Interlude – Numbtongue (Pt.2)

(Hey, I’ve got news! Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn might come out as an e-book soon! The Audiobook is scheduled for September 10th! Madness! Find out more details here!)

 

Later, at lunch time, The Wandering Inn was faced with an unusual sight. And that was by the standards of the inn, which meant it was very unusual. Even unexpected. The crowd of Pallassians and Liscorian citizens couldn’t help but stare. One of the many tables in Erin’s common room, enlarged by the [Grand Theatre] Skill was occupied. That wasn’t the unusual bit. The unusual bit was who sat there, still smelling of mud and Shield Spider fluids.

An Antinium Soldier and a Hobgoblin. They sat casually at the table, next to each other, rather than across from each other. It was odd, perhaps, but the distance would have been stranger. And the two could watch more of each other’s body language like this. They spoke in bursts, in a private world in the public inn. The Soldier, Yellow Splatters, nodded as he glanced around the inn at the staring faces. Those he locked eyes with looked away quickly, but the rest just stared. He nodded.

“They do look. I knew it before, but now I see them more often.”

“Stare and stare some more. But if we stare, they run off.”

Numbtongue bared his teeth. Yellow Splatters looked about and met eyes with a Drake. Said Drake flinched. The Painted Soldier calmly held the gaze until the Drake looked away.

“Yes. This is true.”

Numbtongue nodded and shrugged. He looked down at the bowl in front of him and smiled. He’d just been served, as had Yellow Splatters. He showed the Soldier what was in his bowl and offered him his spoon.

“Have this. This is my best—no, favorite—food.”

The Painted Soldier stared into the bowl curiously. It was very…orange. He detected small, squiggly noodles in what looked like some kind of sauce. The Soldier took the spoon, which Numbtongue had been licking, and dipped it into the bowl. He sampled a spoonful.

“What is it?”

“Mac and cheese. Which is…noodles and cheese. Erin says it’s from her home. It’s good for the stomach. Lots of energy.”

Numbtongue patted his. Then he frowned.

“Wait. Can you eat noodles?”

Yellow Splatters paused.

“Yes.”

The Goblin frowned.

“Erin said…”

He broke off, clearly trying to recall that pertinent bit of information. Yellow Splatters shrugged.

“My Soldiers and I can eat wheat. It is just…uncomfortable. Later. This is good. The cheese is good. Try mine.”

He slid his bowl to Numbtongue. The Goblin frowned at the black dots with wings.

“Acid flies.”

He shrugged and took his spoon back from Yellow Splatters. The Antinium had been using his fingers. Numbtongue loaded his spoon and took a bite. He crunched for a second with a sound that made the nearby diners gag. Excepting the other Painted Soldiers of course. Forty-nine of them were enjoying their own bowls of acid flies at nearby tables. Numbtongue chewed and swallowed.

“Hm. Crunchy.”

“You do not like it.”

Yellow Splatters looked at Numbtongue. The Hob shook his head.

“Okay. Good for travel. Not enough taste.”

“I see.”

The two stared at each other. Then, silently, Numbtongue offered his bowl to Yellow Splatters. The Soldier tipped the bowl up and spooned the cheesy sauce out over the acid flies. He handed the bowl back and Numbtongue ladled some of the cheesy acid flies into his bowl of noodles. The two began to eat.

“Hm.”

“Good. Crunchy.”

“Yes. Flavorful.”

The two smiled. Mrsha, staring over the edge of the table, gagged. Numbtongue grinned at her.

“This is Mrsha. You know her?”

He looked at Yellow Splatters. The Painted Soldier stared at Mrsha. She stared back. He stared at her paws and remembered. The [Sergeant] nodded abruptly.

“We have met. Hello. I am Yellow Splatters. Do you remember me?”

The Gnoll cub sniffed at Yellow Splatters and frowned. But she looked at the pattern on his carapace and then nodded. Yellow Splatters hesitated and Numbtongue nudged him. The slight nod the Hobgoblin gave was enough. The [Sergeant] held out his hand. Mrsha sniffed it, then, carefully, held out her own paw.

She cautiously shook the offered hand. She nodded at Yellow Splatters, took another look at his bowl, and hopped off the table. The [Sergeant] watched her go. He stared at his hand.

“Soft.”

Numbtongue nodded after a moment. He eyed Yellow Splatters as he shoveled down more of his combination food. After a moment, Yellow Splatters returned to his meal. The Goblin considered the Antinium sitting next to him.

He didn’t understand the Soldiers’ reverence for everything. But he did connect with their love of good food. And more—he looked around and spotted a Gnoll passing by, holding a bowl.

“Ishkr.”

The Gnoll [Waiter] stopped. Numbtongue reached for the bowl he was carrying. The Gnoll sighed, but let him have it. The Hobgoblin placed the large bowl in front of Yellow Splatters.

“Try this.”

The Painted Soldier did. His mandibles clicked softly with the first bite.

“Soft. Cold. Wet. And sweet. What is it?”

“Ice cream.”

“It is cold!”

“Yes. Good, right?”

Numbtongue grinned at Yellow Splatters. And he was rewarded by an Antinium smile, mandibles raised and opening. The Hob was pleased—until he heard a voice snap at him.

Numbtongue! Did you take the entire bowl? Ceria just helped us make that!”

Lyonette had noticed the purloining. The Hob hunched, but she strode over, hands on her hips. He pointed at the bowl as the [Princess] glared down at him.

“Sorry. Can I have some?”

“You already did. You mean for Yellow Splatters? Fine.”

The young woman sighed. Numbtongue brightened.

“Okay. Yellow Splatters. Now try this.”

He scooped the ice cream into the [Sergeant]’s bowl, covered it with acid flies, and held it out to Yellow Splatters. Lyonette looked queasy, but Yellow Splatters took the spoon and began to eat. His mandibles raised.

“Good! Cold and good.”

“Right?”

The Hobgoblin looked so pleased Lyonette didn’t have the heart to voice her own opinion on the matter. She turned, and saw another young woman making her away across the room. Erin did a double-take at the sight of Goblin and Antinium, and then at the ice cream.

“Ooh! That’s like chocolate chip ice cream! Hey Lyonette, how’d you make—oh. Ew. Those ain’t raisins.”

She paused at the table. Numbtongue looked up. He stared at the young woman. Erin stared down at him and blinked at Yellow Splatters.

“Hi Yellow Splatters. And…Numbtongue? You alright?”

“Yup.”

The Hobgoblin looked up, barely remembering why Erin would ask. She eyed his muddy, sweaty brow, the scratches on his right arm, and then Yellow Splatters. She opened her mouth and then frowned.

“Is that our ice cream?”

“All of it, yes.”

“And you just turned it into fly cream. Or—no, wait, that’s even worse. Iced flies? Ice fly cream. Ice cream with flies.”

Erin looked at Numbtongue, mockingly severe. He hunched his shoulders.

“…Yes? But it’s good.”

To prove it, he took a spoonful of the ice cream and dipped it in the flies. Erin closed her eyes rather than watch the rest. When she opened them, she looked at Numbtongue.

“Well. If you like it, fine. But don’t expect us to eat the crazy stuff you and Yellow Splatters eat. You two are so crazy—”

“We need the rest.”

Lyonette interjected. Numbtongue frowned. Yellow Splatters looked up. He gazed silently at his Painted Soldiers, who had noticed the strange dessert. Erin blinked at him, and then saw Numbtongue silently looking at her. There was a pleading look Erin hadn’t ever seen before. She met his eyes, nodded, and then turned to Lyonette.

“Give it to the Painted Soldiers, Lyonette. Let the Pallass group eat cake. Rufelt and Lasica know how to make ice cream anyways.”

“What? Erin!”

Lyonette protested. She met Erin’s look, saw the jerk of the head, and looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin looked up at her. Lyonette blew out her cheeks.

“I—oh, fine! We’ll make more.”

“Sorry.”

Numbtongue hesitated, because Lyonette did look peeved. The [Princess] shook her head.

“Sorry, Numbtongue. It’s fine, really. And hello, um, Yellow Splatters.”

She waved at the [Sergeant] awkwardly. Erin smiled at the two and followed Lyonette. The Hobgoblin and Soldier clearly heard Erin whispering to Lyonette as they moved backwards.

“It’s just ice cream.”

“Worth six gold! We only have a narrow window to make money—they’re already copying the recipe in Pallass!”

“So? The Antinium can have it. Numbtongue just invented their favorite dessert! Don’t be mean. He’s made a friend!”

Erin glanced back at Numbtongue and Lyonette relented. Numbtongue, sitting at his table, blinked. A friend? He looked to his side and at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium carefully spooned more ice cream covered in flies into his mandibles.

“My visual and auditory senses were improved by my Queen for my new role. However, it usually does not matter. Others seem to forget the Antinium are capable of hearing.”

“Or Goblins.”

Numbtongue nodded.  He stared at Yellow Splatters. Again. He’d been sneaking glances all throughout their conversation. No, before that, even. While they’d cleared the Shield Spider nests. Marching to the inn…he’d just been watching Yellow Splatters. And Numbtongue was sure the [Sergeant] was doing the same.

It was hard to tell; the Antinium had eyes like bugs, so all he had to do was turn his head. But they were watching each other, this Goblin and Antinium.

They had exchanged few words since their conversation on the hill. Oh, talk, they’d talked like which nest to destroy next. And this chatter about favorite food, it had come up just before they’d come to the inn. That was the thing that threw Numbtongue every few seconds.

They were chatting. Just chatting, about nonsensical things. Favorite food? Numbtongue hadn’t had a favorite food before a month or two ago. His favorite food was the one he could eat without throwing up later. Any food when he was starving. But now…

He was chatting. Again, the Goblin felt an odd sense of imbalance, as if he’d spun around repeatedly and the world was spinning. Because this was not something that Goblins did. Not something he did.

Look at Mrsha. The Gnoll was experimentally sniffing one of the bowls covered in acid fly ice cream. Numbtongue offered her his spoon and she licked at the ice cream, avoiding the bug bits. He didn’t talk to her. Numbtongue liked Mrsha. And he was oh, so very grateful that she was willing to talk to him. Goblins had killed her tribe. But he couldn’t talk to her.

“Mrsha, don’t lick that! Numbtongue, don’t encourage her. She gets one dessert, and if she spoils herself, she doesn’t get anything else.”

Lyonette scolded both Goblin and Gnoll as she passed by, serving the precious ice cream to the Painted Soldiers. Both Hob and Gnoll child winced in their table and Mrsha, making low, insulting growling sounds, made a sign with her paws that made Numbtongue laugh. Lyonette looked back sharply and Mrsha disappeared as Numbtongue schooled his face to sobriety.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

He didn’t chat with Lyonette either. He talked with her, although the [Princess] was very busy. But he did talk with her—Numbtongue had the impression Lyonette was still a bit wary of him. Well, he was of her. But they respected each other. And she was one of two people he ever conversed with. The other was—

“No ice cream! Sorry, we’re making more! Give us uh, five, ten minutes!”

What?

Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue looked to the side. Erin was informing Pallass’ crowd of the delay. They were outraged, as were some of the Liscorites. Liscorians? They were giving the Antinium and Numbtongue the stink-eye. Numbtongue didn’t care. His eyes were on Erin. She was shaking her finger at an angry Garuda visible through the magic door.

The portal hurt Numbtongue’s eyes; if you walked to the side, it became two-dimensional, until it nearly disappeared. And from the back, the door was just…a door. Standing up with a crowd gathered around it. Weird. The portal only activated from the front.

Numbtongue shook his head. Erin. She was moving around the inn, talking to the odd Gnoll that smelled like a dozen potions, Grimalkin, Jelaqua and the huge armored…Dullahan named Maughin. She was the person that Numbtongue spoke with most often.

No matter what, if she was busy or he was out of the inn all day, Erin always tried to find at least ten minutes, an hour, to talk with Numbtongue. Even if it was only having dinner in the same room like she’d offered tonight. She was kind. But Numbtongue couldn’t chat with Erin.

He talked with her. She was that kind of person. She’d listen to Numbtongue’s adventures seriously, his worries, and what he wanted. And when he told her, Numbtongue was sure that Erin was listening. If he had told her about his struggles, about being unhappy in her inn, he was sure Erin would have made resolving his problems a priority of hers. His world became hers. But Numbtongue didn’t want that. He was afraid of Erin’s kindness, as much as the hatred of others. He loved to talk with her. But it was talk.

And yet—Numbtongue’s eyes went back to Yellow Splatters. He jumped, and realized the Soldier was staring at him. Had been for a while. The Painted Soldier put down his bowl and pushed it forwards. It was cleaned of all flies and melted ice cream, completely. Which was impressive; Yellow Splatters couldn’t lick his bowl clean like Numbtongue. The [Sergeant] nodded again.

“They truly do not notice that we listen.”

“Who?”

Numbtongue frowned for a moment before he recalled what Erin had said. He looked around at her and Lyonette, rushing back and forth.

“Oh. Friends.”

The [Sergeant] nodded. He delicately reached for a cup with one hand. Two of his other hands were resting on the table; the last was flicking a bit of food from his mandibles. Numbtongue watched, fascinated.

“I have much respect for Erin Solstice. She is…important to Pawn. And to the Painted Antinium. And me. But I believe she is wrong in this regard. We are not friends.”

He paused. Numbtongue blinked at him. The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“Goblins don’t have friends.”

The Antinium nodded.

“Indeed. The concept is foreign to Antinium. It is not a relationship that exists in the Hive.”

“Mhm. Same with Goblins. Goblins have a tribe. Or Goblins are in another tribe. Either way, Goblins are all Goblins. We don’t have friends.”

This time both Goblin and Antinium nodded. They were on the same wavelength. Goblins didn’t have friends. They were all Goblins. Sometimes you attacked another tribe, but you were all Goblins when you got down to it, you were on the same side. Goblins had too many enemies to make distinctions. And your tribe…Numbtongue thought of his fellow Redfangs and swallowed, though he had nothing to eat. You were friends with everyone in your tribe, or no one.

Yellow Splatters was still nodding.

“We are not friends. We have not established any grounds for friendship as I understand the concept. Nor have we formally declared it. I am also unprepared for such a relationship. I have not studied the subject from Revalantor Klbkch. Thus, we cannot be friends. I apologize if this offends you, Numbtongue.”

The Goblin considered this for only a moment before waving a claw idly.

“I don’t care. I don’t have friends. Except for Erin?”

He and the Antinium considered the [Innkeeper]. Yellow Splatters frowned, which in the Antinium’s face was represented by his antennae drooping and mandibles drawing together and lowering.

“Would she qualify as a friend? By that standard, then, all of the Painted Soldiers….”

“Maybe? Maybe she’s not a ‘friend’. Maybe…Lyonette? No. She’s not my friend. Mrsha?”

The two looked around for the Gnoll. Yellow Splatters scratched at one antennae gently.

“I was informed by Revalantor Klbkch that making friends with members of the Antinium not considered fully grown was something of a social fault.”

“Hm. Maybe?”

Yellow Splatters leaned over the table.

“How does one become a friend, anyways? I have heard they exchange blood.”

“Um…Redfangs do that.”

“Really? Are you all friends, then?”

“…No. Wait. Let me think.”

The Hobgoblin sat back, thinking. And there it was again. He was chatting with Yellow Splatters. Not talking about something huge and momentous, or deeply personal like with Erin. Just…talking about mundane things. Unimportant things, like friendship or favorite foods. It was so novel.

Of course, Numbtongue had done the same with Headscratcher, with Badarrow and Rabbiteater and Shorthilt and the others. But they hadn’t done this. They’d been a team; they didn’t often waste time talking when they could read each other so well. That was why this was so novel.

“Redfangs aren’t friends. Garen would have said so. We’re brothers. Comrades. Warriors. F-family?”

Numbtongue pronounced the word awkwardly. It was one of the first times he’d used it. But Erin had taught him the meaning and it was true of his old tribe. He looked down into his mug. Yellow Splatters looked at him and Numbtongue waited. But all the Antinium did was nod and drink from his own mug.

“Friends. Family. What…refreshing words.”

Numbtongue looked up sharply.

“Yes. They are.”

The two regarded each other a second time. And there it was. Numbtongue had waited for Yellow Splatters to ask a question. Any question. About the Redfangs. About Numbtongue’s past. About what he was…feeling. And he hadn’t. He didn’t need to ask. What was amazing, what was special, was the way the two knew each other. More than just acquaintances who’d met once before.

They’d fought on the same battlefield. And more—their lives mirrored each other. They understood something Numbtongue could never have explained to Erin or Lyonette. That mattered.

“I have thanked you for saving Falling Snow. I feel I should do so again, and for accompanying me while fulfilling my duties. And for sharing your food.”

Yellow Splatters was getting up from his table. Numbtongue felt a pang. He looked up as the Painted Soldiers noticed and immediately stood with their [Sergeant].

“You’re going?”

“I have no reason to stay. And my presence will allow a Painted Soldier to take my place. They will rotate into the inn so that all may enjoy the experience.”

“Oh.”

The Hobgoblin stared at the [Sergeant]. Yellow Splatters visibly hesitated and looked around the inn. Back at Numbtongue.

“I could sit longer. I…would not wish to deprive another Soldier of their time above. But…”

He hesitated and looked over. The forty-nine other Soldiers looked back and Numbtongue saw them communicating, invisibly, as the Redfangs might. As any Goblins would. He envied them and hurt at the same time. Yellow Splatters turned back to Numbtongue after a moment.

“I will stay. To acquire more information. If you would agree to keep me company?”

He looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin smiled. And as Yellow Splatters sat back down and leaned over the table, Numbtongue realized something. He wasn’t feeling unhappy. It still hurt, but he wasn’t dissatisfied. He was…he lifted his mug and sipped it, then noticed it was empty. Numbtongue absently waved at Drassi for a refill. For him and Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] accepted a mug with a free hand and then looked at Numbtongue.

“So. What have you been doing since the battle against the Goblin Lord? I was dead.”

 

—-

 

At first, it was just a continuation to the thirty minutes they’d sat and talked. Then an hour. And then two. By two and a half hours, Numbtongue had to pee. He got up, wandered out of The Wandering Inn, and joined the queue for the outhouses. There were five now; apparently two had just been dug. Even so, Gnolls and Drakes were standing in line and Numbtongue was grateful for the distance between each outhouses. It made the sounds a bit less…pronounced.

One of the outhouses had been built to accommodate a half-Giant. It was that one Numbtongue was in line for; he liked the space. The door opened and Maughin stepped out. Or rather, his body did. His head was still chatting to Jelaqua in the inn.

Numbtongue and the Drakes and Gnolls stepped out of the way, but the Dullahan’s body had some kind of instinctual awareness because he walked calmly back to the inn without any uncertainty.

“Ancestors, that’s creepy.”

One of the Drakes in line muttered. A Gnoll in front of him nodded and sniffed, then made a face.

“Ergh. That was a mistake.”

“You Gnolls have it rough around here, huh?”

The Drake looked sympathetic. The Gnoll just grimaced.

“Well, we grow up smelling everything. This is hardly worse. But whatever that Dullahan ate—”

“Don’t talk to me about it. I just had lunch. I’ll tell you one thing though, those forges Pallass has. If those Dullahans can work steel everyday like I saw them doing this morning—makes you think.”

“That Lism’s right? Or Krshia?”

“I don’t know! It just makes you think.”

The Drake grimaced. He looked across another line at a nodding Drake and then turned his head.

“It’s weird. I know it’s because it’s the crazy Human doing it, but she is our crazy Human. What do you th—”

He stared at Numbtongue and froze. He must not have seen the Hobgoblin, or mistaken green skin for scales. The Gnoll jumped when he spotted Numbtongue as well. The [Bard] looked at them as they edged closer to the big outhouse and closed his mouth. He said nothing and the line moved a lot faster. And no one got into line behind Numbtongue until he was done with his business and walking back to the inn.

That soured Numbtongue’s mood. It was still the same. So, when he sat down across from Yellow Splatters, he didn’t immediately speak. Which was fine; the Antinium was waxing eloquent after two hours of speaking.

“There you are. I was waiting for your return. Do you know that Erin Solstice is considering selling the Hive’s supply of Rxlvn?

“What?”

“Our alcohol. It is…potent. I believe it is technically classified as a poison, but Miss Solstice has expressed interested in it. I was saying that I believed it would leave an impact.”

Numbtongue nodded restlessly.

“Maybe.”

He looked at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] was in a good mood, but Numbtongue was suddenly miserable again. Restlessly, the Goblin carved into the table with his claws, scratching the softer wood. He could feel eyes on him again. Of course, they’d been staring all this time. But his visit to the bathroom had refocused them on him and Yellow Splatters. The Antinium was getting looks of course, but it was on Numbtongue, the Goblin, that they were harshest.

Some of the Drakes by the door to Pallass had seen Numbtongue pass by on his way in and out. They were speaking to the people on the other side, explaining. Justifying. Numbtongue could catch fragments of the conversation.

“…well, yes, but—you know, about the battle…?”

“—not saying that I would personally—not allowed in the city, of course not! There was an incident—”

“Never in Pallass. Well, it’s just one. There were others, an entire damn tribe. Thankfully—”

The Hobgoblin’s grip tightened on the table. Yellow Splatters noticed and stopped talking. He looked up as Numbtongue turned. Both stared at the door, and the speakers there. They shut up.

Drakes and Gnolls stared across the inn at the duo. Some were just talking, enjoying themselves, watching the play. But too many went silent and still as they noticed the Goblin and Antinium looking. And silence was a plague. It spread.

As she circulated the room, Erin heard the sound die down. She looked around and saw the source. She might not have known what had caused Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters to look around, but she could see the tenseness. She began to push her way through the crowd. Too slowly; a Drake, made uncomfortable by the staring Hobgoblin, decided to make his voice heard. He stood up, a touch unsteadily and the alcohol slurred his tongue a bit.

“Hey! What’re you looking at, Goblin? And you—Antinium!”

The rest of the room fell silent. Temile, on stage with his cast, paused, and every head turned to the source of the shout. Numbtongue shrugged, a Goblin’s catch-all answer.

“Just looking.”

“Oh yeah? Look somewhere else. I can’t enjoy my drinks with a Goblin watching me.”

The Drake glared and tried to make a rude gesture. Erin pushed her way past a group of Gnolls.

“Hey! If you have a problem with Numbtongue, you can get out! Other people can take your place!”

“I’m not killing him. I read the sign. Just because I’m tolerating his presence, doesn’t mean I have to put up with him staring. See? He’s still doing it!”

The Drake pointed angrily at Numbtongue. And to be fair, the Hobgoblin was glaring. Erin hesitated. She looked at the Drake. He was drunk and he had faded green scales, mixed a bit with blue.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t say mean things. I bet that’s why he’s glaring.”

“Mean things? What, like the fact that it’s good that Goblins are banned from the city? Good. Pallass doesn’t let Goblins in. Why should Liscor? I’m fine with Dullahans and those bird-people, but Goblins? No. Never.”

The Drake took another drink, ignoring Erin’s glare. Worse, his words had a lot of silent support. Numbtongue looked around. He was tense. Erin just got mad. She thrust a finger at the Drake’s snout and he recoiled.

“Hey, I’m drinking here!”

“Hey yourself, buddy! You say that one more time, and you’re out! In fact, I should kick you out! Numbtongue fought for Liscor! His friends died because he helped stop the Goblin Lord! Goblins attacked Liscor and—”

Shut up!

The Drake hurled his glass onto the ground. It smashed, and Erin leapt back. She opened her mouth furiously, and at another table, Relc stood up with a groan. He abandoned Grimalkin and Embria and stepped forwards at the same time as Ishkr and a Drake.

“Alright, buddy. You’re drunk. Why don’t you pay up for the cup and liquid and leave?”

He raised his claws placatingly. The drunk Drake wavered. He might have gone without more than a fuss, but Erin was eying the broken glass and looking back at Numbtongue. She turned back and raised her voice.

“Yeah! Get out! We don’t need racist jerks here. Goblins aren’t all bad you know!”

The Drake stopped as he fumbled for his coin pouch, swearing. Slowly, he looked up at Erin. And his drunk anger faded and became something soberer. Darker. He pointed at Erin as Relc barred his way.

Not all bad? Goblins killed my sister.”

The room went silent. Erin’s furious mouth closed slowly. Relc hesitated. The Drake looked around.

“I’m being unreasonable? Me? I’m sitting in the same inn as that thing because I wanted to talk to my brother.”

He pointed unsteadily through the door.

“I didn’t come here to cause a fight. But that thing’s here. Staring at me. You know what Goblins did, Miss Human? They killed my sister. My best friend. They were just travelling from our village to the city. It was a two hour walk! You could see them from the walls. But a bunch of Goblins killed them. Stabbed them to death and tried to eat them. You monsters.

He directed that last at Numbtongue, spitting in his general direction. And all eyes fastened on the Goblin. Erin’s eyes went uncertainly to Numbtongue. Relc, looking around, made a judgment call.

“Alright, pal. We get it. That’s terrible. Really. But you’re drunk—”

Get your claws off me!

The Drake shoved at Relc, but failed to make the [Guardsman] fall back. He swore as Relc manhandled him towards the door.

“You didn’t save her! The City Watch saw everything and they didn’t stop it!”

“We can’t be everywhere. Keep walking.”

“Are Goblins supposed to be safe? Huh? I’m letting this one stay! Aren’t I the reasonable one? I’m not seeking vengeance. But why do I have to pretend that this thing isn’t dangerous? Goblins killed my sister! What do you have to say to that, Hob, huh?”

“Don’t answer that.”

Relc snapped at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin ignored him. He stared at the struggling Drake and around at the silent room. The judging looks. Slowly, Numbtongue stood up. He called across the room at the Drake.

“Humans killed my parents.”

The Drake paused. Relc, swore under his breath. Now the conversation had two sides. The drunk Drake shouted at Numbtongue.

“Oh yeah? Join the club! I’m not a Human, though. So if you think that—”

“Drakes killed my tribe.”

Numbtongue interrupted the Drake. He slowly pointed at Relc. The [Guardsman] paused.

“That one killed my Chieftain. That one killed thousands of my people. Because you didn’t open the gates after we stopped the Goblin Lord.”

Numbtongue’s finger pointed right, towards Embria. She looked up. And unlike Relc, there was little guilt in her eyes. Numbtongue looked around the room and then back at the angry Drake.

“I didn’t kill your…sister. Or friend. I didn’t know the Goblins who did. I’m not them. And your—people—killed more Goblins. Why should I tolerate you?

He folded his arms, almost triumphantly. Daring the Drake to come up with a response. He couldn’t, Numbtongue was sure. But that surety—after a second of hesitation, a sneer crossed the Drake’s face.

“It doesn’t matter. You’re monsters. You can pretend you’re not. You can even speak. But everyone knows what Goblin Kings and Goblin Lords do. A few of you can be tamed. But that’s all.”

Numbtongue’s eyes widened. He took a step forwards and Erin blocked his way. She glared at the Drake and then around uneasily.

“Alright! That’s it! Relc, toss this guy out!”

“I need the magic door. He’ll just roll down the hill and come back up.”

Relc pointed to the open door as he restrained the struggling Drake. Erin nodded as Lyonette rushed over to change the setting. Relc didn’t budge as the Drake tried to elbow him and stomp on one foot. He had the drunk in a headlock. But the Drake could still shout. He cast one eye at Numbtongue.

“Go on! Kick me out! But everyone knows I’m right! Maybe Goblins can be safe! One or two. But no one’ll ever let a tribe stay around Liscor in peace! You know why? Because of the Goblin King! And it doesn’t matter how many of you die. Because Goblins—Goblins are animals. Get it? We’re Drakes. And Gnolls. And even damned Humans. We’re not animals, so we count. You don’t. Get it?”

Numbtongue opened his mouth. But he didn’t know what to say. He clenched his fists and Erin grabbed him. The Drake just laughed at the Hobgoblin’s expression.

“I’m right! See? It can’t even respond. See? I—”

Relc adjusted his hold and the Drake’s supply of wind cut off abruptly. He choked, and Lyonette raised her head as the portal in the magic door changed.

“Door’s open!”

“Finally.”

Relc grunted and heaved. The Drake flew through the door, scattering a crowd of potential guests. They stared into the inn as Relc looked over his shoulder. Numbtongue was shaking. His mouth was still open, but he didn’t know what to say. He’d never had to argue like that before. And he’d—

“It’s just a drunk guy. I guess Goblins did kill his family. But he’s wrong.”

Erin looked around in the silence. She met everyone’s eye, but few were looking straight at her. A Gnoll from Liscor murmured as Lyonette silently let people into the inn.

“He might be. But he came to the inn peacefully, Miss Solstice. Didn’t do more than complain. Which he has a right to, no? He lost his sister and friend. That he came here, knowing a Goblin was present, shows he was on your side. And Krshia’s.”

“So he has the right to say that to Numbtongue?”

Erin snapped back. The Gnoll didn’t reply. He looked away from her. And he didn’t leave, but the silence in the room grew more pronounced. Numbtongue looked around. He stared at the faces, some calm, some judging. Others, like Grimalkin, weighing him on some imaginary scale. And he hated it. Most of all though, he hated the ones standing at the back, in a group of their own.

Bevussa, Keldrass,  Earlia of Gemhammer and Nailren of Kelia’s Pride. More—the Horns of Hammerad. A few other Silver-rank teams. Adventurers. They said nothing. But their looks told Numbtongue what they thought. Here was a ‘safe’ Goblin. One they wouldn’t kill.

One, and only one.

It was the same as yesterday. The same as the one time he’d gone to Liscor. Numbtongue clenched his fists, aware of every person who drew back when they saw that and his bared teeth. He searched for the right words. But he didn’t have them. And he wished he could tell that Drake how wrong he was. Of the Goblins he called animals. Numbtongue wished he could show him. But the others were dead and gone. And he…

The Hobgoblin moved. People jumped out of his way as Numbtongue stormed towards the stairs. Up them, towards his room. Erin ran after him, but no one else moved. They watched as he disappeared upstairs. And then Erin. And then the big Soldier got up and followed both. And after a few more moments, someone told a joke, the inn laughed, and it got back to normal.

The Goblin was gone. But upstairs, the Goblin was always there. And he was always a Goblin.

 

—-

 

Yellow Splatters stood behind Erin, listening. Just listening to Numbtongue and her talk. She was standing in the hallway outside his room. Numbtongue was standing in the doorway, Yellow Splatters closer to the stairs. The sounds of the merry common room drifted up. But above, the air was colder. More painful.

Numbtongue looked upset as he stood in the doorway. He had just stood there when Erin and Yellow Splatters found him. He hadn’t slammed the door or hid in his room. That was a thing for Human children. A door couldn’t stop an adventurer with a crossbow, or a spell. You had to stand and fight or run far away. And he had lost that fight. Yellow Splatters had seen his face.

Intriguing. The Soldier had never considered a fight could be won with words. But these ones had left invisible wounds. Erin was trying to mend them now, but it wasn’t working.

“It was just one Drake, Numbtongue. He won’t come back. I’ll make sure of it.”

“They all think that way.”

“Not all. Relc’s trying. You didn’t have to…I know what he did. But I think he’d even apologize if—”

“For Garen? He can say sorry to Garen, not me. If sorry brings back dead Goblins.”

Numbtongue sneered, his fists clenched. Erin fell silent. She looked at him, helplessly, angry and upset for him. Yellow Splatters saw that too. That was what drove the Antinium to Erin. The fact that she would be angry or sad or happy with them. For them. But now it wasn’t helping.

“You don’t have to—no. I mean—I know it’s hard. If there’s anything I can…what can I do to help, Numbtongue?”

“Let me go to Liscor.”

The Goblin looked up with burning eyes. Erin wavered.

“You can’t. I’m sorry. I talked it over with Zevara, Numbtongue. You’ll be in danger.”

“Don’t care.”

“You can’t fight them. Any one of them could hit you with a stone, or cast a spell, or stab you—”

“I don’t care. I want to go.”

Why? What’s Liscor got? I can get you anything, Numbtongue! What do you want?”

“I don’t know. I want to go there and find out.”

The Goblin turned his head and stared out his window at the city in the distance. Erin bit her lip hard. She didn’t know what to say. Numbtongue stared past her at Yellow Splatters. The Soldier raised a hand.

“If I am intruding, I will remove myself.”

Erin jumped. She hadn’t realized he was here. Numbtongue just laughed. He stared at Yellow Splatters, and a flicker of envy entered his eyes.

“You can go into Liscor. Do they stare at you there? Do they say things? Like…”

He gestured to the stairs. The Painted Soldier paused, his arms folded.

“They stare. But they stare everywhere. I have not been addressed like you are. I understand that you are banned from Liscor.”

“Yes. They close the gates before I can get in.”

The Hobgoblin clenched his fists, staring blackly ahead. Erin’s face fell.

“You went again? Why does it matter?”

“They died for Liscor. I can’t go in.”

Numbtongue’s claws dug into his flesh. Erin opened her mouth, but it was Yellow Splatters who tilted his head. The Soldier had been enjoying his conversation with Numbtongue. He felt a kinship to the Goblin. But this line of thought confused him.

“Why does it matter? Is the worth of Goblins—and their deaths—truly linked to your right to be in Liscor? Is that what they all died for?”

Erin gasped. Numbtongue’s eyes narrowed and he tensed. But then he looked at Yellow Splatters and, slowly, relaxed. For anyone else, the question might have stung. But Yellow Splatters returned the gaze calmly. And after a moment, Numbtongue blinked. The Hobgoblin exhaled and shook his head.

“It’s not about Liscor. We—the Redfangs, the Flooded Waters tribe didn’t fight for Liscor. We fought because the Goblin Lord was bad. Bad Goblin. And for you.”

He looked at Erin. And her face went pale. Numbtongue turned from her to Yellow Splatters. The Soldier nodded.

“We fought and died for Erin Solstice as well. As Pawn requested. This is a fact, and what I understood of Goblins. So why does access to Liscor matter?”

The young woman looked from Goblin to Antinium. And suddenly she was unsteady on her feet. Numbtongue shook his head. He pointed at Liscor.

“So they do not forget. So they cannot forget.”

And the pieces clicked. For Yellow Splatter, they fit together in a moment. It took Erin longer.

“Oh.”

She softly uttered the word. Numbtongue looked at her.

“They say Drakes saved the city. Or…they fought off the Humans. They forget. But I am here. We were here! They stop talking about Goblins! About the Redfangs, the Flooded Waters tribe. They forget. The ones in the city, who never come here. They forget. Why can I not remind them? Why can I not go there, when we all died—”

His voice trailed off. That was it. It wasn’t that he needed to be there. He probably didn’t even want to go. But it was that he couldn’t. To Yellow Splatters, it was like knowing there was sky. And never going above again.

The [Sergeant] considered the Hobgoblin standing across from him. He didn’t know what to say. Numbtongue’s pain wasn’t his own. His cause wasn’t Yellow Splatter’s. He did not matter to the Free Antinium. And still—the Soldier slowly uncrossed his arms.

“The Antinium fought the Goblin Lord for Liscor. So did the Goblins. To not say that is a lie. We died. And we were there.”

He touched his chest with one hand and pointed two. At Numbtongue, and at Erin. Her face was white. But the Goblin only nodded. He met Yellow Splatter’s gaze.

“They died. All of them. You. And me. My Chieftain. Headscratcher. Shorthilt. Spiderslicer. Noears. Reiss. Pyrite.”

“Glorious Sun. Grassleaves. Six and Five. Red and White Flowers. Cold Blue.”

Yellow Splatters nodded. The Soldier’s colors, their symbols flashed in his mind. Numbtongue looked at him. And the Hobgoblin’s wide eyes conveyed a message without words.

You were there. You understand. You remember. Yellow Splatters nodded. He reached out and Numbtongue clasped his hand gently. Both of them heard a small sound and turned.

Erin was crying. She wiped at her eyes as water flowed from them. It was another strange sight. Yellow Splatters stared at Erin’s face. And—strangely—he felt uncomfortable. Pained. As if the tears were hurting him. It was like looking at a wounded Soldier or Worker. He touched his chest, averted his gaze. But the pain in his chest didn’t clear. And Erin kept crying.

“I’m sorry. I know I asked you, but I—I thought—I’m sorry—

She hiccupped, and then began crying and hiccupping. Numbtongue looked at her, helplessly. He shook his head as Erin turned to him.

“That’s not—”

He looked at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium saw his mouth working and the words came into his mind first. He looked at Erin.

“It is not grief we seek, Erin Solstice. The cost was paid. Antinium and Goblins died. But if we were faced with the same choice, we would do it again. We won.

Numbtongue closed his mouth and looked at Yellow Splatters. A flicker of something—a smile—tugged at his expression. He nodded. Erin shook her head. She was still crying.

“I—no. No. It was—”

She broke off and kept sobbing. But the tears didn’t last. Numbtongue awkwardly patted Erin on the back. She hugged him. Yellow Splatters looked at the Goblin’s face and gently copied Numbtongue, patting her on the back. And he met Numbtongue’s eyes.

That was what they couldn’t explain to Erin. The tears matched. But he and Numbtongue had something she didn’t understand. Pride. The dead had not died in vain. And all of what followed—Yellow Splatter’s resolve, Numbtongue’s desire for the dead to be remembered, to enter Liscor—stemmed from that.

They had not died in vain.

Yellow Splatters kept patting Erin until she let go of Numbtongue. The young woman dried her face. She looked helplessly at them and sniffed.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Numbtongue. I wasn’t thinking of how you felt.”

“It’s fine. Go lie down. Sleep.”

Numbtongue pointed to Erin’s room across from him. She wavered.

“No. I should get downstairs. Although—”

She noticed her wet apron and shirt. Numbtongue eyed her.

“Lyonette will be upset if you go down. Mrsha will howl.”

“Probably. And I guess everyone else will want to—maybe I’ll lie down. You’re sure you don’t want to talk?”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin smiled. Erin wavered, but he ushered her gently and insistently into the room. She eventually went, promising she’d be out in a little bit. The door closed and Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters looked at each other. And again, they felt at ease. Yellow Splatters stepped into Numbtongue’s room and the Goblin closed the door so they wouldn’t bother Erin.

“They can’t forget. Ever.”

He meant Liscor in the distance. It was different from Yellow Splatters. He shook his head.

“Memory matters little to the Antinium. We desire the expansion of our Hive. Revalantor Klbkch has a plan and I am helping to carry that out. I deem it worthy. But that is not what concerns me. The Painted Soldiers. My unit. We were weak. We are weak, still. But I was given a chance to strive again. So I will—I must become stronger.”

He held Numbtongue’s gaze. The Hobgoblin clenched a fist, understanding at once.

“Strong enough not for all to die next time?”

Yellow Splatters nodded.

“Yes. That is it exactly. I have more to protect. My…people need me to be strong. So I must be strong.”

The Goblin [Bard] smiled for a second. A trace of bitterness flickered in his eyes.

“Good plan. Doesn’t work for me. Mine are dead. Or gone.”

“Then why do you stay? What keeps you moving? What reason do you have to be alive?”

The question had no rancor; it was just a question from one warrior to another. Numbtongue smiled. He pointed at the door.

“Someone has to stay. To protect…”

“Ah.”

And that was the beauty. He didn’t have to explain why Erin had to live. Why her life could justify the countless dead. Yellow Splatters understood. He reached out and made a fist. Numbtongue stared at it, gently perplexed. The Soldier spoke calmly.

“It is good you remain here. You are strong. I have a strong body, gifted to me by the Free Queen. Thus, I am stronger than when I died. But I must level. That is what I intend to do. I lost all but six levels when I died. I have regained five already; I intend to reach Level 20 within the month.”

“To be strong. To be the strongest.”

Another nod. The Soldier kept his fist extended, towards Numbtongue’s chest.

“I must be the strongest of them all. And make them stronger. But do it with…kindness. I failed once before. It will not happen again.”

“Good. Be strong.”

Numbtongue reached out. His own fist extended and Yellow Splatters nodded. They bumped fists gently. Yellow Splatters regarded Numbtongue, his head tilting slightly back and forth.

“I understand now, why you are here. But what will you do? Train? Level? If you wish it, it would be possible for you to fight against local threats and patrol with the Painted Antinium. Your company would be enjoyable.”

Numbtongue wavered. He was pleased at the offer, but he shook his head in the end.

“No good.”

“Why?”

Yellow Splatters was honestly confused. Numbtongue struggled to explain. The best he could was by talking about the images in his head. The inferiority he felt when he picked up a sword.

“I know a strong Goblin. The strongest. He fought the…Human. Lord Tyrion. He stopped him. He was stronger than me. And he died. How can I be that strong? I am a [Bard].”

Pyrite. Shorthilt. Headscratcher. Each had been stronger than Numbtongue. And each was dead. He wasn’t as gifted as they had been in combat. And his class…Numbtongue closed his eyes and shook his head. Yellow Splatters regarded him.

“But they are dead. You could surpass their levels in time. Does a [Bard] not become strong?”

“Not like a [Sergeant]. Or…[Warrior].”

“Really. What does your class do?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“Lightning from the skies. But mostly—makes music. It helps a bit. Makes animals not bite. But it isn’t like…[Warmaster]. [Chieftain]. Or even [Savage Warrior]. Those are strong classes.”

“Really. They are not ones I am familiar with. But I do not know many classes.”

That surprised Numbtongue. He shook his head.

“I know lots. What do you have? [Sergeant]? Not a Goblin class. But could have…[Spear Soldier]. [First Sergeant]. [Captain]. At…Level 20? If you can upgrade. But [Warrior] classes are good. Sometimes better. [Sergeant] is officer. Good for leading, but sometimes weaker. Sometimes strong.”

“You know a lot about classes.”

“We had many. I was just a [Warrior]. But Garen knew many classes and there were many in my tribe. The Redfangs wer—are strong.”

“Stronger than the Antinium. At least, individually.”

Another nod. It came from both sides. Yellow Splatters was under no illusions. He sat on Numbtongue’s chair while the Hobgoblin sat on the bed, cross-legged.

“The power of the Antinium lies in our numbers. We die by the hundreds to kill a single high-level foe. This tactic…works. But it is not acceptable. The Painted Antinium—no, all Antinium must live. And yet, how do we overcome this difficulty? The Antinium have no [Mages]. No capacity for fighting at range. At least, the Free Antinium do not. I envy your levels, Numbtongue. The Antinium are too low-level, too focused in one area. We have [Archers] now. But magic is…if we fight the Goblin Lord a second time, we will die by the hundreds or thousands to bring him down.”

That was the [Sergeant]’s nightmare. Even if they tunneled, the Goblin Lord might collapse their tunnels, use the same spells to blast apart their ranks. It terrified him. The Hobgoblin sat on his bed quietly, listening to Yellow Splatter’s fears. At last, he shrugged slightly. Not out of indifference, though. He looked at Yellow Splatters.

“Do you have sneaky Antinium?”

“Sneaky Antinium?”

The [Bard] nodded.

“It’s how the Redfangs fought. We lost our [Shaman]. So we just used traps. Gold-rank Adventurers love teams with [Mages]. So we learn to attack them from one side. Ambush them—use big rocks or artifacts or sneaky Goblins to break their barriers. Then it’s easy. One arrow and—”

He mimed being struck in the chest. Yellow Splatters paused.

“I understand the Silent Antinium are a…Hive specializing in sneak attacks. But their forces are not part of the Free Antinium, or so Klbkch has explained to me. But you use traps? Belgrade makes traps. Tell me more. You are much more experienced than I.”

“Oh?”

Numbtongue looked surprised. And then pleased. He shrugged again, and then looked around. Then he went over to his desk. Erin had given him any number of things to occupy himself with. Snacks, a jar of cookies, parchment, ink, quills, a nail file—he grabbed the parchment and a quill and ink and brought it over. It was largely unused, although Yellow Splatters saw some lyrics on one sheet. Numbtongue unrolled the parchment and dipped his quill in the inkpot.

“Hm. This is how Redfangs attack [Mages]. Very easy? See? Pit trap here, archers here with cover, boulders here with slope, oh. Poison arrows. And Carn Wolf [Riders] here—and sometimes angry beehives. Or exploding things like Tripvine bags. Simple. Anyone can do. What do you want to know?”

Yellow Splatters stared at the trap. He hesitated, and then he raised three hands.

“Please explain everything.”

 

—-

 

Life had its ups and downs. You didn’t win every fight. And sometimes you cried. But the trick was to keep moving. To pick yourself up again. That was why after about forty minutes, Erin Solstice was able to leave her room and go downstairs with a smile on her face and reassure her friends. She’d had a few more tears, a handkerchief to blow her nose, and a nap. And really, it wasn’t her that she was worried about. It was Numbtongue.

She’d expected the Hobgoblin to be somewhere else. But to her surprise, he was in his room. He hadn’t even gone downstairs. Erin cautiously poked her head into the room, holding a tray with two mugs of tea.

Heeeey guys. How’s it going? Um—everyone okay? Sorry for going off like that. Anyone want a drink?”

Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters looked up. Erin blinked as she saw them sitting on his bed and chair. They’d dragged the table over and they were gathered around it. The young woman smiled.

“Oh wow! You two are really getting along!”

“Hi.”

Numbtongue gave Erin a smile and accepted the tea. He seemed to be over his earlier frustration, and he’d clearly been absorbed by some kind of discussion with Yellow Splatters. Erin peered at the parchment as Yellow Splatters took a mug.

“Whatcha working on? Ooh, are those maps?”

“Tactics.”

Numbtongue tugged at one bit of parchment, looking slightly put upon as Erin peered around the table. She was clearly intruding. Erin made out a list of what looked like classes and Skills. And then she identified some of the drawings. Numbtongue wasn’t exactly an [Artist] and he was no [Tactician], so his picture of a Goblin stabbing an adventurer in the back was crude. But it got the point across.

Erin’s face fell a bit. She glanced up at the Goblin an Antinium.

“…You’re discussing fighting? Really? Nothing else?”

They looked at her blankly. What else would they talk about? Erin sighed, but she smiled.

“I’m glad. Hey, you could go downstairs. If you want! Or I can get you a snack.”

“I ate.”

“And I have imbibed adequate sustenance.”

“Right. Okay! Well, glad to see you two are making friends. Don’t let me bother you!”

Erin stepped back. Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters turned to look at her. After a second, Numbtongue coughed. Erin blinked.

“Oh my god. I’m my mom.”

“What?”

“I have to go. Sorry. I’m cramping your style! Oh no…I’m a mom. Wait, does that mean Lyonette’s the dad? Or the bossy older sister? Am I the dad?”

Erin groaned and slapped her forehead. Completely lost, Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue exchanged a glance. But they were relieved when she was gone. It wasn’t that Erin wasn’t welcome—it was just that both were well aware of how distracting she could be. And this was serious business. They leaned over the table again. Yellow Splatters nodded.

“Back to our discussion. Survival rates among the Soldiers is typically low when encountering powerful monsters. Belgrade’s traps do work well—I will suggest the ones you use to him. We also have magical items, but I am certain Revalantor Klbkch will not allow their use.”

Numbtongue nodded.

“Can make slings, though. Slings are good.”

“Indeed. I am not sure if a Worker can swing four slings at once, but that is a viable experiment.”

Numbtongue laughed, trying to imagine that. Yellow Splatters politely smiled. They’d been discussing how to fight, and to Numbtongue’s surprise, it was actually…fun. Talking about Redfang tactics and survival strategies with someone who appreciated it. Right up until you realized they might all die in one of the scenarios they were laying out.

The Painted Antinium were certainly unlike any tribe Numbtongue had met. They could overwhelm a foe just like Goblins, but their Workers and Soldiers were all a lot stronger than the average Goblin. By the same token though, they didn’t have strong Hobs or Chieftains, with the exception of Yellow Splatters. That complicated things, especially if your goal was to keep as many alive as possible.

Something occurred to Numbtongue as he looked at Yellow Splatter’s description of the Painted Antinium’s forces. Bow unit, low-level [Soldiers]…he looked up sharply, realizing there was an obvious discrepancy besides a lack of magic users and more sneaky and ranged types.

“You know what you need?”

“What?”

Yellow Splatters leaned forwards again. He was more decisive than the Workers, but when he listened to Numbtongue, he was a very attentive student. Who asked a lot of questions. Numbtongue grinned and tapped his belt. Next to the small satchel holding his mined treasures was a vial. He pulled it out and showed Yellow Splatters.

Potions. Potions are good. All your Soldiers should have potions. Redfangs use potions.”

“I am intrigued. Tell me more.”

Numbtongue gave him a blank look.

“Potions. You use them. You heal. Or get effects. Like…spitting fire. Potions are good.”

Yellow Splatters hesitated.

“The Antinium do not use potions. Ever.”

“Really? What if you get hurt?”

“We have a healing gel. That we seldom use. Soldiers have a recovery area. There they live or die.”

Numbtongue shook his head. That sounded like a poor Goblin tribe.

“Potions heal everything fast.

“So I understand. And the Hive has a supply. A very…large supply, in fact. But Revalantor Klbkch has designated such stores off-limits except in case of war, or emergency.”

“Okay. So get more.”

“How?”

“Steal? Kill adventurers? Or…buy?”

Buy?

The Hobgoblin nodded uncertainly. He wasn’t completely in on this concept either. But since the first two options weren’t viable around Liscor—

“Potions cost money. You have money, right?”

“I have a stipend allocated to me by Klbkch, yes.”

“Can you buy a potion with it?”

Yellow Splatters opened his mandibles slowly.

“…I have never purchased anything except for food from Miss Erin. Have you?”

“No…”

They stared at each other. Antinium and Goblins didn’t buy anything. But the thought was beguiling. And Numbtongue had seen Lyonette coming in with food that she’d bought with the shiny coins Erin gave to him. And Yellow Splatters had seen the same while marching through the city.

“You have coins.”

“Yup. See?”

Numbtongue found some silver and two gold coins stuffed in his desk. Erin had paid him for guarding the inn along with the other Redfangs. They’d been keepsakes. Useless. Until now. Yellow Splatters produced his own money pouch. He poured the coins onto the table. Numbtongue stared at the bronze, silver, and gold. Yellow Splatters stared at the pile and him.

“…Is that enough for a potion?”

“Maybe? Maybe one.”

The Hobgoblin had no idea. He thought about asking Erin. Did she know how much a potion was worth? Maybe Ceria? Yellow Splatters opened his mandibles and clicked, clearing his throat.

“I could…attempt to look at some in Liscor. However, I do not know if the [Alchemists] there would allow me into their stores. Obtaining potions…that would be very useful. Very.”

Numbtongue nodded. Potions were every Goblin’s dream. You could save your life with one. Even the Redfangs, who were rich, had coveted every bottle they found. Speaking of which…Numbtongue frowned at his belt. He had two healing potions. And another stashed under his pillow.  Erin had given them to him, but she’d gotten hers from—his eyes widened.

“Want to look at some? I know a place.”

“In Liscor? You are banned from the city.”

Numbtongue scowled and then suppressed it.

“No. But I think—we can go there. Follow me.”

Casually, he left his room and went downstairs. Yellow Splatters swept his and Numbtongue’s money into his pouch and followed. Erin was downstairs, serving guests. They looked at Numbtongue when he came down, but no one caused a scene this time.

“Erin. Can we go somewhere? With the door?”

Numbtongue innocently walked over to Erin. She looked around suspiciously, but when she heard what he wanted, she nodded after a moment.

“Sure. I mean, if you’re just visiting her. Don’t let her rip you off! Tell you what—the Pallass crowd’ll riot if I don’t keep the door open there. But I can let you two through and…check on you in ten minutes? Just tell Octavia that if she scams you, I’ll rip off her arm or something. Got it?”

Numbtongue nodded eagerly. He beckoned to Yellow Splatters and Erin pushed her way towards the magic door. Lyonette looked anxious as Erin changed the door, let the Hobgoblin and Antinium through, and then came back.

“You’re sure that’s fine, Erin? Shouldn’t one of us go with them? Or at least, one of the Horns?”

“It’s fine. It’s just Octavia. Numbtongue promised to stay in her shop. And I’ll head over as soon as I finish setting up the fondue. Relc’s gonna love this. Hey, Relc!”

Erin waved and turned. It was just five minutes. Ten or fifteen at most. She’d be over as soon as she finished melting the cheese in the big pot. Pisces was providing the flame and Erin had already equipped Mrsha, Ceria, and Yvlon and Ksmvr with some long forks to dip sausage into the cheesy goodness. Relc was beaming as he rushed over with Embria following, and Erin was smiling too. She’d introduce the wonders of fondue to the inn, then pop over to Stitchworks and…deal with Octavia for a bit.

It never occurred to her to worry. Right up until her [Dangersense] started going off, that was.

 

—-

 

It was past lunch in Celum. And Stitchworks, the [Alchemist]’s shop owned by Octavia Cotton was not open. It was still closed, despite the [Alchemist] being awake. She sat in her shop, and for once, she was too tired to make a sale.

She knew she had to. The day’s payment had been twelve silver. More than half a gold coin! For an [Alchemist], it was doable. But Octavia had to sell, and sell well to get ahead of that. Let alone make money.

“But what’s the point? I might as well pack up rather than keep on here.”

Dully, Octavia stared at her racks of potions. The magical glow they gave off was usually enough to cheer her up. But today the colors just looked pale. Fake. Octavia was an [Alchemist]. She could see the low quality of her own potions.

She used to think she made up for quality with quantity, an affordable margin for both her customers and herself. She’d liked to imagine she was making her mark in Izril, despite the competition. Today? She wished she’d never left Chandrar.

Octavia stared at her potions. Then she stared out the boarded-up window of her shop. There were slits between the imperfect covering, but the pane of glass in her door also gave her a view of the street. She could see them, out there. They were watching her.

The [Alchemist]’s eyes flicked to her shelves. To the door. Then to another door, set in the back of her shop. It was a magic door. Or at least, the mana stone glittering in the doorframe was. But if Octavia opened the door, it would just reveal a wall. It wasn’t connected to Liscor at the moment. So she couldn’t just run through with all her gold and potions.

And even if she could, then what? Octavia shook her head. Assume she could get her gold, her equipment, and all her ingredients and wares through. She was still out the cost of her shop. Not to mention she’d have to set up in Liscor. If they even accepted String People. And would Erin let Octavia stay? Or—if Octavia opened the door and asked, begged for help…

No. Octavia shook her head and slowly got up. She went over to her shop sign and slowly changed it. Erin wasn’t going to come to her rescue. She, Octavia, had given up on the thought. Why ask? Octavia hadn’t gotten anyone she knew to slow down and hear her out. Bad pitches, bad timing…it didn’t matter. She knew all the Gold-rank teams had left Erin’s inn anyways. And who would answer her call if she did ask? Erin? That small Gnoll, Mrsha? Lyonette? The Horns?

“Say they did take care of…”

Octavia peeked out her door again and counted. Then she shook her head. And even if they got all of them, Quelm had, what, four times that many lurking about. He’d gone mad. And it was Octavia’s fault. Well, he’d started it by stealing her designs. But…

“Can’t wriggle out of it this time, Octavia Cotton. It was a bad deal and you knew it. You should have just let it lie. Now you’ve got to pay up. It’s just twelve silver. Twice a week.”

Octavia stared blankly at her shop.

“I have to move. To Remendia. Ocre. Or Esthelm. Yeah. They don’t have an [Alchemist], right? Or if they do, how good can they be? City gets sacked by the Goblin Lord—there’s bound to be plenty of business opportunities! I hold on, make a few preparations…Quelm’s not watching the gates, right?”

Her eyes flicked to the window, and then to the magic door again. If only—

“Erin. Ten gold? I could manage that.”

It was all her savings. But if Erin swung it for her…Octavia hesitated. Ten gold wouldn’t buy enough Silver-rank teams for a fight with that many thugs. Not to mention the City Watch wasn’t getting involved. They were bought-off. Or something. Quelm had Octavia’s gold. And his sales from the matches. And…

She was sitting behind her counter. Octavia buried her head in her hands.

“I thought she liked me. A bit? I know I’m a bit pushy. But I thought Krshia—or the Horns—we have a business relationship. I’m still selling to Krshia. Surely—”

She stared down at her counter it was swimming a bit.

“Did they all hate me that much?”

Nothing in her shop answered her. After a moment though, Octavia heard a jingle. She looked up. At least she had this. She put a smile on her face.

“Welcome to Stitchworks, friend! How can I interest you in my potions? Four silver off any first purchase and—ulp!”

She stared at the rough figure that had pushed open the door. Octavia slowly closed her mouth and sat down. The [Thug] grinned at her. He was rough-shaven and smelled of sweat.

“Morning, Miss Octavia.”

“Ah. H-hello. How’re things? Checking in on the shop? I paid yesterday, you know. Promptly and on time! There’s no need for…”

Octavia could normally out-talk anyone she met. But the words dried up as the man looked around her shop. She could see the long knife at his belt. But that wasn’t what terrified her. String People didn’t fear knives. It was fire she feared. Fire and those who caused it.

“Looks like you haven’t got much business. Alchemist Quelm’s concerned.”

“Is—is he? Well, you can assure him that I’ll get him his money.”

Esthelm. She could move tonight if she found a good [Wagon Driver]. And if they weren’t watching her shop. The [Thug] looked around and shrugged.

“So you say. But he’s concerned. And since he’s so worried, he sent me and some of the guys around to help you sell.”

For a second Octavia was confused. Was Quelm mad? Did he think this would be a good [Shop Assistant]? She stared as the [Thug] went over to one of her shelves of potions.

“Help me sell? He really doesn’t need to—hey! Wait! What are you doing?”

The [Thug] was grabbing bottles off the shelf. Octavia rushed around her counter.

“No! Those are mine! Here, you want next payment? I can make it! Tell Quelm—”

She grabbed at her money drawer and realized it was locked. The [Thug] just shook his head. He grinned at her, exposing bright, well-kept teeth. Octavia felt they should have been rotten or replaced by gold.

Alchemist Quelm has decided there’s a new deal. You’ll be selling your potions through his store. You’ll get your cut—but everything goes through him, got it?”

He grabbed an armful of bottles. Octavia couldn’t take it.

“No! That’s my merchandise! If he takes that—”

Her income was liquid. Literally; more money was in the potions waiting to be sold than anywhere in her shop, even her safe. The [Thug] raised a fist as Octavia grabbed at him and she flinched.

“Don’t. We’re taking all of these today. Damn, we’ll need a wheelbarrow or something. I’m not carrying them. You’ll get two thirds—Alchemist Quelm gets a third. And he won’t even charge you a weekly fee anymore. Isn’t that fair?”

“He—that—”

Octavia gulped for air. The world was swimming. If Quelm did that, she’d lose far more than twelve silver every three days. A third of her profits? He’d be the only [Alchemist] selling in the city and she’d be unable to run. And both she and Quelm and the [Thug] knew it. He gave her another pearly smile.

“You can’t do this. This is too far. Quelm—I know we had our grudges, but this is robbery. I’ll go to the City Watch if you take my potions. I’ll testify under truth spell! I have friends in Liscor too. I go through that door—”

Octavia’s voice shook. The [Thug] turned to her. His eyes narrowed. Suddenly, deliberately, he dropped his armful of potions.

No—

Too late. Octavia grabbed one bottle, but the rest smashed on the floor. Horrified, she stared as four stamina potions and three healing potions mixed on the floor. That was—at least three gold’s worth of—she looked up as a boot smashed the glass shards flat. The [Thug] drew his knife with a snarl.

“And what? You tell the Watch or you go through that door, and your store won’t last till morning. Neither will you. We’re in charge now, not some [Guardsmen]. Or didn’t you hear what happened to Jeffil?”

Octavia froze, the last potion in her hands. She backed up.

“I heard. But—but—”

The [Thug] grinned unpleasantly.

“Too bad String People can just replace their arms, right? Don’t make us make an example of you. Be smart. Mabel the ‘Magnificent’ is smart. She’s working for Alchemist Quelm. You’ve got one chance to make the right move. Either you agree right now, or—

He broke off. Octavia heard a sudden roar of sound and jumped. A familiar voice rang out in her shop!

“Okay! Ten minutes! Remember, stay inside!”

The [Thug] swore and ducked back. Octavia turned. The door to Erin’s inn was open! Her heart leapt, but the warning growl behind her made her tense up. And the door was closing as soon as it opened. Octavia opened her mouth—and then choked when she saw who was coming through the door. A Hobgoblin, and—

“What the hell is that?

The [Thug] hissed at Octavia. Frozen, the [Alchemist] stared at Yellow Splatters and then looked around.

“An Antinium Soldier. And that’s…Numbtongue.”

“That’s a Hob! A flipping Hobgoblin!”

The man looked afraid, which pleased Octavia. She hesitated, looking at Numbtongue. He glanced at her and waved.

“We want to look at things.”

“Uh, okay! I mean, great! Pleased to have you here! And your friend! I’ll be over in a second!”

Octavia smiled nervously. Her eyes flicked to the [Thug]. He glared at her. Slowly, he edged back to her door and caught himself. He leaned over to Octavia and hissed.

“We’ll finish this later. Get them to go away.”

The Stitch-Girl hesitated. The [Thug] caught her arm, squeezing it tight.

“Say anything and we’ve got fourteen people outside your shop. Don’t be stupid. I’ll be right here.”

He bared his teeth. Octavia’s heart sank. She saw him go to the door and wave his hand urgently. Damn. If there weren’t more—she hurried over to Numbtongue.

“Hey, Numbtongue, right? Good to see you!”

The Hobgoblin eyed the [Alchemist]’s smile warily. He sniffed the air and frowned. Then he leaned around her and spotted the puddle of potions. His eyes widened. Octavia glanced at him and then the [Thug].

“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it. Minor spill. What can I do you for? Is uh, Erin—”

“In her inn. She’ll come later. We want to buy a potion. We have…money.”

Numbtongue waved vaguely at the Antinium Soldier. Octavia backed up a step as she saw the Soldier towering over her. Was it her or was this fellow big even for an Antinium?

“Uh—well, uh—a Soldier? I’m happy to sell to all customers, but how do I know what he wants? What you want? Does he have a name?”

Too late, Octavia remembered. You weren’t supposed to ask Antinium their names! She froze, but the Soldier nodded and opened his mandibles.

“Yellow Splatters. I was reborn and given a voice. I am looking to purchase as many potions as possible for this amount of money.”

He opened his money pouch. Octavia’s jaw dropped at the gold and silver glittering there. She could sell—her eyes darted to the [Thug].

“Great! I mean, wonderful! I—I can definitely sell you whatever you need. And, hey did you say Erin’s coming through?”

“In a bit. What’s this?”

Numbtongue replied absently. Octavia glanced at the potion he was indicating.

“Pepperspray Potion. Uh—listen, Numbtongue—”

“Miss Octavia! You’re gonna close up shop soon, right?”

The [Thug] called out from where he was standing. Octavia’s heart sank. He was eying her as he pretended to browse the shelves. And fingering the dagger on his belt. She looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin had a frown on his face as he looked at the [Thug]. Octavia inhaled.

She could tell him. But what if he said no? If it was Ceria, or Pisces, or Yvlon—not Ksmvr—she might have risked it. But she could see more people slowly advancing down the street. And Numbtongue? The Hobgoblin? Weakly, Octavia realized that the [Thug] was going to make her chase out Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. And Erin too.

Erin. Oh no. If she came by and started a fight, he’d knife her. This wasn’t any tough. They’d crippled Jeffil. And they were going to take her potions. How many did he say there were? Fifteen? Octavia looked at Numbtongue. The Soldier. Then she thought of Erin. If Erin got into a fight and they drew their weapons—

The sigh that escaped the [Alchemist]’s mouth was slow and long. And she wiped her eyes across her stained sleeve once. That was all. Then she gave Numbtongue a big smile.

“Actually, you came here just in time, Numbtongue. I’m doing a clearance sale. Reorganizing my stock. Whatever you want—it’s half-off. Tell me what you need and I’ll get it to you.”

The Hobgoblin did a double-take. So did the Soldier. He looked at her suspiciously.

Really? Is this a…trick?”

Octavia had to admit that she’d never done a sale like that without some kind of trick. But today she just spread her hands wide.

“Nope! Let me get you your potions. I think Erin’ll have to wait on coming through; let’s do business before she gets here. Okay?”

“Are you sure?”

The Hobgoblin’s response was so normal, that Octavia wavered. She looked over her shoulder. And she tried to think of a code, something he could relay to Erin. But she was sure that the [Thug] would pick up on anything obvious like that.

“Just grand, Numbtongue. Just grand. What can I do for you?”

The Hobgoblin exchanged a glance with the Soldier. And Octavia could have sworn she saw the Soldier’s antennae do some weird twitching. But it didn’t matter. She’d sell them everything she could just to spite Quelm. And then let the gang take her goods. And then leave Celum or…she looked at Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. They looked strong. Stronger than the [Thug]. But there were a lot of thugs outside.

And she didn’t have anything to offer them. Even if she could warn them. It wasn’t a good deal for them. So Octavia bit her lip and smiled.

“Come on. Time’s money. What do you want?”

 

—-

 

There was someone else watching Stitchworks. The [Enforcer]. The [Nightstalker], and her [Blackguard] escort. They sat in the little bakery café. It had been a few hours, but they’d bought enough snacks and drinks to keep the [Baker]’s assistant quite happy to let them stay as long as they walked.

They’d been good for gossip too. The polite, well-mannered man with the hat who’d tipped well had asked any number of questions about Liscor and the magic door that the [Baker] in training had been only too happy to talk about.

Now they were watching the door as she reluctantly helped her master, who was actually a mistress, prepare dough in the kitchen. And at the table, the [Nightstalker], who’d been sitting and slowly drinking the hours by while gnashing her teeth, suddenly swore and sat up.

“Fucking rotted Ghoul dicks. What the hell is that?

Even surprised, she was too professional to point at the [Alchemist]’s shop. Nor did she need to. The [Enforcer] and the [Blackguard] had seen the same thing. The [Blackguard] checked his blades. The [Enforcer] just tipped up his cap and sat up.

“Well, that’s not something you see every day.”

“It’s fucking insanity. What the hell’s going on in Liscor? No—where does that damn door lead?

The [Enforcer] winced at the [Nightstalker]’s language. But he didn’t take his eyes off the strange pair who’d entered the [Alchemist]’s shop. He stared at the green Goblin and the insect-man as they wandered about the shop.

“I believe it’s a Hobgoblin. And that other one is…an Antinium Soldier.”

The [Nightstalker] settled back in her chair, but only slightly. She was gripping the stilettos concealed in her dress.

“They came at the wrong time. That [Thug] was just about to wrap up that shop with his gang.”

The [Enforcer] nodded quietly. It hadn’t been too interesting to see. Predictably, this Alchemist Quelm had sent a gang in to make sure his competition didn’t fly the coop as it were. Taking their goods and selling them through his store was a classic move that hadn’t impressed him or the [Nightstalker]. But now a wrinkle had entered the plan. A very big wrinkle with four arms and another one with green skin and glowing eyes.

“Hobs. Fucking Hobs walking about in daylight.”

“I heard there were some in Liscor.”

That didn’t come from the [Enforcer]. It was the first words the [Blackguard] had spoken. The man must have been rattled to break his silence. The [Nightstalker] glanced at the man and glared.

“It doesn’t change things. But maybe they’re our marks. Who knows? You see anything?”

She was clearly expecting the answer to be ‘no’. But the [Blackguard] leaned forwards.

“Yes. I do.”

What?

The woman sat forwards. And now her eyes were fixed on the two. She glanced at the [Enforcer] and leaned over to the [Blackguard]. He whispered urgently to her and her eyes widened. She kept her voice low, shielding her mouth, but the [Enforcer] wasn’t looking at her. He was adjusting his cap and sniffing the air. A foul odor drifted towards him.

“Well, this is a right mess.”

He muttered to himself, and reached for something concealed at his side. A bit of leather and lead, that was all. And inside the shop, the Hob and Soldier were wandering about, peering at bottles. The [Enforcer] could see them through the door and the boarded up window, moving about. The [Nightstalker] narrowed her eyes. She had a better vision Skill than he did; she could clearly see through the boards of wood.

“That idiot [Thug]’s still there with the Stitch-Girl [Alchemist].”

“Probably to make sure she doesn’t run. Not that she’d abandon her shop. That’s her livelihood.”

The [Enforcer] commented. The [Nightstalker] nodded, her enmity with him forgotten. Her painted nails drummed on the table. She glanced down the street. More people were moving towards the shop. The [Enforcer] grimaced; he saw the gang he’d met that morning drifting towards Stitchworks, as subtle as a cow walking through a brothel. The [Nightstalker] bared her teeth.

“Look. The Hob’s noticed the gang outside. See the way he’s looking over the shelves? So’s that bug. What’re they going to do?”

“Interfere?”

The [Enforcer] frowned. He could see the [Alchemist] tagging along besides the Hob, clearly offering him a potion. Was she trying to get rid of him? From the way the [Thug] was glaring, he’d made a threat. Get rid of them so we can take your inventory. The [Enforcer] shook his head. Classless. Embarrassingly rude. Unconscionable, even. He itched to intervene. But he had a job and that was to watch.

The [Nightstalker] snorted. She was eying the dozen plus men and women now loitering about Stitchworks. They were clearing the street; the passersby could smell trouble. They’d probably already seen Quelm’s thugs shaking down the [Alchemist] before.

“It’s not their fight. Two versus fifteen? And I saw a second gang close by. Looks like that Quelm has people looking for us after I stabbed that idiot. Would you take those odds?”

The [Enforcer] didn’t reply. But he knew even the [Nightstalker] and her [Blackguard] bodyguard would have hesitated if the fifteen had showed some teeth in the alleyway this morning. They might be low-level, but numbers were enough in a fight. A knife between the ribs was all it took, if you didn’t have the right Skills or magical equipment.

“They might have numbers, but it looks like they’re spooked by the Antinium and Hobgoblin.”

“Amateurs.”

The [Nightstalker] sneered. The gang was right outside the shop, giving the nervous [Thug] inside visible support. He looked relieved and began haranguing the [Alchemist] inside the shop. She stepped back to argue with him, pointing at the Hob and Soldier. The [Enforcer] cursed and craned his head to see.

The odd duo were talking, staring at a potion and occasionally looking at the [Thug] and at the gang outside. They were clearly aware of something, but how much the [Enforcer] couldn’t say. He’d known…well, Goblins were unpredictable sometime. And he’d never met Antinium. The sight of that Soldier made his skin crawl. But then the [Enforcer] saw the [Thug] reach his breaking point.

Inside the shop, the [Alchemist] was arguing with the man. He, impatient with her, nervous of the two strange creatures, did what came naturally to a man with her. As Octavia Cotton pointed at the magic door he lost his temper and struck her across the face. It was a light blow, but Octavia went stumbling back, clutching at her cheek.

The Hobgoblin and Soldier looked up. For a second, everyone, the gang outside, the [Thug], the [Enforcer] and the [Nightstalker] and [Blackguard] tensed. The Hob looked at Octavia, blinked, and then pointed at the bottle in his claws. The Soldier nodded and they went back to talking. They didn’t move and Octavia raised two placating hands as the [Thug] shouted something at her.

The [Nightstalker] snorted.

“They’re smart at least. Do we really have to watch this no-name [Alchemist] get shaken down or can we—”

The [Nightstalker] broke off, eying the [Enforcer]’s face. The [Blackguard] turned in his chair to eye the Brother as well. The [Enforcer] slowly tugged the hat lower on his head.

“I’m going to stroll closer.”

He stood up. He’d already paid for his food, so he left the table and the Sister of Chell behind. Slowly, the [Enforcer] strolled down the street. Inside the shop, Octavia was placating the [Thug]. And it seemed the Hobgoblin and Soldier had made their decision. He was showing a glowing, green and blue bottle to her and she was nodding.

The [Thug] stepped back, practically trembling with adrenaline as the Hob walked past her to the counter with the [Alchemist]. The Soldier stayed where he was, next to the door. The Hobgoblin turned as he passed the [Thug] and pointed to the bottle. The [Thug] recoiled and snapped something.

The [Enforcer] slowed as he saw the Hobgoblin raise the bottle and smile. It was a toothy, big smile that exposed his teeth. And his crimson eyes widened. He turned back to the counter as the [Thug] backed up. Then he whirled and smashed the glass bottle into the [Thug]’s face.

The sound of the glass breaking was audible from inside the shop. The [Thug] stumbled back, clawing at his face as the potion ran into his cut face. The Hob inspected the man’s face. Then he grabbed the man by the collar.

The [Enforcer] saw a blur of motion. He cursed and accelerated, casually walking towards the group of low-level criminals outside. They were staring into the shop, looking at each other. The [Enforcer] heard a shout from inside.

Numbtongue, wait—”

The next thing the [Enforcer] saw was the body of the [Thug] flying through the boarded up window. He landed on the ground in a shower of wood and splinters, face bleeding. His friends recoiled. The door to Stitchworks slowly opened and the Hobgoblin walked out. He strode over to the [Thug], who was lying on the paving stones. The man tried to get up, gasping, his lungs and chest malfunctioning.  The Hob regarded him. Then he waved at someone in the shop.

“You stay there.”

He turned and stomped on the man’s chest. The [Thug] screamed. His friends grabbed their weapons. And the Hobgoblin turned around. Fourteen Humans surrounded him. They had knives, clubs, a spiked mace, even a sword. He had his bare hands, two potions at his belt, and a small sack at his waist. No weapons. The [Enforcer] sniffed the air and smelled for death. He saw the Hobgoblin grin. And after a second, so did the man.

 

—-

 

There was no point to this fight. No benefit. Numbtongue raised his fists as the shouting Humans surrounded him. They were screaming, asking questions, making threats. As if they hadn’t seen him just throw their friend out Octavia’s window. They were clearly amateurs. When you saw an enemy, you didn’t shout at him. Numbtongue spun.

Instead, you did this. He lunged at the nearest Human, a man, and grabbed his arm. The fellow had a club and recoiled. He tried to yank away, but Numbtongue had his club arm. He raised his other hand to punch. Numbtongue was faster. He hit the man across the nose and heard something crunch. He stumbled back, screaming and Numbtongue took careful aim with his knee.

The crunch was the sound of Numbtongue’s knee hitting the man’s groin. Perhaps the man had had some kind of protective leather cup there. Either way, it was now part of his genitalia. Numbtongue let go of him and the man dropped, clutching at his privates.

Dead gods! He got Blaikil!”

“Get him! It’s one Hob!”

The Humans were screaming at each other. Numbtongue swung around and saw the first one move. He dodged backwards as a knife swung at his stomach and grabbed the arm attached. His claws dug into the skin and whoever was holding the knife screamed and dropped it. That was sloppy. Numbtongue belted the Human woman in the stomach and jumped back as she threw up. He looked for the knife—

And someone slammed into him from the side. The Hobgoblin went tumbling as a huge man stuck him a blow across the face and kicked at him. Numbtongue rolled, sprang to his feet, and grabbed the leg as it hit him in the chest. He growled, and twisted the leg until he heard something go pop.

The scream this time was rewarding. The man fell, clutching his leg. But another swung and Numbtongue felt a spiked club tear across his chest. A tearing pain made him back up, shielding his face. The spikes tore at his arm, and the [Bandit] hollered.

“I’ve got him! Stab the monster! Stab him—”

His friends charged Numbtongue. Six on one. The Hobgoblin fell back, cursing. It wasn’t a good fight. They might be unprepared. They might be lower-level. But there were so many. Why take this fight? Why do it at all?

Octavia had nothing to offer Numbtongue. Nothing he couldn’t buy at another shop. And the trouble of saving her wasn’t worth it. Not to the [Alchemist]. Or the [Enforcer], or [Nightstalker] or gang. It didn’t make sense to them. But it did to Numbtongue.

Sometimes it wasn’t about what someone had to offer. Or about how useful a person was. It wasn’t about value, or cost. If you thought like that, people became numbers. And if you gave people value, what value had Goblins? If that were so, Erin Solstice would never have given a Goblin food. Or asked a Worker’s name.

As the gang swarmed Numbtongue, the door to Stitchworks opened a second time. The men and women closest to the door looked up as it opened a second time. They stared and screamed. The rest turned as a huge shape barreled out of the door.

It had taken Yellow Splatters eight seconds to walk around shop without bumping into anything. Now the Antinium charged. His fist took the man with the spiked club in the face. The man spun—the other three fists lashed out, pummeling the Human. Yellow Splatters turned and his hands grabbed a Human [Thief]. He lifted the screaming man overhead and threw him on the ground.

The gang stared at their friend as he fell. They listened to the sound he made as he landed. He didn’t move. Yellow Splatters looked around and his mandibles opened wide. His deep voice boomed as Numbtongue set himself behind the Antinium.

Flee. Or stand and suffer.

The Humans wavered. They looked up at him. A giant, a black-brown insect from the nightmares of Rhir. A Soldier. And behind him, a monster with glowing red eyes that grinned.

Goblins and Antinium really didn’t count cost. Erin had never counted the cost of kindness. You did what you did. And that usually involved hitting things.

Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters charged with a roar that shook the street. Two against thirteen. The Hobgoblin leapt and kicked a man in the chest, ignoring the sword that slashed at his side. His blood hit the street as he and the man fell. The Human reached for the sword—Numbtongue kicked him in the face as hard as he could. The man’s head snapped back and made a gurgling sound. But it wasn’t enough to kill. Numbtongue saw a confusion of legs as he rolled.

Up. He had to get—someone rammed into him from the side, a knife stabbing. Numbtongue felt it hit his gut twice. He sucked in, but the pain wasn’t even registering. And to the woman’s horror, he caught the bloody knife with one claw, ignoring the way it cut his palm. He tightened his grip as she tried to pull away.

“Dull.”

Numbtongue informed her before he put a thumb in her eye. Screaming, the woman let go and Numbtongue tossed the knife aside. Any blade he could grab that hard without losing his fingers was dull. It had still gotten his stomach. The Hobgoblin reached for his belt and saw someone swinging at his chest. He raised an arm and felt the impact as a [Highwayman] hit him with a cudgel. The man gaped and Numbtongue kicked him in the groin as he grabbed a potion. It was a winning tactic.

The Hobgoblin didn’t bother to uncork the vial. He tossed it into his mouth and chomped. Shards of glass splintered, cutting his mouth, but the cuts began to heal as the potion flowed down his mouth. Carefully, looking around, Numbtongue held the shards with his tongue and spat them in the face of the next Human he saw.

This was a fight. This was a fight!  The Humans were everywhere. And though they outnumbered Numbtongue, he was not alone. Behind him, Yellow Splatters had his back to Octavia’s shop. He looked around as six Humans came at him at once. A man stabbed at him with a long-handled knife and the blade sunk into the [Sergeant]’s carapace. A few inches. Then the poor metal snapped.

Casually, Yellow Splatters backhanded the man with one of his four arms. Then he turned as another man charged him with a yell. The Soldier swung left with two arms into a man’s chest and stomach, and then left, hitting a woman across her scarred face and belly. Both Human’s bodies made dull, heavy sounds and their feet left the ground. When they landed they crumpled into heaps.

“[Power Strike]!”

Someone struck Yellow Splatters from behind. This time the Soldier’s carapace cracked as a fellow with brass knuckles delivered two powerful blows into his back. But aside from a green trickle that began to run from the cracked spots, the Soldier barely staggered. The [Brawler] paled as Yellow Splatters turned.

“Five Families save—”

All four of Yellow Splatter’s arms shot out. Two grabbed the [Brawler]’s fists. The other two began battering the man in the face and chest. After five seconds, Yellow Splatters let go. He turned around and the other Humans backed up.

Antinium.

Someone whispered it. The Soldier nodded. He looked at the weapons the street gang held. They were deadly in Celum. A club with spikes, a sword, a few daggers—they were good against Humans. Drakes. Gnolls and Goblins even. But the Antinium had been built for war.

“Come or flee. It makes no difference to me.”

He raised his fists and advanced. The others pulled back. Numbtongue, seeing Yellow Splatters advance slowly, shouted a warning.

Dodge!

The Soldier glanced at him. Then he twisted. Too late—the vial exploded and half of Yellow Splatter’s body was aflame! The Soldier made no sound, but instantly dropped and rolled. But the vial had been sticky oil. The flames refused to go out and the Humans swarmed the Antinium, kicking and beating at him.

Off!

Numbtongue leapt at the nearest one. The man turned and screamed as Numbtongue grabbed his arm, ready to break it. The Hobgoblin twisted and then felt an arm descend around his throat. He twisted—but too late. The man tightened his arm in a chokehold. Numbtongue gasped, staggering forwards and the man shouted.

“I’ve got it! Stab it—stab—”

He shrieked, clutching at arm and letting go of the choke hold. His friends stared at the huge chunk of flesh missing, gushing blood. Numbtongue spat the flesh and grinned with bloody teeth. He turned, head butted the man and heard a nose break again. Then he punched.

One rib. Three. The man gurgled and fell down. Numbtongue looked around as he grabbed Yellow Splatters and hauled him to his feet. The Soldier came up, wiping at the liquid. He clicked and Numbtongue grabbed for his other potion.

“Drink!”

The Antinium grabbed at the vial. Numbtongue whirled. There were…seven Humans left. They backed away as he bared his bloody teeth at them. They had wide eyes and they were panting, despite only having fought for—what, a minute? Less?

They could do this. Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue. Despite the numbers. The Humans weren’t ready for this fight! They might have killed once or twice, but they hadn’t fought in the battles Numbtongue had. They weren’t prepared for his ferocity or his willingness to do anything to win. Or Yellow Splatters’ strength for that matter.

But they did outnumber the two. Only six or seven now, maybe, but Numbtongue knew how this fight worked—he’d been on the other side of it countless times before. One high-level adventurer versus dozens of Goblins. He might cut them down, but if one managed to land a blow, or if he fell, he was dead. He raised his fists, looking around. If they could retreat into Octavia’s shop—grab some more potions—

Then ten more masked Humans ran around the street corner. And they were holding bared blades and clubs. One stopped when he saw Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters, but the man who’d run to grab them screamed.

“That’s them! Get them! Backup’s on the way!”

Seventeen Humans advanced. Nervously, but in concert. Numbtongue growled and Yellow Splatters, the flames still burning, looked about.

“The alchemist’s fire—”

“Back. Backs to the shop.”

The Hobgoblin and Soldier backed up. The Humans chased them. Only two had what looked like throwing weapons. Numbtongue ducked and Yellow Splatters blocked a throwing knife with one arm. It glanced off his armor, and another Human heaved a brick. It shattered on the Antinium’s other arm.

No more alchemist weapons. But some of the Humans were tending to their friends with potions! Numbtongue cursed.

Them!

He pointed. Yellow Splatters didn’t ask questions. The two charged, scattering the Humans before they could revive their friends. Numbtongue grabbed at a potion, twisted an arm out of its socket. Took a fist to the face. He snarled, kicked out, and hit a Human in the groin. It was a woman so she didn’t fall down from that alone. A second kick to the same spot dislocated her hip.

Numbtongue whirled, dodging another knife. He grabbed the arm and swung his elbow as hard as he could into the face that followed when he yanked. He cursed as he looked for Yellow Splatters, twisting out of the way of another Human and throwing him into his friends. This wasn’t how Redfangs fought! They outnumbered their enemies! And Numbtongue hadn’t brought his sword or his guitar.

He felt two—three pairs of hands grab him from behind. Cursing, the Hobgoblin struck backwards, but they were holding him still. And in front of him, a Human with a crossbow was aiming it. Real weapons. Numbtongue struggled as the man sighted, ignoring the peril to his comrades. He aimed at Numbtongue’s stomach—and a Human man standing next to him lifted the bolt out of the bow. The [Crossbowman] gaped—and the [Enforcer] stabbed the tip of the bolt into his chest and twisted.

The hands holding Numbtongue slackened for a moment in surprise. Numbtongue twisted, saw the first Human and leaned over and bit. The screaming woman clutched at her shoulder. The other Humans started back too late. Numbtongue yanked a head down into his knee and turned around. The man who’d stabbed the [Crossbowman] stepped past the downed archer; the crossbow was busted, having been slammed into the man’s chest until both bones and frame broke. He tipped his cap to Numbtongue and smiled.

“Pardon me, sirs. Saw you were in a bit of a scrap. And I’m afraid my fellows wouldn’t forgive me letting this rude lot go.”

So saying, he drew the object at his side and turned. An outraged [Footpad] with a garroting wire staggered back and Numbtongue saw his nose was broken. The [Enforcer] adjusted his cap, and then stepped forwards smartly.

He was quick. And as ruthless as any Goblin. The man stomped, broke the screaming [Footpad]’s foot, and knocked him flat with a blow from the leather sap he carried. Numbtongue stared as he turned around.

“Back.”

Numbtongue whirled, and his elbow caught a woman across the head. She went down in a moment. Absently, the Hob grabbed a man and put him in a choke-hold, keeping him in front of the man’s buddies while he watched the mysterious Human set to the people around him. What was he carrying?

A sap. It was a bit of leather filled with something heavy, extending the [Enforcer]’s reach by only a hand’s length. It wasn’t a tool any Goblin would use. But here? On these streets? The [Enforcer]’s hands were almost too quick to see! He was striking people with the sap, multiple times each second, elbow, arm, fingers, jaw—he stepped back as a burly man swung past him with a cleaver. The Brother raised his sap and stepped into the man with the cleaver’s guard.

“[Shatter Blows].”

His sap struck the helpless [Rogue] across the chest, the arm, the face. Numbtongue could hear bones breaking with each strike. The [Rogue] fell down. Numbtongue realized the Human he was holding was unconscious. He let go, ducked a swing, grabbed a leg, yanked up. It was easy to kick the Human on the ground.

Someone came at Numbtongue from behind, but they disappeared. Numbtongue whirled. And Yellow Splatters tossed the Human aside. Numbtongue looked up at the Soldier. And he saw Yellow Splatters turn.

“Cover me.”

And Numbtongue did. The moments blurred together. He stood with his back to Yellow Splatters, shouting.

“Redfang!”

And then it was like how he remembered fighting. The Humans were everywhere. But his friend was at his back. Numbtongue spun, kicking, grabbing for a weapon. A club—he swung it and the wooden club locked with a sword trying to take his chest.

More Humans! Numbtongue didn’t know where they’d come from. Suddenly, there were twenty around him! Yellow Splatters guarded with two arms, swinging with blows that lifted men and women off their feet and put them on the ground. But he was too big a target. Someone threw a bag and vines showered him and Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin fought clear and a mace caught him on the side of the head.

Reeling, he nearly tipped over. The [Brigand] tried to finish him off and a potion exploded in his face. He clutched at his eyes as a Pepperspray potion detonated. More Humans scrambled clear. But there were more of them as Numbtongue got up. Yellow Splatters moved back, guarding the shop as Octavia hurled potions out of her window. Numbtongue swung his club and hit something.

But they were losing? No. Yes. The [Enforcer] spun past him, dodging four people at once, his hat clean. But he’d taken a knife to the side. Numbtongue looked around.

So many Humans. Where did they keep coming from? He looked down at the club in his hands and realized he was bleeding. He felt at his side. An arrow stood out.

“Ow.”

The [Bard] grinned weakly. He looked around. And the Humans were closing in. He looked back at the shop.

Numbtongue!

Yellow Splatters roared as he threw another Human. But he was cornered, his carapace bleeding. Three versus twenty had been done. Three versus thirty was possible. But forty?

Numbtongue looked around. He was surrounded. A [Warrior] with a sword advanced, and Numbtongue saw four more Humans closing around from each side. The Redfang Warrior bared his teeth.

“It’s just one Hob. Kill it.”

Shakily, one of the Humans breathed. Numbtongue looked at him. But it was true. Numbtongue was just a Hob. Not Headscratcher. Not Shorthilt. If he’d had this club—Numbtongue blocked a slash from the [Warrior]. He staggered, slipping. Someone jumped in, stabbed Numbtongue along the shoulder, darted out. The Hobgoblin twisted his head, took a punch from a pair of brass knuckles.

If only I was Headscratcher.  If only he were Pyrite. The other Goblin’s memories surged in his head. He’d fought Eater of Spears. He’d hurt Reiss! He’d stopped Tyrion Veltras. He could have won this fight. With fat. With strength. With skill. He would have seen them coming. The sword flashed at Numbtongue’s face.

Pyrite would have ducked forwards.

Numbtongue knew it. He ducked forwards and the blade flashed over his head. But because he was moving the Human [Warrior] actually ran into him. He tried to bring the sword down, but Numbtongue was under his arms. The Hobgoblin rose, staring at the sword.

Good sword. Pyrite would have taken it. How? Oh—

Another bite. This time down to the bone. Numbtongue felt a wrench as the [Warrior] yanked his arm free, screaming. But he’d loosened his grip on his sword. Numbtongue seized it. He eyed the blade.

Iron. Not too sharp. But decent. What would Pyrite say? Not good. But okay. The [Warrior] grabbed at a dagger. Someone charged Numbtongue. A dagger for his back. And Pyrite—

In the street, a Goblin turned. With one hand, he swung the iron sword in an arc. He brought it down and the hand stabbing towards his back fell on the ground. The Human holding it stared at his stump. Then he clutched at his arm and screamed.

In a dream, Numbtongue stared with interest at the Human. He looked at the sword, impressed. That was a good cut. As good as any Shorthilt could have made. He didn’t know how to do that.

And yet—he did. The Hobgoblin turned, and both of his claws grasped the sword’s hilt. He took a stance. A proper one, not like the self-taught [Warrior]’s fighting style he’d learned as a Redfang. The [Warrior] with the dagger backed up too slow. The Hob slashed his chest, leapt back, twisted, and cut. A second Human lost her hand, this time at the elbow.

The street—slowed. The gang of Humans backed up. Yellow Splatters, shielding his face, bleeding from a dozen injuries as Octavia tried to heal him, saw a Goblin turn. Numbtongue’s face was dreamy. But his sword swung in patterns and arcs, measured, warding his back and sides. And fingers flew. Hands cut down to the bone. Iron sheared through arm. Until the Humans were running.

Numbtongue cast aside the ruined iron blade. The edge was deformed from the last sword strike. A final Human charged him, not realizing her friends were running. She had blood in her eyes—literally. But his memories, both his and Pyrite’s, told him she was a high-level [Fighter]. Her brass knuckles had spikes on them—she’d gotten the [Enforcer]. The Hobgoblin looked down at his torn left arm, exposing sinew. And him.

The [Bard] might have hesitated, grabbed at the sword. But part of him said look. Numbtongue looked. He saw the woman’s muscles moving along her arm, and saw where she’d punch. Numbtongue stepped back, and the tips of the knuckles struck the side of his face. Then he stepped in.

His punch went through the gap in the woman’s guard. She stumbled back and Numbtongue followed it with a left hook. Stumbling, the woman retreated. He advanced, swinging, kicking.

Don’t give her a second! Left hook, kick, elbow, punch, head butt, kick to the chest, punch, punch, punchhe swung a fist and missed. The Human was lying on the ground, her eyes rolled up in her head.

Dead gods.

Someone breathed it behind him. Numbtongue turned. The street was filled with bodies. The [Ruffian] dropped his shiv as Numbtongue looked at him. The Hobgoblin’s eyes burned. The man screamed and ran. Numbtongue caught him halfway across the streets.

“Let me go! Let me go!”

The man was screaming, calling at his friends. Numbtongue turned the man to face him. The man grabbed at his side for something—he stopped when Numbtongue made a fist.

“Who sent them?”

He pointed down the street. The last of the gang was running as the [Enforcer] drank a potion. The [Ruffian]’s eyes were wide, the unkempt man’s face was white.

“You can speak?

Numbtongue shook the man so hard his bones rattled. The Hobgoblin spoke again, impatiently.

“Who. Sent. You?”

“A-Alchemist Quelm! He sent us! He hired us! Go after him!”

“No.”

The [Ruffian] blinked, uncertain. Numbtongue made a fist.

“Tell him if he tries again, we will hurt him. That is a Goblin threat. Understand? See this?”

He waved the fist under the [Ruffian]’s nose. The man was nodding, relieved.

“I’ll tell him. I’ll t—”

Numbtongue aimed at the man’s jaw. He punched the man in the teeth and felt them cut into his fist—and felt six of them break. He shook out his clawed hand, grimacing. Then he picked up the man screaming into what remained of his teeth.

“Goblins don’t make threats. Run.

He let go and the man ran. Numbtongue looked around the street. Amazingly, no Humans had died in the fight. Some were dying, thanks to the blood leaving their body from the stumps of their arms and hands, but no one was dead. Yet. There was a remarkable amount of screaming. Numbtongue wandered back to the shop. Yellow Splatters looked up at Numbtongue as the Hobgoblin walked over.

“Potion.”

“Who—oh, dead gods!

Octavia poked her head out of the shop. She ran back inside and grabbed a bottle, threw it at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin caught it, opened it vaguely, and drank.

“Thanks.”

He looked down and saw a dozen injuries on his body closing. It occurred to him he might have been close to dying of blood-loss. Looking at Yellow Splatters, the Hobgoblin saw the Soldier was in better shape. Well, sort of. Yellow Splatters had been burned and it looked like something had melted through his right shoulder’s armor. He was healing too; the cuts hadn’t gone through his carapace and it was mostly cracked. The Soldier looked at Numbtongue.

“I called you back to the shop. You did not hear me.”

“Sorry. I got a sword.”

The Hobgoblin pointed vaguely at the iron sword laying in the street. The Soldier nodded.

“So I saw. You were impressive with it. A [Bard] is dangerous.”

“Not me. It was—”

The Hobgoblin wavered. He turned his head. Belatedly, nearly fifteen minutes after the fight had begun, he heard a shrill whistle and the marching of boots. Dozens of [Guardsmen] flooded the street, covered in chainmail and leather armor, shields raised, clearly apprehensive. They stopped in horror when they saw the bodies and the Antinium and Hobgoblin.

“Dead gods, it’s a massacre!”

One of the women cried out in horror. A flurry of [Guardsmen] aimed at Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue.

Don’t move!

One of the men with a plumed helmet screamed at Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. The Antinium and Goblin looked at each other. Neither one moved.

It didn’t seem to reassure the [Guards]. They advanced slowly, screaming at the two. One of them took a look at some of the Humans lying on the ground clutching at their limbs and called for healing potions.

“A-arrest the two of them—”

The [Guardsman] with the helmet began uncertainly. Another one stared at Numbtongue and swore.

“Hell to that! Shoot them!”

The arrows tensed as the bowstrings drew back. The Watch Captain inhaled, and Numbtongue, seeing Yellow Splatters tense, reached for his belt. He said one word.

“Stop.”

No one did. They never did. The arrows aimed at Numbtongue and the Watch Captain roared.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! There’s an Antinium and by the Five Families, if there’s war—”

He froze as Numbtongue pulled a scroll out of his belt pouch. The Goblin unfurled it, muttering to himself, and tossed it at the Watch Captain. A bow twanged; an arrow flew and Numbtongue ducked under it. He straightened, and the [Archer] went white as the Hobgoblin glared at him. Then Numbtongue turned to the Watch Captain.

“Read it.”

He waited, arms folded as the Watch Captain shakily picked up the parchment and read it, keeping one eye on Numbtongue. Then he blinked, did a double-take, and began to read again. He looked up.

“That’s impossible.”

The Hobgoblin grinned toothily at him. He raised his voice so all the Humans on the street could hear.

“My name is Numbtongue. A member of the Redfang Goblins. I am a Bronze-rank adventurer. The Humans threatened me and attacked. I defended myself.”

The Humans stared at Numbtongue for a long second. Someone breathed out.

Bullshit.

Numbtongue shrugged.

“They hit my friend. In there.”

He pointed into Octavia’s shop vaguely. All eyes turned to Yellow Splatters. Octavia, breathless, poked her head out the window.

“Oh, stitches. Now you show up?”

The Watch Captain blinked around at her and the Humans on the ground, most of whom had passed out.

“I—this is—”

Quelm did this! He sent his gang to attack the shop! Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters, er, defended me!”

“Defended? That monster killed—there are limbs everywhere!”

“Only six.”

Numbtongue blinked at the [Guardswoman]. She gaped at him and pointed a trembling finger.

“Watch Captain! That thing speaks! It’s a Hobgoblin—a Goblin monster! Just shoot it and—”

Her eyes went to Yellow Splatters and her throat worked soundlessly. The Watch Captain was made of sterner stuff though, if only just. He pointed at Numbtongue.

“You—Goblin. You’re a monster. In our city.”

Numbtongue folded his arms.

“I have a paper proving I’m a person. Where’s yours?”

The Watch Captain hesitated. He stared down at the scroll and hesitated.

“Wall Lord…Guildmistress…Gold-rank…Pisces?

He looked at Numbtongue. Then, nervously, at Yellow Splatters.

“That thing’s an Antinium Soldier, though. It’s—this is war! Isn’t it? It’s under arrest.”

The [Guards] around the Watch Captain looked uneasy. One of them sidled over and whispered.

“Can we do that?”

“How’ll we cuff it?”

Yellow Splatters didn’t give them time to try it. He copied Numbtongue and folded all four arms.

“I am the Prognugator of the Free Antinium’s Hive. Will you try to arrest me?”

He loomed over the Watch Captain. And that was Yellow Splatter’s skill, or Skill. He was able to loom in multiple dimensions, not just vertically, but horizontally as well. The Human [Guards] edged back as they stared up at him. The Watch Captain went white.

Another Prognugator…?”

He looked from Numbtongue to Yellow Splatters. Octavia had disappeared inside her shop. The Watch Captain hesitated, then looked at the bloody street. His expression firmed at last.

“You two. I don’t care if you’re Antinium Prognugators or backed by every Walled City in the world! You just attacked dozens of Celum’s citizens. You are under arrest. Come with us quietly or…we’ll be forced to take you down.”

The City Watch raised their weapons behind him. Numbtongue bared his teeth. He knew they’d die if they fought. Human criminals were one thing, but these ones had proper weapons, even if they looked like half of them would run away screaming. He looked at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium looked at him. Slowly, the [Sergeant] uncrossed his arms and made four fists.

“You may try.”

Celum’s City Watch shuddered. But that was the thing about bluffs, even great ones. Sometimes they didn’t work. The Captain of the City Watch inhaled, his face going dead white. The arrows nocked on the strings—and Erin Solstice walked out of Stitchworks, in front of a very nervous Octavia.

“Hey Numbtongue! I’m here! Sorry it took so oh my god, what happened?

She stopped in the doorway. She looked at the blood on the cobblestones. The severed hand lying at Numbtongue’s feet. The City Watch, whose bows were now aimed at her chest. Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters moved to block them. The Captain of the Watch pointed at her.

“You—that Goblin—and the Antinium and Octavia Cotton are all under arrest.”

“Numbtongue. What happened?”

Erin ignored the man. She looked at Numbtongue, and then narrowed her eyes. The Hobgoblin tried to look innocent. But while his injuries were healed, Erin could hardly miss the blood staining his clothing, or the tears in said clothing. Erin inhaled and then bellowed.

“Alright! Who’s bullying Numbtongue?

She glared around the Hobgoblin at the Captain. He bellowed back, face crimson.

“Your Goblin just killed two dozen of Celum’s citizens!”

At that, Octavia danced around Erin nervously. She shouted at the [Guardsmen]—and the people watching from down the street and the windows.

“They were thugs! Sent to destroy my shop by Quelm! A bunch of criminals! And the Watch didn’t do a thing to stop them!”

“What? No—we didn’t—be quiet!”

The Captain of the Guard roared at Octavia, his face turning from red to pale pink with horror. The [Alchemist] pointed a trembling finger at him.

“He’s taking money from Quelm! The City Watch is being bought out! They didn’t do a thing when those [Rogues] set fire to part of my shop! Or extorted me for money!”

“Be quiet! You’re under arrest! And you’re under arrest! You’re all under arrest!

The Captain of the City Watch pointed from Numbtongue to Yellow Splatters to Octavia. He pointed a fourth time, looking for Erin. But she was missing. The Captain stared around, and then heard Erin’s voice from the inn.

“Hey Relc? Grimalkin? Uh—Maughin and Jelaqua? How do you feel about [Thugs]? Someone mind giving me some backup? I’ll take you too, Keldrass. Not you, Moore. There are a lot of arrows out there. But you’ll do, Senator Errif! Come on!”

The Captain of the Guard might not have known who most of those names were. But he knew trouble when he heard it. He quailed and Numbtongue, looking at Yellow Splatters, saw Octavia sag in relief. The Hobgoblin looked around at the wounded Humans, the staring city, and grinned. It wasn’t Liscor. But it was a city. He looked back over his shoulder as Erin, protective mother with an army of friends, stomped back through the door. And the rest was her story.

 

 

—-

 

Celum was in turmoil. The City Watch was under fire. Erin Solstice, Grimalkin, a [Senator] from Pallass—it was enough to drag Celum’s own [Mayor] out of his bed. And while he would have loved to order his Captain of the Watch to arrest everyone present, especially since a Goblin and Antinium had incapacitated nearly twenty of Celum’s people, there were complications to giving that order.

Firstly, it was apparent that all those injured were some variety of [Thug], [Thief], [Brigand], or so on. Celum’s criminal underbelly, although it hadn’t had much of one until recently. Unfortunately, it had grown substantially bigger thanks to a certain [Alchemist] Quelm, who had, in fact, been threatening his rivals and using the gang to extort money from them.

That was bad. But what was worse was the fact that Celum’s own City Watch had clearly been ignoring or unaware of the gang’s activities, both of which did not look good. And there was no chance of sweeping this under the rug, because a very vocal [Alchemist] was shouting it from the rooftop of her shop.

And the last thing stopping the [Mayor] from arresting everyone was a [Innkeeper] who was leading Pallass’ most important [Blacksmith], a Drake [Mage] capable of wiping out Celum’s entire City Watch, a [Senator] from Pallass, a Gold-rank adventurer, and one of Liscor’s own [Guardsman]. The [Mayor] and Erin were having a screaming match in the street.

“You can’t bring Drake [Guardsmen] and adventurers into this city and start arresting our citizens!”

“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? Watch me! Your City Watch let these guys threaten Octavia, steal money—hey Relc, if you find all that gang and this Quelm guy, I’ll give you free food for a week!”

“Awesome!”

The [Mayor] clutched at his hair.

“You can’t do this! There will be consequences!”

I am the consequences!

The rule of law in Celum was breaking down. But that was another story. For the Goblin and the Antinium Soldier relaxing in the street outside of Stitchworks, their role had ended. Numbtongue was checking himself for more injuries as Yellow Splatter pulled broken bits of metal out of his carapace.

“I will most likely level from this. But this encounter proves how weak I am.”

“Yeah?”

Numbtongue looked up. By his count, Yellow Splatters had downed at least twelve of the Humans here and injured a score more. The Soldier nodded.

“We were overwhelmed by low-level Humans. It is proof we are weak. We are all weak. I am told even Revalantor Klbkch died when fighting a score of small Goblins.”

Numbtongue shrugged. A knife in the belly was a knife in the belly.

“Not enough armor. Too slow. Redscar or Garen could beat all of the Humans. Or maybe Headscratcher with his enchanted axe. Actually, even Headscratcher would probably die alone. Fighting lots of anything is hard.”

“Yes. But we must improve.”

“You’ll level up.”

The Hobgoblin winced as he pulled a bit of wood out of his side. His flesh had healed around the splinter.  He looked up as the [Mayor] stormed off, having lost the shouting match with Erin. Yellow Splatters looked too.

“It appears that Erin Solstice is attempting to resolve the situation on our behalf. That is very convenient.”

“She’s…family.”

The [Bard] looked at Erin. He shook his head. There would be consequences. There always were. But for a moment, with Erin shouting, she could turn a city on its head. He looked at Yellow Splatters after a moment.

“Are you really the Prognugator? Of the…Hive?”

The Soldier paused.

“That was a convenient fact.”

The [Bard] smiled.

“A lie.”

“Perhaps.”

They waited as Erin stomped back towards the shop. Octavia clambered down from her roof to look at the young woman. Erin looked angry, upset—and frightened. She’d looked at Numbtongue when he’d been covered in blood with real fear. Now she rounded on Octavia.

“Thugs? This Quelm dude threatening you? Octavia, why didn’t you tell me this was happening?”

The Stitch-Girl looked down at her hands. She tugged at a string and muttered.

“I—well, I tried, Erin. Remember when I tried to talk to you? But you were busy and I thought the City Watch might handle it, but it all got out of hand too fast. I went to you, Lyonette, Krshia, Ceria, at the start, but no one would listen. And after Ksmvr said no, one of those Humans came by and said that if I went through to your inn again or I tried to inform the Watch again, they’d burn down the shop. With me inside.”

“Oh.”

Erin stared at Octavia. The [Alchemist] grinned weakly.

“Don’t worry. I knew you’d do something if you found out, but those guys—they’re dangerous. There was another [Alchemist] who didn’t listen. Jeffil. They…broke his arms. Stabbed the [Watchman] he hired. I thought if I went to you and they got you…it all worked out, right?”

“Sure. I mean—yeah. I’ll make this right, Octavia. Those guys and this Quelm dude are going to pay. Relc’s on the case! He can beat them all up. I think Embria’s followed him. And Grimalkin.”

Erin waved at the street vaguely. Numbtongue exchanged a glance with Yellow Splatters. One against thirty? The Soldier whispered.

Weak.

Numbtongue just looked at Erin. She was talking to Octavia, looking frustrated, angry—but there was another emotion running underneath it all. It was guilt. She turned to him after a moment.

“Hey Numbtongue, I’m going to fix this. You stay here, okay?”

“Sure.”

The Hobgoblin nodded. The [Innkeeper] smiled at him and then turned and stomped back towards the [Mayor] for round two. He watched her for a second, and then stood up. Yellow Splatters was already on his feet.

“Hey. That’s the Human.”

Numbtongue pointed. Yellow Splatters turned his head and the Soldier started.

“Ah. The ally.”

The Goblin and Soldier walked over to the man standing down the street. He had cleaned the blood from the place he’d been stabbed and he seemed in better condition than Numbtongue or Yellow Splatters. The [Enforcer], who to Numbtongue was just another Human with a hat, tipped his cap as they approached.

“Good scrap, sirs. Pardon the abrupt introduction. I hope I was of some help? I can’t abide by uncivilized sorts. That young lady in the shop doing well?”

He nodded towards Stitchworks. Numbtongue stared blankly at him.

“Octavia? Fine.”

He noticed the [Enforcer] didn’t bat an eye at the way Numbtongue spoke. His eyes did widen a bit when Yellow Splatters turned to him.

“You rendered us assistance during the conflict. For that you have my gratitude. I am Yellow Splatters. Who are you?”

The man shook Yellow Splatter’s hand without a second’s thought. He tipped his hat to Numbtongue, who didn’t hold his hand out to shake. The [Enforcer]’s smile was genial. And reserved.

“You can call me a serendipitous friend. We don’t do in names, us that work in this line of business.”

“What line?”

“The same as those poor fools you and I scrapped with.”

The man nodded to the street. Some of the Humans were still there, although the City Watch had put them in cuffs. For some it was a cuff too many; their limbs had healed, but the severed digits and hands were gone. A consequence of using a potion too early. Numbtongue frowned at the man.

“You’re a criminal.”

“A criminal?”

Yellow Splatters instantly loomed over the [Enforcer]. His fists clenched. The man looked up to him and his hat twitched on his head.

“I’ve committed no crimes in Celum, sir, and none that come with any bothersome bounties or crimes you’d know of, such as it were. I’m just a visitor to the city, like you good gents. In fact, I came here looking for answers to a spot of bother some of my associates had the other month.”

“…I do not understand.”

Yellow Splatters frowned, stepping back from the [Enforcer]. The twisted language made little sense to Numbtongue as well, but he understood vaguely what the man was hinting at.

“You’re looking for more friends. Who are also thieves.”

“Not for my…acquaintances, sir. I believe I know what became of them. Rather, I would like to know how they ended up that way. And I think you might be just the fellow I’m looking for.”

The [Enforcer] tipped his hat to Numbtongue politely. The action was…familiar. In a way that bothered the Goblin a lot. He frowned at the [Enforcer]. The sap was hidden as well, but that too triggered a memory now that Numbtongue was out of the battle.

“Why me? Who are you friends?”

“I don’t know that they gave names. But did you by any chance run into a…unpleasant meeting with some people oh, a while back? During that business with the siege of Liscor. Before the Goblin Lord. Some men. Three. Humans. Like me. All with caps, unless the business truly got nasty in the end.”

Numbtongue paused. He’d met lots of Humans. But now he was certain. The [Enforcer] stared at him. And the slight smile on his face…

“Perhaps this might jog your memory.”

He began to hum. And from his lips, Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters heard a faint tune. A quiet, rhyme. A children’s song.

 

“The night’s been long and the bodies are wet,

But don’t you fret; be quick and ain’t not a guard who’ll be upset

The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds,

The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”

 

And Numbtongue remembered. The man with the cudgel. The thieves who’d taken Erin’s door. The [Enforcer] winked.

“Jog a memory, perchance?”

“I…”

The Hobgoblin hesitated. This was something else unfamiliar to him. He looked for Erin, but she was still hollering in the middle of the street. And when he looked back, the [Enforcer] had stepped close. Too close.

“I’ve just a question. Sir. How’d it happen that you should cross paths with my brothers? And what terrible twist led you to kill them?”

“Numbtongue?”

Yellow Splatters was staring at the [Enforcer] cautiously. But he was behind the man and Numbtongue—the Hob’s hairs all stood up on end. Pyrite’s memories that had melded with his during the battle were screaming at him.

That sap can break all of your bones in a moment. His [Shatter Blows] Skill is probably recharged. The sap and his hands are so quick he’ll kill me in a moment. It’s something Humans developed for cities. On a battlefield you could kill him. Here—do you lie or tell the truth?

Maybe the [Enforcer] sensed what was on Numbtongue’s mind. One hand tipped the cap. The other hovered on the hilt of the sap.

“In case you were wondering why I’m so insistent…I’ve a Skill. [Grudgescent Terrier], sir. I can see the deaths of my associates on you. So I’ve a question. No unpleasantness for now. Truth is its own reward. Do not lie. Please.”

Numbtongue wavered for only a moment. Then he nodded.

“I killed them…”

The [Enforcer] listened to the short description of the fight. His eyes flickered when Numbtongue talked about the last name’s salute and the nursery rhyme. But all he did when Numbtongue was done was sigh.

“So you had no idea this group was coming your way. You simply saw the boats—and the door that you knew they’d no right to—and made your call. Simply done, sir. Simply done. But it brings up more questions for me, sad to say.”

He stepped back, pondering, and Yellow Splatters moved next to Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin saw two more figures approaching them down the street. A woman and…no, was it just her? She was beautiful as Humans went he supposed, and the scar was very pretty. Any female Redfang would want that. But her eyes struck him as predatory. Dangerous. And she had two blades in her sleeves.

“So this is the one.”

“The gent says he ran into our groups on the way out of the Floodplains. He recognized the door, but how our teams ran into him and apparently an entire tribe of battle-ready Goblins is the real question.”

The [Enforcer] informed the [Nightstalker]. She bared her teeth.

“A Hob and some Goblins killed an entire group and your three?”

“Apparently he’s better in a scrap when he’s armed. And there were…a few hundred of his lot. Now, why weren’t our groups warned that some very expert Goblins were in the area, hm? I think that’s the real question.”

The [Enforcer] smiled, but when he lifted his hat, his eyes were bleak. Numbtongue looked at the [Nightstalker]. The woman eyed him and spat.

“Are you from one of the gangs, Hob?”

“Gangs?”

“He’s a tribe Goblin.”

The [Enforcer] replied drily. Numbtongue looked at him and the [Nightstalker] growled.

“I wasn’t asking you. Step off.”

She made a dangerous motion. The [Enforcer] eyed her, but stepped back. The Sister of Chell advanced.

“You, Goblin. Answer my questions or you’re dead. Got it?”

Yellow Splatters lowered one of his hands. The Sister of Chell stopped and her stilettos flicked into her hands. Numbtongue saw a man—he blinked, frowning. There was someone else here. He narrowed his eyes at…Yellow Splatters was also turning his head, but he addressed the woman succinctly.

“Attack this Goblin and you will die.”

“Really?”

The [Nightstalker] glared up at the Soldier, but warily. She looked at Numbtongue and then jabbed a finger at him past Yellow Splatters.

“Who hired you to take out the Sisters of Chell? Was it the Plague Mage? Someone else? Who told you about the heist?”

“Who? What’s a heist? I just saw Humans stealing the door. So I killed them.”

Numbtongue was regretting it a bit now. It was impulsive, but when he’d seen Liscor on alert and the Humans running off with Erin’s door, he was sure they’d been up to no good. The [Nightstalker] glared at him. She looked at the [Enforcer] and he spread his hands.

“The story checks out. The Hobgoblin’s innocent, Miss. As far as I’m concerned. The question is whether this was bad intelligence, or deliberate.”

“It doesn’t matter either way. Someone’s paying for this. And that includes him.

The stiletto jabbed at Numbtongue. Yellow Splatters had had enough. He grabbed the hand—

And suddenly the other stiletto was sticking out his chest. Numbtongue began to shout, but the [Enforcer] leapt forwards. He caught the black shadow of a man before he swept the shortsword towards Numbtongue’s head. The [Nightstalker] recoiled as another of Yellow Splatter’s hands gripped her throat. She stared at the Antinium as the [Blackguard] held very still. He and the [Enforcer] had locked eyes and Numbtongue was crouched, ready to attack.

“Easy, gentlemen. Lady. Let’s all back off. Slowly. The good folk aren’t more than a few dozen feet away. And I don’t think I’d like to outrun a Gold-rank adventurer and whomever else is in that group. Would you?”

The [Enforcer] addressed the [Nightstalker]. She hesitated. Yellow Splatter’s hand was around her throat, but it could have been a scarf for all she cared. What really seemed to bother her was that the Antinium kept the hand there after ten more seconds had passed. Her eyes swiveled to Yellow Splatters. With one of his free hands, the Antinium slowly pulled the stiletto out of his chest.

“Poison is useless against the Antinium.”

The woman’s eyes widened. She looked at the [Enforcer] and nodded slowly.

“Fine. Let go of me and him and we’ll go. For now.”

The [Enforcer] considered the offer. Then he looked at Yellow Splatters and Numbtongue.

“Best you’re going to get I’m afraid, lads. And if you were thinking of making this unpleasant…the Sisters won’t look kindly on having one of their own die on investigation. Whatsoever the cause.”

Yellow Splatters considered this. He slowly let go and the [Enforcer] did likewise. The woman and man stepped back and Numbtongue narrowed his eyes as the man vanished from Numbtongue’s immediate perception of the area. But the Goblin was now marking his general location.

“This isn’t over.”

The [Nightstalker] warned Numbtongue and the [Enforcer]. The Human man sighed, as if disappointed.

“And after you gave your word? That’s hardly polite. I say, wait until you know more of the picture. Time to visit Liscor and ask about. There’s a scene there, even if it’s foreign. As for you, sir…”

He turned to Numbtongue and regarded him.

“I’d like to believe it was all chance on your end. In which case, the Brothers won’t hold much of a grudge. But there’s always debts to be settled, sir. I’ll make my report fair as I can.”

“Thanks?”

Numbtongue had no idea what was going on. He looked at the woman as she grabbed her other stiletto and walked backwards. She was easier to understand. She was going to try and kill him. She confirmed this by pointing at Numbtongue’s chest.

“The Sisters of Chell don’t play games of chivalry. You are marked.”

“The Antinium protect him. Remember that.”

Yellow Splatters raised all four arms. Numbtongue saw the black man warily stepping between him and the Sister of Chell. The two retreated, never taking their eyes off Numbtongue. The [Enforcer] just sighed.

“Time was it was easier to deal with situations. No Goblins, just good, old-fashioned backstabbing. Not that I blame you, sir. You answered me truthfully, or my Skills would have told me so.”

“You know Goblins. You said I’m a tribal Goblin. Are there Goblins in cities?”

Numbtongue couldn’t believe it. Goblins lived in cities? Garen had said he was the only one! The [Enforcer] hesitated.

“My…association doesn’t work with Goblins or non-Humans as a rule. But I’ve heard and seen it done.”

“There are Goblins? Working with you?

Numbtongue said it again. The [Enforcer]’s smile was wide and secretive. He tapped his nose and then tugged his cap.

“There’s a world unseen, gents. In the cities of the north, there’s places no upstanding citizen knows of. And while we ain’t quite as dangerous as the Antinium or a Goblin Lord…well, we’ll be about. Some of our folk died and we want to know why. Simple as that. You’re the one who killed them, sir. But it seems they were set up, or they ran into you by chance. And I’m not sure I believe in chances.”

He nodded at Numbtongue. The Goblin nodded. Yellow Splatters stared at the [Enforcer].

“Who are you?”

“A serendipitous sort. A friend of the quiet folk. Never you mind, Antinium Soldier sir. It’s not the sort of thing a fine sort like you’d ever run across. At least, so I thought until now. If we met again, let’s all have a drink. I’d hate to meet in less happy ways.”

The [Enforcer] tipped his hat. He stepped back, and walked towards the crowd of people. Numbtongue followed him with his eyes as the man slipped into the milling Humans.

And like that, they were gone. And though Celum was overturned by any number of significant events, largely involving an [Innkeeper] upsetting the rule of law, the two, no, three individuals that Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters had met were nowhere to be seen.

 

—-

 

That night, Erin gathered Numbtongue, Lyonette, and Mrsha to discuss what had happened. The common room of The Wandering Inn was still packed and the magic door was connected to Pallass via portal. No one would stand to have it connected to Celum at the moment, which was why Octavia was standing with the four, looking nervous and withdrawn. Tired. She wasn’t as chatty as she had been, and Erin was being…kind to the [Alchemist].

“Celum’s hopping mad, guys. Mostly at the City Watch, but I guess sort of at Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters. At least, the City Watch is. But he’s an adventurer and those were bad guys he uh, dismembered.”

“You mean, disarmed.”

Lyonette frowned. Numbtongue snorted into his cup and Mrsha looked from Erin’s suddenly blank face to Numbtongue’s and Lyonette’s. There was a pause, and then Octavia burst out laughing, which made everyone else but Mrsha laugh as well.

“Lyonette! That’s terrible!”

“Sorry. I just thought—”

The [Princess] laughed and Numbtongue, snorting out ale through his nose, coughed. When he had wiped it with a handkerchief, Erin signaled them all towards seriousness. Mrsha folded her arms, not amused at the adult’s hilarity.

“Seriously, though. Octavia’s shop is sort of um…damaged. I mean, it already was, which was sort of my fault—but the thugs took money from her and did all sorts of stuff. And she used a lot of potions by throwing it at them during the fight. We need to pay her back.”

Erin nodded at Octavia. The Stitch-Girl looked up at the word ‘pay’, but she shook her head when Erin finished.

“It’s okay. I had it coming. I did start it with Quelm. And I’ve learned my lesson. I’m…I guess goodwill’s more important than gold. If it wasn’t for Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters, I’d have lost everything.”

She smiled at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin peered at her and looked at Erin. This was not the fast-talking [Alchemist] he remembered. She looked deflated. Erin met his eyes and nodded, concerned.

“Everybody’s at fault. Maybe us more than anyone because we didn’t listen. Then again…Ceria says she’d have been in trouble with the Horns if they fought forty guys. How’d you survive that, Numbtongue?”

“Potions. Yellow Splatter. Good memories.”

And an [Enforcer]. But Numbtongue didn’t say that out loud. Erin nodded.

“We’ll make it right, Octavia. I promise. We’ve…I’ve been bad to you. Even if you do try to sell a lot. To make it up, Ksmvr’s volunteered to stand guard in the shop tonight with the door open. If anyone comes to make trouble from that old gang, he’ll call us. And you’ll sleep in the inn. Okay? Our third floor’s rebuilt.”

She pointed upstairs. Everyone else looked up. Numbtongue blinked.

“It is?”

“Yup! So Octavia, sit down. Have a drink. Have you met Xif? He’s a cool cat. I mean, Gnoll.”

Erin gently ushered Octavia to a seat. The [Alchemist] girl sat, and soon Erin had the old Gnoll who smelled like weird stuff talking to her. Lyonette, Mrsha, and Numbtongue watched.

“I feel awful. Octavia didn’t deserve that. Or rather, most of it. I think they really did threaten her. Maybe with fire. Stitch-People are terrified of burning.”

Lyonette confided in Numbtongue. He nodded, his eyes on the [Alchemist]. He understood the gang wanting to steal from her, at least. Her shop was so valuable. The potions Octavia had made had saved him and Yellow Splatters. He thought about how hard it was for a Goblin to get even a single potion.

And then Numbtongue heard a voice in the milling crowd. Mainly because it mentioned his name. He looked around and saw Keldrass, one of the Drakes, speaking to the adventurers around him. The Pallassian adventurer looked disgruntled as he argued with Bevussa, Jelaqua, and some of the others.

“I’m not saying it was wrong to destroy a gang. But how can Celum—or any city, Liscor or Celum or Pallass—allow a single Human to throw laws out the window as it pleases her?”

“You’re telling me you object to Erin storming in there and helping arrest that crooked [Alchemist], Keldrass? Really? It’s idiots like him that create monopolies on potions and make adventurers like us pay twice or three times what we have to along with everyone else! Or have you not been to any city besides Pallass?”

Jelaqua was arguing with Keldrass in a Raskghar’s body, much to the displeasure of most of the Gnolls in the room. She folded her arms below her breasts and looked down at Keldrass, much to his displeasure. The Drake hissed in frustration, his tail lashing.

“I’m not saying that. I’m saying the way she went about it was wrong. Or don’t you think she did that just to protect her pet Goblin and Antinium Soldier?”

Numbtongue’s eyed locked on Keldrass. The Drake glared around. Jelaqua opened her mouth to respond, and Bevussa saw Numbtongue incoming. The Hobgoblin walked towards the adventurers and the Garuda groaned.

“Oh, Ancestors.”

The Hobgoblin strode towards Keldrass and the adventurers went quiet. And in accordance with silence-theory, so did a good portion of the inn. Erin turned around from Octavia and Xif, and swore. She stood up, but Numbtongue was already confronting the Drake.

As before, now again. Keldrass shifted, one claw moving to his side and Numbtongue saw the mace hanging there. Keldrass was wearing the armor one of the Raskghar had been using—a powerful magical set. And he could breathe fire. But it was words he spat at Numbtongue, sharp and cruel.

“What, Goblin? I’m speaking the truth. You walked into a sovereign city, a Human one, true, and massacred two dozen Humans with an Antinium Soldier. Explain to me why that’s acceptable.”

“I didn’t kill any of them. And they were criminals. If adventurers did it—”

Keldrass snorted a plume of fire.

“If adventurers did it, my team or a Human one, we’d be arrested! You were only spared thanks to one Human. Her. I’m not saying destroying organized crime was wrong. But I am against one Human subverting the rule of law! That is not how government works!”

He pointed angrily at Erin. She stuck her tongue out at him as she joined the standoff. Numbtongue clenched his fists, searching for the right words. It was hard! He didn’t know what to say. He was barely six years old. He was a warrior; he didn’t know how to talk to Keldrass, or even understand the nuance of the Drake’s arguments for all he understood the words!

But perhaps someone did. In his head, Numbtongue reached for a second voice, as he had in battle. It was not him. But it was. And the memories had been given for him to use. And while he feared, resented, and was confused by them, a dead Goblin’s memories—he could do what Numbtongue could not.

Maybe only Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha noticed the change. And Yellow Splatters. It was slight. A shift of posture. The difference in the intonation of voice. Numbtongue had always been erudite, if reluctant to show it. And he was no less so. But the inflection was off. Still, you had to know him to recognize the difference. The [Bard] rumbled in his chest.

“Hm. And it works very well already? You have [Thugs]. Gangs. It’s good to have them because the law is there? Better to have laws than justice?”

Keldrass blinked, and then flushed. Jelaqua looked delighted and gave Numbtongue a thumbs-up.

“That’s not what I meant. I’m just saying that Erin—she rescued you because you were connected to her! She cannot interfere and command other people above her rank just because of personal…attachments!”

Numbtongue folded his arms. He set himself with a wider stance, as if he’d suddenly gained weight and needed to brace himself.

“I see. Like the Gnolls and Raskghar? Terrible for her to interfere.”

A ripple of motion ran around the room. Bevussa smiled. Keldrass’ scales turned even redder.

“Don’t twist my words. That was monsters!”

Numbtongue nodded heavily. He grunted.

“And those Humans were monsters. Your point?”

Erin looked up at the [Bard] in awe. Keldrass opened his mouth, saw Bevussa shaking her head at him, and turned around.

“I refuse to argue with a Goblin. I’m stating my opinion. I’m trying to support the system that keeps Drake society running!”

He appealed to his fellow Drakes, who nodded. Numbtongue eyed the room and waggled an ear. His cadence became even more broken up.

“Don’t want to argue with Goblins. Mm. Because Goblins are stupid? Smelly? Monsters? Animals? Or because you’ll lose?”

Keldrass whirled around. He took a deep breath and noticed Erin staring at him. Erin, who sold acid jars. And who controlled the door that connected his home city to hers. And Lasica and Rufelt, the famed duo who ran the very popular inn he might want to visit with his team. And Xif, the best [Alchemist] who sold potions in the city. And Maughin. He hesitated and everyone could see him choosing his words carefully.

“Some Goblins are…friendly. I’ll grant you that. Even intelligent. But that Drake earlier wasn’t wrong. Goblins killed his family. Why shouldn’t he be wary? Goblins as a whole can’t be reasoned with. The Goblin King—I’ll grant you that you’re safe. Beneficial even. Yes, you were right to defend an [Alchemist]. Happy?”

He exhaled hard, his eye twitching as he glared at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin just shook his head.

“I’m fine.”

“That’s right. I said you’re not a threat to people. What more do you want?”

Numbtongue fixed Keldrass with an old look. A deep one.

“To be treated like a person. Not an animal.”

The Drake opened his mouth. Numbtongue rolled on, his voice deeper, contemplative. With the words of a Goblin who used them seldom. But had thought over this argument the many years he’d been alive.

“You. Keldrass. You say this Goblin is good. This Goblin is safe. Because Erin Solstice…tamed him? Because this Goblin learned? But other Goblins, wild Goblins, you can’t trust them. You have to find good ones. Train them. Like animals. Like a pet.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Not directly. But you said it to my face. So did the last Drake. What makes you a person and me an animal? Red eyes? Teeth?”

Numbtongue smiled. And his teeth were sharp, pointed. But Keldrass’ scowl hid teeth no less sharp. Numbtongue looked around the inn. He turned. And a dead Goblin’s words came to life.

“What makes a Goblin a monster? That they kill? Gnolls kill Drakes. Drakes kill Gnolls. Humans kill both. That we make war? Drakes make war. That our King destroys? The King of Destruction destroys. What is the thing that makes Goblins monsters?”

“The fact that you have no civility. No laws! No order! You build nothing—you copy and destroy! That’s all Goblins have ever done! All they do!”

Keldrass snapped at Numbtongue. Pyrite looked at him and the Gold-rank adventurer hesitated. There was a look in the crimson depths. Slowly, Pyrite reached into the satchel by his side. He felt around in it, speaking as he did.

“You say we are not civil. I say, good evening. Good night. Hello, Adventurer Keldrass. I am Pyr—Numbtongue. How do you do? By sword and bell, I raise my blade. By the walls, I salute you! On this grass I walk, I offer peace-bound friendship!”

Behind the Goblin, Pisces sat up in his chair. The Drakes from Pallass looked up, and jaws dropped. The Plains Gnolls’ eyes bulged. And the Hob went on. The bag clinked as he found what he was looking for and smiled.

“Goblins have no laws? We have the ones that matter. The Chieftain leads. Goblins should not kill Goblins. We have no books. And we have no [Guards]. We guard ourselves. Perhaps that is silly. But it works. We have order. It goes like this. One Goblin leads, and the others follow. As [Kings] rule, Goblins do too. But no one watches Goblins, so how would you know? And as for building…”

He paused and looked around. The inn was silent, watching, unsure. Pyrite shrugged.

“I do not build. But I find. I mine. Once, there was a Goblin who loved treasures. And he taught himself to find them in the mountain. For fun.”

Slowly, he withdrew the object he’d grasped. Keldrass gasped along with everyone around him. A gold nugget rested in Pyrite’s palm. He regarded it idly, and looked around. The glitter of the metal caught every eye. Gold. But Pyrite tossed it up and down. Jelaqua’s voice was strangled.

“Hold on. Numbtongue, where’d you get—”

“He—I—found it. Mined it from a mountain. From Rockmites and stone. Do you like it?”

“Um…yes?”

The Goblin smiled.

“Want it?”

He held the nugget out. Keldrass stared and his claws twitched. So did Jelaqua; Pyrite had held it out between her, Bevussa, and the Drake. All three adventurers reached for it at once, and Pyrite pulled the nugget back. He spoke again, tossing the heavy orb up and down. Hypnotizing the crowd.

“Once. There was a Goblin. He liked shiny things. Gold. Gems. Mana stones. They glittered and he found a way to mine them. They were his. He went into caves with monsters and got them. He mined them. If he was a Drake, they would say ‘that is his treasure’. But adventurers did not think so. They saw he had treasure and they tried to kill him for it.”

He looked around.

“Was that fair? They did not mine it. They did not earn it. They tried to kill him for it. And they killed his tribe. They hunted him. They built nothing. They only destroyed. That was all they ever did.”

“That’s—different. They—we’re adventurers. We hunt monsters. If you had a hoard, they would target you.”

Keldrass sounded as though he wasn’t certain of himself. He stared at the gold as Pyrite tossed it up and down. The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“And if I was a person, I would call them [Thieves]. But a Goblin is a Goblin. A Goblin is a monster. An animal. It can be tamed. But it is still an animal. Right?”

He looked around the room. Some didn’t meet his eyes. Others did. Like Erin. She mouthed at Numbtongue.

Who are you?

And the Goblin winked at her. Just for a moment. Then he offered the nugget again to Keldrass. The gold glinted in the fading light.

“Want it?”

The Drake hesitated. He looked around the room, warring with himself. But the gold was gold. And Drakes were the children of Dragons.

“Yes. Why? Is it a bribe? A gift? Proof you’re a person?”

His expression said he might say anything to have it, and to be out of the spotlight. Pyrite just grinned a Goblin’s grin.

“Nothing. It’s yours. If you pick it up.”

He tossed the nugget on the floor. It was a decent toss; the nugget rolled a bit, but it was so heavy it actually dented the floorboards. Keldrass started. He looked at Pyrite and then around. Everyone watched him. The Drake considered how much it would cost his image to bend over and pick up the nugget. Then he stiffly walked over. Pyrite waited until the Drake was moving. And then, as Keldrass bent, he spoke one word.

“Fetch.”

The Drake—froze. And so did the room.  Slowly, Keldrass turned. His face was flushed under his scales. He glared at Pyrite, but with a hint of triumph.

“Never.”

The Hobgoblin eyed him silently, then he smiled and shrugged. He looked around the room.

“It’s just gold. Worthless to a Goblin. But anyone who wants it may fetch.”

And with that he walked away. He sat down with a grunt and a sigh, and reached for a hamburger. He lifted it to his lips, and bit once. He smiled with satisfaction—

And then Numbtongue was there. The [Bard] chewed, swallowed, and looked around the room. He indicated the nugget, as Pyrite had done. And there was only silence.

No one moved. The adventurers were frozen. Keldrass, his arms folded, was flushed. He was deliberately not looking at the nugget of gold. Most people weren’t.

Of course, no one else was going to ‘fetch’ it. Pick it up and prove the Goblin’s point? Hah! Okay, he’d mined it. But he was giving it away. And if you thought about what he’d said about thieves…no. No, this was just about the gold. Every eye darted to it. It was definitely gold. If you knew anything about how heavy gold was, and if you’d seen the real stuff…gold. But no one would pick it up. That was out of the question.

Maybe, if no one was looking, someone might stroll over to it and by pure accident, nudge it with a shoe. And why not pick it up then? That damn Goblin wasn’t ordering them. It was just money, and who didn’t like that? If no one was watching. But Numbtongue was staring at all of them, with a sneer for a smile. Pieces would have been hard to outdo him at this moment.

Slowly, everyone turned back to what they were doing. Ignoring the gold on the ground. The Goblin was still there. Still watching. But so what? He’d give up and go away. In a few minutes. When he saw no one was going to pick it up. In an hour, even. They could wait hours to prove him wrong. They were people. And he was just…a talented miner. That was a useful skill, wasn’t it? Did he have a class? Did he have more gold in that bag of his? No, no. That would be theft. From a monster?

He’d go away. And when he did…‘accidents’ could happen and no one would have to own up to it. Everyone was sure on that point. Completely sure. They’d just sit there and talk…one of the Drakes looked over at his companion, a Dullahan.

“So…how’s that pizza?”

The Dullahan quickly turned his head on his shoulders.

“Fine. It is good pizza.”

“Right, right.”

The inn murmured agreement. No one was watching the nugget. They were talking about proper people-things. And the Goblin was going to get bored. They relaxed, realizing everyone was on the same wavelength. And then everyone saw it.

A complication. She was small, furry, and white. She was also a Gnoll. Mrsha was padding along the edge of the room, having born witness to Pyrite’s speech and his offer of free gold nuggets to anyone who picked it up. She was the one person moving in the tableau of a room. And suddenly, everyone was staring at her.

They all stared at Mrsha. The white Gnoll was innocently slinking from table to person to chair, towards the lovely, shiny, and most of all, round nugget lying on the floor. She had an innocent look on her face that fooled no one, not even Pawn, Yellow Splatters, and Ksmvr. Mrsha had a target. She was a Gnoll of the Stone Spears tribe and she knew the worth of a good mineral.

The future was open to the crowded room. They could all see it, as if they’d all become Gazers. If no one acted, Mrsha was going to grab the gold nugget and run off. And it would be hers. And well…what a waste.

“That’s solid gold. Pure too, if I’m any guess. Might be worth ten gold pieces. More?”

The person to break the thoughtful silence was a Human. Earlia, captain of Gemhammer. She was a former [Miner] and she knew gold. She eyed the nugget and everyone considered that number. It wasn’t a small amount. Okay, some in the room were rich. Others were not. Adventurers could always use more money. So could poor, hardworking [Senators]. And [Shopkeepers]. And a [Bartender] could buy a nice stool with ten gold pieces.

The gold had a luster of its own. The adventurer nodded slowly.

“It’d be a shame not to pick it up. Hey. Blaik, you go for it.”

Earlia turned to one of her team. The brawny Human adventurer hesitated.

“What, me? I’m not a pet.”

“No, you’re my subordinate. Go pick it up.”

“Why don’t you, Captain?”

“Well…”

Earlia hesitated. Some people in the inn were clearly less preoccupied with Numbtongue’s taunt than, say, the attraction of free gold. Pisces for one. He was slowly sliding towards the gold at roughly Mrsha’s pace. But now Earlia and the others saw the problem. Well, if they went for it, then the others would too. She casually took a sip from her empty mug.

“Maybe I might.”

Errif, not to be confused with Elirr, who was having a drink at the bar, gulped. The Head of Pallass’ [Merchant]’s guild spoke slowly.

“You know, I would wager that’s eight gold pieces’ worth of pure gold in that nugget…fourteen if you find a [Mage] or [Alchemist] in need of gold as a component. Just so we’re clear, yes?”

He looked around the room. Speculative eyes stared at the nugget. Mrsha, who’d been creeping up on it all this time, noticed the stares. She looked up, hesitated, and with uncanny intuition and restraint, decided this was not, in fact, worth it. She slunk back to Erin. The [Innkeeper], laughing quietly, scooped her up. Erin looked around and then shouted.

My precious!

Fourteen Gnolls, half the Drakes in the room, Pisces, Ceria, Relc, and Lyonette all went for the nugget. The scramble was so intense that Erin ducked back as tables and chairs went flying. She hollered as she carried Mrsha to safety.

“I’m gonna have to test my new Skill now! Hey! No magic! I said, no magic!

In the end it was Earlia who emerged, panting, from the mess. She’d been fastest, and she sat down at a table, nursing a swollen lip and two bruises. She plonked the nugget on the table in front of the other adventurers. Jelaqua, who’d been too busy sitting with Maughin and Bevussa, who wasn’t that desperate, looked up. The former [Miner] grinned.

“Woof.”

She sat down with the Gold-ranks. Across the inn, Numbtongue was happily sitting with Yellow Splatters and Mrsha and Erin and Octavia, his back straight and proud. He might not be allowed in Liscor, or Celum, but he’d won something and all the adventurers sensed it. Keldrass stomped over to the table and sat down. No one said a word. Earlia tapped the gold nugget with a spoon and listened to the sound it made. Then she looked up.

“Have you ever heard of it? The Golden Goblin?”

“What?”

The Pallassian adventurers sitting around the table gave her a blank look.  Jelaqua on the other hand frowned. Earlia nodded to her.

“Maybe it’s only in the north. Come to think of it…well, just listen. It was an old urban legend around the Adventurer’s Guilds where I came from. North of Celum a ways, but all over, really. One of those myths adventurers tell, like seeing a Unicorn, you know? Or finding a Dragon’s scale? Anyways. There was a saying that there was a Goblin whose tribe was insanely rich somewhere around the High Passes. People thought the Goblin had uncovered a treasure hoard or maybe looted a bunch of caravans. Either way, that Numbtongue Goblin made me think of it.”

“The Golden Goblin?”

Keldrass snorted dismissively, but every eye flicked towards Numbtongue. Earlia nodded, resting her hand on her chin.

“Yeah. I thought it was a load too. But then…I’m a [Miner], or I was until my group ran into monsters in our shaft. We decided killing monsters was actually safer and more fun than mining. You can run into some nasty stuff down there. But with that said, we only mined in safe spots. Near towns. I hear that if you wander the High Passes, you can find hundreds, thousands of veins as rich as anything in Salazsar.”

“So you’re saying a Goblin could mine? And this Golden Goblin—why didn’t anyone catch him? It? If it had so much wealth.”

Earlia smiled around the table.

“Well, there’s the thing. All the teams who swore they’d met the Golden Goblin said they ‘nearly’ got him. They’d find him mining, or catch his tribe’s trail. But here’s where it becomes a legend, right? Each time they’d nearly catch him, but the Goblin and his tribe would always get away. Rumor was he was loaded with treasure, so a lot of adventurers went after his tribe. But that stopped when they kept dying.”

“How?”

The other teams frowned around the table. Earlia shook her head. She tossed the nugget up and down, as Pyrite had done, eying it thoughtfully.

“He’d always drop some treasure and run off. And the adventurers would scramble to get it and miss the Goblin and his tribe. Sometimes it would be gemstones. Or rare ores, like gold. Always polished, right? And I mean, who wants to tangle with a Hob when you could pick up a gem? Sometimes, though, that would lead to adventurers fighting over the treasure. Even killing each other. Other times it led into traps.”

“Like what?”

Bevussa looked at Numbtongue. Earlia shrugged.

“One time I heard they found a bunch of treasure right below a cliff. It looked like a Goblin had fallen and dropped a ton of gemstones and gold nuggets. The two teams rushed to grab it. And guess what happened?”

“Avalanche?”

“Avalanche, pitfalls, even a bunch of diamonds at the bottom of a Creler’s nest. And it’s not like it happened often enough for people to say it was definitely one Goblin, or even that it wasn’t just a team making up rumors. The Golden Goblin tale would pop up sixty miles north of Celum one day, and then two hundred miles west in nine months. Eventually, the Golden Goblin rumors died out. Plenty of tribes get wiped each year. But no one ever found a hoard.”

The adventurers were silent. Earlia looked around and smiled. Her eyes locked on Numbtongue’s back. The Goblin was explaining something to Erin, who looked amazed. And sad. And Mrsha wondering.

“I’m just repeating a rumor. Anyways, this is good gold. Wonder where he found it. If our team had been this good at mining, we’d never have become adventurers.”

“It’s nothing special. He probably stole it from a monster’s nest.”

Keldrass muttered, slumped in his seat. Bevussa reached out and smacked his shoulder with one wing. She shook her wing arm, grimacing as the magical enchantment on the armor flared to life.

“Oh really? You want to fight Rockmites, Keldrass? Have a thousand of them crawling down your beak? Wander in caves looking for veins? Even with [Dangersense] and [Rock Scent], or some other Skill, that’s a brave Goblin.”

“It changes nothing.”

The Drake sulkily reached for his mug. Jelaqua sighed at last and raised her voice. The oldest adventurer present fixed Keldrass with one eye as all the adventurers looked at her. And remembered who one of the Halfseekers had been.

“Keldrass. Whatever may have passed or not, you just met a Hobgoblin and had a conversation with him. In an inn, with dozens of people watching. Doesn’t that strike you as the least bit odd?”

The Drake hesitated. In the end he said nothing. But it didn’t matter. The story wasn’t about him. As the night wore on, Numbtongue, who’d been smiling and looking happier than anyone could remember seeing him in a long time, stood up. He wandered to the stage in the back of the inn, where the Players of Celum, exhausted after repeat performances, had vacated it. There he pulled up a chair and sat. And the inn watched as the [Bard] got his guitar out and slowly began to tune it.

Numbtongue sat on the stage and looked down at his crowd. They weren’t here for him. Some glared at him. Others shouted for him to get off until Erin threw stuff at them.

It was an unwilling audience. One that hated him, that looked out of morbid curiosity or fear. But so what? He wasn’t going anywhere. The Hobgoblin sat on the stage and looked for the right tune. The right words. And they came to him. Despite him not liking singing, the urge rose.

So he began to play.

 

Have you heard of the greatest Goblin warriors, the Redfang Tribe,

Who lived in the High Passes and ate Eater Goats and Gargoyles just to survive?

 

Across the inn, guests looked up. That was the thing about music. Like it, hate it, it was hard to ignore. Numbtongue strummed, and raised his voice.

 

Our leader was Garen of the Redfang blade,

Who was an adventurer and his team betrayed

He made us and saved us and taught us how to fight,

A traitor maybe, but he did things that were right.

 

Sitting at their table, Moore and Seborn looked up. Jelaqua drank from her mug and looked up. Numbtongue went on, improvising, putting words together.

 

“This is the story of thirteen Redfangs he chose,

Who walked and travelled on no Goblin’s road

He sent us thirteen to kill an innkeeper,

But lost and confused, we didn’t know where to seek her!”

 

Erin spat out her drink onto Mrsha’s head. She looked up. Numbtongue stared off into the distance.

 

“This is the tale of the Goblins who roamed

The Goblins who fought and died until they found home.”

 

It was a ballad of rhymes. Rhymes were easy. Numbtongue barely had to think. All he had to do was remember. At first there had been Esthelm. Quietly, he told the story of a chance encounter. A fight with the Silver Swords. And a girl. A skeleton.

 

“A [Florist] who was more Human than monster (who had impeccable taste)!

And so as not to let her sacrifice go to waste,

Thirteen Goblins fought at Esthelm that day

And only six walked away.”

 

No one knew that story here. No one had heard it told. But they had to hear it. Someone—anyone had to listen. Numbtongue recounted it, the deaths, the names. Grunter, Bitefly, Leftstep…

And on. Of Liscor. Of Bugear, who’d died before meeting Erin, but had died fighting for his brothers. Of the battles there. Face-Eater Moths. Raskghar. Face Stealer. And then the end. Not everyone was listening. But that one [Innkeeper] was, a few Drakes, a Gnoll child—and more listening with one ears, frowning, denying—it didn’t matter. They were listening.

Numbtongue shouted the last refrain.

“They are gone, but I remain!

And he stood up. He didn’t expect applause. And he got it, scattered, a few hand claps. That was all. But that wasn’t the point. The point was the story. Their story. He sat down next to Erin and she wiped her eyes. Pisces, who had been listening, cracked one eye open and looked at Ceria and Yvlon. The two female adventurers were quiet, introspective. He coughed.

“You couldn’t make a play about that.”

“Be quiet.”

Yvlon kicked him hard. He went silent. At their table, Erin turned to Numbtongue.

“What will you call it?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“Needs work.”

And it did. But he had a title already in his head. A song.

The Ballad of the Redfangs.

Erin blew her nose.

“It’s good. But you know…”

“Yes?”

“You don’t have to surrender the stage after one song, Numbtongue. They can’t chase you off. And you don’t have to go. What if you played a song for us? Something we can sing to?”

The Hobgoblin looked at Erin. She smiled at him. And he looked over at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium had been staring at the [Bard]. The [Sergeant] spoke softly.

“The Antinium have no music. Bird sings. But that is all. If you have a song, I would like to hear it. And…sing?”

And Numbtongue’s heart leapt. He stood up and walked back to the stage. Some of the audience groaned. Others shouted that they didn’t want to hear it. And a few looked at Numbtongue and turned their bodies and heads to listen. Only a few. The Goblin had never expected it to be easy.

But he’d remembered why he wanted to be a [Bard]. So he played. At first a song Erin knew and could teach everyone the words to. Then a song he’d created. A riff, with lightning and thunderous chords. And then another song. And another.

And soon it wasn’t that a Goblin was singing a Goblin’s song, but just that he was there. A Goblin [Bard], reminding everyone of the past. Pyrite was in Numbtongue’s head. Not forgotten. And Headscratcher, Shorthilt, all the others, lived on in Numbtongue’s music. They wouldn’t be forgotten. Not yet.

They died. They left us. And we are alone. But we are not gone. Here we are. The guitar sang as Numbtongue stood alone, alone in front of a crowd. But he refused to run. He refused to hide. Here I am. Here we are. We made it. We remain. And we will never let you forget. Here we are. Look at us. See us.

Here we are.

 

—-

 

And then it was done. Numbtongue sat in his room. Dozing off with the sun. His claws hurt, and his throat was sore. But he wasn’t unhappy. He was tired. Oh, so tired. And the sun, usually a good incentive, couldn’t keep him awake. The Goblin nodded as he slowly put his guitar away, and then lay down on his bed. He’d probably wake up after nine hours. Six? Four if he needed to.

It might be hard when he woke up. Hard and unforgiving. But Numbtongue had something now. A friend. A reason to keep going, to stay at the inn. Memories. Today they had helped him. Given him words he couldn’t have come up with himself. The skill to fight—they’d saved his life.

He would have traded all of it to have the Goblin who they belonged to sitting across from him, grunting and chewing on something as he always did. Numbtongue knew Pyrite now, though they had never spoken. He wished Pyrite had been alive to see him on that stage. To meet Erin. Him, Headscratcher, Shorthilt, and all the others. Numbtongue wished, and that was all. But he wasn’t unhappy. Just tired.

He closed his eyes.

 

[Bard Level 30!]

[Conditions Met: Bard → Goblin Soulbard Class!]

[Memory – Pyrite, Flooded Waters Tribe obtained!]

[Skill – A Minute, Reborn obtained!]

[Skill – Ballad of Bravery obtained!]

 

Slowly, Numbtongue opened his eyes.

 

—-

 

A minute later, a Goblin sat in Numbtongue’s room. He felt tired. Physically, his body, at any rate. Intellectually his mind was racing. And fresh! The Goblin looked around experimentally, blinking, and then felt at his body. He knew the body’s name. It’s owner. That was Numbtongue. But he? He was different.

‘Pyrite’ scratched his stomach. He stopped, poked it experimentally, and wondered if a flat stomach and nimble body was better than fat in combat. Then he thought of who he was.

He could remember everything. He was Pyrite. And he was Numbtongue. The gaps between their personalities had disappeared, but also reformed. This wasn’t the confused jumble that Numbtongue had been forced to sort through when Pyrite had died.

This was different. Pyrite felt like himself, although that might be an illusion. More importantly, Pyrite could remember Numbtongue’s memories, but he was sure, in this moment, he was Pyrite. Only, one inclined to help Numbtongue. Well, that was fine. He would have done it anyways.

Wasn’t this confusing? Pyrite frowned and blew out his cheeks. He knew he didn’t have time to waste on puzzling out who was who, though. The Skill’s name had sounded explicit. [A Minute, Reborn]. Well that was a time limit. And an inconvenient one, too.

One minute, so now probably thirty seconds. Pyrite hesitated, and then decided he needed notes. He bent and with Numbtongue’s finger scribbled fast on the floorboards, cutting into it with his nail. Numbtongue didn’t know how to write because he’d never bothered, but he could read this note in case he forgot. There were so many thoughts bouncing around in Pyrite’s head, but he jotted down the most pressing ones as he spoke aloud.

“This class. Is it only for [Bards]? Why did you get it? Because of memory? Was that because so many Goblins died or because I tried? Is this memory here to stay, or does it fade?”

He paused, not too concerned by that. This was fascinating. Experimentally, he flexed one clawed hand and went back to writing.

“Do I remember this or does Numbtongue remembering take over and I am new Pyrite with Numbtongue’s memories any time? Will I make him level up? Can I level up?”

Probably not. But Pyrite wrote it down just in case. He frowned. So many questions!

“Hm. Hmm. Greydath would know. Do I have Skills when I am reborn? Is it possible to make this longer? An hour? A day? Test me in the mountains or elsewhere. I have [Power Strike]—can’t use here. Lastly…”

Ten seconds. Pyrite could feel something tugging him. Yes. His time was coming to a close. And perhaps he could leave if need be. But he could also be called. When he was needed…his mind flashed from thought to thought, and then Pyrite’s eyes widened. With the last seconds, he wrote, scratching deep into the wooden floorboards.

And then he was gone. One second he was there, and then Numbtongue was staring down at his old thumb. He could sense what Pyrite had wanted to write, so he finished it. Then…Pyrite’s perspective, his intentions, faded away in Numbtongue’s mind like an old dream. The Hobgoblin shook. He could remember what Pyrite had done, even the vague intentions, but the exact reasoning and…personality was beyond him.

But the writing was clear. Numbtongue stared at it. Particularly the last lines. They burned so hot in him that his exhaustion disappeared in a moment. He stared down and read slowly, his voice shaking.

“The class is not new. The class is meant for you. Goblins have always had this power. When did we lose it? How?”

We have had this class. It is ours. [Goblin Soulbard]. Goblin. If Goblins have a class, do Humans? Do Drakes? What does it mean? Is it just memories? Is it a thing of [Chieftains]?

Those were Pyrite’s thoughts. But the words below them struck a chord deeper. They rocked Numbtongue to his core. Because they changed his purpose. The reason he was here. Trembling, he touched the scratches in the wood.

“Find the others if they remain. Find our King.”

He looked up. The inn was silent above him as a new day dawned. And the Goblin sat by himself. But he was no longer alone.

Slowly, the pieces of the world began to fall closer into place.

 


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95 thoughts on “Interlude – Numbtongue (Pt.2)

  1. Well, this was a pointless and unfulfilling chapter. Again, Numbtongue’s just one of those characters where nothing seems to happen. He gets sad, mopes, and there is never any satisfying character growth. /s

    …You know what I mean? Seriously though, I will say this: Numbtongue demands a heavy wordcount! Not only is this two chapters instead of one, the second one’s a mega-chapter! Long! Dramatic! Filled with debate!

    I honestly hope I kept it strong near the end. Because strong, or fluid, or whatever the metric for good writing is, is harder when I’m tired. And I had had to catch myself repeating words or making odd sentences when I need the strongest and most persuasive!

    I’m a bit tired. This is probably the latest a chapter’s gone, but it could go later! As I remind you, worst-case is that I have to take a break and publish in 8-10 more hours from now. That’s my backup if all things all through. In this case I knew the chapter would get done! But I didn’t know it would take this long.

    Anyways, hope you enjoy! I’m more confident of this chapter than the last one, which…might mean it’s worse? You didn’t seem to mind the last interlude, so hopefully this one makes your heads explode! Metaphorically. Thanks for reading and let me know what you thought, as always!

    • Speaking for myself, I found it pretty satisfying. Numbtongue’s growing friendship over this and the last chapter made a lot of sense, it felt like he came to a place of clarity in comparison to where he started, and the “Fetch” line had me smiling and laughing and rereading and is one of my all-time favorite moments.

    • Unfullfilling? Hardly!
      It was very interesting to see the problems Numbtongue went through, and his fight for respect. And I love whenever there’s a level up notice and a new skill.
      But then again, the Goblins are probably my favourites.

    • Impressive 🙂

      A very good chapter, again – lately, they seem to happen more often… (must be the fact that we left the King of Destruction behind us for a while).

      Maybe I am a just fan of success-porn where story arcs resolves themselves with a happy and/or meaningful endings, but here I am sitting, smiling and laughing at another entertaining chapter that’s going emotionally deep & fun at the same time – thanks for the happy moments!

    • Numbs music session made me think of the song “The Bard Song” by Blind Guardian, it would have fitted perfectly in the songset (its famed for being hard not to sing along to). Check out the live version on YouTube to see what i mean, fitting in both lyrics and mood 😉

      Ps. keep up the good work.

    • I will say, that sometimes chapters might seem unfulfilling, because they’re outside of the main plot at the time, or there isn’t anything huge happening, or its a smaller side plot (e.g. what was happening to Octavia). But, I think it’s less of an issue (if at all) with your novel, because I know there’s more coming. When you’re reading a paper copy of a book, you know how much is left in the book, and you know that the author is using up a set number of words on something the reader things might be unimportant.

      So here, even if I did feel unfulfilled (I did not, it gives serious character development to both Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters), I know that there is more coming that will either help this fit into a broader context, or just be fulfilling in other ways.

      Regardless, great chapter! Very excited to see what a [Soulbard] can do, and how Numbtongue might play into the larger goblin plots we’ve got right now.

    • I loved this chapter. The development of both Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters was great, and their friendship makes a lot of sense. But seeing Pyrite again was special too. He’s a character I dearly miss. Thank you!

      • A strong story, a moving story. A good one.

        The only thing I’m griping with is Yellow Splatters’ lie. With Ksmvr, it was easy to understand, he is an outfit and learned from Pieces.

        But Splatters had no idea what the humans expected, he is a loyal Soldier and shouldn’t lie.
        If his line were “I’m Yellow Splatters, leader of the Painted Antinium”, then he would be honest and still being awesome.
        But that lie seemed out of character.

    • This was one if my favorite chapters. Not unsatisfying at all. I’ve been imagining Numbtongue saying something like that for ages (to keldrass), and none of it felt out of place or abrupt compared to the main story. I love your writing, so don’t get so hard on yourself. Or do, but bounce back after hearing from happy readers!

    • Pointless? In essence we are dealing with breaking the cycles of hate. Repeating pattens of hystroy and all that, A lot has been place on numbtongue & bards have an unique way though that has to take a step back.
      I wonder if the class calls to him about not wanting people to forget, or that’s what lead him too it. He did act like that before he got it, but yet you have me wondering now with this whole forgetfulness thing. Maybe there is a reason people stopped progressing & stagnated, leaning on the class to do the heavy lifting.

    • There is a difference between being alive, and living. It’s easy to forget that. Thank you, for these chapters that remind me.

  2. Leave a typo for the legend of the Golden Goblin of the High Passes! Yes, I had that planned for a long time.

    (Golden typo-finders: lhans, CarpDM, Aoxz, James Walsh, Weirdo for Life, randomdigits, Vroomba, Tavarous, CarpDM, lnrael, Lhans, Vento, Stephen)

    • Numbtongue innocently walked over to Erin. She looked around suspiciously, but when she heard what she -> he wanted, she nodded after a moment.

    • He looked around and saw Keldrass, one of the Drakes, speaking to the adventurers around her. >>> He looked around and saw Keldrass, one of the Drakes, speaking to the adventurers around him.

    • I think the context you’re missing is the previous paragraph, where Pyrite/Numbtongue uses a number of very formal greetings– ones that look to be associated with Terandria, Drake cities, and Gnoll Tribes. Those specific groups are startled that Numbtongue knew such fancy, “civilized” language.

    • “Backs to the shop.”
      Backs -> Back

      “Who are you friends?”
      you -> your

      “If we met again”
      met -> meet

      “Mrsha folded her arms, not amused at the adult’s hilarity.”
      adult’s -> adults’
      Because many adults are amused
      Possibly also hilarity -> amusement

      “And an [Enforcer]. But Numbtongue didn’t say that out loud.”
      How does Numbtongue know he’s an [Enforcer]?

    • In Chapter 3.30 it was said that Celum does not have elected leaders, and is ruled by a council of [Merchants] and guild leaders. But in this Chapter it is shown that Celum has a [Mayor] as an elected leader.

    • She stared down at her counter it was swimming a bit.
      Missing period? –> She stared down at her counter. It was swimming a bit.

      This wasn’t any tough.
      –> This wasn’t just any tough guy / [Thug]?

      • There are several instances of double-spacing throughout:
        1. Numbtongue nodded. He stared at Yellow Splatters.
        2. Bevussa, Keldrass, Earlia of Gemhammer and Nailren of Kelia’s Pride.
        3. And another stashed under his pillow. Erin had given them to him
        4. The man tried to get up, gasping, his lungs and chest malfunctioning. The Hob regarded him.
        5. This was a fight! The Humans were everywhere.
        6. If only I was Headscratcher. If only he were Pyrite.
        7. His flesh had healed around the splinter. He looked up as the [Mayor] stormed off
        8. And so did the room. Slowly, Keldrass turned.
        9. The Pallassian adventurers sitting around the table gave her a blank look. Jelaqua on the other hand frowned.

  3. soul reborn … Find out king.

    Is our bard going to find the goblin king through memory? On one hand this is something unexpected due to what could happen. On the other… Maybe goblins were just one of the batches made from the north… From the blighted land in an attempt to slay a God… But like the ants they fell, they faltered and then fell as monsters hunted by a world without ever knowing why.

    The fate of the ants should those of licsor fail at making peace.

    On brighter side nice to see our favorite goblin get some respect and for the Octiva to finally get some help and learn the important value of friends over profit. Nice moment none the less and great way to end a chapter for the most part.

  4. This chapter definitely lived up to last chapters hype.
    Seeing Pyrite return in this chapter, first as an embodied memory and then later as himself was truly great.

  5. “Ooh! That’s like chocolate chip ice cream! Hey Lyonette, how’d you make—oh. Ew. Those ain’t raisins.”

    That made me laugh

    Nice to see Numbtounge finally have purpose in the story and I can see him reuniting with Rags and the others. Not sure about reuniting with the goblin in Laken’s group but finding Rags I think is probable. But leaving the inn would likely hurt Erin.

    Erin’s inn needs an area wide aura to protect people/goblins or other races. I could see the inn being built like a fortress/castle and having an aura where different races can build a town around the inn. And the aura would protect everyone around the inn. A united nations of sort I guess where even the Doctor and her crew and stay. With multiple portals around the inn leading to different cities or points of interest. Even one leading to Laken’s Riverfarm.

    • That sort of idea has been tossed around for a long time. But if feel that would be at a minimum level 60 [Magical Innkeeper] with at least another class upgrade

    • I personally dislike that idea. The inn should stay an inn: a place where you can go when you are sad and alone, and you will find good company and good food. A place that brings people together in a casual atmosphere. A place for rest. A place for fun.

      But not a place for politics. All those “towns of “different” races”, United Nations jazz, all of that would kill everything I love about Erin and her Inn. Yes, it should be place where *everyone* can rest and have fun, even most bitter enemies. But no more than that. It should provide opportunities, not actively promote one or another point of view.

      I am not against Erin promoting her point of view, mind you, but inn should first and foremost a place with an atmosphere that allows such things to be spoken openly, and only lastly the place which tries to change the things people speak.

      Final form of a Wandering Inn for me is exactly that: an Inn that “wanders” from door to door in every town on every continent, where weary travelers from everywhere and beyond can get a cup of blue juice, and a cup of acid flies.

      Mmm… acid flies.

  6. God I love that the sheer amount of characters I care deeply about has reached a critical mass where someone I love is usually about to level level and get great skills. And so many of them are now getting close to those epic milestone levels.

  7. Ryoka has really grown on me during her recent chapters, and so I was disappointed when this interlude cut off her getting involved with Laken and co. However, that was a premature reaction, and while I liked the first part, this second one really sold me. It was great pacing, great ending, and yes, it did stay stong through the end!

  8. Of all the story’s long running mysteries, the Goblins’ history is, by far, the one I’m anticipating the most.

    Pirate, I love your story. While I do hope we get years and years more of the Wandering Inn, I also can’t wait to see the closure for a few key points, like this one.

    Anyway, another excelent chapter, as (nearly) always. Cheers!

  9. Good chapter but I have to say Numbtongue in the inn reminded me pretty strongly of a similar discussion that Noears had at the same inn.

  10. I do admit a bit of confusion on the whole nugget thing. I think? the logic is this:
    Numbtounge is trying to gain both personal acceptance, and general acceptance of goblins. Acceptance doesn’t just mean the admission of peacefulness, but that he’s/they’re independent people and not “tamed.”
    To do this he does a few things. He points out Keldrass’s acceptance of him as peaceful isn’t acceptance of him as a person (he’s treated like a tamed animal). He challenges Keldrass to define the differences between Goblins and “People” – and after refuting civility and structure, wants to prove that they’re still no different than others. He does this by using the golden nugget to prove that “people” are as animalistic/as much “pets” as goblins by showing they’ll fetch?
    I think thats what he’s trying to prove at least, but I did have to spend a bit of time walking through the idea in my head before it actually made sense. I’d recommend clarifying it a bit in later editting?

    • I think Pirate’s point was that the role reversal that Pyrite offered to Keldrass was the defining point of their argument and that monster or animals would not have figured out the concept of reasoning the way he did in that example. The reversal was the point. That was why Pyrite was happy and content either way if Keldrass pick it up or not.

      I say Pyrite cuz that’s what the book says. Numbtounge comes back after Pyrite takes a bite from a hamburger.

    • Well for one thing Pyrite was the one who taught Keldras the lesson with the gold. In my opinion Numbtongue doesn’t realize what exactly he wants. He just knows many things are wrong with how the world views goblins and that they need to change. I mean it is a problem that’s been around for thousands of years. The idea that a 6 year old Hobgoblin has a coherent plan to fix it is a bit silly.

    • One of the last points of the nugget, with the whole fetch thing, I think it was to show others how it feels to be treated as an animal. Pyrite drilled that in when Keldrass realized he had to give up his ‘civility’ in order to gain the nugget. It doesn’t help that someone else, a fellow Adventurer for that matter, ended up throwing that ‘civility’ away when she fetched it. Essentially, Pyrite ended up disproving Keldrass’s last statement on Adventurer’s having the right reasons for taking from Goblins/monsters/animals.

  11. Think there’s a bit missing about Octavia. Erin says she threw potions at the thugs during the fight but I can’t find any reference to that.
    Still loved it

  12. Yeaaah! That Antinium alcohol got mentioned again, I thought you forgot all about that random detail from book one. If there are Antinium workers making alcohol does that mean there are Antinium [Brewers]? Erin still has that unused [Alcohol Brewing] skill she never explored, it seems like a story can be told here.

    • There is also the story arc in book one of the expensive and rare alcohol that Ryoka delivered to Magnolia. You know the one made from Blue Fruit.

  13. Unsatisfying– are you kidding? That was amazing!

    At level 40, Numbtongue should gain Garen’s memories. And when that happens, it’ll take a lot more than three mobsters, however polite or rude, to match him.

    • “Fetch.”: an entire paragraph in one word, and one of the best paragraphs in all of TWI.

      TWI started as ‘Slice of Life’ lit, but has evolved into so much more. And yet, Pirateaba still returns to their roots to give us what we love.

      Cheers, Pirateaba!

    • The part where Erin just gollums “My preeecious” and people just rush like animals on a scrap of meat though.

  14. Also, that skill about incorporating some Goblin from the past could be potentially very dangerous, right? It could be that something similar happened to the King, so the Goblin King that died wasn`t really himself, but some other Goblin soul using his body…

    Damn, I really want to reach the solution for this part of the story.

    • I’m not sure if it can be done with anyone other than Pyrite though… at the very least, one of the requierement seems to be the “soul” or the memories of the person… or perhaps not, I guess we’ll see.

  15. A fantastic chapter! Quite fulfilling, full of action and interesting characters. Great dialogue and humor! Keep up the good work!

  16. I want to see a picture of Numbtongue strumming his guitar with the spirits of the Redfangs poking and nudging him like the used to.

    “Speak for us brother”

  17. Holy shit what a fucking fantastic chapter. I feel as if this is one of those masterful chapters I could show to a friend who has no idea of the story to get them hooked and loving it as we do.

    Thanks again for the chapter.

  18. While it is good to know that Numbtongue is doing great, it is time we see how Rags and the rest of her tribe are doing.

    I believe that these may be some hint about how they may be doing:
    1) In Chapter 6.16, Gargoyles are attacking a village near the High Passes.
    2) In Chapter 6.18 H, Monsters from the High Passes like Carn Wolves, Eater Goats and some other, came out.
    3) In Chapter 6.27 M, Ogres have descended and are laying waste to the nearby countryside.
    4) In Chapter 6. 29, the Drake city of Wicess was the subject of a large attack by hungry Griffins, which Klbkch thought to be unusual given their usual hunting territory.

    All these Monsters (maybe except the Ogres?) have in common is that they come from the High Passes, which is the last place that Rags and her tribe were last seen (Interlude – 5). What are the odds that they are indirectly responsibly for all of these Monsters to descend the High Passes.

    I personally hope that they are because not only would that mean they are doing great, as they can fight these Monsters off, but they could for instance incorporate some of them to their tribe, like Griffins. Just Imagine Rags and a small group of her Goblins riding Griffins, now that would be Cool.

  19. Goblin Gangs huh, quite an interesting idea…

    I know that the fan-maps (that pirate always takes taime to mention are not to scale) always place Invrissil at the middle of the upper part of the continent, but I think we can infer that it would be much closer to the high passes if the map where to scale.

    After all, the continent was said to be bigger than any Earth continent so the upper part being only about a 1000 miles tall wouldn’t make sense… I we get the feeling that First Landing is FAR away, more than just a 1000 miles.

    At the very least, the far morth seems to be much more “civilized” and populous than the area close to the High Passes. I that way I wonder if Invrissil isn’t only the first of Big Cities of the north and there are a few more (perhaps one for each great families)…

    Anyway, Goblin Gangs, I can’t help but picture a gang of punk rock goblins complete with tatoos, studded leather vests and mohawks acting all smug in some big city’s underbelly…

    • we were told how far it is, izril is the size of euroasia, around 8000 miles from edge to edge with liscor in the middle first landing is 4000 miles away from liscor.

      • Sure, but like you said, I believe that the only things that were stated was that the continent is bigger than any earth continent and that the map pirate made available was inacurate.

        I do think your estimates make sense (although it could be more or less depending on the width of the continent, the respective size of the northern and southern subcontinents and the accuracy of the sources Ryoka consulted) but the maps posted show a different picture where Invrissil is at the middle of the northern subcontinent, that’s what I was pointing out.

        I mean, for all we know the size of the continent could even end up smaller in the final edit before publication of the books.

        • I made a map and shared it on Reddit yesterday, it’s easy to find at the moment. Note that I deliberately halved all distances in the map, which makes Northern Izril into the size of quite a bit smaller than Northamerica, but entirely fertile (!!).

          The frequent assertions on how freaking big the world is, are still valid if Izril is only 5000 miles from head to toe.

          Remember that this is a faux-medieval world with no access to cars or planes. If you had to cross OUR world on foot or horse or sail you would eventually get how freaking large even Earth is. After all, it took until the development of steam engines and railroads to make it possible to hurry around the globe in 80 days. Magellan needed many years and he had a small fleet!
          With the original scale of our author and no skills, I doubt that Niers could manage a sea voyage from Baleros to liscor in less than a year.

          • You forget that Gazi had a scroll of Greater Teleportation. I have no doubt that Neirs has access to similar great magics. I would find it hard to believe that Neirs would do something so bold as to hire physical transportation across the sea to visit Erin. That would be beyond dangerous especially after what we know happened to the Antinium. While on a smaller scale because Neirs isn’t hated exactly, but there are people who would want to see him deader than dead and he can’t ignore his company for 2 years just yet. I imagine he’ll take a month off to visit Erin using magic and then go back. 2 scrolls of Greater Teleportation can’t be THAT bad right? :p

  20. What if it were not just Goblins? Reincarnation is a well established concept in real Earth cultures, so might an Earthling or Innlander have the same experience? Not only that, it is literal canon for Professor Tolkiens Elves that those slain reside in the Halls of Mandos, but those willing can and do return in their descendants. Imagine Ceria suddenly recalling as her own the ancient wisdom of lifetimes spanning eons. And Elves are not the only vanished immortal race whose progeny yet walks Innland; we know Drakes are descended from Dragons, so what if Relc, or Grimalkin, or Olesm turns out to be:

    The Dragon Reborn! And yes, that was a very long way to go for a pun. You are an excellent storyteller, pirateaba.

  21. I’ve always assumed the goblins had this ability to tap into the strongest of their kind as they grow stronger (like Rags & Pyrite) and the reason the goblin kings become mad, angry and uber powerful at the same time is BECAUSE they become one with their ancestors.

    Bards canonically do keep people alive with their songs long after they’re dead and gone, So perhaps the [Soulbard] class is a class unique to the goblins (and maybe other hive mind species like the antinium). It sounds like a shortcut to emulate how the extremely high level goblins tap into their ancestors (albeit for shorter periods of time). Or perhaps [Soulbards] acted as advisors to the kings? to find goblins in the past worthy to merge the king with?

    But regardless, for such a grief stricken gob to be the one to get the power of post-mortem closure does warm my heart :’)

    Can’t wait for Garen and Reiss to be re-united again, Pyrite and Numbtongue to drop super hot fire on Erin’s stage and for the Redfang boys to come back in town

    • Loved the Ballad of Redfangs. Best of Wandering Inn’s songs so far. Melodic, and if you know context, it hits hard.

  22. Well, I have a new favorite chapter, now! This was amazing. I have to say, TWI has probably the most realistic depiction of racism I’ve ever read. I loved how Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters could bond over their shared history, and how Erin isn’t written as an enlightened white savior – there are some things she just doesn’t get.

    I also loved how Erin learned that Numbtongue was originally sent to kill her, and that the Redfangs tangled with Toren in Esthelm.

    I also really, really love that the story isn’t making Numbtongue a D&D style [Bard]. He’s an authentic lorekeeper and storyteller, the way bards originally were in real life history.

  23. I think this may be one of the best chapters from a “think about it after” perspective. I thought web novels were written by amateurs or students. You can not be either. Do you write professionally?

  24. So much happened in this chapter but for me, the meaningful part was Numbtongues fight against speciesism. Him being a bard and obtaining Pyrites memory seems just perfect for that purpose.

    “He sent us thirteen to kill an innkeeper,”

    This was where is started to cry the second time ;).

  25. This story truly leaves me speechless sometimes. I genuinely don’t have the words to describe how amazing I find this story to be. Thanks Pirateaba for writing this, it makes me incredibly happy to be able to read and experience the growth of all these amazing characters.

    In regards to this chapter; my favourite goblin has returned! Not only that, he finally got a time to say all those things he was always thinking, and then he got to think even more. It raises so many questions, and I really look forward to uncovering the secrets. The only other species unique class I can think of at this point is [Spear of the Drakes], although I believe the Grand Queen had levels in another fairly unique class ([Matriarch]?).

  26. I have a theory. What if there is and always was only one Goblin King? And all the others are just Goblins who, by virtue of being somewhat exceptional had uncovered enough of his memories that he functionally was rebirthed in their body? And suppose that this King is mad with anger and grief on the entire world for some ancient reason, and wants only one thing and one thing only. War. And every new King sooner or later succumbs under his overbearing influence, but, like Velan, is still the very same person they were in the beginning and still can act and think for themselves, just not always. And this Velan, who really wanted only to die, wanted to die because it pained him all the suffering he was causing the world, all the suffering he wanted to cause the world. But he made preparations for fighting that influence and that something is what’s IN THE MYSTERY BOX. The Lords like Greydath are original Lords who are loyal to the King still, and serve him unflinchingly, but only Him and not whatever body he had happened to possess in the moment. And suppose there is also some other reason they want their King to exist in such state. Perhaps, they are driven by the same hatred that is driving him. Or something else.

    Anyway, that’s just a theory.

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