The world was watching. Below Liscor, an army of Humans was gathered. A force ready to sweep south, to break the walls of the Drake city. And in front of them were Goblins. A people described as monsters. They had come here, not of their own volition. They had been herded. Driven like cattle.
This was not their grand struggle. They were tools in other people’s games, a means to the end. In that sense they were worthless. But see. It was an army of Goblins that gave Tyrion Veltras the pretext to besiege Liscor. It was they who threatened the city.
And it was the second army of Goblins who rose to defend it. They were an army of fragments. Three tribes, each hailing from a different place. Each with different leaders. But they ran together as they surged across the Floodplains. Down into the valleys, up hills, towards the Goblin Lord’s army.
Reiss shouted and his army moved to intercept the charging Goblins. His force spread out, over a hundred thousand Goblins, moving to ensnare the far smaller force. They would win. How could they not? There were three Goblins in Reiss’ army for every one of his enemies.
And yet—the army of Goblins didn’t slow down. They didn’t waver. Because they were running, chasing a young woman across the Floodplains. Following her.
Erin Solstice’s heart was in her mouth. She was breathless. Her body was filled with nervous energy. She wanted to throw up, run away, and hide. A wall of night was marching at her. Black armor. Green skin. Red eyes. The Goblin Lord’s army was marching, roaring. But Erin ran on. Because of them.
Five Hobgoblins ran behind Erin. And behind them, Cave Goblins. Redfang Warriors howling, ready for battle. The Flooded Waters tribe. They had come back for her. And they had charged for her. Just for her. For a hot meal, a place to be safe.
A smile. And they would fight and die too. How could Erin ever ask them to charge alone? So she ran. And as the Goblins ran around her, past her, Erin could see them. Green faces. Pointed ears. Sharp teeth. Crimson eyes. A monster’s face.
But they were so beautiful. A people she had come to love. And they looked back at her, smiling. Then they looked ahead and raised their weapons. Erin felt her breath burning in her lungs as she climbed a hill. She had a frying pan in one hand, a knife in the other. She nearly slipped in the mud. Then she was on the top of the hill, looking down.
A sea of black-armored Goblins stared up at her. Undead lurched forwards. Erin stared down. And then she saw the Goblins raise bows.
The Goblins were already raising their shields. Erin raised her frying pan, as if it was a shield, then she realized the Goblins were still running. Even those without protection. The Goblin Lord’s archers loosed the first hail of arrows. And Erin ran beneath the dark rain and heard Goblins begin to die.
Screams of pain and terror. Shouts as Goblins were hit and slid in the muck. Cries of anger. And then the sound of more bows nocking. Loosing. A second wave of arrows flew as Erin ran down the hill. More Goblins fell. Erin didn’t see them, but she heard them. She would have turned. She would have gone back. She had potions on her belt, alchemical weapons from Octavia to defend herself. She had not left her inn unprepared. But it wasn’t behind her where the battle lay.
It was right in front of her.
The first rank of Goblins stood shoulder-to-shoulder, braced. They were in formation. They leveled their weapons at the first rank of Goblins charging at them. Erin was a dozen paces behind them. She saw five Hobgoblins running ahead of the rest.
Headscratcher, Rabbiteater, Shorthilt, Numbtongue. Even Badarrow, for all that he carried a bow. They had outdistanced her and the other Goblins. Now they charged forwards, screaming. The Goblin Lord’s army waited for them, loosing arrows, shouting. They were confident. Bitterly resolved. They had Reiss on their side. A Goblin Lord. And what did these Goblins have?
A wall of black steel. Erin saw Headscratcher roar. He sprinted faster than the rest, his mouth opening wide. A [Berserker] howled and he raised his golden axe. The jade edge gleamed. Reiss’ Goblins looked up at him. They saw the axe’s edge shine, and then grow. The magical edge grew three times in length. The Goblins shouted in horror. An enchantment? But only Chieftains had weapons that powerful.
Chieftains. Or adventurers. Then Headscratcher swung the axe. The black-armored Goblins raised their shields. The magical axe sheared through the metal. It cut bone and flesh. The first rank of Goblins disappeared. The Goblins standing behind their friends recoiled as Headscratcher’s first blow made a dozen Goblins vanish. And then he was among them. They looked up into blazing eyes and saw the axe swinging towards them.
Forwards. Headscratcher opened a gap by himself. The other four Redfangs followed, moving to his left and right, keeping clear of his wide swings. Five versus an army.
Goblins were all around them. Thrusting with spears, screaming in terror as Headscratcher charged forwards. But so many. They tried to overwhelm the other four, get at Headscratcher’s back. He was only one Chieftain, after all. A Hob thrust smaller Goblins aside. He swung a club as tall as he was at Shorthilt. The [Weapon Expert] turned and his sword flashed.
The edge sliced through the haft of the club. The Hob blinked. Shorthilt pirouetted and his second swing took the Hob’s head off. The Goblins backed away as Shorthilt advanced. His sword was not enchanted, but it cut like magic. He aimed at the weak points in a Goblin’s armor, the gap between shield and chest. His teeth were bared and he fought with a precision lesser Goblin [Warriors] had never seen. And by his side was a Hobgoblin who wielded nothing but a guitar.
Numbtongue cracked a Goblin’s head with the base of his guitar. Then he spun and intercepted a sword cut from another Hob. The bigger Goblin gaped as the guitar didn’t break. Electricity ran from the strings of the guitar. The [Bard] roared and heaved. The enemy Hobgoblin stumbled back and Numbtongue clubbed him alongside the head. Lightning flashed and the Hob roared.
His voice was booming. Reiss’ Goblins stared up at him. It was a word to inspire fear. The name of that most famous tribe. And the other four took it up.
Badarrow had stopped behind the others. He raised his bow and shot a Goblin trying to stab Headscratcher in the back. He aimed left and shot another Goblin through the head. Then a Hob. The bigger Goblin was wearing a helmet, but the tip of the arrow shot through his eyehole. The [Sniper] spun and another Goblin fell. His hands moved constantly, grabbing more arrows from the quiver. Then he reached for something at his side.
A bell, bronze and blue metal. The clapper was muffled. The bell was attached to a special arrow. Badarrow lifted it to his bow and aimed past the Goblins. He pulled the bit of wax stifling the bell from ringing and aimed past Headscratcher, at the Goblins ahead of them. He drew back, loosed.
The bell flew up. The arrow curved in a long arc and fell among the [Archers] shooting at Erin and the other Goblins. It landed among the Goblins, a single arrow that didn’t even hit one of them. But as the bell struck the ground, it rang once.
Pain. The bell tolled not with sound, but with pain and agony. Goblins fell to the ground, screaming, their ears bleeding. The bell rolled and chimed again. The Goblins around it howled, convulsing. All those who heard the noise shuddered. Those closest to it were paralyzed by pain. And it was into that gap the Redfangs charged.
Four. Headscratcher cut down Goblins ahead of him, ignoring the wounds he took. Shorthilt and Numbtongue took the left side and Badarrow covered their backs. But it was the fifth Hobgoblin who caught the eye. He had the right to himself. Reiss’ Goblins surged towards him, but they hesitated as one.
Because of how he looked. This Goblin stood tall. His armor seemed to glow. It was pristine, the chainmail perfectly kept. His blade was sharp as could be. But what really stood out was his cloak. Rabbiteater’s cloak was an ever flowing, deep red, almost violet color. And it was not cloth, but liquid. The Hobgoblin swept the cape around him as he advanced. Goblins were loosing arrows at him, but they sank into the cloak, losing all momentum. Rabbiteater took three strides, and then the first of Reiss’ Goblins were ahead of him. They looked up as Rabbiteater grinned. They swung their weapons and the Hobgoblin swung his sword.
The line of Goblins exploded. Goblins fell from the sky, cut in half. Armor rent. Blown back by a single strike. [Grand Slash]. Rabbiteater straightened. He stabbed into the next rank of Goblins as they backed up, screaming. What was he? Who was he? This Hobgoblin wasn’t a Chieftain. But he was no ordinary Hob either. He was dressed like an adventurer. And he fought like a hero.
Reiss’ warriors faltered. But the Hobs shouted and they advanced. It was only five! Only five Hobs! They could be overwhelmed, killed! That was when the first rank of Cave Goblins cleared the hill.
The Goblin Lord’s warriors saw the strange, pale, grey-skinned Goblins coming at them. They hesitated. What were these strange Goblins? They poured forwards, a horde without Hobs. They followed the Redfangs into the breach. And they howled as they came on. The black-armored Goblins set themselves. They were warriors! They wouldn’t lose to—
The first wave of Cave Goblins crashed against the shielded warriors. They fought savagely. The next wave overwhelmed Reiss’ warriors. And the third and fourth and fifth—the Goblin Lord’s soldiers fell back in disarray. They locked blades with screaming Goblins. And lost. Hobs cut down Cave Goblins and were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And not just numbers. The ferocity of the Cave Goblins terrified.
They fought like the five did. With all of Headscratcher’s fury. As precisely as Shorthilt, like Rabbiteater. Miniature champions. And they knew no fear. Hobs backed up as Cave Goblins leapt at them. They were Hobs! But the Cave Goblins had fought Raskghar.
The first contact with Reiss’ army sent a shockwave back through the entire force. The Cave Goblins, led by the five Redfangs poured forwards. At their front was Headscratcher. He couldn’t be stopped. His enchanted axe swung again and again, cutting down Hobs while his Cave Goblins followed him, keeping the [Berserker] safe. Shorthilt and Rabbiteater went left and right, Rabbiteater’s overwhelming horde and Shorthilt’s adept fighters opening the gap in Reiss’ army wider. Numbtongue and Badarrow held the line.
“Impossible. What kind of Goblins are those? Some kind of subspecies? Where did they come from? Liscor’s dungeon?”
Az’kerash whispered, his voice an echo in his apprentice’s mind. But Reiss couldn’t answer his master. He was directing his army, giving them orders.
“Hold the lines! Snapjaw, take your riders around! Hit them from the side! Eater of Spears, kill those Hobs!”
His warriors reacted to Reiss’ orders. They moved forwards, trying to envelop the Cave Goblins. But more Goblins were coming. The Flooded Waters tribe. The Redfangs. Reiss turned towards them, calculating.
“Ignore the riders. They number only four thousand at most. Focus on those grey Goblins. Wipe them out. I will begin raising them as undead. With them—”
“Master! Shut up!”
Reiss roared. In his castle, Az’kerash stepped back, affronted. His waiting Chosen, Venitra, Kerash, and Bea, raised their heads. The ranks of silent undead waiting to be teleported did not move.
The three Chosen flinched as the Necromancer uttered the words aloud. He directed his will. But his apprentice wasn’t listening. Reiss was focused on the young woman who was caught up in the fighting. The Cave Goblins screened her and she had yet to enter the fray. She was shielding her head with a frying pan, shouting. He pointed at her and his warriors shouted, surging at her position. The five Redfangs and the Cave Goblins defended her, refusing to let any of his warriors get near. But it was her Reiss wanted. Her. He had to kill her.
It all revolved around her. Niers stared through the scrying orb at the distant figure. The half-Elf controlling the spell was magnifying her vision, but the battle was still far away. Partially obscured by the valleys. But clear enough. The Fraerling could see the young woman, surrounded by the small Goblins with grey skin.
Cave Goblins, apparently. From the dungeon. He could hear people shouting on the walls around the half-Elf. A woman in armor was pointing down at the fighting.
“Is she mad? She’ll be killed! We have to go after her!”
“No! You’ll be killed!”
A man in armor, her older brother, stopped her. The young woman with blonde hair turned on him, but another half-Elf raised a skeletal hand.
“Ylawes is right, Yvlon.”
That came from both Yvlon and a young man in white robes. The half-Elf turned.
“Don’t be stupid, Pisces! What can we do?”
Pisces’ face was white. He looked to an Antinium with three arms. The insect-man nodded, but hesitantly.
“Captain Ceria is right. If we participate, I believe our team will perish. But if we do not fight…Miss Solstice will die.”
He fell silent. The adventurers stared at the fighting. The half-Elf shook her head.
“What is she doing? She’s going to die.”
“We have to do something.”
“What? What can we—”
Niers tore his attention away from the scrying orb. He looked around. The war room was silent, unlike the shouting and thump of stones hitting Liscor’s walls. His students were bent over the map. They were creating a projection of the battle. He looked down and saw the Goblin Lord’s army, trying to envelop the other Goblins. There were so many of them. Niers hesitated. Then he looked up.
His students jumped. They’d been so engrossed they’d forgotten why they were here. They looked at each other. Then Wil spoke up.
“Who is that? Who is that Human girl? Where did those Goblins come from?”
The young man pointed at the scrying orb. Niers shook his head.
“Pointless questions. This is a battle, Wil. Ask later! You’re [Strategists]! Tell me how the battle’s changed.”
“It’s all changed. The Goblins could damage the Goblin Lord’s army. It will delay the siege. But not for long. That army can’t defeat the Goblin Lord’s army purely by numbers. But they can—”
Umina was running her claws across the board. Her eyes flickered as she stared at the scrying orb and adjusted the positioning of Reiss’ left flank. She looked up at Niers.
“They can aim for the Goblin Lord, though.”
It was their only hope, and he thought the Goblins knew it. The Cave Goblins were driving straight for the Goblin Lord. But there were far too many. And yet—Niers stared at the map. The second group of Goblins was closing in.
They hadn’t charged wildly forwards. They were moving in formation. The Flooded Waters tribe ran, each unit of Goblins spaced out, maneuvering to the left and right of the Cave Goblins. Redscar led them, directing the Goblins to spread out. And they were the largest group besides the Goblin Lord’s army. A fourth as large perhaps, but—Niers pointed.
“Those Goblins are about to make contact. Cameral!”
The Dullahan snapped to attention. He lifted his head up and stared.
“They’re using pikes! In a charge? That’s foolish!”
Niers saw Marian look up and snap without waiting for him to call on her.
“No, it’s tactics. Watch!”
The students and Niers stared at the scrying orb. Rags’ tribe rushed towards the Goblin Lord’s army. The pikes were indeed in front. They were anti-cavalry weapons. But Niers had seen them used like this before. He knew what to expect. The Goblins with black armor were braced, shields raised. But they faltered as Rags’ army came at them, screaming fury. Because what were they supposed to do?
Twenty-foot long pikes of wood, tipped with steel. That was what was aimed at them, a wall of pikes. There was no way for Reiss’ warriors to hit the pike Goblins of Rags’ army. They could only brace as the pikes rammed into them. And then came warriors behind the pikes, Hobs who tore into the wounded lines. And behind them crossbows fired constantly while Rags’ elite Redfangs charged into gaps.
It was precise. Orchestrated. Beautiful tactics. Niers had never seen Goblins using strategy like that. Not since the Second Antinium War. Not from a Chieftain.
Marian murmured as she watched the Goblin Lord’s ranks buckle. Unlike the Cave Goblins, the Flooded Waters tribe wasn’t propelled by the five Redfangs or momentum alone. They dug in and advanced, supporting the pikes, pushing forwards.
“Analysis. Venaz! How is that group’s strategy compared to the Goblin Lord’s army?”
“Goblin scum. Goblins don’t have strategy, sir.”
The Minotaur looked affronted. He folded his arms. And then he winced as Niers looked up. The Minotaur bit his lip and hesitated.
“—But their tactics are superior. The pikes, the crossbows—they’re reloading quickly. There must be an army-wide Skill at work. This army looks defensive. But the pikes, the crossbows—they can take a powerful offensive. Look, the Goblin Lord’s forces are falling back. They might have more armor, but it’s not helping.”
His voice was grudging, but his analysis was on point. The Goblin Lord’s force was indeed being pushed back by the second charge. And yet—Niers looked up.
The Selphid took one look at the board and replied in her male, Human body. She wore the body of a sixty year-old man, but she spoke like a young woman.
“Both smaller tribes are fully engaged. But the lines are drawn. The Goblin Lord’s shifting his army to surround them. They won’t go further except—the riders, sir.”
Niers pointed. All of his students looked. The Redfangs hadn’t engaged yet. They had circled the battle, and were approaching from the side. The Goblin Lord wasn’t blind. Reiss had moved a wing of his army out to block the Redfangs.
“They’re going to hit the Goblin Lord’s army from the side. If they could break through, they’ll shatter his lines, cut off parts of his army and reinforce the others. But there’s four thousand riders and at least twenty thousand infantry in the way.”
The Selphid counted the numbers at a glance. She traced her claw across the map.
“If they can break through in a charge—”
Venaz asserted. Marian looked up.
“Centaurs could do it.”
“Those aren’t any Goblins. That’s the Redfang tribe.”
Wil consulted a piece of paper on which he’d scribbled notes. Niers just nodded. He watched the Redfangs riding across the battlefield. The half-Elf, Falene, had a sense of the battle too. She was staring at them.
Four thousand Goblins, riding Carn Wolves or horses. A paltry number compared to the other sides engaged in battle. But these Goblins were different. Niers didn’t need his Skills to tell him that. He could feel it.
On they rode. The Redfangs laughed and grinned, ready for battle. They roared as they came. They had been waiting for this moment. The mountain hadn’t been enough. Garen had trained them, and the warriors who had joined him in Tremborag’s mountain. They had lived and bled and fought for this moment.
The roar issued from four thousand mouths. The Goblins standing in their way looked up and their eyes were wide with fear. Redfang. They braced.
Spiderslicer led the charge. His shortsword swung down as his Carn Wolf leapt. He dodged a spear mid-jump and cut down the Hob holding it. His Redfangs followed him. They didn’t stop as they rode through Goblins, cutting, blocking, dodging.
Yerranola stared down at the map. The unit marking the Redfangs kept going. They charged through the Goblins sent to block them and cut straight towards the Cave Goblins. There they turned.
“They’re cutting back out!”
“Those are Centaur tactics.”
Marian watched as the Redfangs charged in and then secured an exit. They were already looping, to strike at the Goblin Lord from another spot. Niers found himself following the riders with his eyes.
“What power. They could do it! If they keep harrying—”
Wil was perched over the table, nearly blocking Niers’ view of the scrying orb. Venaz yanked him back.
“Ridiculous. It’s one mobile force. The Goblin Lord has his riders as well. Look, they’re moving to intercept.”
“They’ll lose. Those are elites, Venaz. They can do it.”
“There are too many.”
“It’s not enough.”
Umina agreed. Niers looked up sharply. The Lizardgirl was staring at the map. The Goblin Lord’s warriors were faltering. The charges had caught them off-guard. But Umina had seen what the others hadn’t. She pointed.
“They could do it. Maybe. But he’s sending his lieutenants in. And—look at that.”
She pointed at the scrying orb. In the distance, Niers saw pale bodies moving. A separate force, slowly lurching towards the Goblin’s side. And more. Across the battlefield, more bodies stood up. Bloody corpses that had just fallen.
The undead were rising.
Poisonbite heard the shout. She looked up and around. She saw Redscar pointing and turned. Her female warriors had been engaging Reiss’ warriors from the pikes, darting in and stabbing with poisoned blades before pulling back. Now they turned and saw a new threat.
The undead. A group of zombies, several thousand strong, was coming their way. And Ghouls. Poisonbite bared her teeth. Not good. The undead were immune to her warrior’s poison. She looked around.
The Goblin [Mage] had charged with her. But he was nowhere to be seen. Poisonbite cursed him and turned. She screamed and the pikes turned to face the undead. They surged down the slope and crashed into the undead.
Ghouls leapt and were skewered. Zombies were impaled dozens of times. The undead had no self-preservation. But that was also a problem. They didn’t die even when impaled. They kept going, walking onto the pikes. They had to be hacked apart or the brains had to be destroyed! And Reiss’ warriors were still fighting.
“Hobs kill undead! We fight!”
Poisonbite pointed forwards. The Hobs under her command strode towards the undead. Poisonbite grimly held the line. Her daggers flashed and a Hob screamed as he tried to get past the weakened line of warriors. He stumbled back as Poisonbite cut him twice more and then dodged back. He swung at her, but the poison was already doing its job. Poisonbite moved backwards, applying a new coat to her blades as the Hobgoblin slowly weakened. He tried to keep fighting, but only two minutes later he was stumbling.
A Goblin ran him through. Poisonbite moved forwards, aiming for another Hob, and then stopped.
The poisoned Hob was moving. He was standing up. How? Poisonbite stared at him. Was the poison not working? Did he have a healing potion?
No. She stared at him. The Hob’s mouth was open. His eyes were wide. And he was dead. A bit of froth and blood ran from his mouth as he forgot his sword and swung clumsily at the Goblins around him.
A zombie. But so soon? He’d barely died. Poisonbite saw the Goblins trying to bring the Hob down a second time, cursing. She looked around.
There. A Goblin died as a female Hob ran him through with a pitchfork. But the instant his corpse hit the ground, it was sitting up. The Hob stomped, cursing, as the zombie tried to claw its way free of the tines pinning its body down.
They were rising. The dead. Not just Reiss’ warriors. But the dead on both sides. One of Poisonbite’s warriors fell, struck by an arrow. She rose and proceeded to bite the Goblin next to her.
“Undead! All dead rising!”
Poisonbite screamed. The Goblins looked around. They stared at the undead. More and more were getting up. For every warrior they killed, for every Goblin they lost—an undead was spawned.
Poisonbite backed up. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t fair. But it was happening. She could see Goblins dressed in robes and holding wands, staffs, now. They were stationed behind Reiss’ troops, reanimating the dead. So was Reiss. Between him and his [Necromancers] and [Shamans], they were resurrecting…
“Watch for undead! Guard backs! Kill and then chop off heads!”
Redscar roared as he fought on another front. He could see the Cave Goblins faltering. Headscratcher and the others had found the same trap waiting for him that he had. Redscar cursed as the Hob he’d killed lurched up, bright light shining from its eyes.
Ghoul. It was faster in death than the Hob had been in life. But not cleverer. Thunderfur knocked it down and Redscar leaned out of his saddle to run the Hob through the head. his enchanted blade easily sheared through the bone and the Ghoul died. Redscar turned and the Goblins around him fell back. His frost blade had cut down every Goblin who’d been in Redscar’s way. The undead couldn’t slow Redscar. But they had doubled the Goblins that his warriors had to cut through to get to Reiss.
Even the Redfangs and Spiderslicer had slowed. So many undead! They were all coming to life now. Redscar snarled as he saw Reiss and his [Necromancers] casting magic. They had to be stopped. But how? Some of the [Mages] had set up a barrier and the arrows Badarrow’s Goblins were loosing at them were just bouncing off. As for Reiss—
He had to die. They had to cut to him and kill him. But everywhere the Solstice Goblins had slowed. Their first charge had run out of steam. The undead and Reiss’ troops were pushing them back. It was just numbers. And then Redscar saw them.
Snapjaw and Eater of Spears. Reiss’ lieutenants. His last remaining lieutenants, rather. It was an irony. For all Reiss’ warriors, his best officers, the ones who inspired, who defined his army were dead. Zel Shivertail had slain them and with them gone, his warriors lacked the fire to engage Redscar, Poisonbite, and the five Redfangs where they led. But the last two of Reiss’ warriors were still present. And now they were coming.
Snapjaw rode at the head of what had to be at least fifteen thousand Goblins on horseback. She charged at the Redfangs, her teeth bared, sword drawn. Spiderslicer rode to meet her and the Redfangs howled with him. They were fearless. They met Snapjaw’s warriors in a fury of rearing horses and terrible collisions. Carn Wolves and horses went down alike.
They were stronger than Snapjaw’s forces. Redscar saw more of Snapjaw’s warriors going down each second. But she had the numbers on the Redfangs. And she—
She was strong. Snapjaw cut to the left and right, fighting Redfang warriors. She was as good as they were and her armor and sword were enchanted. But that wasn’t what made her strong. No. It was as Spiderslicer cut towards her that Redscar remembered. Snapjaw wasn’t a [Warrior]. She was—
The female Hobgoblin blocked Spiderslicer’s sword. He cut, cursing the lack of his falchion. She dodged the sword as her horse reared, hooves striking at Spiderslicer’s Carn Wolf. Spiderslicer took the opportunity. He lunged, sword aimed at Snapjaw’s throat. The Hobgoblin opened her mouth—
And bit. Spiderslicer recoiled as the metal teeth closed on his sword. He heard a crack as the poorly-tempered steel snapped. Snapjaw crunched the metal and spat. Spiderslicer stared at her and then leapt back. He cursed and a Redfang Hob took his place. The warrior rushed at Snapjaw, swinging a battleaxe. Snapjaw stared at him and then opened her mouth wide. Wide—
Her jaw dislocated. Her overly large head seemed to grow bigger. The Hob flinched. And Snapjaw bit. Spiderslicer and Redscar stared at what remained of the Hob as it slid from the saddle. The horse shrieked and fled as Snapjaw chewed.
That shouldn’t have been possible. But she had done it. The Redfangs’ assault slowed as more of Snapjaw’s riders forced their way forwards. And Snapjaw led them. Spiderslicer had to retreat, calling for another sword. And while her warriors held the Redfangs back—
Eater of Spears was headed for the Cave Goblins. Redscar saw him, a towering giant above the rest. He was leading a wave of Hobs through the smaller Goblins of Reiss’ army. His tribe. Redscar looked around. He was too far. He had to command Rags’ tribe. But one Goblin could stop him.
“Where is Noears?”
The Goblins looked around. No one could answer. Redscar turned, swearing. He began to ride forwards, but it was too late.
The first roar of contact had been terrifying. The first minute Erin had thought she would die. But the press of Goblins pushing forwards, the sounds of screams and the clash of metal—all of it was at a distance. Erin had been outpaced by the Cave Goblins and the Redfangs. She was stuck amid them as more and more pushed forwards. And they weren’t inclined to let Erin past.
“Headscratcher! Numbtongue! Where are you?”
Erin screamed above the din. Her frying pan was raised like a shield to ward off falling arrows. She was taller than all the Cave Goblins, but she still couldn’t make out the Redfangs amid the fighting. It was chaos.
Green bodies struggled with other figures. Goblins fought in ever-shifting lines, retreating, charging. Erin couldn’t tell how they were identifying friend and foe. The black armor? She tried to push forwards, but the Cave Goblins actively resisted her.
“Let me go!”
Erin shouted at them. She had to fight! To protect—
She was no warrior. Erin knew that. But she had asked them to come. So she moved forwards, ignoring the press trying to keep her back. If she could do something, anything—she had potions.
“Is anyone hurt? I have healing potions!”
It was no use. Erin’s voice was lost amid the fighting. She couldn’t tell where she was, how the battle was going—until she heard the screaming.
The battle lines abruptly opened up in front of her. Cave Goblins moved back, screaming. Erin didn’t understand why. Not until she saw the way the Goblins in front of them awkwardly shambled forwards. Her blood chilled as she recognized the light in their dead eyes.
Undead. The Goblin Lord was raising the undead. And the zombies were rising from every corpse on the ground. Cave Goblins fought the undead and Reiss’ warriors both, but their own were being turned to dead. Erin stared as a Cave Goblin fell not fifteen paces ahead of her and then got up and faced its former allies. She saw a Hobgoblin charge past the zombie, shove it aside, and bring down a huge maul on the head of a Cave Goblin.
He was wearing black armor. He roared, and undead and more Goblins in black armored poured past him. The Cave Goblins cried out and tried to fight back. But—these were Numbtongue’s warriors! Some didn’t even have proper weapons. They were musicians.
The Hob scythed forwards with his maul, bashing bodies aside. Erin stared at him and then realized he was getting closer. And she was walking towards him.
The Hob turned to Erin. He roared, pointing at her. Erin raised the frying pan. She threw it. The Hob blinked as the frying pan flew at his face. He raised a gauntleted hand and knocked it down. He laughed—
And the kitchen knife struck him in the eye. Hilt first. But Erin had thrown it hard as she could. The Hob screamed and covered one eye. He swung the maul one-handed. Erin backed up. She reached for something at her belt. The Hob raised his maul.
And Erin threw a Pepper Potion vial in his other good eye. The Hob screamed. Erin yanked another knife from her belt and charged. The Hob was flailing about. She raised a fist and aimed at his unarmored stomach.
The Hob folded over. Erin slashed up and cut at the Hob’s throat. He tried to block her. Her knife slashed across his fingers, cutting deep. He screamed and bled. Hot blood splattered Erin’s arm, her right cheek. The Hob tried to swing his maul, blinded. Erin stabbed.
The knife went between his fingers and into the Hobgoblin’s throat. The Goblin gurgled. He knocked Erin flat with a swing, but his arm had no force behind it. Still, Erin went tumbling. She cut herself lightly with the knife as she fell and scrambled up. She looked for the Hob—
And found he was on his knees. He was trying to stop the blood flowing from his cut throat. He gurgled, blinded. Erin stared down at him.
The Goblin died there. He was the second Goblin she’d killed. Erin stared at his body as the Cave Goblins rushed past her, seizing the moment of weakness. She stood there, staring at the Hobgoblin’s body until a Cave Goblin screamed at her. Then she realized the Hobgoblin was getting up.
Erin had a second frying pan at her belt. She grabbed it and began hitting the Hob on the head. Cave Goblins joined her. Erin hammered at the Hob’s head. It began deforming. She felt something crack and a Cave Goblin bashed the Hob’s brains in. Erin stumbled back as the zombie stopped moving for good. She tried to throw up.
But then she was fighting. It was automatic. Erin had a knife in one hand, the frying pan in the other. Zombies were attacking with Goblins. And Erin was in the first line of Cave Goblins. She was no warrior. But as Calruz had told her, she had talent.
Throw the pan. It bounced off the head of a Goblin warrior in black armor, stunning him. The knife followed, and a Goblin screamed as it appeared on her leather armor, just above the shoulder. Erin yanked a potion from her belt.
The Cave Goblins around her ducked. Erin threw the bottle over the heads of the Goblins and heard Goblins screaming. The fiery pot of burning oil burst and coated undead and Goblins in flame. Erin reached for another object and came up with a Tripvine bag.
She didn’t have many weapons, but she had enough. Vines burst forwards, ensnaring the undead and a few Cave Goblins. Erin ran forwards. She had a club from somewhere. A fallen Goblin? She cracked a zombie’s head and tripped another one.
Fighting. She was little better than a Cave Goblin. But she had reach. Potions. Alchemist’s weapons. And the Cave Goblins fought to protect her. Erin didn’t know when she stumbled back to catch her breath. But she was wounded. Someone had cut her across the belly. It hurt. She drank half a healing potion and looked around.
A Cave Goblin clutching at his nearly sawn-off arm looked up. Erin bent. The world spun. She bit the inside of her lip and offered him the potion. He let her pour it on his arm. Erin stood up.
“We have to keep fighting. Follow me.”
She ran. This time the Cave Goblins followed her. All of them. They charged past Erin. The Goblin Lord’s army was trying to hold a hill. Erin threw a smoke bag and blinded the Goblins on the other side of the hill, then charged up the slope. She had to see. Wasn’t that the point?
Cave Goblins grappled with Goblins in black armor. Erin punched a Goblin and struck another with the spiked mace she held. She lashed out at another and turned.
Now she saw. Billowing smoke from the alchemist bag cleared. She saw the Goblin Lord’s army fighting on the hills, loosing showers of arrows. Undead and Goblins fighting. Rag’s tribe was holding them back. But where—
There. The Redfangs were ahead of her. Headscratcher was leading the way, roaring. He was still pushing forwards, despite the wounds on his body. Shorthilt was following him. Numbtongue had pulled back—it was his tribe that Erin was fighting with. Rabbiteater was to the right, holding the Goblin Lord back. Badarrow was camped on another hill. She saw his archers loosing arrows, shooting down the Goblin Lord’s warriors trying to attack them from the side, then another volley of arrows shot towards the Goblin Lord’s troops.
Erin didn’t need to be a [Strategist] to see it. She stared at the lines of Goblins. They were losing. There were too many of the Goblin Lord’s warriors. And the undead! The undead were practically numberless. So long as they kept rising—Erin squinted at a coven of Goblin [Mages]. They were hiding on a hill far distant, out of even Badarrow’s range.
“Someone has to kill those [Necromancers]. Pisces told me—the undead will attack everyone if they die! Tell Badarrow!”
She shouted. The Cave Goblins looked at her. One of them turned and shouted. Erin saw the message flicker back to Badarrow in less than a minute. The Hobgoblin turned. He saw Erin and nodded. He aimed and pointed.
His Cave Goblins turned. They drew back and loosed as one. Badarrow’s arrow flew with a hail of others. The [Mages] turned. They saw the deadly arrows falling towards them and didn’t flinch. Erin saw a shimmer in the air and the arrows snapped and bounced off something.
Badarrow loosed another arrow. This one didn’t arc. It went straight across from his hill towards the [Necromancer]. The shield protecting the Goblin mages must not have been able to block it. One of them spun and fell. The other [Shamans] backed up and one raised another barrier. Badarrow shot arrow after arrow, but they bounced off the new shield. He turned and directed his archer’s fire at the Goblin Warriors now assailing his hill.
“Someone has to take them out.”
Erin stared at the mages. They weren’t all just [Necromancers]. Some were hurling fire, or casting clouds of noxious gas at the Flooded Waters tribe and the Redfangs. Erin eyed the distance between them and her.
She was about to shout for him. Then she looked around. Something—someone was roaring. So loudly that it carried even over the raging sound of battle. Erin’s head turned.
And then she saw him. A huge Hobgoblin, at least nine feet tall. Maybe even taller. His body looked like a mass of muscles. And he was leading a group of Hobgoblins, all larger than normal. Straight towards Headscratcher.
The Redfang [Berserker] didn’t hear Erin’s warning. But he couldn’t have missed Eater of Spears. The Hobgoblin punched his way through a rank of Cave Goblins who swarmed around him. He kicked and they disappeared.
Eater of Spears pointed. Headscratcher bared his teeth. he roared and charged. His enchanted axe swung. The glowing, expanded edge cut through the air in a wild swing. Eater of Spears leaned back. Headscratcher tried to bring his axe back. In that moment Eater of Spears punched.
Headscratcher landed. He didn’t remember flying. He tried to get up and realized he was on his back. His arms and legs flailed. He stood up, looked for his axe.
It was missing. Headscratcher got up groggily. Eater of Spears was walking towards him. His Hobs was cutting down the Cave Goblins around Headscratcher. His Cave Goblins. Eater of Spears grabbed a warhammer one of his warriors handed him and swept it in an arc. Cave Goblins went flying, broken, and shattered. A copy of Headscratcher’s assault.
Headscratcher got up. He roared, and charged Eater of Spears barehanded. The Hobgoblin raised a fist. Headscratcher ducked and felt the blow snap his ear. He ignored the pain and struck.
One blow. Two. The fury in Headscratcher burned. He struck Eater of Spears in the stomach. Five times, six times. The Hobgoblin grunted. He bent slightly. Headscratcher struck him and felt the huge Hobgoblins ribs creak. He swung—
Eater of Spear’s uppercut cracked half of Headscratcher’s ribs. Broke others. The Hob doubled over. The huge Hobgoblin stomped on him and then kicked. Headscratcher tumbled. Eater of Spears advanced on him as the Cave Goblins tried to shield Headscratcher. He waded through them, barely noticing their blades as they cut at his legs and lower body.
The muscle-bound Hobgoblin turned as he bent for Headscratcher. He saw a young woman standing with an army of Cave Goblins. She pointed and they charged Eater of Spears’ Hobs, holding them back. Eater of Spears stared at Erin and then he reached for his belt. She threw what she was holding.
A bottle, glowing bright yellow. The alchemical weapon flew towards Eater of Spears’ head. His eyes went wide. The Hobgoblin leaned to the left and the bottle flew past him.
Erin stared up at him. Eater of Spears calmly drew the throwing axe from his belt.
“[Unerring Throw]? Nice Skill. Perfect shot. Only works if I hold still.”
He lifted the throwing axe. Erin’s eyes went wide. She dove. Eater of Spears took aim—
And an arrow sprouted from his chest. He barely flinched. But it made his throw go wide. A Cave Goblin died instead of the young woman. Eater of Spears looked up and raised a forearm. Badarrow’s second arrow sprouted from his arm.
Eater of Spears grabbed the second axe from his belt, calmly ignoring the arrows, most of which broke without even penetrating his skin. He turned towards Erin and raised the second axe.
Someone tackled him. Eater of Spears grunted and took a step back. He looked down. It was Headscratcher. The Hob howled as he pushed. Eater of Spears tried to kick him, but the Hob was strong. Eater of Spears chopped down with his axe and Headscratcher lurched left. Eater of Spears kicked him down again.
Another arrow struck his arm. Eater of Spears growled. He lowered his arm, turned his head. Where—
There. Erin Solstice stood poised, arm cocked back. The bag flew into the air. Eater of Spears sighed. He dodged and the Tripvine Bag exploded harmlessly somewhere behind him.
“I told you.”
He raised his axe. Erin nodded.
“Yeah. You did.”
Eater of Spears’ arm drew back. He aimed at Erin, expecting her to dodge. But she was still. Why was—
Below him, a little Cave Goblin threw the vial it was holding straight up. Eater of Spears saw it coming and his head jerked back. But the little bottle was uncorked. And the concentrated Pepper Potion flew up his nose. Into his eyes.
Eater of Spears screamed. Erin saw his hands go up and claw at his face. The Hob, who had ignored swords and arrows without so much as flinching, howled and clawed at his face. The Cave Goblin scrambled back as Eater of Spears flailed wildly with the axe in his hand.
“Got him! Headscratcher!”
The [Innkeeper] turned and looked for her friend. The Hob was getting up. Headscratcher downed the healing potion, and stood up. A Cave Goblin held something up. His axe. He turned towards Eater of Spears. The giant was still roaring. Headscratcher activated the enchantment on his axe. He burst towards Eater of Spears with a roar—
And Eater of Spears charged.
He ran straight ahead, straight towards Erin. Headscratcher swung at him and the axe bit into Eater of Spears’ side, but the giant was moving too fast. Eater of Spears came up the hill and Erin dove.
The Cave Goblins scrambled out of the way. But Eater of Spears kept going. He ran up the hills, swinging his arms, sending Cave Goblins flying. He kept going, tripping, falling down the hill, standing up, running forwards.
Straight into the Flooded Waters tribe. The Goblins saw Eater of Spears coming and turned. They raised their pikes, set themselves. Erin watched Eater of Spears crash into the pikes. The metal tips dug into his flesh—
And the pikes splintered. The Goblins holding them were thrown back. Eater of Spears threw them aside. He bashed in a Hob’s skull with one flailing fist, struck at the Goblins with the throwing axe in his hand. On he went. The Goblins in front of him ran out of the way or died.
“Oh my god!”
Erin shouted. Eater of Spears just kept going! He could barely see, but it didn’t matter. He ran straight through Rag’s tribe, sending Goblins flying. They couldn’t kill him!
But they had bought a reprieve. Shakily, Erin turned. Headscratcher was bent, clutching his ribs.
“Go! Go back!”
Headscratcher shouted at Erin. He waved his axe and she stopped. Then she realized. They were too close to the fighting with Eater of Spears’ warriors. Headscratcher wanted her to go back. To be safe.
Erin shouted at Headscratcher. He waved his axe at her.
The young woman shook her head. She looked around. The Cave Goblins were rallying on her. Headscratcher’s group, Numbtongue’s…they were following her.
“I can’t go. We have to stop them! The mages!”
Erin pointed at the hill. The undead were still rising. And they were truly pushing back the Solstice Goblins now. Headscratcher nodded. He pointed and the Cave Goblins streamed towards the hill. He ran ahead of Erin, swinging his axe.
But there was a wall of Goblins between them and the hilltop where the mages stood. Reiss’ Hobs barred the path, and what was worse, Draug. Erin saw the first huge undead Hobgoblin crushing bodies like grapes and even Headscratcher had to slow to battle them.
“Keep going! We have to keep going!”
Erin shouted as she hunted at her belt for another potion. Another of Octavia’s weapons. Anything. But she didn’t have any more tricks. And the Goblins—
They were aiming at her and Headscratcher now. One threw a [Fireball] and it sent Cave Goblins flying. Another shot what looked like poison gas from his wand. Erin covered her mouth and screamed at the Cave Goblins to run. But they were fighting undead, who didn’t even notice. They didn’t need to breathe or see.
It was impossible. They’d never make it. But they had to. They had to. Erin stared at the Goblin [Mages]. They were aiming again. Someone had to do something.
And then the skies flashed. Erin saw the light. She heard the roar. The hilltop with the [Mages] vanished. Erin stumbled backwards as noise and light burst, deafening and blinding her. She couldn’t hear anything for a while. When she could see again she looked up.
The [Mages] were gone. A few were trying to get up, but over half had been charred. The rest had been sent flying. By what? Erin saw another flash.
Lightning. She looked around and saw another bolt blast into the ranks of the Goblin Lord’s forces. Goblins and Hobs went flying. And then another bolt of lightning fell. And another.
Erin scrambled onto a hilltop to see. Who was casting the magic? Who—and then she saw.
On a distant hilltop. Far, far from the battle he stood. His arms were raised. The sky was dark and clouds gathered above his head. Bursts of electricity shot from his raised hands. They arced upwards and lightning flashed down. The Goblin [Mage] laughed as he pointed and lightning struck.
Noears stood on the roof of Erin’s inn, on the shattered third floor where Bird’s tower had been. He stood alone. And each bolt of lightning he called down from the heavens was minutes apart. But the force in each one was overwhelming. It was lightning magic. Pure lightning, not conjured from his hands. But how was he doing it?
Erin stared at her inn. She could feel it. Dimly, at the back of her mind. Her inn was where Noears stood. Empty. Abandoned. It had been deserted, stripped of everything. Adventurers. Guests. And her magic door.
The magic door that could teleport someone a hundred miles away to Celum, or even further, to Pallass. A magic door fueled by the mana from her inn. Only, it wasn’t there. And now, all the mana normally used by the magic door, all the power was his.
The [Mage] couldn’t see her. He was pointed at the sky. Another bolt of lightning arced down. Straight towards the Goblin Lord. Reiss looked up and raised a hand.
A spire of bone caught the lightning, exploding just over Reiss’ head. He turned and pointed.
The black magic sped across the battlefield. But even Reiss’ aim was insufficient. Noears laughed as the spell went wide of him by twenty feet. His arms trembled as they rose.
“More! More lightning!”
His arms tingled. Noears shot more electricity towards the sky. Charging the air. He had to keep the lightning falling. But it was so hard. And he was so far away. Sweat streamed down his face. Each time he called a bolt of lightning down, even with the excess mana, he felt his heart stopping and skipping beats. The pain—
He had to do it. Another bolt arced down from the heavens. It blew apart Reiss’ warriors. But it had missed its target—Snapjaw and her riders. Noears stumbled. His vision greyed. He pointed at the sky. He had to keep casting. Empty mana bottles lay at his feet. He had charged the air. He had to bring down more lightning. Had to—
A bolt of lightning fell from the skies. It landed among a group of Hobs. Noears lowered his hand and stared. He hadn’t called that one. What was—
He heard a song. It echoed across the hills. Noears looked and saw him.
He stood on top of a hill, surrounded by the others. Cave Goblins, holding instruments. They played with him, following his melody. The sound shouldn’t have carried across the battlefield. But it did. The Hob played on his guitar and electricity danced across the chords. He played and the lightning flashed down.
Once. Twice. Numbtongue ignored the fighting around him. Reiss’ warriors tried to swarm up the hill and his Goblins held them back. The Hob played and called the lightning. His Goblins played with them, a song of thunder.
Noears grinned. He raised his burning arms to the sky and electricity shot from his fingers. It arced into the clouds and came down. It was undirected until Numbtongue gave it form. Noears poured all the mana in his body, all of his power into the sky.
“Rain it down! Bring him down!”
He screamed to Numbtongue. And though he was too far away, he knew Numbtongue understood. Lightning flashed down across the Goblin Lord’s army. Reiss looked up as more lightning fell.
“What is that? A Goblin [Bard]? They don’t exist. How? How are they doing this? Destroy them already.”
Az’kerash’s voice shook. Spires of bone rose upwards, catching the falling lightning. But the cost of defending against the lightning meant less of the Necromancer’s power could go towards the undead. The ceaseless stream of bodies began to slow.
But still. It didn’t matter. Reiss looked across the battlefield and saw the Flooded Waters tribe, the Cave Goblins, even the Redfangs were stuck. They were struggling, but they still couldn’t advance. They had slowed. And like flies in a spider’s web, they were caught.
“Just by numbers.”
Zevara stood on her walls. The Watch Captain stared at the fighting Goblins, feeling sick. She looked up as more stones fell towards her walls.
She sheltered herself, feeling the thud of impacts. Hearing a [Guardswoman] cry out in agony and then go silent. But the majority of the stones hadn’t even hit her walls. They were all clustered on one spot.
“The eastern gates are falling.”
Zevara got up. She stared at Klbkch. The Revalantor hadn’t bothered to duck. He was standing on the walls with the Soldiers, watching the battle. He hadn’t looked away once.
That was all Zevara said. The metal was folding, bending inwards. A few more hits—one direct one—and it might completely fall inwards. And the stone was—cracked. The walls might come down.
The walls of Liscor. How could it happen? The Humans were using enchanted munitions, true. And they had been volleying endlessly since the battle began. But still.
“It won’t be the same. Now they have siege weapons, they’ll be able to take Liscor. The other cities.”
Zevara stared at the Human army. Klbkch didn’t turn his head.
“The Goblin Lord is winning.”
The Watch Captain wrenched her gaze away from the Human army. She had a bitter taste in her mouth as she stared at the Solstice Goblins. If they had managed to take him out—but they could delay him. Weaken his army, at least.
“So many undead. How powerful is that Goblin Lord?”
“Powerful. As strong as the ones who rode with Velan.”
The words chilled Zevara. But Klbkch would know. She stared at the army of Goblins.
“They’re not going to make it. They’re surrounded.”
“They must. She is there.”
“They can’t, Klbkch. They need—something. They can’t do it. Not alone.”
Zevara looked around helplessly. The [Guardsmen] of Liscor, the adventurers stared at Zevara. They gazed out across the Floodplains, towards the fighting Goblins.
Not one of them moved. Halrac gritted his teeth as he stared at Erin. Typhenous bowed his head. Below, in the Hive of the Free Antinium, the Free Queen listened through Klbkch.
“They are going to lose.”
Belgrade spoke involuntarily. He shuddered as the Free Queen and the puppet used by the five Queens looked at him. The Grand Queen’s voice was imperious.
“Why not? This is the desired outcome. These Goblins were not projected as part of the plan.”
“But Erin is there.”
“So? What is an Erin and why does it matter? The Human?”
Belgrade ignored the Grand Queen. He stared down at the map, longing to be above. If he could be there. If he could go—he looked despairingly at Anand. The other [Tactician]’s head was bowed. But his gaze was not despairing as he looked up.
“It is not over yet.”
Belgrade stared down at the map. It was over to him. There was no way the Solstice Goblins, Erin’s side could win.
“How do you know?”
“Because it is her. Erin. Belgrade, it is not over yet.”
The [Tactician] reached out and gripped Belgrade’s shoulders with one of his four arms.
The two Workers stared at each other. And then Belgrade looked at the map. He closed his mandibles and looked up. Then his head turned.
Pawn stood with Yellow Splatters. They were positioned near the entrance to the Hive. The public entrance, that was. The Painted Soldiers were stationed there, ready to fight the rear-guard action when Liscor fell. They were waiting. Waiting for the city to fall.
But the Worker stood with them. Pawn clutched his censer tied to his walking stick in his four hands. He looked up at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] stood with Purple Smile, at the head of the Painted Soldiers. Yellow Splatters’ arms were crossed.
“She is out there. She is leading the Goblins. They’re fighting. For her. Erin is out there. She needs our help. The Goblin Lord will win. He will—he will kill her. Please.”
Yellow Splatters did not move. The big Soldier hadn’t moved. Even after Pawn had explained what was going on. It was not that he didn’t care. He was listening, as hard as he ever had to Pawn’s please. But he was conflicted.
The Goblins were fighting. Erin Solstice was among them. She was trying to defend Liscor. And because she was there, Pawn had come to him. To Yellow Splatters and the Painted Soldiers. To beg them to defy Klbkch and their Queen. To fight a battle against the Goblin Lord, against the Grand Queen’s orders.
All for Erin. Pawn had asked them to fight, and because they were Soldiers, die. For her. But how could Yellow Splatters ever agree?
It was not their fight. Yellow Splatters looked down the line of Painted Soldiers. It was not their battle. Moreover, it was not a situation where the Antinium would survive. There were hundreds of thousands of Goblins. The Painted Soldiers were six hundred strong, and of that number, only two hundred were ‘old’. They had levels, but they were all under Level 20.
They couldn’t win. They would die, and for what? Friendship? A warm meal? A…smile?
It wasn’t enough. How could you weigh the lives of the Antinium like that? Yellow Splatters looked at Pawn. He didn’t have to explain any of it. Pawn knew. The Worker bowed his head. He had tried for half-an-hour to reason with Yellow Splatters. To no avail. The other Soldiers were restless, but they followed Yellow Splatters in this.
It wasn’t enough. Yellow Splatters didn’t move. He stared down at Pawn. The Worker clutched at his censer. He sought for words, spoke in a trembling voice.
“I know. I know how much I’m asking. I know it’s just one person. I know she’s not Antinium. I know. Even if the Goblins are our—our friends. Even then, I know what it would cost. But Erin…”
He broke off, shaking his head. The Painted Soldiers were all listening. They stood straight, motionless, waiting for orders. But they listened like Yellow Splatters. They judged. They decided, where they had obeyed. It was a terrifying thing.
The Worker went on. He spoke to Yellow Splatters, his voice numb.
“It’s her. She made me, me. I owe her everything. We do. If she dies…if she dies, what purpose have I? She told me of faith. She played chess with me. She was kind when no one else was. If she dies—how could I live? How could I continue?”
The Soldiers stirred. Yellow Splatters hesitated. Pawn looked up at him. The Antinium did not cry, but there was no need for tears. All Yellow Splatters had to do was look in his eyes.
“I have no right to ask it of you. But I am no Soldier. And you are. I beg you. All of you. There is no good reason I can give. Only that she must not die. Please. She gave me everything.”
He bowed his head. Spent. Pawn sank to his knees. He was empty. Helpless. He wished he could fight. But alone he was useless. As useless as he had ever been.
He began to curl up. And a part of him wept inside, though he had never known tears. Pawn sank lower and lower. Until a hand reached down. Yellow Splatters gripped Pawn by the shoulders. The Worker looked up.
The Soldier stood above him. An impassive face. Tearing mandibles. A deep gaze. Yellow Splatters turned. The bright splats of paint on his body caught the light. He looked down the ranks of Painted Soldiers as Pawn slowly rose.
Slowly Yellow Splatters stepped forwards. The Painted Soldiers waited. He raised one finger. Pointed down the line of Soldiers. The meaning was clear.
The Painted Soldiers held still. They waited, and for a second Pawn despaired. He feared none would volunteer. But then a hundred moved.
A hundred Soldiers. They were the not the hundred closest to Yellow Splatters. They stepped out of line, in pairs, alone, in large groups. Seemingly at random. But as Pawn looked down the line for Soldiers, at the hundred chosen, he understood.
They were the first. The ones who had heard Pawn’s stories, the ones who had survived the mass suicide. The oldest. None of them were more than three years old.
Yellow Splatters nodded. He turned, and the Soldiers stepped into line behind him. Purple Smile moved. He looked uncertainly at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] nodded to him. Purple Smile nodded slowly.
That was all. Pawn stared at the Soldiers. Yellow Splatters began to walk. They followed him, abandoning their posts. Disobeying direct orders from their Queen. The Hive.
Going to battle.
Words could not express what Yellow Splatters was feeling. He walked, feeling death in the air. Death, sadness, determination, a giddy excitement at betraying his hive. But strangely, no regret. He marched ahead, through the Hive, until he realized someone was following him. He halted and the Painted Soldiers stopped with him. He stared at Pawn and held an arm out. The Worker stopped, and placed one of his hands on Yellow Splatter’s arm.
“I’m going with you.”
Shock. The other Soldiers stared. Yellow Splatters shook his head. Unacceptable. Pawn was…everything. He had brought the Painted Soldiers freedom. Without him—he was to them what Erin was to him. But Pawn refused to be moved.
“You can’t stop me. You’ll need my prayers. It might help. And I can shout to Erin.”
It made sense. But Yellow Splatters refused to budge. He blocked Pawn’s way. The Worker looked into the [Sergeant]’s eyes.
“I can’t ask you to do this without going as well.”
But if you die—
Yellow Splatters wanted to speak. More than anything, in that moment he wanted to say something. But he had no words. And as he thought them, he realized what he was saying. It was what Pawn had said.
Slowly, the [Sergeant] turned. The Painted Soldiers stared at his back, but Yellow Splatters just kept marching. Slowly, Pawn fell in beside him. The two walked in silence. But Yellow Splatters was happy to have Pawn. Happy. Afraid. He felt alive.
This was how the Painted Soldiers went.
They marched through the dark tunnels, past Workers and other Soldiers who turned to watch. Each Soldier was alone with their thoughts, and each was together. They followed Yellow Splatters, followed Pawn upwards, out of the secret tunnels.
To death. But the Soldiers thought little of that. They had been asked and they had answered. Instead, as the ground sloped upwards, the Soldiers looked up. Bright light shone on their faces, and they smiled, then. Even if the smile was only in their hearts.
It was good to see the sky.
They were losing the battle. Laken listened to the reports coming to his position with a sinking heart. He could only imagine the battle. He could hear distant sounds, the sound of thunder. And around him, the thumping of trebuchets. But nothing else. He bowed his head.
A young woman leading Goblins. An army opposing the Goblin Lord. Here he was. There was good and evil here. Perhaps not right and wrong, but a choice to be made. He looked up.
He felt a touch at his arm. Gamel stood by his [Emperor]. Laken tilted his head towards the sky. He could hear only screams. Death. But he thought he knew what had to be done.
“Get me Tessia. Now.”
Gamel ran. Laken stayed where he was. He kept listening. Lord Tyrion was aiming for the gates. He wanted them down and the walls breached by the time the Goblin Lord was finished. The Cave Goblins were dying. The other tribes were being pushed back. They were losing. There was no hope.
Rags slid from her saddle. She had arrived too late. Too late. She stood on the cliff, at the edge of the Floodplains. She had come so far. So far, at such speed. But it was too late.
The battle was underway. And even so far away, Rags could see. Her tribe was losing. They were fighting with the Redfangs, with the strange grey Goblins. But they were outnumbered, retreating. And Reiss kept advancing. Even the lightning wasn’t slowing his forces.
“Chieftain. What do we do?”
Rags turned. She saw a few hundred of Tremborag’s Goblins, eight Redfangs, Pyrite, Ulvama, and Garen looking to her. Garen was holding his crimson blade. His teeth were bared and his Carn Wolf was growling. But the Hobgoblin had a grip on his wolf’s mouth, preventing it from howling.
Because of the Humans. Their army was in front of the Goblins. A vast host, infantry, trebuchets, [Mages], and cavalry. They were spread out—Tyrion’s riders in front, the trebuchets in the middle and infantry surrounding them at the back. Rags could see tens of thousands of [Soldiers] in ranks. Waiting to move in.
They were between her and her tribe. There was no way they’d be able to get around them. Garen shifted.
“Could run past. Me and Redfangs.”
“No. You die. And we die.”
Rags shook her head. Garen had barely slipped past them once, and that was with a hundred of his warriors in the cover of night. When they were on the move? Now? They would be dead before they even cleared the trebuchets. She stared at her tribe.
“Have to do something. Have to.”
“Chieftain. We can fight. Cause distraction.”
One of Tremborag’s Hobs offered. Pyrite shook his head.
“Not big enough distraction. Need one to occupy army. Especially—him.”
He pointed at Tyrion Veltras. The Hob was staring at the battle. He had hold of his battleaxe and he was strong enough to lift it. He was restless. They all were. But Rags couldn’t figure out what to do.
How? How could she save her tribe? She burned to race towards them. But that was death. Rags bowed her head. By the time they went around the cliffs, it would be too late by hours. Could they really cause a distraction? With what? Ulvama’s spells? She had nothing strong enough? What if—
Memory. Something tugged at Rags’ mind. A thought. She looked around and recalled something.
Long ago. A skeleton racing out of a cliff. Enchanted armor. Crossbows. Dropclaw bats. A bunch of cursed amulets. And—
A cave. Rags looked up. She stared around and then saw it.
Her Goblins stared. They looked at a little cave set into the stone. Rags pointed at it.
“What is it?”
“Cave. Leads to dungeon.”
Rags explained to Garen and Pyrite. Her heart was racing. She had no idea if the dungeon led towards Liscor. But maybe—
Garen’s eyes were troubled. The Hobgoblin shifted restlessly.
“Dungeon is very dangerous. Without [Rogue], will die to traps.”
“What about Chieftain good with rocks? What other choice is there?”
Pyrite questioned the Redfang Chieftain. Garen eyed him, but said nothing. Rags leapt down the cliff.
The Goblins entered the cave cautiously. They looked up for Dropclaw bats, but there were none. They must have all flown off. Rags led the way. She was desperate, still despairing inside. They’d never make it. How long would it take them to find a way through the dungeon? But if—
She paused as she entered the main cave and looked around. Something was wrong. Someone had been living here. There were scorch marks on the ground, trash. Signs of habitation.
“A tribe lived here? Or old trash from your tribe?”
Garen frowned around the cave. Rags shook her head.
Pyrite bent down and sniffed at some leftover charcoal. He straightened, frowning about, and then his keen eyes narrowed.
He pointed. There was a sound. Rags turned. Garen’s Carn Wolf growled and the Hobgoblin pointed.
A little Goblin flinched and cowered against the rocks. She’d hid herself by a plank of wood. Rags blinked. Garen’s wolf growled, but the Hobgoblin held it still. Rags looked at Pyrite. The Goblin was very small, barely more than a child. And her skin was…grey.
Rags put out an arm and stopped Pyrite. She approached the Cave Goblin slowly. The little Goblin cowered. She was holding something red in her hands. And she’d been lying on something. It looked like a dirty, white…hat?
Rags halted as the Cave Goblin flinched away from her. The Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe blinked down at Pebblesnatch. The little Goblin looked up. Rags was barely taller than her.
“I am Rags. Flooded Waters tribe Chieftain. Who you?”
The Cave Goblin froze with panic. But then she gabbled her name. Rags frowned.
“Why you alone? You live here? Where other Goblins? Tribe?”
Pebblesnatch was too afraid to speak. Rags squatted by her, trying to demand answers, but the little Goblin was petrified. She kept staring at Garen and his Carn Wolf for some reason.
“Take too long. Want me to charm her?”
Ulvama grumbled. Pyrite stared at the [Shaman] disapprovingly. Garen stared at Ulvama’s chest. The female Hob glared at them.
The Hobs shook their heads. Rags glared and pointed.
The others left to watch the battle and figure something else out. Rags stayed. Garen did too. He was checking out the dungeon, frowning into it.
“Dungeon was cleared. Looks like statues gone.”
Rags was astonished. She went to look. There was a strange wall where there hadn’t been before, and a bit of it had been broken down. The statues were all gone—smashed, if the rubble was any indication. She stared around. And then, only then, did Pebblesnatch move.
The little Goblin crept up behind Rags and Garen. The two turned to look at her and she flinched and nearly fled. But she raised a trembling claw. She had the red mana stone in one hand, her chef’s hat in the other. She was afraid. But she looked at Garen. At his Carn Wolf. At the war paint that was so familiar. And she spoke a word.
The two Goblins stared at her. Rags opened her mouth, and looked at Garen. He nodded. He tapped his chest.
Pebblesnatch stared up at him. She had seen Garen fight Headscratcher, seen him flee. But she had witnessed the Humans, seen the Goblin Lord. And she knew her tribe was dying. She looked to Rags. And then she began to speak. Rags demanded answers.
“What is beyond wall? Is there way through dungeon? Fast way?”
No. No fast way. Or safe way, either. Pebblesnatch bowed her head. She was nearly in tears as she told Rags about the Raskghar, about the dungeon and the invisible much-death in the room beyond. About the secret entrances and exits, and the flooded rift. If they could go through the many trap rooms, maybe—
Rags listened, heart racing, mind blurring with fear and thoughts and impatience. And then everything crystallized. She latched onto something Pebblesnatch had said and stared at the Cave Goblin. Garen looked at her, suddenly alert. Rags stared at the wall. At the dungeon and what lay beyond. And then she turned.
“Get Pyrite. Hurry.”
They were running. The Free Queen saw it through Klbkch’s eyes. She relayed the news quietly. Calmly. She felt his distress. But she kept it out of her tone.
“The Goblins are falling back. Losing ground.”
The Grand Queen and her puppet rubbed their feelers together. Her tone was smug. For that reason alone the Free Queen wished the Goblins and Erin Solstice would win. But it was impossible. How could they win? She felt Klbkch’s grip tightening on his swords and urged him silently not to move.
And then she felt it. So did Klbkch. The Revalantor slowly looked up.
“What is that?”
Zevara glanced sharply at Klbkch. Both he and the Free Queen ignored the Watch Captain. They stared to the left. Towards an entrance into the Flood Plains only they knew. And then—
The Free Queen’s breath caught as she saw the first bodies leaving her Hive. She felt them. A hundred and two. A Worker holding a censer. A [Sergeant], larger than any other Soldier. And a hundred of the Painted Soldiers.
“What? What is going on?”
“The Painted Soldiers. They have left their positions. And so has Pawn.”
The Free Queen and Klbkch spoke the same words. Their voices were one.
“They are going to try and save Erin.”
Zevara stared at the dark Antinium. Her eyes widened. The Grand Queen lurched upwards, alarmed.
“That is not part of the plan! Why did you order this, Free Queen?”
“I did not. They disobeyed me.”
The Free Queen spoke quietly. The five Queens went still.
The Free Queen didn’t answer. Belgrade and Anand looked up. Bird tried to sit up.
“Pawn is going? With the colorful Soldiers?”
The Free Queen watched them march. She felt them in her mind. Both she and Klbkch watched them go. And they thought as one.
“Unacceptable. Unacceptable. Order them back. Recover them. The Hive cannot lose an asset. The battle must be lost. Do you hear me? Free Queen? Free Queen?”
The puppet was raising its voice and the Grand Queen spoke sharply through her scrying mirror. The Free Queen glanced towards her. And in that moment she made her decision. She bent down low, towards the puppet and opened her mandibles. The little copy of the Queen bent back. The Free Queen spoke one word.
The Antinium in the chamber stared. The little Queen and the Grand Queen hesitated.
“What do you mean, what? I gave you orders. Carry them out.”
The Free Queen stared. She tilted her head from side to side and then shook her head.
“I did not hear that. Can you speak again? Louder? Your connection is breaking up, my Queen. I am afraid I cannot hear your orders. Hello?”
“What is the meaning of this? I said—can you hear me?”
“My audio reception is perfect.”
“Is something the matter? Why can the Free Queen not hear us?”
“I. Wonder why.”
“I cannot hear anything, my Queen.”
The Free Queen repeated herself loudly over the babble of voices. She looked at the Workers. Belgrade and Anand shot each other quick glances. Anand nodded.
“I believe the, uh, vessel has malfunctioned. As has the scrying glass. I am quite deaf to the Grand Queen’s orders. I cannot hear a thing.”
Belgrade nodded, his antennae waving about wildly. The Grand Queen spluttered. The Free Queen smiled.
“I hear nothing. Do you, Bird?”
The little Worker looked up at the Free Queen. His voice was small, but distinct. He looked towards the ceiling. Towards the marching Soldiers.
“I hear laughter. They’re laughing. And so are you.”
The elation in the Free Queen turned to surprise. Shock. She stared down at Bird, tuning out the Grand Queen. Had he just—
The Free Queen kept looking at Bird. Her mandibles opened, and then her head turned. Her attention snapped back to Klbkch. Above, she saw the reaction to the Painted Soldiers play out, on the walls, on the battlefield, and across the world.
“What in the name of love are those things?”
“Send word to Lord Veltras! The Antinium are on the march!”
“It’s only a hundred! Only—”
The Human army stared as the Antinium emerged seemingly from the ground. Tyrion Veltras stared as the Painted Antinium marched forwards, across the Floodplains.
“Jericha. What are those Antinium? A new variant?”
“They’re—we sighted them around Liscor previously but—we have no knowledge of them, Lord Veltras. They’re…new.”
Tyrion stared at the Soldiers. They looked just like ordinary Soldiers. But the paint on their bodies. That was different. On any other species, he would dismiss it as decoration. But the Antinium had no decoration.
“There are only a hundred of them.”
“But are they going to reinforce the Goblins? Attack both sides? What?”
“We should ready a defense. Just in case. Attack them from afar, even. If they close—”
Tyrion turned to the arguing [Strategists].
“No. We hold back. Watch them.”
His words were unnecessary. Everyone was watching the strange new Antinium. Tyrion turned back to the battle. It was just a hundred. They couldn’t do a thing. He knew that intellectually. But for the first time since this battle had begun he began to grow vaguely uneasy.
And on they came.
“Is that Pawn?”
Ceria stared down at the Antinium from the walls. She recognized the Worker. The other adventurers craned over the battlements, keeping a watchful eye out for more falling stones.
“It is Pawn! What is he doing? Has everyone gone mad?”
“Pawn, get back here!”
Jelaqua bellowed at the Worker. But if he heard, he never slowed. He was marching with the others. Ceria vaguely recognized Yellow Splatters. She turned to Ksmvr to ask what they were doing. And stopped. Ksmvr was staring down at the Painted Soldiers. And he looked far away.
The former Prognugator didn’t turn. He opened his mandibles slowly.
“What are Pawn and the Soldiers doing? They’re not fighting, are they?”
“But they’ll die!”
The Antinium looked up. His mandible opened and he straightened. He looked down at the Painted Antinium as the Drakes and Gnolls looked down. The adventurers stood together. Ksmvr’s nodded.
“That is what they are doing. Dying.”
At first the Goblins didn’t notice them. They were harrying the retreating Solstice Goblins, pressing them back. It wasn’t easy. The Flooded Waters tribe was dug in. The Redfangs fought like demons. And the Cave Goblins refused to buckle. But by numbers they were losing. Eater of Spears was cutting back. Snapjaw was attacking from the flanks, skirmishing with the Redfangs. And Reiss had created a shield of bone spires. Now he was directing the undead to attack.
So it was little wonder that the Antinium weren’t spotted by the Goblins on either side at first. There were only a hundred. But they were different.
They marched in ranks of five abreast, Yellow Splatters and Pawn in the lead. Each Soldier’s body was marked by paint. Each was unique.
A flower drawn in black paint with white petals. Raindrops, the first ever seen. A series of numbers without reason. Words painted in every color that had meaning only to the Soldier who’d drawn it.
Their march was steady. Quick. And as they marched, they listened. The Goblins were ahead of them. But it was not on them the Painted Soldiers focused. It was on the Worker who marched at their head. Pawn swung the censer, his voice loud. The censer burned cinnamon. The sweet smoke drifted across the Soldiers.
Time seemed slow to him. Despite the urgency of their pace, Pawn felt like each moment was forever. Was this Erin’s [Immortal Moment]? His words echoed in his mind, across the Soldiers.
“We are going to war. We are going to fight, though this is not our battle.”
The Soldier’s mandibles snapped together as one. Pawn heard the sound reverberate through his soul. He went on. His voice was shaking.
“We pray not for victory. We pray only that we might live. That we survive. That Erin lives. That our friends live.”
The Goblin Lord’s army had seen them now. Reiss turned on the back of his Shield Spider. His master uttered the first curse word he had spoken in three years. Reiss stared, and then pointed.
Goblins in black armor moved to set themselves against the Antinium. They stared uneasily at the insect-people. But [Archers] were already moving. A thousand Goblins set themselves in place. Enough. The Painted Soldiers’ pace never wavered. Pawn continued, staring at the Goblins as they slowly took positions. They were so far away, still.
“There are no gods for us to pray to. None that will listen to the Antinium. None that will care. We are alone. But we are still Antinium.”
“So. Pray not to gods, but believe in each other. Fight, and survive. Believe that Heaven awaits. Arrows shall pierce our bodies. Steel rend our chitin. We will bleed and perish. But believe. We may fall, but we will find Heaven afterwards. Even if it only exists in our minds. And know that you will be remembered forever.”
Click. Now the Goblins were ready. A ripple went through their ranks. They were raising bows, aiming. A Goblin [Mage] conjured fire. Pawn’s grip tightened on his staff. He shouted the last words, or perhaps they shouted themselves.
“For so long as one Antinium lives, we shall never be forgotten.”
There was no signal. No command. The Painted Soldiers saw the Goblins draw back. Their pace quickened. The march turned into a run. Then a sprint. The Goblins aimed. They loosed as one. Pawn was running. He raised his staff up. The censer released smoke. And the arrows flew.
The Painted Soldiers charged. The Goblins were hundreds of paces away yet. But the arrows were falling. Like rain. They landed among the Soldiers, hundreds of them. First one volley, then another. The Goblin Lord’s archers never stopped firing. But the Soldiers ran on. They had no shields to protect them. Only an invisible thing.
Believe. Believe they would survive to meet the Goblins. The first arrow struck a Soldier on the shoulder. It did not pierce far, but the tip cut past the shell of the Soldier. Blood ran down his chest. Still he ran.
Arrows fell among the Soldiers. They touched them. The Antinium bled. But none fell.
Perhaps it was a miracle. The arrows seemed to be missing. Or maybe it was the mud, the fighting. Poor visibility, a chance gust of wind.
The Goblins stared. They had expected a few Soldiers to fall. But the arrows were missing. And the Soldiers were drawing closer. The front rank of Hobs shifted uneasily. The Soldiers were as big as they were. And the one in front was bigger than the rest, or so it seemed. But they were Hobs. They held their ground. And the Antinium ran faster.
Pawn was in front. He didn’t know if he was screaming. He didn’t realize he’d outdistanced the others, even Yellow Splatters. He ran at the front rank of Goblins and then realized. He didn’t have a weapon!
The first Hobgoblin in black armor was turning, eyes wide. He had never seen the Antinium before. Pawn started to slow. The Hobgoblin had a mace. It raised it to strike at the Worker. Yellow Splatters charged past Pawn. His first fist struck the Hob across the face. The second grabbed the mace hand. Two more blows struck the Hob and the Goblin fell.
Pawn saw the Goblins turn. One struck at Yellow Splatters with a sword. The Soldier punched and the Goblin fell back, his face broken. A Soldier crashed into the Goblins next to Pawn. Another leapt. The Hobs looked up and a Soldier landed, crushing one with a knee. And ninety eight more charged past the rest.
It shouldn’t have mattered. They were only a hundred. A hundred bodies. A hundred fragile souls, nothing more. But they didn’t stop. The Painted Soldiers overran the first rank of Goblins, then the second. They didn’t stop.
Pawn screamed. The Goblins fell back. It could speak? The Worker ran with the Soldiers. They crashed into a wave of Goblins armed with spears. The metal broke on their bodies. It pierced them. It didn’t matter. They didn’t so much as slow. They had one thought in their minds.
Further. A Soldier reeled back, a spear stabbed through his guts. He looked down at the spear as the Goblin holding it twisted. The Soldier punched down and the spear broke. He grabbed the terrified the Goblin and broke its neck. Then he ran on.
Arrows flew down from above. The Goblin Lord was shooting at his own warriors! The Antinium looked up. One of them was struck half a dozen times. He bled. The raindrops on his body became green with his blood. And he did not stop.
The Soldier with raindrops ran on, ignoring the arrows protruding from his body. His fellows joined them. They had yet to fall. They would not fall.
On. There was nothing to hold them back. The Goblins began to flee in the face of the Antinium. They screamed and turned. Swords didn’t hurt them! They bled, but they didn’t die!
“Hold your positions! There are only a hundred!”
Reiss bellowed. But the Goblins were afraid. The Soldiers charged on, a wedge now. Led by Yellow Splatters. And Pawn. The Worker ran through Goblins, forging ahead. Towards Erin. Towards the Goblin Lord. He whirled his staff and struck a Goblin with the censer. With his other hand he struck another Goblin with a mace he’d picked up.
It wasn’t enough. They’d never make it. The Soldiers were taking injuries. And they were beginning to slow. Pawn saw one fall. The one with numbers. But the others kept moving. They’d never get to the Goblin Lord.
But they didn’t stop. They overran formations, charged past the stunned Solstice Goblins.
The Goblin Lord’s lines began to break.
Tyrion whispered. The Goblins were retreating. The Antinium were smashing through their lines. It was a suicide charge. But somehow, the Soldiers weren’t dying.
“Do they have some kind of special armor? How are they still moving? What kind of Antinium is this?”
Jericha stared at the Antinium. Her face was pale. The Soldiers should not be doing this. Even Antinium had limits. But not this group. And the Solstice Goblins were rallying around the Soldiers. Redscar pointed and his Redfangs raced after the Painted Soldiers. Lightning flashed down ahead of them, clearing a path. Numbtongue roared and Yellow Splatters looked up. The Goblins surged after the Antinium.
This was the spear they needed. The five Redfangs charged again. The momentum was again against the Goblin Lord.
But he had his army. He could still win. He just needed to slow them. Tyrion gritted his teeth. He looked around.
His aide blinked. She looked at Tyrion and then colored.
“Tell the Gold-rank teams to deploy their [Archers]. Take down the Goblin leaders.”
The [Mage]’s eyes widened. She nodded and shouted orders. Tyrion saw the message race across the lines of his soldiers, to the group of irregular adventurers. They were behind the lines of cavalry. They had no intention of participating in the mass-combat. But at Tyrion’s orders the teams with high-level [Archers] came forward.
“He wants us to hit the Goblin leaders? From here?”
One of the Gold-rank captains exclaimed with dismay. Another, a man named Jackal, turned to the [Messenger].
“Which ones are we hitting? The Goblin Lord’s?”
“No, the Goblins defending Liscor.”
Jackal swore. He looked at his team. The only other adventurer with a bow, their [Ranger], looked unhappy.
“Jack, what’s the point of this? You saw that girl. Are we supposed to shoot her, too?”
“Only the Goblins. Lord Veltras was very specific about that.”
The [Messenger] interjected unhelpfully. Jackal gave him a long look. The Gold-rank adventurer shook his head. He selected an arrow and put it to his shortbow. The odds of him hitting one of the Goblins from here was remote, but the other adventurers might have a shot.
“We’ve got orders. Tyrion wants those Goblins to lose. So…let’s support that Goblin Lord. Sight on those Hobs. That one on the hill with the bow.”
Reluctantly, the other adventurers took aim. They sighted on Badarrow, who was loosing arrow after arrow. Jackal’s grip tightened on his arrow.
“[Farseeker Arrows]. [Double Arrow].”
He could hear the other adventurers using similar Skills. Jackal drew back. He could see the Antinium pushing forwards. He gritted his teeth. And then he looked up. Something bright flashed in the sky.
“Dead gods! Take cover!”
Jackal pointed up, screamed and threw himself sideways. The other adventurers didn’t bother looking. They dove. And then they saw what Jackal had.
The arrow that flew down out of the sky was glowing, its tip sparking with electricity. An enchanted arrow. It detonated as it struck the earth in front of Jackal’s team. The men and women cried out as the lightning earthed itself, mostly harmlessly.
“It got my armor!”
“Who shot that? A Goblin?”
The Humans milled about in a panic. Someone blew an alarm, but the adventurers were more concerned with the attack. Jackal pulled himself up. The [Ranger] grabbed his arm.
“That didn’t come from the Goblins. Jack! It came from the walls?”
“A Drake shot that?”
Jackal stared at Liscor. It was far too far away for anyone but a Level 30 [Archer] to hit them from. And an enchanted arrow? His eyes widened. He saw a figure standing on the battlements.
“Five families save me. That’s Halrac. He shot that arrow!”
The adventurers looked up. Some of them uttered oaths. Jackal looked at his companions uneasily.
“He’s covering the Goblins.”
“He can’t do that!”
Another Gold-rank captain exclaimed. Her face was pale. She raised her bow.
“There’s one of him! He can’t stop us from—”
A second arrow blasted a hole in the dirt in front of her. The adventurer recoiled. Jackal stared at the walls. The distant shape drew another arrow. Jackal looked at his team. Slowly, he lowered his bow. The [Messenger] stared incredulously at him.
“What are you doing? Lord Veltras ordered you to attack the Goblins!”
“Yeah. I don’t think so. You want to take them out, get your [Archers]. Halrac’s got the angle on us and he uses enchanted arrows. And he’s got a new bow. Get the Kingslayer to do it.”
The [Messenger] clamped his lips shut. Jackal eyed him, but the man was already riding back. The Gold-rank teams stared as another arrow flew from the wall. But it wasn’t aimed at them. And then they saw more flashes of light.
“What are they doing?”
“They can’t be—”
“They’re supporting the Goblins.”
Jackal was surprised there was no warble in his voice. He stared at the walls. Halrac was loosing arrow after arrow into the Goblin Lord’s army. And he wasn’t the only one.
The first arrow blew a cluster of Goblins to bits. The second one was aimed directly at Reiss. He barely saw it. A wall of bone rose in front of him and the arrow nearly shattered the wall of bone. Reiss stared. Someone was shooting arrows at him! And then he saw a glowing ball of light falling from the sky.
A star. It shone with beautiful blue light, surrounded by a nimbus of blue energy. And it landed and bloomed. Goblins died as the first comet struck the earth. And then the second.
Typhenous stood on the walls. He pointed and another comet fell to earth. By his side, Halrac loosed another arrow. The distance was incredible, but the [Scout] had calculated each shot. And he had a bow capable of making it.
To Zevara, it looked as though Halrac was holding nothing but air. Until she turned her head slightly and saw the invisible bow refracted slightly across the light. The arrows Halrac were firing were visible enough—until the [Scout] paused and drew another arrow out of the air. It was transparent and practically invisible. He aimed, fired. Reiss snarled as an arrow streaked past him. Only his master’s warning had saved him from the stealthed arrow.
“They’re covering the Goblins?”
“And the Antinium. Watch Captain, other adventurers are attacking as well!”
A [Guardswoman] shouted at Zevara. She turned and saw one of the other Gold-rank teams loosing arrows as well. Other mages capable of hitting the Goblins at this range were casting spells. Ceria and Pisces were trying to figure out a spell capable of hitting the Goblins.
“Should I tell them to hold their fire?”
Zevara hesitated. She looked back at the Goblin Lord. The Antinium were going for him. The Redfangs were cutting their own way through. This was it. She hesitated. They had a chance. If they—
A bright nova shot from the walls of Liscor. Zevara gaped as a massive ball of fire shot down towards the Goblin Lord’s army. Reiss’ warriors looked up, screamed, and vanished. Reiss shielded his eyes and stared. That had come from Liscor’s walls.
The [Strategist] had been using Liscor’s enchantments to shoot down trebuchet stones. He turned as Zevara ran over to him. He raised one claw as the smoldering scroll turned to dust.
“Tactical shot, Watch Captain.”
Zevara stared at Olesm. He didn’t look the least bit ashamed. She hesitated.
“I see. Refrain from further shots. Unless you’re sure you can get that bastard. Focus on hitting those damn rocks!”
“Yes, Watch Captain.”
Olesm saluted with one claw. He narrowed his eyes and turned back to watching the skies. So did Zevara. The next wave of boulders would be coming. She waited, tensed, ready to call out alarm. She saw the trebuchets firing, braced, saw where they would land…
Tyrion saw the boulders arc into the air. He saw them land. He stared as a dozen boulders crashed into the back of the Goblin Lord’s army. He roared.
“What was that!?”
Jericha was already racing towards the trebuchets. She came back, panting.
“It was Emperor Laken, Lord Veltras!”
“He ordered that?”
“No, sire. He claims they misfired, sir.”
Tyrion nearly choked on his own words. He nearly turned and rode towards the blind [Emperor] and caught himself just in time. He pointed at Jericha.
“Aim at Liscor! Tell that damned—ensure there are no more mistakes. Go!”
Jericha nodded and fled. Tyrion turned back to the battle. He was apoplectic with rage. His [Strategists] had gone silent. It shouldn’t have happened. But he could see it. So could anyone with an eye. Zevara, Olesm—even the blind [Emperor] must have sensed it.
The laughing Titan of Baleros saw it. He watched as the Antinium carved their way left of the Goblin Lord, drawing his forces away. As the adventurers bombarded the Goblin Lord’s forces. The lightning, the chance ‘misfire’ by the trebuchets—it broke the neat lines of the Goblin Lord’s army. Distracted him. All of it conspired for one thing, one moment that could be exploited, where the waves of warriors between the Goblins and the Goblin Lord drew back. It gave them what they needed.
And they came. Reiss tried to stop them. He saw his lieutenants trying to do the same. But Snapjaw was blocked by the trebuchet’s boulders and Redscar rode down on her. Eater of Spears was being targeted by the [Scout] with the magical arrows. And the Antinium had pressed too far into his lines. They were falling. But they had given them a gap. And into that gap they came.
Cave Goblins. A young woman. She led them, rallied them and forced the lines open. And the five charged ahead. Headscratcher. Numbtongue. Shorthilt. Badarrow. And Rabbiteater.
They were wounded. Tired. But they didn’t hesitate. Not for a second. There were only Reiss’ Hobgoblin bodyguards between them and the Goblin Lord. Headscratcher led the way. His axe shone as he cut down Hobs, swinging, clearing a path. And the world watched as he came on.
Ilvriss stared down at the scrying orb. He saw the Hobgoblin swinging, Shorthilt leaping forwards to cut an enemy down as Headscratcher swung again. The magical weapon cut the air, taking down three Hobs at once.
“Nice axe. I’ve never seen it before in my life.”
The Wall Lord clenched his claws into a fist. He saw Badarrow shoot a Goblin at point-blank range, and Rabbiteater dash past him. The Hob caught a blast of fire inside the liquid cloak.
“Waste of a good vintage. Go, you damn Goblins! Go!”
Numbtongue sang as he charged, swinging his guitar. In his seat at the table, Blackmage stood up.
“Go, guitar Goblin!”
Reiss turned. He pointed, and black magic coalesced around his finger.
The five Hobs saw the spell coming and avoided it. Flos laughed as he sat at his table, peering at the scrying orb.
“You can’t hit warriors with that spell! They’re going to reach him.”
“She did it.”
Gazi smiled. Her main eye was closed. Trey stared at Erin Solstice. So did Teres.
Erin was shouting. She raised a frying pan and threw it. The dented, battered pan flew through the air and nearly reached Reiss. But Erin was too tired so it just landed a few dozen feet short of him. The Blighted King shook his head.
He turned away from the scrying orb and waved his hand, dismissing it. The other nobility hesitated, then clustered around the orb. On came the five Redfangs. And then they were there.
Distant specks. Even in the scrying orb they were tiny. Falene stared at the Redfangs, trying not to blink. She saw them scale the hill, fighting past the last of the Hobs. And then they were there.
He waited for them. Reiss had dismounted from his Shield Spider. He stood tall, black magic swirling into a long sword. Death magic. A blade of darkness. In his other hand he conjured shards of bone. The Goblin Lord waited for the five of them.
They had never met. But it didn’t matter. They were Redfangs. And he was the Goblin Lord. They didn’t say much. Reiss saw them spread out as the Cave Goblins bought their heroes time.
“I am a Goblin Lord. Reiss. Why are you defying me?”
That was all he asked them. And the Redfangs shrugged. Headscratcher smiled.
They took their spots. Headscratcher in front, Shorthilt to the side. Badarrow took aim. Numbtongue and Rabbiteater came at the Goblin Lord from behind.
They fought. Reiss swung the magical blade. He shot bone darts, conjured a wall of bone. The undead rose, bursting from the ground. The Redfangs dodged and struck at him.
Armor of bones. Claws of bone. Reiss caught Headscratcher’s axe by the handle and threw the Hob. He shouted. He was a Goblin Lord! They were just Hobs!
He couldn’t be felled. Not by them! That was the difference between a Goblin Lord and a mere Chieftain. He had done what no other Goblin could. That was what it meant to be him. Reiss slashed and opened up Numbtongue’s chest. The Hobgoblin retreated, drinking a healing potion.
An arrow struck Reiss in the side. He staggered, pointed. Rabbiteater was blown back by an explosion of air. Shorthilt found a Draug locked onto his leg. It bit and tore at him as he cut it down. Headscratcher brought his axe down and Reiss conjured a shield of bone to protect him. The axe bit through the bone and Reiss stumbled back.
“I am Reiss!”
He spun and slashed Badarrow across the chest. The Hob grunted but managed to kick Reiss anyways. Headscratcher shoulder-charged the Goblin Lord. Reiss roared and threw him.
Strength. Skill. Speed. The five Hobs attacked again. Reiss defended himself from all sides. He was stronger than they were. He was beyond any Goblin.
Any one Goblin. But there were five. And it was enough. Reiss stumbled backwards as another arrow struck his leg. Shorthilt cut him across the back and Reiss struck at him. And then Rabbiteater slashed down and Headscratcher cut at him from the side. The Goblin Lord blocked one with spell, the other with his hand. And Numbtongue struck him across the face.
He fell. The Solstice Goblins roared. Reiss struggled to get up. Headscratcher charged him. And the Goblin Lord looked up. His black eyes widened. The white pupils contracted.
“Always. You always disappoint me, my apprentice.”
A voice spoke. Headscratcher blinked. He hesitated, and that was what saved his life.
Reiss’ body jerked. A hand rose and a voice spoke. But it was not Reiss’.
“[Mass Silent Sickle].”
Cutting blades filled the air. Headscratcher’s eyes widened. Rabbiteater threw himself forwards. The liquid cape exploded as the blades lacerated the liquid, cut into his armor. The [Champion] fell back, bleeding as the Goblin Lord rose. But he was not Reiss any longer.
Az’kerash turned. He wore a Goblin’s face. A different body from his own. But it was he who spoke. He who regarded the five Redfangs with contempt. Frustration.
“Five Hobs. An army of three tribes. Antinium. How dare you interfere? My apprentice fails me time and again. So it falls to me to do what must be done.”
The Redfangs looked at each other. Who was this? Every instinct in them cried out that it was not Reiss. And moreover—the way the stranger moved made them nervous. He looked from face to face and then gestured.
“I have little interest in wasting power. This will be enough for the likes of you.”
He raised one hand. The Redfangs braced. The ground shifted. Bone rose from the ground, white, pure ivory. It formed into a blade and a handle, curving, forming a guard, a mesh. The Necromancer drew a pure white rapier from the earth and passed his hand over it.
“[Bone Rapier]. [Bloodcaller’s Curse].”
The blade turned red. The Redfangs watched as the Necromancer lifted the blade. Reiss’ body was injured, but it moved fluidly. Az’kerash smiled thinly.
“It has been long since I last took up arms. This will be enough. Come, you—”
He broke off. His rapier snapped up and he slashed the arrow in half. The Necromancer stared at Badarrow. The Hobgoblin blinked. The Necromancer lunged.
Shorthilt slashed. Az’kerash pulled back smoothly. Badarrow stumbled. He stared at the wound in his shoulder. A deep hole had been drilled in his arm. Az’kerash retreated back, slashing. Shorthilt grunted as the blade opened up cuts along his arms. He deflected one, ducked back.
“I am out of practice.”
That was all Az’kerash said. The Hobs looked at each other. Badarrow scrambled for a potion. Shorthilt did the same. The Hobs drank as Az’kerash watched, a sardonic smile playing across his lips. The Redfangs waited. Shorthilt felt at his injures and froze.
The cuts weren’t healing, even with a potion. Badarrow stared at his wounded shoulder. The Necromancer nodded.
“A fool relies on alchemical tricks. So, Goblins. Show me what my apprentice failed to defeat.”
He raised his rapier. The five Redfangs looked at each other.
They could have run. They could have fled.
But they couldn’t have. Not really. They spread out, setting themselves. Headscratcher’s axe glowed. The Necromancer regarded it idly.
“A simple enchantment. Without form.”
He stepped back. Headscratcher roared and swung. The Necromancer let the tip of the magical blade pass by his chest. He turned. Numbtongue, Shorthilt, and Rabbiteater leapt at him.
“Why a guitar?”
Az’kerash slashed across Numbtongue’s chest. He stepped, and blurred out of the way of an arrow.
He cut across Rabbiteater’s back, twice. The Necromancer frowned as his blade cut through the cloak but barely penetrated the armor.
He turned. Shorthilt’s sword curved towards his chest, then down towards his arm.
The rapier snapped down. The blade deflected Shorthilt’s attack perfunctorily. Headscratcher charged again. This time he bled.
The five Redfangs attacked as one. The Necromancer wove in between them, using [Flash Step], but no other spells. His blade lanced out, deflecting blows, attacking. The Redfangs stumbled, bleeding.
The Necromancer was toying with them. He didn’t go for deadly strikes. Not at first. He let them attack him. Because it was meaningless. All of it. Headscratcher’s ferocity, the fearlessness, even the strength of the others was meaningless to him.
It was not speed, nor strength, or any ability granted to him by his class. It was simply skill. Skill, and experience. The truth dawned on the Goblins as the Necromancer waited for their next attack, calm, eyes as old as centuries, black as midnight.
It was just…time. Time. Not just ten years of training. Or even forty. But centuries. Az’kerash had fought, practiced, and lived through centuries of battle. Every attack they could conceive of, he had seen done. He knew the limits of form and which motion followed the next.
On the hill, the Necromancer danced. It was an immortal dance. A waltz known only to masters, to those who had studied. The Necromancer was tracing a pattern with each step, following an unseen meter as he traced his steps, thrust, dodged, and parried.
It was a thing of beauty. The height of skill. Az’kerash had studied a way of fighting that turned swordplay into a science. Art. And Goblins had none.
They were warriors, but self-taught. Trained by a warrior who relied on simplicity, economical movements. There was perfection in that. But no patterns. Headscratcher bled, and blood dripped down the haft of his axe. Onto the ground. Badarrow drew an arrow and hesitated.
Az’kerash mocked them. He smiled. The five Redfangs looked at each other. He was a master. And they couldn’t match him. But one of them stepped forwards, nonetheless. It was Shorthilt. The Goblin held his sword with both hands. He moved calmly, advancing, his stance set. And Az’kerash paused. Uncertainly.
Here came Shorthilt. Quiet Shorthilt. Shorthilt, who loved weapons. Who thought about how to cut with the most minimal of effort, how to strike in a way an opponent would never expect. A Hobgoblin, a warrior who studied weapons like poets studied love.
He walked slowly towards Az’kerash. The Necromancer paused, then lunged. A blow aimed at Shorthilt’s heart. The Goblin parried and spun. He cut, and Az’kerash was already gone. The Necromancer scored a cut down Shorthilt’s back. The Hobgoblin didn’t waver, though his blood spattered the ground. He struck out and Az’kerash went for his throat. But Shorthilt was already pulling back. His feint turned into a block. Again, Az’kerash cut him. But the Necromancer was no longer smiling.
Shorthilt breathed evenly. He watched Az’kerash, his blade changing positions, he couldn’t keep up with the Necromancer. He was ten, no, twenty steps behind Az’kerash in the dance. But he did know the dance.
And he was not alone. The other four Redfangs waited. Then they came forwards. They did not know the dance. But they knew their brother. And they attacked alongside him.
Rabbiteater and Numbtongue. Badarrow and Headscratcher. In tandem, alone, all together. The Necromancer spun back. But Shorthilt was moving with him and he could see where Az’kerash would be. The five Redfangs followed Az’kerash, blades cutting air. Stepping forwards, blocking his path.
Around them the Hobgoblins, Az’kerash’s warriors, and the Cave Goblins looked up. They saw their leaders fighting. But—it was not Reiss. The Goblin Lord’s warriors saw the stranger wearing Reiss’ body. Saw his frustration. That look of immortal, confused annoyance.
Az’kerash snapped. His blade lanced out. This time Headscratcher deflected the blade. Shorthilt lunged. His sword crossed past the Necromancer’s face. He swept the blade sideways and Az’kerash stepped back. He raised a Goblin’s claw at the same time as, hundreds of miles away the Necromancer raised his real hand and touched his face. He stared down at the blood on Reiss’ claws. He looked at Shorthilt and the Goblin smiled.
The Necromancer’s eyes blazed. He heard a laugh, from the Redfangs. And an echo of that from his apprentice. He closed his eyes and raised his hand.
The Hobs leapt at him. Az’kerash pointed.
The skies turned black. A wind howled. Color and light were obscured as a wind blew. Darkness surrounded the Redfang Warriors. Erin looked up. She lowered the shortsword in her hand and stared up. The spell blew around the hill for all of six seconds. And then it was gone. And there he stood.
The Necromancer stood with rapier raised. A smile crossed his face. Headscratcher stood in front of him, axe raised. The Hob stared into Az’kerash’s eyes. He strained. But his arms betrayed him. Headscratcher stumbled back, and Az’kerash withdrew the rapier.
Blood spattered the ground. Headscratcher looked down at the hole in his chest, just below his heart. He sank to his knees. Erin screamed. She ran for the hill.
Az’kerash turned. Shorthilt leapt at him. The Necromancer spun away and cut Shorthilt’s stomach open. He slashed his arm back and the [Weapon Master] fell. His ribs gaped open as Shorthilt slashed at Az’kerash. Rabbiteater screamed and shielded Shorthilt. He dragged his friend away as Badarrow loosed arrow after arrow. Numbtongue charged Az’kerash, but Badarrow tackled him. The Necromancer walked away from them. He ignored Headscratcher and raised his hand.
“Time to end this farce.”
He pointed down. The Antinium were fighting below him. A few dozen wounded bodies, bright with paint. The Necromancer’s lip curled.
“[Mass Stone Lances].”
Spires of rock rose from the ground. They levitated upwards around Reiss’ body and shot down. Yellow Splatters looked up. He saw the first spear aimed at Pawn and threw himself forwards.
The first javelin of stone stopped halfway through Yellow Splatters. The second passed through the Soldier with raindrops. The other Soldiers turned and the spell blasted them apart. The Goblins in black armor, the undead, all were consumed by the thunderous onslaught. Pawn fell to his knees, grabbing for Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] reached up for him.
The Goblins fled around them. The Necromancer turned his hand left. He flicked his hand, and a bolt of lightning curved around him. He looked across the battlefield at the Goblins. Reiss’ warriors and the Solstice Goblins. They looked up at him, and despair filled both. Az’kerash spoke with Reiss’ voice.
“Kill the Goblins! Slaughter the traitors! I, your Lord, command you!”
Reiss’ tribe looked up. They felt the order run through them. Wrong. All wrong. But they moved nonetheless. They surrounded the Cave Goblins, the Flooded Waters tribe, the Redfangs. The Cave Goblins struggled to hold and fell. Rags’ tribe fell back as the undead rose and attacked from all sides. The Redfangs tried to charge Az’kerash, but they were scattered.
Az’kerash shook his head. He stared down at the slaughter, ignoring the Hobgoblins behind him. He half-turned as a young woman ran up the slope.
Erin fell to her knees. The other four Redfangs were carrying him backwards. Az’kerash pointed and a spray of bone shards sent them tumbling down the hill. Erin ran forwards. A limp body rolled towards her.
He was lying face-down. Erin rolled him over. Headscratcher’s face was muddy. He blinked up at her. Blood ran from the wound above his heart. He gripped at her hand. Erin grabbed for a healing potion. But it didn’t close the wound. She splashed it over him, and then another.
“Headscratcher! Headscratcher, stay with me!”
The Hobgoblin smiled. He blinked slowly, his crimson eyes leaking water. Erin bent over him, tears falling. Headscratcher smiled. He opened his mouth and whispered. Erin lowered her head.
The Hobgoblin began to whisper. Erin heard him cough. She waited. And then she looked down.
She saw two open crimson eyes. A smile, parted lips. But the words never came. Erin looked up. The Necromancer turned to look back at her. The Goblins looked up and heard her scream.
And they screamed. The Goblin Lord. The brothers who reached out for their lost heart. And the Goblin who rode forwards. A howl burst from his lips. The betrayer. The traitor. Too late. As he watched his son fall. Garen Redfang screamed and rode forwards. And behind him rode Rags.
“Sire! We’re under attack!”
Tyrion turned his gaze away from the Goblin Lord. He frowned at Jericha.
“What? By whom?”
The [Lord] twisted in his saddle. He heard the cry go up. He saw the Goblins riding Carn Wolves and his eyes narrowed. But then more [Soldiers] screamed.
“Spiders! Spiders to the rear!”
Tyrion was incredulous. He looked back, towards the High Passes. And then his eyes widened. He saw the first Shield Spider scuttling forwards. One, followed by tens of thousands. Hundreds. They poured out of a cave, an opening in the rock face. Only, the cave had been widened. The rocks had been cleared, a tunnel formed. The Shield Spiders had done the rest. They crashed out of the dungeon, past a broken wall. A nest of them.
They were creatures of the dungeon. A nest grown for who knew how long. A trap, in truth. And they had been walled off. Contained. But the passage of so many armies had woken them. Made them restless. But they were still trapped. Until a Chieftain who knew rocks had broken the walls. Then they had been released. They poured out of the dungeon, a ravening horde.
The Goblins they ignored completely. They were, after all, both creatures of the dungeon and thus quite invisible to the spiders. But the Humans? The Humans were prey. The Shield Spiders raced across the Floodplains as Rags, Garen, and the Redfangs rode ahead of them. Behind them Pyrite, and Tremborag’s Goblins ran, screaming in fury. The Humans turned to meet them, but the Shield Spiders fell on them.
“Kill the spiders! On me! Guard the trebuchets!”
Tyrion roared. He rode forwards as his army struggled to turn. The Goblins raced past him. The Shield Spiders tore into the soldiers. Some were as large as houses. Others even bigger, but they struggled to get out of the dungeon. But those that poured out were already large enough. And a dancing Goblin standing on a cliff cackled and pointed her staff down at them.
“Grow, grow and go faster! Get angrier!”
Ulvama shouted. The Spiders below her began to grow and they raced ahead of the others. Frenzied, they tore everything in their wake to bits. Ulvama laughed and cast another spell. A few Hobs and warriors guarded her as the [Shaman] cast her spells, already prepared to run for it. Pebblesnatch threw a rock.
Tyrion Veltras roared as he charged a Shield Spider. They were overrunning the rear. One reared up and smashed at a trebuchet, enraged beyond reason. Another charged forwards and stopped. A young man stood in its way. He raised his hand.
The Shield Spiders in front of Laken Godart froze. He pointed.
They hesitated, then flowed away from him. The fleeing Humans turned. Laken Godart raised his voice. His voice rallied the soldiers.
“Stand and fight!”
A wall of bodies formed. Tyrion Veltras charged past them. Lord Pellmia cursed as he rode forwards. His son was in the rear! Lady Ieka narrowed her eyes and conjured a flurry of spectral arrows. She aimed up at the laughing [Shaman] who ducked behind a stone for cover.
The Humans turned and fought. Lord Gralton and his dogs raced into the fray, the mastiffs tearing, biting. The Shield Spider’s rush halted there. But they were only a distraction. The Goblins raced past them.
Garen screamed. He rode straight towards Az’kerash. The Necromancer was staring at the Shield Spiders with unconcealed confusion. His eyes flicked down towards Garen and dismissed him. He pointed and a [Deathbolt] shot down at Garen. The Chieftain cut straight through the magic spell. He screamed. And the Goblins heard him. Redfang Warriors looked up.
It was a universal cry. But it came from a voice they had known. The wounded Redfangs looked up. And then a second voice joined it. A young Goblin rode past them. She raced through the fleeing Goblins and raised her sword. A small Goblin shouted.
“To me! Rally! Rally!”
Her tribe looked up. Rags waved her sword. She rode her Carn Wolf past the undead, shouting. Flaming arrows burst from her claws and struck zombies and Draug. Redscar turned. He pointed. And the cry went up.
The Flooded Waters tribe took up the shout. Hobs raised their weapons. They streamed towards her. Redscar urged Thunderfur towards his Chieftain. He bellowed at the others.
The Goblins looked up. They raced towards their Chieftain, abandoning their positions, fighting. There was no strategy. Just her. Rags raced at the head of a wave of Goblins. She was laughing, weeping. She pointed at Az’kerash and her tribe howled. They charged after her.
“That Goblin was dead!”
Az’kerash snapped in fury. He pointed as a spear of stone shot towards Rags. Her eyes widened. A lightning bolt blew the [Stone Lance] to bits. Az’kerash turned. Noears unleashed lightning bolt after lightning bolt. The Necromancer pointed, and lightning curved around him.
“Ridiculous. One Goblin can change nothing! Stop laughing!”
He turned. The Goblins were chanting a name.
A word. An idea. A hero. Az’kerash’s lip curled. He saw the Hobgoblin riding at him and pointed.
“Stop that Goblin!”
Reiss’ army moved, forming a wall tens of thousands of Goblins deep. Garen drove into them, heedless of the spears stabbing towards him. His eyes were locked on Az’kerash. The Necromancer pointed a finger at him. And then another flash of red caught his eye.
Another Redfang warrior plunged towards Garen. A single Goblin charged into the army, following his Chieftain. And then another. The Redfang tribe raced towards their former Chieftain.
He had betrayed them. He had left them. All that was true. He was not their Chieftain. But he had led them. And in this moment that was all they needed. The Redfangs charged, and they broke through the black-armored Goblins. Fighting, falling, his name on their lips.
Perhaps they could have been stopped. Snapjaw rode towards Garen. But she was a touch too slow. They passed her, sweeping into the undead, fighting to get clear. The Redfangs roared as they found the strength for one last charge. For him.
Garen Redfang. He rode at their head, a final, bloody red spear. Spiderslicer raced after his Chieftain, grinning. The Necromancer faced the Goblin at last. Garen’s eyes locked on his.
“Fall, you arrogant Goblin.”
He raised his hands and bone spires shot from the ground. Walls of ivory burst from the ground. Stone tipped projectiles shot from the sky. The Redfangs charged through them, as Carn Wolves and Goblins fell left and right. The Goblins and undead tried to block their way. But the Redfangs kept coming. They shielded their Chieftain from the spells. Carn Wolves fell. Redfang Warriors fell. Garen kept riding, his Carn Wolf stumbling. The Hobgoblin’s body bled as the spells tore at him.
But he was nearly there. Az’kerash snarled. He pointed.
“[Deathbolt]! [Deathbolt]! Die, damn you!”
The first bolt caught Garen’s Carn Wolf. The wolf, who had never been named, stumbled. Garen clung to it as it fell. He looked down and the Carn Wolf fell beneath him. The Hobgoblin paused once, and then leapt. He ran towards Az’kerash.
The second [Deathbolt] came for Garen. He was caught, unable to run. So he cut the spell in two. Az’kerash roared in fury. He pointed and a spray of razor-sharp bones sprayed down.
There was no way to dodge it. Garen shielded his face. But a Goblin rode in front of him. Spiderslicer blocked the spray of projectiles the only way he knew how. He fell, limply. Garen reached for him. And then he kept running.
A Hob cut him from the side. A Draug slashed him. Garen stumbled. Arrows rained down around him. A spire of bone burst from the ground. He dodged it, stumbling. He stumbled onto the top of the hill and the Necromancer stared down at him.
“You. He knows you.”
Garen reached for a healing potion. He found none. His arm ran with blood. He shrugged and raised his sword. The Necromancer stared down at him. Then he looked past Garen. The Redfang Chieftain half-turned. The hill was swarming with the undead and Reiss’ warriors.
The Goblins hesitated. But the undead didn’t. They came towards Garen. And four Hobgoblins blocked them. Shorthilt, his body cold, his stomach and chest torn open. Rabbiteater, supporting him, holding a magical axe. Badarrow, tears streaming from his eyes. Numbtongue. He stood over the body of the Hobgoblin and the young woman kneeling over him.
Az’kerash had no words. His fury was expressed by a single movement. He lunged. Garen dodged, and the tip of the bone blade scored a cut down his cheek. He slashed and Az’kerash stepped back. The Necromancer pointed.
He jerked back as Garen’s blade slashed at his hand. The Hobgoblin stepped forwards and the Necromancer backed up. He blurred backwards, raised his hand—
And ducked. Garen was already leaping, cutting for the place Az’kerash’s head had been. Once more the Necromancer tried to take his distance. Once more Garen followed him.
He wasn’t quick enough. Reiss’ body was worn down. Or perhaps Garen was too fast. The Necromancer backed up, and Garen advanced. Below him, the undead swarmed around the hill. The four Redfangs were fighting. And Erin was on her feet. She swung at a Ghoul, trying to keep it away from Headscratcher’s body. The monster lunged at her—
And a flaming crossbow bolt thunked into the side of its head. Erin stumbled back. She looked up and saw her savior. A little Goblin riding a Carn Wolf. She was followed by an army of weary Goblins. They surged past her. Erin’s eyes widened.
It was her. The little Goblin pointed past Erin, at the four Redfangs. Then she turned.
“Erin! Get back! We fight! Garen fights that thing!”
She pointed up at the hill at Garen and the Necromancer. The young woman gaped up at her.
“You can talk?”
Rags grinned. Erin looked up at her. There were a thousand things to say.
But there was no time. The two began to fight the undead swarming up the hill. The Goblin Lord’s warriors advanced slowly, but they had not the will to fight. They watched as the Hobgoblin with the famous name and blade confronted the Necromancer.
Garen Redfang. He limped, favoring his right foot. Az’kerash moved fluidly from form to form, his rapier glowing. He ignored Reiss’ wounds. His gaze was contemptuous.
“You can never win. Why do you Goblins strive so? This has been completely, utterly, pointless.”
Garen didn’t reply. He stared at Reiss. Straight into his eyes. He bared his teeth.
“My brother. Let go of him.”
The Necromancer’s eyes widened slightly.
“Your brother? Hah. He is my apprentice. Mine.”
“No. He is free. Let him go.”
“You cannot break my link with him. Any more than you could hope to defeat me.”
It was true. Garen looked up and saw the thing looking through Reiss’ eyes. The Necromancer. A being of centuries. He had faced Velan the Kind. He was…a monster wearing Reiss’ flesh. Still, the Hobgoblin raised his blade.
Garen tensed. Az’kerash sneered. But he stepped back. With one hand he held the rapier of bone. The other glowed, fingers twisting, preparing a spell. The Necromancer saluted Garen with his rapier, in a fashion that had passed from the world a century ago.
“Very well, let’s end it. And his hopes. Come, Goblin child.”
Garen leapt. The Necromancer struck, with both spell and blade. Below, the Goblins watched. Erin turned and saw the battle.
It was not one for stories. There was no whirling of blades, or long duel like the Redfangs had shared. It was over in a second.
The two had their measure of each other. Az’kerash had experience, a powerful body, and magic. Garen was wounded in a dozen places. But it was the Chieftain of the Redfang tribe who saw through the Necromancer.
The spray of razor-sharp stones tore the air, shrapnel that Garen avoided by throwing himself right. Az’kerash stepped into that opening, in a single lunge. He stabbed into Garen’s chest, and the howl that burst from his lips was Reiss’ voice, despairing. Garen jerked as the blade pierced his chest. But he only grinned. His arm swept down and he cut Az’kerash’s arm off at the elbow.
The two staggered back from each other. Garen stumbled and sat. And Az’kerash screamed. He staggered back, and in his castle, the Necromancer clutched at his hand. His true body was unharmed, but he shrieked, feeling the pain of it. His Chosen looked up in horror at their master as he cried out. And the link broke.
Reiss sank to the ground, clutching at the stump of his arm. He stared at the fallen arm. And then he looked up. A Hobgoblin sat in front of him, pulling the rapier from his chest. Garen touched the hole in his chest and his breath caught. He looked at it and then laughed.
He laughed as blood streamed from his chest. He gazed up at the Goblin Lord as Reiss looked down at him. The eyes were still black and white. But they were his brother’s eyes. The Necromancer had no tears to shed. Reiss stared down at Garen. The Hobgoblin smiled.
“Garen. Why did you come back?”
Reiss stared at Garen. The Redfang Chieftain went to shrug. Then he shook his head.
“Thought I’d do right thing. Shouldn’t have run. Shouldn’t have abandoned. You. Team. Tribe. Rags. Should have stayed.”
He labored to sit up. Reiss stared at him. The Goblin Lord stumbled.
“Brother. It’s over.”
Garen’s head lolled back. He grinned bleakly and Reiss looked around.
The undead had fallen. Rags’ warriors held the hill. They stood, wounded. Exhausted. But Reiss’ army surrounded them. Yet the black-armored Goblins made no move to take the hill. They stared up at their Goblin Lord. The Redfangs held their ground, a fraction of their number. Redscar wept as he stood over Spiderslicer.
Dead. So many dead. And for what? Reiss turned to look at the city in the distance. Liscor was cracked. The walls were broken. The eastern gate lay open. He saw Drakes and Gnolls lining the walls. Watching. Reiss stared at the city and saw just that.
A city. It did not shine. It was not beautiful. It was a thing of stone and mortar. Of magic, yes, but only magic. Not dreams. He stared at the city and realized it did not hold what he wanted.
He looked down. His arm bled onto the ground. He heard his master’s voice, raging at him. He looked at Garen. Reiss felt so tired.
“What are we doing? Garen. Brother. What did we do? I do?”
“Stupid things. Bad things.”
Garen’s eyes brimmed with tears. Reiss nodded. He closed his eyes. Slowly, he reached down. His left hand shook as it reached down. Garen raised his right arm. He coughed and blood ran from his chest. Reiss slowly pulled him up. The two stood together. They wept. And embraced. And they were dying. Reiss looked at Garen.
“Brother. I’m so sorry.”
Garen leaned on Reiss. He gripped Reiss tightly. The two stood there. Below them, the Goblin Lord’s army sighed. They lowered their weapons. They looked down. Rags stared up at Garen and Erin’s eyes overflowed with tears. It was over. The Goblins stood still.
And Tyrion Veltras pointed at the Goblins.
War horns blew. The Goblins looked up. The Humans were riding. The Shield Spiders lay dead. Their entrance from the dungeon was collapsed and the rest were torn to pieces, impaled, destroyed by magic. Tyrion Veltras shouted orders as he rode forwards.
“Archers, loose at will! Mages, target the Goblins! Full bombardment to the left and right flanks! Cut them off! Cavalry on me!”
“Sire? That’s the Goblin Lord’s army!”
Jericha rode with him. She looked up at her [Lord]. Tyrion Veltras’ face was a mask of fury. He pointed at the Goblin Lord. He had seen enough.
“You heard me. All forces, charge! Drive the Goblins into Liscor or kill them all! I came here to kill a Goblin Lord. He falls.”
He raced forwards. The Humans on horseback thundered after him. Reiss and Garen turned. Rags looked up and saw the silver army sweeping towards them. A glorious host. Humans. Erin raised her head.
“No! Please. No.”
Reiss repeated the words. His gaze found Tyrion. The [Lord] was leading the charge. Garen stared at the army.
“We have to run.”
Reiss turned, despairingly. Garen looked around. The mountains were so far away. They would never make it. But—there. He pointed.
“The city. We run for the city!”
Liscor was close enough. Reiss stared at it.
He turned. The Goblins were staring, transfixed by the death coming their way. Reiss shouted desperately. He saw heads turn. His Goblins. Rags and her tribe. Reiss pointed.
“The city! Go to the city! Run!”
The Goblins looked up at him. They turned as one and began to run. It didn’t matter whose side they were on. They ran. Reiss turned to Garen, desperately.
“We must get to the city. Hold off the Humans until then.”
Yes, we must.
Reiss froze. The voice in his head. Was it his? But there was no time. Garen clutched at his chest. Reiss stared at him.
He had one. Garen took it. He drank from the bottle. But the cursed wound wasn’t closing. He touched the wound at his chest. The Chieftain’s smile was bitter.
Reiss reached for him and realized his arm was still missing. Garen offered him the bottle. His eyes were very tired.
“I will stop Humans. You got to the city.”
Again, Reiss heard the voice. He stared at Garen. The Chieftain raised his blade. He stopped as Reiss held out an arm.
Garen looked at Reiss. The Goblin Lord shook his head. He straightened, ignoring the little voice inside his head. He closed his eyes and listened to his heart instead.
“No. I will stop the Humans. You go to the city. Bring them inside. Save them.”
He looked at Garen. The Hobgoblin’s eyes widened. He met Reiss’ gaze and the Goblin Lord saw his eyes flicker a second in doubt. Reiss smiled and nodded.
For a second Garen wavered. Then he reached out. Reiss took his hand. The two held each other, and the moment was all too brief and as long as forever. Then Garen turned.
“I’ll be waiting.”
“Not for long.”
Reiss called after him. Garen laughed. The two parted. Garen ran down the hill, blade held aloft. Reiss turned to face the Humans. He called the undead Shield Spider to him. The dead, rotting monstrosity crawled over. Reiss stared at the headless, mindless thing. Then he shook his head and climbed up. He nearly fell as he clung to its back. Then, slowly, he began to ride down the hill. Towards the Humans. Buying time. And behind him, his people ran for Liscor.
It was over. But it wasn’t over. Zevara saw Tyrion charging and knew what he was doing. She screamed down at the soldiers on the ground.
“Seal the gates!”
The eastern wall was breached. The gates had been torn open. The wall was crumbling. Two more breaches had opened up. Enough space for the Goblins to flood into the gaps. If they entered the city, if the Humans did, Liscor would fall. Workers and Drakes and Gnolls swarmed around the entrance, trying to haul wood and stone into place. But so slowly.
The Goblins were running. Tyrion Veltras was coming across the Floodplains, a blur of speed crossing the hills and valley like lightning. They fled from him towards the only place that could offer safety.
Zevara saw them coming. She saw the Cave Goblins, the Redfangs, the very Goblins who’d fought for Liscor among the Goblin Lord’s forces. And she wavered.
“They’re coming for the city!”
A cry went up across the walls. Zevara looked down the battlements. The adventurers were staring. The army of Goblins swept towards them.
“Archers. Aim for the first rank of Goblins!”
Zevara’s voice was strangled. She saw Drakes and Gnolls look up. They slowly took aim. Olesm turned. He shouted in horror at Zevara.
“What are you doing? Those are the Redfangs! They fought for us!”
He ran towards Zevara. She knocked him back, pointing at the Goblin horde.
“They cannot enter the city. This is what Tyrion Veltras wants!”
“But they fought for us—”
“And the Goblin Lord’s army is right behind them! If they get into the city—”
Zevara choked on the possibility. Olesm stared at her, his scales white.
“Move aside! Tell the archers to loose the instant the Goblins get within range! Form a spear wall at the gates! Block them! I said block the gates!”
Zevara roared as she raced down the steps. She saw the Workers and [Builders] struggling to put a palisade in place. But it was too little. They were dragging chunks of stone from the broken wall over, trying to fill the gap. But there was not enough time.
Embria sat atop her horse at the bottom of the gates. She saluted Zevara with her spear. The Watch Captain looked up at her.
“Embria. The Goblins.”
“I can see.”
The Wing Commander stared at the desperate Goblins. She shook her head.
“Block the gates. I’ll stop them from entering the city. Don’t go after us. Hold the Humans out.”
“What? Are you mad?”
Embria didn’t answer her. The Wing Commander turned. Her small company of [Soldiers] stood at the gates. Behind them were a thousand of Pallass’ [Soldiers]. They looked up as Embria rode past them.
“Drakes! Prepare to sortie! We need to hold the Goblins back from the city. Don’t falter! Soldiers of Pallass, on me! 4th Company of Liscor, on my tail! [Captains], give your orders!”
She rode forwards. Zevara stared at her back.
The Drake turned. Her face was pale.
“I have orders. Keep Liscor safe.”
A voice shouted from above. Zevara looked up. Relc. He shouted down at his daughter.
The young Drake raised her spear. She fastened the helmet to her head and pointed her spear ahead. The [Soldiers] tensed. The [Captains] roared as they advanced. Embria moved forwards at a trot.
“[Daring Charge]! [Piercing Arms]!”
“[First Strikes]! [Formation: Accelerate]!”
“[Bravehearts]! [Reckless Charge]! [Minute of Iron]!”
The Skills overlapped with each other. The Drakes forgot their fear. They streamed out the gates, following Embria. The Wing Commander was breathing heavily. The Goblins were streaming towards her. She quickened her pace. The horse began to run. Then gallop.
“[Blades of Glory]. For Liscor! Charge!”
The Drakes and Gnolls followed her with a roar. Zevara saw the Workers drag a boulder in front of the gate. She heard a cry from above. Relc stared as his daughter rode straight at the Goblins.
They saw her coming. And they wavered. But fear drove them on. The Goblins ran for Liscor as Embria’s thousand Drakes surged towards them.
“I told you I could rout two thousand Goblins with a thousand [Soldiers]. How about this?”
Embria muttered to herself. She saw the first volley of arrows fly from the walls. Light flashed from the walls. Someone was activating the enchantments, one after another. Magic blasted the Goblins apart. Embria raced forwards. Her spear swung down and she stabbed the first Goblin. The line of Drakes crashed into the fleeing Goblins. And the Goblins began to die.
“What is that Drake [Commander] doing? She’s left the city!”
Umina cried out in horror. Niers stared down at the projection.
“She’s trying to push them back.”
Marian was white with horror. The Centaur’s eyes were fixed on the red Drake leading the thousand-odd [Soldiers] forwards. She turned to Niers.
“It’s suicide! She’ll be overrun! And if not by the Goblins, she’s exposed to the Humans—”
“That’s their way. If she can hold the Goblins back, Liscor can repair the walls. ”
Venaz stared down at the image in the scrying orb. Every Drake and Gnoll on the wall was firing arrows at the oncoming Goblins. Half of the adventurers were not. The [Strategist], Olesm Swifttail, had made his choice. His claws shook as he unrolled the trigger scrolls. He blasted the Goblins apart, aiming for the black-clad Goblins. But Goblins died either way.
Below, Embria held the line. The Goblins surged towards her, but the ranks of fresh Drakes and the Skills of her company cut them down. Drakes with glowing blades sliced down rank after rank of wounded Goblins. And the Wing Commander spun, her spear slashing in every direction.
And from the other side, the Human army met the rear of the fleeing Goblins. Tyrion Veltras led his cavalry through the Goblins from behind. His [Mages] began bombarding them from behind. They cast spells into the air. The trebuchets fired. It wasn’t meant to harry the Goblins anymore. They had come to finish everything.
Everything. The Goblins looked up. Magic and arrows flew down from the sky from both sides. A sea of Humans came at them from one side, and on the other, the Drakes held the gates to their city. The Goblins turned in despair, searching for a way out.
But there was none. On both sides came death. The death of deaths. Unavoidable. Inescapable. From the ground, from every side. The Goblins cried out. Look. Look up.
The sky is falling.
Rags turned, screaming for the Goblins to follow her. She rode towards Liscor. But the city was death. She looked behind her and saw death. Where could they go? Garen struggled. He fought his way towards the Drakes. He stumbled. Bled. He was lost among the Goblins.
And Reiss rode towards the Humans. Some of his warriors stayed with him. They marched with their Goblin Lord, though he had not asked them to. The rest fled. Reiss rode towards the silver line of Humans, watching as Tyrion Veltras’ sword flashed again and again. He never slowed. And his eyes were on Reiss.
The Goblin Lord bled. He didn’t care. He didn’t bother drinking a potion, though the voice in his head urged him to, told him to turn and run. It didn’t matter.
It was crumbling. His dream. It felt like he was waking up. Reiss saw the silver wave of Humans racing forwards and leading the spear’s tip was him. Tyrion Veltras.
If there was anyone to hate, it was him. Him. Reiss leaned forwards. He called for magic. And found some. A dark magic. Not his own. But it would do. He reached for it and called forth a blade made of death. It swirled around his left arm, came into being. Death. Let it at least take him.
He shouted a challenge. The Shield Spider lurched forwards, dying. Reiss raised his arm and lifted the magical blade. He rode forwards as his warriors ran with him, shouting.
The Humans were aimed at him. Tyrion’s lance was steady as he surged on his steed. Reiss aimed at him. He hated Tyrion Veltras. Hated him for causing all this?
Causing all this? Reiss didn’t know. His vision was blurry. He thought of him. His brother. That damn Goblin. Garen Redfang.
His brother. Why was he angry at Garen? He was grateful. Furious. Why did he hate Tyrion Veltras? He was just a Human. The one he should hate was right here. Inside him.
A slave to the end. Reiss felt the voice calling at him. He resented it. He wanted to be free. But he hadn’t been. Garen had been right. Garen was wrong.
There he was. The Human was aimed at him, bent low on his stallion. His lance tip was aimed at Reiss. Swing. Cut him down. Do it. Don’t fail me. Don’t fail us.
The Goblin Lord aimed. He drew his hand back and the deathly blade swung. He shouted as he charged. But it wasn’t Tyrion that Reiss was thinking of.
Look at him! Strike! Kill him! Cut him down with magic, end him. Slay him.
It would be so easy to obey. But Reiss didn’t. He saw Tyrion charging him and his head turned. He wrenched it around, looked back. The Goblin Lord’s mouth opened. He shouted, defying. For an instant. Free.
The lance pierced Reiss’ chest. Lord Tyrion’s thrust opened a hole in Reiss’ left shoulder, and then pierced through. A hole opened in the Goblin Lord’s chest, exposing his ribs, tearing away his shoulder, his severed arm.
Snapjaw screamed. Eater of Spears stopped and howled. Reiss jerked. The Goblin Lord spun, trying to cut at Tyrion as the [Lord] raced past. He slipped, and the voice in his head cried out in fury. Reiss grinned. And then he fell. And his army broke.
Garen heard the cry. He felt it, in his heart. But he never looked back. He pushed his way through the Goblins. Towards the city. He had to get them there. He had to do it. He had promised.
A line of Drakes and Gnolls held the place in front of the city. They spread out in front of the gates and breaches in the walls. Barely more than a thousand. But they fought with a dozen Skills strengthening them. They cut down the wounded Goblins. The warriors barely had time to raise their blades before the Drakes impaled them. Arrows flew down from above.
Death. Garen wanted to rage up at the walls. But he had no strength for it. So he ran forwards. The Goblins ahead of him died. But the line of Drakes was wavering.
If they could break it. If they could get one Goblin through. Then maybe—Garen raised his blade. When had it grown so heavy? The rust-covered blade was wet. With Reiss’ blood. Garen stared at it. Then he staggered. Something had struck him.
He looked up. A Drake with a halberd stared down at him. Garen turned. The Drake spoke.
“Garen Redfang. Goblin [Chieftain]. Soldiers, pull back.”
The other Drakes and Gnolls fell back. The [Captain] raised his halberd. Three more joined him. They surrounded Garen. The Hob turned.
He struck at them. The Drake with the halberd blocked, grunting. Garen turned, cut at the next [Captain]. They blocked him. Cut him from all sides. Garen stumbled.
He was so weak! Why couldn’t he—he swung and the Drake with the halberd effortlessly parried the blow. He stabbed back and Garen reeled.
“We have him.”
“Don’t let your guards down.”
The Drakes snapped orders. Garen saw them moving out of the corner of his eye. He swung at them. Impacts from the other side. Garen stumbled. He couldn’t fall down.
Not yet. He had promised Reiss. He had promised. Not yet! He roared, but the Drakes just laughed at him. They came at him. Four on one.
Easy. Tremborag could do it. He had fought. Why couldn’t Garen? It was just a hole in his chest. Holes. He stumbled. The blade was heavy in his hands. So heavy. Garen turned. The [Captain] with the halberd swung at his head.
He was Garen. Garen.
Yes. That was it. Garen’s head rose. He lifted the sword. It weighed as much as a mountain. But he swung it. Fast. The [Captain] gaped as Garen’s blade sheared through the haft of his halberd. He tried to back away. But Garen swung again.
Faster. This time as quick as when he’d cut Halassia. When he’d betrayed his friends. The Drake fell, headless. The other [Captains] cried out. They leapt at him.
As quick as he’d been when he’d cut his brother. Garen stabbed a Drake through the chest. He spun and the two remaining [Captains] fell back. Garen advanced on them. He roared the word and heard the cry. Who was shouting it?
He was. Garen swung his sword again. The third [Captain] fell. The Gnolls and Drakes backed up. Garen advanced. The city was so close. All he had to do was kill them. And he’d fulfill his promise.
“Goblin. Turn and face me.”
Garen looked left. A Drake with fiery red scales bore down on him, spear in hand. She was beautiful. But Halassia had been more beautiful still. Garen raised his sword. Embria met him in a single charge.
He cut her horse in half. She struck him in the chest. But Garen was already dead. So it didn’t matter. The Drake went down. Garen slashed at her, but she was quick. She met him, spear blurring.
Like that, and that, and that. Garen’s blade rang as he struck at her. The Wing Commander’s eyes were wide. She fell back, as he swung his sword. Faster. And faster still. She slipped in the mud and he cut her across the stomach.
She screamed and fell to one knee. Garen raised his sword and heard a shout. He turned and saw a Drake running at him. He had green scales and he was ugly. He had a spear as well. And he was quick.
As fast as Garen. The Hobgoblin grinned. Relc leapt and his spear thrust three times. Garen parried each blade and swung. Relc blocked the blade and stood over his daughter. The [Spearmaster] lanced out and Garen felt him strike his chest.
He was quick! When had Garen fought someone like this? Really fought? Greydath? Didn’t count. Look at him. Garen struck and Relc’s knees buckled as he blocked. Hard. As hard as Moore had hit him.
Harder. As hard as Headscratcher. Relc backed up. He stabbed again. Garen let him. The two traded blows and Relc bled. Garen had stopped bleeding.
He thought he was grinning. He couldn’t see anymore. But he had promised. So Garen fought, feeling his arms shaking with each impact. He felt something strike his chest. Then he couldn’t feel his arms.
He was having fun. And he was doing it. He tried to speak, but he’d forgotten how. Garen tried to say it, but he thought it instead.
Do you see it, brother? I’m doing it. I’m fighting. We’re fighting together. Just like we promised.
It was true. He knew it had to be. Somewhere, Reiss was fighting. And so was Garen. On the same side. At last.
Hey, brother. Reiss.
He was so sorry about all of it. But he’d done his best, hadn’t he? Garen swung and looked around. Where was he? Where was he? He looked back.
I’m so sorry. Are you—
The spear went through Garen’s chest a final time. The Hobgoblin stopped. He didn’t move. Relc pulled the spear out. He stumbled, clutched at his arm and stared. Garen slowly fell back. He was still looking over his shoulder. Grinning.
The [Spearmaster], the former [Sergeant]—the [Guardsman] stared down at the fallen Goblin. He gasped for breath. Around him, the Goblins stared at the fallen figure. They looked at the Drakes. They turned.
Arrows flew past Relc. He saw magic blowing Goblins apart. He heard the screaming. Saw the Humans charging. The Goblins were dying by the thousands now. Embria was clutching at her stomach. Trying to drink a healing potion. Relc looked around and saw the thin line of Drakes. Killing Goblins. The enemy. The [Sergeant] raised his spear and shouted.
“Fall back! Hold the gates!”
Embria tried to get up. She was trying to go forwards. But the Goblins were broken. Relc saw them streaming away from Liscor. One of them, a Goblin with a scar on his face, stopped. His Carn Wolf crouched over Garen’s body. Relc looked up at the Goblin as he stared down at the [Sergeant]. He backed away, dragging his daughter to safety. Redscar dismounted and stood over his Chieftain’s body. Relc turned and screamed the words.
The other Drakes obeyed. They fell back around the gates. And the Goblins fled. Not towards Liscor. Not out of the valley.
Towards the mountains. South.
“Two. Bring down the last one.”
Tyrion aimed his lance away from the fallen Hobgoblin. He pointed. Ahead of him was a running Goblin. She was on foot, urging the Goblins in a new direction.
Towards the mountains. That was their only salvation. The Goblins had to climb. Climb and climb until they were out of range of the horses. But the distance was far too far. And Tyrion was charging after them. The [Lord] coldly followed, running down Goblins. His eyes were locked on Rags.
The broken Goblins saw the Human [Lord] coming. They looked up. Reiss’ Goblins. Redfangs. Cave Goblins. And they looked towards her.
“Save her! Save Chieftain!”
Someone shouted it. Save her. Save one of them. At least one of them. Save hope. The Goblins tried to bar Tyrion’s way. But they couldn’t so much as slow him down. He galloped past Hobgoblins, letting the warriors behind him run the Goblins down. He pointed and the [Mages] sent fire racing ahead of him. Rags ran through spells as they targeted her position. A Human [Mage] on horseback took aim at her with a wand.
Lightning blasted him from his saddle. Tyrion saw a flicker and raised his shield. He reeled in his saddle. A Goblin [Mage] cackled.
Noears stood on the roof of The Wandering Inn. He laughed as he shot lightning down at the Humans. The wind blew around him as he called lightning down again and again. He aimed at the [Lord]. At the Human [Mages] with their wands and robes and conceit. He burned them, and looked up as a hundred glowing spells arced towards the inn. He spread his arms and the lightning flashed a last time.
The magic destroyed the third floor of the inn. It left nothing behind. Tyrion rode on. Closer. He saw a gigantic Hobgoblin charging at him.
Eater of Spears threw the second axe. Jericha blocked the axe with a shield of magic. The Hob swung at Tyrion, but the [Lord] rode past him. Eater of Spears’ arm struck a Human from the saddle. The rest rode past him. Others stopped. The Hobgoblin roared as arrows struck him from all sides. He reeled as a [Fireball] burst on his chest and then howled. He charged. But the little Humans fled from him.
They struck him from all sides. Aiming for his legs. His eyes. Eater of Spears tried to catch them. But they raced around him. He turned and a spell burned away his face. Still he stood. He kept moving, trying to catch one. Until at last he stopped. Snapjaw watched her friend die as she raced after Rags. She tried to fling herself at the Humans, but her warriors stopped her.
And Snapjaw rode with tears in her eyes.
This is how they died.
Rags turned. She saw Tyrion coming at her. Goblins flung themselves at Tyrion. He didn’t turn. He was nearly on her. Nearly—
“Watch out! Drakes attacking from the left side!”
The voice came from the left. It was panicked and the rider’s reaction was instinctual. Tyrion shifted right instantly, turning in an arc that curved leftwards, looking for the attack. Where were they? Why had the Drakes advanced this far? They were aiming for his head. Where were they? Where were—
There was no one. Tyrion’s gaze found only Goblins. And then the source of the voice.
Numbtongue stood to one side. A broken guitar lay at his feet. He laughed at Tyrion as the [Lord] pointed. He picked up a sword and charged. A spear ran him through. He kept laughing as he swung his sword and cut the rider down. He lay on the ground, gasping for breath. The Humans kept going. He touched his guitar and played a chord.
Lightning flashed down from the sky.
The mountains. They were so far away. Rabbiteater clutched Shorthilt, dragging his friend. Shorthilt’s blood ran onto the ground. The wounds Az’kerash had given him hadn’t closed. He bled. But Rabbiteater refused to let go.
“Come. Hurry! Move!”
Rabbiteater swore at his friend. Shorthilt looked back. The Humans were following Rags. But the second wave of riders was coming for them. He looked up. Rabbiteater gritted his teeth and tried to run, but his feet slipped on the ground.
Shorthilt looked at his friend. Rabbiteater shook his head. His cheeks ran with tears. Shorthilt looked down. His beloved sword was broken. But he had something else.
An axe. The jade edge dripped with his blood. Shorthilt lifted it.
Rabbiteater stopped. Shorthilt pushed at his chest.
The [Champion] looked at Shorthilt. The Hobgoblin bled. He held the axe out.
Rabbiteater hesitated. Shorthilt screamed the word.
His blood ran onto the ground. It touched Rabbiteater’s cloak and the cloak turned red. Shorthilt looked at his friend and Rabbiteater took the axe. He turned and ran as the Humans chased him. Shorthilt smiled. He turned and began walking back. He found a chipped sword on the ground. A claymore, in fact.
It was muddy. The edge was dull. Shorthilt stumbled forwards. The Humans lowered their lances and charged him.
He cut them down. His sword cut metal. It cut bone. It cut all things. Shorthilt walked forwards and then turned back. He raised his hand and fell.
“Yellow Splatters? Rain? Counting? Where are you?”
Pawn walked through the bodies. His censer-stick overturned bodies. The Worker pulled at corpses. Not seeing the Humans coming towards him. Not caring about the sea of horses that drove past him. Goblins fled around him, but Pawn paid them no mind. The Worker wandered past a running Hob. He called out.
“Where are you all?”
His voice was lost. Forlorn. The Worker stumbled. He searched ground. Spells fell around him. Pawn’s left antennae was broken. Two of his arms hung limp. But he kept searching. He cried out.
“Please tell me!”
But there was no answer. The Worker fell to his knees. He stared down. A Soldier stared up at him, what remained of his head looking blankly up at the sky. Pawn curled up.
“No. Don’t go. Please! Someone. Anyone. One of you has to be alive. One of you…”
He looked around. The Painted Soldiers lay around him. The Necromancer’s spell had torn the earth. Pawn saw parts. But nothing moved. He cried out.
“Please! Please. Don’t—don’t—”
He dug in the earth, scrabbling, begging.
“Don’t leave me alone.”
Another body appeared in the dirt. Faded yellow paint stared up at him. A large body lay where it had fallen, arms still spread. Protecting him. As they all had. Pawn bent.
He clutched Yellow Splatters to him and looked up. The Humans rode at him. They saw the Worker and didn’t swerve. Pawn stared up at the sky. He screamed. And the horses reared. They galloped past him.
And the wave of riders parted down the middle. The Humans fought their horses. Spells rained down around Pawn. But he kept screaming. And the sea of Humans rode past him, on either side. He held Yellow Splatters and the Painted Soldiers lay around him. No one touched Pawn. He knelt on the ground until they passed. And he sat among his people. They were all—all—
All gone. On a hill, a Goblin with a bow shot again and again. His fingers bled and the ground exploded around him. Badarrow stood over Headscratcher and Erin. The army ignored the girl, but they came at him. They wouldn’t stop until they were all dead.
Until she was dead.
Rags kept running. She couldn’t stop. She had failed them all. But they were dying for her. All she could do was run. He wouldn’t stop. Even if she died. So she’d never give him her life. She looked back and saw him racing towards her.
The mountain was in front of her. The slope turned from grass to stones. Rags scrambled up, following the Goblins fleeing upwards. But not enough. It was still, not enough. The Humans followed them up the slopes. She sobbed. Rags scrambled past a pair of Goblins who were sitting down, holding each other. They screamed at a Redfang who’d turned to keep running. She passed by a sitting Hob. He held a battleaxe in his hand.
Rags’ head turned. She saw Pyrite looking back at her. Then he stood. The Hob walked past Rags and barred the way. She turned to scream at him.
He pointed past her. Up the mountain. Rags turned to go back. A Hobgoblin seized her. They dragged her upwards. Snapjaw ignored Rags screaming as she rode upwards. Tyrion bared his teeth. He raced at her. And the Hob walked forwards.
The blazing battleaxe lit up the dark slopes. Pyrite stood in front of the Humans, in front of Tyrion. He waited; a guardian of the place between life and death. Behind him fled hope. She called his name. He smiled.
The [Lord] was riding at him. He didn’t slow.
That was all Pyrite said. He watched the Goblins flow past him and looked up. The sun was setting.
“How red, how red.”
But it wasn’t time for poetry. Pyrite gazed at the sky and thought. He completely ignored the [Lord] charging at him. At last, he nodded.
“It was fun. I wish I were stronger. I wish…”
He looked down. Tyrion aimed at Pyrite. And the Hob lifted his battleaxe. He came down with a roar that shook the mountain.
The lance pierced his stomach. Pyrite slammed against the rocks. Tyrion Veltras paused as he withdrew the lance. The Hob gasped. He reached up. Coldly, Tyrion drew his sword and ran him through a second time. Pyrite stood up. Tyrion cut at his shoulder. The Hob lifted the battleaxe and swung.
Tyrion’s stallion died. The [Lord] slid from the saddle. He struck Pyrite twice more, cutting deep. The Hob swung. Tyrion Veltras blocked with his shield. A third time he ran Pyrite through.
“Die, damn you.”
Pyrite grabbed Tyrion. He lifted the [Lord] up and hurled him down the mountain. The [Lord] bounced. The Hobgoblin grinned. Then he saw the [Mage] aiming at him. The [Knights] ran him through. Pyrite laughed louder at the looks on their faces.
Lightning struck him. Pyrite’s heart stopped. But the lightning was weak. Barely an echo of Noears. He looked down at Jericha. She paled as Pyrite roared with laughter. The lightning stopped.
“What are you?”
He swung his battleaxe. They died. The magic burnt him. Steel pierced his chest. Pyrite fell to one knee. He looked back and heard a cry. A little Goblin reached for him. Pyrite smiled.
She was far above them. So far she was out of reach. Pyrite sat back. He reached down for a snack. And he closed his eyes.
Tyrion Veltras reached the Hobgoblin too late. The [Lord] stared down and slowly sheathed his sword. He looked up and saw Goblins climbing into the mountains.
Jericha looked at him. Tyrion stared down at his stallion.
“Enough. If the [Mages] don’t kill them, let them go. We aren’t done. Get me a fresh mount and turn the army. Liscor remains.”
He turned. Jericha looked back. The Hob smiled at the sky.
The last of the Goblins fled or died. Those that remained waited for death or fought in knots, separated, surrounded by Humans. One of them was Redscar.
He rode with the last of the Redfangs. The Humans surrounded him. Redscar turned, his blades flashing. Thunderfur biting. Goblins died around him. They joined the dead. Countless thousands.
He fought in a slowly-tightening circle of space. Redfangs fought with him, many on the ground. Carn Wolves howled as they leapt at screaming horses. But with each second Goblins fell. Still, Redscar fought.
He was covered in wounds. His war paint was covered by blood. His healing potions had been expended long ago. And his friends, his family, were dying. They covered the ground, overwhelmed by numbers. The Humans were circling, riders charging, infantry hacking at the riders. But they could not bring Redscar down.
Thunderfur leapt forwards, howling, Redscar struck to the left and right, forcing the Humans back. He cut spears meant for him or Thunderfur, parried blades, his arms a blur. The [Archers] and [Mages] dared not target him as he locked blades with the warriors around him.
They fell. Redscar killed them like flies. His blades cut through their armor. He brought [Knights] down. He killed [Mages]. They could not kill him. He turned, two swords in his claws.
In one claw he held the sword enchanted with frost, blood mixing with ice. In the other he held a crimson blade, as red as rust.
Redfang. The rust-red blade bit again and again. And each time, Redscar howled a name. A name few of the Humans recognized. But they feared it.
The onslaught slowed, from awe as much as anything else. The Humans held back, staring. Redscar turned, screaming. They held back, too afraid to approach.
He was one Goblin. One Goblin, not even a Hob. But they could not bring him down.
A man rode towards the circle of warriors. They moved backwards and Redfang paused. The warrior on horseback stared at the Goblin. Those who knew him waited. Another man raised his voice.
“Sir Vumat. Allow us to—”
“Then let us finish him off at range! If we—”
The [Knight] turned his head. He looked back at Redscar. The Goblin leaned over his Carn Wolf. Sir Vumat stared at Redfang and slowly lowered the visor on his helmet.
“If that Goblin lives, he will one day be a threat as great as Garen Redfang.”
Slowly, he rode forwards. Redscar bared his teeth. The [Knight] saluted him.
“I am Sir Vumat. I have come for your head Goblin, dishonorable as it may be to face you wounded. I will slay you here.”
Redscar locked eyes with the [Knight].
They rode at each other. Sir Vumat’s sword flashed. His armor shone. Redscar and Thunderfur howled. Their audience watched.
Four times the two warriors closed. Four times they struck at each other. Then Sir Vumat’s stallion reared, screaming, as Thunderfur’s jaws closed around its unguarded throat. The [Knight] fell from his saddle, his armor torn by Redscar’s blades. He lay still on the ground. Already dead.
Redscar turned. He raised his swords, challenging another to come forwards.
No one dared. But then arrows began flying. A [Mage] targeted Redscar and he felt a sharp pain tear at his right ear as he dodged. He pointed and Thunderfur leapt.
All he wanted was death. But Redscar felt her running. He looked back and saw the distant shapes fleeing towards the mountain. He stared and whispered.
He turned and rode. The last of the Redfangs followed him. Redscar found a Goblin fighting with a dagger, his bow broken. He bent and grabbed Badarrow. The Hob fought him. He had been standing over a body. Redscar dragged him away. He left the young woman behind. She was still there, covering the Hob as Redscar fled the field, tears falling like rain.
“Lord Veltras, the Goblins have fled or perished.”
Jericha stated the obvious. Tyrion could see nothing living on the Floodplains. Nothing but humanity. He passed by the Goblin corpses. He stared towards the hill where the Goblin Lord had perished. He frowned.
“The Goblin Lord’s body. I don’t see it. Ensure he is dead. As well as the other one.”
“I will locate their corpses.”
Tyrion Veltras kept staring at the hill. He saw a kneeling figure. A young woman shielded a Hobgoblin’s body. His army had avoided her, as had Tyrion himself. She was, after all, Human.
“It’s nothing. Aim towards Liscor.”
The words shocked those around Tyrion.
“But the Goblins are dead!”
“So? This changes nothing. Prepare to charge the gates. Tell the trebuchets to launch a single volley. Jericha, a [Siege Fireball]. Destroy those barricades. On my signal.”
Tyrion took a fresh lance. He studied the gates.
“Ready the charge.”
“What is it?”
Tyrion glanced to one side. Jericha’s voice quavered.
“I—I’ve just received something. A [Message]. From—”
“There is nothing she can say to stop me.”
Tyrion whirled. The air opened up in front of him. A smiling face filled the open space. Magnolia Reinhart stared past Tyrion for a second, and then her eyes fixed on him.
“Oh, good. The projection spell worked. Ressa, hold the artifact steady. Hello, Tyrion.”
Tyrion slashed his lance through the air. The magical spell wavered but didn’t vanish. Magnolia smiled deeper. Her eyes looked past Tyrion at the battlefield. The look in her eyes deepened.
“I see I was too late. Well, I have enough time for this.”
“Whatever you have to say—”
“Be silent, Tyrion. And listen to me. I warned you. I gave you every chance. So this is my ultimatum. Turn back. Leave with the Goblin Lord’s head.”
“And if not? You cannot stop me.”
Magnolia paused. She was filling the image in the screen. But quite deliberately. Jericha trembled as she stared at something past Magnolia. Tyrion stared, but he couldn’t make it out. What was she hiding? The [Lady] sighed.
“No. I suppose I can’t. But I can ensure one thing. If you go through with this, you may take Liscor. And if you do, I will promise you one thing: you will have nothing to come back to.”
“What does that—”
Tyrion’s breath caught as Magnolia moved out of the way. He saw a keep behind her. An old, rather austere structure. Nothing like her estates. But large enough to be called a palace by some. A fortress, moreover. Defensive. A home he knew well.
The Veltras estates. His family home. And Magnolia stood not a hundred feet in front of it. It wouldn’t have mattered if she were anyone else. The keep was a citadel. But she was there.
And she was not alone. The projection jostled as Ressa placed whatever was keeping the recording still on something and stepped forwards. She stood behind her mistress as Magnolia smiled. They stood together. Just the two of them.
“A lovely home.”
That was all Magnolia said. Tyrion’s grip turned white on his lance.
“You dare. If you dare—I will personally ride on you and—”
“Do what? Cross a thousand miles in a moment? No, Tyrion. Be silent.”
And he was. Magnolia looked at him.
“You could never imagine I’d do this. That is why you are a fool. A damned fool, Tyrion.”
“You have no honor. Not a shred of morality. I warn you—”
The [Lord]’s voice shook. Magnolia gazed at him.
“I will not be blackmailed. Not by you or anyone.”
Tyrion heard Jericha gasp. Magnolia’s right eye twitched. She stared hard at Tyrion.
“Touch them and—”
“It is your choice.”
“I will not be stopped.”
Something cold had replaced the Lord of the Veltras family. He spoke with icy calm. And he leveled his lance at Magnolia.
“Know that you will die. I swear it on my family name.”
“And I swear by my family that I will do what I promise.”
Magnolia stared at Tyrion. He hesitated. Fear crept into his heart, for all he tried to tell himself she was lying. But she wouldn’t. Not her.
“Lady Reinhart. You cannot—”
“Be silent, Jericha.”
The woman fell still. Magnolia regarded Tyrion. And then she slowly shook her head.
“Tyrion Veltras. You will turn around. Or everything you fear most will come to pass. But should that not sway you, if that is not enough—”
“What else could you do?”
Magnolia looked at Tyrion. As if she couldn’t believe he’d ask. She smiled, and it was a colder smile than Tyrion had ever seen before.
“To you? Nothing. However, I thought I’d remind our peers what they’re fighting for.”
Slowly, Tyrion looked around. And he realized that there were more projections hanging in the air. Images. Of [Ladies]. Lady Bethal, smiling, surrounded by her [Chevalier] and husband, Thomast. Her Rose Knights. Chattering to a pale Lady Ieka.
Lady Wuvren. Sipping tea and talking to an older woman in front of Lord Erill. The [Merchant Lord]’s lips were tight. His eyes were locked on his mother. She was looking from him to Wuvren, uncomprehending.
Lady Zanthia. Her house’s retainers stood at her back as she spoke to Lord Pellmia. The [Lord] was white. He stared past her at his city.
Tyrion looked around the battlefield. Not all the [Lords] and [Ladies] had the floating images projected to them. In fact, no more than a dozen had received the message. But it was enough. They looked to Tyrion, faces pale. Desperate. Unbelieving.
Magnolia waited. Tyrion looked back at her.
“This is war.”
“I thought it was already war with the Drakes. Or will you fight on two fronts at once?”
The mocking smile. Tyrion turned from her.
“Jericha. Cut the connection.”
“Wait for my order.”
Magnolia’s voice cut off abruptly. Lord Tyrion took a few deep breaths. He tried to calm himself. And then he slowly turned in his saddle.
The others looked at him. Lord Erill, Ieka, his aide, Jericha. An army, waiting, soaked in the blood of Goblins.
Tyrion’s head turned past the image of Magnolia. He looked to Liscor, walls cracked, gates partially blocked. In that moment, Tyrion Veltras’ eyes were cold. He glanced at his allies, soldiers, at Liscor, and at Magnolia. Weighing. Calculating.
The city of Liscor watched, not understanding what was happening. But word was already spreading. The world held its breath as, but for Tyrion Veltras, history would change. The [Lord] looked at Liscor and closed his eyes. Slowly, he opened his eyes and turned.
The world froze. Jericha opened her mouth. Tyrion looked at her.
“We march past Liscor. To the Blood Fields.”
The nobility stared at Tyrion in shock. He turned.
“Send a [Message] to the Drakes. The Goblin Lord is dead. However, I, Tyrion Veltras, challenge the Drakes. Meet me at the Blood Fields in six days. Let their armies face ours or forfeit.”
Jericha raised a shaking hand to her head. Erill exhaled, his hands shaking. Ieka stared at Tyrion.
“All of us?”
“No. The nobility will leave. Those who do not wish to do battle. We leave the trebuchets. Half the foot. We ride. Move.”
Tyrion snapped. He rode forwards. Shocked, uncomprehending, the army hesitated. But then the first rank of riders rode after Tyrion.
Liscor watched. The Drakes and Gnolls stood on the walls, weapons ready. But the army of Humans passed by them. They marched away from the city, across the muddy Floodplains. South. To battle in the most traditional of ways. Spellbound, the Drakes stared as Tyrion Veltras’ army broke up, some groups milling about, heading north. They watched as the Humans collected what few dead they had, as they quit the field.
And then wild cheers burst from Liscor’s walls. They shouted for joy as the Walled Cities scrambled, redirecting their armies. But the Drakes and Gnolls and Liscor celebrated. Somehow they were saved. They laughed and cried and hugged each other.
And the Goblins lay outside the walls.
He was dead. Reiss pulled himself up. The left side of his body was missing. His heart was gone. But he still stood. He heard a voice. There was always a voice. But at least now he recognized it.
It called his name. Somehow it knew his name. But it didn’t matter. The voice urged Reiss up, filled him with life.
My apprentice. Kill Tyrion Veltras. End his life. I will give you strength. Go to him and I will ensure his death. Go and—
Reiss shook his head. He stood amid the dead. Forgotten. The voice raged at him. But Reiss ignored it.
“No, master. No more.”
There was nothing left. She was gone. He could feel her going higher, ever distant. Her, and so few of them. Reiss wept, but no tears flowed from his cheeks. He staggered forwards as the voice cursed him. His master abandoned Reiss at last and the Goblin Lord laughed.
A hollow sound. He walked forwards, looking at the dead. He fell to his knees and waited to join them. But he couldn’t. Not yet.
He was so tired. It would be over soon. But he was tired. Reiss looked around. And he saw it. Sitting on a hill. The Goblin Lord turned and began walking towards it. A good place to wait to die.
Erin Solstice knelt over Headscratcher and saw the army of Humans leaving. She saw them pass by Liscor. She didn’t know why. She held a limp body in her arms. She wanted it to move. More than anything. She wanted them to get up. She wanted time to stop. She wanted to be undone.
They were gone. All of them. Some were alive. More were dead. She had seen them die. And she couldn’t stop it. They had run right past her. Ignored her. She’d been helpless, but they’d spared her.
She couldn’t even save one of them. Not one. She had led them to this. All to this. Erin cradled Headscratcher in her arms. And then she stood up. She couldn’t help it. She had to—had to—
It wasn’t real. Erin walked away in a daze. All of this wasn’t real. She was going to wake up and find out this was all a dream. The Goblin Lord hadn’t come yet. This was all a dream.
She was dead. She would wake up. Let this be a dream. Please. Oh, please.
But it wasn’t. And more tears ran down her cheeks. She didn’t know where she was going. Mechanically, she walked back, tripping, falling, sobbing. She walked towards her inn. The third floor was destroyed, but the rest was intact. The door was ajar. Erin walked inside and stopped.
A Goblin met a young woman in the inn. She was weeping. Her clothes were bloody.
He was dying. He was already dead. But some part of him held death back. He sat at a table, slumped over. He turned his head as Erin stopped. She stared at him. A—face stared back.
Perhaps he had been handsome once. Perhaps his smile had once been reassuring. His eyes might have terrified. He might have inspired hope, or confidence, or hatred. But now he was just dead. She stared at the Goblin.
He took a breath.
They stared at each other. Erin looked around.
It was a dream. In a trance, Erin walked forwards. She poked at his side. The Goblin didn’t wince.
“Does it hurt?”
“What do you want?”
“Just to sit here. Until it ends.”
Erin took a seat across from him. The Goblin stared at her. He was taller than her, but not as tall as he’d seemed. He looked tired.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Okay. You…speak well.”
“Yes. I learned to long ago.”
The two stared at each other. Erin trembled.
“Tell me this is a dream.”
“I wish it were.”
The Goblin Lord looked at her. Erin shook.
“Why did you do it?”
It wasn’t an answer. Erin punched at him. Something broke. The Goblin Lord’s head lolled back. And then forwards. His voice was quiet when he spoke. Sad.
“I never wanted this. I only wanted my people to be safe. For there to be a place—one place in this world—where Goblins could live. One place.”
Erin didn’t respond. She buried her head in her hands. Reiss looked around. His eyes reflected nothing but death. He whispered.
“I never wanted this. But I wanted this. I wanted to take something from them. Everyone who had taken from me. I wanted—to hurt them.”
“It’s not right. They did nothing wrong.”
“Didn’t they? They lived while my people died. That’s enough.”
“It’s not the same. They didn’t know.”
“They kill Goblins for sport. For money. Like rats. Monsters.”
“I know. I know. And I hate them for it.”
Erin whispered. The Goblin Lord nodded.
“You hate them as I do.”
“I do. But I’m one of them.”
“So. What do you do? Do you kill them? Or are you on their side?”
The Goblin Lord looked at her. Erin shook her head.
“I—I don’t. How could I? But I don’t kill Goblins either. I—there’s a sign.”
She got up to show him. The Goblin Lord read it. And he laughed. He laughed and laughed, wheezing until there was no air in his lungs.
“And this works?”
“No. I don’t think it ever works. But I keep it up. And I give Goblins food. I—I tried to keep them safe. And they died for me.”
“That is what we do. It was not your fault. It was their choice. And his fault. And mine.”
The Goblin Lord nodded jerkily. He looked at Erin. She was curled up in her chair.
“I asked them to fight.”
“They would have anyways. They loved you, I think.”
“I wish they hated me.”
“How could they? You fed them. You gave them—things. You cared. They followed you. I wish I had seen it.”
“It was beautiful.”
Erin closed her eyes. The dead Goblin smiled. Then the smile vanished.
“If only I had seen it. If only I had been there. I wish I had met you long ago. If I had—”
He broke off. Erin looked up. Blood had stopped running from his wound long ago. Erin could see his lungs inflating slowly. Bone and flesh lay exposed. But Reiss refused to die.
“This isn’t our world. We’re just monsters. Why? We didn’t ask…we didn’t want to be. Why us?”
The Goblin Lord spoke bitterly. He looked past Erin.
“From the start we were made like this. Enemies. From the very start. That was what he said. Why us? Was it punishment?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just…by design. Maybe you’re characters in a game. Maybe that’s where I am. Maybe this is all a dream.”
Reiss looked at Erin. She stared blankly past him.
“Like chess. Pieces on a board.”
He turned. The Goblin Lord saw the chess board on the table. He stood up.
“Chess. A game?”
He walked over to the magical chessboard. Erin nodded. Reiss looked down at the board. He stared at the pawns. The pieces.
He tried to break it. But it was the wrong board. Reiss’ smashed it against the table. He struck it, tried to tear it apart. The magical chessboard refused to break. The Goblin Lord’s grip weakened. The chessboard tumbled to the ground, and he laughed hysterically. Bitterly.
“Not so simple. I tried. Goblin Lords have tried. Kings have tried. We all fail. And we die. Look—”
He turned. Erin saw the light in his eyes fading. Reiss stumbled back to her.
“I tried. I did it all for them. I think I forgot.”
He looked at her. She looked up at him. He was so sad. She hated him. More than anything in the world. But he was crying. He had no tears left, but he was weeping. Reiss sank onto the table. Erin stood with him. The Goblin Lord’s one arm rose. He looked up at her.
“Someday Goblins will know peace. Surely?”
He smiled. But it was a lost smile. Reiss stared past Erin. He had never told her his name.
That was all he said. His arm fell back limply. Erin stared down at him. Slowly, she closed his eyes. And then she picked him up.
He was too light. Erin walked with him outside. She stared as the Humans rode towards her. The Drakes. Her friends. They met warily, staring at each other. Enemies. But they stared at her. At the body she held. And then it was truly over.
There were words. Questions. Erin answered none of them. She stood, blankly, until they went away.
She let them have the head. It was what they wanted. But she kept the body. Goblins didn’t really believe in burial, anyways. They ate their dead, when they had to. But he had been like a Human. So she buried him.
There was nowhere to do it around her inn. So Erin found a place amid the dead, where a spell had blown away dirt. She laid him there and covered his body with dirt. Then she found the others.
Some people helped her. Erin made them go away. She found them—some of them. One of them. She buried them and stood up.
Ghosts walked around her. Erin walked back to her inn. It was quiet. She lay down in the kitchen. She stared up at the ceiling for a long time. Her eyes closed. And she heard a voice.
[Conditions Met: Warrior → General Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Warrior removed.]
[General Class Obtained!]
[General Level 6!]
[Skill – Inspiring Words obtained!]
[Skill – All-or-Nothing Charge obtained!]
[Skill – Crossc—]
[Level Ups Cancelled]
The voice went away. Erin covered her eyes. And outside her inn, past Liscor, an army marched.
Perhaps it was a dream. Maybe it was a story. A book. And if it was, it was an epic about Tyrion Veltras and his failed attempt to seize Liscor. Or perhaps it was a tale of the Drakes and their valiant defense of their home. Possibly the narrative wasn’t about either. It might have been a saga about Magnolia Reinhart. Or someone else.
But it was not about Goblins. And like the side characters, the forgotten villains and fodder of every story, they died and were forgotten. That was how the world worked. The faceless monsters died and the heroes got on with their lives. Already the world waited for the outcome of Tyrion’s challenge to the Drakes at the Bloodfields. They moved on. In between the tale of the Human’s pyrrhic victory at Liscor and the next battle, there wasn’t so much as a gap.
No one asked what happened to the Goblins. No one cared. No one wrote their story. After all, what did it matter? Who would weep for a Goblin?
The answer was a young woman. She lay on the floor of her inn and shook. She sobbed and cried all the tears in the world. It wasn’t enough.
Her name was Erin Solstice.