army hung on his word, Tyrion raised one hand, and felt at his right ear. He cupped his hand.
“All is in readiness. Take the walls and my force will teleport in. Hold the city for thirty minutes. Once the dead begin rising, you will be able to entrap Tyrion Veltras’ cavalry within the walls.”
Az’kerash’s voice whispered to Reiss. The Goblin Lord nodded jerkily. His eyes were fixed on Liscor. The Goblins in his army held still, nervous, staring at the city that would be their home.
There it was. A city on a hill. Only—something was wrong. The hill was muddy. There was water on the ground, and the city looked smaller and less grand than in his dreams. And Reiss could see figures on the walls. Drakes, Gnolls, even a half-Giant. It wasn’t like his dream at all. It was too real.
But his master was in his head. And Reiss was a captive. Or—no. Not just a captive. A slave. Was Greydath right? Was Garen? Reiss was afraid. He stared at Liscor and heard the whisper again.
“As soon as a gap opens, push your Goblins towards it. Send the undead first. They will explode in the gaps. Whittle down Liscor’s defenders. This battle is yours to lose.”
It wasn’t his, though. Tendons stood down on Reiss’ neck. He was him. He was Reiss. Wasn’t he? Was it Reiss who thought this, or a Goblin who thought he was Reiss?
Zel Shivertail had given him that name. His master did not know it. That part was real. Reiss clung to that fact. His army slowed. Now they were just out of range of Liscor’s walls. Someone panicked on the walls and shot an arrow. It landed just short of the Goblins.
Reiss croaked an order. His Goblins looked up at him uncertainly. They waited. Were they his slaves? No. They were loyal. Or was it just because he was a Goblin Lord? Did they have a choice?
“Tyrion Veltras will begin the assault soon. Soon.”
His master’s tone was gleeful. Reiss could sense his excitement, his elation. To Az’kerash, it was a victory, excitement. He did not measure lives like Reiss did. He was—happy.
Reiss held up a hand. The Goblins looked up at him. The Goblin Lord had spotted something. He pointed ahead. A distant figure was approaching them. It had stopped on a hill. It was holding something. Reiss and his master stared. He stared at a distant figure he had never seen before. A Human, young and female. Holding something in her hands. She waved it. The Necromancer’s voice was incredulous.
Reiss spoke the words softly. He stared at the white flag. And his stomach lurched. Then he heard the voice. And the distant figure waved the flag. And seemed to be speaking to him.
As Tyrion Veltras rode forwards, cupping one ear. As Reiss and Az’kerash stared through the same eyes. Under the gazes of the horrified defenders of Liscor. Watched by the world through a half-Elf’s eyes. And to the listening Goblins, Drakes, Humans, Antinium, and all the rest. She shouted.
“Peace! I want a truce! Parley! Parley! Cease-fire!”
Erin Solstice waved the flag over her head, trying to make the bed sheet that was the flag wave in the non-existent breeze. She wished she’d chosen a smaller pole. The flag was heavy and her arms were already hurting. But she kept waving the flag. The Goblin Lord’s army had stopped and behind it, she could see the Human one. Distant ranks of warriors dressed in armor glinted at her.
Humans. Her people. More of them than she’d ever seen in one place in this world. Gathered for war. But it couldn’t be war. It shouldn’t be. The Goblins weren’t evil! And Liscor wasn’t a bad place! Erin didn’t know the history that had brought the Humans—led by this Tyrion Veltras—here. She didn’t care. She only knew what her heart told her. And it had led her here.
“Hey! Don’t attack! Let’s talk it out! Talk! Give peace a chance! War, is it really any good? Let’s talk about this!”
Erin shouted with her [Loud Voice] Skill. Her words bounced off Liscor’s walls, echoed across the Floodplains. It sounded awful to Erin. She didn’t have a speech. But she kept shouting, waving her flag. Her knees were shaking.
There were so many Goblins. And these ones were dressed in black armor. They carried terrible weapons and—if there ever was an evil army, it would be them. Their crimson eyes fixed on Erin. Like green demons. But that wasn’t them. This wasn’t them. Erin had to believe it.
“Peace! Say it with me! Peace! That’s all we want! Peace! Peace! Please? Peace!”
“I don’t believe it. She’s going to die.”
Zevara covered her eyes. Ilvriss stared down at Erin. He agreed.
“She isn’t serious. Does she think that Tyrion Veltras will listen to her after coming all this way? That the Goblin Lord will?”
He shook his head. It was a foolish dream. But he kept his eyes on her. And he heard a voice.
“Wall Lord! Wall Lord!”
He glanced over. The [Mage] was staring at him.
“The Walled Cities. Wall Lord, they’re asking who that is. Everyone can hear her, sir.”
Ilvriss looked at Falene. The half-Elf was staring at Erin. So was everyone else. Erin’s voice echoed distantly towards them.
“Hey, can you even hear me? Someone wave if you can! I want a truce! Uh, an armistice? Parley! Is that only pirates?”
“Ridiculous. Who is that?”
Half of the students in the room were dying of laughter. The other half were just staring and shaking their heads. Venaz was slapping the table hard enough to make it shake. But Niers Astoragon was just staring.
He knew her. He had seen her in the battle for Liscor. And he—yes, he remembered her then too. Her voice echoed back to him. Peace. She was shouting for it, waving her flag at the Goblins. And they were just staring at her.
Niers’ heart hurt. He looked at the scrying orb, and then away.
Umina wasn’t laughing. She looked at the Titan. He glanced at her.
“Would that work? Ever?”
The Titan stared back at the young woman. She was shouting as loudly as she could. He could hear her voice crack.
“Come on! We can work together! Goblins aren’t evil. They aren’t bad! It doesn’t have to be like this!”
The Fraerling shook his head. He looked around at the laughing students and at Venaz, who was still guffawing. Niers picked up the nearest object—a tiny mug—and threw it at Venaz. It hit the Minotaur in the eye and he roared in pain.
Niers looked back at Umina. His gaze was sad and suddenly, old. He gestured at the scrying orb.
“It would never work, Umina. But it isn’t something to mock, either.”
“It should work.”
The Lizardgirl spoke quietly. Niers nodded. He bowed his head.
He waited. But in his heart he knew. The young woman waved her flag.
The words were repeated with derision among the nobility. They stared at the distant figure. To them, her voice was so tiny that they had to have it repeated back to them. But the content had gotten through. Some crazed girl was shouting for peace. Tyrion exchanged a look with Jericha.
“She’s right in front of the Goblin Lord’s army, sire. And she is a resident of Liscor—from the Face-Eater moth attack. Should we send a rider to grab her?”
Tyrion shook his head. He stared past Jericha, past the Goblin Lord’s army. He couldn’t even see the young woman. Nor could he imagine it. Peace? With the Goblins? With the Drakes? He shook his head again.
“Ignore her. She’s…”
He trailed off. What was she? Deluded? Insane?
That was the only word for it. Tyrion looked back at Jericha. He looked away. If this was some kind of stalling tactic, or strange ploy, it was completely useless. It had bought seconds, and for what? No one was listening. The girl’s words were…pointless.
“Goblins are not evil.”
Reiss whispered the words. He heard them again, from the young woman. She shouted them at the army of Goblins. At him.
“I know you can hear me! Hey! Let’s talk! Don’t fight! We’re not enemies! I know you can be good. Just listen! Okay?”
He stared at her. She was just one Human. One, like the others. But she called to him. In his mind, he could sense those Goblins who were Chieftains. He could tell Rags was behind him. And Garen. He could even sense distant powers, far-off presences that might be Goblin Lords as well. But he had never felt something like this.
He could sense her. Not as a similar presence to a chieftain but as an…instinct. Something in him that told him that ahead of him was…safety. A friend. And Reiss wasn’t the only one. The Goblins in his army stared at Erin. And they felt the same certainty.
There she stood. She waved the flag and told them to stop. Reiss listened, but the voice in his head was dismissive.
“A foolish attempt. Why would anyone conceive—ignore fools like that, my apprentice. That girl is not too far from a zombie in terms of intellect. And why she would assume…do I know her?”
“Who is she?”
Reiss stared at the girl. He heard a name in his mind. A memory. Rags speaking of someone, a friend.
Erin Solstice. And for a second, Reiss wanted to go forwards. He wanted to raise a flag of his own and go over to Erin. To talk. He hesitated. His master’s voice was impatient. But the young woman—Reiss began to urge his Shield Spider forwards. If—
“Peace! Rah, rah, peace!”
Erin was running out of things to say. But the Goblin Lord’s army hadn’t moved. She hoped. She smiled and tried to shout the optimism in her chest out to the world.
“We can work things out! We can do this! Yes we can! Truce! Let’s negotiate I have an inn! Parley! Par—”
Tyrion spoke the words calmly. He heard the word repeat itself and then the sound of the trebuchets swinging up. The groan of ropes. And then the sounds stopped. In utter silence he and a hundred thousand Humans looked up.
A massive projectile, a chunk of stone rounded for flight, soared through the air. It flew high, high into the sky. It was joined by over two dozen other stones. From his seat, Laken Godart turned his head up and listened. He heard only the sounds of the trebuchet counterweights swinging. He did not hear the stones flying. Only, distantly, the thump of one landing. And then a crack as one struck Liscor’s walls.
The first stone struck Liscor’s walls near the base, creating a sound like gravel and thunder. The rest thudded into the ground in front of the city, raising huge plumes of mud and water. Erin ducked as the defenders of the city took cover. The Goblins, Reiss included, turned to stare at Tyrion Veltras’ army. The silence overtook the Floodplains. And it was deafening.
Erin stared at the distant Human army. She thought she saw the trebuchets. They were slowly being cranked back. And indeed, they were.
Tyrion Veltras watched as the teams of [Laborers] and [Soldiers] struggled to fit another block under a trebuchet’s arm. Tessia, the [Engineer], shouted orders as they did, and each team of Riverfarm [Builders] and [Engineers] shouted, trying to ascertain where their shots had landed, adjusting for the next one.
“Prepare the next ranging volley on my mark. Repeat my instructions to aim for the gates. Select three trebuchets for misdirection. And send a [Message] spell.”
Tyrion spoke calmly. He waited, watching the people swarm around the trebuchets and then, suddenly, back away. He saw the [Engineers] confirming readiness and wondered if there was a way to make it faster. With Skills, with experience—how fast could they work?
This time the volley of stones was placed around Liscor. One soared over the walls. The rest struck the wall, most landing near the base rather than the top. Tyrion smiled. And then they began loading the enchanted ammunition onto the third volley.
Zevara screamed at those below as she saw the stone flying too high. She ducked reflexively and saw a boulder half again as tall as she was pass over her head and to the left. It fell into the city and the crash as it landed was tremendous. But by that point the rest of the boulders were smashing against Liscor’s walls. She felt the vibrations, heard the shouting.
“The walls are holding!”
Olesm peeked over the battlements. The stones had smashed against Liscor’s enchanted walls and left no marks. No—that wasn’t true. The debris from the rock were plastered against the wall, leaving chalky imprints. Were there micro fractures? Zevara wanted to believe there weren’t.
“Was anyone hurt by the one that landed in the city?”
“I don’t think so. We evacuated the houses and our ground forces are too close to the walls. Here—watch out, they’re reloading!”
Olesm shouted at the others. They took cover. One of the adventurers, Halrac, drew an arrow. His bow was practically invisible—it was translucent unless you stared carefully and made the outline out in the air. It looked like he was just holding an arrow, but he aimed it at the sky.
“Can we shoot those things down?”
The [Scout] snapped at Zevara. Ilvriss, who’d held his ground during the second volley, charged towards them.
“Zevara! I’m heading back to the city to coordinate the defenses!”
“I know. Go!”
Zevara whirled. Ilvriss took off. If the walls fell, one leader had to be behind the front lines. She turned back to the Human army.
“Olesm! Can we blast the trebuchets from here? Or use the enchantment spells to block the missiles?”
“We’re out of range of the trebuchets, but I can try hitting the stones. But the spells don’t aim well and if I miss—”
They’d exhaust the limited spells they could use. Zevara cursed.
“Watch Captain! We’re getting a [Message] from the Humans!”
“They’re—they’re sending another apology.”
This time the Drake [Mage] didn’t bother to ask for permission. He raised his claw to his temple.
“They’re saying—misfire. It was a misfire. The Humans regret the accident. They’re warning us to watch out for ‘stray missiles’. Should I respond?”
Zevara uttered a series of curses and the [Mage] raised a claw to his temple.
“They’re saying another volley is incoming, adjusting their aim—”
This time the stones flew differently. And when they struck the walls, the sound they made was far, far different. One huge stone struck the walls and exploded into a ball of fire, sending searing jets of flame everywhere. Another just blasted to pieces, sending shrapnel up. A third made a thumping sound and fell to earth, completely undamaged. That strike made the walls vibrate.
Olesm cried out. Zevara grabbed the wall for support.
She flinched as a spark of light erupted in the Floodplains. A missile had landed near the Goblins and exploded in radiance. Two more enchanted stones landed around the Goblins, who recoiled. One landed among a group of the Goblin Lord’s army and crushed two dozen Goblins before rolling to a stop.
“What in the name of—”
“The Humans report a connection with the Goblin Lord’s army. They said they’re correcting their aim again!”
“They’re taunting us.”
Zevara stared at the distant army. She looked at the three stones that had barely grazed the Goblin Lord’s army, and then at the still-burning fragments of stone scattered at the base of the walls. And then she heard a terrible sound. A cry of alarm from the eastern gates.
“Damage on the gates!”
The Watch Captain froze. Olesm stared down and shouted for clarification. Word came back in moments—the gates were dented. Not broken, but the metal had bowed in from one of the shots.
“They’re trying to bring down our gates.”
Zevara stood on the walls, staring at the gates. They were the weak point of the walls. Like the stone, they were spelled, but the hinges could be broken. And the Humans were aiming for them. She saw the soldiers scrambling to reload the trebuchets and turned.
The Antinium hadn’t ducked when the trebuchets had fired. He made his way over to her. Zevara shouted, thought it was quiet.
“Where are the Antinium? Take down the trebuchets!”
“They are moving, Watch Captain. Wait.”
She had to. Zevara stood helplessly as Klbkch waited by her side. Her eyes were fixed on the distant trebuchets. She saw their arms reset, saw another boulder being dragged into place—
And then, suddenly, movement. The ground erupted and black bodies spilled out. Zevara heard the cry go up.
They were attacking! The black bodies poured out of a hole close to one of the trebuchets. The Soldiers charged one, and the people manning the device fled. The surprised Humans fell back as the Antinium swarmed the trebuchet. They began tearing at it, hammering on the wood, trying to bring it down.
“Burn it! Do they have fire?”
“They are armed with a few alchemical weapons—”
Klbkch broke off. One of the Soldiers had struck the first trebuchet with something. Zevara saw a blossom of fire. Soldiers fell back, some burnt, as the trebuchet began to go up in flames. She heard a cry of celebration as the Soldiers streamed towards the other trebuchets. Another fell, the counterweight striking the ground as a Soldier climbed up and ripped a bolt out. A third splintered as its frame was broken. The Watch was cheering—
And then Zevara saw a hail of arrows cut down the Antinium. A [Fireball] blew a knot of Soldiers apart. At a distance she could see adventurers and Human [Soldiers] advancing under the cover of mage fire. The Soldiers turned to this new threat, but they were surrounded. Cut off. They made for a fourth trebuchet and another spell blew them to bits.
Zevara watched in horror as more Antinium poured out of the hole, and then other tunnels appeared. But the element of surprise was gone, and the Humans had been waiting. The Antinium burst out of the ground and were cut down in moments. Zevara saw them making for the trebuchets—and failing to scratch the huge devices.
“The Antinium are falling back.”
Klbkch announced calmly as the last of the black bodies fell. Zevara turned to him.
“You can’t! The trebuchets—”
“—are too well guarded. We have lost too many Soldiers attempting to do more damage. More would simply waste lives the Hive does not have. I am sorry.”
The Drake looked back. The Humans were destroying the Antinium bodies, sealing the tunnels and blasting the fleeing Antinium. The trebuchets were still there, most untouched by the fighting. Out of two dozen odd trebuchets, the Antinium had gotten a seventh of them.
But there was nothing to be done. Klbkch and Zevara turned as the Drake [Mage] spoke.
“The Humans report—accidental contact with an Antinium patrol. They regret to inform—no survivors.”
“Then it’s over. We can’t destroy them.”
Zevara sank down. Klbkch nodded. He was so cold. So calm, even for him. Zevara stared at the Antinium.
“We must hold the walls.”
That was all he said. The impossible. Zevara looked back. She saw the trebuchets loading, and knew they would keep firing. Minute after minute, hour by hour. Day after day. She closed her eyes. Then she turned to the [Guardsmen] and adventurers.
They looked up. Zevara drew her sword. She pointed down at the Goblins, who had watched as the boulder struck the city. Only a few missiles landed around them, and even then they rarely struck even an outside formation. Zevara stared down at the Goblins and shook her head.
Across the wall, the Drakes and Gnolls drew their weapons. The adventurers armed themselves. The Goblin Lord’s army was beginning to march. They surged forwards across the Floodplains.
“She is still there.”
Klbkch stared down at Erin. She was still shouting, still waving her flag. He turned to Zevara.
“We must rescue her.”
Zevara stared at Klbkch. He had shown no emotion when the Antinium had died by the hundreds. But now he looked—worried. Klbkch had no answer. And the Goblin Lord’s army was coming.
Like an army of green and black. A horde came at Liscor’s walls as more and more cracks appeared. The walls were coming down. Piece by piece, but it was happening. Each time an enchanted boulder struck the wall, it chipped or fractured the stone.
And the gates were already being forced open. The metal had bent inwards rather than completely failing, but the tears in the metal were already wide enough to let someone squeeze through. And more and more boulders fell every few minutes.
“Fill those gaps! I don’t care if you have to knock down every house in the city, just do it!”
Zevara screamed at the Workers and [Builders] below. She could see Embria mustering her [Soldiers] and the Pallassian reinforcements around the gates. Bracing. But there were so many Goblins. And as they came they began a chant.
It was one word. But it came from countless throats. The Goblins said it once, and then again, a rolling chant.
And then it was a roar. They shouted it and it was thunder.
A sound to drown all others. A scream. They were coming. Zevara looked across the walls and saw Relc spinning his spear, Tkrn and a knot of Gnolls setting themselves, Falene pulling herself upright. And onwards the Goblins came, towards that small figure on a hill.
Klbkch stared across the Floodplains. Zevara was about to tell him that was obvious, until her eyes saw what he did. She looked back and saw them.
“Stop, stop shooting!”
Erin screamed at the distant army of Humans. And then at the Goblin Lord’s army. She heard the booming of their drums, and the chant.
It deafened her. How could one word contain so much anger? But it was what they were. Hated, despised, hunted. That was Goblin. And the army in front of her embodied that. They came towards Liscor, rolling across the hills and valleys. Erin lifted her flag, but it was so heavy.
“Would you just—stop? Please?”
Her voice faltered. Erin sank down, leaning on the pole. It was no use. She bent her head. She could stop nothing. Do nothing. She had been useless from the start. Who would stop for a flag? Who would put down their arms for peace?
No one. That was the truth. Not Humans, not Drakes, nor Goblins. None of them would stop. And in that sense it truly was useless. Except, perhaps for another kind of Goblin. The Goblins who watched and saw a person they recognized. Some had known her for a night. Others for a while. Perhaps, as Erin had thought, a single night made no difference. But a night could make all the difference.
Someone climbed the hill next to Erin. A foot trod through mud, and a stranger grasped the flag. Erin opened her eyes. Her gaze swam with tears, and she saw a figure standing over her. He was green, taller than her, and red war paint crossed his arms, his cheeks. His ears were pointed, and his eyes crimson, dark as blood. When he smiled, his teeth were pointed. And yet, he was beautiful in his own way. And he was no stranger. He was her friend.
Headscratcher lifted the flag from Erin’s loose grip. He lifted it over his head, high into the sky. A white flag. A symbol. He grinned down at Erin and she blinked the tears away.
For a moment Erin couldn’t speak. She looked up at Headscratcher. He waved the flag, the sunlight flashing off the golden axe at his side, the armor he wore, and the flag. She blinked at him, and then pointed accusingly at his chest.
“I thought you were leaving!”
Headscratcher paused. He looked down at Erin and shrugged.
“Was going to. But then saw this.”
He pointed at the flag. Erin looked at it. She sniffled.
“Well, it didn’t do anything. You should run. We should both run.”
The Hob looked confused. He scratched his head, which suited his name. Erin pointed at the Goblin Lord’s army.
“Because of them!”
The army had halted in its tracks. Headscratcher stared at the army and shrugged.
“Could. But could stay. Could fight. That what we talked about. Goblin Lord. Bad Goblin. Could fight him. All of us.”
“But you didn’t. You chose to run.”
Erin looked at Headscratcher. He smiled again.
“We did. But then saw you. Heard you stay. So we changed minds.”
And then Erin saw someone else climbing the hill out of the corner of her eye. She turned and saw a familiar Goblin carrying a guitar walk past her. Numbtongue grabbed the flag with Headscratcher. He looked down at Erin.
Not just him. A pair of Goblins walked past Erin. Shorthilt and Badarrow. The two stepped into place. Badarrow checked his bow and then grabbed part of the pole. So did Shorthilt.
“But I thought—you were a—”
Shorthilt winked at Erin. And a fifth Goblin trudged up the hill. He wore chainmail that shone in the light. His cloak of wine billowed in an imaginary wind. And he smiled when he saw Erin’s face.
The Hob bent down and offered Erin a hand. Dazed, she took it, and the Hob hauled her up. He walked forwards towards the flag and put a hand on it. The five Hobs lifted the flag into the air. Erin stared at them.
“You guys came back? Why?”
“Heard you were going to fight. Heard you were going to stay.”
“I—yeah, but, no, but—who told you that?”
The Hobs looked at each other. Numbtongue answered at the same time as Rabbiteater.
Numbtongue scowled. He kicked Rabbiteater in the shins. Rabbiteater swore. Erin looked at them.
“She told you I was going to fight? I wasn’t. I—I was trying to stop the fighting. Not start more!”
Headscratcher looked confused. He pointed up at the white banner.
“But you have flag.”
“Yes! A white flag!”
“Right. Nice color. But turn red very quick.”
Erin stared at the flag. Then she looked at Headscratcher and the others. She took a deep breath.
“Headscratcher, white flags aren’t the same as other flags. They don’t mean it’s time for war. They’re a sign of peace. You don’t fight under them.”
The Redfangs looked at each other. Headscratcher’s jaw dropped. He looked at the flag, and then Erin, and then back again.
Badarrow agreed. He seemed amused, because he slapped Shorthilt on the shoulder and chortled. The other Hob grinned. Erin looked at them. The five laughed. They’d made a mistake! They laughed and grinned as if they knew some giant joke.
“What’s so funny? We should run! It’s all over. The Goblin Lord’s going to attack and we’re going to die.”
Headscratcher looked down at Erin. She nodded.
“There’s no hope. There’s too many of them.”
Shorthilt cast a dismissive glance at the Goblin army.
“Not that many.”
“Yes, that many! How are you going to try and fight them? There are six of us and a million of them!”
“More than six.”
“No, Numbtongue, not more than—”
Erin stopped. She looked suspiciously at Numbtongue. Then at the other Redfangs. They were all laughing, grinning at something. Behind Erin. She slowly looked at them and then felt a tingling on the back of her neck.
“Wait. Was it just you who came back?”
“How many, then? How many decided to turn around?”
The question stumped the Goblins. Rabbiteater started counting. Badarrow shrugged. Numbtongue and Shorthilt exchanged amused glances. And Headscratcher smiled. He let go of the flag and walked over to Erin. Slowly, he turned her around.
“All of us.”
And there they were. They walked up the hills, across valleys. Small Goblins. Hobs. Warriors riding Carn Wolves and horses. Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe. Cave Goblins. Young and old. Tall and short. Not one single tribe, but three. And they moved together.
The Goblins streamed past Liscor. Past the startled defenders who braced themselves. They returned, laughing and pointing. Up at her. At the flag. At the five Hobs who stood around it. And they waved at her. They knew her name. The Goblins marched in front of Liscor, ignoring the falling stones. They formed a wall in front of the Goblin Lord’s forces. An army.
Erin was lost for words. She saw familiar faces among the Goblins. Redscar, riding proudly ahead of an army of Redfangs, old and new. Poisonbite, marshaling both male and female Goblins. Noears, surrounded by the Goblin magic-users. Spiderslicer, raising a sword over his head. Countless faces, all looking up at her.
“We came back. Don’t tell them for wrong flag.”
Headscratcher beamed at Erin. She turned to him, full of elation and despair.
“But you’ll die!”
He shook his head. Erin pointed at the Goblin Lord’s army. They were all staring, confronted by this strange sight. Reiss held still, uncertain. He recognized the Redfang tribe. And Rags’ Goblins. But who were the strange grey Goblins? Where was their Chieftain? The five Hobs?
“This isn’t your fight! You don’t have to be here!”
“No. It is.”
Numbtongue stepped forwards, leaving the other three with the flag. He pointed at the Goblin Lord, and then at Liscor. Zevara stared down at the army with Klbkch. The walls of her city were beginning to crumble. No army of Drakes could save Liscor. All were too far away. But an army had appeared. It was not one she would have ever looked for. But it was there. And she prayed, without knowing how and with no one in mind. She hoped for salvation.
And there it was. Numbtongue smiled as he looked at Liscor.
“Not our city. Nor our people. And Humans—we don’t care what they do. But you stayed. So we stay. The Goblin Lord is ours. And he is wrong.”
Badarrow let go of the flag. That was all he said, but it was condemnation and judgment itself. The others nodded. Erin looked from face to face.
“But what are you doing? Are you going to fight?”
“We followed you. Thought you were going to fight.”
Shorthilt gave the flag to Rabbiteater. The Hob stared at his friend as Shorthilt went over to Erin. The reserved Goblin drew his sword. It shone as he pointed at the silent army. Past it, at Tyrion. The [Lord] of the Veltras family stared. Jericha dropped her wand.
“Where did that army come from?”
If you hadn’t been there, you’d never know. If you hadn’t seen it, how could you tell? Across the world, eyes locked on a Goblin army, conjured from the ground. Was it there to join with the Goblin Lord? Was it another ploy of Tyrion Veltras? Something the Drakes had cooked up? Niers Astoragon’s eyes locked on the young woman. She was gesturing, shouting at Shorthilt.
“But you’ll die!”
“We are Goblins. We die.”
Shorthilt shrugged fatalistically. Erin slapped his shoulder and he winced. Headscratcher punched Shorthilt in the back and the Hob turned. He pointed.
“Goblin Lord is bad. Liscor is—okay. And you.”
He looked at Erin. She stared at him and then looked around. The Goblins looked up at her.
“Me? What about me?”
Shorthilt tilted his head.
“Do you want to fight? If yes—we fight.”
He gestured with his sword. The young woman looked at him.
“Just like that?”
Erin stood on the hill. She looked down at the army in front of her, and then turned. The Goblin Lord’s army lay before her. Uncertain. Even the trebuchets had stopped firing.
“But it’s too much to ask. How could anyone ask that? Why would you do it?”
The Hobs looked at each other. Rabbiteater, who’d been struggling with the flag, gave up and threw it down the hill. He stomped over. Erin looked at him as the [Champion] shook out his shoulders and gave the others a dirty look. Then he gazed at Erin. He beamed.
“We like you.”
She waited. But that was it. Rabbiteater had said his piece. He stood with the others, grinning happily at Erin. They were all smiling. They looked so at peace. But her knees shook. Erin looked at them. She looked at the Goblin Lord.
“If you fight—”
You die. She’d said it enough times. And they knew. The knowledge was reflected in their eyes. It was the same truth all the Goblins waiting had in their eyes. You didn’t need to tell Goblins about death. But still, they waited. Erin wiped at her eyes. She didn’t know what to do. How could she ask? How could anyone ask that? She looked back.
At Liscor. At the city. It looked smaller, now. Cracked. Fire burned in one spot. The people on the walls stared down at her. Erin saw faces she recognized. She thought of her friends. Selys, Krshia, Mrsha. She looked at her inn. And then she looked ahead.
The Goblin Lord’s army was advancing slowly. Their drum beat rolled and they chanted. But it was uncertainly. Erin stared at them. She looked past them at the army bearing down on Liscor. They’d raze the city. Bring it low. And that was something she’d tried to stop. With words. And now someone had come. Under the banner of peace, they’d gathered. But it was for her. And to her they looked. Erin looked at the five Redfangs. Her voice trembled.
“Hey. Can I ask you a favor? A big one?”
They nodded. Headscratcher, Badarrow, Shorthilt, Numbtongue, and Rabbiteater waited. Erin took a deep breath.
“I, this—it’s not your fight. Not really. And it’s so much. How could anyone ask? But—but this is my—my home. Those are my friends.”
Erin pointed back at Liscor. She was crying again.
“They won’t run. This is their home too. If they die—they’re my friends. You know? And you are too. All of you. I love you all so much.”
She looked from face to face. The Hobs smiled, waiting. Erin gestured at the army in front of her.
“I don’t know this Goblin Lord. I don’t know Tyrion Veltras. But they sound like jerks. If I—if I try and stop them, will you help me? Please?”
She looked at them, despairingly. Her eyes were red. And her cheeks were still wet. Tears dripped down her chin, along with some snot. She wiped her nose. The Hobs looked at her. Erin Solstice was the most beautiful person they had known. Human or Goblin. And she had asked them for a favor.
The five Redfangs looked at each other. Seriously. They glanced from face to face, nudging each other, checking their gear, their armor. Then they put their hands on Headscratcher’s shoulders. They nodded to him and he moved.
Headscratcher walked past Erin. He stood on the edge of the hilltop, so that all the Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe, the Cave Goblins of Liscor’s dungeon, and the Redfangs could see him. They waited. Headscratcher drew the axe from his side. He raised it over his head and the weapon caught the light. The Goblins sighed. And then as one, they shouted.
It was a roar to drown out the chanting of Reiss’ army. It echoed and shook the walls of Liscor. A single word, magnified. An answer to a question.
And then they ran. They charged up the hill. First Redscar, passing Erin in a breeze of fur and laughter. Spiderslicer, cursing, hot on his heels. Noears, whooping with excitement. Poisonbite, scowling and smiling. Hobs Erin recognized. Cave Goblins. They joined her. And Reiss looked up at the Human and saw the army. The Goblins shouted as they raised their weapons. They stood around Erin, looking up at her, forming a wall in front of her.
The Flooded Waters tribe with their pikes in front. Archers behind. Redfangs to the left. Cave Goblins to the right. How many? They were probably only a third of Reiss’ army. But they held their ground. Then they advanced.
“What’s going on?”
Laken looked around as the confused shouting grew louder. He stood up and Gamel tried to explain.
“I don’t believe it.”
Zevara stood on the walls. Klbkch gaped, his mandibles parted, as below, the Workers and Queens began to panic. Pawn stood up and ran. He ran to Yellow Splatters and the waiting Painted soldiers.
“It’s her. Please, you have to help her.”
Yellow Splatters stared at Pawn in confusion. But the other Soldiers looked up. There could be only one her.
“Am I dreaming? Who is she? It has to be her! Who is she?”
Niers was laughing and crying. He stood up as his students stood, dumbfounded. Venaz stared at his teacher.
“What are they doing? They’re all Goblins.”
“No. They’re not.”
Umina shook her head. She turned.
“Professor, what happens now?”
“We have to go after her! Let go of me!”
Ceria struggled in Moore’s grip. The adventurers were lined up on the walls. Halrac lifted his bow uncertainly.
“It’s suicide! We can’t!”
Revi was pale. She pointed with a shaking finger down at Erin.
“She’s insane. She can’t be doing this!”
“But she is.”
Seborn stared down at the distant figure. She was surrounded by Goblins. But they were moving. All of them. They were moving away from Liscor. Towards the Goblin Lord’s army.
Lord Tyrion stated the word flatly. As if it could change reality. He watched the second Goblin army led by the young woman begin to accelerate. They were running across the Floodplains, and the Goblins were dug in.
“My lord? What do we do?”
Jericha looked up at Tyrion. But he had no answer. He just kept staring.
Reiss stared at his kin. They were coming. All of them. And there was no betrayal this time. No double cross. They were just coming. Against him. He heard a strangled sound in his head.
“Crush them. My apprentice, crush these—these interlopers! Kill that girl! Take Liscor!”
The same words. But without the same authority. The voice in his head was panicking. Reiss, the Goblin Lord stared ahead. He closed his eyes, and then opened them. But that didn’t change things. He saw the Goblins running, shouting, and…laughing. It was an alien sight to him. But he had orders.
A part of Reiss that was real screamed at his real self to stop. But the slave in him, the part that obeyed was in control. So he pointed, a puppet dancing on the strings.
“Charge! Kill them all!”
His Goblins looked at Reiss. Charge? They hesitated. Some began to advance. Eater of Spears shouted a challenge and Snapjaw raised her sword. But there was no momentum. Reiss’ army froze as the Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe, the Redfang Goblins, the Cave Goblins—
No. The Goblins of Liscor. The Goblins who followed the Human girl running with them. The Goblins who shared one thing in common. An inn. What would they call themselves, this new tribe? This temporary alliance?
Solstice Goblins, perhaps. Yes. They charged down the last hill, shouting. The first rank of pikes charged forwards, and the front rank of Reiss’ warriors began to back up. The mindless undead lurched ahead. But it didn’t matter.
The first wave of the Solstice Goblins broke through Reiss’ army. They charged ahead, aiming at the Goblin Lord. A screaming horde. They’d never win. They couldn’t win. But no one had told them that. Headscratcher, Badarrow, Rabbiteater, Numbtongue, and Shorthilt ran ahead of the rest. They aimed at the Goblin Lord, five brothers. And they were laughing. Laughing with the others, fit to burst. And then fighting. Falling.