It was a cold evening when Octavia Cotton carefully lit a match. It was spring, but sometimes the cold days still remained. This was one of them.
The match sparked and the head flared into life. For most people in Celum, the city that Octavia had made her home for four years, the fire would have been a welcome sight, the heat comforting. But part of Octavia couldn’t help but flinch at the sight of the dancing flame. Even though the match was her creation.
She couldn’t help it. She was a Stitch Person after all. And fire was one of the ways her kind died. It was a horrible death, and Octavia was cautious to the extreme when handling fire. She’d rather juggle acids in bottles than risk a flame igniting with an explosive reagent. The match scared her, but she knew her cotton body wasn’t that flammable. Even so, the spark of fear in her heart was primal. Instinctive.
Still, there were some situations in which fire was quite useful. Like now. Octavia held the burning match up to a rag. Soaked in cheap alcohol. The rag ignited, and Octavia, swearing and moving quickly, grabbed it and whirled it around with the heavy weight it was attached to.
Molotov cocktails had not yet been invented in this world—at least not in the sense of using alcohol containers as makeshift incendiary devices. And Octavia didn’t buy alcohol nearly expensive enough to qualify in any case. The burning rag was tied to a brick. And as Octavia let go, it soared through the dim evening light and straight through the window of an [Alchemist]’s shop.
Not hers, obviously. Octavia heard the shattering of glass, an exclamation, and then a roar of outrage. She raised her head and shouted.
“Eat moths and die, Quelm!”
“Octavia! You half-wit [Boiler]! I’ll cut your stitches off and use you as coat!”
“You stole my matches!”
Octavia shouted as she backed up from the shop. She sensed movement from inside. Then a man, scrawny, but brandishing a club, raced outside. His fingers were stained and he wore an apron. She’d caught him in the middle of mixing something.
“Hah! I perfected your inferior design! I knew it wasn’t that complex! And I’ll be taking all your business thanks to my spark-dust igniter!”
The Stitch Girl hopped from foot to foot in rage. She shook a fist, wishing she’d brought two stones.
“You won’t get away with this! If it’s a trade war you want—it’s on!”
“I’ll bury you in sales! You’d better guard that shop! I’ve got a box of matches with your name on it!”
“Hah! I’ll have a dozen Drakes from Liscor stabbing you in moments if you do that! And unlike me, you won’t be walking away!”
Quelm the [Alchemist] roared and charged. Octavia turned and ran. She sensed a few shutters above her fly open as Quelm’s neighbors caught on to what was happening at last. They shouted insults at Octavia as she fled. But no one called for the Watch. Undoubtedly someone would, but they knew this was an [Alchemist]’s fight. Not worth sticking their noses into, in short.
It was two blocks before Quelm finally gave up chasing Octavia. She slowed, panting, and wiped sweat from her brow. Well, she’d delivered her message. Unfortunately, she doubted it would do anything. And now she…probably…had to pay for a broken window.
Still, it had to be done. Standards were standards. And Octavia, as one of four [Alchemists] in Celum, had to guard her territory. Not just in the physical sense; it was also about what each [Alchemist] sold. And in this case, one of her competitors, Quelm, had just figured out her match formula. And worse—he’d made it better.
“Damn it Quelm. Why couldn’t you have blown up your shop making those matches?”
Octavia kicked at a pebble as she walked down the street. She was already imagining how much business she’d lose. Not just because Quelm’s new ‘sparking matches’ ignited more reliably, but because he was charging less than she had. Before, Octavia had cornered the market and she’d inflated prices as much as she dared. That was coming to bite her now. But she’d really thought they’d have a harder time figuring the matches out!
The Stitch Girl got back to her shop and checked the boarded front. She still hadn’t replaced her glass window, and her shop looked rather run-down. But she liked to think it was a well-known spot, even if that knowing was mostly infamy rather than fame. Come to that, the boards might help if Quelm retaliated. She wished she actually employed guards—this could get nasty if the trade war escalated.
“If Quelm spreads his designs—no, if he partners with that bitch Mabel the Magnificent, or Jeffil—he won’t partner with Jeffil. But if they start learning their own designs—I’ve barely gotten orders from [Merchants] from the larger cities yet! I’ll lose access to the market, and that’s before they figure out a way to copy my designs in the larger cities!”
Octavia clutched at her braided hair, wondering if it was worth selling the recipe to her matches to an [Alchemist] in Invrisil—if she could even make the deal at anything approaching a profit. And then she wondered if it would come to violence. Quelm wasn’t as thuggish as Jeffil, or Mabel—but he did hold a grudge. And he was an [Alchemist]. Could she afford hired help? Maybe a few Bronze-rank adventurers?
Alchemy was a cutthroat business. In some cities, [Alchemists] worked together in harmony and got along fine, creating wonderful potions and other items for the good of everyone. Octavia had yet to find a city where this was the case, but she assumed there was at least one. But in most cities where there was more than one [Alchemist], they got along as well as a bag full of cats. On fire. Filled with bull feces.
It was mainly due to personality. It was a very odd type of person who became an [Alchemist]. Not only did you have to be keen on mixing various poisons and ingredients that might explode, melt, or create something entirely unexpected, you had to be part [Merchant] as well to obtain your ingredients and sell your products.
Most [Alchemists] were odd in some way. You could roughly divide them into two camps: the insane geniuses who just wanted to create and weren’t much good at interpersonal communication, and the ones who were business-savvy, and could sell as well and create. Octavia fell into the latter camp. She liked to think she’d made her store, Stitch Works, quite profitable. She liked to think that.
But if she was honest…Octavia sighed as she looked around her shop. She had potions on the shelves, goods on display, with her boxes of matches prominently featured right next to the counter. She had money in the little safe hidden in her bathroom—a good amount and almost all gold. All in all, she was running a good shop. An average shop.
Not a famous shop. Her potions were mid-tier at best. Octavia was a Level 21 [Alchemist]—she’d just reached the point at which she could consider taking on an apprentice, if one even wanted to work for someone of her level yet. Her store might be something in ten years if she reached Level 30—then she could move to a bigger city up north, or go south into Drake lands. Or she could stay here and be the top [Alchemist] in Celum.
If she was Level 30. If she had real potions to sell. But right now she earned her living selling cheap healing potions to [Guards], [Mercenaries], adventures, and mana potions to the low-level [Mages] who came by. Her profits came in silver, not gold. And while it was steady, it wasn’t much. Octavia had been a middling [Alchemist]. Until she’d met Erin Solstice. And Ryoka Griffin. And had made matches.
“Five levels in two months. Sales through the roof! And the pepper potion, the smoke bag, the er—exploding flour—all of it at competitive, but not too steep prices!”
Octavia puffed out her chest as she remembered the days when her shop had been filled with customers. Then she recalled each of her competitors stealing her designs, producing the same potions and finding ways to improve her formulas, taking her business. That was what [Alchemists] did. It was hard, very hard to come up with something that wouldn’t be stolen at once.
“But I do have something. A Haste Potion. Or—or a lead to go on. And the uh, peni-whatever.”
Octavia muttered to herself. She walked behind her counter and checked on her projects. Mold, growing on pieces of bread—and cheese, she’d expanded the set—in little jars. In all colors too. Octavia had been looking for the blue-green consistency Ryoka had told her was the right mold, but none of the molds she’d found had worked like Ryoka had said. She shook her head, and then looked at her most precious project, sitting in a little bottle in a hidden drawer right under her desk.
A tiny bit of potion. Glowing yellow, streaked with bright pink. It glowed, even the little bit of it as Octavia carefully held it up and regarded the liquid. Even after months of being in the sealed container, the potion looked as bright as it had on the day Ryoka had shown it to her. The colors were vivid, the liquid practically raced by itself. Octavia’s heart beat quicker as she imagined the [Alchemist] who’d made it.
“A high-grade potion of haste. Gold-rank adventurers would sell their hair for a potion like this.”
If she could replicate it—or the penicillin that Ryoka had talked about—Octavia would be rich. And famous. Healing potions were notorious for not working on serious diseases. In fact, they made them worse. An infection would spread even faster with a healing potion accelerating it. Healing potions couldn’t handle sickness; it was one reason why [Healers] were still needed. But if Octavia could distill the anti-disease agent Ryoka had wanted so badly…
Or make a potion of this caliber. The Stitch-Girl shivered and replaced the sample of the potion in her compartment. If she could do either, she’d finally make it. All her hard work, the years she’d spent apprenticing, moving from Chandrar to Izril, fighting for every corroded copper coin—it would all be worth it.
But she couldn’t do either. It was impossible. Octavia hadn’t been able to analyze the precious sample of potion or find which damn mold cured infection. And now she was fighting with the other [Alchemists] over matches.
“I could really use some new products. Or hired help. A few [Thugs] with bats, maybe? But I need coin. I’ve already spent too much on new equipment.”
Octavia cast a glance at the shiny new sets of alchemy gear—magical burners which could more effectively regulate temperature or even produce different flames for special ingredients, enchanted glassware to contain even the most dangerous reactions, retorts made by master [Glass Blowers] from Terandria, and so on. Octavia was willing to admit she’d splurged too much recently. But if she could get a new product on her shelves, something truly uncopyable—
Her eyes slid sideways as her fingers drummed restlessly on the counter. Octavia’s leg shook, tapping the floor. She looked down and frowned.
“Restless leg. I should check that.”
Absently, she sat on her stool and took off her leg. It was fairly simple; Octavia’s legs were secured to her body with black string. The [Alchemist] had to take off her pants to undo the leg, but as soon as she removed the stitching she felt her limb disappear. And a cloth leg, very detailed but cloth nonetheless, appeared in her hands.
It was a peculiarity of the String People. They had been made, and they made themselves. Their bodies were cloth; they could reattach limbs, or even redesign themselves at will if they had the right materials. In Octavia’s case, she was a String-Girl of the Cotton folk; hence her name.
Octavia Cotton. Not poor, but not rich by any means. Her body was functional, but it developed flaws over time. Like wadded up stuffing, or in this case, misaligned nerves. Octavia checked her leg thoroughly before sewing it back into her body. She felt her leg reattach; the restless shaking stopped.
A good enough body. The kind you wanted as an [Alchemist] anyways; cheap to replace. But what Octavia would have given for a body make of silk! Even really cheap silk! Or another precious material, like satin, or Griffinfeather cloth, or….
Again, Octavia’s eyes slid left. Towards something set into the left wall of her shop. A door.
It was a curious thing. Just a wooden door. It clearly, clearly did not lead anywhere since if you went through the wall you’d be exiting right into the alley and there was no door on the other side. And yet, the door did lead somewhere. It was magical, or the glowing gem set into the doorframe was. It was bright green and it connected the door, in theory, to a magical door a hundred miles south of here. To an inn located just outside the Drake city of Liscor.
Magic. And Octavia’s shop was the place this humble door was connected to. How incredible was that? How potentially lucrative? Some night Octavia lay awake in bed, practically salivating over the possibilities. She’d already secured a deal to sell her potions in Liscor’s market with a hard-bargaining Gnoll [Shopkeeper].
And she had a…friend? A person who lived in said inn who could give her everything Octavia needed. New ideas, an edge on the competition—maybe even a way to guard her now-perilous shop at night.
But—Octavia hesitated. Her fingers drummed faster on the counter. It wasn’t the time to go. She knew that. Not for business. Even Octavia had a heart. And yet, she wanted to go nonetheless. For reasons other than making a profit. Because—
She was at the door before she knew it. Octavia told herself she was just going to peek. Besides, if the door wasn’t set to Celum, it wouldn’t matter. It probably wasn’t anyways. Probably—
She opened the door a crack and her breath caught. Instead of stone wall behind the door, there was a dark wooden floor. A larger room than Octavia’s shop. The scent of cooked food, wood, and just the faintest whiff of something putrid. The Stitch-Girl hesitated.
She shouldn’t. She knew she probably wasn’t wanted. But she still pushed the door open wider a bit. She’d poke her head in, scope out the scene—
Octavia looked around The Wandering Inn. Her first glimpse of things was of a dark, dark room. Practically pitch-black, in fact. A tall ceiling looked down at her, and the room stretched ahead of Octavia. Impossibly far, like some kind of huge mess hall. Or a theater.
At the far end of the room was a stage. It was empty. And the chairs and tables leading up to it were deserted. It was dark. Octavia could barely make out the far end of the room. The only light came from a pair of big candles burning low on the tables closer to the front door and kitchen. There was no light from outside; not even moonlight. The shutters were closed so tightly nothing could get in. And the inn looked deserted.
Was everyone gone? Surely not. Octavia cracked open the door a bit wider. She stepped into the inn, half-closing the door to her shop behind her. She looked around, heart beating a bit fast. Where was everyone? Normally the inn would be full of life. True, given what had happened, Octavia didn’t expect that, but she’d assumed someone would be—
Octavia heard the gentle sounds of nails clicking on the hardwood floor. She spun. A small, white shape had crept up on her from behind. Two bright eyes stared up at Octavia. The [Alchemist] nearly jumped out of her stitches. Then she recognized the creature who’d appeared. Not an animal, but a person. A child.
The white Gnoll looked up at Octavia. She sat cross-legged on the ground, staring up at the Stitch-Girl. Octavia passed a hand over her forehead.
“You scared the—hello! How’s my favorite match-seller doing? Ah, is anyone around? Are you alone?”
Mrsha didn’t respond. She just gazed up silently at Octavia. That wasn’t unusual in itself; Mrsha couldn’t speak. But Octavia noted the stillness of Mrsha’s form. Normally she’d be full of energy. Her tail, usually wagging, was still. She just sat and looked up at Octavia, a world of unspoken words waiting behind her eyes.
A creak. Octavia turned again, and saw someone walk out of the kitchen. Lyonette, a girl with red hair, paused as she walked out of the kitchen holding a saucer and smaller candle. She reached for something at her side the instant she saw Octavia—then relaxed. But her voice wasn’t too friendly as she walked over.
“Octavia? What are you doing here? The inn’s closed. IF you’re here to sell something—”
“What, me? No! Never! I mean, not right now!”
Octavia raised her hands and protested. She looked from Lyonette to Mrsha. Neither one was smiling. Both looked…quiet was the only word for it. Not just in words, but in action. They stood together, in the dark common room, staring at Octavia. She already felt like an intruder.
“I uh, was just coming over to say hi. And to check on how things were—were doing.”
“There’s nothing for you here. And don’t bother trying to get to Liscor; we’re not changing the magical door, and I’ve barred the front door.”
Lyonette put her candle on the table and crossed her arms. Octavia winced. Why did everyone think she only thought about money? Oh, right. Well, she wasn’t thinking of it in this case!
“I don’t want to sell anything. Honest. I’m just here to see—is Erin here?”
The word made Lyonette’s expression flicker. Mrsha looked from her to Octavia.
“Erin’s upstairs. She’s alive.”
Not the most reassuring of words. Octavia looked around and saw the staircase.
“I—I mean, I won’t if it’s not a good time, but I could say hi. Is she—how’s she doing?”
Lyonette hesitated. She looked at Octavia suspiciously, as if still suspecting that Octavia was here to make a deal or bargain for something. Then she shook her head.
“She’s not doing good.”
The two young women looked at each other. Lyonette nodded. Then she sat down. Mrsha crawled onto a chair next to her and leaned on her. Quiet. Octavia shifted from foot to foot, but she didn’t sit down. It felt empty in here. Empty and silent, like a graveyard.
Or a wake.
“She’s upstairs. Crying. I check on her a few times every day. She’s…it’s been six days and she hasn’t done anything.”
“I…I know that. I checked in the second day. When uh—six days? It feels shorter than that. I mean, I just heard about all of it. The door only came back when it was over. Obviously. And I was relieved to hear—I mean, I didn’t know until—”
Octavia babbled a bit. Lyonette just looked up at her. The [Alchemist] stopped.
“How bad was it?”
She hadn’t gotten a chance to ask before. Lyonette paused. She seemed to search for words.
“We were in the city. That was all. We didn’t see any of the fighting. We just saw the aftermath.”
The Stich-Girl got no further. The look in Lyonette’s eyes—in both hers and Mrsha’s eyes—was enough. They stared at Octavia in silence. The [Alchemist] paused. She looked around the empty inn in silence for a minute. She chose her next words carefully.
“I heard—in Celum, that is—that people were complaining that the Players of Celum weren’t putting on performances. Er, does that mean the inn’s…?”
“No one’s putting on performances. Erin told Wesle that. And there’s no point anyways. No one’s coming here.”
“No one at all?”
Part of Octavia wasn’t surprised. But it had been six days. She would have expected someone to stop by, if only for Erin. But she hadn’t understood what Lyonette meant.
“No one can enter the inn. It’s impossible for anyone in Liscor to come here, aside from the Horns, the Halfseekers…and me and Mrsha.”
“What? You mean the door’s locked?”
The [Alchemist] was confused. Lyonette shook her head as Mrsha reached out and tipped the candle, staring at the wax as it ran down one side.
“No. I mean, they cannot enter. Most can’t even leave the city if they want to get to the inn. Erin’s not letting them.”
“You mean—with a Skill?”
Lyonette nodded. Octavia blinked. She could do that? Of course, Octavia knew of Skills that could affect a shop’s popularity—like [Shopper’s Stop], or [Discerning Clientele], which could affect which customers you got or how much business came to you, but physically preventing someone from reaching the inn? That went way beyond what most Skills were capable of. Spells as well.
And no one? Lyonette just nodded when Octavia asked about that.
“No one. No one who was in Liscor. Or on the walls. Even people like Halrac or Typhenous can’t enter. And the rest…definitely not.”
“You mean, the ones who were there. Who watched and didn’t…”
The ones who’d watched the last battle of the Goblin Lord. Six days ago, two armies had fought here. Three, if you wanted to count the last part of the battle. Four if you included Liscor. But the two armies that had fought, one to defend Liscor, and the other to take it, had been Goblins.
The Goblin Lord’s army had advanced on Liscor, forced into the action by Lord Tyrion Veltras and an army of Humans intent on using the battle as a pretext to claim Liscor. They had been stopped and Tyrion’s plans foiled—by an army of Goblins who’d appeared to defend Liscor. Cave Goblins, a tribe opposing the Goblin Lord, the famous Redfangs of the High Passes, and the five Hobgoblins staying at Erin’s inn.
They had fought, placing themselves in the Goblin Lord’s way against impossible odds. For an [Innkeeper]. At her request. They had fought. And they had won.
And they had died. That was all Octavia knew. But it was enough. Enough, because she had seen the five Hobgoblins in Erin’s inn. Seen them, and known that Erin treated Goblins like people. And those people had been wiped out to the last. Not just by Tyrion Veltras, who had attacked both armies when he realized his plan would fail, but by Liscor itself. They had fled towards the city and been cut down. Repulsed by the city they had fought for.
It wasn’t something you heard about. All the [Criers] and [Messages] going back and forth were about the outcome of the battle. Tyrion Veltras challenging the Drakes to combat at the Blood Fields, the political fallout in the north thanks to Magnolia Reinhart. Little about the Goblins.
But here, in this inn, the Goblins were all that mattered. And Erin—Octavia shifted in her chair. No wonder no one from Liscor could come through. They’d watched the battle happen and given only a little aid to the Goblin’s side. And at the end…
“How come I can get through? I didn’t have a problem.”
She pointed that out to Lyonette. The young woman shrugged.
“Erin probably didn’t think of you.”
She elaborated at the hurt look on Octavia’s face.
“There wasn’t anything you could have done. The door to Celum was closed. But everyone else—”
“They really can’t get close?”
Octavia looked towards the door. It was shut, and the lock bar was in place. Windows closed…she wished that Lyonette would have at least opened a few windows. Maybe she was worried about crime at night? Or it could be chilly, true, but she could at least light a fire. It was too dark like this.
Lyonette didn’t seem to share the same opinion. She shook her head.
“They can’t get near. They can’t even get up the hill. Olesm tried for three hours yesterday. He couldn’t so much as take a step. I think Wall Lord Ilvriss could, or maybe Relc or Klbkch or one of the Gold-ranks—but they won’t try.”
That was all Octavia could say. She looked at Lyonette and then glanced at Mrsha. The Gnoll was carving at the candle with one claw. Quietus.
“If you want. I don’t think it’ll do anything. But I won’t stop you. You want to try?”
Octavia hesitated. But she had come this far and this was the reason she’d come to begin with. So she nodded. Lyonette stood up abruptly. She took the candle from Mrsha and nodded to the stairs.
“She’s in my old room. Mine and Mrsha’s.”
She led the way up the stairs. Octavia followed her, expecting the floorboards to creak. But they didn’t. They were new. She waited for sound. Movement. Anything. But the inn was so quiet it pressed down on her. Lyonette stopped before the first door she came to and knocked on it.
“Erin? Octavia’s here. She’d like to speak to you.”
There was no response. Lyonette knocked again, and then silently pushed the door open. Octavia peeked into the room and saw her.
A young woman was curled up on the floor. Her light brown hair was an untidy mess. She was facing away from them, towards a wall.
Octavia’s voice quavered uncertainly as Lyonette stood to one side. The [Innkeeper] didn’t reply. Octavia coughed, and then she raised her voice brightly.
“Hey! Sorry to bother you, but uh, I was just in the area—you know, magic door—and I thought I’d say hi. I haven’t seen you in a while. It’s…I heard about what happened. I’m…sorry. But I came by to say that if there’s anything I could do—anything at all? I’m not asking for money. I just came by to say—I—I thought I’d just…”
Her voice trailed off. Octavia stared at the young woman’s back. She didn’t move. She didn’t seem to breathe, until Octavia saw her chest move slightly from behind. She walked forwards.
“Erin? Are you asleep? Can you—”
Octavia stopped. She saw Erin’s face. The girl’s eyes were open. Her hazel eyes stared ahead. Tears ran from her eyes. They dripped down her face. Ran onto her clothing. Erin didn’t move. She didn’t look at Octavia.
It had been six days since the death of the Goblin Lord. Six days since the final siege of Liscor. Six days since the death.
“Erin? Octavia’s here for you. Mrsha’s wondering if you’ll get up.”
“Erin? I’m so sorry. Can I do anything?”
“We’re waiting for you. No one can enter the inn. Erin? Please say something.”
She didn’t move. She didn’t speak. Not even when Octavia shook her. She blinked and breathed and that was all. Salt and water ran from her eyes. And there was little else there.
The tears wouldn’t stop. They would never stop. Erin curled up in her room and didn’t move. Eventually, Lyonette gave up her entreaties. She looked at Octavia and the two retreated.
“I didn’t know. I thought after six days she’d be at least—”
Octavia trailed off. Lyonette shook her head.
“She’s barely eats. She only eats because Mrsha stopped eating when she did. I thought so too. After six days—she’s lost friends before. But this time…they fought for her.”
“I know. No one’s talking about that. They just say the Goblins had a civil war. Or that they fought each other. No one’s talking about the fact that it was her.”
The two stared back into the room. Erin lay there. Mrsha padded into the room. She circled Erin. She reached out and stroked Erin’s hair. Then she lay next to Erin, silent. Lyonette stared at Mrsha. After a few minutes, the Gnoll child got up and walked back towards them. She reached up and Lyonette lifted her up, hugging her. Octavia watched the two silently. Jealous for a second as she saw Mrsha bury her face into Lyonette’s chest and hug her back.
“Let’s leave her alone.”
Lyonette closed the door. She looked at Octavia as they walked back down the stairs. For some reason she glanced towards the far end of the hall before she walked down. But she said nothing of it.
“She’ll move in a bit. She always does. But until then I can’t get her to do anything. Anyways, she shouldn’t really be up for this. It’s nearly time.”
“Time for what?”
Octavia was still trying to process Erin’s grief. But then she noticed Lyonette reached for the thing at her side. She stopped when Lyonette put Mrsha down in the common room and drew her sword.
It was a straight, steel blade. Unadorned, and unremarkable. The kind you could get from any [Blacksmith]. But Lyonette held it as if she meant to use it. She stared towards the door, then slowly moved towards a table. She placed the sword on the table and pulled up a chair. Then she looked at Octavia.
The [Alchemist] looked at the sword, bewildered. But then she heard a sound. A faint shuffling. A bump. Steps from outside. And then a dull, quiet thump against the door. She jumped.
“What was that?”
Lyonette had just said that no one could come to the inn! So who was that? Octavia stared at the door, but Lyonette made no move to open it. She heard the thump again, louder. Something—someone was bumping against it. Insistently. And then there was another thump, this time from a window right of the door. And then another bump. Another.
Something was outside the inn. Somethings. Someone. And they were…colliding with the inn. Striking the shutters. Then Octavia heard a sigh, and the sound of something hitting the door with a dull, fleshy impact. And it clicked. She backed up, eyes wide.
Lyonette nodded. She stared at the door as Mrsha huddled next to her. The Gnoll’s hair was standing up, but she didn’t look too afraid. She’d seen this before. Octavia was terrified. Her breath caught, and her eyes grew round as she stepped backwards, towards the door to her shop.
“Don’t worry, they can’t get in.”
“But the undead—”
It had to be them. Octavia was suddenly reminded of a fact of this world. When the dead gather, the undead rise. And while graveyards were purified to ensure the remains of the deceased wouldn’t become undead, there was a battlefield’s worth of the dead outside. And by the sounds of it, zombies were converging on the inn as night fell.
Thump. Thump. Thump. The sounds came from all sides now as the zombies ran into the inn, some attacking it with their arms and heads, others just running into it. And those were just the audible sounds. Octavia imagined hundreds of bodies, silently pressed against the inn, as if they could implode the walls just like that. And maybe they could. This inn was made out of wood, not stone. But Lyonette was focused. Grimly calm.
“Erin’s Skills will keep us safe. Just stay quiet and we won’t attract too many. They can’t do anything to get in. Just make sounds.”
The sound was rhythmic, eerie. And worse because the undead truly didn’t make many sounds. Of course, Octavia had heard the classic zombie groaning parodied to her, but these ones didn’t do that. They just sighed, made small sounds. It was terrifying.
“Are you just going to let them stay here? All night long? What if they find a way in? Where are the other adventurers?”
Octavia was unable to keep silent. She knew both adventuring teams! How could they leave Lyonette, Mrsha, and Erin alone? Mrsha looked up. Her tail was twitching each time something struck the inn. Lyonette pointed towards the door.
“The adventurers? They’re outside.”
“The Horns are out there. So are the Halfseekers and all the adventurers. They’re killing them by the thousands each day, but there are over a hundred thousand dead bodies out there. Closer to two hundred thousand, maybe. And more keep rising each day.”
“Two hundred thousand.”
Octavia felt like she was repeating everything Lyonette said. Her brown skin grew pale.
“They can’t get in.”
Lyonette reassured Mrsha and Octavia once more, but Octavia noticed that the sword was bared and never out of Lyonette’s reach. The thumping on the windows and groans grew louder as more undead joined the inn. Then the [Alchemist] heard a crash as something hit the door. Hard. She jumped.
“What was that?”
This time Lyonette stood up. She stared at the door as something hit it again, far louder than the zombies. She held up a hand and Octavia and Mrsha were still.
The thing outside rammed the door three times. And then Octavia heard a sound that made her skin crawl. Scuffling. And then the sounds of scratching movement outside. From a window, then higher up.
She looked at Lyonette, terrified. But the [Barmaid] was still calm, if alert. She tracked the thing’s progress up the side of the inn.
“The roof’s sealed. We boarded it up and the Antinium say they’ll begin working on rebuilding as soon as the undead presence lessens.”
Still, Lyonette looked wary as she reached for the sword. The crawling thing outside scraped as it climbed higher and higher—and then Octavia heard a crash and a heavy impact. She looked at Lyonette, but the [Barmaid] was focused on the door. There were more impacts, of a different kind this time, from outside, and then a thump that Octavia felt in her bones. Silence—and then, to the [Alchemist]’s surprise and relief, a voice.
“Lyonette? Are you alright?”
It was Ceria. Octavia vaguely recognized the half-Elf’s voice. Lyonette called out.
“We are. Did you get it?”
“Yeah. It was a Ghoul trying to climb the inn. We got rid of the zombies too. Pisces is keeping his bear Bone Horror back here. Any sign of cracks? Damage?”
“None. We’re fine.”
Octavia heard another voice, muffled. Ceria replied, and then she raised her voice as the sounds of more impacts started up. Someone—the rest of her team probably—was fighting the undead.
“Okay. We’ll be back in an hour. Maybe two. There are more Ghouls tonight. Make sure the windows are closed and locked.”
Ceria didn’t say anything more after that. Octavia heard faint footsteps, then silence. She looked at Lyonette.
“The Bone Horror’s here. You can’t hear it, but it will guard the inn. We don’t really need it.”
Octavia said the word uncertainly. She’d heard of such things, but those were higher-level undead. Lyonette nodded.
“Pisces made it. It can handle anything that appears. For now. That’s why the adventurers are trying to burn and kill as many undead as possible.”
Mrsha shivered. So did Octavia.
“Worse things than Ghouls appear?”
“Usually? No. But on a big battlefield? We can get Crypt Lords, Shamblers, and a lot worse in time. It won’t come to that. Liscor’s making sure the bodies are all disposed of.”
“Only Goblin bodies, though, right?. I heard they all died here.”
“Most of them did.”
Lyonette’s eyes were shadowed. She looked upstairs once more. And Octavia was glad that Erin hadn’t come downstairs.
The undead kept rising after that, but the Bone Horror that had been left was defending the inn, by the sounds of the occasionally heavy impacts from outside. Lyonette sat with Octavia and Mrsha, listening maybe. Both she and Mrsha were so grim. Octavia tried to liven things up, but she was no good. In the end, she just sat with them. At some point Lyonette roused herself.
“It’s about time for Erin to come down.”
“She’s coming down? To eat?”
That startled Octavia, given how unresponsive Erin had been. But Lyonette was already going into the kitchen. She came out with, of all things, a little bit of a stew in a bowl, some bread, buttered, and a few Yellats, fried on one side. The meal was warm and hot and it made Octavia realize she hadn’t had a decent meal since…breakfast. Yesterday. She’d just eaten whatever she had since then.
Lyonette noticed the rumbling in her stomach. So she went back and got Octavia another plate like it. The [Alchemist] ate hungrily, noticing Lyonette and Mrsha weren’t eating.
“We had an early dinner.”
And they weren’t much hungry, because Mrsha didn’t even bother trying to steal Octavia’s food. The [Alchemist] polished off her plate and then saw that Lyonette kept glancing towards the stairs. The first plate she’d put out was meant for someone, and sure enough, Lyonette heard a quiet shuffling. And then Erin Solstice walked down the stairs.
“Erin! You’re up!”
Octavia was stunned. She scrambled to her feet, but Erin didn’t so much as look at her. She walked downstairs, slowly, and she was still crying. Less, but her eyes were red and swollen. She looked at Lyonette. The [Barmaid] pointed.
“It’s right here.”
Erin went over to the plate. She took it, and rather than sit, she lifted it and turned right back around. She went towards the stairs, but Lyonette raised her voice.
“He must be in the basement again. I checked his room earlier. He wasn’t there.”
Erin turned towards the trap door to the basement. Octavia got to her feet. She and Lyonette hurried over and helped open the trap door. Erin maneuvered down the stairs, refusing to let them take the plate. She turned, and Lyonette handed her a lantern. Erin looked around. For the first time she seemed to come alive. Her voice croaked.
Octavia heard a pained note in her voice. She saw a desperate look in Erin’s eye. The [Innkeeper] called out, coughing on her tears. She looked around.
“Hello? Are you there?”
For a second there was naught but silence. Erin looked around, and Octavia thought that if there was one thing keeping her together, even enough to do this much, it was this. Her hand shook on the plate. The lantern light wobbled as it moved across the basement. And then it stopped. A solitary figure was sitting against the back wall. The light illuminated it. Erin called out, desperately, her voice breaking.
And the Goblin opened his eyes.
He had been dreaming. It was the same dream, played a thousand times. Ten thousand.
Somewhere on a hilltop, a Goblin stood. He stared up at the night sky. The stars shone down on him. The grass was soft underfoot. And he was smiling.
The Goblin was there too. He was there. They were all there. They filled the hill. It had no end. And neither did they. Male and female. Tall and small. Hobgoblin, Goblin. Children. Adults. Warriors and those who had picked up a sword. Cave Goblins. Redfangs. Goblins wearing black armor.
The Goblin Lord. From every tribe, they stood together, looking up. At the twin moons that hung in the night sky. At each other. A breeze blew soundlessly over the hill, making the grass ripple. The Goblin who dreamed could not feel it. But the Goblins looked up. And they walked off the hill and into the sky.
At first it was a handful. And then it was more. The waiting Goblins looked at each other. The Goblin looked around and saw a familiar face.
Headscratcher. Had he known him? It felt like he had. But in this place, all Goblins knew each other. He looked past him and saw a tall Hob crouching next to a Goblin whose eyes shone red. He looked sad, but as he turned, another Goblin walked up the hill. As tall as a legend. His teeth flashed and his red war paint stood out. Garen Redfang stood next to his brother.
Reiss. And Eater of Spears looked back. The Goblin knew him too. The Hobgoblin raised a claw. He spoke a word. And then he vanished.
They were leaving. Garen and Reiss were next. They looked back, straight at the Goblin. And there was a silent moment in which Garen raised his hand and made a fist, and Reiss bowed. Then they too vanished.
Like mist. Like memory, already fading. Headscratcher stared up at the stars. He looked back and more Goblins walked forwards and vanished. He smiled once. Softly. Regrets, sorrow, and a quiet calm ran through that one smile. He reached back and the Goblin reached for him. But Headscratcher just shook his head. He said something.
And then he turned and walked ahead. The Goblin watched him go. More Goblins were disappearing. The hill was growing emptier. More faces turned back to him, some laughing, others calling out.
But how could you wait? They were all going. Spiderslicer was next. Noears shrugged and pointed ahead, clapping his hands. Hobgoblins and children followed. Too many to count.
Tens of thousands of Goblins, walking past them. Vanishing into the air. A river, a torrent. And then a trickle. The last to go was a Hobgoblin who sat on the hill, staring back rather than ahead. He was reluctant. But at last, Shorthilt stood. And the Goblins who remained and watched him were two.
He was missing his sword. Shorthilt grumbled, but there was no help for it. He looked back and reached out. He touched both of them, clasping their arms. Wishing them well. Then, with infinite reluctance, he walked forwards. And he was gone.
And then it was just the last two of them. Pyrite and Numbtongue looked at each other. Which was which? For a moment they didn’t know. They had been everyone for a moment. Every Goblin on the hill. Only now, as the last one left, did they become themselves. They stood together.
Neither one showed the wounds they had taken. But they felt them. Each one, weighing them down. It didn’t hurt like pain. But it was a reminder. And with each second, the wind blew harder. Calling them away. But only one. The two met each other’s eyes.
They had never seen each other. But they knew each other. They knew everything in a moment. And Numbtongue smiled and Pyrite bent and tried to eat the grass.
That was it. That was all you could say. The two looked at each other. Then they grew quiet and looked up. The sky called them. Both wanted to walk into that oblivion. But they also wanted to stay.
They looked back. At each other. Numbtongue was so very tired. Pyrite lowered his head, and the weight of the world pressed down on him.
That was all Numbtongue could say. He looked up at Pyrite.
“I tried. We did it. She lived.”
Pyrite nodded. He reached out and squeezed Numbtongue’s shoulder gently. The Hobgoblin wiped at his eyes. Pyrite looked towards the sky.
“Tell her I’m sorry. I’m tired.”
The two turned and began walking together. Off the hill. Higher and higher. At first they walked together. But then one fell behind. The other reached for him.
“Here. Take it with you.”
And they offered their hand. The Goblin reached for it and felt the warmth. He looked up—and he was alone. Alone, he felt himself falling. And then—and then—
He woke up. In pain. In darkness. A light, bright and mortal, hurt his eyes. The Goblin shielded his face.
“Hello? Are you there?”
A female voice, cracked and broken called out to him. He saw a figure standing by the stairs. Saw a lantern’s light. The Goblin tried to sit up. His body felt unfamiliar. Heavy. He looked up as Erin walked forwards.
Numbtongue looked up. His red eyes flashed in the darkness, lit up by the lantern’s glow. He looked around, but Pyrite was gone. They were all gone. And he was there. Lying in a dirty basement.
The broken guitar lay at his feet. Erin stopped when she saw Numbtongue. Her eyes went to him. She was crying. Numbtongue stared at her. He said nothing. There was nothing to say.
The music was gone.
He was alone.
That was all Erin said. She bent down and put the plate in front of Numbtongue. He could smell it. He didn’t respond. Erin looked down at him.
There was nothing to say. She turned away, tears falling. Numbtongue watched her go. He moved his legs.
Painfully. His body wouldn’t move right. There was a scar on his chest. A wound. A spear had gone straight through him. He should be dead. But he remembered a stranger telling him to live.
He drew his knees up to his chest. Numbtongue slowly began to rock back and forth. He tried to hum, but there was no song in him. No music. So he just sat there, rocking back and forth, staring at the untouched meal. Back and forth. Waiting. But no matter how many times the dream never changed. The memory endured. And Pyrite reached out.
“Tell her I’m sorry. I’m tired.”
The Hobgoblin closed his eyes. But he couldn’t cry. There were no tears. No words. Just him. Alone. So the Hobgoblin closed his eyes and went back there. To that living memory. Fading, faded with each passing second. And he tried to stop them. But they were already…
Night. And then day. The seventh day after the death of the Goblin Lord, a few Drakes gathered for a conference in Liscor’s city hall. They chatted quietly, looking out across the city.
“Cremation’s getting trickier without wood to fuel the fires. We’re taking from our stockpiles, breaking down a few wagons, but we’ve having to use magic rather than wood. The [Mages] are complaining.”
Watch Captain Zevara was speaking with Ilvriss. The Wall Lord was nodding as Olesm quietly wrote down the tallies of last night’s undead suppression by the adventurers and City Watch. Embria was absent; she was still out in the Floodplains, exterminating the zombies and gathering corpses to be burned with her soldiers.
“We have no choice. As for the smell—I know the residents are unhappy, but again, this is a priority task. We’re over halfway done as it stands.”
“That was my opinion as well. There’s not much to do other than rotate the [Mages] and tell the people we’re working as hard as we can.”
“These things happen. Cleanup after a battle is never popular, Watch Captain. But I think any level-headed citizens will understand the need.”
“If I find any, I’ll be sure to appreciate that fact.”
The two shared a quiet chuckle. Olesm looked up, and then back down at his work. Ilvriss paused and glanced at the door.
“Ah. Shieldscale. Come in.”
A Drake saluted at the entrance to the meeting room. She strode into the room, walking with military posture. Olesm glanced up at her. Zevara noted the pair of wings on the Drake. She was unfamiliar. Her scales were a bright, almost too-bright blue. She was clearly a soldier and was armed as such. More importantly, Zevara noticed the acrid tang in the air as she drew closer.
If she was right, this Drake had the ability to breathe some kind of weapon—probably acid. That made her an Oldblood Drake, with both wings and a breath weapon. The rarest of all combinations. Zevara couldn’t help but stand a bit straighter as this Drake saluted her and Ilvriss.
“Watch Captain. Wall Lord. I have the official reports from the Walled Cities about the engagement at the Blood Fields. For your perusal.”
She offered a report, copied twice, to Zevara and Ilvriss. They read theirs as the Drake went over and gave Olesm a copy. Ilvriss read with distaste and then shook his head.
“Disgusting. Of course the Humans are calling it a victory. These numbers—and they’re claiming this is the official report? They’ve shaved off numbers.”
Zevara studied the report with dismay. Reading it, you could infer that the losses weren’t that bad. But Ilvriss just looked disgusted.
“I read Salazsar’s report of the battle. We can count. In numbers alone, that damned Veltras won. We pulled back too many of our elites when it was clear Liscor wasn’t in danger. I told them that was a mistake. We sent three [Generals]—good ones, but hardly our best—and paid for it. His soldiers were more elite, and with the nobility and officers he brought—disgusting. And this is what we’re claiming? A ‘partial victory’?”
He tossed his report onto the table. Zevara sighed as she did likewise. She nodded to the Drake, who’d assumed a patient posture, hands folded behind her back.
“Thank you, um…Captain?”
Zevara had to guess, since the Drake wasn’t wearing her military insignia. Ilvriss looked up.
“Ah, that would be Major Shieldscale, Watch Captain Zevara. I think I mentioned her to you?”
Zevara vaguely recalled this particular Drake popping up in conversation a few days ago, as she herself had done. Ilvriss nodded.
“As I said, her lineage is a long-time friend of the family. She’ll be serving as my aide in a more…combative role than my other adjutants.”
“Where are you from, Major Shieldscale?”
“Salazsar, Watch Captain. Born and raised in the gemstone capital.”
Ilvriss winced slightly as the Major replied. Zevara nodded. That was Salazsar for you. She looked at the Wall Lord and he cleared his throat.
“Asrira here came with a detachment bound for Invrisil. When the siege was lifted, she elected to continue on alone while the rest of her unit was recalled. I needed support, and Major Shieldscale is an accomplished warrior who’s served with distinction for over half a decade.”
To Zevara’s knowledge Ilvriss already had nearly a dozen helpers. But she nodded. Wall Lords loved their retinues.
“Does that mean your sojourn in Liscor is coming to a close, Wall Lord Ilvriss?”
She couldn’t think of any other reason he’d be requesting reinforcements. Ilvriss nodded. And Zevara felt a pang. She might actually miss him. For all he had been difficult to work with at the start, it had been very reassuring to have a Wall Lord on her side.
“That’s correct, Watch Captain. I’ve stayed here far too long as it is. Not that there wasn’t need—but I am of Salazsar, and I’ve been away from home for too long.”
“It’s a long way from here to Salazsar, though. Will you be travelling via Pallass?”
“If it can be arranged. They’re still denying me entry, which I have every right to—but I’ll lean on them as much as I need to.”
“At this point I’m almost tempted to make the trip on foot rather than keep negotiating with Pallass. But the Blood Fields have just been fed, which makes a journey south quite unwise.”
“Indeed. Um, I expect the Council will insist on celebrating you before you go. You might want to give them the heads up—or leave before they can arrange anything.”
Ilvriss stroked his chin.
“I could hardly be so rude. And it occurs to me that a funded celebration would do Liscor good. What with…all that has occurred. Things are finally looking up, aren’t they?”
“It seems that way.”
The two Drakes fell silent. Major Shieldscale waited as Olesm continued to work. They looked out across Zevara’s city. And she agreed largely with what Ilvriss had said.
The siege of Liscor was over. Before it had begun, really. But all the stress and fear that had gripped the city was gone, and that was a relief in itself. She’d been preparing to fight to the last to hold Liscor. Now—well, the eastern gate was still destroyed and there were cracks in the wall that would have to be repaired and fortified before the spring rains came again, not to mention the undead still roaming about the Floodplains and the risk of so many bodies rotting…
But it was over. Liscor was safe. And its people were happy.
There had even been a celebration. A small one, but it reflected the mood of the city and that was one of relief. Yes, everything was looking up. Zevara thought about smiling. But it didn’t seem to quite come onto her face when she willed it.
Ilvriss looked speculative rather than in a good mood. He stared across the city as the sun rose, illuminating the bright rooftops.
“Only a few issues left, I should imagine. One of them being the trial. I assume your prisoner hasn’t given you any trouble?”
Trial? It took Zevara a second to remember what Ilvriss meant. Her brows darkened and her tail curled up a bit.
“Oh, the Minotaur? No trouble out of him. We’re preparing for the trial—we’d have done it earlier, but the witnesses needed time to rest and what with the Goblins…but we’ll start the proceedings soon.”
And that would be that. Zevara still had to deal with the dungeon, but she swore to herself that the Raskghar would never trouble the walls again. Nor would they ever reach them, not with the waters gone. In the mud, they’d have as much chance of taking the city—even in the daytime with the gates open—as Zevara had of flying.
“Good, good. I doubt I’ll be there for the trial unless I’m truly delayed, but I’ll provide any written testimony should it be necessary. As for the rest…it only remains…I suppose it’s just the inn.”
Zevara looked up. The quiet scratching of Olesm’s quill went silent for a second. Major Shieldscale kept staring ahead. But the other three Drakes paused. Ilvriss cleared his throat. He turned his case and looked east. The Wandering Inn wasn’t visible from here. But he looked nonetheless. And his tone was…different.
“I don’t suppose there’s been any word from the inn, has there? The doors are…?”
“It’s still closed.”
Olesm replied flatly. Ilvriss glanced at him. He nodded slowly. Cleared his throat again.
“It’s not that I mind, but she does have the one working door to Pallass. And I gather that these plays have attracted a good deal of interest from Liscor’s citizenry, especially now we’re no longer operating in a crisis. There’s talk of enlisting in the ah, acting troupe. It could be a new form of entertainment and revenue for Liscor, which is always to be desired.”
“That would be helpful.”
Zevara glanced at Olesm. But he was working again. She stared at the eastern wall. The inn was closed. Erin Solstice hadn’t been spotted in a week now, and no one could so much as get near her inn. And it wasn’t that Zevara wanted to see her. Her life was far, far easier when she didn’t see that blasted Human. And yet—
Seven days had passed. The city was upbeat, it really was. People were getting back to work, they were enthusiastic about the sun, relieved not to be dead or under siege—it was all great. But rather than call the mood jubilant, Zevara felt the same sensation that seemed to have gripped the city. That of…waiting.
Waiting. What they wanted, what a lot of Liscor wanted, was just to see the doors open. To hear that annoying voice saying something inane, see a bright smile. But the inn was silent. The doors did not open, no matter how long anyone waited.
Yes, Goblins had died. But in a way, they’d saved the day. And yes, bad things had happened. But Liscor had triumphed. It was good, in the end. It was a victory. Everyone knew it. The Human, that crazy [Innkeeper], Erin, would be sad. She might be angry, and she had every right to be. She could be depressed, grieve, but in time, she would return to normal. Liscor has triumphed. All would be well. And everyone knew that.
They were just waiting for her to confirm it.
On the seventh day, Numbtongue looked up. He reached out and picked up the broken guitar. He looked down at it. Then he tossed it aside and stood up.
He didn’t feel any better. He still felt dead. A ghost. And he still dreamed that he’d see Headscratcher poke his head down from above and tell him to get moving. Hear Shorthilt stomp on the floorboards, or hear the chatter of Cave Goblins. But time had passed. And part of Numbtongue couldn’t even believe in that lie anymore.
It still hurt, too. With every passing second, Numbtongue thought the tears in his heart would open up and swallow him whole. They hurt more than his wounds. But still, he stood.
It wasn’t that he was better. It was just that he couldn’t sit any longer. Seven days he’d sat. It was enough. The pain wasn’t going away from sitting. It never would.
So Numbtongue stumbled forwards. He kicked something by accident, nearly slipped. The plate of food. It overturned and Numbtongue looked at it. He bent to pick it up and nearly fell over. He was dizzy. He hadn’t eaten in…
It didn’t matter. Numbtongue picked up the dishes. He wasn’t hungry. He slowly walked towards the stairs and trapdoor. He could hear voices from above. For a second he paused and hoped. But they weren’t the right ones. Goblins didn’t speak that much, anyways.
“—just disgusting work. It feels like I’m working in a suppression company in Baleros again. Why can’t you get your undead minions to handle all of it, Pisces? Or do that neck-snapping thing and settle things that way.”
Jelaqua was talking to Pisces as she slumped over her table. Lyonette was quietly serving breakfast. The adventuring teams—the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers—were eating quietly. They were subdued. Even Jelaqua, normally energetic, was only partly invested in her conversation. The [Necromancer] she was addressing, Pisces, paused in dabbing his mouth with his sleeve.
“Two reasons. Firstly, because my undead cannot function long without consuming a great deal of mana. They were quite limited in number as well. Secondly, even if I broke the necks of every zombie out there, they would continue to rise. Breaking the bones of the undead stops them for a short time, but nothing short of immolation or pure destruction will—”
“I get it. I was just asking.”
Jelaqua sighed. She tried to smile at Mrsha. The Gnoll cub was eating breakfast quietly.
“Hey there. Sleepy, Mrsha? You’re not racing about.”
The Gnoll looked up and shook her head. Jelaqua’s grin faltered.
“Maybe we should let you run about in Celum?”
No response. Mrsha just went back to eating. Jelaqua looked around. Moore and Seborn, sitting at her table, gave her slow shakes of the head. The Selphid let it drop.
At the other table, Ceria looked at her companions. Yvlon, Ksmvr, Pisces…they were all quiet. A night of fighting had made them tired, but this wasn’t like them. But she couldn’t tell them to snap out of it. It didn’t feel right.
And yet they hadn’t grieved. Not like Erin was. Ceria hadn’t shed more than a few tears. She couldn’t, though she’d known the Goblins. And yet, she couldn’t smile either.
Ceria tried. Yvlon looked up to see Ceria’s attempt at a smile. She stopped eating. Ceria gave up. She looked around, but Erin hadn’t come down for breakfast again. Maybe today was the day to give her a kick and some tough love. She had to snap out of this eventually. How long was she going to be like this? She had to—
The trap door opened. Ceria turned. Her fork fell from her fingers. It clattered on the table. Pisces looked up. Then he turned as well.
The room fell silent. Numbtongue paused as he pushed the trap door up. He stared around. Slowly, he climbed up into the inn. He placed the plate and bowl on the table and looked around.
A red scar stood out on his chest. Half of his body looked…paler. The remnants of lightning. Aside from that, he looked like he had. Numbtongue. But it was Numbtongue. And the others were…
Numbtongue stopped as he stepped out into the light. He had been prepared for something. But this was worse.
It was the stares. All of them, adventurers, Lyonette, Mrsha—they all stared at Numbtongue. They froze, and gazed at him like they’d seen a ghost. That was painful, but it was the second look that cut deeper. Pity. He saw it reflected in their eyes. And he hated them for it.
Pity was even worse.
Numbtongue could have laughed at the way their expressions changed. He almost did, but he didn’t. He looked to Lyonette.
He offered her the plates and bowl. Lyonette noticed the spilled food.
“Oh. Didn’t you like—”
“Tripped. Not hungry.”
“I can get you something else if you’d—”
Numbtongue hated it. The awkward conversation, the painful misunderstandings and imprecise words. That was why he didn’t speak. And the way Lyonette clearly seemed to regret asking about breakfast. As if she should have said something about—about—
Numbtongue hadn’t seen them. He didn’t remember anything. Not after being stabbed. He didn’t know how it had ended. Until Lyonette told them. So he walked towards the door. It was closed.
Jelaqua shot to her feet. She stepped out in front of him. Numbtongue looked at her. Jelaqua gave her a desperate smile.
“Hey! Numbtongue! Why don’t you take a seat? Unless you want to use the outhouse? That’s cool, but uh—why don’t you let us make sure there’s no one outside? Just one second. Moore!”
She snapped. Moore pushed back his chair hurriedly. Seborn was already on his feet. Numbtongue looked from face to face.
“Well—let’s just say it isn’t a good time to go out. Uh, unless you need that outhouse.”
Jelaqua waved her arms at her companions. Numbtongue tried to get around her. She blocked him.
“Hold on. Okay?”
He tried to walk past her, but she held her arm out. The Selphid backed up, and her desperate smile vanished. She took a deep breath.
“There are a lot of…a lot of undead out there. You might be mistaken for one. And it’s unwise to go out anyways. Because…”
She trailed off. Numbtongue waited. Jelaqua looked around. In the end she had to say it.
“Because it’s dangerous. For you.”
Because he was a Goblin. The news hit Numbtongue like a brick in the chest. He staggered, and nearly sat down. Jelaqua reached for him. Numbtongue knocked her hand away.
He brushed past her. Jelaqua half-grabbed for him, and then gave up. Numbtongue reached the door. He found it was barred. He took off the door bar, flung open the door.
And he stopped.
Mud covered the Floodplains. Mud and water. The rains were gone. The grasses dead. It was just mud, as far as the eye could see. Mud, water.
There they lay. Green bodies. Goblins wearing black armor. Carn Wolves, dotting the ground. Dead. They covered a small part of the Floodplains, really. A large battlefield and then—a stream of bodies fallen as they’d fled towards Liscor. And then broken north, towards the mountains. Dead bodies.
And the undead. They roamed the hills and valleys, sometimes falling, crawling, standing. Lifeless faces, already rotting. Goblins.
Part of Numbtongue wasn’t surprised. Part of him, a dreadful part, wasn’t even shocked by the sight. He was a warrior. He knew what to expect. But the rest of him…hurt.
Just hurt. And Numbtongue was ashamed beyond belief that it didn’t hurt more. But it couldn’t. Seven days had passed. A week. He knew what had happened.
They were dead. He was alive. That was all there was to it.
The Hobgoblin turned. He saw Lyonette standing in the doorway. The others were standing behind him, staring at Numbtongue or away. None of them knew what to say. As if what they could say mattered. Numbtongue looked at them. Then he walked back inside.
The Goblin looked at Lyonette. She blinked and hesitated.
“She’s upstairs. But—”
Numbtongue strode towards the stairs. Anxiously, Lyonette followed him. The Hobgoblin nearly tripped going up the stairs and had to catch the handrail to steady himself. His stomach rumbled. He pushed himself up and ignored Lyonette. He had to see her. He had to know. Was she—
She was there. In the room. Curled up. Weeping silently. Numbtongue stared at her and sagged against the doorframe in relief. She was alive. That was all. They’d done it. They’d—
There was no satisfaction. Erin was alive, but Headscratcher was dead. So was Shorthilt. Rabbiteater and Badarrow? The Cave Goblins were dead. They were all gone. It wasn’t enough. And that was a bitter truth for Numbtongue.
But she was still here. Numbtongue stumbled forwards. Erin didn’t respond, even though she had surely heard him come in.
For a second Numbtongue just looked down at her. He looked at her tears. And he clenched his hand into a fist. And for the first time, the numbness in him began to shift.
She reacted to the sound of his voice. Erin turned. Slowly. Her eyes widened when she saw him.
She coughed. Uncurled painfully. Sat up. She tried to stand and pushed herself up from the mattress. She stood up, wobbling like Numbtongue. She looked at him. And her eyes overflowed.
She’d been crying. But—Numbtongue noticed—Erin’s cheeks weren’t wet. Her eyes were red, but she hadn’t been crying. She was now.
Erin stepped towards Numbtongue. She halted.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so—so sorry.”
Numbtongue felt a shock run through him. He looked at Erin. She was crying now. But all he felt was anger.
It surprised her. For a second Erin’s tears stopped. She gulped.
“Because I did it. I asked you to—I did this. I’m so sorry. I should never have—”
She broke up, wiping her face. Numbtongue stared at her. He looked at his hands. At his chest. And he was angry.
“We chose to stay. We fought. And we died. This was our choice. Not yours.”
“But I asked—”
Erin wiped at her eyes.
“I’m—I’m sorry. I know you chose. But all of them. Headscratcher. And Shorthilt and…so many.”
Garen. Spiderslicer. Eater of Spears. Reiss. The list rolled endlessly in Numbtongue’s head. A hundred thousand faces flashed before him. And still he did not weep. He looked at Erin, saw her sob once.
Just once. And that was it. Numbtongue looked down at his chest. He touched the red scar of the spear on his heart. Felt the pain. But it was shallow. He dug a nail into it, watched blood start to flow. It wasn’t anything close to real pain.
Erin saw. She grabbed at his hand. Numbtongue shook her off. He saw her red eyes. But he also saw the truth. She’d stopped crying. Maybe yesterday. Maybe this morning. But whenever it had been, the tears had stopped. They flowed now, but only a few. And in Numbtongue, there was emptiness. Pain, but not enough.
It didn’t hurt enough. Not anymore. Time had already taken the pain away. Numbtongue tried to conjure the desolation, the all-consuming despair and grief he’d felt the first few days. But it was stale. Hollow. He couldn’t cry. And that hurt most of all.
“Don’t. Please. I’m so sorry. If I could do anything—you have to stay here. In your room. If anyone sees you—I won’t let them come near the inn. I promise.”
Erin clung to Numbtongue, hugging him. He looked down at her, feeling her warm embrace. Stay here? He heard her words vaguely, took in the meaning. And he tensed.
Any Goblin could have known what Numbtongue thought in that moment. Any one of them. Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Rabbiteater, Badarrow—or a Cave Goblin, or Reiss. Anyone. But there was no one anymore. No other Goblin to read his unspoken thoughts. No one to know how he felt. So Numbtongue spoke.
“Are you ashamed of us?”
Erin jerked. She froze up and looked at Numbtongue.
“No. Never. Why would you—”
“Because. You. You are here. You want me to stay here.”
Numbtongue reached down. He grabbed Erin’s hands. Squeezed them.
“I should stay here? Hide? We did nothing wrong.”
Nothing. He remembered running with the others. Laughing. Charging together. Erin gulped.
“But if they try to kill you again—”
“Let them. I did nothing wrong. You are crying here. But it doesn’t matter. I—we—deserve better. We did nothing wrong. Why are you hiding?”
He looked at her. Erin struggled for words. Numbtongue turned away abruptly.
She tried to stop him. But in the end, she was weaker than he was. That was one of the reasons why he loved her. Because she was strong while being weak. But she wasn’t strong now. He was disappointed in her. In all of them.
Numbtongue came down the stairs. The adventurers looked at him. One of them—Ceria, stood up.
“Numbtongue. We’re—I’m—so sorry about what happened. What you did was heroic. If there’s anything—”
The same words. Numbtongue gave Ceria a long stare that froze the words on the half-Elf’s tongue.
Sorry. They were sorry. That wasn’t the point! Numbtongue wanted to smash one of the tables. He wanted to rage. But something else burned hotter in him. He looked around. And then he strode for the door.
The magic door stood in front of Numbtongue. He plucked Celum’s mana stone from it, tossed it to one side. He reached for Liscor’s stone, placed it on the door. Then he reached for the handle.
Hands grabbed him. Numbtongue turned. Jelaqua had hold of him. So did Yvlon. And Erin.
“Don’t! They’ll attack you!”
There was nothing they could do to him that was worse. Numbtongue looked at Erin. She didn’t understand. He reached down and tugged her hands off her arm.
“We won. We did nothing wrong. I will not hide.”
Erin looked up at him, desperately. Numbtongue bent. He looked Erin in the eyes.
“Why are you crying here?”
He heard her intake of breath. Then he tore away from Jelaqua and Yvlon. He opened the door. And he ran through into the city.
“Goblin in the city!”
“Call the Watch!”
Zevara raced down the street, hearing the shouts ahead of her. Dozens of [Guards] converged on the street where the screams and cries were coming from. She knew, without even having to look what she’d find.
A Hobgoblin stood in the streets of Liscor. Unarmed. Bare chested. Honestly, barely standing on his two legs. Of course, for anyone who hadn’t ever seen a Goblin it was probably a terrifying sight. His sharp teeth, his crimson eyes, the green skin—it was the image of a monster.
And yet, Zevara recognized this one. He didn’t have his guitar. But she knew him. And as she skidded to a stop she threw up a hand.
“Hold your ground! Wait for my order or I will rip your tails off with my bare claws!”
She screamed at the City Watch who’d surrounded the Hobgoblin, forming a ring of steel around him. And the doorway that led to The Wandering Inn. It was embarrassing, but for a second when she saw it, Zevara’s heart leapt a bit in her chest. But then she covered the feeling with anger and annoyance. What was Erin thinking?
“No one move!”
Another voice rang out, silencing more of the panicked shouts. Liscor’s citizenry had fled the instant Numbtongue had come through the door, but with dozens of the City Watch on the scene and now Wall Lord Ilvriss striding forwards, they returned to stare. The Hobgoblin looked around. He looked—well, confused was the best word for it. He stared at Zevara and then went to looking around the city, completely ignoring the weapons trained on his chest.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! He’s one of the good Goblins! Aw, damn it—”
A Selphid emerged from the doorway, holding up her hands. Jelaqua Ivirith, in a Human’s body, appeared on the scene. Zevara didn’t recognize her, but the voice and more importantly, the pale body was the key. She glared at the Selphid.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“He opened the door, not us! Don’t shoot!”
“Hold your fire on my order!”
Zevara repeated her instructions just in case more of the City Watch arriving by the moment hadn’t gotten the message. Ilvriss raised his voice.
“And mine. Hold your ground!”
The Drakes and Gnolls shifted, a bit uneasily. Not so much out of fear of the Hobgoblin; they could see the same thing Zevara could, but at the incongruity of the situation. Here was a Goblin. They killed Goblins. But this Goblin—
They had to get it back through the doorway before more people arrived. Zevara saw more people gathering, drawn by the screams. They stared at the Hob and pointed at Numbtongue. She cursed.
Relc walked forwards. Zevara turned, ready to curse at him, but she stopped when she saw he was followed closely by Embria. Relc didn’t seem as upbeat as usual. He stared at Numbtongue.
“A Hobgoblin in the city?”
Embria’s tail lashed. She looked at Zevara.
“We can force him back through the door.”
“That’s my intention. Relc, push the Goblin back and close that door before we have more witnesses. I’ll speak to Miss Solstice—”
Relc folded his arms. Zevara paused. Embria stared at her father.
“What did you say, Senior Guardsman?”
“I’m not doing it. Find someone else.”
It took a second for Zevara to process what Relc had said. He was refusing? For all he was lazy, egotistic, and undisciplined, he’d never refused an order in his life. She snapped at him.
“You’re a Senior Guardsman under my command. Failure to obey means—”
“I know what it means. I’m. Not. Doing. It. He’s not doing anything wrong.”
Relc looked past Zevara at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was just looking around. He stared at the Drakes and Gnolls behind the City Watch. They were staring at him, as warily as he was watching them.
A Goblin. Of course they’d seen the battlefield, if not during the siege than after. They had to know what a Hobgoblin looked like. And they knew what had happened. There was a strange feeling in the air. Not hostility like Zevara would expect. Not fear either, not much. Just…
“Dad! What are you doing?”
Embria hissed at Relc. He looked at her.
“I said no.”
“You can’t do that! They’ll court martial you! At the very least you’ll lose your job—”
“I’m not doing it.”
The Watch Captain and Wing Commander looked at Relc. It was Zevara who gave up. She’d investigate this strange change in Relc later. Right now—she looked around.
She caught the [Strategist] as he appeared. Olesm stared at the Hobgoblin.
“That’s—Numbtongue. I think.”
“He’s one of Miss Solstice’s Goblins, isn’t he? We have to put him back through the doorway. He could cause a panic—”
Olesm looked around. Zevara gritted her teeth.
“We can’t have Goblins in the city. You know that. And it’s not Liscor that’s in danger. He’d be in more danger here. Just take a few [Guardsman], push him through. I’ll cover for you. Now—”
There was an argument at the doorway. Zevara could hear voices. And then a familiar shape appeared. She turned in relief, breaking away from Zevara. There she was. Zevara could curse her out, get the Hobgoblin out of sight before someone tried to kill him or a panic started and sort this all out. She raised her voice to bellow.
Olesm looked over as well. His eyes widened. He stood straighter.
“Human, this is completely—”
The two Drakes broke off. They stared as Erin Solstice came through the doorway. Ilvriss, who might have been about to shout something at her, stopped mid-inhalation. He paused. So did the citizens of Liscor.
They all knew her. The Human girl. The [Innkeeper]. Annoying, strange, full of as many good things as bad things. It wasn’t that they all liked her. Some hated her guts. But they all knew her. In her way, she’d become a part of the city, as well-known as any Senior Guardsman. And they thought they knew her.
But not like this. Erin Solstice walked past Numbtongue as he looked around. Her eyes were red. Tears ran from her eyes. Not even trying to hide it. She kept wiping at her face, but the tears kept coming. She approached Olesm and Zevara, stumbling, barely able to see. The two Drakes backed up. They couldn’t help it.
Zevara forgot herself for a second. She stared at the girl. And then she looked around desperately. Olesm looked at her, and then Zevara nodded urgently to Erin. He cleared his throat.
“Erin, you’re um, crying.”
She didn’t reply. She was hiccupping. Tears ran down her face, dripping onto her shirt. Zevara coughed. She tried to look anywhere but at Erin. Behind her, Relc and Embria had gone still. Everyone was staring. Zevara began to grow embarrassed for Erin’s sake.
“You should go back to your inn, Miss Solstice. We’ll…settle things without you.”
She tried to urge Erin back towards the doorway. But the Human girl refused to go. She was crying harder now. Sobbing. The sounds forced themselves out of her chest, painful, uncontrollable. Every eye was on her. The Drakes and Gnolls stared. And then they began to look away.
Tears. It wasn’t something you were supposed to do in public. Maybe a few tears. But this? The Drakes could barely stand to look at her. The Gnolls were different, but no less uncomfortable for other reasons.
Olesm was at a loss. He reached out, but Erin wouldn’t let him take her by the shoulder. Ilvriss strode over. He looked at Erin.
“Miss Solstice. Let me escort you back to your inn. This is clearly not the moment.”
He swirled his cloak, unfastening it and trying to shield Erin with it. This time Erin looked up.
It came out as a sob. Ilvriss paused.
“No. No, no, no”
Erin backed away from him. She was wiping her face. Her nose was running. And she was crying. Crying harder than Zevara could ever remember weeping herself. Except in her room, quietly, as a child. It was a terrible mess.
And everyone was watching. Drakes. Guardsmen. Adults and children. It wasn’t something you’d ever forget. But Erin refused to go back to her inn. She kept crying. Because…because of something Numbtongue had said.
Why are you crying here? Why are you hiding? As if she was ashamed of her tears. As if they were only supposed to be in her inn, in a room, behind closed doors. Because Goblins didn’t understand tears. They didn’t understand embarrassment. But Erin wasn’t embarrassed. Not of feeling sad. So she kept crying. And the tears that had dried up fell once more.
“I—we should deal with the Hobgoblin.”
Zevara backed up, muttering to the others. She tried not to look at Erin. It was so difficult. None of the Drakes around her could manage it. But Erin refused to let her go.
“No! No! He didn’t do anything. Don’t hurt him.”
“He can’t be in the city. It’s a matter of safety.”
“He fought for you! He didn’t do—do—”
Erin started hiccupping. It was almost funny. In fact, Zevara did hear a few laughs from the crowd behind her. She turned and the laughter cut off.
“In regards to the Goblin—”
Ilvriss began, but he stopped at Numbtongue moved. He’d been looking around in silence, ignoring the tableau. Now he stepped forwards.
The City Watch tensed. Numbtongue looked at a dozen spears aimed at his heart. He looked past the armored City Watch, at the people of Liscor. Then he spoke. And his voice was loud in the silence.
“We fought for you.”
The citizens and [Guardspeople] shifted. Numbtongue looked at them. Gnolls and Drakes. Staring at him with fear, contempt, confusion. He shook his head. Looked around the city. Waved an arm.
“All of this. We fought for it. We came. We fought. We died. We fought for you. Why didn’t you let us in?”
A stir ran through the crowd. Numbtongue looked around.
“We came here. You killed us. Why? We did nothing wrong.”
“Goblins attacked Liscor.”
Zevara didn’t hear who said it. Numbtongue shook his head.
“But we fought for you. We did. We fought. Why did we die? For what? For this? For stones and you? For what?”
He shouted. The crowd was silent. Numbtongue looked around.
“We didn’t even know what was inside. We never saw this. We didn’t know. But we fought for you. Goblins attacked Liscor. Goblins defended it. We bled for this place. For what? What was it for?”
He had tears in his eyes. A Goblin’s tears. Zevara had no idea they could cry. Numbtongue looked around. He took a step. The spears raised and he stared at them.
“What did I do?”
He looked lost. The tips of the spears wavered. The City Watch looked back at Zevara. She bit her lip.
“Lower your weapons.”
Embria hissed at her. Ilvriss turned his head. He met Zevara’s eyes. Then he looked at Numbtongue.
“Guardsmen, lower your blades. Clearly you were called here in error. I see no Goblin.”
The City Watch looked at him. Uncertainly, they lowered their arms. Zevara looked at Ilvriss, heart pounding. Numbtongue stared at the Wall Lord. Ilvriss turned.
“This is clearly a mistake. Watch Captain Zevara, if you disperse the crowds, then—”
He broke off as Numbtongue walked towards him. Ilvriss turned back, and he instinctively reached for the hilt of his sword. Numbtongue walked up to Ilvriss. He and the Wall Lord were nearly of a height. The Hobgoblin stared at the Drake.
“Do you see me?”
“Do you see me?”
Numbtongue repeated himself, insistently. Ilvriss blinked. Numbtongue raised his voice.
“I’m here. What did I do?”
The Drake’s eyes flickered. He half-turned to looked around. Numbtongue walked in front of him.
“I’m right here. Can you see me?”
Silence. Ilvriss looked at Numbtongue. Then he nodded slowly.
“I see you.”
“What did I do?”
It was the same question. Zevara heard only silence. She bit her tongue. Numbtongue looked around, lost. Then someone answered him.
“You’re a monster. You were born. That’s what you did.”
Relc looked up. His scales were pale. He leaned on his spear. Numbtongue looked at him. The [Spearmaster] looked at him, meeting his eyes. At last, Numbtongue nodded.
“Then monsters saved your city.”
That was all they said. Numbtongue walked past Relc. The City guards began to raise their weapons. But they looked at Zevara and Ilvriss as they did. And neither Drake moved. So instead, the City Watch stood aside.
Numbtongue walked past them. Stumbling. The citizens drew back, some in fear. Others just staring. And for once, they noticed how thin he was. They took in the scar on his chest, leaking blood. They saw his tears. And they parted.
Zevara got no further. Erin followed Numbtongue. She was still crying. Olesm followed her. Ilvriss turned to Zevara. He didn’t say anything. Then he walked away. Zevara hesitated. Then she waved. Slowly, she began to follow Numbtongue and Erin. It was a bright spring day. Noisy in the rest of the city, as people went about their daily lives. But as the Goblin and the Human walked through the city, it grew quiet.
It was a refrain that echoed through the city. People on the streets panicked. Some grabbed weapons. Others fled. Zevara’s City Watch spread out ahead of Numbtongue, stopping people from doing either. The Hobgoblin stumbled as he looked around.
In another direction, Erin walked. Drakes and Gnolls stopped and stared at her as she passed. And whatever mood they had changed upon seeing her. Erin walked towards the Hive.
“It’s a monster. You’re the City Watch! Do your job!”
Lism hissed at Zevara. Numbtongue stared at him, and then at the stalls. He walked past them, wandering from place to place. Every so often he would stop.
Someone had to explain to him what all these places were. Numbtongue knew some of the names, but not why. A place to cut up meat. A place to drink a certain type of drink. He came to a large building.
“A public bath house.”
He had no idea what that was. So he went inside. The day manager panicked when he saw Numbtongue walking past the steaming pools of hot water. He fought his way over to Zevara.
“You have to take him out!”
“He’s looking around.”
“Yes, but if a Goblin enters the baths, we’ll have to drain the entire thing!”
“It’s a Goblin.”
The Drake looked at her as if she was insane. Lism was still arguing, following the [Guardsmen] at a safe distance. One of the Gnolls with a bow and no arrow nocked just stared at Numbtongue as he bent to touch the hot water. The day manager groaned.
“He’s never seen a bath before? He’s tasting the water.”
“That’s a monster for you.”
Lism interjected unhelpfully. A Drake who’d been following the strange procession looked at Lism.
“That’s the same Goblin that lives in the Human’s inn. He was one of the ones who fought for the city.”
“So? It’s a monster.”
“I’ve never heard a monster speak. Or cry.”
“Oh? And I suppose you want to take a bath with that thing? Look at it!”
Lism began to argue with the Drake. Meanwhile, Numbtongue had wandered out of the bathhouse. Zevara left the arguing pair of Drakes behind as a few more people raised their voices.
From bathhouse to an alchemist’s shop. And then the Adventurer’s Guild. Numbtongue stared at it for a long time before going in.
Selys had heard what was going on. She still jumped at seeing him. Numbtongue wandered up to the desk. He stared at something on it. Zevara grew pale. So did Selys.
A bunch of Goblin ears were sitting on the desk. Bounties being turned in. The adventurers standing in line turned pale. They’d been out hunting the undead zombies. Numbtongue stared at them. His face barely changed.
Selys stared at Zevara. The Drake pointed, and an adventurer swept the ears into a bag of holding. Numbtongue looked at him.
“Ears. How much for Goblin ears?”
“It’s—it’s just to keep count of the undead. They’re zombies. Ghouls. It’s not—”
“A copper coin for a pair. If they’re Hobs, silver.”
Numbtongue looked over at an adventurer. A Human with a scar over one eye. One of Gemhammer, Earlia’s adventurers. He pointed to his eye.
“I got this fighting Goblins.”
Numbtongue pointed to his chest.
“I got this fighting Humans.”
Then he looked back at Selys.
“Ears. Adventurers get paid? Then pay me.”
Selys’ gaze locked on Numbtongue’s ears with everyone else. He shook his head.
“Ears. We killed Goblins. Big army. You saw. Redfangs. Pay me for them.”
Someone laughed. Numbtongue turned to look at them.
“We’re adventurers. That’s what they told me. We killed an army. Give us a bounty.”
Selys looked helplessly around. No one was there to give her any aid.
“I’m sorry Numbtongue. But I can’t—there’s no way we could afford that. Even if we could calculate how many Goblins you killed.”
Numbtongue waited. The Hobgoblin looked around and nodded.
He walked back towards the door. There he turned.
“Were we adventurers? Or pets? Because we fought the Raskghar. We found them. We fought Goblins. I didn’t see you there.”
He looked around. And then he was gone.
As a Goblin wandered, Erin walked through the streets. She couldn’t stop crying. Out here, the sadness of it all hit her harder than in her room. Here—she saw Drakes and Gnolls. Laughing, until they saw her. Going about their lives. As if they didn’t care. Well, she cared. And she refused to stop.
They saw her in the street and they stared. Some went up to her ask if something was wrong. Others treated her as if she was doing something illegal. Erin didn’t care.
A fight broke out as she passed. A Gnoll began arguing with a Drake about Numbtongue being in the city. Someone threw a punch. A brawl started after Numbtongue left the Adventurer’s Guild, over a word someone had hurled at his back.
Numbtongue wandered. Erin walked towards the Hive. She walked past the Soldiers, who looked at her. She walked through the Hive and the Antinium stopped. She walked into a room filled with symbols drawn in paint on the walls. There she found Pawn.
“I’m so sorry.”
Erin sobbed as she reached out. She hugged Pawn as Workers and Soldiers gathered around. She hugged him, crying onto his hard body. That was all she said.
“I’m so sorry.”
What else was there to say? Pawn held her and trembled. And sometime later, Erin’s tears stopped. But she didn’t. She walked back up into Liscor and found Numbtongue standing by a fountain. Less [Guardsmen] were surrounding him. A brawl had started in two separate streets and a bathhouse was filled with arguing Gnolls and Drakes. Someone was trying to drown Lism.
She found people she recognized in the street. Halrac and his Griffon Hunt. Erin just went up to the [Scout] and hugged him. Her eyes were wet, but she didn’t cry.
“Why’d they die?”
And Halrac had no answer. He remained very still as Erin hugged him. Gingerly, as if he were afraid she’d break, he patted her once on the back. Revi hugged Erin.
And Numbtongue looked back and saw Erin embracing Krshia. He looked around as the Gnoll woman came up to him. And he spoke to her, briefly. Then he got up and walked.
Children ran away from him. Children ran up to him. Children threw stones at him and one was spanked and the others were not. Where Numbtongue passed, some Drakes and Gnolls shouted curses. Others argued. Some were silent.
“Goblins killed my wife!”
A Gnoll struggled to get at Numbtongue. The [Bard] stared into wild eyes.
“Humans killed my family.”
He received only a snarl in response. Numbtongue wandered on.
He wasn’t helping people. Nor was he changing them. Not really. A mob came to lynch him. Relc and Klbkch broke it up with a dozen [Guardsmen]. Zevara counted two dozen brawls stopped by midday. And countless more petty arguments and individual fights.
“It’s turning into a riot. We have to get him out of here.”
She made the call. Numbtongue looked around as the [Guardsman] formed ranks. With shields facing out. Erin tugged him towards the gates. He walked, tripping, half-falling. Stomach rumbling. They led him towards the door and vanished. But the fighting remained.
It was about the Goblins. Some of the people in Liscor spoke up.
“I saw them fighting. Those five Goblins were at the Human’s inn for over a month! They saved our people from the Raskghar!”
“They’re all the same kind. They’re Goblins.”
“It was Goblins who defend Liscor.”
“It was Goblins who attacked it.”
“Thanks to the Humans!”
“Goblins killed my daughter in the Second Antinium War.”
“Goblins slaughtered my family I will never, ever—”
“I didn’t know a Goblin could cry.”
“I didn’t know Goblins could speak.”
Arguments. Fighting. Zevara stood in her office in the barracks and listened to her city boiling. For some reason, it didn’t bother her. It was familiar.
“Watch Captain, requesting permission to call in off-duty officers and Embria’s [Soldiers]. Some are already keeping the peace, but we are understaffed.”
Klbkch stood behind her. Embria turned.
“This. You know, after the Second Antinium War—before you lot were in the city—the same thing happened. I was just a new [Guardswoman]. But I remember the same thing happening.”
“People drowning each other in the bathhouse?”
“Riots. Fights. Half the city fought the other half. Argued about the Antinium.”
Klbkch was silent for a moment.
“I see. About the reserves. May I call them?”
“Very well. Also, Watch Captain, I realize this is not the moment. But when you have a chance—I have a proposal. I would like to place more Antinium in the City Watch.”
Zevara looked up, surprised. Below, someone crashed into a desk as a fight began in the ranks. From the impact, it sounded like Relc had started it.
“Antinium? But you’re the only Prognugator. That means you’d want to put Workers or Soldiers in the Watch.”
“Would they be the…special ones?”
“So you want to put Antinium in the Watch. Workers aren’t equipped for a fight and they have no names. And Soldiers can’t speak.”
“That is correct.”
She mulled it over.
Klbkch nodded. Zevara turned back to watching the chaos. She kept watching as she saw a group of Drakes fighting with an equally large group of Gnolls before Klbkch led fifteen of her people into the fight. It was chaos. But just what she’d expected, really. And in her head, a Hobgoblin turned to her.
“What did we do?”
And Zevara wondered. She looked to the eastern gates. And she closed her eyes. And she thought.
That was all.
Numbtongue didn’t know what to think after they made him go back to the inn. Erin was—better. Or maybe she had just stopped crying. She was hugging Mrsha. And speaking. And he was still empty. The anger had guttered out sometime on his long walk. Now he was just tired.
But there was something he had to do. So he got up as the adventurers argued and talked to Erin. After all, they weren’t his friends. Not really. If he had any friend, it was Erin. And she…wasn’t’ so much a friend as something else.
She jumped. It was the first time Numbtongue had said her name. But the Hob was full of firsts. He asked for her sword. She hesitated, and then handed it to him.
They tried to stop him at the door. But Numbtongue ignored them and none of them could stop him. Not without killing him. He walked out into the Floodplains alone.
It was muddy. There were undead. Numbtongue walked past them. Sometimes he had to fight, but they were zombies. A few Ghouls roamed around. But the adventurers had come out of the inn and handled them. And Numbtongue walked further.
He stopped as he spotted a tall undead among the others. A huge, hulking Hobgoblin, shuffling around lifelessly. Numbtongue stared up at him.
“Eater of Spears.”
The zombie did not react to the name. It turned. Numbtongue stared up at him. It hurt. Not just to see him. But to see what a waste it was. A zombie. If Eater of Spears could have seen himself in death, he would have been offended. At least be a Ghoul! Or a Draug. He would have been pleased to be a Draug, surely. And what a monster of destruction he would have been. But as he was, he was just a zombie. Practically harmless. Numbtongue walked past him as Eater of Spears looked around sightlessly.
He had never met Eater of Spears. He had never talked with him. But somehow, Numbtongue knew what he would have said. Somehow…
It was further up. Past the Floodplains, towards the mountains. Numbtongue climbed, legs trembling despite the food Erin had made him eat. He climbed higher, choosing the surest footholds.
A memory. A Goblin thing. It was a thing of Chieftains. A power of their people. Or a curse. Because a Goblin could remember all the failures, all the triumphs of the past. All the grief.
There he was. Up the hillside, slumped in place. Numbtongue climbed higher. A zombie tripped and tumbled past him. The Hobgoblin gasped with the effort. He could sense the adventurers following him. But for now he was alone.
He reached the place, panting, propping himself up on his sword. He looked down.
A Goblin had died here. A Hobgoblin. One among many. But not the same as the rest. Unlike the others, who had died with their backs to the sky, he was lying on his. He stared up at the sky, a smile on his face. Rot had yet to consume him, but had started.
And he was dead. Pyrite’s chest had been torn open. Fire had burned him. Numbtongue looked down and recalled the face in his dream. He tried to connect it to the face he saw below him. But there was nothing that matched.
Slowly, Numbtongue sat. He looked around, but the battleaxe that Pyrite had wielded was gone. Numbtongue shrugged and reached for something. He fished at Pyrite’s side and pulled at a rough hemp sack. Then he hesitated and reached for the Hobgoblin’s head.
Pyrite’s jaws were closed. It was hard to open them, but Numbtongue saw what he knew was there in the back of Pyrite’s mouth. A glowing blue gemstone. Numbtongue plucked it out and put it in the sack. Then he just sat, watching the adventurers climb towards him.
A memory. He looked down at his hand and felt the warmth. Pyrite stared up at the sky, still smiling. And Numbtongue looked over.
“You did it. Good job.”
Then he looked up. A Ghoul leapt at him. Numbtongue rolled and slashed. The Ghoul staggered as Numbtongue’s sword slashed deep into his shoulder. The [Bard] turned. He saw the Ghoul’s body tense. Something in it told him it would lunge—here. Numbtongue dodged, and the teeth snapped down inches away from his arm. He swung his sword in an arc and the Ghoul collapsed.
Numbtongue looked down at Pyrite. Then he stood. He tried to lift the Hob, then just gave up and cut off his head.
He buried him with the others. There were five graves, on a hill across from the inn. Numbtongue dug the sixth. He said no prayers, spoke no words when he placed the head in the ground and covered it with soil. When it was done, he looked at the markers.
Garen. Noears. Headscratcher. Shorthilt. Reiss. And Pyrite. There were others, but these were the ones he’d found. He looked out and saw Eater of Spears, wandering about. No one had dared end him yet.
Graves. The dead. Liscor. And Erin. Numbtongue sat down. He lay his head back, against Headscratcher’s tombstone. As he did, he noticed a small yellow flower lay on his grave and Shorthilt’s. Numbtongue looked down at it. And he saw a small white Gnoll tending flowers in his mind.
For some reason that made him smile. He closed his eyes. As he did, he rummaged in the sack he’d taken. He pulled something out.
The blue gemstone. Numbtongue felt at it with his claws, then shrugged and put it in his mouth. He bit down, feeling the hard stone resisting his teeth. Hard, harder…
Numbtongue opened his eyes. He blinked, took the stone out, and spat out two broken pieces of tooth.
He put the gemstone back in the bag. Maybe he needed to practice. And he needed a pickaxe. Numbtongue closed his eyes again.
[Miner Class Obtained!]
[Miner Level 1!]
[Skill – Durable Picks obtained!]
The Hobgoblin opened one eye. Level 1. And he’d only thought about it. But it was enough. He didn’t need the class. He had a memory.
How to spot a vein in the mountain. Which spots contained the best gemstones. How to spot a dangerously loose shelf of rock. How to fight. How to dig up grubs.
Knowledge. Numbtongue’s hand twitched. The dirt on Pyrite’s grave blew a bit as the wind picked up. The Hobgoblin looked over at it. He closed his eyes and tried to dream again. But the dream was gone. Only the memories remained. A gift.
Numbtongue closed his eyes, covered his face, and began to cry.