[Barbara Clark will edit a chapter in October! Look forward to it! Also, vote in the Patreon poll! These two things are not related. At all.]
“One. Kiscre. Two. Highsword. Three. Seizhe. Four…”
“I don’t know Seizhe.”
“Mountain City Tribe.”
“Redfang. How many?”
“Over three dozen. Held a hill.”
“Mm. Not as many as war.”
“Still too many.”
“Not as many as a battle, Chieftain.”
“…Five. Escre. Six…”
It was incomprehensible at first, over her terror. Lady Hekusha—technically ‘lady’ as it was a noble title, if ornamental, for she owned no formal land nor had a house—or Magus Hekusha as they failed to call her. Were even surprised by her insistence on the title.
Hekky. That would be a…a childhood name. Although the rag-tag group that had used to call her that was long-since grown. No more adventures. No more watching them play at being proper [Ladies]—which they were, even then—but devolving into actual fistfights.
Well, back then only Pryde and Bethal had hated each other that much. And it was more like a rivalry which blew out of proportion at times.
Nevertheless, Hekusha was too terrified to make sense of it. The quiet voices, the reasoned, even carefully enunciated words—at least from the smaller one. The Chieftain, for all the big one seemed more in line with the image. It took her a while to realize what was happening.
Numbers and names. A simple system. The little one—called ‘Rags’—was counting the dead. Apparently the Goblins hadn’t overrun Tenbault without loss. It was still…so strange.
For she counted just over a hundred names, solemnly, refusing to let one off her list, even those that didn’t have official names and were just ‘that one with the scar on his…’ and so on. Strange, because she thought a hundred Goblins to defeat a Named Rank adventurer and Tenbault’s defenders was too high a cost.
Strange, because why did Goblins sound like they cared about anything? She was only glad they hadn’t touched or harmed her. Yet.
The woman flinched when the big Goblin looked down at her. There were three on the Wyvern’s back, though the last one didn’t speak. She had red paint on her arms and, of all things, a strange, spectacle-like headpiece. A helmet, but with eye-coverings. Hekusha had never seen the like…but then, she had never seen a Goblin flying a Wyvern before. The [Wyvern Rider] grunted, taking orders from the little Goblin.
It was the big Hob who grunted at the terrified woman lashed into place on the Wyvern’s back. The great creature was grumbling with four passengers, nevermind that two were child-sized, and the [Wyvern Rider] kept reassuring it, urging it on.
They were being followed. And whilst Hekusha, known to all and sundry as The Healer of Tenbault, and not by any other name, dearly wished for her freedom, she was terrified that any battle in the air would result in her falling to her death. And she couldn’t quite recall [Featherfall] off the top of her head. If she had her spellbook…
Her teeth chattered and she really needed to pee. She was still shellshocked and afraid of what would come next. And—she shrank back, trying not to disturb the angry Hob. They were clearly aware of her value, which was good, but they were dangerously unpredictable, angry, for all they could speak.
“Calescent, stop smiling.”
Rags glanced up once and saw the Healer of Tenbault’s terrified expression. Her [Spice Chef] gave her a hurt look.
“I have great smile.”
“No you don’t. Humans scared of more than thirty teeth. Sharp teeth, too.”
Calescent frowned. He opened his mouth and began to count his first row of teeth. The horrified look on the woman’s face…Rags sighed.
“Hh. Dn’t nd tll uf.”
Calescent retorted, finger tapping each tooth. Rags rolled her eyes. She had just received a signal from Taganchiel. She brushed absently at something on her wrist.
A glowing mark in paint. Taganchiel was from Mountain City’s tribe. He was a former apprentice of none other than Ulvama herself, and as such, practiced her brand of shamanic magic. When Rags had discussed the issue of [Message] spells being difficult—she couldn’t cast them herself, and he was a [Shaman], not to mention interception—he’d shown her how they did it.
The magical paint wasn’t nearly as complex as the stuff that could turn to armor or produce advanced effects. But Taganchiel could make the white paint glow certain colors. Right now it was glowing a steady blue.
Safety. He’d broken down the marking into different quadrants. She saw all four were blue. He was safe, the bulk of the Goblins were safe, Poisonbite was safe, Kevin was safe.
She sighed. The last word they’d gotten before they were out of range was of the messy withdrawal. Her Wyvern flew alone through dark skies, having long since passed nearly two days in travel time.
Fleeing Tenbault. That had not been the plan. But…Rags glanced over her shoulder.
She poked the Goblin in front of her. The Redfang turned her head, and Rags rolled her eyes at the newly named Goblin. Officially sanctioned, by no less than the Goblin herself and Taganchiel. Just in case it helped land her the coveted class.
“Any Humans following, still?”
“Went into clouds, Chieftain. Hard see. Night. Maybe track?”
Her shrug went to indicate that all things being equal, the Wyvern they were flying was overburdened, however, given the Humans’ lack of aerial forces in any number, the few flying carpets and solo Pegasus would not easily catch them unless they had advanced tracking capabilities.
Rags nodded. It was as good as you got. She glanced down and frowned as the Wyvern made a rumbling mraarh sound, which meant it wanted a break.
“Idiot’s still following.”
Calescent stopped poking his teeth long enough to agree. Rags sighed.
“Fighti. Down. There.”
She pointed to a forest. They were headed north, fleeing a massive Human army trying to get back their beloved Healer. Alone. Rags had told the other Goblins to get back to Goblinhome, and take Kevin back to Liscor and await their return. If they lost the Humans, they could circle back. It was risky with one Wyvern, but they had a better shot than multiple Wyverns.
…The problem wasn’t just that, though. It was that some idiot had decided to heck with Rags’ orders and followed them. He’d barely been on the horizon yesterday. By the time they landed, he’d sped up and Rags guessed that he’d be on them in less than twenty minutes. She glared as the Wyvern dove quickly, hoping to escape notice; the nearest Human settlement was a ways away. Even so, she still spotted the group of sixteen, led by the giant wolf.
Rags dismounted in a clearing as Fighti took the Wyvern in slow at the end, saving the monster from tearing its wings on the branches.
The Frost Wyvern whined, much like a dog. It did not like forests, where the canopies could shred its wings if it landed fast or hard enough. In fact, Rags had heard that Wyverns sometimes died to Griffins, their rivals to the north, a species from Terandria, who loved to bait them into dives that crashed them into the trees, leaving them easy prey from above.
Fighti reassured her mount, and set to work. She fed the Wyvern a meal-bag, a huge amount of dried Eater Goat meat that the beast scarfed down as it also pooed. Rags wrinkled her nose at the smell, but Fighti was already offering it a stamina potion and slashing the branches overhead, readying for a fast takeoff.
“O-oh, dead gods…”
A weak voice made Rags look over. The Healer was slowly sliding down the Wyvern’s back. Her hands were tied, and her wand was gone, in Rags’ own belt. The woman looked like she wouldn’t have put up much of a fight, even without these precautions.
She was a bit…disappointing. Rags had expected the brilliant Healer of Izril, for all she hadn’t liked Tenbault itself. At the very least, she’d expected a kind of Erin, or powerful Human—someone with power, for good or ill.
The Healer was, rather than that, a strange, strikingly ordinary person. In that she had a look to her. Beauty products had given her fair skin even advancing into her forties, as smooth as some baby’s bottom, which Rags had no idea why Humans loved to use as points of comparison.
She had rather lustrous hair, beautiful magical robes, and what Rags assumed was a fairly lovely complexion. She might be a [Mage], but she had no spectacles and didn’t dress like you’d think. She looked aristocratic in all the rich ways, at least.
But she held herself like a mouse. And she had not the power Rags expected out of her, either in presence or magic. She stared around, then jumped and backed away as Calescent thumped to the ground.
“Ten minutes. Good for snack.”
He announced. The Healer backed up as if she expected she was the snack. She stared around at Rags, then folded her hands.
She stared at Rags and the Goblin waited. She peered at the woman, heard a choking sound, and realized the woman had completely lost her next words.
“You stay there. We rest. Twenty minutes.”
Rags ordered the woman. She got an instant, terrified nod.
“Of course. I am your prisoner. I am in complete cooperation, Chieftain—Chieftain Rags, isn’t it? Believe me, I will not offer you any…”
She trailed off again, and that look of horror resumed. Rags rubbed at her head. Two days of this. She knew the woman was listening to them, watching them, but she was scared spitless.
Not, however, incapable of being dangerous. Rags peered at the Healer’s hands as she turned to talk to Fighti. She swung back and snapped.
“Don’t take off ring!”
The Healer’s hands flew back. Calescent whirled, a spatula raised like the wrath of cuisine.
“I wasn’t! I was just—it’s a lovely ring you gave me, Chieftain! It was just chafing a bit—”
The woman’s huge, reassuring smile failed under the spotlight of Rags’ crimson glare. The Goblin crossed her arms as the Frost Wyvern begged for more food and Fighti offered him a huge cow femur.
“Don’t. Take off. Ring.”
She stared pointedly at the Healer. The woman nodded. Rags snorted as the Healer cast her eyes to the sky.
“Humans can’t track you with an anti-scrying ring. Do you think I’m stupid?”
The woman jumped. She stared at her ring, then at Rags.
Rags traded a glance with Calescent. The Hob gave her a weird look. Did she think Rags had just made her put on jewelry? The first thing Rags had done when she’d woken the woman out of her faint was to make her put on the ring.
And warn her not to cast [Message]. Rags rolled her eyes.
“Take off the ring and Calescent takes off your hand, got it? And he’ll make you eat it. No [Message] spells. I can tell.”
The Healer went dead-white. She looked at Calescent and the offended [Chef], preparing a fast meal on a little pan, put his hands on his hips.
“No meat on hands. I don’t feed hands, Chieftain. Although…if marinate…”
He tapped a finger to his lips, then smiled reassuringly at the Healer, without his teeth.
She just stared at her hands as Rags, grumbling, strode over to Fighti.
“Can we turn yet? Find way to turn?”
“Got to find no-Humans place, Chieftain. Humans see us turn, they turn. Like this.”
Fightipilota made a little diagram in the dirt, to indicate that their ability to turn left or right was hampered by them having to go through pursuers, who could then cross a shorter distance to reach them. Simple geometry—a word she had no idea about. But she knew how to raid and get away.
“What about hiding?”
“Hah! Good one. Chieftain wants to hide? From [Trackers]? How long?”
Fair point. Rags sighed.
“North, then. But…go that way. Too many Human settlements, see? Aim for here.”
She pulled out a map and showed Fighti where she thought they were, and tried to chart them into areas with no Human settlements. Fighti nodded.
“Okay, Chieftain. You, boss. I get promotion if we get back?”
Rags gave the Redfang-turned-[Wyvern Rider] a long look.
“You Redfang. I promote what, Poisonbite job?”
“No…maybe Air Force Major? Ma’am! Sir! Drop bombs! Vrooom!”
She made sounds and gesticulated, trying to get across her limited understanding of Earth’s air forces and the powers she’d get. Rags stared at her.
She blamed Kevin for that. The Human was a huge boon in many ways, not least of which was the casual way he’d come to Goblinhome and just…hung out. Done ollies with Goblins. Shown them there was one Human who just thought they were ‘cool’.
Also, he’d helped her design a new kind of ballista they were already prototyping, given her insight into Earth’s industrial complex, the power of gears and bicycle schematics, knowledge about Earth that reframed Erin Solstice in an entire new light—even helped design two pieces of gear for this mission.
Fighti had an experimental helmet with ‘goggles’. In this case, two pieces of glass that saved her eyes from being blown out by bugs or grit hitting her at high-speed, embedded in a leather helmet. It wasn’t advanced, and Kevin had talked about ‘plastic’ being probably better, or enchanted glass, but they had done it!
…Mainly by literally stealing glass from a window and cutting it into the right shape. But Fighti had told Rags it made seeing a lot easier. She also had the same gear Rags still had around her neck, hanging down from the strap.
A crude breathing mask, or ‘gas mask’ as Kevin had called it. It was a curious snout-like device with a filter, but it had worked to keep the dust out. It too used glass and leather, their two main objects, or metal in Calescent’s case, though the [Smiths] hadn’t had enough iron or time to do all of them.
Rags really liked the idea, even though these were literally only dust-grade. Kevin had suggested them and told her about filtering, although he only had charcoal and various layers of cotton and cloth as a filter, with no idea of how to make an actual one to filter out gasses.
That was sort of his weak point. He was friendly, laid back, informative…but he had all the [Wyvern Riders] chanting ‘fighter pilot, fighter pilot, fighter pilot, jet pilot’, each night as they went to bed. He couldn’t tell Rags how gunpowder was made, and a lot of what he knew was neat. It was up to her to turn ‘neat’ into useful.
Even so, she had to own that he’d helped spur her to make the Tenbault assault a reality. And he had been for it, too.
Save Erin Solstice. Bring her back. Rags had once again gone to war, but this time for the [Innkeeper]. What a curious feeling.
She had the Healer. Now they just had to get her to Liscor or Goblinhome. And it would be so much easier if Rags only had to worry about one Wyvern. However…she turned, sighing, as a sound broke into the clearing. Calescent looked up and casually shifted his grip on the frying pan, ready to toss the contents in someone’s face. Fighti and her Wyvern turned, and the Healer started. Rags saw a figure break into the clearing, and heard the panting whine of a huge beast that even the Frost Wyvern edged back from.
Thunderfur, the mightiest Carn Wolf, and Redscar. The Goblin hopped to the ground, grinning, two pieces of cotton wedged into his ears. Rags glared at him.
“Idiot. I told you to go back.”
“What, Chieftain? Can’t hear! I come for backup!”
The Goblin cheerfully bellowed. Rags threw some dirt at him, but then fifteen more Redfangs, all on Carn Wolves, raced into the clearing. They were the best group, which had gone with Redscar in the assault. They had also declined to flee, and punched through the Human lines after her.
“Finally caught up!”
A Goblin moaned in relief and slid from his saddle, clutching at his groin. A female Redfang and Fighti cackled. Rags gave the ailing Goblin a blank look; she was told that Carn Wolves’ loping pace was ‘harder’ on male Goblins than even horses. She had no idea why.
“Redscar, you alive? You rode for two days. Need a break? Stupid. Any injuries?”
She poked at the taller Goblin, scowling. He was mostly a Hob, though lean as ever, and eating three times what he used to. He’d shot up in height, and was now a reflection of Garen—albeit different in a number of ways. Nevertheless, the bladesman had survived a clash with a Named-rank, albeit on advantageous ground.
Just not unhindered.
“What? Sorry, Chieftain! Can’t hear!”
Redscar bellowed cheerfully. He hadn’t actually been pretending. His hearing—no, all the Redfangs’—was clearly gone. Even the Carn Wolves, which made loud sounds, were clearly bemused by their new state of being.
Rags bit her lip. Not good. She hoped his hearing would return. But if it didn’t…
The Healer had looked up as Rags gave up on words and signed to Redscar, who replied with ease. If anything, his one concern about hearing loss wasn’t for a lack of communication given how well Goblins read each other, it was in his situational awareness on the battlefield.
The woman jumped as Calescent tapped her on the shoulder. Her shriek was so loud that even the deaf Redfangs and Carn Wolves looked over. The [Spice Chef] gave her a long look.
He offered her a plate of…the woman peered at it.
“W-what is this?”
“Savor Pancakes. Is good. Eater Goat meat. Not hand.”
The Healer of Tenbault stared at the pancakes in sheer stupefaction, then at the sizzling pan over a quick fire. Calescent had, in the course of fifteen minutes, set up a fire, unwrapped some pre-made dough from a cloth bundle, and mixed it with stringy goat meat in a pan to create ‘Savor Pancakes’, which were a meat-based, savory pancake you ate hot with gravy and butter.
It was the kind of thing even the Carn Wolves would eat, which either spoke to the adaptability of Calescent’s cooking, or its bottom denominator. The Redfangs scarfed it down quick, the first real meal they’d had from hard riding. Calescent had some spice he offered everyone for taste, but no one was stupid enough to take him up on the offer.
It was technically more of a flatbread-like parathas than a pancake, but since no one had educated Calescent on the fine art of naming things specifically, he called them pancakes.
Rags checked on all the warriors first, and then got her plate. Her Savor Pancake was a bit too moist and didn’t have any gravy, despite her demanding a double-helping! She stared at her pancake, about to take Calescent to rare task, when she heard a huffing sound that was slightly…guilty.
She looked over and saw Thunderfur turning his head away, the wolf licking his chops. She looked at her pancake and recognized Carn Wolf drool all over it. He’d licked her pancake clean!
The Redfangs laughed at the fight between the Chieftain and Thunderfur, as Redscar sat, exhausted. He poked at one ear and grunted in disgust; it was filled with dried blood. He poked with one claw, still hearing a ringing sound in the back of his head.
Not good. He’d known the risks going in, but wow, did this suck. The Hobgoblin wondered if they’d get back to Goblinhome in time. He wasn’t too concerned with the next steps; Rags was in charge and she was smart. He just had to win against any foe they met. If they did that…
It was as he sat there, wondering if he’d have to retrain himself to notice what his ears could not, that he felt a tentative, cold hand on his shoulder. He jumped, and heard—
A spell. Rags stopped punching Thunderfur’s left foreleg and whirled. Redscar jerked back, then grabbed at his ears. He stared at the Healer of Tenbault as she backed away.
“It’s only a healing spell! See? I can be useful! I’m an asset. It should—it did work, didn’t it? I’ve never healed a Goblin…”
“What? What did y—I can hear.”
Redscar stopped shouting, and felt at his ears. Suddenly, he could hear. Thunderfur bounded over and the Healer fled with a shriek. She hid behind a tree as Rags got to her feet. Calescent’s eyebrows were in his hair, and Rags saw the Healer staring at Redscar as the other warriors got to their feet.
“I can heal you! Just don’t—don’t touch me, understand? Don’t do bad things. I can be very valuable, but only if I’m treated well!”
She called at them. The Goblins exchanged a look. Rags exhaled, slowly. Oh yeah. That was right. They’d kidnapped the Healer of Tenbault.
Rags had never heard of the spell before. The Healer of Tenbault, who was apparently named Hekusha, looked a bit offended as she sat, half-comatose, on Thunderfur’s back.
Rags was riding pillion on a second Carn Wolf, so only Fighti and Calescent were in the skies, to let the Wyvern fly ahead and at a reduced burden.
Also because Hekusha could barely sit upright and you didn’t want to play ‘catch the Healer’ at high altitude.
She’d cast the spell that made her famous four times, as Goblins and Carn Wolves lined up to have their hearing restored. Only four times, and she’d done it quick—just about twenty seconds of what looked like magical prep time, and then, like a miracle, the Goblins could hear, and Thunderfur howled in delight before being shushed.
Even healing potions hadn’t saved the ruptured eardrums—at least, not from Merdon’s voice. But the Healer had cast her spell and restored them to as good as new.
In fact, two Redfangs had complained she’d removed their new war scars, and some old ones! A grizzled veteran of nearly ten years had pointed at her hip and complained it didn’t ache anymore.
Three times. Then the Healer had touched the final Goblin, cast her spell, and keeled over. Just—dead backwards, such that she would have hit the ground hard if Calescent hadn’t caught her.
“Mana drain. I can only cast it…four or five times a day. With potions, up to ten. I’ll cast more tomorrow!”
Hekusha hurried to assure Rags. The Goblin Chieftain folded her arms.
“Ten? But only ear-damage. Why so much…mana?”
She was no expert, but Hekusha had to be what, Level 40? Level 30 at least, since she claimed [Restoration] was actually a Tier 6 specialized spell. Rags was awed she could cast it. Rags was awed they weren’t dead if someone could throw that kind of magic around.
“It…does not differentiate. [Restoration] is a set-cost spell. It is…a bit…impractical to use repeatedly. I was only capable of casting it once per day, you know. Even with nearly a dozen Skills dedicated to casting one spell, four per day is what I normally do. Three or four.”
Rags raised her brows.
“How did you learn?”
“A—I am a friend, a great friend—of Magnolia Reinhart’s. The Lady of House Reinhart? Of the Five Families?”
Hekusha looked hopeful. Rags nodded.
“I know who that is.”
Redscar grumbled. Hekusha stared at him, then gave Rags another big, still-scared smile. But she had relaxed enough to talk after the Goblins expressed approval in no uncertain way.
“We were—childhood friends. I was common-born, back then, but they hired me to act as a kind of—magical follower. I was their age, and later Magnolia Reinhart, who is deeply much a friend, helped find a mentor to teach me this spell. Which no one else has mastered! Thus my name.”
She seemed to really want Rags to know Magnolia was her friend. Rags nodded.
“So you cast it. So you aren’t a [Healer]?”
“No. A [Mage]. [Restoration], you see, is one of the few healing-class spells. The school of life-magic is thought to be relatively non-existent in modern-day magic, given that few spells to heal exist. I, ah, am I making sense?”
“Yes. Go on.”
“Well…that’s it. I can cast [Restoration], and I have quite a lot of people who want me to cast the spell, you know. I have a lot of money. At the Merchant’s Guild. I could, uh, give it to you if you set me free.”
“Hm. No. We want you to heal someone.”
The Healer’s eyes lit up.
“Heal someone? A Goblin? I can do that! And then you’ll let me go?”
“Oh. Really? I’m—so delighted you’re reasonable! You know, this has happened three times before. Normally by people who demand I heal someone. But uh—never by Goblins. I thought Merdon would protect me properly. He’s never allowed anyone to capture me. Is he alive?”
“Mm. Stupid armor. Big-voice-man fine. Lots of shouting.”
“Oh, that’s good. Redscar, is it?”
“Mhm. Chieftain, maybe we can keep her? Good for not dying bleed-bleed-death.”
Rags sighed at Hekusha’s expression.
“No, Redscar. Hekusha. We want you to heal one person. Redfangs, any Goblin hurt, but one person. Then you can go. We’ll drop you off at, uh, close to a Human place.”
“That’s so very generous of you, Chieftain!”
The Healer smiled wanly. Rags raised her eyebrows. She wouldn’t have described her own actions as ‘generous’, but the woman had clearly expected a Tremborag-type Chieftain, to judge by her reaction. Rags tapped her chest.
“No one touches you. Except maybe to keep you from stepping in wolf poo. I promise.”
“Of course I—that’s good. Thank you.”
Rags nodded. This was a good step. Hekusha relaxed, and they passed a few minutes as Redscar followed the column pursuing Fighti flying ahead of them, occasionally correcting their course to keep hidden in valleys or forests. After a second, she spoke.
“Um. Who am I healing? An important Goblin, surely. What are they suffering from? Disease? It’s often disease or poison that leads people to come to me. Or permanent illnesses. I have Named Adventurers among my clients, you know. But if it’s just one person and you’re letting me go, maybe I could even signal to them I’m well?”
“Hrr. Doubt that. It is not a Goblin. She’s…Human.”
“Mhm. Shot. By crossbows. Six.”
“Oh dear. She’s not dead…?”
Hekusha relaxed. She’d clearly been worried about that. Rags went on.
“Poisoned crossbows. She was hurt…bad. Lost a lot of blood. So…she’s frozen. In ice.”
Rags watched the woman’s face. She nodded slowly.
“Solid ice, almost. She is not dead—spells don’t say so. But not alive, either. So—frozen. With crossbow bolts in her, see? Right here. In the chest. You…we warm her, somehow. You heal her. Maybe through ice? Then you can go.”
She waited. Hekusha’s expression changed slowly. She tried to keep up her smiling, nodding face, but Rags saw the look of deep, deep uncertainty and fear. The Chieftain gritted her teeth.
“Can you do it?”
“I…maybe? I have Skills. Yes, of course. Yes. Of course.”
Rags stared at her. Then she turned her head forwards, so she didn’t see anything that contradicted the hope she had to cling to. And they were still headed north. Away from the High Passes.
How far did they have to run? Rags’ head turned forwards, as Redscar took over the questioning, keeping his smile toothless. The other Goblins clustered a bit closer, a bit fascinated by the second or third Human they’d ever truly met, who did try to smile back, if tremulously.
Rags, though, looked ahead. Searching. Her eyes flickered, and she saw Fighti bank, turning. Perhaps it was just a gust up there. Or she felt it too. Like…candles in the dark.
Something Rags had never seen, but knew the moment she’d heard it described to her.
Four days of battle. Four days of strange war. Then he fell.
Luck, experience, and his levels had carried him this far. Yet war was war; he slipped on a patch of mud. A rookie mistake, but he hadn’t even seen it in the press of bodies.
Rabbiteater fell. His shield rose, reflexively, but he was armed with a sword, not the enchanted axe, in the melee.
There the [Knight] stood, violet armor battered. A mace in two hands. It swung down, and the Goblin tried to guess where it would land. He failed. He guarded his face and it struck his gut.
A crushing blow that knocked the wind out of him, and touched him inside. Like a shockwave—some kind of Skill. Despite himself, the [Champion], [Knight-Errant], curled up reflexively. Then the mace rose, and fell. No grand pronouncement or movement to it. Just the efficient two-stroke to finish off a wounded foe.
How sensible. If the Goblin had the time, he might have grinned or even nodded, but every fiber in him was reaching to raise his sinking shield, twist out of the way.
He was too slow. The mace thudded into its target as the embattled Order of Seasons gave ground to their foe.
…Which was the mud, right next to Rabbiteater’s helmet. The Goblin blinked. He’d expected to die. And he could not believe anyone had aim that poor. Had something thrown his enemy off?
“I have you, ser! Yield like a good chap!”
A huge, booming, cheerful voice emerged from the helmet. Rabbiteater stared upwards at the [Knight] of the Order of the Hydra. He carefully kicked up.
The blow to the groin had [Enhanced Strength] behind it. [Aspect of the Champion]. Codpiece or no, he heard an oath from behind the helm, but then found he’d miscalculated as much as his foe. The figure grabbed his leg.
“Unsporting, ser! Yield; you’ve been bested!”
A voice out of the melee and Ser Markus broke through with Meisa. The two Spring Knights were battered, their armor showing dents, their own spring green revealing grey underneath.
The female [Knight] turned, mace rising as she let go of his leg. Rabbiteater struggled up, but the foreign [Knight] just gave him a glare.
“I’ve bested your friend, [Knights]! The fellow doesn’t intend to yield.”
Ser Markus lowered his blade. He glanced at the Goblin, and Meisa motioned him down.
“Yield, Rabbit—Solstice! Yield! We’ll win!”
“Hah! Two against one? Hardly sporting!”
At this, Ser Markus put up his blade. Dame Meisa saluted the [Knight], wielding hatchets in both hands. An unexpectedly aggressive approach, but Spring was often unexpected.
“Not two against one. En garde, Dame Knight!”
The Hydra Knight charged, mace swinging, but Meisa just whirled away and began her chopping assault, forcing the cursing opponent to back up for fear of the enchanted blades that could cut her armor if struck right.
“Solstice. That is to say, Rabbiteater, are you alright?”
Rabbiteater was still gasping from the blow he’d taken. But he wanted to jump Meisa’s opponent. Markus held him back.
“You’ve been bested, Rabbiteater. Stay down. It’s unchivalrous. By rights, you can’t participate in the battle. You’ve seen it done enough times! Is this the first time you’ve been beaten?”
“Yes. Who cares?”
Rabbiteater wanted to open his visor to spit what felt like blood or phlegm. He watched as Ser Markus restrained him by the shoulder. Meisa was winning, unexpectedly.
The other [Knight] was good, but her mace was just steel. Meisa’s hatchets came from the Order’s armories, and they had already taken nasty gashes out of her foe’s armor. Markus watched, but didn’t look like he’d intervene even if things went south. Indeed, the milling battle around them…
“Aha! A pair of foes. I challenge you two!”
Another group emerged from the fighting. No less than six Knights of the Hydra. Damn. Rabbiteater reached for his axe, but Ser Markus blocked him with an arm.
“My companion’s been bested.”
“Has he? Crying shame. You then, Ser? I challenge your Season of Spring! I am Ser Hedey.”
“Ser Markus of the Spring. Very well. En garde!”
And they fought. Rabbiteater watched as one of the Hydra Knights began to duel Markus in a ringing bout—they both had sword and shield—while the five others looked on. One even nodded at Rabbiteater.
They could have jumped Ser Markus and, even if Rabbiteater had joined in, he doubted they’d fare happily two on six. But instead, they dueled.
Dueled. And when the Hydra [Mace Knight] fell to one knee, bleeding from a limp arm and croaked ‘yield’, Meisa raised her hatchets.
“A well-fought match. Watch her hatchets, friends. Dame Spring! At your convenience.”
Another of the Hydra Knights bowed slightly. Two more helped the fallen Hydra Knight back up and towed her away. Meisa removed her helmet—an incredibly stupid move given arrows might be falling around them, but there were no arrows—and drank a stamina potion.
“Are you sure?”
“Very well then…”
Rabbiteater watched, arms folded. After a second he looked at Markus, who might have the edge. Again, because his armor and weapon were a cut above the Hydra’s [Knight]. But there were more opponents for him even if he won. And in the distance…Rabbiteater saw a huge shape, fighting a literal fireball.
“Hah! A fourth time, Summer’s Champion?”
The Dame of the Hills, the huge half-Giant [Knight], saluted an invisible opponent as the two champions of their respective orders advanced on each other. Around them, [Knights] of both sides clashed, but in duels, for the most part. Melees in others, but…so few died. Most shouted that damn word.
Yield. Rabbiteater stared at the fight, then stomped off. Four times someone tried to stop him, and he just shrugged.
And they let him go. Rabbiteater retreated to safety, where other fallen [Knights] and the wounded were recuperating, or resting before entering the fray. He sat down and fished out a healing potion for his stomach.
This was a stupid way to fight wars.
Or, alternatively, a smart one. Because, and here was the thing—the Order of Seasons lost this battle.
The Summer’s Champion didn’t. Rabbiteater saw the cursing half-Giant woman, the famous Great Knight of Ailendamus, retreat, her armor scorched all the way up her arms and legs. But the Summer’s Champion, Greysten, had fought two thirds of the battle against her alone, and couldn’t shift the odds even after his victory.
Nor had he killed the Dame of the Hills, Merila. By now, the Order of Seasons was too battered and ‘losing’ [Knights]. Which was to say that some were taken prisoner. Not killed.
Twelve dead on both sides. Twelve. Because most [Knights] never finished the kill-stroke, and armor saved them from the worst wounds, as did a quickly-applied healing potion. Thousands of [Knights] had clashed, under a thousand now from the Order of Seasons’ side, but the Order of the Hydra had sent over ten thousand.
Many had been bested in duels, but the Order of Seasons didn’t take any prisoner. They couldn’t; they were forced to flee on horseback, as a furious rearguard held off the unmounted [Knights] who cheerfully pursued for a mile or two then gave up as the victors, nearly eighty [Knights] now prisoners of war.
A stupid kind of battle. A [Knight]’s kind of battle. Ser Markus and Rabbiteater argued in one rare moment of discord as they wearily retreated.
“It is not stupid, Rabbiteater.”
“It is how Terandria has always fought. Are you calling millenia of tradition stupid?”
Ser Markus made an indignant squawk. Meisa rode up on Rabbiteater’s other side. She was beaten, having lost her last duel, but she’d been able to ‘escape’, as the [Knights] hadn’t been able to demand she accompany them to their back lines.
“Few [Knights] died, Rabbiteater. Better that than a slaughter. You would have died if not for the rules of war.”
“Well…? And don’t give me a one-word answer.”
She poked at him with a gauntleted finger, which was a very Goblin thing to do. Ser Markus saw the annoyed ‘Ser Solstice’ turn his helmet, then elaborate.
“We took no prisoners. They did. They’re winning.”
He pointed back at the Order of the Hydra.
“They certainly have the numbers on their side. Ordinarily we’d establish prisoner trains—escorts to take our prisoners away. But they have us on the run.”
Markus agreed wearily. Rabbiteater shook his head.
“There are thousands of them. They’re winning.”
“Not if we break their lines! The Order’s won greater battles with less, Rabbiteater, and reinforcements should be coming.”
The Goblin made a rude sound in his helmet. He rode ahead as the two Spring Knights exchanged exasperated glances.
“What’s wrong with fighting a war where you don’t kill the other fellow, Rabbiteater? Isn’t that better, from what you’ve told us of Izril’s conflicts?”
Rabbiteater stopped. He glared back at them as the Spring Knights around them caught up with the main force. He pointed a furious finger.
“I don’t care about how you fight. [Knights] fight like the other one’s…people. A person. What about the people who don’t get to be people on the battlefield?”
He was not as eloquent as Numbtongue, and even now struggled to make himself clear. But one finger was enough. Meisa and Markus turned and saw the army that had taken casualties. In the hundreds.
Pheislant’s forces and Ailendamus’ forces had fought, but there was a distinction between [Knights] and…non-[Knights]. You’d often see both fighting together, but in this case, the Order of the Hydra was playing to the rules and essentially boxing out the Order of Seasons from fighting the regular [Soldiers] of Ailendamus. They formed a wall of duels and melees, such that the Order of the Summer couldn’t use their famous fire aura to burn the [Soldiers] en-masse.
Which meant that two armies of mostly non-[Knights] fought. Ailendamus’ army, and Pheislant’s mostly mounted force. Again, it was people on horses versus a very grounded army.
Unfortunately, no rules of war existed there for yielding. Ailendamus’ army had torn Pheislant’s to pieces. Again. They’d sat on a hill, and showered the poor [Soldiers] with crossbow bolts, keeping them from helping the Order of Seasons.
The dead. Rabbiteater saw Greysten talking to the bloodied Pheislant commander. Ser Markus followed after.
“It’s a damned shame. If we could have broken through again to help them—but yielding and the code of honorable engagements doesn’t work as well with [Soldiers], Rabbiteater. They don’t have our armor, by and large.”
“Yes. So the [Knights] get to live. Everyone else gets to fight like they’re monsters. Or Goblins.”
“That’s not fair…!”
“Markus. Let him be angry.”
Meisa drew back her companion. Markus glowered, but let Rabbiteater ride on. The Goblin Knight slowed as Greysten removed his helmet.
“Damn. Is there any way out of it?”
“No, Summer’s Champion.”
“Then we break west. Now. Rabbiteater, we’re being boxed in. Damn. Damn!”
The Summer’s Champion tossed his helmet down. He looked bruised. His entire body looked like one bruise, and no wonder. He’d been battling a literal giant. Well—half-Giant, but kin to Zamea and the largest of her kind.
A half-Giant with levels. That Greysten had driven her off was amazing. Even so, he had the energy to command.
“What’s a box?”
“This valley. They’ve driven us into a corner. We’ll need to break west. And we must take the battle to Ailendamus’ lines. They’ve torn up the [Soldiers] again. Crossbows. I’m sure Pheislant’s own could rout them if they got a good charge in, but they can never get close.”
Rabbiteater grunted. He’d seen that. Whoever was commanding Ailendamus’ forces had seen how the last army got beaten and had done everything in their power to not let that happen. They played on the Order’s knightly nature by forcing the individually inferior, yet numerous Order of the Hydra to hold them in place.
Even if the Order of the Hydra ‘lost’, the Order of Seasons couldn’t take the [Knights] prisoner. In the meantime, Ailendamus had the boring-but-efficient strategy of creating a fortified line behind which their far superior and numerous archers punished Pheislant’s riders for coming close.
“This is a stupid war. Stupid rules.”
Rabbiteater growled. Greysten was drinking from a water bottle. He looked at Rabbiteater.
“I heard you were bested, Rabbiteater. I’m glad they didn’t take you prisoner, although the Order of the Hydra’s reported to be an honorable lot. They probably would have let you keep your armor.”
“That’s not…the point. How you [Knights] fight is stupid.”
Rabbiteater glowered. Greysten stoppered the canteen and sighed.
“You’re entitled to being angry, Rabbiteater. But if you keep calling how we fight stupid, I’ll have to smack you. It’s how we’re fighting, and we’re not about to change how the rules of war work.”
The Goblin hesitated. Then he saw how Greysten was actually giving off steam, even in the warm evening breeze. He was as angry as Rabbiteater—only his aura showed it. He went for another drink of water, and grimaced as steam rose out of his canteen.
“Damn. And damn that giant…half-Giant…giant…woman!”
He made a fist and shook it at the figure still visible in the distance. Someone else joined them and tossed Greysten her water flask. Dame Voost, one of the best duelists in the Season of Summer.
“Cool yourself, Summer’s Champion. Ser Solstice.”
Rabbiteater nodded at the woman who’d yet to be bested in the duels. On the other side, Ser Zulv, another of Greysten’s close companions and leader of one of their strike groups, joined them.
“You must refuse her challenge, Summer’s Champion. Neither you nor she ever wins, only forces the other to retreat.”
“I know. But she can force me to it! [A Knight’s Duel]! I can scorch her and melt her weapons, but her damn [Squire] keeps tossing more in. And she’s as strong as—well, a half-Giant.”
Rabbiteater had seen Greysten fighting the nigh thirty-foot tall [Knight]. It seemed like he’d lose any encounter, but he had levels on her. So while she could strike him like a hammer, his Skills could turn blows or hold his ground, and she had to be wary of Greysten’s flame; conjuring a fireball like a [Mage] was the least of his tricks.
“If only the Spring’s Warden was here. She’d do better—or the Knight-Commander or the Winter’s Watcher. I’m not a good match for someone with that kind of reach, who can stay clear of me. And we can’t let her go rampaging into our lines!”
“Perhaps if I challenged her…?”
Voost offered. Greysten grunted.
“I’m not sure you could win, Voost.”
“Neither am I. But if it means you could break the stalemate…”
The [Knights] talked strategy as Rabbiteater cooled off and listened. The brunt of it was this: after multiple battles, their glorious advance into Ailendamus had stalled out. The enemy army had been made to fight them, and they had to break out of this trap and fight out of the valley or be captured.
Which didn’t mean dying. For the [Knights], at least. They’d all be prisoners of war for a time, ransomed when convenient. Even the [Soldiers], if they surrendered en-masse.
Later in his tent, as they ate around a pot of food, Greysten had a more reasoned discussion with Rabbiteater.
“To your point, Rabbiteater, it may be that only [Knights] have the luxury of a safer battle, but we do not exactly attempt to slaughter our foes in general. Many an army has lost only a tenth or fifth of its numbers and surrendered. Still bloody, but better.”
“Goblins don’t get that mercy.”
The Hobgoblin snapped. Greysten stopped filling a bowl and nodded.
“Aye, they don’t. But that’s an issue…damn, I wish Venoriat was here to talk about it.”
He meant the Fall’s Sentinel. Greysten offered Rabbiteater a bowl and the Goblin ate hungrily as Greysten tried to figure out what to say.
“…If every people fought like this, it wouldn’t be bad, though, would it? And I would like everyone to fight like this. I’ve seen bad battles, where the blood’s turned the ground red. I’d like to see no more if possible. Can we agree on that?”
“Fine. But it’s still stupid. No one’s going to level.”
“Yes they will. Don’t be a prat.”
Greysten heaved a ladle at Rabbiteater. Then, grumbling, he scooped up the soup with a bowl. Rabbiteater glowered, but it wasn’t as hostile as the wide-eyed Markus and Meisa thought. They were guests and probably saw tossing ladles as the height of acrimony. To Rabbiteater and Greysten, it was more like how Redfangs argued. If they threw a punch, well, it meant they were annoyed.
“Dame Meisa, you levelled up last battle, didn’t you? And Markus?”
“Yes, Ser Greysten. Two levels so far.”
The angry Summer’s Champion waved a spoon at Rabbiteater, gobbling so fast it looked like the two were also racing to see who could finish their bowl faster, as if that conferred some legitimacy to their arguments.
“Not as much as a real battle. I am high-level for your [Knights]. And I’m ‘just a Goblin’. But a Goblin who fought real battles. They trained for years with fancy dummies. Magic and good food and techniques and practice. I’m higher level.”
Fancy dummies? Greysten’s lips moved until Markus coughed.
Rabbiteater jabbed his chest with his thumb.
“You fight in a way that makes you weaker. Ever fought Crelers? Eater Goats? Gargoyles? They don’t yield. Real fighting…no yielding. Fight like that, and you’ll level.”
He glared at Greysten. The Summer’s Champion glanced at him.
“It’s true, Rabbiteater. You are higher-level than most of my [Knights], even Summer’s lot. You’d be a veteran among them if your main class was your [Knight]’s class. However, with all due respect, the fact that I am higher-level than you by quite a bit proves we can still level. And survive. If I fought like you, I would be dead many times over because I have been bested. You are higher-level, Rabbiteater. But…there’s only one of you.”
Markus inhaled. Rabbiteater stared at Greysten for a long moment, and the Summer’s Champion waited, chewing. At last, the Goblin grunted, reached for the pot, and filled his bowl.
What else could you say but that he was right? Rabbiteater ate slowly. The coming battle would be fierce. He saw Greysten grimace.
“If we are routed here, surrender or not, we will fail both Pheislant and the Dawn Concordat. We must break through their lines. Or I fear this war will not last long at all. We are meant to ride to Kaliv’s defense. Seeing how they’ve held down an entire Season…”
He sat there, face dark, fiery hair reflecting the cookfire’s light. Markus and Meisa stirred.
“…I fear for all of Terandria’s south if Ailendamus isn’t checked. Can we do it, though? Lend me your strength for this next battle, Rabbiteater. I wish I had talked one of my peers into joining us. I didn’t think they could hold us back like this.”
Rabbiteater nodded. This was not his war. He didn’t know the Dawn Concordat, or hold Ailendamus as an enemy in any real way. But…he looked at Markus, Meisa, Greysten, and thought of the Order of Seasons.
A tribe of Humans. Friends. If he could have, he would have taken them back to the inn after this was over, to show a surprised [Innkeeper] who he’d found that was like her. You fought and died for friends and family. He ate with Greysten, and dreamt of an inn. If only she was alive. Then, surely—even if the coming battle had twice the odds against them—
He wouldn’t lose. But the boon had long since left him. All he had were memories.
Something strange happened over the next day of travel. Rags noticed it first, over breakfast.
Calescent had covered it with a plate. Hekusha blinked at the complex little puffball in the charred, wooden ‘cup’.
“U-um, what’s this? Calescent, is it?”
The [Spice Chef] gave her a beaming smile.
He looked triumphantly at Rags. Hekusha peered at the item he served her for breakfast. Rags stared down at her porridge and cinnamon and gave him a thin-eyed glare. Clearly someone had been laboring harder over a certain dish than others.
“How did you make…?”
The Hobgoblin was exceptionally proud of himself and showed the two. He’d worked on the basic ingredients for the soufflé by having a Redfang raid birds’ nests for eggs. He had flour, along with a variety of travel rations like your basic salt, spices, and so on. He had the recipe from his studies with Imani and one could pan-fry a lot.
But soufflés also required ovens, so Calescent had, after much thinking, improvised one by carefully laying embers in a hole in the ground and constantly replacing them to get as close to an even bake in a primitive field-kitchen as one could hope for.
Incidentally, Redscar and Fighti were eating his failed attempts with considerable relish. The [Spice Chef] waited like some anxious contestant on a cooking show as Hekusha ate the food which she had never actually partaken of before. Variants, of course, but her eyes went wide.
Calescent clapped his hands and whooped, much to her shock. Rags just glared at her porridge, but Hekusha’s appreciation trumped her annoyance. Indeed, Calescent was keen to tell her he could cook.
“Lasagnas. Soufflés. Quiches. Egg-dishes is nice. Eggs is nice. But I have been told…there are good dishes. Needs rice. Or bread. Curry. Have you eaten curry?”
“I have not. Curry…I’ve, ah, had those other dishes. And you know how to cook them?”
Calescent nodded self-importantly.
“I have a cookbook.”
“You do? I’ve…that was quite delicious, that soufflé. I’ve eaten at restaurants with [Chefs] who have cooked worse.”
“Ah! Ah, that is good.”
The Hobgoblin beamed, already trying to figure out a new dish. To impress her. Hekusha glanced over as a Redfang looked over.
“You eat fancy food? All the time? Like…cake?”
“Cake? You’ve eaten cake? But that’s the newest thing to come out of the kitchens! Frosted cakes, that is. It’s…you have?”
The Goblins grinned. Rags listened, in silence, as the Healer of Tenbault was taken aback. She explained.
“I do visit fine restaurants regularly, actually. I ah, do it in disguise. I have a ring. That is…I believe your Chieftain has it.”
Rags had confiscated all of her magical items. Frowning, she dug in her bag of holding and produced one.
The carved eye was clouded over, a milky-white gemstone inset in the ring. A Ring of Illusory Form, as it turned out. Hekusha nodded.
“Yes, well, it’s not good to be so popular as I am. So I must go abroad like someone else. The Healer rarely leaves Tenbault publicly, you see. It’s…mystique.”
Calescent savored the word. Hekusha brushed at her hair, uncombed, and losing some of its sheen from days of travel. But last night the other Goblins had even found a stream for her to wash in.
“Well…it’s, ah, important not to let people find me, especially when I travel. They make demands, or pleas…I can’t help everyone. Hence the system at Tenbault. A lottery and purchased tickets. It provides an income for the city, you see, and my guards, and my work.”
The Goblins gave her blank looks. The Healer tried to elaborate.
“Much of my income goes to keeping Tenbault running. Hiring a Named Adventurer is not cheap, but I do have the opportunity to travel and visit restaurants, dine with company, and see attractions fairly regularly. However, I also have magical research. Into magic in general, but also [Restoration] as a spell. To make it more…accessible.”
“Ah, so many people can cast it? Useful.”
Redscar nodded thoughtfully. Hekusha hesitated.
“Well, a few. I have apprentices and staff. I hope they escaped.”
“They did. Ran off.”
Rags murmured. Hekusha nodded. The little Goblin fished in her bag of holding, but before she could produce some of the objects they’d taken from the Healer’s home, Calescent broke in.
“Do you know ice cream?”
“You mean…gelato? It’s extraordinarily expensive, but I bought eight pounds of it. And it went by distressingly fast…don’t tell me you know how to…really?”
“I will make you some. When we get to Goblinhome.”
The [Chef] looked happy, although Rags knew for a fact he hadn’t ever made any, since ice was harder to get. Even so, him smiling at her, the other Redfangs chatting, asking her what fancy things she’d seen…
It was notable to Rags. They were really trying to reassure Hekusha. No—she sensed the same hunger she felt once upon a time, with a certain [Innkeeper]. Kevin had rekindled it, but Hekusha was, ironically, the one who truly brought it out.
Because she was terrified of them, or had been, and they wanted her to see. Look at us. We’re people. Not for just anyone would Calescent have burned his fingers making a soufflé in the early morning.
It seemed to be working too, if the Healer’s more relaxed riding and talking was any indication. Rags wasn’t as eager as the others and just went back to trying to read the Healer’s notes. They were written quite legibly by Hekusha’s own hands, but the magical theorems were mind-boggling to Rags.
Not for the first time, she bemoaned not getting Pisces to teach her everything he’d known. Noears had been the best [Mage] that Rags had ever met among her kind, but even he hadn’t been academic. He’d learned magic by studying, not like [Sorcerers], it was true, but it was from scavenged spellbooks.
Perhaps Hekusha could teach her? When Rags asked, the Healer was all too willing.
“Of course! I’m er, all too willing to do so! I don’t teach much, and [Restoration] is technically a spell for Level 40 [Mages] at least. You need a very…dedicated teacher to learn it at lower-levels.”
Rags frowned as Hekusha tried to show her a basic spell—[Featherfall]. Learning while riding was difficult, but Rags had little better to do; Fighti was taking them on a course they had arranged last night with the map. Hekusha bit her lip.
“I learned from…well, I suppose there’s no harm in saying to you all. A rather mysterious person that one of my childhood friends knew. She asked me if I was willing to change my career, and I accepted. It was an intensive apprenticeship. Four months—not all personal mentoring! But I would have never understood it without…an old half-Elf. I actually heard he reappeared, which is astonishing…”
So there were two people who could cast [Restoration]. Rags’ eyebrows rose. Then she focused on the spell, and the Healer of Tenbault was amazed how fast Rags learned.
“You really are gifted. And you taught yourself magic?”
“I had a teacher.”
“Incredible. Well, I can certainly teach you more! Do you have more Goblins who can cast magic at this…Goblinhome? Where is it?”
“Mm. Somewhere else. We have to go around, first. Lose trackers.”
Rags cast a warning glance at Calescent, who ducked his head. The Healer nodded a few times.
“Of course. Maybe I could write them a letter, though? Signal them I’m safe? Some of my pursuers won’t give up…”
“Maybe. I don’t see any so far.”
Rags frowned back the way they’d come. Hekusha bit her lip.
“I’m sure they’re out there. Magnolia Reinhart is a dear friend. You know, if we head to this person who needs healing—I’m sure Magnolia might ransom me for a spell scroll of similar value. She certainly has a Scroll of Restoration lying around.”
In fact, there was a bit of a problem with the Healer’s pursuit. Oh, there was all the will in the world. Izril’s north didn’t have as established a flying contingent, a fact they sorely regretted now.
But there was a Pegasus in the air, flying carpets, House Zolde providing two of theirs, and ground pursuit too. The speed the Goblins were moving astounded their pursuers, though. Top-level Skills and the Carn Wolves made them hard to catch.
However, they would be caught! In any other time, the pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart would have been on an intercept course, loaded with her staff. Or House Veltras’ fastest would be racing after the Goblins. Or…
…Well, Magnolia Reinhart was in the south. House Veltras had politely declined to join the chase in a significant way and then gone off to sail on Terandria. They were smashing an Ailendamus fleet after a two-day chase even now.
So while there were pursuers, the highest-levelled Skills weren’t behind them, or the same kind of organization. A weary [Pegasus Flier] landed, ready to demand food, water, a conference with the trackers…and found no one at all, least of all the carefully-grown magical grasses the Pegasus demanded.
The carpet riders swore they had the Goblins dead to rights, and signalled for an intercept, only to find the only force capable of bringing battle to the Goblins was over twenty miles back, and no one had thought to move forces from ahead of them.
Coordination was a virtue. Coordination won wars, and while there was a lot of force, it wasn’t directed. That was why more formal institutions, love ‘em or hate ‘em, were often employed in situations like this. A fast-moving target with elusive qualities in small numbers?
Send the Guild of Assassins. A perfect match. But oh wait.
They were all dead, or in hiding. Funny how that worked out. As for the Healer of Tenbault, she was an asset.
Yet the lone [Assassin] left in the North, to his knowledge the only one still endorsed and in the employ of one of the Five Families, thought it was really a sign of how much Magnolia Reinhart liked the Healer.
Because she’d put him on the job.
T-Theofore. Who everyone remembered.
…No one had even come after him when they’d purged the Assassin’s Guild. His own guild had put a bounty on his head for siding with Magnolia Reinhart—then promptly forgotten all about him. He’d thought he’d have an easier time of it, with Ressa and Reynold and Magnolia’s fearsome staff.
But noooo. The instant Magnolia Reinhart heard about the Healer being missing, she’d chartered a Pegasus, flown him to Pallass, and made him join the hunt.
Five days without sleeping in a bed. Two on a non-stop Pegasus flight, one getting through damned Pallass and Liscor and Invrisil because no one would answer the portal door, and two more flying on carpet.
Theofore hated his job. He didn’t want to find the Goblins, but he had a terrible, sinking suspicion that he was on their trail. He certainly wasn’t about to kill them or try to rescue the [Healer].
He’d levelled up a lot by the horrors of Magnolia Reinhart making him pursue the Wind Runner, clash with fellow [Assassins], and Ressa’s hell-training. She was a former Face of the Assassin’s Guild, and Theofore had thought those days of recruit-training were behind him. Even so, he wouldn’t want to fight multiple Hobs and a Chieftain.
He was simply on reconnaissance, and could report back to Magnolia where they were headed. Theofore hunched on the carpet he was flying and prayed like hell he didn’t hit a goose flight in midair. You heard horror stories of how you died on these flying death-traps. Even with a Scroll of Featherfalling, he was terrified, miserable…and flying through rain.
“I hate Magnolia Reinhart. I hate Ressa. I hate that damned Wind Runner, Ryoka Griffin. I hate rain. I hate Goblins. I hate the Healer of Tenbault. I hate Izril. I hate the Assassin’s Guild. I hate rain. I hate rain. I hate Pegasi. I hate Drakes. I hate…”
His litany of misery was only abated slightly by being right. He began to compose a [Message] spell—or would when he got out of the damned rain. Whether Magnolia Reinhart wanted to act on it was up to her.
However, Theofore now knew where the Goblins were headed. It wasn’t that he was a good tracker, or was faster than the other people in the sky or on the ground. Theofore was still an [Assassin], and he’d used his knowledge of Izril and a map and common sense to figure out where the Goblins were going.
There was only one place a Goblin in this region of the upper north might go to escape pursuers. Theofore grimaced as he descended and confirmed he’d found a giant Wyvern stool lying across a horrified rabbit’s den.
“You and me both.”
He muttered at the poor bunny. Theofore nodded and checked the map. There were…places that someone in his line of work knew. No doubt about it. When Goblins fled, they tended to go to places no one was around. That was elementary. Or, in this case…
The change in landscape and temperature wasn’t immediate, but it was fairly quick. Rags saw Fighti descend as the terrain changed.
What had been rather green lands had slowly begun to grow a bit barren. A bit…hotter too, come to think of it. And rather than forests, what they now found were more like swamps, as the indigenous trees and flora turned tropical.
“Chieftain. Air smells funny.”
Fighti coughed as she circled back. Rags frowned. She stared ahead at a distant smoke stack and a valley.
“Not for Snowscale. But funny air. Funny land. Not good hide.”
Fighti patted the Frost Wyvern who exhaled a plume of cold. Rags glanced ahead.
“Hekusha. You know where we are?”
“I…maybe? It looks like we’re close to the Deuse Valley.”
The Healer licked her lips.
“Mostly abandoned land. There’s not much habitable there and it’s hot. An active volcano, I believe. Do you…know what that is?”
Rags had no idea. The Healer explained.
“It’s this phenomenon where hot, molten stone shoots up. I would recommend we go around this place. No one comes here, not even [Alchemists]. Monsters and Lava Golems and others might love the heat, and it’s simply inhospitable.”
“So no one’s here.”
“Good place to hide. Fighti, you keep going. Besides…”
Rags glanced at Hekusha and completed the statement in her head.
There are Goblins here.
She sensed them. In fact, she sensed the Chieftain, a strong presence. Although…and Rags had never experienced this before, dimmed. Greydath had been invisible, but this was like a light you only saw when you got close. She was fascinated, but mainly just hoped they could break east or west and head back south.
Fighti took to the air, but with clear reservations. Rags didn’t understand why, but Redscar tasted the air and spat.
“Weird air. Smoke. Smells like alchemy.”
“That might be sulfur. It’s a compound [Alchemists] sometimes use.”
“Huh. So [Alchemists] come here?”
“Oh, no. Never.”
“Then how they get it? It lying around all over the place?”
“It’s simply not in that much demand. I suppose I’ve never asked, but it’s clear the market has saturation. Er—that means there is enough to buy. But I do know this valley is deserted.”
The Healer didn’t know. The Goblins grinned at each other, chuckling. Hekusha smiled uncertainly; she really seemed to have taken her ease with them. The Carn Wolves grumbled, not liking the hotter air, especially as they proceeded in.
Rags’ first warning that something was wrong was when she heard a shriek from above. She looked up, tensing, and saw Fighti bank back. Calescent had joined her and was waving frantically. Rags saw the Wyvern, a small shape, wobble in the air. Then—drop.
Redscar howled. He pointed as the Wyvern went into a sudden, uncontrolled dive. But—Rags stared. Nothing had hit them! Was it a tiny projectile?
No—the Wyvern, Snowscale, flapped his wings and caught himself from the deadly dive. He wobbled, descended, tried to rise, then came down too fast. Rags whirled.
“To them! Go, go!”
Hekusha cried out, but Rags left her with two Redfangs as Redscar charged with Thunderfur. She was right behind him, clinging to a Redfang’s back.
They found Snowscale lying on his side, breathing with a wheeze. Fighti was trying to tend to him, but Calescent wasn’t helping. He was lying on the ground.
“Calescent! What happened?”
Redscar demanded. He had both his swords drawn, but Fighti just shook her head. Calescent wheezed.
“No enemy? What?”
“No enemy. Bad…air.”
Rags stared up, then she too felt a strange, burning pain in her lungs. She began to cough, and finally saw something rising into the air, invisible by the time it got higher.
Steam. No, steam and…
The correct word for it was a fumarole, a natural steam-vent created by the heat of volcanic activity. It emitted gas, not just water vapor.
Sulfuric gas. And a host of other bad things in the smoke that had knocked Snowscale out of the air when it had accidentally flown too low over a vent.
Not just sulfur. One of the Carn Wolves began sneezing and backing away from the vent, still six hundred meters distant. A Goblin joined the wolf.
The Redfang did double-duty in Poisonbite’s unit and knew what she was talking about. When she spoke, all the Goblins moved. Snowscale was urged up, and forced, whining, to lumber away.
“What is that?”
The fumarole didn’t look like deadly poison to Rags, but the instant they retreated further, she felt the stinging pain in her lungs and incessant need to cough dissipating. Redscar swore and shaded his eyes.
“…Not just smoke. Chieftain. You see?”
Rags squinted ahead. And the barren landscape began to resolve itself into something else.
Yes, it was hot. And the stone and dirt had that dry, igneous quality that came from being situated near a heat source that leeched water out of the ground.
However. This was not a place lacking water. It pooled in groundwells, often thin and shallow, at least, from what Rags saw. The swampy outer region gave way to this different kind of marsh. But there was still life here.
Maybe it would be harder if this was Kevin’s Earth. All these poisonous compounds made even small life difficult to sustain, let alone a complex organism.
Here, magic provided. And only magic. Rags saw strange clumps of plants growing along the water she’d never drink even if she was dying of thirst. Strange plants, mosses…even some of the stones were odd.
Yellow sulfur deposits. She frowned at them. She’d never seen the powdery, yellow stuff before. Sand? This wasn’t sand. However, her attention was on the plants. Some were located right over the vents, and if her eyes didn’t deceive her, they were adding their own mixture to the smoke.
“Poison plants. Great.”
The Redfang nodded.
“Chieftain, poof-air places death. Choke-poison death. There. There. There…maybe there, safe.”
She pointed, and Rags saw her tracing a route away from the poisonous vents located near anything growing. The other ones might just emit a toxic smoke, but…
She liked sarcasm. It suited her. Fighti anxiously propped herself up on her shoulder.
“Snowscale sick, Chieftain.”
A retching sound made Rags look over as the Frost Wyvern threw up. And it was a lot for a Wyvern to throw up. Rags grimaced.
“Get Snowscale up.”
“Get up. We take to Hekusha, okay? She heals…we go on foot. Maybe scout. Oh, and masks.”
“Kevin’s masks help?”
Calescent was on his feet, and grimacing, shaking his head a bit woozily. Rags shrugged.
“Better than not, right? Now—”
She turned as a warning howl came from behind them. Where the Healer was. Cursing, Rags ran for the Carn Wolves. Redscar raced back the way they’d come. What now? What—?
What now turned out to be…Goblins. Goblins, of course, but more Goblins. In fact?
A tribe. Nearly two hundred Goblins, surrounding the two Redfangs and Carn Wolves, who were riding around a terrified Hekusha hiding behind a barrier she’d cast.
Such strange Goblins though. Rags and Redscar halted. She heard whoops, the classic yiyiyiyi of Goblin war-screams, but the Goblins looked different.
They all wore masks. Carved, wooden ones. Stone ones. Even a metal one on what was clearly the Chieftain-Hob. Some were painted, others crude. But each one was securely over the Goblin’s face, giving it a terrifying visage.
Goblins were monsters and horrifying to regular people. For the first time, Rags got something of that sense from seeing these Goblins. Was this what Humans felt like? Strange, unknown creatures?
They were still Goblins, though, and their chatter and interplay were still familiar to Rags, so the dissonance only lasted a second. And they hadn’t attacked, though two spears buried in the ground a ways away from the Redfangs who’d drawn bows clearly showed they weren’t happy.
“Redfang! Stay back!”
Redscar advanced with a snarling Thunderfur. At the sight of him on the mighty wolf, the other Goblins scampered back. However, the Chieftain roared and slapped his chest.
“Our tribe! Not here-Goblins. You leave! Now!”
It had been a while since Rags met Goblins who were not part of her tribe. It was almost refreshing. She raised a hand and the Hob turned to her, then to Redscar, confused. Rags saw Redscar nod to her, and thus confirm she was in charge.
“I am Chieftain of Flooded Waters tribe! Not to fight!”
“Leave! My tribe strong!”
The Hob bellowed back. He saw the other Goblins and even Snowscale and Fighti loping over and hesitated.
Not because the Frost Wyvern was particularly horrifying with vomit and drool leaking out of its jaws, wings folded, limping along. Although it was still certainly big. Rather, because of the basic dynamic among Goblins.
He was a single Hob, a powerful, well-fed Goblin with scavenged armor that might even be steel, or iron; it was rusted from heat and weather. His tribe of two hundred was armed with bows, spears, throwing javelins, slings, and so on. Not bad…
But the real denominator that separated him and Rags was Hobgoblins. Hobs were a measure of strength and Redscar and six of his warriors were all Hobs, as well as Calescent. Any one of them was an equal to this Chieftain in theory, and he grew warier still.
“You leave. You come, we fight!”
He warned them as the little Goblins drew back on bows. Rags didn’t like the way her [Dangersense] pricked her when she stared at them.
“Arrows might be poisoned, Chieftain.”
Her expert in the field whispered. Rags grimaced. It made sense. Give a Goblin any natural poison and you bet they were putting it on their bows.
A memory of a frozen Human struck her. She shook her head. No. They would not repeat that. Not here. She pointed at the Hob.
“No fight. We run from Humans. Rest here. Get sick. Bad air. Okay?”
She gestured at Snowscale. The Hob clearly understood what happened, but he glared, and shook his head.
“Take Human. Go now! No stay! You fight—all tribes fight! This Molten Stone tribe! They come? Kill you all!”
Rags’ ears pricked up. Molten Stone? He wasn’t talking about his tribe. More tribes would fight them if they advanced? She tried to shout, coughed.
“Hah! Sick Goblin. You leave. Leave!”
Arrows showered the ground in front of Rags’ group. Redscar snarled. He drew his swords and the Hob Chieftain backed up.
“Chieftain. I challenge him?”
“No. Leave him.”
Rags didn’t want Redscar to antagonize this tribe, though she was sure he could win. She coughed again and saw Hekusha standing there.
“Hekusha, heal Snowscale.”
“Heal a Wyvern? But…”
She hadn’t gotten much of the interplay between Goblins. Rags pointed and the Healer hesitated.
“But my barrier—”
“We’ll shield you. They won’t attack. Go!”
Even so, Calescent had to gently urge Hekusha before she’d drop the barrier, and she scurried over, using his body as a shield.
“Might be fighting, Chieftain. Can’t turn back.”
Redscar muttered. Rags bit her tongue.
“Maybe. I don’t want to fight poison. Challenge Chieftain if they attack. They’ll probably run when you win.”
The tense standoff might have gone on longer, as the Redfangs took out bows and their Carn Wolves snarled. Rags was preparing her own last resort. Her Dwarfsteel crossbow with [Dual Shot], and [Fast Fireball], would make the Goblins think twice, but she really didn’t want to fight them, even if she ‘took over’ their tribe.
She was actually wondering why this Chieftain was so…hostile. Normally, Goblin tribes didn’t like to stick together and the Mountain City tribe was a rarity, but Goblin tribes didn’t just brawl when they met. They usually traded, exchanged news, and agreed to part after a short meeting.
Sometimes a tribe took over other tribes, but instant hostility without aggression was strange. She would have been curious and at least talked to the foreign Goblins. Maybe they thought having a Human would be trouble?
The jeering tribe of mask-Goblins suddenly went silent. Rags saw a few lower bows and point. She turned.
Calescent, waiting for Hekusha to heal Snowscale, had clearly had enough of this toxic environment. Grumbling, the [Spice Chef] had taken his hand away from his death-spice bag, ready to dump in an attacker’s face, and pulled something out of his bag of holding.
A leather mask, with glass eye sockets. The complex little filter Kevin had worked up went over Calescent’s mouth and he breathed a bit easier.
“Hrm. Better breathing. Harder seeing. Chieftain, masks help. Chieftain?”
Then he noticed that the other tribe had gone still. The mask-wearing Goblins stared at the curious device on Calescent’s face. Rags turned, saw their avid expressions, the way the Chieftain hesitated, and whirled.
“Everyone. Put on Kevin-masks. Now.”
The Redfangs didn’t hesitate. They pulled out the masks, and fastened them. Hekusha, devoid of mask or comprehension, just watched as two sides stared at each other behind masks. Even then, the other Goblins wavered.
What broke the spell was when Redscar dismounted, fished out a complex hood, and put it over a whining Thunderfur’s face. The Carn Wolf’s ‘mask’ to keep him from inhaling dust looked like a cross between horse blinders and an elephant’s trunk. Rags saw the masked Chieftain’s figure jolt—then he nearly fell over laughing.
“Mask! Mask for dog! They know mask-dog!”
Goblins hooted, and Rags saw their hostility evaporate in an instant. They holstered their weapons, then marched over, pointing at Thunderfur, who looked really indignant about all of this.
And once again, the day was saved thanks to…Kevin?
Or putting masks on dogs. Which, Rags discovered, was a real thing. She stared at the wagging hunting dog’s tail as it sniffed at Thunderfur and the huge Carn Wolf blinked at the ceramic mask attached to the dog’s face with careful straps.
It was clear that the mask was not meant to really come off except when the dog was fed. At first, Rags wondered if it was a punishment, but the tribe of mask-Goblins, who were actually known as the Yellow Powder tribe, due to the deposits they harvested and the color of the poison they manufactured, were friendly enough once the ice had been broken.
“Mask not bad. Dog wear mask since this small. Good mask. Mask or die choke-choke-argh-death.”
Rags nodded. Oh, of course. But…the Chieftain Hobgoblin was fascinated by the mask she’d let him inspect. He loved the filters, and the glass eye-goggles.
“Is good. Chieftains have glass. I not have.”
He muttered, a bit upset by this lacking problem. But he loved the filters. They were new to him and he asked to see one of the replacements Kevin had worked up.
“Ooh. What black stuff?”
“Charcoal. Help bad air.”
“Smart. Goblins wear masks. Good goblins. Friends.”
The dog wagged its tail. It had a droopy face, but was clearly used to Goblins. In fact, it barked at Hekusha, who kept well behind Calescent, who was talking with the Goblins present. Rags frowned.
“Good Goblins? There bad Goblins?”
“Sometimes. Goblins fight Goblins. Bad Goblins come from big mountain. Or sea. Sometimes fight. Sometimes to see Great Chieftain.”
Rags sat upright.
“Great Chieftain? I am Great Chieftain too.”
The Hob blinked, but he took Rags at her word.
“Then you come for Great Chieftain of Molten Stone tribe? You know masks. Not fight us.”
“No. Humans following. We come…know Goblins here. Molten Stone tribe is big tribe here?”
“Yes. Tribes here…here…here…Molten Stone here.”
The Chieftain of the Yellow Powder tribe, who was named Neuz, showed Rags a simple map. If the Molten Stone was in the center, around what Rags guessed was the smoke stack, a volcano, then there were in fact many tribes around the center one, all of this tribe’s size or a bit bigger.
It was so strange. Rags was instantly reminded of the only other tribe to do things that way. In fact…Redscar leaned over.
“Chieftain. Sounds like Mountain City tribe. And Kraken Eaters.”
“Mountain City! Kraken Eaters!”
Neuz exploded with rage, and the hunting dog barked behind its mask. Rags guessed these were ‘bad Goblins’. To calm him, Rags pointed at the mask he held.
“Chieftain Neuz. You take my mask. Gift. You help us get to Molten Stone tribe?”
The Hob looked at the mask and the coveted glass.
Rags nodded. Instantly, he jumped to his feet, beaming.
“You guests! Molten Stone tribe not like visitors. You must have gift. Gift for Great Chieftain, Anazurhe! [Witch]! Business. You say ‘business’, and show gift, they let you go.”
Rags traded a glance with Redscar. Now what was this?
“Molten Stone. Kraken Eaters. Redscar, you remember?”
The Redfang leaned against Neuz’s hut as he found a guide and messengers to tell the other tribes to let the Flooded Waters Goblins through. He frowned as a little Goblin child tottered past them, intent on touching Thunderfur’s leg. She began to pluck hairs and Redscar ushered her away as Thunderfur growled. But even this little child wore a mask.
“Garen talked about them. Remember?”
Rags did. Tremborag and Garen had looked for allies during the Goblin Lord’s attack, but the two tribes they had decided were worth approaching…hadn’t come. Neither Chieftain would work with Tremborag.
It felt like a long time ago. She had wondered to the character of the two, and recalled something vague about a brute and a spellcaster, respectively.
Well, Kraken Eaters had come to Invrisil and she’d heard about what even a few warriors had done. As for Molten Stone? She felt more of a Mountain City vibe from them, which didn’t comfort her, knowing Tremborag.
However, Neuz came back and did elaborate on some things.
“Goblins come. Humans come. Even…”
He frowned, and searched for the word in the common tongue. He traced a triangle on his hat.
Rags supplied. Neuz brightened.
“[Witches]. Like Great Chieftain. You take gift. Only [Witches] no gift.”
Rags frowned. She felt at her bag of holding, not expecting this hurdle. Calescent hmmed too, looking around.
“What good gift, Chieftain Neuz?”
“Gold. Magic things. Things Molten Stone want. Like spices. Tasty food.”
Neuz looked longingly in the direction of the central plume. Calescent raised his brows and pulled out his patented bag of spices.
Neuz took one finger’s taste of the death-spice and ran around howling for five minutes. Then he promptly offered Calescent a mask for some of the spices, which were hard to get in this terrain.
“Magic mask. Very good. Need. We give Goblins, and things like yellow powder. They give this.”
He gestured to the masks they all wore. Calescent didn’t mind the trade, lopsided as it seemed for a plain wooden one, but the instant he put it on his face, he stiffened.
“Chieftain! This mask! Magic!”
Neuz clapped his hands, laughing, as Calescent tore it off and showed it to Rags. She squinted at it, but barely saw any magic on it. Nevertheless…when she put it on her face, the world suddenly changed. She inhaled and the air was sweet and clean.
“A magical filter?”
Hekusha edged out from behind Calescent to stare at the mask. Rags was astounded. Kevin’s filters were one thing, but no wonder even the dogs wore these masks at all times! Neuz nodded.
“Goblins go to Molten Stone. Sometimes Goblins come, take good Goblins. Sometimes Goblins come back. If bad Humans, Molten Stone comes. Molten Stone powerful. Has…psst psst.”
He flicked his fingers and nodded at Hekusha.
“Mm. Other tribes, Humans come for Great Chieftain. Not you. Other one. She has great magic. You go—but give spice.”
Rags nodded, as it seemed Neuz wanted to go back to work. Goblins were actually harvesting sulfur, scooping it into bags. They loaded up a group of four Goblins with some, who would be their guides the rest of the way in. Hekusha was patently amazed by their industry. The Redfangs, for their part, made judicious trades. They refused to part with enchanted weapons or good steel, but they ended up trading entire sheaves of steel-tipped arrows for carefully-prepared bundles of cheap wood tipped with obsidian.
“Poisoned arrows? Losing ammunition.”
Rags commented to Redscar. He shrugged.
“Poison better than steel for annoying Gold-ranks. Shoot one in foot? ‘Argh! I’m poisoned! Fall back!’ Scared of no healing.”
Rags snorted. That was true enough. She bade farewell to Neuz, not too concerned about his tribe running into pursuers. Anyone in the air would suffer the same fate as Snowscale, and if an army wanted to cross this terrain, good luck. Neuz’s tribe could harry them here for days with ease.
Thus, the Goblins advanced, and while two more tribes spotted them, their guides and their masks led them forwards. Snowscale grumbled as he waddled after Fighti, and Hekusha ended up with the clean-air mask as the other Goblins walked forwards, breathing lightly.
They ascended, then, curiously, descended into the last valley. For there, in the center of it all, was a vast mountain of stone, cavernous tunnels where the active volcano belched smoke. Fearless of it all, though, was the Molten Stone tribe.
The ground was powdery and stones ran down as their guides carried them down the slope, shouting.
“Business! Business! Yellow Powder!”
…But there was no one in immediate view. Only when Redscar nudged Rags and pointed up did she spot a telltale shadow in an opening higher up. A Goblin with a bow.
Yet the strange, volcanic fortress in the center of the circular valley was massive. And as Rags approached, that sense of impending power heightened. There was someone here. If Rags sensed her, surely the opposite was true. So the twenty or so Goblins walked towards the igneous lair of Anazurhe, the Great Chieftain of the Molten Stone tribe. They passed through tunnels of obsidian, cut by lava flows, into extreme heat…and then, suddenly, into cool air, deliberately cut stone, and cooling spells.
Into a volcano, tamed by the power of Izril’s Goblin [Witch]. [Witch of Flame]. Great Chieftain.
And…the strangest tribe Rags had seen yet. Her eyes went wide. Hekusha’s nearly popped out of her head. Especially when they saw the other Humans.
Names were unimportant. If you gave your real name, you were de facto a fool, especially in their line of work. He was named Roell, for instance, and his companion was Vinn.
Vinn was new. Roell was not. Roell was a paid Guide, or rather, the intermediary, and Vinn was under employment. It was a good job, but Roell had to emphasize a few things.
“Listen. There are rules here. You saw them on your way in? All four tribes that challenged us?”
Vinn was sweating. He nodded.
“I thought they’d gut us. But I just…and they left.”
Roell sighed. He adjusted his mask—like all hells you’d walk through this place without one—and took it off. You didn’t need it inside. Vinn was still staring around.
“You agreed to this job and you thought they’d gut us?”
“Never seen a Goblin, have you?”
The man shook his head, wordlessly. Roell suspected Vinn might be his real name. But what could you expect from a Daylighter?
Daylighter, as in common citizen. Roell was no Daylighter. He was a [Rogue], a catchall term for someone on his side of the law. His exact class was private, thank-you-very-much. Nor was he a member of a gang. He didn’t have a hat, he didn’t have a tattoo, and he didn’t have a penchant for cutting off a fellow’s pride and joy—but the Sisters of Chell were female-only, so there.
Roell was connected enough in certain respects, though. Hence him being allowed here, and given the sometimes-unenviable job of shepherding people like Vinn around.
“Just relax. Follow my rules. Do you remember them?”
Vinn panicked like this was a damned test. Roell rolled his eyes.
“If you don’t remember, ask me. I get paid more if you live. Remember, it’s very simple. Rule number one. Don’t look at…”
The two men turned, and a Goblin stared at them behind one of the masks. It slowly rolled up the scroll it was holding. Roell nudged Vinn and the man turned his head.
“Don’t look at the blueprints. We know.”
The Goblin glared. Vinn jumped at the voice. Roell turned back to him. He stared past the Goblins waiting for Vinn to get to work, at another group that had just entered.
“That’s a damned Wyvern. Huh.”
A little Goblin’s jaw was hanging open as he pulled Vinn to one side. Masked Goblins were everywhere, walking down the interior street, pointing at the two Humans—but without much surprise. Some had pointed hats, others masks. A lot had wands. They were more interested in the new Goblins, anyways.
“Rule two. If they start chattering, in any language, just don’t do whatever you were doing. Got it? They won’t kill you right away, although they might beat you senseless.”
“Okay, okay. I remember. And it’s safe, right? I’m filling in for the last fellow—”
“The last woman.”
“What happened to her?”
Roell rubbed at his sooty face and wished he hadn’t because he got something in his eye.
“What happened to her? She made a fortune and retired, that’s what happened.”
The [Rogue] neglected to mention that the person before her had ended up with half her face melted off. Because she’d violated Rule #1. He sighed.
“Last rule. Well, you know the others. Don’t bother them, don’t get in their way, don’t say anything that’ll tick them off…but this one’s messed with. If they flirt with you, that’s one thing. But don’t bother them.”
“Flirt with—who would—with them?”
Vinn made a choked sound. Roell shrugged.
“You’d be surprised. Just remember all three. Now, get to work. This one’s ready.”
The masked Goblin nodded. Vinn turned his head desperately, but Roell strolled after him. He saw the civilian heft his tools like a shield. But really…you could land yourself in trouble, but it was a simple job. Every now and then, this tribe called for something and Humans answered. Sometimes, what they wanted, and what Roell provided, was someone with Vinn’s class.
A…[Mason]. But, Roell always wondered, looking around the city of the Molten Stone tribe, with its houses and cut stone—why did Goblins need a [Mason] over Level 30? They were very specific. He never saw what they worked on, and he never looked at the blueprints the Goblin leader held.
As far as he knew, all of this place had been built with Goblin tools. He strolled down a walkway and stared at a Goblin planting glowing, hot flowers. She chittered at him behind his mask and he backed away, carefully raising his hands.
“Pardon me, Miss.”
The [Rogue] produced a handkerchief to wipe at his brow. At least the job paid well.
Rags couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a Goblin city! No, a town? It wasn’t large enough to be called a city, or even a town in sheer numbers, but it was the most…civilized thing she’d ever seen.
Even the Mountain City tribe, with its sprawling occupation of the mountain Dwarf fortress, hadn’t compared to this. She was sure it was a cooling spell making the air breathable, and while every Goblin wore a mask, or almost all, they clearly only did it for decoration.
Calescent gaped at a Goblin house. Rags had thought the individual rooms in Goblinhome were a first, but she had never expected to see a Goblin sweeping out the door with a wicker broom.
Nor so many Goblins with magic. Hekusha stared at a gaggle of little Goblins Rags’ height, holding wands and whispering and pointing at the Redfangs with clear delight. They were all magic-capable—no, magic-users! It was easy for her and Rags to tell they all had mana pools.
And they had wands. Decent ones too. The Healer of Tenbault was agog. Not least because she had just seen two Human men standing amid this place! She felt woozy. What was going on?
Even Redscar was clearly amazed, though he tried not to show it. The little Goblin guides of the Yellow Powder tribe were talking and explaining to the nearest masked Goblin, who pointed them off. Rags couldn’t see a single face that looked malnourished.
In fact…there was clothing on every frame, good quality clothing like any of Liscor’s citizens might want to wear. Even Goblins with snacks! Few children; most were at least a certain age, although there were a few young ones.
Calescent’s jaw was so far open a passing Goblin child took one look at it and promptly chucked the snack she was chewing into it. Upon which point the Hob began to choke.
It was only when a bell tolled, and the pace of the Goblins milling about changed, that Rags realized the truth of it. She saw some Goblins ignore the bell completely, like the one planting and harvesting the glowing flowers, and the one sweeping the door. But the gaggle of little Goblins with hats her age turned. There was a laugh high overhead, and Rags saw a figure racing over the roofs.
A Hob, grinning, holding her pointed hat as her feet glowed and she leapt across a gap nearly ten feet wide. Rushing…towards the bell. She was followed by a second Goblin, another Hobgoblin, male, who had a pointed hat and tattoos on one arm that gleamed. He did a flying leap after her…
And went splat onto the street. But he got up, laughing, as if he hadn’t felt a thing, and chased after his companions. He turned and stared at the Redfangs for a second.
“New Goblins! What tribe are you from?”
The stranger slowed, and Rags saw the magic in him, but different from hers. Redscar checked the younger Goblin, with no visible scars. He frowned.
“Flooded Waters. We—Redfangs.”
The Goblin did a double-take as his companion halted on a rooftop, glancing back.
“Redfang warriors? Are you Garen Redfang?”
He stared at the sword Redscar carried. The Goblin hesitated.
“Oh. What class?”
The male Goblin’s eyes lit up with interest. Redscar shrugged.
Goblins skidded to a halt, hearing and pointing out the Redfang [War Leader], despite their rush. Redscar saw the admiring look on the Hob’s face.
“What’s your class?”
He eyed the tattoos, the hat. The young Hob grinned.
“[Warlock]. You staying? I’ll visit you, Redscar of Redfangs!”
Then he leapt, and joined his companion on the rooftop. He began to explain as they raced off. The other Goblins ran, a few small ones screeching. One ran back as she lost her hat and Rags had it at the same time as Hekusha. The Healer of Tenbault muttered.
“It’s almost like they’re going to…class.”
Rags stared at the Goblin who ran after her friends with a wand, screeching that they’d left her behind. A class. This was…
An academy. A Goblin magical academy.
How was this possible? Even in Rags’ most delirious fever-dreams, she couldn’t imagine this place existed. And it didn’t, in a sense.
Rags quickly realized that this Molten Stone tribe was comparatively tiny. Even depleted from battle, the population of Goblinhome outnumbered it by a good deal already. That this was a collection of spellcasters was self-evident, but Rags realized that the bulk of the Goblin population was camped outside this inner sanctum.
As in, in the Yellow Powder tribe, and other tribes who roamed the outskirts. She saw their four guides offering the bags of sulfur to a Hobgoblin [Witch]. She checked them, then handed them something.
Three glowing healing potions. The Goblins hurried back as she made a smaller Goblin carry the bags off. Sulfur. Rags’ eyes narrowed. She checked one of the doors.
Brass. Now here was some rather nice, polished brass that she really doubted had come from this region, or even been made here, judging by the lack of any smithies. There was some sulfur from the only volcanic region she’d ever encountered, which was not lacking on the markets.
“You. You are Chieftain Rags of the Flooded Waters tribe. The Witch of the Molten Stone tribe has been expecting you.”
The female [Witch]’s voice was as eloquent as any Rags had ever met. Rags nodded.
“She knew you were coming. She will see you. Do you have a gift?”
“Huh. Maybe. What is this place?”
“The Molten Stone tribe.”
The Hob was interesting. She looked fully-grown, which was a statement in itself because only Pyrite had ever seemed actually old enough to say ‘yep, there’s no chance I’m going to grow again’. Even Garen and Reiss were young.
Moreover, she had a complex structure to her hair, like a spiderweb. It looked like if you did anything as provocative as run a comb through the hair, it would create the most horrific tangle you’d ever imagine, which nothing short of a razor would save you from. Yet they never quite tangled.
Oh, and she’d dyed it blonde. Which was such a strange choice. It was purely aesthetic, so Rags had never seen it before.
“Who are you?”
“Witch Prixall. Hob of the Molten Stone tribe or…spellcaster? Yes, spellcaster of the Molten Stone tribe. Not a [Shaman]. We do not have many rankings.”
The response was just as intriguing from the softly-spoken Goblin. Most Goblins knew what they were in relation to the Chieftain’s authority. She didn’t.
Rags’ sense of the Mountain City tribe grew. She crossed her arms as Redscar started after her. But Prixall pointed.
“Your wolves. Carn Wolves. Leave them and the Wyvern Riders. Some may come.”
Redscar announced. Calescent nodded, and Rags glanced at Hekusha. Prixall nodded.
“The Healer of Tenbault too. The others can put the wolves in the stables. If they don’t eat horses.”
“They won’t. You have a stable?”
The [Witch] nodded. She pointed ahead and Rags strode with her. Paved roads, with soil for planting. Cool air. No restaurants, she noted. No shops. This was not a city; there was no economy in place. Nevertheless, it was not a tribe either.
“You have doors. Buildings.”
She commented neutrally. Prixall nodded.
“We trade and build.”
“What do you trade? Do the tribes outside raid for gold?”
The [Witch] frowned. Rags noted the gesture. She was…hard to read. As if she lacked the Goblin’s technical ability to express themselves with body language. Rags made a raised eyebrow of disbelief and inquiry. Prixall missed it.
“…Do you not raid? How do you get that?”
She pointed at something. A bunch of little Goblins clustered around a scrying orb under the boughs of a huge tree. The scrying orb was clearly new, placed there so anyone could watch.
“We bought it. We trade. The Molten Stone tribe does not steal anything.”
The response astounded Rags so much she had to stride to catch up. She stared up at Prixall.
“How was this place made? How do Humans not attack? Why do they visit?”
“Because Witch Anazurhe is too powerful. Molten Stone she made, here. When she came. It is young, but the Humans write it off their maps. We do not fight other Goblins or make war. She was here when the Goblin King came. She refused to join him. This is Molten Stone, and your trouble, Chieftain Rags, is not ours.”
It was a speech that told Rags a number of things. Firstly, that she really wanted to kick Prixall right behind the knee and send her sprawling. Second? This Witch was old as Goblins thought of things. She had founded this tribe? Humans cooperated with them?
The Goblin King had come to her, too.
Hekusha’s mind was reeling from revelation after revelation. Talking with Rags had been one thing, erudite as she was. Seeing the two holding a conversation while walking down a Goblin city—that was how the Healer of Tenbault saw it—beggared belief.
How could this be? Who were those men? She didn’t know, but surely someone would look into this when she was free. Maybe Magnolia Reinhart, when she freed Hekusha.
Hekusha was hurrying after Calescent, who seemed favorably disposed towards her, as the [Witch] led them further into this place. Through tunnels of dark stone, cut to let the polished glass catch the light.
Obsidian? The Healer didn’t see many guards, but she sensed a powerful magic coming from ahead. So did the one called Redscar, because he strode with his hands casually on his swords’ hilts. Calescent kept smiling, reassuringly.
“Chieftains don’t fight. All is good. Chieftains don’t fight. Well…mostly.”
“Are you sure?”
“Mm. All is good.”
She gave him a smile which he returned. At least she had a bodyguard. Hekusha heard Rags talking.
“She will ‘see us’, this Great Chieftain?”
“She has a guest. But yes. You have caused trouble and brought it here.”
“I have done what I wanted. What I must. Does Witch Anazurhe think I am wrong?”
“She will decide when she meets you. She has met Chieftains she does not care for.”
“Yes. Among them.”
“Maybe I will like her. But this? This is not Goblin.”
They had crossed from obsidian tunnels into the heart of this mystery. A glowing stream of lava ran across the way from them, but was heatless as they entered a room with two huge doors. The lair of the Great Chieftain.
However, Rags’ words did not go unnoticed. Not Goblin. Hekusha could not have known how much those were fighting words. Prixall recoiled and Redscar tensed. Calescent just sighed. But before the [Witch] could respond, another voice, older, more wicked, perhaps, but simply vexed in this moment, responded.
“Not Goblin. Not Goblin, this little child says. So she said to Tremborag’s face. Tremborag the Great. Tremborag the Fat, who led his tribe to sate his hunger. Not Goblin. How would you know what Goblin is? Why do you decide? I am Goblin. I am [Witch]. You do not get to judge me, little Chieftain.”
The voice echoed around them as the four Goblins and one Human turned, seeking the source. Prixall turned back to the doors, smiling a bit. Triumphantly. However, then the voice continued.
“You said it to Tremborag and Garen Redfang. So I laughed. Come, Rags of the Flooded Waters tribe, and tell me to my face that I am not a Goblin.”
The doors swung open slowly, dark granite, with all the showwomanship of any [Lady] of the Five Houses.
Rags eyed the opening, from which light cascaded. She never hesitated, and strode forwards, Redscar at her side. Calescent beckoned as Prixall turned, and Hekusha gulped.
“Maybe I should wait outside? I don’t think a Chieftain needs to see me. I’m quite valuable, you know, and if they come to blows…”
The [Witch] glanced at Hekusha, and the Healer scurried after her. She saw the huge sanctum of Anazurhe first, a circular room with a powerful spell circle surrounding, appropriately, a glowing cauldron.
Yet there was light aplenty from glowing orbs on the walls. If they went out, you’d get some proper occult lighting, but for the moment the central chamber was actually fairly inviting. Two figures stood in conference—well, one did. The other was watching Rags approach, head tilted back, a half-mask over her lower face letting her glowing eyes wink red. Graceful and tall, a pointed hat on her head. A [Witch], dressed in her motif, with a robe like fire and jewelry, magical and not, hanging from her arms. Even an earring set with a curious plain green stone, the least expensive item she wore.
Anazurhe, the [Witch of Flames]. And standing next to her…watching with interest, or feigned interest at least…
Hekusha froze. She rubbed at her eyes to make sure she was right. Then, before the [Witch] could speak, before Rags could greet her or insult her to her face, the Healer of Tenbault ran.
She hadn’t run since she was a girl, but she put every stride and ounce of desperate, sudden adrenaline into…well, a pretty bad dash, honestly.
But the other Goblins were so surprised, they watched her run across the room and fling herself towards the last figure, Anazurhe’s second guest, who looked bemused.
“Archmage Valeterisa! Archmage Valeterisa!”
The Archmage of Izril blinked. The Healer of Tenbault seized her arm.
“I’ve been kidnapped by Goblins! Please, save me! I’ll repay you! There they are!”
She pointed a finger back at the Goblins. Then grabbed Valeterisa’s arm.
“Teleport us away!”
The rather plain woman with messy hair, powerful magic and robes, but a complete lack of attention to style like the Goblin [Witch], stared at the Healer of Tenbault.
Rags stared at the Healer, and nodded. She was disappointed, but she had expected that. Calescent on the other hand? He stared at Hekusha, hurt written all over his face. Redscar had only heard ‘Archmage’, and he was ready to draw his blades and leap at her.
Prixall started uncertainly, but the Witch Chieftain raised a hand. She looked…amused. So Rags nudged Redscar.
Valeterisa looked at the terrified woman, trying to shield herself from the Goblins as she waited for salvation. She pursed her lips, and her eyes flickered.
“I…am not Valeterisa. My name is Anabelle. Charmed. I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. Goodbye.”
And she tried to pluck Hekusha’s hands from her arm. The Healer looked at her.
“What? Valeterisa! It’s me! Hekusha!”
Again, the eyes flickered.
“Oh, the Healer of Tenbault. Hello…that is what I would say if I was Valeterisa. Which I’m not, because the Archmage would not socialize with Goblins. You have me mistaken.”
“What? You can’t—help me! I’ve been kidnapped!”
“Please let go. Please let go of my arm. No? Very well.”
Valeterisa pointed a finger, and Hekusha froze as a paralysis spell hit her. Valeterisa tried to remove her arm and realized she’d just locked Hekusha’s hands around it. She sighed, and stared at her arm, as if seriously considering removing it.
“So this is the Healer of Tenbault. She does not seem worth the effort to me. But the Chieftain of the Kraken Eaters would want her, and Tremborag would have. Did you steal her to heal Goblin after Goblin?”
Anazurhe spoke. Hekusha flinched—then tore her hands away from Valeterisa’s arm with a scream. She danced, as the magical fire covering the Archmage of Izril’s arms went out. Then she stood, realizing she had miscalculated all.
Rags stared at the woman, then swung her head around to meet the Chieftain’s gaze. With a shock, she felt like she was staring into two dancing flames. The [Witch] was fire, and even a [Steelflame Tactician] paled before it. Even a [Great Chieftain]…
No, they were alike in that. If anything, Anazurhe, up close, only confirmed what Rags had felt.
A faded lighthouse. Like Greydath, but not quite. She shook her head.
“No. She might not be worth it, but I stole her to save a friend.”
“A Goblin’s life? Whose? Does Garen Redfang live? The Goblin Lord?”
“No. A Human who is friend to Goblins.”
The [Witch]’s eyes opened wider. Valeterisa cocked her head and pulled something out. She scribbled down a note. Prixall blinked, and the Healer saw the [Witch of Flames] throw back her head and laugh.
She removed the half-mask she wore, and smiled, her lips showing a slight scar. Redscar noted with approval that at least someone here had a wound from a blade. Anazurhe smiled at Rags, not as condescendingly arrogant as Tremborag, nor as single-minded as Garen. Nor as weary as Reiss. But she had some of these things. Mostly, though? She bent down the ways between their heights.
“So the Great Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe has upset all of north Izril and stolen their precious Healer of Tenbault, all to save the life of a Human. I say…that is not-Goblin at all.”
Redscar winced. Calescent didn’t move, still looking sad. But Redscar took a look at Rags’ expression and grinned.
“Got you, Chieftain.”
Archmage Valeterisa was on her way south to visit…someone. She had a note. Let’s see.
Actionable items for this month:
-Visit the Meeting of Tribes. Confer with Grand Magus Eldavin.
-Appended notes: inquire into ‘Fissival magic suppression’ endeavors. Obtain Gnollish favor.
-Meet with Wall Lord Ilvriss regarding ‘plans’.
-Inspect one ‘Erin Solstice’ regarding death, condition. Confer with Grand Magus Eldavin.
-Investigate Ryoka Griffin or Wind Runner of Reizmelt.
-Investigate ‘The Wandering Inn’, Liscor. Connection with—investigate disappearance of a ‘Mrsha’. Confer with Grand Magus Eldavin, local authorities.
-Visit your niece (Ieka). Very important! Do not forget! Present ten years of birthday presents. Do it now. Don’t forget this time. Hurry up.
She felt like that bottom note had been there a while, given the appended instructions. However, she had already crossed out one item off her list, hadn’t she? Or was she still doing it?
-Visit Anazurhe. Bring gift. Collect any magical items/knowledge present.
She waited, patiently, devoting her mental capacities to memorizing the spells Eldavin had presented her with to long-term memory. She also began plotting where to put the next teleport beacon; she’d been setting them up but she wondered if they’d fail once she got to Fissival.
How fascinating. If Fissival did have a magical suppression field continent-wide, could they then lock down teleportation spells if they chose to? She would assume they had in the past, but could they do it now, or monitor them? Valeterisa began trying to calculate how they’d do it if so, when she saw the two Goblins arguing.
The small one was attempting to kick the taller one. Which the taller one, Anazurhe, responded to with a jet of fire. That was in keeping with her personality, but she did not appear to be malevolent.
Valeterisa knew that because the little Goblin wasn’t dead. Two Goblins, both of the Hob variety, dragged her back, and they began to argue. Valeterisa wondered if she should listen, but she decided one of her mental processes could distill any useful information later.
She had six trains of thought running on the Fissival question, but she had to devote three to dealing with the Healer of Tenbault. The woman was pleading with her.
“They’ll kill me, Archmage! Please, you can save me, can’t you?”
“Hello, Lady Hekusha. I am very pleased to meet you after—twelve years. How do you do? You are looking well.”
Valeterisa’s mouth moved in her ‘social greeting’ setting. The look on Hekusha’s face made Valeterisa devote another few thoughts to actually addressing this situation.
“…I am not Valeterisa, Hekusha. If I was, I would not be in the company of Goblins, who are a de facto monster, without treaty or sympathies at this moment.”
She hesitated, and sent off a mental query.
Archmage Valeterisa to Invrisil’s Mage’s Guild. Query. Are Goblins still classified as monsters?
She got a response after three minutes.
During which Hekusha had laid out an appeal to spirit her to safety. Valeterisa could, of course, do this. Although if Anazurhe objected, it might put her in danger. She did not want to, which she calmly pointed out. At which point the Healer said something that triggered one of Valeterisa’s subconscious routines.
“I’ll…I’ll tell them you were here and didn’t help me!”
That. Was a threat. Valeterisa’s brows rose as a third of her mental processes, which equated to enough to run her at what she estimated to be an older Valeterisa’s full mental capacities, formed up. She nodded to herself.
“I see. In that case, Lady Hekusha, I will have to kill you.”
The Healer of Tenbault stared as Valeterisa drew her wand, and aimed it at her forehead. She squealed and dove. Valeterisa waited and let the ominous [Orange Light] spell glow until the Healer’s head was out of the way, then cast her spell.
[Ray of Incineration].
It blasted forwards, scorching the far wall as the Goblins whirled. Anazurhe hissed, but Valeterisa calmly pointed her wand down at the Healer.
“Don’t kill me!”
“If you threaten me or reveal anything inconveniencing in the future, I will kill you, Lady Hekusha.”
Valeterisa waited to see if her intimidation ploy had worked. It seemed so, given the babble of assurances, so she put her wand back.
“Very good! Please stop bothering me. Thank you.”
She stood there for a while, as the Goblins stared at her. Valeterisa eventually did look back down at the Healer of Tenbault, because it occurred to her that she should elaborate, the woman being important enough to warrant it.
“Goblins are not an isolated group, Lady Hekusha. Like other ‘non-civilized’ species, they do trade and have their own items of worth. It is only…mm…an ‘illegal’ group that trades with them. However, it would be foolish to turn down the opportunity for knowledge. Witch Anazurhe is in the possession of a method of spellcasting and materials even an Archmage finds useful.”
“But they’re monsters!”
A full third of Valeterisa refocused again. She sighed, removed her spectacles, and cleaned them with a spell.
“Yes. That is a common refrain. Since you have said it, I disqualify you from being heard. Thank you.”
And she heard nothing else. Which was quite pleasant. The Goblins stared at her and she peered at them. They had nothing too interesting that she wanted. A Ghostly Blade enchantment on that sword, Ice Edge enchantment…no, no. She hoped this was not a waste of time. She had important business to be on.
Then she stared at something hanging around the Great Chieftain’s neck. Rags. She saw that Witch Anazurhe was looking at it too, but it had no magical aura.
That Valeterisa could see or sense. And that was fascinating. Because, and this was nothing more than observation, a number of her observational thoughts putting together information—
It had no magical aura. It looked plain.
However, Witch Anazurhe looked at it. Ergo, it had value.
Witch Anazurhe did not lack for wealth. The key was therefore significant if she knew it, as neither Goblin had met.
Therefore, it was important. No mundane key was worth keeping, however, given the intrinsic risk of destruction and the fact that a mundane key could be easily replicated.
Therefore it was magical.
And she could not read it.
Therefore, it was very magical.
“Talk to me in our language, Great Chieftain of Flooded Waters. Not their tongue, but ours.”
The two Chieftains walked together, after their eventful meeting. Rags stumbled and looked at Anazurhe.
She managed, but the Goblin [Witch] was using inflections and words that Rags had never known existed. Rags was used to filling the gaps in the Goblins’ language with body language. This lacked any body language.
Anazurhe smiled, or Rags saw the movement, because she had replaced the half-mask over her face. She walked through the heart of a volcano, the strange Molten Stone tribe, showing Rags around.
Not grandly, like Tremborag, to impress upon other Goblins how superior he was. There was a bit of pride, but it was well-earned. This place was…beautiful. Peaceful, as Rags had never known a tribe.
The other Redfangs and Calescent lagged behind, touring the city on their own time. Well, Calescent just stared at some Goblins on swings of all things, seeing who could fly highest before going whuph on the ground. Such a silly game with a piece of wood and rope. Rags thought they could make it in Goblinhome.
But it was a children’s toy, something you’d see in Liscor’s parks. It brought a smile of longing to her face. Calescent’s was morose. He was hurt.
Rags was…less so. In the back of her mind, she had thought Hekusha was too friendly; even Erin Solstice herself probably wouldn’t have gone from kidnap-victim to friend in…or perhaps only her. And only because she knew Goblins.
Anazurhe gave him and Rags a knowing look.
“I speak like Goblins here do. You speak like Goblins who steal the Healer of Tenbault do. You could remember how to speak like this. Few do.”
Rags frowned. She was already copying Anazurhe.
“Speak like…what is difference?”
She felt like she was learning the common tongue again, and it was odd for a language she knew. The Great Witch shook her head.
“Warrior talk. You speak, all Goblins, in low verse. Talk meant for battlefields. See? You…understand danger, northwest, coming in fast?”
She switched, mid-sentence, to the expressive body language that Rags knew well. Reflexively, Rags even glanced north-west and ducked. A screeching Goblin on a broomstick flashed just overhead for approximately four seconds. Then she ran out of power and crashed.
“You stupid Goblins! Don’t fly here! Begone or I will hex your ears off!”
Anazurhe bellowed and the terrified Goblin apprentices picked up their companion and the broken broom and ran. They had [Witch]’s hats. Rags shook her head.
“You teach them magic?”
“And trade with Humans.”
“Sulfur. Other tribes gather ingredients. We trade for gold, sometimes artifacts. Food we cannot buy.”
“Other tribes are not allowed here, though?”
Anazurhe shrugged like a Human. An omni-shrug, which could mean a lot of things, distinctly unhelpful.
“Other tribes must guard this place. My magic can only do so much. They give talented Goblins. I make masks. My apprentices make masks. They are safer here. Even adventurers choke in these fumes.”
It still seemed like a variant on Tremborag’s own system and Rags frowned mightily. Anazurhe gave her a piercing look.
“If you say ‘not Goblin’, Chieftain Rags, I will scorch you. What is Goblin? Why must Goblins always copy Goblins? It was good to say to Tremborag because he wanted to be a Human [King], or a Drake. Not me.”
“Fine. Then…cruel to other tribes. Not nice.”
To this, Anazurhe threw back her head and cackled. It was an amused sound, lively, and, to judge by the way all Goblins turned and looked, rare. She looked down at Rags.
“Yes. [Witches] are not nice. Have you met [Witches]?”
Rags narrowed her eyes. Then amended her statement.
“One. Didn’t like. Rings in the eyes.”
Anazurhe’s own eyes widened. Rags saw with interest that, while they were crimson like every Goblin’s, they seemed to flicker like a dancing flame with a brighter core. She made a sound, and touched her own fancy hat on her head.
She said that in the common tongue. Rags jumped. Anazurhe’s gaze darkened.
“That is a bad Witch. Do not go near her. Take not her offers.”
“Figured that out.”
The two walked on. Anazurhe nodded at Rags.
“Tell me how. Where.”
“You don’t know?”
“No. I knew you came. I know many things. My eyes go far. Not to the High Passes.”
She knew of Rags’ tribe. She knew of Reiss, the battles at Tremborag’s mountain, and the sorry tale of how it had ended. She did not know of The Wandering Inn, Erin, the encounter with Belavierr, or Kevin. Rags explained as Anazurhe showed her the city.
It really was quite inhospitable land, even if you were a Goblin. Outside the concealed fortress, the volcano looked lively, and it certainly spewed toxic gas. Even on the way in, Rags had begun feeling faint. It was actually ‘purer’ than the toxins the plants shot into the gas vents…but that only meant a different kind of poison.
You needed a mask. But if you had one…it was just really hot, and if you had water and food, any Goblin could live here.
The Molten Stone tribe clearly relied on the other ones to provide resources, and Humans. But without the Great Witch herself? It could not exist. With her, it had achieved the closest thing to Reiss’ dream that Rags had ever seen.
She watched one of the smallest Goblins, one of the ‘talented Goblins’ hand-picked by Anazurhe’s people from the tribes, playing outside with some others. She had magical potential, or some other aspect that set her apart. But Rags just watched the little Goblin tilt her head up and stare at the ash coming down. Like…snow. And she was making a snow-Goblin. Ash-Goblin. A little head, two pointed ears, a pebble for eyes.
That any Goblin would waste time on such a thing told Rags this place was safe. They could have fun here. It only took a Great Chieftain, and multiple tribes on perimeter defense.
“…This is not a home for all Goblins. Just those who are here.”
She had finished telling Anazurhe her story. Now, the Great Witch nodded. She had shown Rags actual classrooms, alchemy stations, even a library of books. The Molten Stone tribe had [Cooks] and [Chefs], [Stonecutters], [Cleaners] even, who kept it running, but most Goblins were magic-users of some kind.
“I am not Reiss, the Goblin Lord. I am not Tremborag. Do you see what I have made?”
“An…academy. Like Wistram.”
Anazurhe smiled proudly.
Rags looked at this place and it did take her breath away. What a grand idea. Do what every other species had, only for Goblins. A hidden academy of magic. And yet…she shook her head and rounded on Anazurhe.
“It is beautiful, Chieftain Anazurhe. But when Reiss made war on other Goblins. When the Humans chased us to Liscor. When we died—your Goblins did not come. Do you care for no Goblins? Why this? Why let other Goblins die? Your Goblins do not go to other tribes. They do not teach their magic. My tribe had no [Shaman]. No [Witches]. Why are they here?”
Was she just a power-hoarding Goblin? The [Witch of Flames] regarded Rags, not upset by the challenge. She took off her mask again, and Rags understood this was the Molten Stone’s custom. A sign of revelation, intimacy.
“Chieftain Rags. Is my tribe not wonderful? Is it not safe? You see it now, with classrooms, learning. Magic and food to eat. When other tribes suffer, my Goblins can go. Great students, to learn. To live. To die. When Humans come, or Goblins make war on Goblins, they will go.”
Rags frowned. But they hadn’t. She waited as Anazurhe explained.
“Yet they do not. Not this time. Next time. Ten years. Twenty. Then it is done. Since I came here, I built this. Molten Stone is my tribe. It has lived as long as I made it. I, you understand? This was just rock decades ago.”
She touched the opening to the fortress entrance. Rags blinked at it. Then looked at Anazurhe. The Great Chieftain smiled.
“You…made this? Molten Stone is not old?”
Then Rags understood. She stepped back and beheld it again. A fort hidden in stone. An academy. Being built. Wistram before it had been Wistram. Anazurhe whispered.
“It is not done. Not yet. Goblins must have a safe haven. For magic, here. For war? Our island. I made this. I refused to follow even our King who lost himself to madness. So I greet you, Chieftain Rags. But I will not give you more than aid here. No armies. No great pacts. Not yet.”
She reached out, and touched Rags’ shoulder. The Chieftain looked up at her. Then saw the long claws reach down and touch something hanging around her neck.
Valeterisa poked her head out from behind a rock. Both Goblins turned to stare at her and she poked her head back. Anazurhe looked at Rags and shook her head.
“You and I are not the same. I will stay here and make something that may last. You? Beware, Rags. You are a Great Chieftain, but you walk the path of Goblin Lords. Stay.”
“What is the difference?”
Anazurhe shook her head.
“One, like Tremborag, like me, like Kraken Eater’s Chieftain, are content to be Chieftains. The other are Goblin Lords, and seek a Goblin King. Like Greydath. They will all die. Take the key and toss it away.”
She pointed across the vast, barren wasteland. Rags’ own hand clutched at the key. She backed up a step.
“We need it. It is the great treasure of Goblins. We need more than this, Anazurhe.”
She gestured around at the hidden enclave, so small, for all it was so hopeful. The Goblin Witch saw her walk away. An Archmage hopped out from her hiding place and hurried over.
“Hello, Chieftain Rags. I am Archmage Valeterisa. Would you like to trade for that key you are holding? May I inspect it? I am a friendly Human…”
Prixall had also been watching the conversation, eavesdropping as well. She walked over.
Anazurhe looked over.
She corrected, but mildly. Prixall, the oldest [Witch] besides Anazurhe herself, like a spark next to a great fire, watched Rags go. Curious. Dismissive of a ‘lesser’ tribe, but curious.
“She is not like the Fomirelin Chieftain.”
“No. He loves battle. She wants something more. Watch her. That one will never grow as old as you. She walks the path of a Goblin Lord. She has his key. To uncover his gift, she would need to be a Goblin Lord at least.”
Anazurhe murmured, sadly. Prixall nodded, but hesitated.
“What if she survives to become a Goblin Lord? Survives and lives even then?”
The Great [Witch] exhaled slowly. Her burning gaze turned back towards the fortress, and Prixall knew exactly what she was staring at.
“Then? She will die.”
Ah, that was it. Tired.
Like Greydath. Anazurhe made sense to Rags, now. She had done wonderful things here. But she was tired. Resigned. She did not even want the key.
The difference between a Great Chieftain and another Goblin Lord, Rags supposed. She walked back inside the Molten Stone tribe and found there were two things she had left to see. Two more things. One, an ambition, the other, an explanation.
The first thing she did see, though, was Redscar hitting Goblins with sticks. He had practice swords and was whalloping nearly a dozen Goblins in an exhibition of what it meant to be Redfang.
Anazurhe joined Rags as the Goblin Chieftain groaned, but she looked amused.
“So this is Redfang. My Goblins train with blades. They want to learn.”
“What kind of Goblin warriors?”
It was hard to see at first, because the eager Goblins, male and female, tried to fight Redscar on his own terms.
Which was objectively stupid, because he was a war veteran and praticed with blades every second he breathed. They couldn’t get near him; Rags saw a Goblin charge in with a spirited cry and shout. Redscar let him swing and slashed him mid-strike. He actually halted another Goblin’s thrust by grabbing their arm and applying a knee to their chest.
Redscar left a trail of bruised Goblins behind. He seemed offended by their lack of experience. They had arms training. But they were clearly a cut far below Redfangs, who had all the practical knowledge in the world.
Rags saw they had a huge audience. Goblins were watching Redscar fighting. Not just admiring him, personally, but staring at him with a familiar expression. It took Rags a while to realize it was adoration. Awe.
“They know Redfang. They think he is Garen Redfang.”
“You know his name?”
“Yes. We know famous tribes. This is the first Redfang they have seen, though.”
To judge by their looks, Redscar did not disappoint. But Rags found it curious. Goblins knew of other tribes, but this expression was again, more of something from Liscor. It was…she snapped her fingers.
Rags didn’t know how to explain. It was like how Ekirra looked at Joseph, or Drakes at Drassi. Celebrity.
She looked at the scrying orb set in the plaza and pointed at it.
“You have scrying orbs? Not worried about Wistram spying? They can do that.”
Anazurhe snorted. But it was a Human man who edged over, wiping sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Not to worry, Miss, er, Chieftain. All our scrying orbs are custom-enchanted. No one’s spying through them. Matter of fact, I can arrange some if you have the coin. May I introduce myself? Roell, [Rogue]. I can get you what you need, have it delivered right here.”
Rags stared at the Human, but she was reminded instantly of the other [Rogue] who’d come to Goblinhome. She actually shook his hand.
“You sell things to Goblins?”
“That’s right. Begging your pardon.”
He gave Anazurhe a wary look, but the Great Witch was analyzing Redscar’s performance. At last, some of the Goblins had decided to use their talents.
Here came that [Warlock]. Roell and Rags both watched the magic-user show off his talents. Rags had never met a [Warlock] before, but she understood his power was analogous to [Witches]. So how would he…?
The young Hob leapt with a whooping shout, his practice sword glowing in Rags’ eyes. He’d run his hand over it while waiting for an opening. Redscar was no idiot. He backed up, parrying the sword—then recoiled as a hissing snake shot out of the blade and tried to bite him!
A spectral snake made of orange light. Rags started. The [Warlock] turned, and flicked a bolt of concussive magic that knocked one of his buddies flat as she tried to charge Redscar from behind. He hesitated in dismay, and Redscar knocked the blade from his hands. The [Warlock] stared stupidly at his hand, backpedalled, and Redscar gave him a flying drop-kick to the back.
“That’s a fairly dangerous fellow. He’d be a Face for sure. Makes this lot look silly.”
Rags shrugged. She eyed the [Warlock] with interest as Redscar picked him up and tried to explain how not to do that again. He had potential. That bound creature trick would have done a lot of damage if he had the experience to back it up.
“Anyways, Miss. Where are you from? Don’t worry! Rogue’s confidentiality. I reckon you’re on the list if your tribe’s met my people.”
“Mm. I met someone else. Gave me free rings.”
“Oh. What’s his name? I can do you a better offer. Do you need potions? Supplies? I can get you a scrying orb, free, depending on what you have to sell…”
The man broke off as Rags saw Hekusha again. The Healer of Tenbault was staring at Valeterisa, who kept wanting to see the key. And Roell. He blinked.
“That’s…is that the Healer of Tenbault? Then you’re…”
He looked at Rags, recoiled, and backed up. Rags raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t want to sell me things?”
“Er—maybe when all’s cooled down, Miss Chieftain. Terribly sorry, but we don’t like dealing with active tribes.”
The Healer of Tenbault stared at Roell. Then pointed an accusing finger at him and Valeterisa.
“You’re conspiring with Goblins. I’ve been kidnapped! They slaughtered Tenbault’s people! How could you?”
Rags crossed her arms. Now that her true feelings were out, the Healer looked even more afraid of the Goblin monsters than before. And equally—as outraged at the traitors to her people.
It was Valeterisa who rubbed at one ear.
“Is she speaking? I can’t hear anything.”
Roell, on the other hand, just gave the Healer of Tenbault a long look. A…none-too-friendly look, actually.
“Begging your pardon, Miss. I’m just a poor man, trying to make a decent living. I’ve never seen more than…”
His lips moved. Roell counted.
“Eight people get killed, all because they were stupid. I heard they got you.”
He nodded at Rags.
“Crying shame. Hope you’re treated well.”
“You’re just going to leave me here? You won’t tell them where I am? I am the Healer of Tenbault.”
Hekusha shook her fist at him. Roell glanced at Rags and Anazurhe.
“…Assuming I was stupid enough to do that anywhere near the Great Chieftain of the Molten Stone tribe, Miss? I’d still not really bother. Molten Stone pays well, and they give [Alchemists] good stuff through my gang. Even set me up with a poultice once. I had a niece who died in Tenbault. Never saw you. Good riddance. G’day, too.”
He nodded to her and stalked off. Rags liked him. She nudged Fighti.
“We buy stuff from him later.”
Fighti was munching on some food the Molten Stone tribe had provided as Hekusha was lost for words. And friends. Anazurhe gave Rags a knowing look.
“Chieftain Rags. Humans will come and search for her. They will not get here, but tribes will fight them. You cannot stay.”
Rags already knew that. She nodded.
“Can you give food, directions? Get away from Humans?”
Anazurhe’s eyes glinted.
“I can give you magic to hide you or speed you. That is what I do. Even to distant Goblins; Chieftains have paid me to give aid. My magic can stretch across the north, and I can give you great potions or spells.”
Rags’ ears perked up. She nodded slowly.
“Useful. You want something?”
“No one comes to the Great Chieftain without a gift. Except [Witches]. What will you give me for aid?”
Rags pursed her lips. Valeterisa jumped in.
“I will pay Anazurhe if you would consider trading me the key…no? Very well.”
Rags stared at the woman.
“Are you really an Archmage of Wistram?”
“Yes. I believe so.”
Valeterisa gave her a blank look. She raised a finger to her temple.
“Valeterisa to Wistram. Am I still an Archmage? …Yes? Good. Yes, I am.”
Rags wondered if she was sick, and if it was contagious. She edged back a bit, but she did have a suitable gift in mind.
“Chieftain Anazurhe. If you give us shelter to rest a day or two, and magic, we will trade. And Archmage Valeterisa will give us something, for my gift.”
Both Anazurhe and Valeterisa glanced at Rags. The [Witch of Flames] looked amused.
“Archmage and Great Chieftain both owe you favors? It must be a gift of gifts.”
Rags shrugged, casually. She produced her gift, and held it out. Valeterisa’s eyes sharpened and Hekusha whirled.
Her notes, personal spellbook, and everything looted from her research station all came out of Rags’ bag of holding. She held up the trove of knowledge to Valeterisa, who made a snatching grab for it, eyes alight with curiosity.
Anazurhe grinned, taking off her mask. She eyed Izril’s most famous Healer, who had turned dead-white. And you know what? Rags didn’t feel bad about it at all.
“Good gift, Chieftain Rags. You are welcome to Molten Stone!”
Rabbiteater joined the battle with the Order of Seasons, riding in neat wedges of cavalry. This time, the Order of Seasons would take their mounts into battle. They had to risk it, despite the danger of being bogged down by the Order of Hydra’s numbers.
The army of Ailendamus had parked themselves along a ridgeline, cutting off the Order’s escape route. And here came the legion of [Knights], chanting and cheering as they marched forwards, led by the Dame of the Hills.
“Dame of the Hills! I challenge you!”
Dame Voost saluted the half-Giant with her sword. The Great Knight smiled behind her helm.
“Ah, a ploy for the Summer’s Champion to burn my fellows down, is it? Challenge denied! [A Knight’s Duel], Ser Greysten! Let’s have it out!”
The Summer’s Champion roared in frustration, but he swung his own warhorse around and rode at her. Rabbiteater cursed. It was already going bad.
Just like last time, the Order of the Hydra moved in, refusing to let the Order of Seasons charge and breakaway. They neatly cut off Pheislant’s [Soldiers] from the rest of the fighting with a hail of crossbow bolts, and Rabbiteater watched Pheislant’s forces skirmish against Ailendamus’ infantry while under heavy crossbow fire.
…Behind a wall of the Order of the Hydra, who cheerfully surrounded two lance-charges of Ser Zulv’s best Summer Knights who tried to break to the aid of their regular forces. The Order of Seasons was forced backwards, charging, regrouping, refusing to duel, but hemmed in by a press of bodies that would take down any mounted [Knight] in seconds. They moved back into the valley as Greysten and Dame Merila fought.
Greysten was roaring with flame, and slashed halfway through her own sword with his axe. It wasn’t enchanted; it was a huge blade for a half-Giant, a colossal expense of metal, let alone in forging. She dropped it with a curse, throwing her shield out to block a gout of flames.
“[Armed At All Times]!”
The highest-leveled [Squire] that Rabbiteater had ever seen, a fully-grown man, charged forwards. Somehow, he tossed up a blade longer than he was tall, and Dame Merila caught it. She swept back down with a scything blow that Greysten parried with a Skill—but sent his horse rearing back with the shock of it.
“If he just killed the [Squire], it would be easier.”
“That’s not chivalrous.”
Ser Markus pointed out. Rabbiteater rolled his eyes behind his helm. He began to charge with his group. They were going to lose. The Order of the Hydra had marked Voost, Zulv, and were playing this game and winning. If only…his eyes roamed.
There was a secret at the heart of the Molten Stone tribe. Rags was shown it, while Valeterisa and Anazurhe read the Healer’s notes.
It was Prixall who was tasked with showing Rags, as a sign of the Molten Stone tribe’s largesse. She was a bit uncomfortable, and Rags got the sense the [Witch] didn’t know if she was the clearly superior Goblin anymore.
“You don’t like me.”
Rags commented as the two walked deep into the bowels of the volcano. It was still being built, and Anazurhe was expanding down. She feared not the volcano, explaining to Rags that she could keep it suppressed. How and for how long were her problems, so long as nothing exploded at the moment.
“…I think Chieftain Rags is a mighty Chieftain.”
Prixall answered, cautiously. Rags grinned.
“You sound like a Human.”
Prixall glared. After a second, she answered, matter-of-factly.
“You…that Redfang, the one with two swords, is strong. Redfang is famous. Even we hear of Flooded Waters. Goblin Lords. You stole the Healer of Tenbault. All Izril hates you. You are high-level.”
She looked at Rags, and the shorter Goblin deciphered the gaze at last.
Prixall looked away.
“You have adventure and fame. Other Goblins like what you do.”
Rags peered at the [Witch]. Prixall herself, too. And yet…
“What is wrong, then?”
“…You will die.”
Rags slowed as they descended further, into a place not used by any Goblins. Prixall glanced back at her.
“That is what Chieftain Anazurhe says. Goblins like you will die. We stay here, we learn. We level—slowly. But we level safely. You have bright lives. Short lives. Like…”
She made a little flame with her fingers and blew it out. Rags smiled grimly.
“Not all. Redscar is eight years old. I knew a Chieftain over ten years. Goldstone Tribe. His name was…”
She saw the Goblin [Witch] stop, remove her mask, and start laughing. Prixall put her mask back, and shook her head at Rags.
“Great Chieftain. Do not be mad.”
Rags put her hands on her hips. Prixall just shrugged. She tapped her chest.
“That is old for Goblins not here. Chieftain Anazurhe is not old. There was a Goblin who was old who came here, once. Greydath of Blades. But he was old. No other Goblin I have ever met was old. Not other Goblin Lords. Not other Great Chieftains. Not even Velan was old.”
This time, the young, young Goblin came to a halt.
“You met Velan the Kind?”
“Yes. He was here. He asked my mother to fight for him. She told him no, to run and not die. He refused.”
Mother. Rags looked at Prixall. The [Witch] touched her hat, then her chest.
“Chieftain Rags. I am not old. I am her oldest daughter. Living. When she came here, started this tribe, she had me. Long ago. I studied here. I helped make this…”
She tapped the walls of the cavern.
“I am not old. I am over sixty years old. And I am not old. You all die too soon.”
Rags recoiled so hard she slammed into the wall. She looked at Prixall. A fully-grown Hob. And—Rags didn’t see a difference between her and Snapjaw. She had no white hair like Greydath. She could have been a Hob of four years. She was…
“Goblins of the Molten Stone tribe admire you. Want to be Redfangs or Flooded Waters. But why? If they leave, they die. Glory is…”
A flame burned for a second. Then winked out. And there was nothing Rags could say against it. Prixall pointed down the corridor.
“See what Chieftain Anazurhe makes, Chieftain Rags. You are smart. You may see.”
She led Rags forwards, and they came to a strange place. Through carved tunnels—neat, but still with a bit of variation in craft, signs of mixed skill levels, albeit hard work—they came to a huge…chamber.
Chamber was Rags’ word, because she couldn’t figure out what the purpose was, at first. It was a completely square room in all dimensions. Unlike even the rest of the fortress, even Anazurhe’s personal magic room, this place was perfect.
Perfect as in, each line of geometry was a mathematical constant. As in, each tile was laid with such outstanding craftsmanship and skill that even Hexel or Drevish would have said it was fine work. Rags saw two braziers, custom-made, each a solid piece of iron, sitting next to the one part in progress.
A…staircase. Which led to nowhere yet, as it was only sixteen feet down. Each step made of gleaming, dark granite. Each block without flaw. And the new ones were being laid personally by a sweating Human [Mason].
Watched by no less than eighteen Goblins, and commanded by another Hob, holding a scroll and inspecting it constantly.
“I, ah, I’ve got a little flaw in this stone, sir?”
The Human poked his head up and showed them one of the blocks he was installing. He was clearly using Skills; it looked like the place he’d laid was as seamless as the rest of the room. He was good at his job, and clearly nervous about his audience, who were armed.
The female Goblin took a look at the stone, made a noise of disgust, and hurled it past Rags and Prixall into the plain corridor beyond. She went over to kick at the pieces as the [Mason] watched. Then turned back.
“Good. No bad stones.”
“No bad stones at all, Miss. I…”
He stared at Prixall and Rags. The [Witch] spoke.
“Keep working, [Mason]. We will observe.”
“Yes ma’am. Of course. I…”
He went back to inspecting each stone before laying it. Rags stared around the perfect room. Black stone, polished like a mirror. When the two braziers were lit, it would give this room ambiance, especially with the walls of equally smooth stone. The stairway wasn’t a slope, but an actual stairway. Why?
There was no reason for this much clear expense and, to judge by it, painstaking perfection if Anazure just wanted a new wing. Why hire a Human? Was this some magical room?
If so, why wouldn’t a [Mage] make it? Rags saw Prixall watching her with amusement as she strode around the room.
“No. Just built to exacting standards. Show her.”
The Goblin with the scroll hesitated. Prixall glared.
“Anazurhe has given Chieftain Rags permission. Show her.”
The [Mason] hesitated as Rags looked at the blueprints to this room. Which he had been told that if he so much as glanced at would result in a painful death. Rags stared at a very neat set of blueprints of…
This room. A perfect square, noted out with exact measurements for how big each tile should be. A scrawl about the quality of stones, and a staircase leading down to…
Nothing. It literally ended with a single arch. It was nearly done. Rags nearly went cross-eyed trying to figure out what this damned room was for. It was only when she saw the writing on the top left that it all clicked. It was how it was written, and it was what Rags had seen before that let her understand at last.
[The Labyrinth of Fithel].
It was written like that. Like…Rags’ eyes narrowed.
A Skill. She looked around the room and had the distinct impression it was familiar. Not in appearance, but…she closed her eyes and remembered a door. A door that led into a garden, that had existed before someone found it. She turned, suddenly, and gasped.
Prixall made a slashing gesture and Rags stopped before she clued in the [Mason]. He was oblivious, inspecting another stone with sweaty fingers. Prixall couldn’t hide her astonishment.
“You know what this is?”
Like the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Rags nodded.
“This is…something that exists, but you get. A Skill of a place?”
The [Witch] inhaled sharply.
“You are smart. Chieftain Anazurhe is making. This is…a special place. If we get, we get danger, but lots of space.”
“How does she know?”
Prixall snorted softly.
“She remembers. She is stealing this place, see? Nearly done.”
Rags’ mouth opened. She had never thought of that! Goblin memory extended to many things, but remembering an inheritance Skill and stealing it? She thought she was good with the Healer of Tenbault! This…this was real theft, the kind even Ratici would tip his hat to.
And it gave Rags a lot of ideas. Prixall hurried her back before she could give the game away to the oblivious [Mason]. Each one had to be Level 30, and they came here with no idea what they were doing. Obviously, seeing the blueprints was death, given what it was about.
Rags, knowing the Molten Stone tribe’s even greater dreams, thought nothing could surprise her as she went to meet with Anazurhe.
Until she saw the last part of the Molten Stone tribe, a water fountain that doubled as their water supply. The Goblins purified the natural water they collected from the very toxic landscape, and Anazurhe had made a water fountain out of it so that Goblins could scoop water out of a basin.
Bathing in it was frowned upon, even if it technically would purify the waters. Just a fountain, another resting area, and where the [Witch of Flames] and Archmage of Izril had retreated to argue over the magic notes while silly Goblins hit each other with sticks in the other plaza and watched the scrying orb.
That was the place. Rags saw the fountain first. Then…without warning, he was there. Without explanation—no, without preface. Suddenly, she saw him and stopped dead.
Velan the Kind, no, he was just ‘Velan’ before they named him like that, yawned. It made the other Goblin Chieftains snort.
A rare gathering of their kind, but the Great Chieftain had come when asked. He really tried to hold it in, but he couldn’t help it.
It upset the Goblin [Witch] of the Burning Snow tribe, who was trying to explain her grand plan to them all. She shouted at him.
“Stop snoozing you stupid—stupid Great Chieftain!”
Then she threw a ball of fire at him and singed his eyebrows off. Which sort of ruined the dignified showcase and plan she was trying to get the other Goblin Chieftains on board with, but they just didn’t have a good place or the will.
“A Goblin academy is good. But where? Gazers have jungles. Dullahans will find you in the north. Underground?”
He tried to console her afterwards, as the Chieftains went to more interesting activities. The Goblin [Witch], sulking, muttered.
“Maybe somewhere else. Chandrar. Izril.”
“Far to go.”
The Great Chieftain stretched. Anazurhe shrugged.
That was his first meeting with the [Witch] named Anazurhe. She did leave for Izril, and he saw her only a few times before then. Then once more…fifty years later. And then? He was already—
Rags jolted. She stumbled backwards and Prixall caught her. The Chieftain was breathing heavily. She looked up and saw.
Velan the Kind. He sat there, staring over her head into the distance. At something amusing or…contenting.
His statue, of course. The Goblin King—no, he wasn’t quite the Goblin King, was he? It had triggered the memory in her, but this Goblin wasn’t the same one who had raged across Izril. A bit younger.
“Chieftain Rags. Are you alright?”
Rags looked up and saw Prixall looking concerned. She realized what had happened to Rags.
“Chieftains see it differently. Some Goblins too.”
Velan. He was just like her memories, but it was something to see him sculpted out of stone. Rags…looked around, and saw a figure sitting by the fountain.
Anazurhe was looking at her. The Great Witch had commissioned the statue. The statue of one of the most hated beings in the world. Her eyes were distant as she looked at Rags.
“You did know him.”
“Of course I did. Some Goblins are older, Rags. I saw him be the great Goblin Lord that they called kind. The one they made pacts with. Then…madness. That is the fate of Goblin Kings. He was mad when he died. And I do not know why.”
She looked so sad. Rags shook her head. From wanting to take Anazurhe to task, she had gone to respecting her vision to…she could not condemn it any longer. Not someone who had been there. No wonder she hid her tribe here, playing a longer game.
“I saw what you are making.”
“Ah. You knew?”
“I have seen another.”
Anazurhe’s pointed hat tilted up. Her eyes glinted.
“Quiet, please. I am committing these notes to memory.”
Valeterisa muttered from the side. Anazurhe looked over, and poked her hard in the side. The Archmage did not respond.
“You see much, Chieftain Rags.”
“I do. I say…it is Goblin if it matters, Chieftain Anazurhe.”
The Witch smiled. Rags went on.
“I would like some of what you do for my tribe. We are young…”
She glanced at Prixall.
“Very young. But we are making something in the High Passes. Maybe it is in danger. Maybe it will not last. But if you will let some of your Goblins come, we will try to make something like this.”
“And what is ‘this’? A safe place? A place of power?”
Rags shook her head. The Great Chieftain was testing her. She gestured around.
“A place that does not need to steal.”
Anazurhe smiled. She nodded. That was what Rags liked most of all. This was not Tremborag’s domain. Everything she saw had been won fairly. You could not walk here and say this was stolen, that Goblins were a people who could only raid and destroy.
Only she had done that. She looked at the Healer’s notes, shamefaced. But she had a task she needed done, and it was worth the cost, she thought.
“If a Goblin wishes to go with you, I will let them. They will not.”
Anazurhe shook her head.
“They know what lies outside. You have little to offer them. They will go, like the island-Goblins, to die, for great deeds. But not because they see hope.”
That was the weariness. Rags shrugged.
“I will ask.”
Not one Goblin volunteered. Not even Redscar’s fans. They were tempted, from the little [Witches] to [Mages] to the [Warlocks], but they looked at Prixall, at Rags, and the ‘old’ Redscar and Redfangs, and saw exactly how long they’d live.
Rags couldn’t blame them. But she needed them. She was trying and failing to figure out how to convince them, as the Molten Stone tribe feasted them. Rags saw Calescent, a bit happier, trading his death spice with the Goblin [Chefs] and showing the Molten Stone tribe that there was fire they had yet to experience.
“Could I…purchase a bit of that? Might be a cheaper way to distract someone.”
Even Roell made a purchase of Calescent’s death-spice after he sampled it. Rags herself munched on a delicacy of their tribes; some kind of weird preservation technique. The Molten Stone tribe loved to bury eggs, Yellats, and other foods like fish, in clay pots with ash and other things—and let them rot into weird, discolored foods.
Well, not rot. They were perfectly edible. It wasn’t quite fermenting as her experts knew it, but it certainly took advantage of the natural terrain. Rags poked an egg with a brown outside and a black yolk. Hekusha stared in horror at her plate; the Goblins had, with careful spitefulness, served her a huge bowl of them.
Rags shrugged, took a bite, and found it was good! She liked it a lot more than bugs. She tried a pickled bit of herring next and chomped it down.
“Your Healer does not like you.”
Anazurhe murmured as she removed her mask to eat. Hekusha had indeed shown her colors and she was alone. Rags grimaced.
“She will heal Erin or not. Then we let her leave. We kidnapped her. She does not need to like us.”
“Mm. I don’t think she can.”
Rags’ heart sank. She looked at Anazurhe, then shook her head.
“If there is a chance…”
“Potion of Regeneration failed. Will [Restoration] work? Weaker spell. Different, but weaker.”
“Maybe she can heal Erin’s body.”
“Hmm. She is not a [Healer]. She can only cast the spell. She is a [Mage] who casts a spell efficiently. Not someone who knows why and how to kill sickness. There is a difference.”
Rags stabbed at one of the eggs with her claw. She had to believe this was for something. She had to do something!
“We will try.”
“Mhm. But do not bet on her. She is a greedy thing. Like crows.”
Anazurhe gestured. Rags turned and saw a giant, fire-resistant crow hassling Snowscale for his food. Apparently, due to some pact with another [Witch], the Molten Stone tribe had fliers who could use special masks. The crows were far smaller, though, and only a normal-sized Goblin could ride them, not a Hob.
Valeterisa was munching down on the black eggs, oblivious to what she was eating as she read the notes.
“It is interesting. Healer Hekusha, you seem capable of teaching this [Restoration] spell to other [Mages]. I believe I can learn it. Note to self…learn…[Restoration]…devote eight processes to memorization and casting.”
“You can’t steal my magic!”
The Healer of Tenbault wailed. Valeterisa raised her eyebrows. She rubbed at one ear.
“Oh, I stopped listening. One second…ah. Why not, Healer Hekusha? It is clear you decoded the spell you were taught nearly five years ago. Your research changed, and I do not believe this spell is being communicated. Even Wistram has lost it, with the exception of Grand Magus Eldavin.”
Rags’ ears sharpened. She looked at Hekusha. The woman stuttered.
“I—I was attempting to simplify it. To allow me to—”
Valeterisa scanned the notes and shook her head.
“You were not. Your research is plainly devoted to developing link-spells that you might cast it more efficiently. Not simplify it for others. In fact, half your research is designed to encode the spell. Interesting.”
Anazurhe’s eyes narrowed. She looked at Rags and the Goblin made a face. They understood. Valeterisa calmly reached for an egg, then stared at it.
“Is this poisonous? [Detect Poison]. No? Very well. It is now clear why Magnolia Reinhart declined to support you. Mystery solved. Note to self…tell Ieka…excuse me, Witch Anazurhe? Is there an acceptable magical present I could buy here?”
“Want a mask?”
Anazurhe turned to Rags. She nodded at the magical notes and Hekusha, watching someone effortlessly copy her spell. And unveil the truth.
“Greedy Human. If she can save…who is it?”
“An ice cube.”
Rags stared down at her plate, no longer hungry. She sat there, doodling on the table.
“You know—and I am being social here, hello Chieftain Rags, I hope we can do good business together, please accept this friendliness as a discount for favors owed for magical notes—this entire business with healing someone reminds me of an issue I must look into. Perhaps [Restoration] would help? I am looking into a frozen young woman in…Liscor, The Wandering Inn. How strange. Coincidence. Ahahahaha.”
Valeterisa’s polite laughter cut off as Rags jolted. The Archmage looked up as every Goblin in Rags’ entourage stared at her.
“…Was that a faux pas?”
Roell looked over from his dish where he was telling Vinn he’d done a good job, relax, have a drink, go to bed. Rags saw him bow politely.
“Excuse me, Great Chieftain? Er, other Great Chieftain, Archmage? This wouldn’t happen to be about the Oteslia-Khelt puzzle, would it?”
Everyone looked over. Rags frowned.
The [Rogue] realized he had everyone’s ears. He fumbled to recall.
“It’s…something in the Mage’s Guilds. Oteslia put out an alchemical problem. Something to do with a complex poison thing. You know, Oteslian generosity? They’re researching it, but Khelt put out a huge bounty on anyone who solves a number of problems. Think it’s reversing a freeze spell, finishing an antidote…‘course it might not have reached you, but I just thought I’d mention it.”
Anazurhe tapped her lips thoughtfully. Valeterisa began bothering the nearest Mage’s Guild about it. The Great [Witch of Flames] glanced at Rags.
“Oteslia and Khelt? Are they helping?”
Rags sat there. Yes. Perhaps! And yet, if the best [Alchemists] and [Researchers] of Oteslia could do naught, and the other [Witches] of Riverfarm, and all the people helping Erin, even the Healer of Tenbault, who could? She sat there, but Anazurhe was moving.
“Let us check.”
Rabbiteater was fighting with the Spring Knights, not in the thick of the fighting but on the edges. He battered down faces, yanked Markus out of a knot of [Knights], and dueled.
And like idiots, Spring Knights leapt from saddles or fought on horseback against their opponents. Rabbiteater had to admit—it was easier than a melee. The Order of Seasons would be squished against such numbers.
But maybe, they’d also combine their auras and burn their enemies out of their plate armor. He grimly battered a [Knight]’s guard down and rammed his shield into a face. The fellow fell down stupidly and Rabbiteater drove the sword point down next to his visor.
“Alas, Ser Domost. A valiant effort! At your leisure, Ser Plain Armor!”
Another Hydra [Knight] saluted Rabbiteater. The Goblin actually tilted his visor open and took a drink of a stamina potion. This was so…
He was no closer to any edge of the fighting. And he’d been trying to push out. The duels made it impossible. Rabbiteater kept staring towards the edge of the fighting.
The thing was, he saw something. The Order of the Hydra was boxing in the Order of Seasons, wearing them down despite the dangerous charges. But they were on foot. Fast as they were, if you broke clear of them…could they catch up?
You’d have to do that, first. And if Rabbiteater refused a duel, he was fairly sure they’d take him out in a second. He was still sick of it, though. So when he heard a shout that he liked, his head swivelled instantly.
“No fair, Ser! That is unsporting!”
A [Knight] lay on the ground. Order of the Hydra, plate dented. An energetic [Knight] in a kind of purple and fading orange had bashed him flat. It had been a one-sided match, mainly because when the Hydra Knight had gone down, he’d never been able to get back up.
Mostly due to the vines holding his limbs down. The Fall Knight, or Autumn Knight of the Order of Seasons, turned, wiping sweat from his brow as he loosened his helmet.
“Nonsense. Magic’s perfectly acceptable. You can use potions or scrolls, I can use magic. I trained with a mace and spells. Next?”
A Hydra Knight charged him. The Autumn Knight waited and the figure slipped on a patch of greased ground. He was on him with less skill than some of his counterparts, but a considerable vigor in attacking downed foes. The other waiting [Knights] booed the display.
Rabbiteater loved it. He made his way over to the Autumn Knight. The waiting [Knight] who wanted to duel him sighed, but let him do it.
More fool, he. The Autumn Knight spun.
“Is that Ser Solstice? We’re getting thrashed out here. Our people are, at any rate.”
Rabbiteater turned to the same sight he’d been watching; Ailendamus’ huge crossbow corps raining fire down on the enemy while their infantry held them back. He glared.
“Yes. Who’re you?”
“Ser Ilm. Autumn’s children. I’ve been separated from my lance. Want to join up? See here, we’ll duel you two at a time! My sword-arm’s getting tired, Ser Solstice, but if you back me up…”
For once, the Hydra Knights weren’t as keen to take the fight. One pointed at Ser Ilm.
“You’ll just cast magic on us! We’re not loosing arrows at you!”
“Too true, Dame Hydra! It is a duel. I could throw a [Fireball] at you all, but I won’t.”
The Autumn Knight had a practical, almost needling tone that Rabbiteater liked. And his presence gave Rabbiteater an idea. The Goblin dragged at Ser Ilm’s shoulder.
“Let’s retreat. Get Markus. Meisa.”
The lance was already falling back to rest and charge again. Ilm nodded. They waited for a duel, but the Hydra Knights just folded their arms.
“Let’s take on the Summer Knights. They’re sporting, even if they melt your armor. Yon’s Dame Talia Kalinad, over there. You know, from the games at Daquin? It would be a feather in your cap to take her out.”
They moved left, and Rabbiteater saw the fiery blade of the first [Knight] he had liked. He shook his head and pulled Ser Ilm back.
“They are going to win, Ser Solstice.”
The Autumn Knight calmly spoke when they were riding back to the defensive line of skirmishing [Knights]. Markus and Meisa, both of whom had survived their duels, looked at Rabbiteater. Ser Thaime was also there; Dame Ingrela was not. She’d been captured, along with Raist.
Rabbiteater nodded. He stared out at Ailendamus’ army. And…he kept seeing the figure there. He’d assumed it was a feint, but from the way he saw the figure strutting about, followed by a unit of fighters, he thought it was what it looked like.
There was Ailendamus’ [General]. A [General] could empower an army beyond belief, and since he had those pikes, he had put all of his fancy archers in one spot. Eggs and baskets and all that.
Of course, there was a wall of Hydra Knights keeping the Order of Seasons back. And they had Voost surrounded, forcing her into duels she was winning, but unable to break out from, like Zulv. Rabbiteater looked at Ilm, his friends.
“I have an idea. We can’t win without playing different…games. Not like Ailendamus.”
He tried to explain. Markus frowned, but Meisa lifted a hand.
“We can’t just violate the rules of engagement, Rabbiteater. It goes both ways.”
She glanced at Ailendamus’ army.
“There is a way to die quick, and it’s out there.”
“But. One person can change everything.”
“You’re speaking like you’re the Summer’s Champion.”
Ser Thaime snorted, but he eyed the Goblin Slayer, whom he’d ridden with. Ser Ilm leaned on his horse’s saddle, interested. Rabbiteater shrugged.
“Maybe. But you don’t need him. One person can do it.”
“You seem sure. We’re not high-level—”
Rabbiteater stared at something only he could see. Levels? Status? It didn’t matter. He had learned the lesson Greysten had, and the heads of each order.
One person was all it took. He saw a young woman with a white flag. If she had not stood there. If she had not been there…his hand tightened. He longed for the same power, the hand of the Drake [General] on his shoulder.
He didn’t have it. All he had was…a memory.
It was enough. Just because it was a memory did not mean it had not happened. He had been there. He had bested the Bear of Ailendamus. Rabbiteater reached for that feeling. And found…some of it was in him.
Ser Markus was about to object that he didn’t want his friend to die. The words slowed on his tongue. He squinted at Rabbiteater. He felt…the Spring Knight’s eyes widened, but Meisa nudged him. Her eyes were glittering.
“Do you have a plan, Ser Solstice? I am willing to listen.”
Thaime was sensing the same thing. He removed his helmet, his sharp mustache gleaming with sweat, and looked at Rabbiteater. The Goblin glanced at the Autumn Knight. He hesitated. One was coming.
“Maybe. Ser Ilm. Are there any more Autumn Knights with you?”
The [Knight] grinned.
“We’re spread out. Why?”
“…What kind of magic can you cast? Any of these spells?”
The [Knight] listened. Then he really began to smile. And Rabbiteater felt something welling inside of him. He looked back ahead. Reaching for it.
[Communication] was a Tier 4 spell, and [Message] was Tier 3. Both were used at Mage’s Guilds, although not everyone could use the [Communication] spell.
Nevertheless, any large Mage’s Guild could. The [Mage] taking incoming calls grumbled, but the friendly, female voice didn’t add to his bad mood on this mundane day of days.
“Oteslia’s Mage Guild. If you’re calling about a delayed shipment, please be advised we are currently under siege…how can I help you?”
“Hello! I’m from the Mage’s Guild in Anazuland. I was just communicating an information request regarding a bounty, if that’s alright?”
Anazuland? The Drake had a map out. You got vague directions the further you cast the spell from, and he checked the map. Some place in the middle of nowhere next to a huge uninhabited area. About right. He’d never been to ‘Anazuland’, but it was on the lists they sent out and did some basic communicating.
“No problem, Miss. What can I look up?”
“Just the bounty on a ‘Seifre Poison — Frozen Complications’, I believe the research topic is called.”
“Ah, another one.”
The Drake even had the applicable materials here; everyone wanted a piece of that bounty. But he’d noted no one had actually come back with a solution. He read it out.
“Let’s see. Khelt’s backing this information request—verified cures only. A partial solution awards you twenty two thousand gold.”
“Oh my. That’s…hey, get away from there, you ***** brat!”
That last part wasn’t censored, but it was a word the Drake had never known before. He heard a screech, remarkably high-pitched, and the voice returned.
“I am so sorry about that.”
Probably children in this small-town Mage’s Guild. The Drake assured her it was fine and gave her the rest of the relevant details as she copied the notes down. He thought no more about the interaction, instead counting the minutes down to his lunch.
In the ‘Mage’s Guild’ of Anazuland, Rags stared with open-mouth at a Goblin [Mage] who’d chirpily requested the info. She’d stopped only once, to kick a little Goblin trying to peer at her scrying orb. However, even swearing in Goblin hadn’t broken her cover.
Anazurhe inspected the bounty as it was printed out. Even Valeterisa looked mildly interested at the money offered.
However, the problem was clearly that the Healer of Tenbault had her spell, not an answer to the rest. Rags had Lyonette’s information.
Cure for being an ice cube. Antidote for poison. Way to bring a sort-of-dead person back. Way to mend her flesh, even if she isn’t technically alive.
A four-part process, and the [Doctor] who’d written it up had hinted there were more problems she hadn’t worked out yet before disappearing. They might have one with the Healer. Maybe.
But the rest? Anazurhe looked at the antidote and listed poison. She tsked.
“Okay poison. Bad if shot. In veins? Frozen in blood? Yuck.”
She was so casual it made Rags angry, despite knowing that the Goblin Witch had no reference for Erin Solstice. Anazurhe nodded. Valeterisa was peering at the details.
“Hm. Liquid would not work. Potions require a living system. Powder? Gas? If the body is frozen—ah. No wonder it is so difficult to administer. I…hm. I would risk applying it to the body as it warmed. But then the patient might die. Which I assume is not the desired outcome? No? Simply inquiring.”
She was rather interested by the puzzle as an academic, but she had no good answers either. Rags offered it to Hekusha, who gave the entire sheet a blank look.
“What would you do?”
“C-cast [Restoration]? I seldom get immediate poison victims…”
Valeterisa, Rags, and Anazurhe looked at the Healer of Tenbault. Now here was someone who had a single answer for everything. Mind you—it worked, but still.
Anazurhe tapped the sheet thoughtfully. Rags hopefully looked at her.
“Is your tribe filled with many poison-experts?”
She glanced at the crowd of Goblins that Redscar, Fighti and Calescent were trying to recruit into coming with them. The Goblins listened to stories of battle and looked at the celebrities…but shook their heads. More were clustered around the scrying orb, and Calescent stopped and went to sit with them, giving up.
“Not like a great tribe. No. But this…”
Anazurhe frowned. She inspected the details provided by Oteslia’s [Researchers], who believed in communication. She ran her finger down attempted solutions that had not worked on frozen trial rodents. And her eyes turned.
She looked left, and Rags looked left as well. Anazurhe spoke.
“There is the Goblin who could find the cure.”
She pointed at Velan the Kind. Who had once been one of the greatest [Alchemists] ever. That was what Rags kept forgetting. He had made such medicines that his body had become as strong as any [Warrior]. He had travelled to Drath, had learned secrets…
And was dead. Did the answer lie in memory? Anazurhe looked at the list. She turned it over. Frowned.
“…Hm. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”
Rags’ head rose. No one ‘hmmed’ like that for nothing. Anazurhe’s eyes flickered down the list again, and she muttered.
“There is one potion. Not tried? Not known? Maybe…maybe…Prixall! Get over here!”
She snapped at the [Witch]. The Goblin walked over with an exasperated look Rags recognized. Safety or not, it couldn’t be fun being the eldest daughter of the Great Chieftain for sixty years. If only she could get Prixall. Alas, Redscar wasn’t enough, especially since he probably would refuse to seduce her.
“Get that thing. The drink for ceremonies. Useless drink.”
Anazurhe snapped her fingers, clearly at a loss for what she wanted. She glared at Prixall as the Goblin suggested fifteen different names, finally got the one Anazurhe had forgotten, and stomped off to get it.
“What is it?”
Valeterisa was still engrossed in the problem. Anazurhe, on the other hand, explained, her eyes glittering.
Rags snorted. Anazurhe rolled her eyes, flapped her hat at Rags, and explained haughtily.
“A useless drink now. Something…made it less useful. It used to be used all the time. Goblin’s Lament made it. Some tribes made it. A very valuable drink. Less useful now than many, many lifetimes ago. Useless…now. I tried many times. But…”
She spread her claws.
“No good. I put it in special cups, put it in special ceremonies. Nothing happened. It is not a drink for us.”
“Drink? Not medicine? Drink for who?”
Rags’ eyes narrowed. Prixall came back, and Anazurhe shook her head. She stared about.
“So quiet. So empty. Nothing comes…one did, but didn’t stay. Only one? Used to be many. Here.”
She took a mostly-empty container and held it out. It glowed with magic, and Valeterisa dropped the notes instantly and came over.
“What a fascinating magical binding. It is a specific barrier on this amphora.”
She tapped the clay vessel. Anazurhe slapped her hands away.
“Yes, yes. Obvious. Duh. Now, look, Chieftain Rags. Prixall. Cup!”
The [Witch] held out a hand. She opened and closed it, then turned her head.
“You didn’t say ‘get a cup’, Chieftain.”
Prixall glowered. Anazurhe spoke slowly.
Prixal was about to burst, but Rags offered her own canteen.
“Will this do?”
Anazurhe held the canteen out, not even bothering to align it with the amphora. Rags worried she’d waste it, but, as it turned out, there was no need.
The liquid that flowed out of the amphora didn’t fall like regular water. It…drifted, as if it was made less of liquid, but not quite gas. Oh, and it was a light green, swimming with motes of violet and even particles that might have been for taste or a byproduct of how it was made, for it was surely old, as the vessel indicated.
…It went straight through the canteen. Straight through Anazurhe’s hand. As if neither were there. It fell into the ground and vanished. Valeterisa’s head followed the small stream down. Anazurhe looked at Rags.
“Hmm? Only a special barrier keeps it inside, you see.”
Rags stared at the liquid. Then at Anazurhe. She flicked her eyes back to the scattered bounty, and her eyes opened wide.
“Does it…do anything?”
“Spirits drink this. But ethereal poison? Very bad. You take an arrow, dip it, and it goes through armor. Like that one’s sword.”
She looked at Redscar. Valeterisa nodded happily.
“Goblins have their own version of a Ghost Touch liquid. Fascinating. I have never seen this kind of potion, although I do not foray into alchemy…”
“Yes, yes. Shut up. This is hard to get. This is a drink. If an [Alchemist] uses the ingredients…maybe an antidote goes through her, you see? Your ice cube.”
Rags was hopping from foot to foot. Yes! Yes! That did seem likely! Anazurhe smiled.
“And I get the partial bounty. Twenty two thousand gold! Everyone wins!”
“Where can we get it? How is it made? Do you know?”
“Hmm. I know how. Or I can remember from [Shamans] past. The problem is…ingredients are rare. Rarer than Kraken Hearts, maybe.”
Rags stopped dancing.
“…Where are they? Do you have any?”
“I did. I used them to make this, see?”
The Goblin [Witch] helpfully held out the useless amphora of ghost happy-juice. Rags was tempted to kick it into the fountain.
“Do you have more ingredients? Where are they?”
“I know of three.”
Anazurhe was enjoying Rags’ impatience. She held up three fingers.
“One comes from fish deep in the ocean. Hard to get. Drowned Folk maybe can get it. The second? A Baleros creature deep in the jungles. Might be none left. Both are one in a decade.”
No, no, no! Rags was tearing at her hair. So close and yet—no wonder not even Oteslia had any! Anazurhe waited until Rags was about to explode, and then smiled.
“Fortunately, Chieftain Rags, the last one is more plentiful. There is one place to get it. Or rather…one tribe in Izril grows the mushroom. Harvests it. Uses it. Maybe they are dead. Maybe they live. I think, with the Goblin Lord, they may be dead, but maybe some remain.”
Rags stared at Anazurhe. The Great Witch smiled.
“The Ghostly Hand tribe.”
Rags stared at her. Anazurhe went to inform Oteslia of the possible solution and put in for a partial bounty. Rags just stood there. How…how was she supposed to get there? In southern Izril? How in the—?
Numbtongue kept urging the little Goblins away as they followed the Gnolls to their tribe. The [Hunters] were tolerant, but the Goblins were still putting them all in danger.
Even so, the annoying Goblins with the white handprint on their skin could tell he was a Hob. One kept poking him.
“You Hob. We Goblins.”
“Yes. Go away.”
“We have tribe.”
“Good for you. Go away.”
“You have ghosts. Chieftain have ghosts. We show?”
The Goblin grinned at him and stared at Pyrite. The Hob stared back. He waved slowly. She grinned wider and waved back.
Hope. Secrets. Other tribes. Rags was mixed on what she’d learned, but she felt in her marrow she’d found a clue. Healer of Tenbault aside.
This was something, if she could get to Goblinhome. Anazurhe assured her that she could help speed and aid their journey. They would also go with something from Valeterisa, who kept avoiding Rags mentioning payback for the notes.
But Rags would not go with other Goblins. They had refused. Maybe some of the Goblins from the outlying tribes, but no one from this academy. Not yet.
She had nothing to show them. Only stories of death. What could inspire them? What could…and not Kevin. Not this time. He wasn’t a Goblin, and that was the point.
Redscar had given up on recruiting to speculate with Rags about a way back. Fighti kept trying, but no one was listening. Calescent sat at the scrying orb as Hekusha tried to re-ingratiate herself with him.
“I just meant…you must understand. I quite like your cooking, but, you see…”
Goblins perched on swings or lay about the scrying orb, with their favorite new hobby. Watching television. Calescent gloomily watched too. He wished they had a cooking section. All they showed were angry Gnolls, angry Drakes, and now people killing each other. War, strife…he stared at a figure as Drassi began to commentate. Then he frowned. Then…
Hekusha backed up as Calescent made a fist. She squeaked and hid her face as he swung it. Then stared. Calescent picked himself back up and rubbed at his jaw. He checked the news. Then he shot to his feet with a roar.
Rags turned. Anazurhe saw the [Chef] shoot to his feet, sadness forgotten. He waved his arms, scattering children and the Healer as he pointed, lost for words.
“Him! Him! Chieftain, here! It’s him!”
And then every Goblin was running over. Pushing each other aside. Anazurhe picked up a Goblin child, squealing as his space was invaded, and tossed him at Prixall. She threw herself down and saw the [Knight]. You’d never know he was a Goblin unless you knew.
Then…you saw him.
Ser Greysten’s arm was burning from mortal exhaustion, not from fire. He felt like his entire body rang from throwing himself into terrible blows against the Dame of the Hills. She was stronger. He was higher-level and refused to burn her.
Neither would yield. And because of that, his Order was losing. He cursed, surging forwards as she drank a potion, to deny her that.
“Hardly sporting, Ser Greysten!”
“Then damn sport! Fight, Dame of the Hills, until one falls!”
She grinned, tossing the bottle aside. Her [Squire] ran after it, since a bottle fit for her was actually too expensive to waste. Greysten rode at the half-Giant, into her shadow, and felt Rabbiteater was right. Ailendamus had played their [Knightly] nature against them. Perhaps not the Order of the Hydra, but someone…
It was the same conclusion Dame Talia came to. She looked around as a cluster of [Summer Knights] fought inwards. Winning duels, or the crushing melee—but hindered by the rules of, well, chivalry.
How would Wil do this? How would the Titan? She imagined them sailing a ship into the middle of a formation. [Strategists] didn’t fight fair. She grimly set herself—and then saw it.
Someone was recording this battle to see whether the Order of Seasons won or lost their bid to aid the Dawn Concordat. But it had not been exciting; a bunch of armored people bashing each other down, or Ailendamus calmly shooting Pheislant’s forces from afar, was hardly the stuff of prime-time television after the King of Destruction and similar battles.
…And that was the case right up until the shouts of dismay. The cry of impropriety. Talia turned her head. There was only one [Knight] on this field who would do such a thing. She saw what was happening at once.
Hydra Knights by the dozens were shouting, flailing, hacking at…webs. More were slipping and falling all over each other as the ground turned to butter. A cadre of Autumn Knights was standing, throwing non-lethal, but highly annoying spells into a section of the bunched [Knights].
“Unsporting! They are attacking with magic!”
“Well, have at them!”
A roar went up from the Hydra Knights. Outraged, they charged the emplaced Autumn [Knights], who began to cast more [Sticky Webs], [Tripvines], and other spells. However, this backfired almost at once.
A [Knight] drew a scroll and Talia grimaced as the webs and other hindering spells vanished at once. Of course they had magical countermeasures. She bet Rabbiteater had thought he could overrun them. Chivalrous rules went two ways!
The Goblin. She felt a tightness in her chest, an anger at his name, which went hand-in-hand with Greysten’s lecture and her own sense of betrayal. Even so…she looked for him.
If he was in the knot of Autumn Knights being swarmed by the Order of the Hydra, he was dismounted or already down. They refused to duel—they took out the [Mage-Knights] fast, knocking them off their saddles, some going as far as to aim blunt-tipped crossbows which dented plate armor. Talia winced. And now they’d just lost six Autumn Knights. That…she turned to see if she could spot him or Markus.
…There was no one there. The Hydra Knights picked themselves up, reprimanded the six Autumn Knights, and frowned at the grins on the captured group’s faces.
“Oops! Looks like that ploy didn’t work, eh, Sir Relz?”
Noass laughed as the two went over light coverage of the battle, in between Drassi’s Gnoll-segments. Sir Relz chuckled, but then frowned.
“Hold on, Noass. Do you see that?”
He pointed out something odd in the battlefield. Noass frowned.
“Indeed I do, Sir Relz. What is that?”
“Looks like something our scrying spells are picking up. Clearly magical. Excuse me? Can we zoom in on—there! There’s ten of them! See?”
A disturbance in the lines of the Order of the Hydra, exactly opposite where the Autumn Knights had made their brief stand. The Hydra Knights were resetting themselves, but they were a bit disjointed there. Some were being knocked down, looking around, confused. Shouting—and not seeing ten [Knights] riding through their ranks.
Not at first. Noass eyed the glittering figures.
“They must be invisible. I think we have a situation. We are watching, live, ladies and gentlemen, ten [Knights] under [Invisibility] spells trying to break the Order of the Hydra’s lines. They’re clearly noticing, but they don’t see them. Will they make it? This is Wistram News Network and—”
Rabbiteater wasn’t technically breaking any rules of chivalry. The Autumn Knights had, and they’d been punished for it. But what was he doing? He wasn’t attacking the [Knights]. Okay, his horse bumped several over, but he was just…
Invisible. He surged forwards, as Ser Ilm cursed.
“They’re on us.”
“[Invisibility] spells! To arms! To arms!”
The Hydra Knights weren’t stupid. Seeing the space where the group of ten were pushing through, the [Knights] on foot and anyone bumped by a horse could put two and two together. The Hydra Knights, caught off-guard, began to converge.
Too late. Rabbiteater roared.
“Spring ends! With Ser Solstice!”
Markus shouted, another invisible figure. They rode forwards, no longer trying to hide. Hydra Knights tried to block their path, but they couldn’t see, and Rabbiteater knocked two flat, breaking through more and more trying to form a wall of flesh and armor. But they’d been distracted.
Classic tactics. Goblin tactics in this case. Burn a farm and hit a road twenty miles away. Rabbiteater rode and saw their back lines desperately closing.
“Break free! Go!”
It was only ten of them. Then nine, as Ser Thaime got tangled at the rear. He lashed around him, reappearing as someone dispelled the magic on the group.
Another Spring Knight ran into eight [Knights]. Horse or not, it was she and her mount that were stopped cold. Eight.
Rabbiteater leaned down and struck a helmet with his sword. It jarred the blade from his hand and he cursed, abandoning it, but then—he was clear. The Order of the Hydra turned as one.
“They’ve broken the lines! After them! Signal the army!”
Horns began to blare. Ailendamus’ forces turned from their systematic breakdown of Pheislant’s forces. Accordingly, the [Soldiers] of Pheislant cheered to see eight [Knights] riding clear.
Rabbiteater saw Ser Ilm, Dame Meisa, and Markus riding next to him as the last [Invisibility] spell melted away. He looked back and saw a furious wave of purple pounding after him; Hydra Knights.
“If we slow, they’ll get us! Where are we going?”
Rabbiteater pointed at the army. The [General] of Ailendamus, a head turning in a plumed helmet. But if the [General] lacked for [Knights]…
A row of pikes rotated smoothly, and two battalions of crossbows pivoted. Rabbiteater saw Markus’ wild grin waver.
This was why no one had tried this. The [Knights] surging towards Ailendamus’ lines found themselves running towards the enemy [Archers]. Less infantry, but there were eight of them. The Order of the Hydra was in chaos behind them, nearly half trying to intercept the [Knights] or force the rest of the Order of Seasons back.
“Rabbiteater. We’re going to run right into the crossbows.”
The Goblin never turned. He rode, not at a gallop, slower, enough so that the Hydra Knights almost appeared to be gaining. Markus looked at Meisa. One of the Spring Knights cursed.
“There’s no chivalry in dying like a porcupine, Ser Solstice!”
He knew that. They said she had died like…
Something was burning in Rabbiteater’s chest. A feeling. Home.
An adventure. He looked back at the army behind him, [Knights] fighting [Knights]. This was not his war. Not his people or land. But they were his friends.
He looked forwards. He could still feel it. A claw on his back, a hand on his shoulder. An [Innkeeper] and a [General].
Meisa looked at Rabbiteater, then at the other Spring Knights.
“I will ride with Ser Solstice! Fall back! But I tell you this, my sisters and brothers! Spring ends!”
They looked at each other. And then the Spring Knight who had protested squared his shoulders.
“I am Ser Jauslef of Pheislant! I will ride with you, Ser Solstice! To victory! To the end of Spring!”
Rabbiteater nodded. Eight figures streaked forwards. And now—Ailendamus’ crossbows were levelled. Eight [Knights] rode at a wall of pikes.
They were going to die. Talia Kallinad was fighting clear of the Order of Hydra. Her group had seized the moment to break away, and they were going to the aid of Ser Greysten, who might well defeat the Dame of the Hills judging from his fiery onslaught. If he did, they needed to escort him into the next charge. She waited for the crossbows to fire. She did not want Markus to die. Nor Meisa…or even Rabbiteater.
She waited. But the deadly hail never fell. Talia didn’t understand it. She saw the [General] signalling in frustration. Why…?
Then she saw. Of course. Eight [Knights] were charging the enemy lines, but behind them…
As the Summer Knights broke free of the Order of the Hydra’s forces and a second wave turned to follow them, she saw hundreds of [Knights] on foot, pounding right behind Rabbiteater. Right in the line of fire if any crossbows missed.
“Turn back! Turn back, you idiots!”
The Ailendamus [General] was shouting fury at the courageous idiots fouling his lines of fire. Well, he ordered the crossbows to hold. It was only eight [Knights]. The pikes would tear them up. And if they didn’t? The [Crossbowmen] were terrified of [Knights] and heavy infantry in their ranks, but why would they fear eight [Knights]? His own bodyguard outnumbered them.
Why indeed? Then he felt something on his face. The [General] turned back. He was a [General of the Line], not a particularly powerful one to work with the Order of the Hydra, but good enough to serve in this specialized kind of engagement and bully Pheislant’s army.
And good enough to see auras. The Order of Seasons was like a light show, but only three main auras; Spring, Summer, and Fall. He squinted back the way he’d come.
“…What kind of an aura is that?”
It was like nothing he’d seen. Then…he shivered. Something happened.
A fell wind blew across the battlefield. A biting breeze in the midst of summer. Such that the pikes, archers, and even [General] felt it. He felt a terrible suspicion creeping in the back of his mind. The leader of this band of eight was charging in plain, grey armor. Yet the wind blew cold.
And everyone knew they were battling the famed Order of Seasons, heroes, if not in this case. They fought Summer, Spring, and a bit of Autumn. Of their Order, there was only one [Knight] who might not wear the colors given to them.
Now? Out of nowhere? But that was how it always happened. A lone [Knight]—or only eight. Who would be so mad?
It was cold. The [General]’s skin broke out in sudden goosebumps. No. It couldn’t be. He stared at the [Knight] with the strange aura and recalled that General V-something had been defeated by an unknown [Knight] too, hadn’t he? Then he heard it.
A voice, one of the Spring Knights bellowing.
It was too faint at first. But then, as he rode, someone magnified his voice with magic. Then the entire battlefield heard it. A man, Ser Markus, roaring.
“To battle! To victory! To the Winter’s Watcher! Spring ends! Winter dies! For the Order of Seasons!”
Greysten’s blood froze in his veins. He raised his head as the cry went out. Suddenly, it was around him. Even the Dame of the Hills turned and cursed, on the back foot.
“The Winter’s Watcher! To the Winter’s Watcher!”
Greysten whirled. Had reinforcements come? Another head of the Order of Seasons? A smile broke across his lips. Then he saw who was shouting it. His smile flickered.
That was not the Winter’s Watcher. He knew it because it wasn’t snowing. Because the Winter’s Watcher had specific armor. Because he would have felt the champion of winter.
Yet…the wind did blow cold. And a [Knight] shouted it. And because he shouted it, it must be true. He was a [Knight]. He fooled even his own Order. Greysten’s lips moved in horror. He almost laughed. But that was not the Winter’s Watcher. And that charge was—
Rabbiteater was laughing. Ser Markus was bellowing, crimson with embarrassment. But Ailendamus was recoiling as one army. The air was cold. The [Soldiers] stared in horror at the legend of frost. Or what they thought was the Winter’s Watcher.
Ser Ilm had a wand in one glove.
“[Cold Air]. [Cold Air]…”
He was concentrating so hard on blasting the enemy army that he nearly was caught from behind. For the Order of the Hydra had doubled their chase.
“Rabbiteater, they’re all turning on us!”
“Good. Pheislant gets away if we die.”
The pikes were lowering. A [General] was bellowing; Rabbiteater heard his voice.
“[Hold the Line]! The brave Order of Hydra will bring down this Winter’s Watcher! Hold your ground, brave sons and daughters of Ailendamus!”
Damn. Rabbiteater saw the glittering tips of spears. He looked back. Then he sped up.
But the [Champion] had drawn his axe. A cloak of blood flew behind him as the glowing axe rose. The [Pikemen] stared in grim terror at the [Knight] bearing down on them. They would fight to the death.
So be it. Something was calling to him. He felt it in his chest. Tidebreaker. He felt like he could almost triumph. Almost…almost…
But why couldn’t he reach it? Why? Something was in the way of that feeling. Conflicting. The power of the greatest [General] of Izril…faltered.
Because it wasn’t all he was. He wasn’t Rabbiteater of war. He wasn’t even as good at it as his brothers. Shorthilt. Numbtongue. Headscratcher. Badarrow. Rabbiteater was the average one. And Zel Shivertail had not been the only one in that memory.
Erin Solstice sat there at a table, smiling at him.
“Is this it? Hey. Hey.”
She poked Zel. The [General] snapped.
“You poking me is the rudest gesture imaginable, Miss Solstice.”
“Well, sorry. It’s a Goblin thing. You calling them rude, huh?”
The Drake [General] gave Erin a withering look that said she was beneath that kind of argument. And Rabbiteater—
Laughed. The burning strength in his arms faded. She was there too. Inside his memory. He clung to that.
Home. A different kind of strength. The two warred in him. He was afraid. He didn’t want to die.
He was doing it for both reasons. He had never fought for glory. Only for the inn. Friends. His tribe. His family. But the strength to do it…
He saw the line of pikes approaching. Not yet. He didn’t—he didn’t think he could—
The [Champion] plunged onwards, fighting to seize one or the other. Unable to reconcile the feelings. Meisa spurred her horse, shouting for him to stop. She was too slow.
They were Spring Knights. Even Rabbiteater was too low-level. Spring was young. It needed more. It needed age to grow. Light and wrath, even winter to temper it.
So the [Knight] shouted. Summer’s wrath.
“Knights of Summer! To arms! To the Winter’s Watcher! With me—charge! Charge!”
The Order of the Hydra turned, too late. They saw a second wedge of armored figures, a full lance, thundering to their left. Orange and yellow and red. The colors of summer.
Talia Kallinad lowered her lance as Rabbiteater twisted in his saddle. The [Summer Knights] accelerated, as the faith of the first line of pikes wavered. They saw the light blazing from the tips of the lances, a match for their pikes. Heard the massed oath.
The [Knight] glanced sideways at Rabbiteater. She couldn’t see his face behind the visor as it turned towards her. Did she see a surprised glint of red?
Then they hit Ailendamus’ lines. Talia Kallinad rammed her lance home before two pike tips slammed into her breastplate. She kept going, abandoning the lance and swinging her sword, as the Season of Summer and then Spring overran the first rank of pikes. Fighting forwards, following the Goblin [Knight].
An oath fulfilled. Just in time.
So long as your cause is just, your heart unwavering, and you live with honor, I will be your ally. I will stand with you.
She had wavered in her oath. Nor was he perfectly honorable. But he was as good as she had ever met in a Goblin. For now—Talia Kallinad rode with Rabbiteater.
Rags saw it all. The feint. A classic Redfang trick that had Redscar and every Goblin with her on their feet, cheering. Then the charge, the shouting.
“That’s a Goblin?”
Prixall stared at Rabbiteater. The Humans didn’t get it; like hell a Goblin was going to reveal the secret. They just thought the Goblins loved good television, which this was, even without the secret.
She had thought he was going to die. Rags had tried to throw a Skill across the world, but she wasn’t strong enough. And there wasn’t enough time. Anazurhe had had the same thought, looking towards her ritual room.
But then they had seen the Summer Knights charge. With Rabbiteater. Humans, fighting with a Goblin. Following him. Rags looked at Prixall’s eyes, fixed on him. All the Goblins, transfixed on a Goblin on television—not one being slaughtered, or hunted, but the hero even Sir Relz and Noass were cheering on.
A hero. No.
A [Champion]. And he set the Humans to flight.
Rabbiteater cut through Ailendamus [Archers] like a [Farmer] through wheat with an enchanted scythe. But his axe did not fall and cut the Humans to pieces, though he could have killed dozens with the jade axe.
He didn’t. He thought of Erin, and what she might do.
“I am the Winter’s Watcher! Flee or perish! Winter dies!”
Ser Ilm was laughing, magnifying Rabbiteater’s voice and tossing [Snowballs]. The sight of the Summer Knights charging, that famous name—
The [Crossbowmen] in Ailendamus’ army were brave, experienced [Soldiers] who honestly liked their kingdom. They were probably even paid well.
But they didn’t want to be killed. They broke and ran, screaming, as Rabbiteater tore apart the orderly formation. Pheislant’s army regrouped, free of the harassing crossbow fire. It was all—falling apart.
The Order of the Hydra was trying to stem the chaos, attacking from behind. Yet they had no hope of stopping the rout of the army. Only one person could do that.
The [General]. He was waiting for Rabbiteater. No flight on horses. A bodyguard of two dozen surrounded him and he was restoring order to some battalions, but he’d set himself, sword drawn. Rabbiteater headed towards him.
“Rabbiteater! Watch out! They’re [Bodyguards]! They’ll—”
Ser Markus fell. A Knight of the Order of the Hydra took him down with a halberd to the stomach and the Spring Knight was on the ground, fighting. Talia rode with Rabbiteater, four Knights of the Summer with her.
“Strike the head from the Hydra’s neck! Follow Ser Solstice!”
She bellowed. They crashed towards the [General]. Rabbiteater saw the [Bodyguard] brace. Some were superior [Armsmen] and [Armswomen]. But there were six…his eyes narrowed as he saw lightly armored figures stepping in an ominously familiar way. Each one carried only a blade in one hand, and a buckler, dagger, wand, or nothing at all in the other. They looked like—
The [Duelists] struck in unison as the [Knights] charged in. Rabbiteater saw a blur and heard multiple voices at once.
“[Weapon Clash]! [Sundering Slash]!”
He hit the ground hard as Talia and the other Summer Knights shouted in horror and frustration. Their weapons were cut from their hands. In one case, a [Knight] clutched at a suddenly-limp arm, expertly slashed.
My axe. Rabbiteater stared at his empty hand. He looked around for an axe, but then they were on top of him in the melee. A man ran at him with a polearm. Rabbiteater had lost his sword, his axe—so he threw his shield at the man. It hit him in the gorget and Rabbiteater kicked him to the ground.
“Defend the [General]! Push them back!”
Talia was fighting with a blade made of pure fire, keeping two [Duelists] at bay. One spotted Rabbiteater. The woman lunged, in that perfect, deadly strike. Rabbiteater twisted, and the blade pierced only the first layer of armor, then tore it up.
Champion’s gear. He retreated, panting. The woman slashed, keeping him well out of range. Rabbiteater had no time to retrieve his weapon or find a new one. He reached for his bag of holding and she slashed it from his belt.
“Surrender or die!”
He said nothing. The [Duelist] waited only a second before slashing. This time she scored a blow across his gauntlets that cut all the way through. Red blood ran down his arm. The Goblin stared at it.
Damn. That was a sharp sword. And he had no weapons. If only he could block it. But she’d slice his hands off. Or poke him through the neck.
Something was coming out of him. Like your lunch coming out of your chest. But not in a bad way. He had never felt this way before.
How had it gone? Rabbiteater felt like he was swimming through the air. His hands opened. No—not hands. They looked like—
The [Duelist] lunged, in a strike to one leg, at perfect range. He slashed at her blade, and she flicked her sword to cut across his hands. If he lost a finger—
Her rapier rebounded. The force sent a shock rippling down her sword and nearly twisted it out of her hands. The [Duelist] backed up, eyes widening, then checked herself. But the [Knight] was charging her. She didn’t panic.
[Long Backstep]. Her sword aimed, a piercing thrust that could turn into a slash. He didn’t expect that and she lunged. The blade struck his side and—bent.
The armor was hard. Her eyes went round. Was that a Skill? Now he was too close. She slashed with her parrying dagger.
He caught her hand. The [Duelist] cursed. She went for a slash to his arm, but he caught that too. She stared at him. Then saw the helmet come back.
“Oh dead g—”
The [General] saw the headbutt. He felt it. The [Knight] dropped the [Duelist] and turned.
“You are not the Winter’s Watcher.”
The [General of the Line] felt calm in saying that. He lifted his sword; his bodyguard was in shambles, fighting for their lives. And this [Knight] had no sword.
But he had the strangest aura the [General] had ever seen. It twisted suddenly, and the [General] struck. A slicing blow that evaded the desperate hands which were so strong. It struck the [Knight]’s shoulder, and—bounced.
The [General] whirled back as the [Knight] stumbled. He checked his artifact. Even a Summer Knight should have been cut. What Skill was that?
Not a Skill. Aura. But a different one. What was…he looked up.
“—Who are you?”
Rabbiteater was shaking. His hands felt like Zel Shivertail’s. He felt like he had when he fought the Bear of Ailendamus, almost. As if he could bring down even the Dame of the Hills.
But that was not what saved his life. It was something else. Twice now, a blade had come for him. They had been turned by something else. The second feeling.
Like an [Innkeeper], standing in front of her inn with a frying pan. He thought she was staring into his soul. It filled him, and Talia shouted.
Of course. After so long in their company, it was inevitable. But—what a strange aura. Both [General] and [Summer Knight] saw it. It was flickering. Between two…
The [General] tried another strike. Again he got through, and again he hit something. Something…like hitting a wall. Of an inn. The man stared at the [Knight]. His lips moved.
“I smell something.”
Of all the things to say. But it was true. It smelled like fresh bread. The air felt warm, like there was a fire nearby. A strange fruit’s smell hung in the air. Cooking.
Then the [Knight] charged. The sword struck his armor and bounced. He tore the blade free. And then there were the [General] and [Knight], barehanded.
Soldiers of Ailendamus saw the [General] recoil, reaching for a dagger. The [Knight] needed no blades. His fist rose. The [General] had been in bar-fights. He had been a [Soldier] and a common man. He put up his fists.
The uppercut broke his guard. It broke his teeth. It lifted his feet off the ground. An [Armsman] charged. Talia saw the Goblin dent his chestplate and send him flying backwards. The [General] wobbled, threw a punch. The Goblin threw a headbutt.
Invincible. Unstoppable. Indomitable. Never give up, the Drake roared in his ears. You cannot fall!
A [Duelist] slashed across his chest. Cutting armor. The blade stopped a second before it cut through his ribs.
“I’m waiting for you to come back.”
It smelled like pasta. The fist of a [General] broke a nose. Talia saw the reeling [General] backing up, barely able to see, spitting fragments of teeth and blood. The [Knight] charged, and she realized what she was seeing.
Two. Two auras. One. Then the other. Somehow linked. Then—both.
The Goblin hit the [General] in the stomach. He threw an elbow up, whirled to backhand a [Soldier]. Jabbed, and followed it up with his right. A swaying figure stood there, his jaw broken, as he saw the Goblin twist, a fist raised, bloody metal knuckles swinging.
The ghosts waited. Three figures were clustered around the small incline. One nodded to a bewildered ghost who had just appeared, lying on the ground.
“Aha, you see? Experience does provide, even when Skill abandons us. As I projected, we should see one or the other appear shortly, with a veritable bountitude of modern information.”
The [Strategist] saw one of Terandria’s ghosts approach to interrogate the bewildered survivor. He did not move; he was waiting. The other two, companions, looked at each other.
One was a [Warlord] from ages past. The other scratched at her chin.
“…What’s he talking about?”
The [Warlord] rolled his eyes.
“Some idiot [General] got charged by a high-level [Knight] and is getting the shit kicked out of them. We’re here to interrogate whichever one dies. Figure out what’s going on in this war and such.”
The [Strategist] glared at his two companions. Their only sources of information came from the dead, so battlefields like this were important. You could even see who was winning or losing.
Now, they waited. For one or the other or even both to pop up. It seemed bad, to hear it from a recently-dead [Soldier].
They waited. Seconds. Then a minute. Then…
The final punch never came. The Goblin looked at the swaying [General]. The Human was unconscious. If Rabbiteater hit him, he would die.
The Goblin pulled out a healing potion and splashed it on the man’s face. The Human sagged, and the Goblin caught him before he hit the ground. Because…he didn’t have to die.
Erin wouldn’t have killed him. This was not that kind of war. Rabbiteater looked around.
Ailendamus’ army broke, their [General] lost, seeing the Winter’s Watcher or some great [Knight] standing in the ruined command tent. Pheislant’s army was already charging their way.
Only the Order of the Hydra remained. They tried to take the command where the Summer Knights, Spring Knights, and mysterious warrior stood. One of them cursed as he saw the army of Pheislant coming.
“Back! Back to the Dame of the Hills! Prepare for an attack on both sides!”
The Order of the Hydra disengaged. But their leader pointed a finger at the mysterious warrior.
“You are not the Winter’s Watcher! Name yourself, Ser!”
The mysterious figure hesitated. Then he nodded. He spoke a gravelly word.
The Hydra Knight hesitated. Then he nodded and ran.
The battle had reversed in a moment, as battles did. The Order of the Hydra turned, as they realized they were in a bad spot. Pheislant’s army was to their rear and [Soldiers] or not, they were ready to attack.
It would be a fight to remember. The Dame of the Hills had abandoned her duel.
“We will die and they will die. Ten thousand [Knights] stand ready for battle! For Ailendamus!”
The Order of the Hydra set itself. They waited, as the milling forces around the ruined camp and their fleeing support army tried to regroup. They turned as half their forces held back the furious, reinvigorated Order of Seasons and Champion of Summer. Setting themelseves. Arming their rear ranks with crossbows for a full battle. Waiting…
Pheislant’s forces and the [Knights] never came. In fact, they began to stream away from the battle.
“What? They’re running?”
The [Knight-Commander] couldn’t believe it. But Pheislant’s forces declined to save their beleaguered Season of Summer. Only as they headed away and the [Knights] who’d been fighting them returned did he realize—
“Break ranks! After them! Send all [Riders]! Send word!”
Too late. The army was breaking off. Not attacking the dangerous Order of the Hydra. Rather, without anyone to stop them, they rampaged back the way they’d come. Riding. Racing towards…
Ailendamus’ war camp. Where their supplies, baggage trains, support like [Cooks], [Healers], and so on were located…
And the prisoners. They had a rear-guard there. But by the time the Order of the Hydra arrived, everything not taken was burning. And the prisoners of the Order of Seasons, so hard-won?
…Gone. This—this was a disaster, even if General Avring was alive! This wasn’t how the Order of Seasons fought! This was more like…
Rabbiteater laughed. He was racing east, with the newly-liberated Order of Seasons’ [Knights]. With Pheislant’s army, breaking away from Greysten’s forces. Rabbiteater hoped he’d escaped, but he’d told the others they weren’t going to join up.
“That’s not how you fight! Strike here! Strike there! And take prisoners!”
“You mean, free prisoners. I say, is that chivalrous or not?”
Ser Markus had a bandage on his head. He looked concerned, but Dame Meisa just grinned.
“They were prisoners, and we rescued them! Just like the Bear-[General]’s camp! It’s completely fair!”
“Well, it feels jolly unsporting. I might like it!”
Dame Talia rode with Rabbiteater. She looked at the Goblin. She was not the only one. He didn’t know how a tribe of Goblins cheered him. The Flooded Water’s champion. A symbol.
A [Champion]. But also…he smiled.
A [Knight]. And he carried that memory with him still. Two things.
[Champion Level 34!]
[Skill – Aura of the Hearth obtained!]
[Knight-Errant Level 15!]
[Conditions Met: Knight-Errant → Aura Knight Class!]
[Skill – Aura of the Brave obtained!]
Copies of that memory. Rabbiteater closed his eyes.
“They’ll be following us.”
Ser Ilm observed. Rabbiteater nodded. He looked forwards.
Dame Meisa smiled, her eyes alight. Markus raised his fist.
“Onwards! The Order of Seasons rides to the Dawn Concordat’s aid! With—”
He realized that Greysten wasn’t with them and wavered. So Talia spoke.
“The Knight of Solstice?”
She glanced at him. Markus and Meisa turned. The Spring Knights’ eyes lit up.
“Yes. A fitting name. The Knight of Solstice!”
And that was the kind of story to move even Goblins to action. Hope. Daring. Adventure. But more than that…a Goblin riding in the company of friends.
It puzzled the Order of the Hydra, even as word came that reinforcements would be coming. The few [Knights] who had clashed with the mysterious warrior gave their reports, and it was the [Knight-Commander] and the Dame of the Hills herself who speculated who it could be.
“A warrior from Izril. A Drake?”
“Perhaps. But it’s the name he gave you that makes me question that, Dame Merila. ‘Rabbiteater’—have you ever heard of such a name?”
The Dame of the Hills sat cross-legged, not angry for having lost a battle. If anything, the foreign knight had lit the spark of battle in her eyes. She spoke, slowly.
“I have not, [Knight-Commander]. But I think we are being too…too literal. Think of it. Ser Berst asked this [Knight] his name. What sort of fellow would use deceit in such a way? What fine, proud lot like the Order of Seasons would do such a thing?”
The Order of the Hydra snorted. They had fought rich [Knights] in enchanted armor and thrashed them until this battle. The Dame of the Hills grinned.
“Not a proper [Knight] poncing down on his stallion, no. That fellow fought with fists and beat a street-boy of Ailendamus hand-to-hand. Humbled [Duelists]! He didn’t give you his name, Ser Berst. Think on it.”
The Hydra Knight did, and then his eyes widened.
“I don’t follow.”
“Rabbiteater, Knight-Commander. A rabbit eater. Common-folk, as we are. ‘Tis a challenge to us! No rich fellow! Well, I take it as a personal vendetta. To this ‘Rabbit Eater’, I’ll bring him down, upon my oath as a Great Knight of Ailendamus!”
The Dame of the Hills rose, and cast her gaze eastwards. So there it rang, from Ailendamus’ Court of Masks to Izril. That [Knight] of Izril. The mysterious Goblin Slayer.
Ser Rabbiteater Solstice.
Author’s Note: I swear, I thought it could be 22,000 words. I was trying for it since I wrote 38,000 words and even with a small break, I’m at the end of my writing cycle. The next chapter is the one before my break and I was trying to take it easy.
….Hah. Well, I won’t divide this one up, but I will commit to a shorter chapter or my name isn’t pirateaba! Um. Anyways. I hope you liked it and I did get to the ‘end’ of my outline, for better or worse. Thanks for reading. I don’t have much to say right now, but I will be doing an edited chapter this month! It might even be the one right after my break!
I’ll speak on it next chapter, if it has words left. See you next time!
PS: I know we have a lot of fun here, but don’t eat rabbits. I like them.
Mrsha Fries and Cheeseburger Request by Foe!
Numbtongue, Toren, and Masked Toren by Eris!
Goblins by Flingering QtheBird [Holy Chicken], Pontastic, ArtsyNada, LeChatDemon, and Panzer of the Seven Entire Roles!