Teriarch woke up from his nap.
Not because he needed or wanted to; he’d have happily extended the well-deserved rest after the battle with the Wyverns. Rather, a loud, peeping alarm began making noise.
An…iPhone began shrilling loudly. The Dragon, sleeping, rolled over. He irritably began to wake, but he might well have just smashed the impudent noisemaker. Still, the person who’d set the alarm knew Teriarch well. So after a few seconds, a pre-recorded voice began to issue along with the annoying siren.
“Wake up. Your hoard is being stolen.”
The Dragon’s eyes shot open. His gleaming bronze scales rippled as he surged to his feet. He opened his mouth and shot fire across his cave as he bellowed.
The Dragon’s fire flashed past magical artifacts, treasures in paint and sorcery and every other shape and craft. The fire licked over the hoard of treasure but burned nothing; who would put their treasure in the same room with a fire hazard and not fireproof it?
The temperature in the cavern rose dramatically. Anything not hit by the fire would have been killed just by the temperature. And as the Dragon searched blearily for the intruder—
He realized no one was there.
Teriarch paused. The brass Dragon stared about. Then, he balefully eyed the little beeping device on the ground.
The iPhone’s screen lit up as Teriarch slowly levitated it towards him. The baleful Dragon’s gaze was followed by the smoke from his maw. But the impudent electronic device just kept beeping. After a second, another recorded message began to play.
“To do before you sleep: finish setting up protective enchantments. Deal with the Goblin issue. Wyvern Weyr. Your obligations. That is all.”
The voice was, in fact, Teriarch’s. The Dragon listened to himself calmly rattling off items for future-Teriarch. And he snorted.
“Bah. I can do that l—”
He paused. Teriarch blinked a few times. Then he remembered.
“Oh. Those pests.”
The Dragon huffed smoke from his nostrils and glowered. But he was waking up and memory reminded him that it was true. He had work to do. Glowering, the Dragon muttered to himself. He stretched his wings, rose to his full height, and began to plod around his cavern.
“Fine, fine. I might as well do it today. I have anti-scrying spells in place. But ward spells, anti-teleportation…especially after last time…illusions, I suppose, traps…where’s that tome?”
The Dragon checked his meticulously organized library, but he couldn’t remember which of the countless organizational systems he’d employed. He eventually found a magical tome, levitated it up, and glumly flipped through it.
All with magic; the Dragon wasn’t about to use his huge claws to do it. Teriarch stared at the writings.
“…Evielda’s Skyshield spells. Yes, yes. And perhaps this time I will try…”
Absently, the Dragon began casting enchantment spells. To him, it was as natural as breathing. Both practice and his innate power made it simple. Teriarch yawned as he did.
He really had meant to put up ward spells earlier. Once completed, they would not only shield him from scrying spells, but any other means of discovery, even if you walked straight into the opening of his cave. He’d skimped on the direct physical illusions…and trap spells.
It wasn’t really a problem. The Dragon was never bothered. Ever. Even the horrors that lurked in the High Passes took one look at the Dragon’s aura and decided to find something else to bother. Only the Wyvern Lord, in his arrogance, had tried it.
Illusion spells, traps, layered behind magical concealments to prevent people from sensing the magic itself. It was a complicated process and Teriarch had put it off for that reason; even for him, anchoring the magic and ensuring it wouldn’t run out would take hours. Not hard work, but tedious.
It was rather like putting up the posters or paintings up after moving into a new home. The furniture, the hoard was there, and Teriarch had gotten the place more or less to his standards, but some details were just so…tedious. And it hadn’t been long since he’d had to move his home! Less than a year!
As the Dragon cast spells and muttered about upstart Wyverns, he had another thought. He checked the glowing iPhone, and his voice spoke again.
“Enchantments. Wyverns. Goblins.”
Two of those were easy. But the last…the Dragon paused. It was the last which had woken him up.
Goblins. He sighed. And he cast his mind outside his cave. Teriarch could sense and see whatever he pleased; scrying was a simple thing and if he could not stare at Az’kerash, the Necromancer, directly, few other places in the world could avoid his gaze. Well, lesser mortals could only see. Teriarch could smell if he wished, and hear.
And what he found were…Goblins. They weren’t based near him. But near enough as he thought of it. The High Passes had Goblins again. They came and went.
But this time…the Dragon paused. They were different. The old ones had gone. Their Chieftain had died.
“That arrogant little Hobgoblin.”
Teriarch didn’t know Garen Redfang’s name. But he sensed the Hobgoblin was gone. Dead. Which meant…the Dragon sighed.
He’d deal with it later. If it came to that. Teriarch grumbled. And he rose, doing Dragon things. This was, of course, a Goblin’s story. But Dragons liked to insert themselves into every narrative.
Up in the High Passes, there were Goblins.
The High Passes. They were the tallest mountain range in the world. Although that was something of a subjective boast. After all, this world had many tall mountains, and few had reached any of the highest peaks.
Climbing a mountain was a feat of strength, a marker for fame and success. In that, Earth and this world were quite similar. But the glory for climbing a mountain was shorter lived here, where more pressing concerns like monsters and survival took precedence over fame. Yet, adventurers and [Knights] and [Adventurers] and [Climbers] and so on might have dared the heights.
If it were possible. If it were possible to ascend and come back. But the High Passes were the tallest mountains in the world. Over seventy thousand feet high, as estimated by Archmage Chaiemegia. Perhaps higher.
It wasn’t a number you could comprehend. Even standing at the base of the High Passes, you could look up and not see the peaks for the clouds which obscured them. It was also not a height anyone could summit easily.
Not with Skill, or even magic. Not with flying spells or wings. Many had tried. But the monsters living in the upper reaches and natural environment had killed those who had tried. Named Adventurers, Archmages—they had gone above. Few had returned, and none had ever reached the top.
Perhaps some had. And if they had, they remained there still. But the High Passes were not all one thing. The heights were ice and death. The lower sections rocky landscape giving way to verdant life. Indeed, along the base of the mountains, you could find smaller cities. And there were two known routes through the mountains.
One led past a basin, the Floodplains and the city of Liscor. A safe route, mostly. The other led straight through the High Passes. That route was known as death; monsters lived there.
But it was not barren. The dangerous route, which led by a Dragon’s cave was indeed rocky and chasm-like in the lower parts, but climb any part of the High Passes and you’d find…
Trees. Vegetation, if sparse, growing amid the rocks. Natural caves, made by monsters and water and other forces over countless millennia. And life. For monsters were creatures too. And without an ecosystem, they would have left. It was tumultuous, dangerous, but it existed.
Higher, west of Liscor and further north by far lay a valley in the mountain range. A small one, but fed by a mountain lake. And it had tough trees, high cliffs boxing the place in that led ever higher.
And Goblins. They were not unknown to the High Passes; after all, Goblins lived everywhere. But only one tribe lived in the High Passes. Even the strongest of Goblins were prey.
Still, as the new day dawned, a little Goblin picked his way down the rocky valley slope. It was summer, but this high up it was cool enough for him to be wearing a rough, hide cloak. The Goblin was mostly naked besides that. He was young, about…one and something.
A little Goblin, perhaps four feet high. He picked his way across the valley, his bare, callused feet dislodging small stones. The Goblin had a mission, and a little basket at his side. He searched around for his quarry. And found one.
Stick! The Goblin scampered over to a stick on the ground. It was small, just a bit of dead plant matter. Nothing special about it. But it was a stick.
Therefore, it went in the basket. The Goblin looked around, questing for another. He saw one.
Stick! He hurried over to it. Picked it up, put it in the basket. This was what the Goblin was doing.
Stick. There was a stick, here was a stick. The young Goblin was satisfied as he picked up the stick. That was his job. He was stick-Goblin. He had one goal in mind. No philosophical troubles over the meaning of life troubled him. No concerns about food or safety, or the future. He was all about sticks.
That was it. You picked up a stick, you put it in the basket. When it was full, you went back. And in that way, he was happier than any other sentient member of any species in the world. The stick-Goblin saw another stick. He picked it up, found another…
Across from him, another Goblin was picking his way down the slopes. He was a bit older, full-grown, perhaps even past his prime depending on how you looked at it. He was five. The Goblin wasn’t showing any signs of age, but he was, as Goblins reckoned such things, old. The average lifespan of a Goblin varied, but it was always low.
He was picking up rocks. This second Goblin, the rock-Goblin, was searching for the right sort of stone. Since he was older and better at his job, he was identifying rocks that would make sparks when struck. But he was no less focused than the stick-Goblin.
Rock? Rock. Rock. Rock? Rock! Rock. Rock. Rock. Rock. Rockrockrockrockrock—hold on, was that a geode?
The rock-Goblin paused as he came upon a distinctive little stone and snatched it up. The Goblin inspected his findings, noting the delicate and distinctive formation of the outer layer. By Jove, it was! And he was certain he’d find a beautiful crystalline structure once he broke it open. Jasper, if he had to guess.
The rock-Goblin stowed this little prize away for later. Not in his basket; this was a curio. He was certain of what he had. He was a former member of the Goldstone Tribe. And Goldstone Goblins knew rocks.
He put it in a separate sack with a bit more care, and then went back to finding proper-sized rocks. Rockrockrockrockrock—
The two Goblins weren’t the only ones working this early. There was bug-Goblin, stick-Goblin2, the woebegone nest-Goblin who was trying to find bird nests, herb-Goblin…
And they were exposed. They were seen. In the early morning, the scattered Goblins looked like food. And here came a predator, a native of the High Passes.
The Eater Goats. Their wide, yellow eyes and ragged heads poked over the side of the valley’s ridge. The famed goats of the High Passes stared at the Goblins. And they saw food.
Eater Goats. Bigger than normal, with jaws that could rend steel. More importantly, they refused to die, multiplied with supernatural speed the more they ate. And they were fearless. They would charge into a wall of pikes to eat.
It was one of the many herds living in the High Passes. Eater Goats were low on the food hierarchy, but they survived because even their predators, like the huge Gargoyles or Wyverns could become prey if inattentive. But since Eater Goats couldn’t fly…they normally went for easier prey.
Like the Goblins. About a hundred of the Eater Goats silently gathered behind the hill leading down into the valley. They kept peeking over the top. They were…thinking.
The Goblins in the valley had one other feature that hadn’t been mentioned. And that was that all of them, male or female, wore red stripes of paint on their faces and exposed body parts. Red paint, splashes of color.
War paint. And it was more than decoration. It was memory and also, protection. The pattern meant that a Gargoyle in the know might decide not to make the Goblins their targets. It was also protection against Eater Goats…mostly.
The red paint was a pattern that even the Eater Goats had learned to respect. But they were hungry. So after a moment of eying each other and wondering if it was time for some good old cannibalization, they decided the green things were food. The Eater Goats raced up the hill and leapt.
The first Goblin to see them was stick-Goblin1. He saw a soaring shape and looked up. It was not a bird, but an Eater Goat, soaring gracefully over the crest of the hill. It landed nimbly, leapt again, coming down the hillside. And stick-Goblin1 froze. He looked at the goat. And it stared at him and opened its mouth.
It screamed. The other Goblins looked up. The goat’s scream was followed, multiplied a hundred times as more Eater Goats followed it.
The Goblins dropped their baskets. They ran. The Eater Goats poured over the edge of the ravine, screaming. Stick-Goblin1 saw rock-Goblin1 racing ahead. They were running, trying to get to the other end of the valley. And the Eater Goats were closing with alarming speed.
This was the High Passes. And this wasn’t even a big event as the daily predations went. The little Goblins were just Goblins. As stick-Goblin1 ran, he crossed over a rough patch of ground and began weaving, avoiding bare patches of ground as the other Goblins did the same. The Eater Goats raced after him.
Stick-Goblin1 tripped as he ran. He tumbled down, shouting in pain and fear. The Eater Goats bleated. They could already taste their food. After all, he was just a little Goblin. Who cared if he lived or died?
Rock-Goblin1. The other Goblin turned back. He grabbed his friend and dragged him onto their feet. They turned to run, but the Eater Goats were nearly on them. The ones in the lead opened their mouths wide, wide, unhinging their jaws for a huge bite—
The ground caved in beneath the charging horde. The leading rank of Eater Goats blinked as the pitfall trap caved in. Soil revealed itself to be a thin covering over weak branches which snapped. The Eater Goats fell—
Into a pit of spikes. The frontal charge stymied; the other Eater Goats began falling into the pit traps laid in the ground. The two Goblins ran as dozens of Eater Goats fell into the pits.
Most died hitting the spikes. The lucky ones were wounded, with broken bones, or landing on the bodies of their comrades. The living began to devour the dead or dying in their ravenous hunger. And the rest paused—and then came on.
The Eater Goats leapt over the pitfalls, nimbly avoiding the traps. And, forewarned, they even dodged the rest of the concealed traps. They weren’t stupid.
By now, the ambush had been spotted. The fleeing Goblins were racing towards something. A…barricade. No, a huge wall made of wood built into the stone on one side of the valley. A fortress. And someone was blowing a horn.
The horn kept blowing across the valley, and Goblins raced for the protection of the walls. The Eater Goats charged after stick-Goblin1 and rock-Goblin1. The gathering team had gained ground with the pitfall trap, but the goats were just faster. They began catching up and something flashed from the stone fortress.
An arrow hit the first Eater Goat in the eye. It collapsed mid-scream and the others paused, wavering between the free food and the Goblins. And some wondering where the arrow had come from.
Danger first, food later. The Eater Goats charged onwards. A second arrow hit one in the neck. The goat stumbled, but kept running, bleating now in panic. It fell to the ground after twenty more paces, bleeding from an artery. The Eater Goats followed the path of the arrow. They stared up.
The wood fortress was built into the stone. Goblins had hollowed out the stone, creating a stone ceiling, working with wood and stone and metal further in. But on the stone roof of their fortress was a Goblin.
A Hobgoblin stood on an open platform, a basket of arrows by his side. He had a bow. And he placed arrow after arrow in the Eater Goats, dropping them.
The monsters of the High Passes faltered. They had been warned. The red paint shone on the distant Hobgoblin’s body. And Badarrow took sight again. Loosed.
An Eater Goat dodged. It leapt, flipping to the side and the arrow missed. The [Bow Sniper] narrowed his eyes. He took another arrow with a special arrowhead, drew back, aimed—loosed.
The Eater Goats all dodged. They could see the arrows coming. But the Hobgoblin wasn’t aiming for them. He hit a patch of stones—and the arrow flashed.
Light, searing and blinding exploded from the arrow tip. Blinded, the goats stumbled about. Badarrow had covered his eyes.
[Blinding Arrow]. Now, the Goblin archer drew back. And the blinded goats began to drop, one after another.
So they turned and ran. They weren’t stupid. They knew they’d never reach the fortress under the cover of the Goblin archer. The last of the foraging team was nearly at it, anyways. They began to race back as Badarrow kept loosing arrows.
And as they passed next to a section of rocks, there was a snap. A crack of sound.
Crossbow bolts struck the Eater Goats from the side. They jerked, some falling, but most just stumbling, turning. The Eater Goats saw only stone. And then—arrow slits. Tiny, dug into the rock and camouflaged. And crimson light. Goblin eyes, staring at them from the darkness.
The little Cave Goblins sitting in their concealed bunker calmly reloaded. There was enough space for them to fire and aim out of, but even the smallest Eater Goat would have had trouble getting into the arrow slits. The Eater Goats took one look and tried to flee. But while the Cave Goblins had taken a few seconds to get into place, they reloaded and loosed with amazing speed.
A second volley, then a third cut down the last of the Eater Goats trying to get past the pitfall traps. The last fell into a pit, filled with bolts. It stared back at the place it had died. Mystified. It had a vague sense that the battle hadn’t been quite fair. But the Eater Goat respected being…prey…
Silence, then. The forager teams paused at the base of the fortress of stone. In his perch, Badarrow relaxed. He leaned the longbow next to him and poked a figure who’d been watching and handing him arrows. She laughed and made room for him on the bench.
Below, stick-Goblin1, whose name was in fact, Garnish, looked at Glowfinder. The older Goblin nodded, wiping his forehead with sweat at the scare. Then he showed Garnish the geode he’d found. The two Goblins were hunting for something to break it open when a pair of doors opened.
From the wooden fortress emerged a huge figure. The forager Goblins looked up.
A huge Hobgoblin stood in the doorway. He had been there all along, waiting. If the Eater Goats had defeated the ambushes and other traps, he would have been there. He was a big figure, closer to the fat Hobs than the skinny ones. And he had a cleaver in one hand. The Hobgoblin bellowed at the foraging teams.
“Back to work!”
The foraging Goblins began to trudge down the valley. Meanwhile, the Hob led another team out of the wooden doors. All were armed with long spears and cleavers, like him. They began finishing off the Eater Goats who were playing dead or trapped in the pits. The lead Hob casually beheaded an Eater Goat who tried to bite his hand off.
He was a Hobgoblin, a renegade from the Mountain City tribe. A [Chef], one of the original legends who’d competed in the cooking competition. He’d been second place, failed on a preferential level—he was known to make his food hot. In fact, his Skills [Extra Spice] and his latest, [Supplies: Flarepepper Powder] ensured that he never ran out of the fiery stuff.
His name was Calescent, which was a word as much as a name. Calescent the [Chef] had learned it from the only cook-book he’d ever possessed. And he looked upon the dead Eater Goats and spoke one word.
The other Goblins nodded happily. Sometimes it came to them. Less and less these days. The monsters were beginning to figure it out. In the High Passes, there was a place where Goblins lived. And nothing, Gargoyles or Wyverns or Goats and any of the other species like Razorbeaks or Stone Starers or Rock Golems or anything else preyed on them. This was their place, protected, impregnable.
Glowing red eyes, in the darkness. A cave.
This team of Goblins was scouting. And they were armed. They paused at the cave entrance, and stared inside. Anything could live in there. Anything could be in there.
A Goblin looked at his companions. He nodded silently. Me first. The other Goblins didn’t need to speak to read his body language. Speaking could get them killed.
The first Goblin scouted around the inside, sniffing, checking for stool or any other telltale signs of monsters. He found none, so he motioned to the others.
Carefully, the Goblins roamed into the cave, despite not carrying torches or anything else. They had something better. After they took a formation, the leader raised his sword. It was iron, but good iron, cared for. He focused.
And it burst into flame.
[Burning Blade]. Not his power, but his Chieftain’s personal Skill. The other Goblins ignited their weapons too. They lit up the cave, searching deeper with their makeshift torches. They went in cautiously, creeping forwards.
At first, the cave seemed deserted. They’d found no excrement or tracks. But the Goblins quickly realized that was simply because what was in the cave did not walk. They rounded a bend and paused when they saw the nest of Razorbeaks.
The ancient, dinosaur-like species of bird sometimes nested in the grass. But other times they would inhabit caves. And they could grow large. They had sharp teeth, rending claws. Scaly bodies.
They looked up as the Goblins froze. Their leader motioned. Back, back. But it was too late. The pterodactyl-like birds surged upwards. There were dozens of them. They flapped, shrieking—the Goblins turned to run.
Out of the cave the Goblin scouting party poured. Shrieks came from inside. The Goblins turned as their leader fumbled with something at his sack. The Goblins were all shouting at him, bracing, loosing arrows into the cave. The leader fumbled something out as the Razorbeaks began to flood out.
Magical light filled the cave. And the Razorbeak nest—froze. They stared at what the Goblin leader held.
A red gem, glowing like an eye. The Razorbeaks flinched away. Then they fled, shrieking. There was no reason for it; their prey was right there. But they felt it. Irrational, but chilling their cores, sending them away in a panic.
The Goblins stared as the Razorbeaks fled back into the cave. They sighed in relief, and one punched the leader who’d nearly fumbled getting it out. The leader growled, punched back. It nearly turned into a brawl there, but the Goblins refrained. They marked the cave, drawing a line in red near the entrance, and crossing it with a bit of blue.
Danger, but possible food. Then they wiped away sweat from their brows and waved up at the Hobgoblin who’d been watching them. They didn’t see a wave back, but they saw the distant figure slowly sit.
The patrol had been on the edge of Badarrow’s vision. The [Bow Sniper] slowly lowered the bow. His special arrow had been ready to fly when he’d seen the Goblin patrol coming out of the cave. He was shaking a bit, and closed his eyes for a moment.
He’d only had one shot. From his vantage point, Badarrow had a commanding position of incredible range, but his longbow, powerful as it was, was limited. He had [Farshot Mastery], [Doubled Range], [Eagle Eyes], and [Two Mile Shot], all of which meant he could hit a target from incredibly far away.
But he was no expert at hitting targets on the wing like Bird, or an adventurer like Halrac. Badarrow specialized in taking his opponents down from far, far away. But he could miss. The patrol and the cave were outside his regular range, which meant [Two Mile Shot] was the only way he could hit his target. And if he missed, he wouldn’t be able to use his Skill again.
A voice murmured from beside Badarrow. He didn’t reply immediately. Carefully, ever so carefully, he muffled the little bell attached to the arrow. One ding and he’d have a bad day.
It was a Bell of Agony. That was what the Goblins thought of it, anyways. And a second treasure had gone with the scouting team. That had saved their life—the Gem of Fear they’d taken from the corpse of Skinner.
When the bell was muffled again, Badarrow put the special arrow down and sighed. He was still sweaty. Twice now, in quick succession, his heart had been pounding. He had been afraid. First the Eater Goats, now the patrol. But that was normal.
Badarrow didn’t like being up here, serving as over watch for the entire valley and covering the other Goblins. He did it because no one else was as good with a bow as he was. But he preferred to be picking off targets with only himself at risk. Watching out for others? Making them his responsibility?
It scared him spitless. Badarrow was still shaking a bit, although his hands never shook when he was holding a bow. They couldn’t, then. Only after. He sat down on the little bench. And he felt someone throw a cloak around his shoulders again. Then—a flask was thrust under his nose.
“Hey. Want a drink?”
Badarrow irritably swatted away the drink. He’d spoken, but his rigid body-language said quite clearly he was not interested in a drink. Besides which, it would dull his concentration and aim. Since it was a mead. Furthermore, it indicated to anyone watching him that Badarrow thought it was a waste of a finite resource to be drinking frivolously.
The Hobgoblin looked down at Snapjaw. She held out a cloak made of Eater Goat pelts. It was cold, up here. But she was sharing the garment with him. She leaned over.
After a second, Badarrow leaned back too. Awkwardly. And it was warm. Snapjaw sipped from her flask, ignoring his mild disapproval.
“Things are meant to be used.”
She spoke in the common tongue. Snapjaw had been Reiss’ lieutenant, and was thus fluent and preferred to use the universal language of the world. Badarrow, who was reluctant to speak at the best of times, used almost exclusively the Goblin’s language despite understanding both.
He was still shivering. But Snapjaw kept leaning against him and patting one leg. And slowly, his nerves stopped shrilling and he relaxed.
The two sat alone in Badarrow’s tower. Well, theirs. Because if she wasn’t working, Snapjaw almost always sat up here. With him. Badarrow glanced at her face from time to time, as he watched the cave-searching patrol slowly making its way back to the fortress.
It was a strange thing. The other Hob was female. And she had a larger head than normal. Her teeth weren’t regular enamel, but some fusion with steel or something harder. She was shorter than a regular Hob, and her class was [Eater], along with [Rider]. She was better than Eater Goats at biting through things and she often did in combat.
Right now, Snapjaw was drinking mead and chewing on a snack of dried Eater Goat meat from the last raid. She offered some to him and Badarrow nibbled some as she put a strip in his mouth. He turned his eyes back towards watching the valley. But she was right there, and it was a better feeling than leaning against one of his comrades for warmth. More intimate.
Special. Badarrow wondered how they’d gotten here. But here they sat. After a while, Snapjaw eyed the arrow he’d set aside for emergencies.
“Key. Gem. Bell. Had cloak of blood, but Chieftain gave it away.”
She was naming the treasures available to them. The four trinkets were indeed some of Goblinhome’s greatest possessions. There were other artifacts, like the enchanted longbow Badarrow had been granted that had a magical string and bow that resisted the elements and never needed replacing—but the four artifacts had been the most valuable, each in their own way.
Well, the key was a mystery. But it was a treasure. Badarrow shrugged.
“Rabbiteater needs cloak.”
His face went still as he said it. And Badarrow felt a surge of—self-loathing. He bowed his head, clenching one fist hard.
He had left his fallen comrades behind. Numbtongue, Shorthilt, Headscratcher. And all the others. Now, the last of the Redfangs had gone. Rabbiteater had walked north, going with [Knights]. To his death, perhaps. But the [Champion] couldn’t stay.
Poke, poke. Snapjaw gave Badarrow a few gentle prods in the side. He glowered—but relaxed again. The [Sniper] stared at Snapjaw. Then he turned, folding his arms.
“Should have gone. Should have left.”
“We need you. I need you. Going to leave me?”
Prodding, gently. Badarrow froze. He looked away.
“…No. But should have…”
“Rabbiteater left. You stay. Little Goblins need you. Cave Goblins. Cloak went. Okay. Too bad. Blood is useful. And tasty. Stop thinking.”
She meant stop obsessing over it. Badarrow glowered, but she was right. This was a common thought he had. When he was alone. Brooding. Which was why Snapjaw refused to let him sit up here alone. He shifted uncomfortably, sliding down the bench. Snapjaw slid over.
Silence again. The two leaned against each other after another moment. Badarrow felt compelled to point something out.
“Blood is not drink.”
“Says you. Horse blood? Goat blood?”
Badarrow grinned as Snapjaw smacked her lips. She had a point. He didn’t like it, or livers, but he’d eat it. Snapjaw on the other hand ate anything. Even rocks. She kept making him try things.
“Patrol coming back. Come down.”
Snapjaw pointed at the cave exploring patrol. Badarrow hesitated. He looked at the scavenging teams.
“No. Come. Sit up here later. And we can…”
Snapjaw whispered in Badarrow’s ear. He paused.
Badarrow got up, leaving his post. Snapjaw was already opening the little hatch that led into the fortress. Into Goblinhome. And Badarrow stared at her back.
She turned, smiling with all her teeth. Badarrow paused. He stared up at the sky. And he wondered if he should enjoy this. Sometimes, he felt guilty for being…not as sad as Rabbiteater. Snapjaw wouldn’t let him be. He wished his comrades could have experienced…this.
These days. Sitting next to another Goblin and feeling this close. Also, sex. Which was a lot better than Badarrow remembered before leaving on Garen’s mission. But mostly, the bright days amid the dark.
The world ended. The sky fell. Goblins heroes died. Pyrite, Reiss, Garen, Spiderslicer, Eater of Spears, Noears—too many to count.
And Goblins picked up and lived. They survived another day, and another. Badarrow had seen Shorthilt die. Headscratcher. He had lost Numbtongue. Left him behind.
But he was still here. And somehow, he was going. Slowly, the Hobgoblin followed Snapjaw; if he didn’t come, she’d pull him along. She was pushy. But she was lonely too. She’d lost her friends. Her Chieftain. And she and he had grown tired of crying alone. So Badarrow took his bow and entered Goblinhome.
Past the walls of traps, in stone, hollowed rough walls gave way to smoother ground. Still rough, but wearing smoother with each day. Badarrow passed by sleeping quarters, individual ones marked by doors, large family spots and places where hundreds could sleep at once.
The chill mountain air warmed. Badarrow smelled food cooking. Calescent was at work already. Snapjaw grinned as she waited for him. She was surrounded by little Goblin children. They were begging for sips of mead or snacks, and she was passing out bits of food.
They stared solemnly up as Badarrow approached. In awe. Badarrow awkwardly nodded to them and they fled. He stared after them, a bit embarrassed.
They didn’t like him, he meant. Snapjaw was the friendly big sister Hobgoblin everyone liked. The female Hob rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Not like? They think you are big hero. Badarrow, hero Redfang with bow. Thft! Thft!”
Snapjaw teased Badarrow gently, making the sounds of the bow releasing arrows. He blushed. But it was true. The little Goblin children were peeking at him.
Children. New ones. Goblins—and some were grey-skinned. Cave Goblins, although the difference was only in skin tone and height. New Goblins. They shooed as Snapjaw flapped her claws at them.
Badarrow looked askance. Snapjaw just grinned; she’d been snacking the entire time he’d kept his morning vigil. She patted her stomach.
Food was a lifestyle for Snapjaw. She could convert it to muscle or fat amazingly quickly and she had a metabolism that meant she could gobble food or go for long periods without. Badarrow prodded his stomach. He followed Snapjaw deeper into the fortress.
“You tell Calescent.”
Badarrow paused as he descended into a large eating space. Goblins were munching on food or playing games of chess with crude figurines at stone benches and tables. It was a copy of Tremborag’s mountain, although Badarrow had never seen it. The Mountain City Tribe had dug out the fortress. He saw Goblins getting food from one of the huge kitchens. Badarrow pointed as Snapjaw tried to drag him towards the biggest.
“Find other [Cook]. Calescent too spicy.”
“Calescent is the best.”
“Bad poos. Don’t want—”
The light quarrel stopped as the two heard a commotion. Badarrow and Snapjaw turned as they saw an angry half-Hob shouting at another Hob.
They recognized Poisonbite at once. The female [Venom Warrior] was a Hob in the making. She, like Badarrow had once been, was growing by the day. And eating a massive amount of food, so it wasn’t any surprise to see her here.
What was surprising was to see a fight in Goblinhome. But then—the two read the body language of the other Goblins watching and picked up on what was happening.
Poisonbite was hopping around a female Redfang Hob. Badarrow recognized her as…Shineshield. The female Hob, was a [Shield Maiden]—a survivor of Garen’s last charge—had a unique class. As did many Goblins, actually. They were fewer in Goblinhome. But much stronger.
The situation was obvious to any Goblin looking, and most of the smaller Goblins were scurrying out of the way of the fight. Poisonbite, who was still growing and much shorter than Shineshield, was hopping mad.
She’d broken up with the female Hob. Or perhaps, it was more accurate to say the relationship had ended. No, wait—Snapjaw and Badarrow frowned.
Poisonbite’s posture indicated that she felt like she’d broken up with Shineshield. But Shineshield’s set shoulders and dour expression—and the other Goblin’s—said that she was the one who’d decided she’d had enough and Poisonbite wasn’t having it.
“Mountain City Goblins.”
Snapjaw muttered. Badarrow rolled his eyes and nodded. The Mountain City Tribe, one of the many tribes that now made up Goblinhome, was known for this. They were troublesome, had a different view of relationships and social dynamics, and were much pickier about food.
They also were more prone to scenes like this. Poisonbite kept antagonizing the Redfang warrior. At last, Shineshield seemed to grow tired of Poisonbite and turned to face the wall. Poisonbite immediately tried to walk around. Look at me! Don’t you like me?
Her posture radiated hurt. She began pointing, and at last, a few of her warriors dragged their leader off. Poisonbite led an all-female group of Goblins, and they looked embarrassed about the way she was taking things.
“Silly Poisonbite. Shineshield wouldn’t stay. She likes one Goblin at a time. Poisonbite likes many.”
Snapjaw tsked. Badarrow nodded sagely. He ignored the sulking Poisonbite. She liked female Goblins. Badarrow was used to that; Redscar, the leader of the remaining Redfangs, liked male Goblins. But he didn’t cause a fuss.
Mountain City Goblins. Badarrow looked around for Snapjaw and groaned; she’d taken advantage of his momentary distraction and gotten two hot kebabs of goat meat. With the fiery red spices on it. He glowered at her.
“Eat, eat. Here.”
She offered him a bit of cheese as compensation. That would cut the spice, so Badarrow sat down at a bench with Snapjaw and began eating. The two ate quite happily, gossiping covertly about the breakup…right until Shineshield came over.
The two Hobs froze, wondering if she’d seen them. But the Hob put her head face-first on the table. Her stoic mask was gone. Then they had to say something nice to her. Badarrow offered her some cheese and Snapjaw smacked him on the shoulder. Redfangs weren’t known for their sympathy or interpersonal skills, by and large.
After a while, Badarrow paused in patting Shineshield on the back and looked up. So did the other Goblins in the eating hall. Because they heard a song. They looked up, and saw a procession of Goblins, who looped through the crowds of Goblins.
A marching band. Cave Goblins, playing on handheld instruments. Flutes, made of goat horns. Drums of goat hide, crude little guitars, made of wood and goat guts. Horns, made of brass. Not everything was goat-based.
And they played as they walked. A sad song. The Goblins hit their drums and sang, a Goblin song. [Singers] and [Musicians] and [Strummers] and [Hummers]. Not a cheerful piece, but something like a dirge and a marching song. Sometimes loud, with many instruments, fierce, other times quiet. Because what was the point of music? To make you feel happy, to feel sad.
And they were not done mourning. Badarrow stared at the Cave Goblins. Almost all of them Cave Goblins. Numbtongue’s followers. They recognized him of course, and paused a moment.
Before the last of the five Redfangs who had brought them freedom. Badarrow looked around and saw his Cave Goblins, the one in the ambush teams with the crossbows. He knew them.
Headscratcher’s warriors and [Berserkers], some of them growing into Hobs. Shorthilt’s weapon experts who’d claimed rarer weapons like voulges or harpe swords, and so on. Numbtongue’s musicians. Badarrow’s archers.
And Rabbiteater’s cooks and followers, who helped Calescent in the kitchens. They watched as the marching band made a slow circuit of the eating room. And every Goblin stopped. They remembered.
A Goblin hero, facing the [Necromancer] Goblin Lord. Brothers, fighting as the sky broke and the Humans drove through them. The death of the Great Chieftain of the Mountain.
Badarrow closed his eyes. He felt someone hugging him tight. So much that it hurt. But he never said a word.
Snapjaw’s crushing grip softened as the music faded. The band marched on. She looked up at him, her eyes shining with tears. And he tugged at her, gently.
Shineshield watched them go. Poisonbite looked at her back and half of her warriors dragged her back into her seat. But that was Goblinhome. Building, growing. Remembering. To carry on, Goblins worked or laughed or cried.
But there was a Goblin that was missing. No, two. Calescent came to the entrance of his kitchens. He looked around.
“Where are Redscar and Chieftain?”
He had two bowls ready for them. A passing Goblin took the bowl for Redscar.
“Redscar is patrolling. Chieftain is sleeping.”
The Hobgoblin [Chef] nodded. He took the other bowl himself and left his kitchen. Slowly, the Hob went further into the fortress being cut into the mountain. Past a workshop where Goblins were tinkering with crossbows, another forge which had smoke being vented through a chimney. Further in. Until he came to a room. There, he paused.
Inside, a Goblin dreamed of the past. Calescent paused, but the food was growing cold. He knocked on the wooden door.
And the Goblin stirred. She opened her eyes, and the visions fled. She sat up, yawning, looking around blearily.
Her name was Rags. She had been called that, but she had taken it as her name. And she was small. Not a Hob. But neither was she a regular Goblin.
She was a bit taller. And as she opened her eyes, a little key dropped forwards, hanging from a necklace. Garen’s key. The Chieftain of Goblinhome looked up. And she sighed.
For a moment, memory blurred with the past. She remembered another Goblin’s body, strong, male. A different perspective, memories as strong as reality.
Before they called him Velan the Kind, before he had become a Goblin Lord, Velan had been a [Healer].
She reached for the details. Found them. Images of him, sweating different substances, experimenting with plants. Not just a [Healer]. An [Alchemist]. He hadn’t just been a warrior.
Strong. A warrior, yes. Strong enough to go foraging alone in the jungles and fight monsters for the precious, rare herbs. Made stronger still by eating and surviving countless poisons and his own experiments. Until he could eat the Sage’s Grass and rarer plants like food and not grow sick and die.
His tribe had been strong, from draughts that could make a Goblin run for three days straight before collapsing. Substances to make a Goblin fight harder, survive. Always to survive, to prosper.
By the time he was a Goblin Lord, he had been known for his ability to enhance his strength. But it had only been when he met the other Goblin Lord after crossing the sea, Greydath of Blades, that he had learned to fight like—
The second knock shattered the memories. Rags blinked. She shook her head, growling. But it was too late. The memory vanished. The Goblin sat up.
She snapped. The door opened and Calescent came in himself with lunch. Rags blinked blearily at him.
“What? What? Attack? Something else?”
“Chieftain, braised goat stew. With potatoes and wild onions.”
The [Cook] stared at Rags. She stared back.
He nodded. Rags hesitated. She debated between throwing something or casting a spell, but then her stomach rumbled. She folded her arms.
“Fine. But I was dreaming.”
“Food is important. Chieftain is too small.”
So said the [Cook], and his word was, apparently, law. Rags glowered up at him; Calescent wasn’t as heavy as Tremborag; he was stout, not fat. But he insisted Goblins should eat at least twice a day. He knew what it was like to starve.
Rags paused as she reached for the stone spoon. She looked up urgently.
The [Cook] fluttered his fingers. Rags relaxed. She sipped from the hearty broth. It was good. But also—
The spices were hot! Rags took a few bites and felt herself heating up. Calescent disagreed.
Rags glared at him. But she didn’t argue with the [Chef], and Calescent was a [Chef] these days. He was also, incidentally, one of the most feared fighters outside of the Redfangs. Poisonbite could kill you slowly with her toxins, but if Calescent went into battle he carried a small sack of his hottest spice blends. And he’d throw it in your eyes as he hacked you apart with a cleaver.
“Too hot. Water?”
The [Chef] had a small stone bowl of clear mountain water, but he was reluctant to give it. He pointed out quite sensibly that Rags could eat some of the potato to cut the spices. She glared and held out a claw.
Rags took a sip to quell the burning in her mouth. Then she paused as she stared at herself in the bowl of water.
The reflection was bad, but Rags had seen her image before. And she knew she was…taller.
Just by a few inches. But the little Goblin had grown. Rags had been small, for a Goblin. Young. Now, she was taller.
Not a Hob. She hadn’t gone through the growth spurt like other Goblins had. The Hobs speculated she was too young. But some of the others wondered if it was something different. Either way, Rags was taller.
Older, too. She’d begun bleeding from her crotch too. Which wasn’t pleasant, but it was a shared experience. Closer to an adult.
Taller, older. But not wiser. Or smarter. Just older. More tired. Rags looked at Calescent.
He glanced at her disapprovingly. Rags hadn’t finished more than half the bowl. To be fair—the [Chef] had loaded it with enough to feed Badarrow to fullness, but Goblins seldom turned down food.
“Not hungry? Can get spice-less food, if you want, Chieftain.”
His tone indicated that this would be a crime against cuisine, but he’d do it. Rags shook her head. She put the bowl down.
“No. No. Get [Shaman]. Um…Snapjaw. You come too. Had memory.”
“Maybe wait for Snapjaw. Busy having sex.”
Rags shrugged. Okay, she’d wait. The [Chef] paused.
He was referring to her power. The power of all Chieftains and [Shamans], to dream of the past Goblin’s lives. Rags could do it, and the [Shamans] that had come from the Mountain City tribe, but they were all low-level. Ulvama too had died during the battle…
“Dreams. Know how to make…strength drink. Also, more about healing. Have mixture. Write down.”
She looked around. Some of the precious parchment and paper that Rabbiteater’s exploits had bought was sitting on a table. Rags got out of her bed and began to write. Calescent took both bowls and went over.
“Some…stupid roots! Always roots! And this one. Big, fat. Green leaves, white bulb. Edible.”
Calescent helpfully added as Rags sketched. She was trying to put down the things she’d seen from Velan’s memory, but she didn’t always get the name of the plants or things he’d used. She made a note as she furiously sketched. Unfortunately, without his perspective, a lot of the roots he used looked like…roots to Rags. She was no [Shaman] or [Cook].
“Mix these two. Boil here for six minutes. Hot enough to see little bubbles…need to mix with magic mixture.”
“I didn’t see because nosy [Chef] woke me up!”
Rags snapped at Calescent. The Hob looked hurt.
“Chieftain needs good food. Spends too much time sleeping. Or working.”
Rags sighed. But she waved apologetically at him. She did indeed spend a lot of time in her memory-sleep, not regular sleep. Trying to recover information from the past.
Sometimes it was useless. Other times…well, it was thanks to that Rags had learned how to use the blood cloak that Rabbiteater now held. She’d discovered tools, like the ones Velan had used to move bones, or the crude funnels he’d made to pour blood into other Goblins.
He’d known about giving blood, known more than many [Alchemists] and he’d seen the world. Before he became a Goblin King. But what had led him here?
Even now, Rags was searching for the answer. For how else would she make sense of anything?
The little Goblin sat in her quarters in Goblinhome. That was the name for the fortress she’d built in the mountains, with the remnants of every tribe. The Flooded Waters Tribe, the Mountain City Tribe, the Redfangs, the Cave Goblins—even what few of Reiss’ subjects had survived.
The living remained. It had been a long journey, finding this place. Building it, piece by piece as monsters tried to eat them. Managing the squabbling factions. The…her…
Rags stopped writing. Her hand began to shake and she had to put down the quill.
The dead. Pyrite smiled at Rags as she fled the Human [Lord]. Garen Redfang fell. Tremborag stopped moving, staring at his distant home. Reiss died.
All dead. Rags was shivering. Shaking. Calescent grabbed her.
“Chieftain, breathe. Get [Shaman]—”
He snapped at a Goblin passing outside the door. Rags caught herself, breathed in, out, slowly. Calescent hovered, watching as Rags calmed.
Slowly, the panic attack faded. Rags could breathe. By the time the apprentice [Shaman] came hurrying with his pouches of medicine, Rags was calm. She refused the tincture; it was just a combination of herbs which made you relax, dozy.
She needed to be awake. Not shortcuts. Rags looked at Calescent.
He nodded, bowing his head. He had been there, too. They all had. But Rags bore most of the guilt. She hadn’t been good enough. No one was. Greydath had said—
“This sword is useless. I am useless. Goblins cannot be saved by me. Or even a hundred of me. We wait for only one thing. A Goblin King.”
And his treasure. Rags felt at the key around her neck.
Garen’s key. The thing he had betrayed his team, the Halfseekers for. For that he had been named a traitor and it had followed him until his end of days.
She had thought it lost with him. But Redscar had taken the key, along with Redfang, Garen’s blade. And it had passed to her.
The key. Even Tremborag had known of it. And Greydath had challenged her and the other Goblins. To find Velan’s treasure.
But why? What was the point of treasure? Did Rags need a new sword? Some magical armor? She had no idea what the treasure was. But without knowing, or knowing where the other key lay, how could she find it?
She didn’t know. So she spent these days building Goblinhome, sleeping and searching the past for answers. Wishing Pyrite were here.
What heavy days. What dark depression. It hung over them, still. A despair that months and a fortress couldn’t dissipate. They were all remnants. Their heroes were dead. And those that remained were diminished.
Rags walked through her fortress. And the little Goblin who’d been arrogant enough to challenge Tremborag and Garen felt like a different person. She had done that in her ignorance, thinking she was a match for them. Now, she saw the giants they had been after they had fallen.
Goblinhome was quiet as the Eater Goats were butchered, the rest salted and stored away. Rags was overseeing resource collection. Managing the fortress was all about resources.
Some of it was easy. Food? No problem. Until you wondered how hard it was to preserve food, especially for the winter. To preserve meat you needed to dry it, but that attracted other monsters. Or salt it—if you had salt.
And your [Cooks] wanted salt. But you had to find a salt mine, which the expeditions around Goblinhome hadn’t found yet…or buy it. The same went for things like wax for candles, metal for nails, hammers, pickaxes…so many mundane things Goblins prized.
But Goblins didn’t buy things. Rabbiteater had, in his guise as the Goblin Slayer, using the ears of dead Goblins to buy life for new ones. But he was gone and he had only been able to provide some things.
These days, Goblinhome was producing metal. And Goblins at least had a surplus of stone. Some were even growing plants in the valley, thanks to the lake. Water was not an issue. Besides that, they made do. They’d found a way to trade with Humans, and the Eater Goats and other animals provided a lot of resources. Tallow, fat…
But above all, safety mattered in the High Passes. At any moment, something might come along and decide to eat you. Before Goblinhome’s walls had been built, they had suffered from daily and nightly attacks. And the worst monsters the Goblins had clashed with—besides a few unique threats, like the…thing…that wore other Goblin’s faces—were Wyverns.
Wyverns. They dove out of the sky as fast as hawks. And they were incredibly hard to kill, could breathe frost—they were worse than the Gargoyles, who liked to pose as statues before ripping you to shreds. The Goblins had clashed with them, brought down many Wyverns. And they’d built up their fortress.
They’d been glad to see the back of the weyr when it fought with the Dragon and fled southwards. But the stupid Wyverns had come back. Much reduced, but the Wyvern Lord had survived.
And the weyr was unhappy with their leadership. Not only had they died en masse at Pallass, they’d had to come back and were now fighting to reclaim their territory.
The Wyvern Lord was especially unhappy. He’d killed six challengers so far, and while that had quelled dissent within his Weyr, he was still furious. The little not-Dragons had hurt him. Him!
He was angry. And, like Dragons, the Wyvern Lord tolerated little in the way of challenges to his rule. The annoying green things had been one of the reasons why he’d decided to expand his weyr’s territory. They kept harassing Wyverns who flew near the valley. Some had even died.
The Wyvern Lord might have pondered the wisdom of attacking another fortress. But the green things didn’t stink of magic by and large. And—the sight of an artificial construction enraged him. So that was why, on a day like today, as Rags was sitting in the experimental alchemy rooms trying to explain what Velan’s draughts had looked like to one of her [Shamans], she heard an alarm. A horn blew three times, urgently, and then a long note. And then repeated itself.
Rags looked up. The [Shaman] and Calescent started. Rags knew that signal.
Attack. A full-scale alarm. She shot to her feet and ran.
Goblins surged through the fortress. Warriors running for weapons, Hobs shouting orders. Young Goblins and those unable to fight came fleeing the other way. And Rags heard Calescent bellow as she ran.
“Chieftain! Clear way!”
The Goblins moved to one side. Rags raced past them. She reached the sentry posts within Goblinhome about the same time as Badarrow and Snapjaw, swearing angrily, reached the same spot. They looked across the valley and froze.
The Wyverns were coming at Goblinhome. How many?
All of them. Rags’ heart skipped a beat as she saw the familiar, huge Greater Wyvern who led the weyr. He was on a warpath and they were coming straight at them.
Rags paused. She was no Garen Redfang, or Tremborag. Certainly no Goblin Lord. But as all eyes settled on her, her indecision faded. She acted.
“Crossbows to first wall! Badarrow, up! Snapjaw, traps! Where is Redfang?”
Calescent ran. Rags hoped the Redfangs had made it to the safety of the fortress before the attack came. She stood on a parapet, shouting orders as the Wyverns attacked. Her nerves hummed, and her mind raced as it had a thousand times before. Battles won, battles lost. But there was a difference.
This time she had a home. And she wasn’t going to let some overgrown flying lizards take it.
There was no plan the Wyvern Lord had. He just intended to smash through the weak wood walls of the green thing’s fortress, gorge his weyr on the population inside, and thereby secure their loyalty. Food, safety, strength—these were universal things. The Greater Wyvern roared as he flew at the nest of the green things.
Look at them. They were fleeing already! The Wyverns circled overhead as a few dozen landed. The valley and fortress built into stone were such that, unlike Pallass, the Wyverns could only assault the fortress’ wood walls from the front in a smaller group. The rest flew overhead, shrieking encouragement as their comrades dropped and began to waddle towards the fortress.
Instantly, they came under attack. One Wyvern slipped and landed in a pit trap. The wooden stakes barely hurt it, but it was stuck halfway. Another slammed into the ground, screaming. The Wyvern Lord blinked as his Wyvern strike force began shrieking. What was happening? What—
Arrows. Or rather, bolts. From each side, the bunkers of hidden Goblins began firing their crossbows as fast as they could. They aimed for wings and eyes, and wood, steel, and iron bolts hit the Wyverns from all sides. The Goblins were reloading and shooting fast. Rags had [Rapid Reload] and her entire tribe fired as fast as a trained [Crossbowman].
The hail of projectiles dropped a few Wyverns, but the rest just shielded their faces with their wings. They were only really in danger of tearing their wings. The Wyvern Lord roared at the few who were screaming with bleeding eyes; they weren’t hurt badly! Only a few had taken bolts through their armored hides.
The rest charged the Goblin’s fortress, roaring in fury. The Wyverns had a unified tactic. They inhaled, breathed, and turned the wooden wall to frost. Then they rammed the weakened wood, shattering it easily.
No frost bomb this time. That made the things it hit too cold to really eat; turn to ice and shatter. The Wyvern Lord watched as his Wyverns, hissing with rage, hit the wall again. The wood was stout, but the freezing cold made it too brittle. The hail of crossbow bolts ceased as some of the Wyverns froze the bunkers and Goblins fled. Satisfied, six Wyverns charged, hit the wall, and went through.
They burst through the first wall of Goblinhome. And discovered it was the first wall. The Wyverns looked up as, above them, the ceiling opened. Goblins were standing above them, looking down through large openings on a walkway. The six Wyverns looked up, inhaling to freeze the impudent Goblins above.
Then a twenty-pound boulder fell, oh, a hundred feet and smashed one of the Wyvern’s heads in. The other five Wyverns looked at their friend. And another boulder fell and hit a second Wyvern on the back. And then a third….a fourth…
The Wyverns outside heard their friends screaming. More came to investigate. They too didn’t see the Goblins overhead until it was too late. But they saw the Wyverns, half dead, the other half pinned under…rocks?
Huge rocks. The Goblins overhead were dropping them on the Wyverns. But where were they coming from? The walkways were tiny! The stones were coming out of nowhere and—another Wyvern went down, shrieking as a ten-pound stone tore a hole through a wing. The Goblins shouted, racing back and forth. They weren’t carrying anything, but they had little magical items on them.
Bags of holding. Rags listened to the screams, tensed with her line of defenders. All according to plan. Goblinhome had a limited number of bags of holding, but what they did have—relics of the tribes or stolen from the battlefield at Liscor—were being employed now.
Rooms full of huge boulders were being loaded into bags of holding—which could usually only hold one at most, from anywhere from five pounds to thirty at most—and then dropped.
Height, plus that much weight did a lot of damage. The Wyverns were pulling back, some falling to the crossbow bolts literally covering their hides. The Wyvern Lord roared, and howled. Freeze the little green things!
More of his weyr dropped, rather than challenge him. Inside, the second wall began to buckle as the Wyverns pushed in. They were taking casualties, but the bulk of the Weyr was circling overhead. Safe from—
An arrow flew towards the Wyvern Lord. He twisted in midair, dodging the shot. The Wyvern Lord saw it flash by his face—the Greater Wyvern’s eyes could even see the wooden point. The fletching, crude, but effective. And the little bell tied to the front. It missed him, bounced off a Wyvern behind him.
The artifact, the bell made of bronze and blue metal rang harshly in the air. And it rang like pain. Pain and agony.
The Wyverns in the air screamed and some even stopped flapping and nearly hit the ground. The ringing bell fell to earth, and the Weyr scattered. Even the Wyvern Lord felt pain—although duller. His spell resistance, again. But it hurt. He twisted, enraged. Where had that come from? Where—
Another arrow. This one hit a Wyvern in the open mouth. Not as precise as Bird’s, but with a lot of force. The Wyvern screeched and the Wyvern Lord saw the archer.
Badarrow loaded another arrow, sighted, and saw the Wyvern Lord dive at him like a comet. His eyes went wide. He ducked back into the hatch he’d come out of, which led to the top of the fortress, cleverly disguised amid the stone.
He disappeared into the hatch and it swung shut just in time. The Wyvern Lord screamed as he dove towards the hidden metal tunnel. He tore at the crude metal hatch, ready to blow frost after the Goblin. A tunnel wouldn’t save it! His ice would freeze the mountain. He inhaled as one of his claws caught the lid of the hatch. He pulled it open—
Smoke engulfed the Wyvern Lord’s head. The huge monster coughed on the smoke and then saw fire—
About one minute before the explosion, Badarrow slid down the ladder, swearing as he felt splinters catch in his palms. He dove out of the door.
The Goblins standing guard stared at him. Then they began tossing fiery objects into the room.
The secret tunnel leading to the surface was in fact, a closed hatch and chamber secured by a thick, reinforced door. And shutters. The Goblins hurled fire into the room and it began to catch.
There was an entire supply of kindling in there. Garnish, the stick-Goblin, was one of the ones who gathered the flammable, dry material.
Now, it went up in moments. A [Shaman] blew more flames into the room and the Goblins slammed the shutters closed, and locked them. Then they backed away from the door and vents. So did Badarrow.
Inside, the room was burning, but the sudden lack of air quelled the flames. It was still amazingly hot, though. Without ventilation, the fire had little to no oxygen. But it had enough, and the room was hot. Incendiary. So as the Wyvern Lord tore open the hatch overhead, it gave the room fresh air and a way for the heat to travel.
The Goblins and Badarrow below saw the smoking door and vents suddenly flash. There was a boom, as air moved and fire shot upwards. And the Wyvern Lord was hit by an expanding cloud of debris, smoke, and fire.
Just for a second. The Goblins heard an angry shriek from above. The Wyvern Lord wasn’t even badly hurt. A [Siege Fireball] couldn’t kill a Greater Wyvern; the short burst of smoke and fire was just a deterrent.
But it stopped the deadly frost breath. This was fire and smoke and ash and it had shot right into the Wyvern’s eyes, mouth, and throat. He shrieked, coughed, and then blew frost straight back at the thing that had hurt them!
Badarrow howled the moment the trap worked. Goblins dove for cover. They fled the fire-trap just in time; the frost breath froze the metal and it shattered as the Wyvern Lord blasted the tunnel. Ice-cold frost followed the Goblins and a few of the slowest cried out as their skin froze. But none had been close enough to get the brunt of the blast.
The Hobgoblin [Archer] stared at the stone. It was cracking from the frost. The Wyvern Lord tore at the stone, but, wary of another explosion, he backed off. Badarrow shook his head.
He ran to the second fire-trap ladder. A Goblin [Scout] shouted he was clear and up Badarrow went. This time his arrows failed to provoke a Wyvern attack—they just backed up, dodging arrows and screaming in pain as a few pierced their hides. None of them were going to risk a fiery mouthful.
Not that the residents of Goblinhome could do that more than a few times. There were only a dozen hidden passages leading to the roof, all trapped like that. Anyone following the Goblins down would enter a room literally ready to explode in their face.
The concept of heating up a room until it went ‘boom’ was known as a backdraft in Erin’s world, but the Goblins of the Mountain City tribe hadn’t known that, only how it worked. Well, it had hurt the Wyvern Lord—he was still coughing as he took wing and circled. But the explosion hadn’t even hurt him badly.
Every weapon to survive. But it was just so unfair—
Monsters were strong.
The Wyverns were tearing through the second wall. The third had a new obstacle—nets. And Hobs and Goblin elites hiding behind barriers of stone.
The Wyverns began battling the fighters there, but more were landing. Rags listened to the reports.
“Too many in the air! Make them fall! Heavy-drop plan!”
She shouted. A messenger-Goblin started running and screaming.
“Heavy-drop plan! Heavy drop!”
The call was picked up and spread like wildfire through the fortress. Goblins reacted to the words, instantly shifting their plans. And within a minute—
The Wyverns in the air were flying lower, strafing the roof of the fortress to keep Badarrow from shooting arrows at them. They weren’t prepared for a boulder to roll aside in the valley and Carn Wolves to come racing out.
Half a dozen Carn Wolves—only half a dozen—shot out into the valley. The nimble Carn Wolves, huge, red-furred, three times as large as normal wolves, bore their Goblin [Wolf Riders] into combat. But not directly at the Wyverns clustered around the fortress. No, they sped towards the Wyverns in the air. And all of them were whirling…bolas? Yes! A stone connected to a bag of holding…
One of the Goblin [Wolf Riders] swung the bola and the bag of holding flew. The rope and bolas wrapped around a Wyvern’s foot as it circled; the huge monster barely noticed. The Goblin yanked on a second string as his Carn Wolf raced ahead, dodging blasts of frost.
The second string was tied to the bag of holding. Now, it yanked the bag of holding away—
And the gigantic boulder the bola had been lashed to was pulled out of the bag of holding. About, oh, a thirty-pound weight suddenly materialized and the Wyvern was left holding it.
They had four bags of holding that could take that much weight/mass, all looted from Humans on the battlefield. And they could do it once. Which meant four Wyverns fell and broke bones or had their wings snapped by the sudden drop.
Rags was gratified by the screams and thuds. It wasn’t that heavy, given how big Wyverns were, but she had seen this tactic work before. The sudden mass and weight literally dragged the Wyverns out of the air, and if the impact didn’t kill them…
“Four Wyverns down! Third wall holding! Snapjaw fighting Wyverns!”
In the third wall, Snapjaw was eating a Wyvern as it screamed and tried to dislodge her from its side. Calescent blew a handful of pepper dust into another’s mouth as it tried to blast him with frost. The Wyverns fighting past their fallen comrades howled as they ran into nets and Goblins.
And outside? The six Redfang riders split up. Four raced back towards the entrance. Two sped on. They rode the largest Carn Wolves by far. Both were Hobs, although one was still short. They raced at the Wyverns on the ground, making their way into the fortress. The Wyverns turned.
One of the [Wolf Riders] leapt from his saddle. He shot up, and slashed. He cut a Wyvern across the mouth with an enchanted blade, leaping high into the air to do so. He landed, and his Carn Wolf carried him away as the Wyvern howled and tried to strike back.
Leapwolf. The second-in-command of the Redfangs if you didn’t count Badarrow. But the other [Rider] came straight at another Wyvern. He had two blades.
One shimmered with frost. The other glowed red. The shorter Hobgoblin leaned sideways as his Carn Wolf dove under a Wyvern’s striking head. The Hob slashed up, so fast both his swords struck multiple times in a moment.
[Flurry Strikes]. Fire arced from the crimson blade, frost from the other. Both cut deep. Red blood showered over him. He raced past the first Wyvern as it collapsed. Slashing into the second. Rags heard a scream. And a name. The Goblins chanted it as the rider raced forwards, slashing through Wyvern scales.
Redscar. The Hobgoblin turned and Thunderfur howled. The Carn Wolf leapt over a Wyvern’s tail, bit. The giant wolf crunched and a Wyvern screamed—Redscar leaned down and severed the tail with a blow from the crimson sword.
A Gold-rank Adventurer’s blade. The iconic sword, Redfang, that had been wielded by Garen Redfang himself. The Hob bared his teeth as the Wyverns turned.
Leapwolf and his wolf howled as Redscar slashed right and left, darting between the bunched-up Wyverns. Redscar heard a roar and looked up.
The Greater Wyvern dove. Thunderfur raced forwards and Redscar raced past the Wyverns fighting through the first three walls. He bellowed.
“Retreat! Wyvern Lord coming!”
The Goblins engaged in the melee looked up, and fled. The Greater Wyvern, largest of his weyr, tore after Redscar, shredding the remains of the first two walls.
The third one never stood a chance. The Wyvern Lord rammed into it and the entire fortified wall shook. Rags saw the wood bow inwards and felt the thud run through her.
She cautioned the ranks of Goblins around her. They braced. The Wyvern Lord howled. He breathed, and the third wall turned to ice. Then he charged forwards and burst through. He opened his mouth as the fourth and final wall appeared.
And in front of it, an army of Goblins. They stood in the kill zone, behind traps that would have made Belgrade turn green with envy. And they were all armed.
A Goblin standing next to Rags held the black, Dwarf-made crossbow she used. Another was carrying a crossbow just as large, but home-made. Goblins stood on shielded balconies, aiming down at the Wyverns many working in two-Goblin teams to load and fire the oversized weapons. And as the Wyvern Lord’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw something else.
A huge…familiar…device. It was cruder than the ones at Pallass. But up close, you could really admire how the Goblins had taken the basic concept of…a crossbow…and scaled it up. Smashing job, really. The Greater Wyvern stared at Rags. The little Goblin stood in front of the gigantic war weapon.
Rags spoke into the silence. The Wyvern Lord saw a huge, bone-mounted ballista pointing at him.
Wyvern hide, sinew, and bone had gone into the device. Nothing else could withstand the enormous pressure that was being put on the aimed ballista. And the little Goblin aiming it had six burly Hobs who’d moved it into place. She waited as the Wyvern Lord reared back, narrowed her eyes—and yanked on the firing string.
The sound the ballista made was like thunder as it snapped. With it, every Goblin fired at the same time, hitting the Wyvern Lord with a Goblinhome greeting. The ballista bolt hit the Wyvern Lord first.
The impact carried the Wyvern Lord backwards, knocking it onto its back. The Wyvern Lord stared at the ceiling of the Goblin’s fortifications. He stared up at the rockslide trap as a Goblin pulled and the rocks dropped down on him and the Wyverns in the third layer of traps. They howled as smaller stones dropped on them—just another little gift.
The Wyvern Lord blinked up at the sky as Rags shouted and the Hobs began reloading the ballista. Smaller crossbows were snapping and the Wyvern Lord felt the bolts glancing off his armored hide. The [Sniper] was there too, calmly shooting a Wyvern through the open mouth. And Goblins were pouring out of the side tunnels, making it a melee again…
The Wyvern Lord heard the ballista reloading. He got up, checked the dented scales on his chest. They hurt. The Wyvern Lord looked around. Nearly a dozen of his Weyr were dead, and twice as many downed. He stared at the Goblins. Then at the fourth wall. The Wyvern Lord eyed the nearly-reloaded ballista, and the little Goblin, who’d conjured a ball full of fire in one claw.
She was staring at him. And a group of Goblin [Mages] and [Shamans] were standing on one balcony, throwing spells down at the Wyverns. The Greater Wyvern looked around, at Rags, and then turned.
He waddled off, kicking boulders and debris out of the way. Rags stared as the Wyvern Lord vanished backwards, shrieking a retreat. The other Wyverns, caught off-guard, followed him. The weyr flew backwards, retreating. One of them, enraged, dove at the Wyvern Lord, shrieking. They could have killed the green things! Coward! He challenged the Wyvern Lord—
And his wings froze. The younger Wyvern fell to earth and snapped as he hit the ground. The Wyvern Lord flew onwards in the sudden silence. He was miserable. First the Dragon, the not-Dragons, and now green things? He was going to go munch on some Gargoyles or something.
He was having a really bad week.
Inside the fortress, Rags stared as the last of the Wyverns fled. Some were still on the ground, screaming in pain, but Goblins were webbing them industriously with ropes. She stared about.
Badarrow was looking for Snapjaw. She was grinning, her stomach full of fresh Wyvern. Calescent was prodding a dead Wyvern, musing over dinner options. Poisonbite was kicking a dead Wyvern glumly, upset for some reason.
And Redscar? Redscar, his swords covered in blood, leaned on Thunderfur, whispering into his friend’s ear. He looked up and met Rags’ eyes. He nodded to her.
“Good job, Chieftain.”
All the Goblins looked at Rags. She shrugged. Her heart was racing. She had been afraid. If the Wyverns had gone through the fourth wall, it would have been bad. But it had worked. They had never attacked in such numbers. Ever.
But Goblinhome stood. It was not the first attack it had suffered. It would not be the last. But it had weathered another. Rags looked around, looked at wounded Goblins, how many of her traps had failed to stop the Wyverns, and shook her head.
“It wasn’t much. Weak.”
She never saw the Goblins staring at her back. The slightly-taller Goblin leaned on the ballista, berating herself. She met Redscar’s gaze.
“I will do better next time.”
Afterwards, Rags ran down a list of casualties. A report on Goblinhome.
Three out of the four walls were gone. The traps broken. Not many Goblins had died, thankfully—only those hit by the frost breath and a few fighting Wyverns up close. But one was too many.
And Goblinhome had used up a lot of the precious resources it had acquired to fight off the Wyverns. Wood, especially. It was hard to drag all the way up here and the mountainrange was not a naturally wood-bearing environment. But what concerned Rags most was her secret weapon.
The super-crossbow. Or rather, ballista. It had torn free of its mounting with the force of the shot.
“Too slow. Too hard to aim. Roarwings are better. Will put in the third layer, with nets. Make more. Have six.”
Rags sighed over the device. The Hobs nodded, as they eyed the cracked stone foundation. It would have to be removed and strengthened. If Rags had been forced to fire it a second time, the backlash might have broken it—or killed anyone standing behind it.
She gestured to the smaller version of the weapon that had been deployed against the Wyverns. A pair of Hobs nodded as they inspected the Wyvern it had killed; the bolt hadn’t pierced so much as broken the monster’s head.
This crossbow was a third of the size of the ballista, and in theory, moveable. The backlash from each shot could still break ribs, but the two [Greatbow Archers], both Hobs, could set it up within a minute or two on a stand that would absorb most of the impact. Then they could fire it. And it worked.
She had dubbed it her Roarwing-design of the crossbow, because it was both built of Wyvern parts and because even they had learned to respect the sound it made. Rags had only been able to make one prototype so far.
But now…Rags stared at the Wyverns. The Goblins of Goblinhome had downed just over a dozen directly; the rest were injured, some dying, others just incapacitated in some manner. She sighed. Her head ached.
“Stupid Wyverns. Go away, come back. Fight with hot thing. Make up minds!”
One of the [Shamans] interrupted. Rags stared at the [Shaman] and shrugged.
The other Goblins paused. They had all seen the fight with the Wyverns and the angry hot thing that had precipitated all of this. It was big, scaly…they thought about it.
The Goblins conferred and shrugged. Yeah, that was a Dragon. Probably. They’d never seen one, but it probably fit the description.
It was one of the more unpleasant surprises they’d found in the High Passes, but what could you do? Here was a Dragon, there was a Glacier Golem—over there were rocks you’d melt into and die, which turned out to be a vast colony of Rock Slimes—it was life.
None of the Goblins, Rags included, wondered why there was a Dragon here. They weren’t even sure it was one—maybe it was just another Wyvern, but…bigger. They didn’t have books or legends. They had no respect for the dignity and weight of the concept of a Dragon.
They were more concerned about how they’d store all this Wyvern meat. The stores were large, but Rags immediately ordered some rooms cleared to make room for all the food. And how would they preserve it? Hopefully, the magical meat wouldn’t rot as fast. She sighed, her head hurting.
“Need more wood! Fix ambush bunkers first. Then get wood. Put broken things outside. Outside! Too cold!”
She shouted at the other Goblins scurrying around. The attack had indeed been costly—more for the Wyverns in terms of lives. For Goblins, resources. Rags was still unhappy about how close it had been. And how it had really been down to persuading the Wyvern Lord to back off.
You could prepare for things, with traps, walls, and devices. And that would help. A lot. But there were limits to how much you could prepare. And there were simply things in this world that no amount of wood or stone or even metal would guard against.
Like the Dragon. If it wanted to attack Goblinhome, well, the Goblins would have to find a new home. There was no fighting it, or some of the other monsters Rags had seen. Like the giant mountain of ice that she’d been told was a Glacier Golem. Goblinhome couldn’t defeat those foes.
Even the Wyvern Lord, frankly. If he wanted to, he probably could destroy the Goblin’s fortress, or at least, blast away all that wasn’t rock and patrol the place until they had to flee or starved. But the Goblins could make that a difficult task for him. Very difficult, which was why he’d gone and was frankly unlikely to come back and attack again.
And…well, it wasn’t all bad. Rags was striding around, shoving little Goblin children who thought it was a good idea to walk barefoot onto the frozen ground and tear their toes off when she heard some outraged and muffled shrieking. She saw Redscar walking over to her.
“Good fighting, Redscar. Too dangerous.”
Rags stopped and looked at Redscar. He was a tiny bit taller than her these days, having become a full Hob, but he was the shortest Hob of them all. Redscar, who had been a normal Goblin like her before the battle at Liscor, had only grown a little bit after his transformation. But all of his muscle and strength had shot up with him.
Now, the leader of the Redfangs stood next to Thunderfur. The Carn Wolf was panting, regarding Rags with two intelligent eyes. Redscar was sweating too, but he looked at Rags calmly.
A lot of history lay between the two. Rags nodded and they walked together. Here, in this moment, Redscar was Rags’ second. He could have been chieftain, if he’d wanted it. But he didn’t. He was to Rags what he had been for Garen. But right now, the [War Leader] and [Beast Master] was simply the strongest Goblin in the entire valley.
No more, no less. He took Rags past the third wall and she saw a peculiar sight.
Fourteen Wyverns were immobilized on the ground in varying states of unhappy duress. They were trussed with ropes, mainly around their legs and mouths so they couldn’t do more than breathe. They were wriggling—but the Goblins had well and truly captured them.
“What is this?”
Redscar avoided Rags’ punch. He shrugged.
“Didn’t get away. So…Redfangs are trying to tame.”
Rags’ eyebrows shot up. Redscar nodded.
“Can tame Wyverns. I think. Drakes do it. Trying now.”
He pointed. And the Chieftain saw that a group of Goblins, many accompanied by Carn Wolves, were indeed marching up to the Wyverns. They were offering each slabs of meat—Eater Goat meat, not Wyvern meat—and gesturing softly and calmly.
The hissing Wyverns reacted furiously to the Goblins…at first. But something about the demeanor of the Goblins calmed the beasts. The Goblins were offering food, feeding the Wyverns carefully, so as not to let them breathe frost. And Rags saw they were trying to communicate. Their body language indicated friendship, if wary.
They were all [Beast Tamers], the very same ones who went out and found Carn Wolves to make the Redfangs mounts. They were trying to use their Skills—[Establish Bond]. But even high-level [Beast Masters] struggled to be one hundred percent perfect, and Wyverns were strong.
Two of them reluctantly took some meat, then snapped at the Goblins. Redscar nodded at Rags—the rest just tried to bite or breathe frost. The [Beast Tamers] waved at Rags as the two Wyverns who’d taken the meat were carefully fed more meat. Their wounds were being inspected.
“Hah! Wait, serious?”
Redscar looked at Rags incredulously. He shook his head. The two Wyverns whom the Skill had worked on weren’t tame.
“But can be. Very tricky. Very. Give food, give some freedom…try to teach. Never tame. Carn Wolves don’t tame, just…learn. Treat good. Maybe if small.”
He gestured. Rags saw that there was a mini-Wyvern in captivity. The young one had been brought down by an arrow through the wing and it was screaming; it had a broken foot. Redscar looked sympathetic, for all the Wyvern was trying to bite the [Beast Tamer] tending to it.
“Could make them mounts. Like Carn Wolves.”
“Goblins riding Wyverns?”
“Maybe? Even other Wyverns. Harder if no bond, but can try.”
Indeed, the [Beast Tamers] were giving Rags pleading looks. They clearly wanted to try to tame…and ride…Wyverns. Rags stared at them. She eyed the Wyverns, some of whom were large enough to eat her in a single bite. She looked at Redscar. He nudged her a few times.
“Hm? Hm? Would be good fighters. Maybe make babies. Good idea? Yes? Yes?”
He grinned, in the way all animal lovers did. Which was why Goblinhome had a kennel with Carn Wolves, some of whom had indeed given birth to pups. Rags grew sick of the nudging and punched again.
The [Beast Tamers] looked horrified. But—there were fourteen! They protested, trying to hug the bewildered Wyverns. Rags glowered.
“Six. Too big! Too fat! Too much to eat! Six only. Small ones don’t count. Others—”
She drew a line across her throat. The [Beast Tamers] looked horrified.
“They tried to eat us!”
Rags shouted. She pointed at one of the Wyverns. It was going cross eyed as Snapjaw wandered over. She’d killed a Wyvern by biting through its hide. The Wyvern tried to wriggle back as Snapjaw patted it and licked her lips—Badarrow was trying to wipe her mouth.
“No argument! Kill! Or let go! Have enough dead Wyverns! You want to keep? Get enough meat for fourteen, big, fat, stinky, ugly lizards!”
Rags was berating the [Goblin Tamers]. The Goblins all looked at each other, askance.
“Ugly too far. Chieftain wrong. Not ugly.”
“Not stinky either. Wet Carn Wolf worse.”
“Eight? Eight is good number.”
“Ten is better.”
“Fourteen is…good number?”
Rags raised a fist. She saw the other Goblins back up. And a hand landed on her shoulder. Rags turned.
“Redscar, no arguments. Can’t feed—”
“Ride with me.”
The [War Leader] looked at Rags. She hesitated. Amid the blood, the chaos, and all of it, Redscar looked at her. He whistled for Thunderfur and the Carn Wolf stopped flirting with another Carn Wolf. Redscar looked at Rags.
“Let’s go riding.”
Down, from the valley in the High Passes. The Goblins had gone higher, further than any other species. They had found this valley by chance; if they hadn’t, Rags would have led them to a lower elevation rather than risk settling anywhere less defensible.
It was a harsh struggle up here. If the Wyvern weyr had been at full-strength, or if another monster had come…if, if, if. And this wasn’t even that unusual an occurrence, even if the scope of it was unique.
And somehow, it was still not as bad as…before. Rags sat on Thunderfur’s back, with Redscar. The Carn Wolf was easily large enough to carry the both of them.
For an escort, eight Redfang [Wolf Riders] came with them. Leapwolf, the second-best Redfang, rode his Carn Wolf just behind the two. Redscar had entrusted security to him—and he’d jokingly said he’d feed Leapwolf’s ears to his wolf, Jumpy, if they were ambushed.
It might not be a joke among Redfangs, come to that. But Redscar trusted Leapwolf and the two were friends in a way Rags envied.
Mainly because Redscar was her…closest friend. Snapjaw obeyed, but Rags didn’t know her as well. The same with Badarrow. They were former Redfangs, and Rabbiteater too, but they had been changed by their time apart. The same with Poisonbite; she was one of Rags’ trusted officers, but she wasn’t as close. Whereas Rags and Redscar had been together from the start.
Well, almost. Almost. But there had been one Goblin before that. Her friend. The one who had shown her…so much.
Pyrite. And he was dead. In his absence, Rags felt alone. Alone, and weary. She sat on Thunderfur’s back as the other Redfangs whooped and bragged about defeating Wyverns.
But Rags had fended off the attack without the same exhilaration over victory. Just as much worry, but none of the triumph. She was weary. And jealous of Redscar as Leapwolf joked with him.
They began to descend, moving down out of the valley, letting the Carn Wolves pick a route down the cliffs and inclines. They were as sure-footed as Eater Goats. As the other Redfangs moved ahead to keep an eye out, Rags murmured to Redscar.
“Do you like?”
She covertly gestured ahead at Leapwolf. Redscar paused. He half-turned. He didn’t smile or jest as much with Rags. Or rather, if he did, it was with a reserve. She wasn’t one of the Redfangs, who were both male and female, but mostly male. She was the Chieftain.
After a second, Redscar shrugged.
Like all Goblin shrugs, the gesture had nuance. A bit of wariness, regret, and yes, a nod that Redscar was interested on multiple levels in Leapwolf’s body. Rags eyed Leapwolf’s back. It was a good back. But then Redscar muttered.
“Doesn’t like me.”
Rags fell silent. Redscar paused.
“Would like you. Leapwolf admires Chieftain. Likes female Goblins, not male.”
The Chieftain felt bad for asking. Another shrug from Redscar, that of stoicism. It happened. But also—he glanced at Rags and his body language asked her the question, unspoken. Rags had to think about that.
“What is like?”
She meant…liking someone. Like Badarrow and Snapjaw did, or other couples. Either like, as well. Liking someone for their body…well, Rags could admire that. But the other like, the deep one that tugged at you? She didn’t think she understood either one, frankly.
“Will know. One is here. The other is…”
Redscar pointed to his groin, then he tapped his chest. Rags paused. By his metrics, she didn’t like. His body language conveyed a…wanting she’d never had. Except maybe just to be strong.
“Good fight today. You risked life too much.”
Rags abruptly changed the conversation. Redscar shrugged.
“Leader of the Redfangs cannot be weak. Garen Redfang would fight.”
“You are not Garen.”
The words were bitter. Sad. Redscar paused. They still hurt, now, and Rags was afraid she’d wounded him. But he just nodded.
“Am not. But if I am not half of him, not trying, what are Redfangs supposed to be?”
She couldn’t answer that. After a moment, Redscar went on.
“Would have beaten Wyverns without me.”
“Mm. We need more crossbows. Big ones. Only ones that work on Wyverns and huge monsters.”
The [War Leader] made a scornful sound with his mouth. Thunderfur pooed as he walked, which might have been a gesture as well. Or he was just backed up.
“Not point, Chieftain. Goblinhome is strong. Strong enough. Maybe is time to send someone? To…inn?”
He looked sideways. And Rags froze. Her fingers tightened in Thunderfur’s fur until the Carn Wolf growled and Redscar gently prised her fingers loose.
Rags shook off the smell of death. The sight of the Humans charging. She looked at Redscar and saw a kindly face. But one that looked to her. Rags hesitated.
“Should. Should send. But…”
She had promised, vowed to send someone to Erin after Goblinhome was done. She had hoped it would be Rabbiteater; if he had come back she would have sent the expedition at once. But he had made his choice to continue going north, to find more Goblin tribes and save them from the Humans. Still, Rags should have sent someone.
But…she saw Redscar nod ahead of them. They were heading to the canyon floor, moving out of the pass into Human lands. She wasn’t worried; they’d done this before. Hence, the invitation to ride. Redscar spoke thoughtfully, planning it out.
“Badarrow takes Carn Wolf. With Snapjaw. Takes three days to get down, get to Liscor careful and secret. Maybe five most. Search for…others. Go to inn. Why not?”
Rags whispered the words. Redscar looked at her.
“Take thirty Redfangs.”
“Thirty Redfangs and ten Hobs and seventy Goblins?”
“Thirty Redfangs, ten Hobs—”
“No. Never enough, Redscar. Two is enough. But if they meet Erin, if she…”
She was alive. She had to be. Rags tightened her grip on the Carn Wolf’s back again until Thunderfur protested. She tried to explain to Redscar.
“She will try to protect. But she cannot. No one can.”
She had seen that on the Floodplains that day. Rags knew someone should look, on the off chance Goblins had survived. She wanted to go herself. She wanted to see Erin so badly. She was just afraid—it would happen again.
The circle. The cycle of Goblins attacking and being attacked. Only—it wouldn’t end. Not without Goblins having a way to defend themselves. That was the thing Rags had realized. Even if they didn’t attack, they would be killed. They had to break the cycle by being strong.
That was what Velan had known. He had tried for peace and they had slaughtered his tribe the first time. But only after he had been strong had he managed it. And then he had become a Goblin King and gone…mad.
All her memories of the Velan as the Goblin King were of all-consuming rage. So much that Rags could barely see what Velan was doing. She’d woken, screaming of blood and fury too many times from those dreams. Wanting to kill all Humans. The Playthings.
That was what Rags feared. That she would bring about a second slaughter, by revealing that Goblins lived to Erin, or whomever would find out. Or that…something would happen to the one Human who had been good to her.
Redscar might not have read all of that on Rags’ hunched posture, but he knew enough. He nodded, turned forwards, and dropped the conversation for a moment.
Rags struck him from behind. Redscar grinned. Rags sighed.
“Really want to train Wyverns? Good idea, maybe. Wyverns can fly. And drop Goblins.”
“So? Wyverns could be good friends. Eater Goats too hungry, Gargoyles too stupid. But Wyverns smart. Nearly as good as Carn Wolves.”
Thunderfur wuffed a low agreement. Rags paused.
“…Can try. But big. Fat.”
“Hunt for them. Not that hard. Anyways, Wyverns hunt too when fed. And maybe help carry things. Very strong. Also, good defenders…”
Rags gave up.
“Fourteen. Shut up, shut up. If fourteen live. Three look dead.”
The two rode forwards in silence. After a moment, Rags saw a regular thrush-bird scavenging in the evening light. She stared at it as Thunderfur panted. The bird tensed—so did Redscar.
“No, Thunderfur. Chieftain falls off.”
The Carn Wolf whined as the bird flew off. Rags snorted.
“Couldn’t get bird. Too far.”
“If Thunderfur pounces, could. But only a mouthful. Not worth the effort.”
Redscar informed Rags archly. The Chieftain rolled her eyes. [Beast Tamers] and their animals. Well, Redscar was a [Beast Master] now. Thunderfur had grown another size and he was certainly the alpha wolf—half of the new litters were his.
Soon they’d have little Carn Wolves pooping everywhere and begging for treats. Stupid, intelligent—Rags found herself offering a bit of meat forwards. Redscar fed it to Thunderfur.
“Plan, Chieftain? What next after rebuild?”
“If stupid Wyverns don’t come back? Or giant flesh-abomination? Or the thing with your face?”
“Or Rock Golems?”
Both Goblins sighed. Redscar nodded. Rags shrugged.
“Don’t know. Build fortress better for now. Stronger than Tremborag’s Mountain.”
“Good plan. But what else?”
“…Don’t know. Redscar, did you ever like female Goblins? Ever wonder?”
The Hobgoblin had to think about this. He was a mentor to Rags, in a way, taking up where Pyrite had left off. Well, he always had been, but now that Rags was older, he sometimes had conversations with her, assuaging her curiosity.
“Yes. Tried a few times.”
“Eh. Can tell difference. Thunderfur likes females. Not me.”
The [War Leader] patted Thunderfur on the head. Rags nodded. When you knew, you knew, she supposed. Redscar winked at her.
“Chieftain would be first pick if did.”
“Hah. First pick would be Ulvama. With her…and her…”
Rags gestured. Redscar sobered.
They both fell silent again. After a while, Rags looked at Redscar.
“I wonder if I can tell.”
“What does Chieftain wonder? Likes female or male Hobs? Go try. Many try with Chieftain.”
“No. I wonder…what I’m supposed to do. Everything looks like darkness.”
Redscar paused. He didn’t respond to that. Rags looked ahead, as they finally reached ground level. Leapwolf whistled softly as he waited for them. He pointed ahead.
“Careful. Gargoyles moving nests. Stupid rock-heads.”
The Goblins nodded. They kept an eye out and Redscar and Rags kept their voices even quieter.
“I don’t think Garen ever knew what to do. Always new plan, always…”
Redscar waved his arms in an offhand manner, indicating that Garen, for all his strengths as a warrior, had been a rather lousy Chieftain. Rags nodded.
“Chieftain is smart. If she cannot figure out what to do, no one can.”
“Everyone says that. Maybe everyone just stupid.”
Rags muttered. Redscar smacked her lightly on the shoulder. He pointed ahead as she blushed, embarrassed.
“Moody Chieftain not good for Goblinhome. Going to Eater Goat village. Humans. Chieftain can talk with Humans.”
Rags nodded. She knew that was their destination.
The Eater Goat Village. It had a proper name, but none of the Goblins bothered to remember it. It was the closest village to the High Passes, with naturally high walls—the villagers had built much like Rags had, trusting to geography and construction to keep them safe. The only difference was that theirs was a small village compared to Rags’ Goblinhome project, with less traps.
Oh—and they were [Shepherds]. Of Eater Goats. In the entire world, only this village raised the manically insane Eater Goats. The ever-hungry monsters had been tamed and…no, never domesticated, but tamed to some extent by the villagers.
Even the Redfangs respected that. Rags and Redscar had visited from time to time, to trade for resources, and…just to listen. To learn.
It helped smother the rage that sometimes burned in their chests. The desire to go out and murder every Human in retaliation. The people in the village weren’t good or evil. They were kind and cruel, generous and stingy.
They were rather like Goblins, actually. But they treated Redscar and Rags like normal…so long as they wore the disguises.
Speaking of which, Rags realized she’d left her bag of holding in Goblinhome. She cursed. Here she was without her sword, buckler, or crossbow! At least she could still use her magic, but this was stupid.
“Forgot disguise. Have to go back?”
Redscar snorted, patting his belt pouch.
“Have disguises here. All fine, Chieftain.”
The two lapsed into silence. Rags saw a shifting figure high above, and the riders paused warily. But the Gargoyle wasn’t hungry or didn’t spot them; the Carn Wolves blended with the reddish-brown dirt of the pass.
When it was gone, Redscar looked at Rags. And he came out with the real question he’d clearly been chewing on this entire time.
“Chieftain. Why not go to inn? Goblinhome protected.”
Rags hesitated. She’d been wondering that herself. But she had an answer, or so she thought.
“It’s…too nice there.”
Both brows on Redscar’s face rose up. Rags clarified.
“When I go, I want to stay forever. Forget. No—not forget. But stay and protect. Protect her. But I can’t. Not just Erin. All Goblins die.”
She was a Chieftain and this was her tribe. Rags would have to go back. But going back meant Erin was involved. And she could neither protect, nor shelter. Rags shook her head.
“Her inn is too small for all of us.”
“True. But…big enough for a few.”
Also true. Rags’ head bowed.
“I will not go. But send Badarrow and Snapjaw.”
The other Hobgoblin nodded. He patted Rags on the shoulder.
“Good Chieftain, good Chieftain.”
“I will bite you.”
The two were laughing. Riding forwards, as the Redfangs smiled and looked at their Chieftain. Small, but growing. Depressed, but striving. Humbled, but wiser.
They passed by a smooth section of stone none of them remembered. But it smelled normal, and the Goblins didn’t even seem to register the unusual bend in the road. They rode on, and Rags and Redscar rode past the spot. And the Dragon, sitting in the mouth of his cave. He looked at her, at the key she wore, and murmured.
Abruptly, Rags noticed a waft of hot air. She waved her hand in front of her face, wondering what that was. Then—she noticed they were riding past a very large, open cave. A spire of rocks with a yellow scarf marked the entrance. And sitting in the cave was—
The Dragon. His scales ran like burnished gold in the evening’s light. And his eyes shone, one orb swirling heliotrope and cerulean. He was massive, three times larger than the Wyvern Lord, making minnows of the Carn Wolves, even Thunderfur.
For a second, the Redfangs on patrol looked right blankly, staring at the cave and Dragon which had suddenly become visible to them. Or rather, it had been there all along, but they had been forbidden from noticing. Then they froze.
The Dragon stared at Rags. Right at her. She froze. This wasn’t happening. Was it an invisible Dragon? How had it appeared? How hadn’t they noticed?
“Dragon! Protect the Chieftain! Run, Thunderfur!”
Redscar shed his paralysis in a moment. He leapt off Thunderfur and drew both swords. His companion whined, frozen, shaking, but Redscar pointed. He charged, both blades raised, towards the Dragon. Thunderfur howled as he leapt away, climbing the steep ravine. Redscar howled and Leapwolf charged after him—
“Interesting. A Phantomsword with a weak burning enchantment. Pause.”
The Dragon spoke. Redfang froze, mid-step. So did Leapwolf. Their eyes bulged and they skidded to a stop, their muscles locked. Rags felt Thunderfur halt, mid-leap. She clutched at him as he tilted. They would have fallen to earth, but something caught them and gently lowered them to the ground.
Rags looked about. The other seven Redfangs were frozen in place, some holding weapons, others pointing. They weren’t able to move, but Rags sensed—she knew they were alive.
But they were frozen. And the Dragon hadn’t moved. He hadn’t even lifted a claw. He just regarded her. And then, he snorted. He drew himself up to his full height.
The Goblin Chieftain stared up at him. And she was struck by his appearance. He was beautiful. So flawless, it hurt to look at him. A creature of another kind, armored in scales, who breathed magic. He was what the Wyvern Lord was only a false copy of.
A Dragon. And without knowing his legends, Rags understood. The Dragon looked at her and she prepared to die. It was almost fitting.
But he did not open his maw and blast her to ash. Instead, the Dragon just sighed. He looked down at Rags.
“Your companions will be safe. I will return them to their…abode. So.”
He gestured. And Rags saw a shimmering circle transcribed with runes appear under each of the Goblins and Carn Wolves. They vanished. And the Dragon looked at Rags.
“No doubt you sought me, as the one before you has. A tedious thing. Nevertheless, I shall respect your quest and entertain your presence a moment.”
He turned. Rags saw him walk back into the massive cave. She stared at his back. She’d sought…?
“Come in already, child. I have been expecting you.”
The voice echoed. And Rags found herself walking into the cave. Dark, rough stone turned into smooth, stone tiles. The room became brighter.
And Rags found herself standing in a Dragon’s hoard. The Dragon himself curled up in the vast cavern of space. Suits of armor, swords in racks, bookshelves and every manner of magical object were neatly divided into categories and then thrown together in huge piles.
Rags saw a pile of gemstones, each shining with brilliant inner light placed next to…a block of gold. Just pure gold, three times her height and equally as wide. It was hovering off the ground so as not to crack the floor with its sheer weight.
A Dragon’s treasure. And in the middle of it was the Dragon. He stared down at her as she walked forwards. Rags gaped around. She stared up at the Dragon.
Rags was awed, stunned. She felt like this was a dream, more than Velan’s memories. It had happened so suddenly. Out of nowhere, a Dragon had appeared. And it had demanded the story revolve around it, as they did. And as he settled in place, the mighty Dragon spoke.
“So. You are young. No doubt, awed. You have come, following the steps of your King. But what you seek is not here. Were I a lesser creature, I would send you away with nothing more.”
The Dragon spoke. Rags started. His voice was so…normal. Deep, echoing, but precise, enunciated. Intelligent. He looked down at her as if she was a speck. And she was. The Dragon went on, raising one claw that was larger than she was and placing it delicately on the floor of his abode.
“But I granted your King an audience, and out of respect for that meeting, I have allowed you into my sanctum. Come and see a sight few have ever been privy to. Look upon me, inheritor of the Goblin King’s will. I am Teriarch, Lord of Flame. One of the last of my kind.”
Rags of the Flooded Waters tribe looked at Teriarch, the Dragon. She beheld him in his glory. His cavern, which was heaped with a ransom that no hundred [Kings] in this world could afford. A Dragon, a creature many thought dead from this world.
And she had no idea what was going on. Rags stared at the piles of treasure and then at the Dragon. The longer she looked, it seemed more like someone had been halfway through sorting his things; some of the heaps of treasure had yet to be subdivided. It still looked impressive. Just…midway.
What had he said? She’d followed the steps of Velan? He’d been here? Rags looked behind her to make sure Teriarch wasn’t talking to someone else and she’d come in by accident. But there was only her. She stared up at Teriarch. She didn’t know what was supposed to happen.
But he, apparently, did. The Dragon sighed, and wind blew throughout the cave.
“I am rather impressed by your resolve. No doubt you discovered my former abode was empty, yet you took your tribe into the mountains themselves to search for me. But I say to you again: what you seek is not here. You do not remember all of what your King did. The other key does not lie in my possession. Nor have I any interest in aiding your search.”
That last finally registered with Rags. She jerked, stared down at the key.
The little, ordinary key that hung from her necklace. It looked made of brass or some other unassuming metal. Rags lifted it. She noticed the Dragon’s eyes staring at it, and then at her. She pointed to it.
The Dragon’s eyes glittered. He nodded, regally, regarding Rags with a solemn air. As the sage to the questing hero. Rags resisted the urge to scratch the back of her head.
“I do not have the other key. If your memories took you hence, look deeper to find the second key. Not even I know where it lies, but from this place Velan first ascended to hide his legacy. Seek first the key, then his treasure. For without the second key, your search will be in vain.”
The Goblin stared up at Teriarch. The Dragon’s words echoed, and his eyes flashed as he pronounced his warning. Inside Rags’ head, something went click.
Oh. She immediately schooled her face and nodded.
“No key here.”
She said that to be clear. Teriarch paused. He eyed Rags, seeming to pick up on her disjointed replies only now.
“That is what I said. The key does not lie here. I do not possess or retain any—I have not acquired—I do not have it. Is that clear?”
Teriarch, the brass Dragon, stared at Rags. He seemed rather let down by her reply. Rags scratched at her butt. She didn’t know what she was supposed to say. After a second, Teriarch went on.
“I did speak to your King, but the nature of our conversation is but memory. Seek it if you will. But count on me for neither aid nor hindrance. Nor will you reveal my presence. I am neither ally to Goblins, nor enemy. Your kind has taken a terrible burden upon these passing ages. The world has never been kind towards Goblins. Dragons have earned our enmity, but Goblins…no, perhaps they too must lay blame at the feet of the Goblin Kings.”
The Dragon shook his head, and his mane flickered like someone had turned pure metal into hair.
“But still, your people strive. Out of respect for that, for the fallen Goblin King and his will, I have given you my words. Search elsewhere. Is that…clear?”
Rags said it again. Teriarch eyed her. He seemed to be waiting for her to give him anything other than a monosyllabic response.
The little Goblin searched her head. So, Velan had been here. Or if not here, he had spoken to this Dragon. She didn’t know that. She’d search for that memory. But he had been here.
And the key…she looked down at the little, ordinary key. Then up at the Dragon. He met her gaze. If he told her it was important, it probably was. It led to Velan the Kind’s treasure.
The same one Greydath had told her existed. Rags thought about it. Hidden. Above? In the High Passes? It made sense. Garen had said as much. But…
Rags sat down. The little Goblin sat on the Dragon’s grand floor, and he looked affronted. But Rags just spread her claws and looked up at the Dragon.
“What’s the point?”
Teriarch paused. He looked at Rags.
“I beg your pardon?”
The treasure this. The treasure that. Velan the Kind, his legacy. A grand…quest. Rags was so weary of it. Goblin Lords. She looked up at Teriarch and shook her head.
“What’s the point of searching for treasure? Goblins fight. Goblins die. Humans, Drakes, makes no difference. Goblins still die. Why die for treasure? What is the point of trying anything? We always die. Always. You tell me, big, shining Dragon.”
She sat there. Miserable. Remembering a night when everything died. Why build a home, climb for a treasure, plant a seed when it would always turn to ash? She lowered her head. Her eyes stinging with her regrets and failures.
And the Dragon hesitated. He looked down at the little Goblin, sitting before him. Teriarch looked down at her, the little Goblin who’d grown an inch. And the ancient Dragon with a mane like molten metal and scales which shone, sitting in his hoard of legendary treasures, paused. Because he saw something he recognized.
He closed his eyes. And then opened them wide. The Dragon rose. He turned, and looked for something. Rags ignored him. She stared about the hoard. Could she grab something and run?
Probably not. The Dragon flicked a claw. And Rags saw something move towards them. It looked…like a glass orb. But not a scrying orb. Something was inside it. The Dragon placed it on the floor between them. Then he flicked his claw.
“A difficult visitor. But better than the last one. The last three. Come with me, Goblin child. I shall show you something not seen by any eye in thousands of years.”
He turned. And there was light. Rags turned her head left, the same way as the Dragon. And she saw him step—
Into a vast chamber. With a ceiling a hundred times higher than the cavern. As high as the sky. A vast, open balcony looked across a shining landscape made of the glowing evening sky. And in front of it, on a dais, was a resting spot. A…place to rest. Brilliant metal, brighter and more magical than gold made up a soft seat, and a high backing stone.
Another spot was filled with frozen ice, or some gem like ice, that radiated frost in the air. Rags stared as the Dragon walked into this room. And even the ground was different. He looked back at her.
She stared at the ground. She stood in the Dragon, Teriarch’s cavern. But ahead of her, the floor blurred and turned into the light red material, mixed with soft white stone and laced with gold. Slowly, Rags walked into the room.
And she saw it expand. She stood in a room a thousand times vaster than Teriarch’s cavern. And the diamond she stood on was made of the white stone. Endless, massive flagstones set the room, and vast pillars held up the ceiling.
The entire room was a dome. A massive dome, so high up Rags could see nothing but the evening sky no matter where she looked. And she realized—the spot made of gold, the frozen space—they were set at equal spaces around the domed room. So that…whoever sat there might look down on her.
Now, Teriarch walked towards one that looked as if it might burst into flames at any moment. And indeed, as he arched his back and sat, flames ran from where he touched the glowing, brilliant stone. He looked down at Rags and uttered one word.
And she did. Rags’ knees trembled, as they had not in front of the Dragon. But this—this was real and unreal. And she began to believe she was not dreaming.
Even a Goblin could see a legend.
Teriarch’s words had provoked a response in the room. Behind him, the backrest of fiery stone burned. And a bright, blue light traced itself in curved, beautiful sigils.
Words. But not ones Rags knew. A language she had never known, but which called to her. Rags saw the words writing themselves, first on the stone behind Teriarch. Then on the second, the frozen spot. Then another, which sent sparks of lightning cascading to the floor.
A message. But she did not know it. She had never seen these words. But why—then why—
Rags knelt. Why was she weeping? Tears flowed from her crimson eyes. And she wept, though she didn’t know why. The Dragon looked down at her. And he spoke, reciting the message spelling itself out across the room.
“They come, the children seeking the heart of flame
Those who inherited the earth and remember the dead names
We alone remain.
The old ways are broken and our friends long since passed
And we remember they kept oath and held to the last
Our dearest friends, gone in glory.
So come, young, who know not what was given away
Plead the mortal plight of your lives this day
And look upon the last gathering of Dragon and Wyrm.”
His voice rolled softly through the chamber. And in time, Rags looked up. Her tears had stopped. And she could stand. She slowly walked forwards, across such a vast distance that her legs hurt before she was finished.
Teriarch was murmuring softly to himself, but the acoustics were such that his voice filled Rags’ ears. Soft, pleasant. And old.
“A poor translation. We really should have added an auditory component. The effect grows lesser after being forced to recite it a hundred thousand times.”
Yet he seemed…pleased. And sad. Sadder than Rags was, because he knew what this room was. She didn’t. Not yet.
But the little Goblin stopped in front of Teriarch. And when he looked at her, he harrumphed gently. Like some old, grumpy Goblin who Rags had never met. Even Greydath had been young in his way. And he spoke conversationally.
“I personally objected to including Wyrms in the verse. The majority of their kind are not fit for such august company, as history has proven. We might as well allow Wyverns in here. But in the days when this place was built, there were individuals who walked among Dragons as equals. That alone is worth remembering.”
For some reason, those words alone drove Rags to the ground. Because that convinced her this was real. This place, which could have held Goblinhome many times over. This…
Rags tried to stand up, but she just fell down. Teriarch smiled as she crawled into a sitting posture.
“Better. Look at me, little Chieftain of Goblins. Look around. What do you see?”
Rags looked. She stared around the domed room, past Teriarch. All she saw was sky. No mountain, nothing else. Not even any clouds. Just the evening sun. And perhaps—that was because there was nothing beyond this domed room. Nothing. Just light. And she looked at Teriarch.
And the stone…behind him, the flaming material gracefully sculpted, holding the sacred words. And his resting spot burned with fire for the Lord of Flame.
But there was nothing else. No armrests. Why would you need one? Something moved in Rags’ head. And she looked around. The other spots. Each made…one of frost, another with lightning, another of that brilliant Truegold…
“A…grand place. No. A throne?”
Her voice wobbled. And the Dragon smiled again. His eyes lit up. He arched his back and his wings opened. They spread, indicating the dome.
“Yes. This is a Dragonthrone. One of the last this world knows. And you stand, supplicant, Goblin child, before the last true owner of the Dragonthrone. Well, perhaps one of three. But mine the grandest of them all.”
His neck lowered, looking down on Rags from above. After a moment, when the Goblin didn’t respond, Teriarch lowered his head and rested it on his claws. He seemed to be waiting. Perhaps for applause.
Rags didn’t applaud. She just looked around. And it made sense. It was like a throne room, like the one Tremborag had sat in.
But—it was such a terrible comparison she felt the Dragon would have squished her if she’d suggested it. Tremborag had squatted in his throne in Dwarfhalls rest, an ancient place made of stone and corrupted glory. But this throne was beautiful, unchanged. And somehow, Rags still knew how ancient it was.
“How? This was in the glass thing. How is it…?”
The Goblin waved her arms. Teriarch shrugged.
“A contained world, yes. It is a place within a place. That is what a Dragonthrone is. Portable.”
Rags echoed the word. Teriarch smirked at her, greatly pleased. He gestured around the room.
“Of course. Why should a throne sit in one place? Why should we subject ourselves to anything less? In days of yore, days so far gone that perhaps only Goblins and Dragons remember, my people built these thrones. And the greatest of us entertained the petitions of other species. Behold, once more. What do you see?”
Rags looked. The Dragon’s tone was arrogant, but it had every right to be. If this had been made—and you could take it in an orb half Rags’ size, it was magic of legends. She stared at each Dragonthrone. And counted.
The Dragon’s eyes flashed, with amusement—and sorrow. Not all the thrones were tied to one element, Rags saw. One was made of silver. Shadowed silver, that seemed to reflect something as she looked at it. Another was wreathed in shadows. Another surrounded by the blowing winds, yet one more overgrown, verdant.
For different types of Dragons? Teriarch nodded, and his throne of flame warmed his scales as he spoke. His tone was lecturing, conversational, nostalgic, bitter, and sorrowful at the same time. Yearning and triumphant. Not one thing, for a Dragon’s voice.
“Such was the last meeting in this throne. Never afterwards. And the Dragonthrones, like Dragons, slowly vanished from the earth. All were lost, destroyed rather than fall into the clutches of the undeserving. Two were seized, and one survived plunder and time. Humans still squat in it in Terandria. They built a kingdom around it and forget what it was. Pah, at least they remember the owner.”
He sighed. Rags nodded.
“Humans steal things.”
She felt like she had to contribute to the conversation. Teriarch eyed her.
“Yes. They do. Greater thieves I have not known. Well, aside from Harpies. And they are vain, and petty, but shallow in what they steal. Humans…steal more than most. And blamed their thefts on Halflings, until the small folk passed. But Humankind they stole one such throne successfully. Calanfer. They call it the Eternal Throne because it was not made for them.”
He grinned. Rags smiled too. Because she got the joke. Teriarch stretched.
“Nevertheless. This Dragonthrone has not been entered since the age of the Creler Wars. And then—only as sanctuary. You set foot in it now, upon my whim. It is an honor.”
No thank you, nothing else. That would have been insufficient. Teriarch seemed to sense Rags’ feelings, and he nodded, pleased. It was an honor; Rags could never have denied that.
A Dragon’s whim. He paused, looking at her. Then Teriarch raised his head.
“You weep for your people’s fate, Goblin child. But look upon the majesty of Dragons. Look at what we were. Look upon this place. And look at what is left.”
He needed to say nothing more. It was something Goblins understood. They would have understood if they stood in this place alone. All of it, completely. Rags felt her eyes fill up again. She wiped her eyes. Then she looked up at Teriarch.
“Left? How many Dragons is left?”
He shook his head.
“Are left. And…I do not know. I stopped counting long ago, both the living and the dead. My people hid many of their young. And we are the mightiest of beings. Some may remain, even if they are young, ignorant. I do not desire to meet them. But of old?”
He stared around the room. And Rags knew—he could see the empty thrones filled. Just like she could look around and see Pyrite eating a snack on quiet nights. Teriarch shook his head.
“I remember ten thousand years ago, there were four true Dragons, four who flew during the days of Dragon nations including myself. Four. And I watched one fall during the Crelers Wars. And the other two…no. They were wounded so grievously—they may have hidden. But I fear…you may be speaking to the last Dragon who remembers the truth.”
Truth? Rags looked at Teriarch. He paused. And his eyes were terribly old. He looked down at Rags and whispered.
“Perhaps even now, you speak to the last of us. If so, remember this moment forever, little Goblin. That your descendants might remember it as long as Goblins endure.”
The Dragon’s words pierced Rags’ chest. She nearly stumbled with the burden of it, and caught herself. Then she grew angry. Her sorrow turned to anger. Rags was an angry Goblin. When she didn’t weep for the devastation, she raged. Just like she had at an [Innkeeper]. She pointed at Teriarch’s face and glowered.
“Sad. Is supposed to cheer me up? Don’t see the point. If Dragons died, how do Goblins live?”
The Dragon blinked as the tiny Goblin pointed up at him. He was affronted—and then he smiled for a second. He bent his huge head.
And Rags gulped. Two vast eyes stared at her. Straight through her, like he could read every inch of her. Her future, her past. They captured her. And the Dragon murmured, in a voice that made her bones shake.
“It is meant to show you what was lost, insolent little Goblin. Look. Behold what we had. Dragonkind was foolish. We fought amongst ourselves and were drowned by the small. We could not create a perfect sanctuary. Do you understand? This was our throne. But no Dragonthrone ever has but one seat.”
He indicated the other, empty thrones. Rags nodded, shaken, as his head retreated. Teriarch looked at her, his voice swelling.
“There is hope, child. Listen to me. There is hope for your people. For Goblins have not passed from the earth. They endure. And so long as they live in number, even in the darkness, there is a chance.”
He touched the scales on his chest, lightly, with one claw. Teriarch’s eyes glittered as he spoke.
“We never suffered a King. But Goblins—you have ever had a King. Ever since the first Goblin King. That is your hope.”
Rags stood up. She was shaking. Now, she wanted to believe Teriarch knew. How could you break the cycle? Velan had tried. She had walked in his body. She had seen how good he was. But he had turned into a King and died.
“How? Goblin Kings come, they get mad. They die! Everyone always kills Goblins—more after Goblins Kings! They don’t bring good things. How do we live? How—”
Teriarch’s eyes flashed with every passing word. He spoke, in a thunderous voice as smoke escaped his jaws.
“His legacy, you fool! Or do you not remember what Curulac of a Hundred Days left? Sóve, the Island Queen? Each one left hope! Do you not remember what they did? They died! But they knew their death the moment they became Kings! They left it for you! His treasure! Or do you scorn it? Do you not know what he gave up, for—”
The Dragon paused as the Goblin quailed in front of him. Rags’ heart was beating erratically as the force of the Dragon’s ire washed over her. Teriarch relented. He sat back. And then he looked at Rags. His eyes widened and his fury vanished in a moment. Suddenly, his voice was low, sorrowful.
“Ah. Perhaps even your memory fades. You do not know what the other Kings left, do you? You only know there is a treasure.”
Rags whispered. Teriarch nodded. Then paused, shook his head.
“The Goblin Kings…are not just creatures of rage. Though it drives them to their death. To educate, the island your people claim that haunts the House of Minos? That was made by Sóve. You may not have known this, and perhaps even the Goblin Lords forget…”
He paused. The little Goblin was staring up at the Dragon. She made her mouth work.
“Of course. Island. Of goblins.”
“Yes. She left it with the fall of the Minotaur’s Age of Conquest. And it endures.”
Teriarch flicked one wing, gently. His voice was soft, recollecting the past. Rags listened, heart beating wildly.
“Perhaps they are small things. Curulac only left one thing, but the most precious to him in this world. And his daughter was slain within a decade of his death. But even she left…embers. And they endured until Velan the Kind rose. Perhaps they still glow. The other Goblin Kings have left something, for the future. If you must cling to hope…Velan’s legacy has yet to be found.”
He looked down at Rags. Not unkindly. Teriarch nodded.
“Velan the Kind saw his death. He saw the truth that I keep. And he succumbed to the madness of your Goblin Kings. But like all the others, he dreamed of one who might follow and succeed where he failed. His legacy is for that, to safeguard Goblins, or…to give them what they seek. And you hold his key. Do not scorn it lightly, child.”
Rags looked down at the little key hanging around her neck. She looked at the Dragon. It was such a small thing. But it seemed to grow warmer in his presence, at his words.
It was surely just her imagination. But Rags still held it tight. The Dragon gave her hope. And he raised his head.
“The High Passes are vast. So tall that even Dragons feared what lay above. Yet Velan climbed it, to hide his great treasure for one who was worthy. A test, rather than a gift, perhaps. But his treasure remains. And if you find it, you will know his will. Perhaps that may change the fate of Goblins. But perhaps your Kings always choose your fate knowing what will pass.”
The Dragon spoke the words softly. But with a…longing that sent chills down Rags’ spine. She looked up at him. And Teriarch shook his head. He gestured, spoke a word as he raised his claw.
The throne vanished. Rags was abruptly standing where she had been before. She stared around the cavern.
Which was no less filled with treasure, no less vast. But compared to the Dragonthrone, it was dingy, small. And Teriarch himself seemed to feel it. He curled up again, looking tired.
“Leave the treasure your King left, or seek it. I give you only my words, a vow kept. For those Goblins I have met who were worthy of my respect. I care not.”
He was a Dragon. But a poor liar. And Rags saw it. Teriarch breathed in and out, slowly.
“I will return you to your home.”
He raised a claw, pointing, and a circle of magic appeared at Rags’ feet. But she wasn’t ready to go. So the little Goblin waved urgently.
She raised her clawed hand. The Dragon blinked at her.
“I am weary. I do not entertain questions lightly. You have been granted a privilege. Do not presume, mortal.”
He raised his claw. Rags waved her hand urgently. Teriarch snorted.
“Why should I listen to your request?”
He snorted heat and smoke at her. Rags paused.
“What about the words?”
She meant the glowing poem written on the stone. Teriarch’s head rose and he stared at her. For a long moment he paused. Then he bowed his head.
“Ask. I do not promise an answer.”
Rags held her breath. Then she expelled it.
“What is the secret the Goblin Kings know? Of the world?”
Velan knew something. All Goblin Kings did. They remembered or knew…something. But no one knew what it was. Perhaps Greydath did. And perhaps Teriarch…
The Goblin saw the Dragon’s eyes widened. He opened his maw. Spoke.
For a long moment Teriarch regarded Rags. And then he laughed. It was a soft laugh, but it was laughter. The Dragon laughed and then rose. He shook his head.
“I have had many questions. From arrogant [Necromancers], City Runners, ambitious young [Ladies]—and they were petty ones compared to the [Monarchs], [Heroes], and [Archmages] that once sought my favor. But only Goblins ever ask this question. The most valuable and terrible of secrets.”
He looked down at Rags. And he shook his head.
“I cannot answer you. If you become a Goblin King, you will know the answer better than I. And it will break you. But it is better left forgotten. I could only tell you if…”
The Dragon hesitated.
“If you spoke the right words.”
Rags stared up at him. She thought for a long moment.
Teriarch’s eyes opened. He blinked a few times. He laughed, softly, old. And he shook his head.
“I do not think we will meet again, little Goblin. But go. Go and do as you will with your life.”
That was all. He gestured. Rags felt the magic circle below her ignite with power. She bowed, then, since there was nothing she could do.
“Go well, little Goblin. You were more pleasant than your predecessor. He was arrogant. You were not.”
Predecessor? Rags felt the magic picking her up. And she realized who that had to be. She shouted.
Teriarch’s head turned. The magic paused, a moment. But it was in motion. He replied for a second, as Rags felt herself vanishing.
“That impudent little Chieftain? He challenged me when I granted him an audience for the key he held. I forget his name. But he stood here, briefly, before I removed him from my presence. You are at least more polite than he. Yes.”
He saw Rags’ look. And he bowed his head.
“You hold his will too. Go.”
And she vanished. Rags moved through the world in a moment. She appeared in Goblinhome, amid the chaos and worried Goblins. Well, not amid them.
Dragon spells were powerful. But sometimes they got things wrong. At least she appeared above the lake. Rags hit the water with a splash and sunk. But even as the Goblins surged around her, asking questions, preparing to run, to leave, Rags wasn’t sure.
If she was dreaming, let her wake up only in better days. But let her never forget that grand room. And the Dragon’s voice as he spoke to her.
The Dragon had met the Goblin King. A mortal worthy of his respect.
That night, Rags sniffed as she sat in a bundle of warm blankets. Goathide—she sneezed. She might be getting a cold. Or she might be allergic to goat.
In Goblinhome, a bunch of angry Wyverns were tethered. But a little Wyvern child was rather confused about how a green thing had made its leg stop hurting. And the others kept petting it. It didn’t like the muzzle that stopped it from biting, but it liked being stroked and scratched just so, in places it couldn’t reach.
Rags sat in Badarrow’s shooting spot. Goblins were hard at work, building another wall. Maybe they’d mount the ballista up here. Although if it broke or decayed…
The little Goblin was thinking. Thinking on her encounter, which she still wasn’t sure had happened. Maybe she’d eaten some bad mushroom and hallucinated the entire thing. But her body was still shaking with nerves.
She had learned things. Things she had never dreamed could exist, that Reiss and Garen and perhaps even Tremborag hadn’t known about. Well, perhaps Tremborag.
An island of Goblins. The legacy of Goblin Kings. Things that they knew that Dragons knew.
A lot and a little. Dragons were, apparently, longwinded. Somewhat pretentious. They told you a lot, and a little.
But this one had given her hope. Rags stirred as she looked up. The High Passes lay above her. Even Goblinhome was barely at more than the base of the mountains.
The Goblin Chieftain stared up.
She heard a hatch open. Redscar climbed out of it, and then Badarrow, Snapjaw. Poisonbite wasn’t with them. She was drunk. But the other three joined Rags.
“Chieftain? Having big thoughts?”
Snapjaw looked at Rags. So did the others. Rags looked at them thoughtfully.
“Dragon say important things?”
“Dragon has bad breath.”
The other Goblins snorted. Rags paused.
“Thinking. Rabbiteater went north.”
Badarrow paused. Rags nodded. She looked thoughtfully at the mountains, then pointed.
“North. Rabbiteater. South—inn.”
Badarrow stirred. He looked at Rags. She glanced at him.
“Inn important. But…small. Dangerous. Badarrow, goes. Searches for Goblins.”
“And Snapjaw. But later. And maybe—make Wyverns tame. Going to have to learn how to fly. Maybe make saddles, rope in case fall.”
Rags was already thinking over the logistics, sighing. So much poo. And they’d eat so much. The other Goblins looked at her. Redscar grinned.
“Chieftain going somewhere? Inn?”
The Goblin Chieftain paused. She pursed her lips, and then she shook her head.
“No. Maybe. Going to find other Chieftains first. The two in the north.”
The others looked at her. Rags explained.
“Other Chieftains. Ones who refused to fight Reiss, join Tremborag. Strong.”
Snapjaw nodded slowly. She remembered. So did Redscar.
“The [Witch] and the [Fighter].”
The giant Goblin leader and the Goblin [Witch]. Redscar looked mystified.
“Why? Fight? Say hi and slap back?”
“Allies. To go up. And to find key.”
Rags’ eyes glinted. She couldn’t remember enough. Her tribe was too small. But—she looked at the key Garen had left everything for. So did Redscar, Badarrow. Snapjaw glanced up, following Rags’ finger.
The Goblin pointed at the heights of the High Passes. Redscar stared up at the hidden summit, behind the clouds. And he grinned.
“A challenge worthy of Redfangs.”
“Something to do.”
Rags agreed. She smiled. Badarrow looked at her.
“What about this?”
Rags patted the bench.
“Goblinhome? Goblinhome remains. And Goblins come here. Get larger, bigger. Safety.”
She nodded to them. And the others nodded. Rags yawned. She sat back, as Badarrow offered Snapjaw a blanket he’d brought. And she shared a drink. Redscar sighed as Rags closed her eyes. The four Goblins sat together. And Rags closed her eyes. She slept peacefully, for the first time in a while.
[Level 27 Steelflame Tactician!]
[Spell – Fast Fireball obtained!]
[Skill – Dual Shot obtained!]
The little, depressed, melancholy, hopeful, tired, genius, failing, growing Level 32 [Great Chieftain] of the Flooded Waters Tribe.
And the Dragon paused, after the little Goblin had left. He thought about their conversation.
Such a small thing, a whim. For him. But it had mattered. He looked at the Dragonthrone. And he shook his head.
“She was strong. For one so young. But then—they are so young. And even their Goblin Kings…”
Teriarch remembered the past. And it could be painful. But he could see a Goblin King, standing in front of him. One of many. And Goblins. They blurred together. And they became the little Goblin.
“Once again, and yet again. Let it be.”
The Dragon began to slumber, and dream of ages past, long conversations he himself had forgotten. But before he did, he idly opened one eye.
“Ah. Those pestilential Wyverns. Hm.”
Yawning, the Dragon idly composed something in his head, sent it off with just a thought. Then he settled back.
And a [Message] arrived in the Mage’s Guild in Liscor. And in Pallass. And in every Mage’s Guild within two hundred miles of the High Passes. The kind of [Message] that made the [Scribes] pause and slip as they transcribed. The kind to make someone look twice as it was rushed to the Adventurer’s Guild.
A…notice. A bounty. It read as follows:
Forsooth! The Frost Wyvern population in the High Passes is getting out of control! A particularly aggressive Weyr of Wyverns has descended and is causing havoc. Any brave adventurers of good courage and skill at arms should rid the good folk plagued by this menace! For their deeds of valor, each shalt receive a reward of the following:
2,000 gold pieces of sufficient purity for each Wyvern head.
80,000 gold pieces for the Greater Wyvern leading the weyr.
No gold is to be paid for those Wyvern young, and they should be left alone. Payment shall be received at any good Guild of Adventurers. Proof of the defeated Wyverns is all that is required. No flesh or hide is required.
And it spread. Teriarch put the bounty out of his mind. Just a bit of housekeeping, like sorting his treasure piles. He hadn’t heard about Pallass, and he’d been enjoying his nap until now.
The Dragon sighed as he closed his eyes. He’d better set an alarm. For…tomorrow. Next week? He’d have to get the gold to the guilds of course…maybe Reinhart could deal with it? Or he could pretend one of his disguises was sending it in, although then the gnats would start buzzing about and asking questions…
The whims of Dragons. Many didn’t believe in their existence to begin with. But they still mattered. And as the old Dragon slept and his message hit Izril like wildfire, the youngest species—the youngest that mattered—sat in their home and built something safe. There were monsters, and it wasn’t easy. But they were alive. They had dreams.
And at least there weren’t any stupid adventurers up here, right?