A pair of Minotaurs and a half-Elf walk into a bar. A third Minotaur is already waiting for them. The half-Elf orders a bowl of bugs, and the other two Minotaurs look at the third one.
He has no arm. He smiles and stands up. Then—the Minotaur asks the other two.
“Is today when I finally face justice? Is today the day I die?”
And nobody laughs at all, because it isn’t a joke.
It’s a military bar, not the generic bar where a horse is allowed to order a glass of water. In fact, ‘bar’ is stretching the term; [Camp Bartender] is a specialized class that has the ability to deploy essentially a tent with benches for the purposes of dispensing alcohol on a moment’s notice.
In some military minds, the act of creating a place where [Soldiers] could unwind with a mind-altering beverage might be a poor idea. However, to another type of perspective, it made sense.
Placed in a secure area that would not suffer attacks, the army’s bar was a valuable inducement to morale. Officers and regular soldiers could mingle under a certain veil of anonymity or take the temperature of a regiment. More importantly—the bar was a place for [Soldiers] to spend their valuable pay and send it right back into the army’s coffers.
There were cold, sharp minds in the military who styled themselves upon leading crack-troops into decisive combat and breaking their opponents with a combination of will, arms, and tactics. They had nothing on the financiers of said armies, who operated in the cold, hard vacuum of economics.
That was all to say that the ‘bar’ served alcohol, and if you asked what kind, you didn’t get any. It also meant that it was Liscor’s army’s bar, and so, to get here, both Minotaurs had taken the portal door to this location. With said half-Elf.
Finally, because it was Liscor’s army’s bar, it sold bugs as snacks. Crunchy beetles endemic to this region that you took a shot of Firebreath Whiskey with. It was already tradition for non-Antinium squads to haze new members with the practice.
The two Minotaurs were Venaz of Hammerad, [Strategist] of the Forgotten Wing company as a student, and Bezale of Maweil, a [Spellscribe] of Wistram’s Scriptel faction.
Ceria was Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. Of the three, Venaz had never met Calruz. Yet, of the three—his impression was perhaps the most important, and it was already defined by a few events.
Firstly, testimony from people around Liscor. He had interviewed Elirr, Mrsha, and other people who had been present during the Raskghar raids, including Erin Solstice. Following that, Venaz had personally spoken with Ceria Springwalker for several hours, as her testimony was most relevant.
Secondly, he informed his judgment based on testimony from a certain Silver-rank team of Minotaurs, three of whom had survived the Village of the Dead raid and offered their commentary. Venaz had further added notes from Watch Captain Zevara and spent some time confirming the magical nature of the dungeon with Bezale and every mage-adventurer in Liscor willing to speak to him.
Finally, he thought of the ‘Beriad’ of the Antinium. 6th Battalion. Another event had occurred during the Minotaur’s walk through the camp.
That was Bezale and Venaz both being greeted as ‘Captain Calruz’ by confused Antinium who wished to congratulate him on regrowing his arm. These were not members of 6th Battalion, incidentally.
Calruz of Hammerad watched Bezale stop when she saw him. Ceria was already ordering a small bowl of beetles. She was alive. Zevara had written him to inform him of this, but he hadn’t seen Ceria until now.
Yet he looked at Venaz and knew.
There was nothing to distinguish the other Minotaur from Bezale physically, at least, that he carried the authority Calruz had been waiting for. Yet, aside from knowing Venaz individually, Calruz saw the other Minotaur fix him with a studious gaze before striding along the room.
Minotaur feet were interesting, incidentally, because not all Minotaurs had five-toed feet. Some had hooves, others had regular feet similar to a Human or Gnoll. Bezale had humanoid feet. Calruz had humanoid feet.
Venaz had hooves. They clicked gently on the stone floor of the camp bar. Aside from that, he made no sound as he waited.
Bezale was right behind him, Ceria trailing at the rear. The other [Soldiers] in the camp bar turned.
They had heard Calruz’s question. Why did he smile? The Antinium had certainly noticed—they were leaving the bar in a rush.
“Calruz of Hammerad?”
“I am Calruz of Hammerad. Formerly of the Beriad of Minos. Prisoner-soldier in service to Liscor’s civilian army under authority of Commander Olesm as remanded to him by Watch Captain Zevara.”
The Minotaur stood straight and put one arm behind his back. Venaz eyed him.
“…Formerly of the Beriad? Your status was not revoked, last I inquired.”
His tone was—severe. Enough so that Wil, Merrik, and Peki, who had followed him covertly, were surprised. Venaz was often authoritative, but right now, he was cold in a way he seldom came off to his friends.
The one-armed Minotaur stiffened. He seemed to have two scars for every one Venaz carried—and Venaz did have scars. An adventurer who had fought in Liscor’s dungeon. He was, as Peki pointed out, in very good shape. If anything, Wil thought he had begun to develop the inhuman or in…Minotaur…body that came to those of a certain level.
Skin as tough as steel. Yet his voice was the interesting part. He had no battlefield roar—if anything, his was a quiet tone, and it hesitated now.
“I…assumed my position would have been in question at least. It would certainly be revoked following review—”
“But you are a member of the Beriad to your knowledge, Calruz of Hammerad? Answer.”
Venaz cut him off, and Calruz stiffened slightly. He clasped one arm across his chest.
“I am. Calruz of the Beriad. Forgive me, V—cousin of Minos.”
There was a logic to this. Venaz nodded, and only then did he copy Calruz’s gesture with his left arm.
“I am Venaz of Hammerad. Beriad of Minos, and [Strategist] in training under the tutelage of Lord Niers Astoragon of the Forgotten Wing Company. I believe you know Bezale of Maweil, also a member of the Beriad, [Mage] of Wistram’s Scriptel faction.”
Calruz nodded to her, and Bezale nodded back, looking…uneasily at Venaz. Not once did the [Strategist]’s face move. He was watching Calruz.
“I am also a member of the Mneiol by virtue of my rank as [Strategist]. I have the authority to render judgment in or outside the House of Minos. Per your request, Calruz of Minos, I have come to evaluate your actions as Captain of the Horns of Hammerad, then as leader of the Raskghar in Liscor’s dungeon. So. Tell me the events as you recall them.”
With that, he sat down and placed a truth crystal on the table, put one gold coin on the table as someone came to take his order, and waved Bezale and Ceria over.
“I will have water or a non-alcoholic beverage. Calruz of Hammerad?”
The other Minotaur paused a moment.
He glanced at Bezale and Ceria. The half-Elf had a cup of wine and paused in the middle of taking a huge gulp—she’d dipped a giant stag beetle in a shot of whiskey and was about to down that.
“Do I need to not drink?”
“As you choose, Captain Ceria. Magus Bezale?”
“Wine. Whatever you have.”
It was quite strange. The three watching [Strategists] realized Venaz wasn’t about to render instantaneous judgment. And he confirmed that the moment he turned around.
“I am not about to cut his head off. This will take time. Hours, days…he has to tell his record of events. You three might as well come in, but don’t interrupt unduly.”
Embarrassed, the other students slunk into the bar. Calruz blinked at them as Venaz introduced them.
“My companions. I apologize if their presence is distracting, Calruz.”
“No. I…am I to be judged as if I was home, Venaz of the Mneiol? I did not expect that. Surely the facts are clear.”
At that, Venaz folded his arms.
“What other judgment would suffice? You have been granted exceptions to your execution under Drake law by the Watch Captain of Liscor. Did you think your arbiter would come with any preconceived notions to pass judgment in an hour?”
“I—must have been long from home, Strategist Venaz. I will confess, my mind is made up. I also do not expect mercy, nor have I ever been judged by the Mneiol for crimes. My impression was—different.”
He glanced sideways at Bezale, and she turned beet red as she recalled their interaction. Venaz looked at her and nodded.
“I will take your position into account. So you know—the Mneiol judge much like you were judged when you were named Beriad. Your Right to Dissent is not an option; the rest is much the same.”
Bezale and Calruz started.
“Similar enough. So—I will require your testimony. If you have prior engagements or duties to your commander, inform me, and we will make allowances. Otherwise…”
Otherwise he would render judgment as soon as he believed he knew all there was to learn, and as soon as that was done, he would execute whatever he had decided.
The half-Elf knew it—that was why she was here. She watched Venaz out of the corner of her eye as she flipped a shot up, and Peki crunched a beetle down and then spat it into Merrik’s face.
Yet Venaz seemed more relaxed than Calruz. In fact, he was mulling over the short list of snacks.
“A…plate of Belgrade Ambush-Fries for the table. How many does that serve? Make that two. What differentiates this from regular fries?”
The server gave him a crooked grin.
“Lots of ketchup and relish plus some beans scattered around for good measure. What an enemy squad normally looks like when they run into Belgrade’s division. Blood and scales everywhere. See?”
“What’s the beans, then?”
Wil was very curious to meet an Antinium commander—much less see a Drake army in action, even one as unorthodox as Liscor’s army. No, especially one like Liscor’s army, and learn all he could and report back to the academy.
The Drake server replied happily.
“That’s all the crap from their pants. Two?”
“We can remove ourselves. I have a tent, Strategist Venaz—”
“Be at ease, Calruz. Is it Captain Calruz or Adventurer Calruz? How is this campaign against Hectval going?”
The question threw Calruz a moment.
“It—is mostly static and skirmishes, as Hectval’s alliance has withdrawn around their cities.”
“Indeed. I would dearly love to meet some of Liscor’s army. Even see them train if there’s time? This is personal—I intend to report my experience back to my professor, Niers Astoragon. Assuming the Antinium allow it, viewing their command would be highly informative.”
“I could arrange that. But…”
Calruz was almost as surprised as the other non-Minotaurs by Venaz’s commentary. The [Strategist] noticed and was about to speak when there was the marching of boots. Ceria had already heard it and turned casually in her chair, but she relaxed when she saw dozens of Antinium storming into the bar in a hurry.
Everyone else freaked out. But mildly—Peki was on her feet, and Wil grabbed his sword before sitting down. Venaz turned, and Calruz cursed.
He recognized their company. Of course he did, but even without their rank insignia, it would have been obvious from the crude horns over their antennae and the giant two-handed weapons each one carried which company they were.
6th Battalion, the Beriad. The group he trained and led. Calruz even recognized their leader Gladheart, a [Lieutenant of the Fray] who he had personally appointed.
“What is the meaning of this? Disperse to your company! Strategist Venaz…”
The Beriad didn’t move. They stood in formation, and then a Worker spoke.
“We are 6th Battalion of Liscor’s Army. Strategist Venaz. You have come to kill Captain Calruz.”
The Strategist hadn’t moved. He was watching the Beriad. With much the same expression of surprise and confusion he had worn at the Meeting of Tribes. But the flicker in his eyes wasn’t hatred or fear. He was…watching them.
Watching them with an interest he had given few people. Even, his friends thought, something like regret. He stood slowly and faced the Antinium Beriad.
“I am not. My presence here is to judge Calruz of Hammerad under the laws of the House of Minos. Any conclusion before my verdict is reached is premature and unacceptable.”
Bezale turned even redder. The Worker hesitated, and the Beriad stared at each other. They hadn’t expected this! A group near the center huddled for a second, and the Worker replied.
“We…are Antinium who serve under Captain Calruz’s command. He must not die for being dishonorable. Therefore, we would like to offer testimony as warriors who have served under his command. We believe this is in accordance with Minotaur law and custom.”
Calruz choked on his cup of water. He had told them about the House of Minos’ customs—as one did for young soldiers with no upbringing nor past nor future till now. Yet he hadn’t expected them to do this!
And yet, they knew the songs only Minotaurs knew. They had heard him tell them of what it was to be a son of Minos, and he had named them with a title reserved for the best of the House of Minos.
Calruz’s head sank. He interrupted Venaz.
“Strategist—I am ashamed. 6th Battalion, return to your posts. This is—not for you to decide.”
The Worker stared at him.
“But we are your sworn warrior-companions. This qualifies us to do so.”
“It would. Non-Minotaur warriors are no exception to the rule. I have a hundred more to interview. Hundreds, if you taught members of the army and fought alongside them for the last few months.”
Venaz murmured. Yet Calruz turned red and stood. He had been expecting Venaz for a long time. His arrival was a relief. This…
This felt like stalling. If he didn’t know better, he would have assumed Ceria or Zevara had arranged this, but the half-Elf was looking hugely entertained.
“It is not necessary, Strategist Venaz. 6th Battalion, return to your posts. This is an order as your captain.”
He regretted doing that to them, because they cared for orders so much. However, again to his astonishment, the Beriad didn’t move. The Worker in front hesitated, then Gladheart raised his hand and began ticking points off on his fingers.
“One. You are a probational captain and a [Prisoner] of Liscor. Your authority may be overridden as indicated by Commander Olesm, so I therefore override it as a commissioned officer of Liscor’s army. Two, Prognugator Tersk and Dekass have both given our battalion orders to disregard any non-Antinium command if necessary, under authority of the Queens of the Antinium. We will ignore you. Three, no honorable warrior will ever stand silent when a true crime of conscience is committed in front of him, regardless of the punishment.”
He folded his hands behind his back. So there. Calruz’s mouth was open almost as wide as Bezale’s. Venaz?
He smiled. Then he turned to Calruz.
“Calruz of Hammerad, you are the member of the House of Minos under judgment. Decisions regarding this trial are not yours to make.”
“Of—of course, Strategist.”
Calruz sat down, and Venaz went on.
“The Antinium are correct. Their inclusion is mandatory. Not least because it is my personal judgment that they are warriors of honor, and thus their testimony is highly relevant…”
The Antinium stirred, and Venaz nodded to them.
“…but because the King of Minos has herself expressed interest in the Beriad. Those who wish to join this conversation may. I will interview the company as time allows. You have my word as Mneiol of Minos that I will let no willing, reasonably accessible testimony go unheard before passing judgment.”
Calruz groaned. And he didn’t know why—only that he remembered stories of Minotaur arbiters charging into battle to get witness statements from former comrades for judgements in the past.
Part of Calruz was confused. Was this not what he wanted? Here was one true judge for him—and yet, when it came to this moment he had waited for and, yes, feared, the eyes of authority did not stare at him with the same hatred the Minotaur in the mirror did.
They were…careful, watchful, observant, and even kind. Even amused and, perhaps worst of all, slightly respectful. Calruz realized that Venaz was younger than him.
The Beriad milled about, and then a quarter sat, and the rest went back to their posts, albeit reluctantly. Venaz nodded to the suddenly-full section of the bar.
“I hope you will introduce me to the Beriad, Captain Calruz.”
“The King of Minos wishes to know about them? Truly?”
It sounded like a lie, but—you didn’t lie in the House of Minos. Then, Calruz realized he was far from home. He had dreamed of judgment much like the [Hangman] or [Executioner]. When he recalled home…
It had been a long time. A long time since he had come to Izril, worked up from Bronze-rank, and then founded the Horns of Hammerad. He had met Ceria six years ago—no, seven, now. Two more and it was nine years from home.
Venaz saw that on his face. That yearning for home all travellers felt. He spoke quietly as two large plates of fries were served and fourteen more requested.
“How long has it been since you were in the House of Minos, Calruz?”
“And you, Mage Bezale?”
“Four. I had the opportunity to visit once graduating as a full mage of Wistram.”
“Two for me. I had intended on visiting this summer and taking my fellow students, but we never landed. Perhaps in the winter. Perhaps next year. Although, I am told the Isle is about to reach our waters.”
His tone was conversational, but the two other Minotaurs stiffened slightly. Ceria’s ears twitched.
“The Isle? Already? It’s…no, it would be time.”
Bezale was counting. Calruz just watched Venaz as the [Strategist] nodded and grimaced.
“Another reason to regret not returning—but I would make little difference. In truth, I also hoped to return home in time to visit my pets. Another time. Hammerad has also changed somewhat, Calruz. They’ve embarked on a project with sand the last six years, I believe.”
“Yes, quite an amusing tale, actually. Let me think. What else is new…? Prince Khedal remains unchanged. I saw him board a Drowned Ship by himself as it dove underwater.”
Mention of one of the royal members of the House of Minos made Calruz start. The famous Prince of Minos was a warrior on-par with any Named Adventurer. He had famously taken part in the action that had led to the King of Destruction’s defeat at sea.
Of course, the King of Minos had led the charge, but Khedal was a name like the recently-deceased General Ozem, who had assailed the King of Destruction on Chandrar. Speaking of which, Venaz brought him up, too.
“I propose a toast—once you have finished your recollection of events for the day, Calruz—to General Ozem and the fallen. Then to your army’s victories. Did you happen to see the battle? I thought—”
“Strategist Venaz, what is happening?”
Calruz burst out at last, and the Strategist stopped. Calruz, the [Honorbound Prisoner], looked at Venaz and then around at the listeners and the conversation itself.
“You have a problem, Calruz?”
“This is not how I expected my judgment to go. I…expected interrogation under oath. A swift resolution. Mercy in justice, but justice.”
Venaz had been chewing on some fries, but now he stopped. He swallowed, patted his mouth with a handkerchief, and spoke to Calruz, looking into the blue eyes with his own light brown ones.
“I will be swift, Calruz. If this distresses you, we will stop. But I will not clap you in irons and interrogate you under threat of torture. I will talk to you of home and, yes, gossip with you about world events. I will not be swayed by charm nor words, but listen to how you speak. Your character is in question as much as your deeds. Should I be any other way? If your judges have no honor—how can you ever expect fair sentencing?”
To that, the Minotaur had no answer. He hung his head, faintly ashamed, and Venaz sat back, awaiting a response. Until he noticed the rest of his friends staring at him.
“Who are you, and what have you done with Venaz?”
Merrik demanded faintly. Venaz scowled at him.
“I’m trying to be professional, Merrik. This is the highest duty I could be asked abroad. I’m relaxed around you all.”
“You’re a stubborn ass who gets angry, won’t listen to reason, and has all the tact of Peki practicing [Hammer Kicks] to my groin. Be professional more often.”
Wil and Peki nodded rapidly. Venaz looked from them to Calruz, who was resting his horned head on the lip of his cup.
“Home. I do miss it.”
That was all Calruz said. And then Ceria spoke up.
“Venaz, you have pets? Do Minotaurs have pets?”
Bezale had been hunched in her seat. Guilty didn’t really express her emotions—she had been full of righteous anger when she told Calruz to kill himself for his misdeeds. In front of Venaz’s approach? She felt ashamed, and worse still because Calruz wasn’t bringing up her actions. Impersonating the Mneiol? She hadn’t thought of herself doing that—but she had to tell Venaz later. It was the only thing to do.
However, Ceria’s question snapped her out of her funk. Venaz turned with Bezale and Calruz. All three looked vaguely insulted.
“…Of course I have pets.”
“Minotaurs have pets?”
Wil blurted out, and Venaz glowered at him.
“I’ve never mentioned…? Why wouldn’t we?”
“Ceria, I’ve told you about the Isles of Minos.”
“A bit—but not that much. You were always, ‘honor this’, ‘duty that’, ‘proper formation means we line up shoulder-to-shoulder and charge like idiots’. I’ve never talked to Minotaurs about their home casually before. Are they like your pets, Calruz?”
“You have pets?”
Venaz and Bezale were surprised. Calruz thought of his rats, in Selys’ care.
“Rats. A pair of them gifted to me.”
“Rats…interesting. Well, we would never keep rodents as pets. That would be entirely foolish.”
Venaz blinked, looking more surprised by this fact about Calruz than anything, even the Antinium. Bezale shuddered.
“What, don’t you have rats? What about cats, dogs?”
Venaz frowned until he snapped his fingers.
“Some of both, although our pets are…hrm. Wait, don’t we have rodents as pets? Astelain.”
Bezale and Calruz had to think about it. Calruz turned to his friend and found she was looking at him with curiosity.
“…I suppose they’re rodents. Pets aren’t as common as they are in Liscor, Ceria. Some are shared and—well, the House of Minos doesn’t act as much of the world does. I know I’ve talked to you about that.”
“Yes…but we didn’t talk about our past as much. I never told you about the village, not exactly, and you were considerate. So you have pets. What’s an Astelain?”
Calruz hesitated and looked at Venaz, but Venaz was all too ready to share. And before they knew it, the three Minotaurs did what people from the same place, far abroad, did.
They talked of home to the other [Strategists], to the Beriad who clustered over with drinks in hand, and to Ceria. Home—the House of Minos.
A place like no other. Paradise, the only home of Minotaurs. Honor and duty. The Minotaur King.
But what did it look like? Well…Venaz took a long drink from a cup of water.
“What do you think the House of Minos looks like?”
Peki raised a winged hand eagerly.
“Hundreds, thousands of Minotaurs who train every day.”
After all, all three Minotaurs, even Bezale, a [Mage], looked like they were in the prime of physical acumen. Venaz looked at his companions, and his lips quirked.
In the House of Minos, the Minotaurs got up at the break of dawn and ran ten miles along the beach.
Some carried weights on their shoulders, rocks tied with string, or just ran in armor with weapons strapped to their backs. They shouted encouragement at each other.
Male, female, it didn’t matter. They ran in a furious, churning wave of muscle—and there was a lot of muscle. Anyone who stumbled, fell, or injured themselves pushed themselves back up and would have slapped a healing potion out of a hand offering it—then slapped the offerer.
Minotaurs didn’t need healing potions!
Imagine…imagine a thousand Grimalkins, running down the beach, only with fur instead of scales. Sweat running down biceps, abs doing ab-like things. Gritted teeth, snorting pants as they finished their run and then began to eat.
Huge mouthfuls of grainy porridge, ostef, shoveled down so fast they barely tasted the fish and vegetables mixed in. Fish being the major protein source of an island nation.
Island, so the air was humid and the sea visible from almost every spot across the House of Minos. After all—it was an archipelago that the Minotaurs lived in, each island a different region. The central port and largest city was the capital from which the Minotaur King ruled. The harbors were not nearly as filled as many trade cities, but they did get fleets of mercantile ships, including this week.
After all—if you were a friend to the Minotaurs, there were no safer waters than the House of Minos. Their enemies stayed well clear, for Minotaurs with their siege weapons mounted on their warships could down twice as many enemies in a fair fight.
The warriors ate fast, for after breakfast would come punishing spars, practice with their chosen weapons, and studying the art of war. They were relentless in their pursuit of battle. In fact, one Minotaur sprang up no less than eight minutes after sitting down, wiping her face clean.
“You, Spekelj, a rematch! Barehanded.”
She pointed, and another Minotaur rose as his fellows shouted him on. They marched over to a sparring ring, both eight feet tall without their horns. They lowered themselves into a fighting stance—yes, neither might be a [Fistfighter], but a true warrior of Minos could fight even when deprived of their weapon.
If either were hurt, they would tough it out the rest of the day. Only a truly debilitating injury would require a healing potion; Minotaurs knew that healing injuries weakened their bodies in the long run. It was possible either combatant could be seriously injured or die; they would not pull their punches. Yet to kill another was such an act of dishonor and loss of control…
The air seethed with adrenaline and sweat. And more sweat because humid, warm climates could really suck. But even mosquitos feared the grinding teeth, the, again, dangerous abdominals and sheer musculature that could kill the bloodsucking pests by flexing as the insects dared to try and take blood from the most elite, most battle-focused…
A third Minotaur walking down the road and yawning caught sight of the two young Minotaurs grunting and throwing each other around the ring. He paused to lean against the fence demarcating the sweaty Minotaurs from the road.
“As always, working hard, aren’t you all?”
The two sparring Minotaurs halted a moment and nodded to the third Minotaur. He had no abs you could presumably use to grate cheese. If anything, he had a paunch and would thus be the first Minotaur that Ceria or many non-Minotaurs had ever seen with anything like a relaxed gut.
He was also an ordinary citizen watching the antics of the Minotaurs enlisted in the House of Minos’ volunteer army with a bit of amused dismay. The female Minotaur wiped a bleeding nostril.
“The Isle is closing into our waters, sir. Can we help you in any way?”
“Oh, no. I’m walking for my health, and I see you all every day. Could I interest anyone in some olives?”
He had a huge jar slung along his side, snacks for the road, and plenty of water. The two Minotaurs shook their heads.
“We’ve eaten, sir. Thank you for your consideration.”
“Ah, well, back to it. If ever you want any olives, I have an orchard…”
The ordinary Minotaur winced as he watched the female Minotaur eat an uppercut straight to the jaw. He watched something fly out of her mouth and hoped it was only a bit of breakfast, not a tooth.
Then he went on, greeting some of the furiously-training soldiers. They were, amazingly, in good spirits despite the grueling regimen. They enjoyed it. Each to their own. And that was the beauty of the House of Minos and why it was called paradise, despite actually suffering conflict regularly.
Even Fetohep of Khelt would admit that while his nation had superior culture, a people that wanted for nothing, and so on and so forth of self-congratulatory lauding—
The House of Minos knew how to give their people something that even Khelt’s citizens lacked. And that was purpose.
Ordinary citizens of the House of Minos did not look like bodybuilders. Some did, and maybe there was a proportionately higher number of super-fit people per capita than other nations, but if so, it was only because Minotaurs had the leisure time to do as they pleased.
“Six hour working days?”
It always surprised foreigners who were admitted past the strict harbor checks how the House of Minos operated. For the crew of Poking for Treasure, the funnily-named lead ship of the small flotilla owned by the [Merchant] Saimh, the House of Minos was an interesting journey on their trade route.
They had come with ships carrying goods the Minotaurs wanted, everything their island could use more of, from alchemical ingredients to shipments of metal, but they intended to make the lion’s share of their profits here.
The newcomers to the House of Minos were walking a bit wary, because they had been given a huge list of rules. And failure to comply meant you were exiled to your ship or faced Minotaur justice. And it could be swift.
However, a lot of the rules were basic. Don’t offer insults, don’t pick fights, don’t steal…the basics. Some, on the other hand, were a bit harder for [Sailors] or newcomers.
Like littering. You didn’t do that, here. Not just, ‘don’t toss potion bottles into the sea’, but, ‘don’t spit’. Don’t spit, don’t litter on the floors, and essentially leave any area you had been as clean as when you had arrived.
It was one of those rules that wasn’t hard to practice…unless you made a habit of not really caring about your litter. Then you might be upset when someone took you to task.
And that was any Minotaur on the street who saw you. However, by and large, the laws weren’t difficult to follow. A visitor could certainly trade, chat with Minotaurs who were willing to talk politics, news, or any number of things because they expected it in the ports, and learn about Minotaur culture and sample their unique dishes and sights.
Each island had a limit of people able to travel, and some areas were off-limits, but the limited visitors to the House of Minos meant this was rarely an issue. So a Drake, come to see the world under Merchant Saimh’s tutelage, was quite taken aback to learn that the House of Minos was not the war-prepared, battle-minded people he had expected.
They looked…well, like ordinary citizens. And apparently they worked for six hours?
“Six hours minimum. Some will work more. I told you, this is a paradise.”
Saimh absent-mindedly reprimanded his apprentice. He was…interesting. For one thing, he was a Drake, but had grown up in Baleros. One of those rare non-natives. He also was quite renowned as a safe-trader, someone who stuck to sea lanes where piracy wasn’t common.
That wasn’t the odd part about him. The odd part was that he’d never taken an apprentice until Ocello, the young [Trader], and he was also an expert in Minotaur trading.
Few [Merchants] were counted as friends of the House of Minos, so Saimh had less-rigorous checks, and getting paperwork to stay here was easier. Ocello hesitated as the two Drakes strode into the city.
The House of Minos favored sandstone, but like many paradise-states, took the time to add color and artwork to their cities. Interestingly…they had a number of statues that Ocello recognized.
Not Minotaurian heroes, because he didn’t know many of their legends. He’d bought a book about Minotaur culture, but had fallen asleep and never opened it again on the way here. However, the statues were familiar.
“Isn’t that General Ozem?”
“It is. It must be new—oh, and there’s Venaz of Hammerad. I saw him last time—he must have a prominent fan in the [Sculptor] community. Although, it’s quite an interesting piece.”
Each square had some piece of art, and one statue of the late general gave way to one of Venaz, sitting in a classic pose, chin resting on one fist, in repose across from a chess board. A quite noble statue for someone so young, as Ocello understood it.
But perhaps there was some humor in it too, because Venaz had only three pieces left, and the tiny Fraerling had most of his. There were even a few chess tables where a group of Minotaurs were playing chess.
“Are they not working?”
They looked like they were in their late thirties at most, but Saimh gave them one look and shrugged.
“They might not have gotten to work yet. It’s only early morning. Or they’re taking an early lunch break. Minotaurs don’t work like the Walled Cities, Ocello. They don’t have to.”
It seemed to the younger Drake that of course any nation needed to have that much time allotted to their working hours! Could a [Farmer] make do on six hours? For answer, Saimh smiled.
“Well—because it may be culture or inclination as a people, but Minotaurs do throw themselves into what they do with a passion. Take a look.”
One of the first stops on their trip around the harbor was a group of Minotaurs rendering down poorer fish into paste, or some kind of chum or bait, perhaps. They were deboning the fish, then brutally mashing the paste up with long wooden hammers. Ocello was surprised at the simple tools, but the Minotaurs were fast.
A Skill might have done it, but one Minotaur could just slit a fish open, tear out the bones and put them aside, and toss the fish to another to cut the head off. He kept moving while he talked—about a romance book of all things.
“I am telling you, give it another shot. This time, Sandquen really did write something quite well done.”
“Ridiculous. I am done with the unofficial romance-adventure novellas.”
“No, it was actually published in the latest edition of Tales of Adventure and Woe. It wasn’t even romance. Have you heard of the ‘Horns of Hammerad’?”
“This was a retelling of their first adventures in the Ruins of Albez. I found it gripping. The entire conceit was that they had that Antinium—Ksmvr of Chandrar?”
The other Minotaur cutting off heads and tossing them into a pile gave the first a stern look.
“You’re beginning to make me interested, Kaned. If this is another ploy to get us interested in your romance novellas…”
“Perish the thought. So, the Antinium was recently exiled from the Hive, but to read the book—they have a map that he—no, I’m giving it away. But I will lend you the book when we break.”
“Hm. Do that.”
They were efficient, casual, and quite patently enjoying themselves. Now, Ocello could have found a similar group of Drakes doing this in Zeres, mixing up chum for [Fishers] or preparing fish for immediate use.
However—there were some major differences with the grumpy Drakes, who’d be swearing at anyone who blocked their light and swatting at flies.
For one thing? There were no flies. The Minotaurs had an enchanted stone that was glowing a protective rune around them, preventing the annoying bugs from ruining their work. Second, they had some canopy roofs for shade, although most were enjoying the sun.
Third, they weren’t being crowded at their spot; it was designated, and their performance wasn’t being rushed because they had to earn enough coppers to justify their job—this was a job they’d chosen and enjoyed. They had homes, food, and someone was playing on a stringed instrument in the distance, so if they didn’t keep talking, they could listen to that or talk to other Minotaurs or visitors.
“Music while you work. They stole that from Noelictus. Although, it might just be a performer. A number of Minotaurs practice music.”
The idea of a Minotaur delicately blowing into a horn was beyond Ocello. He envisioned drums or warhorns—and Saimh gave him a stern look. The older Drake had a huge scar that ran down his chest.
Not a war-wound from battle, Ocello had learned. An old infection that had nearly killed him as a child. He scratched at it absent-mindedly.
“You still only think of their army, Ocello. The House of Minos is proportionally high in how many fight, but that’s only because their population is carefully matched with the size of their islands. Most Minotaurs have never swung a blade, nor need to. Look—they have pets. See? There’s one of their Astelain.”
The Drake looked back just in time to recoil with a shout. That was because a giant thing had just come ambling down the street! It was…
What was it? A mutated beaver? It was bigger than a beaver. In fact—it was rodent-like, but it had such giant fur that Ocello had thought it was a dog.
“I think it’s got another name in Baleros. A…capybara?”
The oversized rodent was indeed as large as a Fortress Beaver, but it just plopped down next to the Minotaurs, accepted some seaweed, and began to chew it down next to the [Fish Gutters].
“Those are Minotaur pets?”
Ocello couldn’t take his eyes off them. In fact, they were so chill and relaxed and he realized there were a lot of them, more than cats, dogs, or birds, that he suddenly wanted to pet one and see what it was like.
“Go ahead. You can talk to anyone. They’ll tell you if they’re busy.”
Ocello did, and a few minutes later, he decided that the Astelain were quite nice. They were so relaxed—probably because most threats that usually preyed on rodents wouldn’t even have a shot at bothering them.
“Those aren’t our only pets. But you’ll have to wait till midday if they decide to come in. Merchant Saimh. Going to tour the islands? I hear you’re retiring this year. It will be a shame.”
One of the [Gutters] recognized the older Drake, and Saimh smiled sadly.
“My time has come. But I am glad I will be missed…I have obligations, and I’ve decided to give up my trading life.”
“Understandable. Family or what have you come first. But I encourage you to tour the islands and show your apprentice at least the major ones.”
“We may go to Hammerad today, Maweil tomorrow—unless the sales have begun?”
“Excellent choices. Hammerad is always popular thanks to their beaches. No, the sales will take a day to set up. The King is busy with the Isle. She and Khedal both. Which reminds me—we’ll put in ten hours, everyone. No work to be done when the fighting begins.”
Ah, now there was the thing Ocello had been waiting for. The other Minotaurs grunted and nodded.
“Fair enough. Ten hours. How will you spend the three days off? We can’t be near the sea…”
“I think I shall climb Honn’s Mountain once more. Or dredge some new land along Caeitl. I nearly have eighteen feet done.”
“Respectable, respectable. I myself have obligations with my daughter. She wishes to practice with the rapier after the Arbiter Queen.”
“Don’t get cut. Is she planning on joining the Beriad or…?”
“Time will tell.”
Two interesting comments came out of that conversation. Dredging didn’t become clear to Ocello until later, but it was plain that Minotaurs did spend a lot of time in family units.
“So they do have traditional families?”
Saimh and Ocello were heading to Hammerad, the nearest island to the east of the capital. It was a short boat ride or walk over a land-bridge. Few horses were available given the islands and the Minotaurs’ own physiques; you learned to walk. Although Ocello saw at least two Minotaurs riding bicycles customized for their frames.
“How do they have enough money for that? Do Minotaurs have a currency? I thought they had a paradise?”
“They’re still paid. This isn’t Khelt. As for families, Minotaurs have parents. Just not necessarily the ones they were born to. Excuse me—is that a bi-cycle?”
The [Merchant] called out to a Minotaur, who stopped, panting, and removed a helmet with two holes for horns cut into the wood.
“Indeed! And a word to you—this odd helmet may amuse, but I began wearing it after I nearly cracked my head open. Laughter will be met with your entry into the sea.”
She pointed down the coastal road to the beach, and Ocello wondered if she could throw him that far. The Minotauress was clearly tired of ridicule, but Saimh assured her that was the last thing on his mind.
“I was hoping you could tell me what it’s like to ride one of those things. And my apprentice has never been to the House of Minos. He was wondering about growing up.”
The Minotauress gave Ocello an odd look.
“Like any other species, I should imagine. I had smothering parents. The House of Minos does not change that. As for this…I did spend every coin I worked on for the last four years to buy it ahead of everyone else. I regret nothing. I can do a circuit of the entire archipelago in a day if I push myself. I am…a [Cycler].”
She said that with the kind of obsessiveness that told Ocello this would be a thing and she would tell everyone about her class. In time. However, he raised one finger politely.
“Did I hear you had parents different from the ones who gave birth to you?”
She gave him a blank look.
“Indeed. Both were of similar temperaments and had been a couple for years. They asked for a daughter, and it was I.”
“But your original parents…?”
“I met them. Why? Ah, did I like them better? I didn’t care for my blood-mother’s attitude towards work. I forget you outsiders do it differently.”
She scratched her chin, and Ocello was confused. Just as clearly, the Minotauress was amused by the notion of parents who bore their children having to raise them.
“It is not for everyone. Many Minotaurs do raise their own children, but it is perfectly fine to decide you are unready to. I am not ready.”
“But wouldn’t people just have children and give them away…?”
The Minotauress and Saimh gave Ocello such an affronted look he backed away.
“Do you think it’s enjoyable? Moreover, each island cares for children. Too many put a strain on our homes. It is a responsibility. Would we just have children and…do you not have contraceptives?”
She got back on her bicycle and pedaled off. Saimh gave Ocello an amused look as the Drake shouted apologies.
“As you can see, Minotaurs do have the time to talk. As for personal lives—they spend a lot of time on that. Hobbies, passions—the House of Minos encourages that sort of thing.”
“Yes, but everyone has time off.”
“Mm. We’re nearing Hammerad. You may wish to take that back in a few moments. You see—Hammerad for the last six years has developed something of a sub-city on their beaches. As I understand it…”
It began with a son asking his mother for help building a sandcastle. The mother, understanding of a younger Minotaur’s frustration with the limited amount of ability he had with a simple spade, fetched a shovel. They spent six hours building an actual fort on the beach from which he intended to throw mud balls at his companions the next day.
More Minotaurs of Hammerad, at their leisure on the beach, were taken by this idea. A father and daughter decided that if a sand-war were in the works, they should get a head start, so they built another fort, then the daughter asked her father, who had served in the army, if this was really the best way to avoid mud balls.
He opined they should also create an underground bunker, and so the rest of the family wondered if that were possible. The House of Minos had [Engineers] who built ballistae, and an uncle on break said it was possible with proper supports. But building them out of wood was wasteful.
That might have been that, but then the question was raised—could you build an underground bunker with sufficient safety supports out of sand?
The next day, a group of off-duty [Engineers] and [Builders] had brought out measuring tools, gear from work, and begun stress-testing how high you could build a sand fort. How much water went into the dense enough sand?
By the end of the week, half of the city was heading down to work on the evolving project, which had long since been moved past a sand-skirmish into an attempt to build a walkway made completely out of sand. Just for fun.
Six years later, tourists to Hammerad found an entire city built out of sand still being worked on by Minotaurs in their spare time. You could head to the upper level and see homes actually being inhabited, or head down below to where an entire warzone of sand-traps and fortifications was battled through by younger Minotaurs.
That was a Minotaur’s project. And that was what they did for fun.
Each son and daughter of Minos was born into paradise. However, maintaining that came at a cost.
It was their choice whether or not they wanted to fish or build siege weapons for a living. Acting as a soldier was optional. But you did serve in some way.
Purpose. That is what they taught the young. Purpose was tied to honor and duty. The unfeeling hammer had a purpose, but no sense of duty, no pride in the task. In the same way, Minotaurs were more than pieces in a greater machine. If they were not fulfilled in the most menial of tasks, like cleaning the streets, something was wrong. Whether that was the Minotaur for the job or the nature of how the job was laid out was the question.
It was why the House of Minos had curios like the giant puzzle box that Relc Grasstongue was so eagerly showing Selys.
“It’s a real Honolac cube. From Etrerra-Valar itself.”
“You can tell it’s real because of the ash mark here. And it’s entirely made of wood. Hand-carved, over two thousand pieces. I’d have to save up for a year to buy one. And Klb got me it. Klb.”
“I get it. It’s a super-puzzle.”
Relc looked insulted.
“Super…? It’s not about the difficulty alone, Selys, it’s a work of art! You can disassemble it and put it back together perfectly once you master it. This is like—one of your stupid paintings.”
They marched through her mansion as Selys, exasperated by the hour-long lecture by Relc, who’d been following her around, snapped back.
“Don’t make fun of my paintings!”
“Why n—oh, sorry. I meant, uh, Hawk’s painting. Did he give you it as a present?”
Relc had caught sight of another painting of a Drake standing by himself with a helmet tucked under one arm. He looked slightly uncomfortable, which was how you knew it was an actual painting of Zel Shivertail. He stopped and nodded up at that painting.
Hawk’s portrait of the Courier mid-stride was less prominently placed. Selys called over her shoulder.
“I thought you said there are only less than fifty of those in existence. Which makes sense.”
“Because only fifty people would want one.”
Relc made a sound like a cat whose tail had been stepped on. He stomped after Selys, but she was changing for a day out with Erin. A wall of her bodyguards muscled over, and even Relc stepped back.
Slap, slap. If you were a [Thief], the ominous sound of a beaver’s tail hitting the marble floor was the sound you’d hear right before they started breaking your bones. First your feet, then everything else.
Relc hadn’t seen Selys’ new home of late, and so he backed up and saw a giant…dam. She actually had a pond’s worth of water in the antechambers. He whistled.
“This is some place, Selys. What’s with the multiple doors?”
You entered into her actual home after passing through an area on the outside with a bowl and a bunch of letters and gifts piled up. Then you passed through what was essentially a living room or reception where the beavers made their home.
“Layers of security. My front door is actually unlockable with a basic key. That means Street Runners can get in or out.”
Relc hesitated. Far be it from him, a lowly [Guard], to talk about security, but…
“Isn’t that dangerous, security-wise?”
Selys poked her head out and emerged in a unique piece of clothing. Relc took one look at it and began sniggering.
“Shut up. It’s the latest fashion in Invrisil.”
She was wearing a modified track-suit in red with white stripes down the leggings. Relc kept snorting. Selys ignored him as she tossed some sticks from a bucket into the beavers’ den, and they splashed in after them.
“I have the beavers for security, Relc. And a bunch of enchantments. I’ve fried about eight [Thieves] so far—all alive, although some got messed up by the beavers.”
Relc stopped laughing.
“What, really? Is it that bad? Having lots of money doesn’t sound that great. I’ve only been robbed once, and I think the guy got the wrong room.”
Selys just shrugged.
“You get used to it. Amazingly fast, actually. Alright, you lot. Don’t eat any Street Runners.”
She patted the beavers on the heads as they made odd chirping sounds and then looked around, exasperated.
“Where are Calruz’s…? Rhata, Haldagaz!”
Relc had almost forgotten the other two pets Selys was taking care of. A loud squeak made him jump, and Selys’ inner door opened slightly.
Now, a rat couldn’t pull a door open, but it could push it like a dog or cat. However, that was quite a feat for such a small animal. And yet the grey rat that plodded into the room did just that.
What was more impressive was the fact that it was dragging a dumbbell behind it. Five pounds. Relc stared as Rhata nosed forwards, and Selys sighed.
“I guess Haldagaz is alive, somewhere. They’ve got food—stay. Stay.”
“Shouldn’t you put them in cages, in case the beavers eat them?”
The Fortress Beavers and Selys gave Relc a skeptical look. The Drake shook her head.
“I tried, Relc. She kept on breaking my cages.”
“Well, just buy—”
“She ate the wood ones. Then I bought iron, and she bent the bars. I actually commissioned a steel cage large enough for her, and it took her two days to bust down the cage door. Then I got an enchanted one, and the lock vanished! I don’t even know how she did that. I’m afraid she ate it or something. Calruz’s rats are insane. She’s as strong as…well, she’s strong for a rat.”
Indeed, Rhata seemed to be dragging the dumbbell around for fun. Relc scratched his head.
“What about the other one? Halda…?”
“Haldagaz. He’s just smart. Smart enough that he can feed himself. I mostly catch him in my libraries like he can read books. I actually think he stares at the pictures.”
Selys chuckled. Relc just gave Rhata a mystified look.
“That’s so cool. I should get some rats if that’s what they can do. Hey, Selys, do you think I should get a pet?”
“What about…a cat? No, wait, a monkey-thing from Baleros. Erin told me about them, and I looked them up. I could teach it how to use a spear…”
“Relc, this is why the answer is ‘no’. Now come on, I have to meet Erin. Why did no one ever make more than fifty Honolac Cubes?”
Relc shrugged as he headed for the door. Selys locked her home, although there was a tiny entrance for a rat to get in and out.
“Honolac—that’s the puzzle-maker—made tons for cheap. He had a [Merchant] who worked with him, and once they got popular, I heard the [Merchant] ordered a hundred, but when he heard how long they took to make, he suggested hiring some [Carpenters] and such in other cities to do it quick. You know, expedite the process?”
“That sounds like how I’d do it. What went wrong?”
“The Minotaur quit. He said it no longer interested him. Making a bunch of money wasn’t as fun. That’s Minotaurs for you.”
The door closed, and the beavers and Rhata were left to mill about. If you looked closely after Selys and Relc were gone, you might see Rhata jiggling on the floor happily. If you looked closer…it became clear the rat was doing press-ups.
Such were Selys’ pets. However, the last one, the one that hadn’t been seen, only made his entrance after Selys had left.
Squeak, squeak. 🐁
*🐁 If you haven’t read Haldagaz and Rhata’s mini-chapters, go to Interlude – Hectval Pt. 2 and find them!
Haldagaz the Rat appeared moments after Selys had left. He looked left and then right, listening hard, but Selys didn’t come back, and he was sure that he would hear the loud, green one, Relc, long before they opened the door.
Even so—he was cutting it close. Laboriously, the white rat scurried forwards, past Rhata, who stopped doing pushups to watch him.
Like Rhata, he had something attached to a bit of string looped around his body so he could pull it behind him. Unlike Rhata, it was not one of Calruz’s training weights.
It was a tiny scroll of parchment he had worked on for the last two weeks. Hiding the piece of paper from Selys wasn’t hard; she was rich enough that she had stationary everywhere. Quills, ink, the same. The difficulty was manipulating anything with rat appendages.
And keeping Rhata from eating it. The only way Haldagaz had managed to get anything legible close to the books he read was to get one of the smaller beavers to lie down while he pinned down the piece of parchment or paper and then delicately manipulated the quill from on top the beaver’s head.
Needless to say, Selys had put down the dozens of failed attempts to Rhata eating all the parchment—which was how Haldagaz got rid of the evidence.
Yes, the rat could write. And read. It had taken him a long time to figure out how the words on the pages went together, and since Drake script was different from Human—although they shared the same letters—he had taken longer.
However, he was among the most intelligent animals in Liscor thanks to Calruz’s Skill—[Pet: Best Quality, Refined]. In fact, given Haldagaz’s ability to plan, and the natures of Elirr’s cats, who were famously able to open doors and outsmart most other animals, it was amazing some animals didn’t have levels.
Yet like Ogres and Trolls, even monkey species, intelligent rats, and the Sariant Lambs couldn’t level. Haldagaz had wondered why and concluded it was because he was too small, thus proving he hadn’t learned about Fraerlings yet. He might amend his conclusion to the fact that it was only one rat who had gained this advanced intelligence, and thus his people, the Children of the Grain Sack and other sacks around the world, were unworthy.
He was only partially right. But then—only a few species would have been able to tell him the truth. And most had no voices a rat or person could understand.
At any rate, Haldagaz was in a hurry, and he scampered across the room, panting as he headed into the antechambers. He was aiming for the bowl, and he tugged the piece of parchment up laboriously, let it slide into the bowl, and then went back for the second note.
Would he make it? He was worried he’d cut it too close, but Selys had mentioned Venaz was meeting Calruz today. Therefore, he was out of time.
Someone was at the door. Haldagaz froze as he placed the second slip of parchment above the bowl. He didn’t have the rest ready! He looked around frantically and then—miracle of miracles, he heard a squeak!
Rhata, his dear sister, had followed Haldagaz. She might not have understood all the things that the white rat did, but she knew her brother was doing it for the Horned One of many pats and gains. So she had grabbed what he needed—
Selys’ money pouch. It had a bunch of spare coins. However, she had dragged the entire thing after her. It had to weigh a lot! Haldagaz only needed one coin. He scampered down and grabbed the coin, then placed it in the bowl. Almost done…Haldagaz saw the door opening and froze. Wait!
A Fortress Beaver sidled over to the door and leaned against it as someone cursed and the door opened. Haldagaz saw the big rodent nod at its smaller cousin and squeaked in thanks. Then he fled to watch his plan unfold.
“Argh! Damn—whoa. Easy—I’m a Street Runner. Nice beaver. Nice…”
The Fortress Beaver admitted the nervous Gnoll after a second. The Street Runner backed away as she called out, watching the beaver return to its den.
“Miss Selys? We got your request for a pickup! Miss Selys?”
The Runner’s Guild had offered Selys a service for its richer clients, along with the Mage’s Guild and Merchant’s Guild. Essentially home-deliveries where she could, for a nominal fee each month, get her letters and [Messages] picked up and delivered without the hassle of having to wait in line.
The Street Runner headed for the bowl, grumbling a bit when it became clear Selys was not home. However, she brightened up instantly.
There were three things in the bowl. One was a letter. The second was a note, and the third was a gold coin. The letter was sealed, but the note read as follows:
Hello. Please take this to the Mage’s Guild and send to the following. Here is your tip. Please send to…
The address was interesting, and the Street Runner thought the handwriting looked odd for Selys. But the gold coin was too distracting.
This was why you had rich clients. The Gnoll would run this to the Mage’s Guild, pronto. She took the letter and headed out. A quiet squeak of victory followed her out.
Yes, he’d done all he could. Haldagaz felt guilty for stealing Selys’ coins, but Calruz might be executed today. He was doing the only thing he could for the only being that had ever been kind to him and his sister.
In that way, the little white rat was quite intelligent. Quite loyal.
For a rat. His sister was trying to do pullups on a ledge next to him. They had been two rats condemned to a simple existence and a quick death when they were found. Now, two rats were trying to save the life of a Minotaur condemned by his own honor.
Antinium. Rats. A half-Elf, a Watch Captain, all speaking to the virtues of a single prisoner. All for one Minotaur. There was some irony in it, this month of all months.
For the island was fast approaching the House of Minos, and their old enemy had come once again. And not one voice in all of the nation of Minotaurs spoke up for them. Not one voice—and no one to defend Goblins even with words. Not for a long, long time.
Until recently. Until the [Innkeeper] of Liscor, who made strange plans. She thought, reasonably, she would have to bully and convince and bribe. Never once did she think there might be at least a few ears in unexpected places who would listen to what she had to say without reservations.
Here was the thing. Haldagaz’s plan worked. The Street Runner took the note to the Mage’s Guild, who translated the message across the world; their client was paying. Anyone could refuse to pick up a [Message] or request private messages from specified contacts only, but Selys was a notable figure in Liscor, and this was, unusually, still an individual of fame who accepted [Messages] from all.
The white rat had carefully timed and written his letter. But he had made one mistake. He was an exceptionally intelligent rat—but he was still a rat. So in his research into Calruz’s case and his attempts to find a way to help spare the Minotaur’s life, he had gone to the same logical conclusion a child might. He hadn’t known it would be Venaz, specifically.
So if you were going to plead a Minotaur’s case, who might you go to? The answer was…
The [Message] reached the House of Minos, but not its intended recipient. Instead, it was vetted, because the King of Minotaurs was busy.
“An odd letter, but one I believe the King would appreciate. Yet I am sharing it with you, Prince Khedal.”
“If it is private, it is none of my business.”
The palace of Etrerra-Valar was exceptionally open, and the sea breeze would often blow far indoors. Unless there was a storm, those working here appreciated the contact with the outside world. They were, generally, administrators, the Mneiol, who had the authority to pass judgment, and occasionally Minotaurs in armor who represented the military arm of the House of Minos.
However, a fixture of the palace was the figure in armor who strode about with a pair of axes at his side. Prince Khedal was fifty-five years old, and grey had begun to enter his fur, already dark brown. He was third in line to the throne of the House of Minos.
Succession dictated that the Minotaur King’s family would be nominated in event of their death. After all, Minotaurs chose their families, so it followed that the most worthy would go thereafter.
In this case, the Minotaur King’s son preceded Khedal, a younger brother. A far younger Minotaur as yet unproven, who had not become Beriad.
Many believed that Khedal was the more obvious pick, and in the case of the Minotaur King’s death, the younger prince might cede the rights to Khedal anyways. However, that was not something to be desired.
The current Minotaur King was exceptionally popular. And she had the unwavering support of Khedal, renowned as one of the most high-level and honorable warriors in the House of Minos. He often led warships on patrol around their territory.
As another example of Khedal’s level, he had, five years ago, celebrated his 50-of-50 party and been toasted across the House of Minos and even received laudits from abroad. Technically, he had already fulfilled half the requirements before turning 50 years old, but the party was to celebrate someone who reached Level 50…while they were fifty years old.
It was an accomplishment few could boast of, and similar to 30-of-30, a mark of significant accomplishment. Anyways, Khedal stood with horns capped with mithril inscribed with the symbols of Minos, in perfect posture, ever armored and ready for battle.
Especially now. He spoke to the Minotaur who’d reviewed the letter.
“Is it personal?”
“Not to my understanding. I do not believe our King knows of the issue.”
Khedal thought about this and came to a quick decision.
“Our King is busy. I will review the letter, then, if reading the contents would not be shameful. Thank you.”
He took the letter and began to read. Khedal seldom smiled except when in the company of his family, the Minotaur King, or the young prince. His frown deepened, and he raised his head swiftly.
“This is important enough to warrant at least a mention. The honor of a Minotaur lies at stake. I shall convey it to the throne at once.”
And then he began striding down the palace, moving so fast he nearly ran into the team of Minotaurs removing a statue. Khedal side-stepped them with a brief apology, but the workers were used to it.
He was like the swing of his axes; when he moved, he moved. Khedal’s progress was impeded only slightly by the dozens of Minotaurs pulling statues, artwork, and other fine works out of the palace.
The King of Minotaurs was removing all the artwork in the palace. All of it. Heroic statues, paintings—all of which would go on auction. That was why the Merchant Saimh had braved the sea at this time, to collect the art.
It would be worth a fortune if sold to the right people. It was no whim either; the King of Minotaurs had simply decided it was a good time.
The palace would be bare after that. For a year or two. Then, like the plazas that now had statues of Venaz, Ozem—it would fill up.
Each new generation would create the art that adorned the palace itself and the squares, and were seen throughout the House of Minos. It was a practice the last few Minotaur Kings had adopted.
If the great art of older masters overshadows that of the present, would that not stifle the accomplishments of the current generation? It was a theory they had been testing out.
Of course, not everyone was happy about this, and as Khedal approached the throne room, he saw a pair of figures discussing it. He slowed slightly and listened as they spoke, watching the beautiful art going down to where it would be sold.
“I don’t understand why it must all go, Mother. Or at least, be sold. Some of it is beautiful beyond compare. These are our treasures. Why should they go to other peoples and other lands?”
It was a younger Minotaur, who was taller of the two. The other might have been taller, but she was stooped over, leaning hard against the railing. Neither one had armor on, and their clothing was plain enough that a visitor might take both as ordinary citizens.
Except that in the case of the female Minotaur, they’d look twice, because she had clearly fought in some battles. In an age of healing potions, it was still plain to see that the King of Minotaurs had scars that would never heal.
Part of her ribcage was missing. A divot, a long-since healed scar that was visible in her light robes, and a network of long scars below it. War wounds so dire she often sat rather than stood.
Khedal slowed as she replied.
“Do you have one piece of art you care for more than another? That one, perhaps?”
She pointed with some amusement to a painting that was familiar to Khedal and most Minotaurs. Her son didn’t answer, but he stared at the familiar protagonist captured in battle.
That would be the same Minotaur standing next to him, if far younger. The King of Minotaurs, Inreza. As Khedal knew full well, it was also Lareqol’s father who had painted it.
“…I just don’t see the point.”
The younger prince said at last. Inreza glanced at Khedal as he approached, the letter in hand.
“What do you think, Prince Khedal? Lareqol is speaking of how we divest ourselves of art.”
Khedal replied instantly.
“I am partial to many of the scenes of glory we are selling, my King. I would keep them all if it were my decision.”
Lareqol turned. Khedal didn’t often say things like that. Inreza listened.
“And would you say we should call the sale off?”
Khedal shook his head.
“Not at all. My desires do not lie superior to the good of our people. And it is our people who benefit from seeing their works displayed proudly to the world. This practice encourages artists and our crafters to aspire, Prince Lareqol.”
He spoke affectionately to the younger [Prince], who he personally tutored. Lareqol looked at the two old legends of Minos.
To say he was in their shadow would be something of an understatement. He worked hard, had a gift for combat and a sound mind—but he was also not awarded the privileges of rank. Most Minotaurs considered his an unenviable life, trying to live up to his mentors.
Of recent note, about four years ago, Lareqol had competed with other Minotaurs to be the student sent to the Forgotten Wing Company to learn from the Titan of Baleros.
He lost to a certain Minotaur named Venaz. Khedal continued, as if he were lecturing the young.
“There is another reason why we allow other peoples to take our art, Lareqol. Consider our King’s feats of glory. They are known throughout the House of Minos. In time, they might sit in a palace where other species witness a story time and time again. It is not a shame to sell our works of art. If anything—it proves that it is valuable.”
Lareqol hesitated, and Khedal smiled.
“We create works that other species covet. Worth is not something one can judge alone, but bestowed by others. We value the past, honor our works of great art. But the past cannot overshadow the deeds of those today. If this were not so, we would cease this tradition. The House of Minos must act in a way most beneficial for all, while minding the needs of each individual. The artists who created these works have already made more or have passed.”
He spoke with pride for the talent that had gone into each piece, confident that their worth would remain wherever they went, and a mind towards the needs of the nation he had dedicated his life for. In that way, when dignitaries came to the House of Minos, it was often Prince Khedal they mistook for the King of Minotaurs, an archetype of honor, duty, and war.
The King of Minotaurs listened to Khedal’s speech and saw Lareqol nodding. She coughed and spoke with a slight whisper behind her voice, a straining of her lungs. Inreza nodded to a vase passing below them.
“…We also sell our art because they make quite a lot of money, Lareqol. And we have limited storage space in our islands.”
Khedal faltered as the prince turned to his mother.
“Do we not do it for the reasons…?”
He glanced at Khedal, and Inreza shrugged.
“They are all excellent reasons Khedal speaks. But ask yourself—why do we actually maintain this tradition? Have we found reasons to explain the tradition when more…pragmatic ones suffice?”
“I see the honor in the actions, my King.”
Khedal protested uneasily. Inreza smiled.
“And I can see your point, Khedal. If there is honor to be found, good. But not everything need be honorable. I try not to look for honor everywhere.”
And that was the difference between the two. Rather than object, Khedal just bowed instantly.
“Your wisdom is always something I strive for, my King.”
“You needn’t do that. Just listen, and if I make sense, adopt what fits.”
Inreza looked amused and resigned, but then Khedal proffered the letter.
“I apologize for interrupting, my King, Prince Lareqol. But I have this letter, and I deemed it worthy of your immediate concern. It is an affair of honor for one of the Beriad.”
Inreza raised her brows as she took the letter. She read, and her eyes focused slightly.
The letter, written in small words and as neatly as possible—if slightly nibbled on one corner—read as follows:
To the King of Minotaurs,
I am writing to you regarding the judgment of Calruz of Hammerad. He is to be sentenced to death under Minotaur law if found guilty, and as of writing, he is now under trial by (Venaz of Hammerad).
It is my belief a sentence of death is wrong. I have observed Calruz of Hammerad as a close companion and see no monster. He is an [Honorbound Prisoner]. The facts any arbiter may hear are incomplete. Calruz was a prisoner of Liscor’s Dungeon, and I hope you will consider his sentence personally.
I am not at liberty to give my name, but I hope you will think of his honor; he has done many things, such as charging Crelers and fighting monsters, to redeem his actions. He is my friend, and I would not see him hurt any more.
Sincerely, H. Please pardon the damage to the page. I have rat troubles.
Inreza turned the letter about and stared at it.
“I assume the original was nibbled upon. Whomever this is has not sent [Message] spells before. Where did it come from?”
“Liscor. I can trace the sender…”
Inreza’s eyes flicked over the letter once more. She peered at the odd handwriting.
“Neat. Precise. But an odd penmanship. See how each letter wobbles? I wonder why. They did not know it would be Venaz when they wrote that letter.”
“Venaz is in Liscor?”
Lareqol spoke with faint envy and interest. Inreza nodded.
“His journeys take him far abroad. This letter is odd, again.”
“It was written in the common script, not Drake. It has no forms of their address. I wonder who wrote it?”
Khedal had observed none of this, only the comments about honor.
“Should I send a reply? Or ask Venaz about the facts of the case?”
The King of Minotaurs regarded the letter. She lifted it up, thought for a few seconds, and then calmly tore it up and let the pieces blow away on the breeze.
“No. I have read the letter. I will not alter Venaz’s judgment. He is qualified to be Mneiol. Someone cares for Calruz of Hammerad. That is plain. If he is innocent, he will be found to be such.”
Khedal opened his mouth, watching the pieces of the note flutter away on the breeze. The King of Minotaurs turned back to Lareqol.
“You two disagree?”
Both hesitated. Khedal spoke up slowly.
“If there are facts that Venaz doesn’t know, my King…”
“If I, personally, were to tell him to investigate the dungeon, it would affect his judgment because his King ordered him to do so. If there is an effect in the dungeon, he will look into it. This Calruz’s class will certainly be part of Venaz’s understanding. Do you have faith in his ability to rule fairly?”
Khedal folded his arms.
“He is young, rash, and he has embarrassed the House of Minos more than once publicly. But he is sound of mind. In such matters, I would expect him to behave with the dignity of the Mneiol. This is all true. But—”
He did not like the implication a judgment could be rendered wrongly, especially with such stakes. Inreza nodded as if reading his mind.
“The letter makes it clear that the sender believes the wrong judgment will be made. They would like me to act. Because that is clear, I will not. Khedal, I entrust you with monitoring Venaz’s decision. Say to him nothing, but tell me what is decided, for he will report back to the House of Minos in either case. Also, if you have a record of what this Calruz of Hammerad has done…I will read it tonight.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Relieved, Khedal bowed. And like that, a certain Minotaur’s name was now known to the King of Minotaurs.
Small things. The King of Minotaurs watched the pieces of paper she’d torn up fly into the air and then murmured.
Prince Khedal and Prince Lareqol turned and saw the Minotaur King gazing off into the distance. Khedal bowed.
“I believe I am currently littering the skies. That is my error.”
Thus, in the Palace of Minos, you could see the King of Minotaurs, even speak to her. And sometimes, rarely, see Prince Khedal charging after a piece of paper to protect the honor of the House of Minos.
But he couldn’t get all of the scraps, and many more floated into the fickle air, far, far over the islands. A few passed by some of the ‘pets’ of Maweil and were sent into the sea as jets of water blew upwards.
After all, Maweil had one giant pet which was currently singing and blowing water out its blowhole as a pod of its kin swam around the island. Minotaurs waved and gathered the treats for the blue whale named Beorro. More tossed fish to dolphins and other friendly sea-creatures.
Aside from the Astelain and regular pets, many Minotaurs befriended sea life since they took up no space on the islands. More than one Minotaur was known to swim with a dolphin they knew specifically.
The rest of the pieces flew onwards, fluttering, dancing on the sea wind. Trying not to land in the water. It was a doomed pursuit; they might fly for minutes, even hours, above the waves, given their light forms and the fickle nature of the wind.
But they could not fly forever. One by one, they succumbed to the water, a rat’s hard work of weeks sinking into nothingness. The last pieces gamely fluttered on.
Only one remained after nearly an hour of being blown by the strong winds off the House of Minos. It was dipping into the water when a creature snatched it up with a beak and flew up.
It was…a raven. Not a seagull, but a raven. And it soared higher, its prize clutched in its mouth. The raven joined a chorus of wings. It flew upwards, and seagulls honked next to giant albatrosses coming down for landing next to a giant bird, larger than the raven by a hundred, possibly a thousand times.
A Roc on migration. Other birds, including ordinary blue jays and Creona Flashbirds, soared around it. Some of these birds even preyed on one another, but right now, they behaved.
After all, they had made this long sea migration this far to return to this island. It was odd, perhaps, for some birds like ravens to go this far, but they had a route they’d memorized that only worked at this time of year. Only with this island.
Of course, it would be suicide for them to roost in the House of Minos; Minotaurs were not adverse to removing threats like plagues of birds. And the need for food meant that a Roc would almost never regularly migrate anywhere it didn’t have food. Like whales it could hunt.
Yet here…they had a guaranteed food source, and they knew it. After all. They might not be pets, but as they began to land, a green arm came up, and the raven holding the piece of paper spat out the interesting tidbit it had found. Then it accepted a piece of mackerel from the Goblin’s claws as a pair of red eyes focused on the piece of wet paper.
A mouth full of shark’s teeth grinned, and the Goblin caught the scrap of parchment. He was one of hundreds of Goblins feeding the birds as they landed around them.
Even the Roc headed for a basket filled with fish. It made a keraw sound as a dozen Goblin children swung out of the forest and landed on its back, giggling. They clung to the giant bird, and if you could see this island from afar, say, from the balcony of the Minotaur King’s palace, still miles upon miles distant, you might see something that few species could believe.
Goblins had pets. Or rather, animal friends who they knew. Some found a Goblin, picking out one they knew in the crowd, and received seeds or other food. They landed among the sprawling canopy of trees, roosted like a hundred colors of feather, pecking at bushes fat with glowing berries, or getting caught in net-like vines, both cultivated for their terrain.
The trees were hardly as large as half-Elven forests, but they were still the size of redwoods, some felled for their wood, but most overgrown, hiding the inhabitants of the island within. The birds filled the skies for a few days, circling in vast swarms, each one calling a different signal as they stopped on their migrations that converged on this spot.
Many might never return, but those that did visited the island each year. The Goblins met new birds. Some eyed injuries and delicately applied salves with a brush.
One Goblin child got her ears pulled for trying to attach a dagger to a seagull’s foot. She screamed, and the seagull screamed too until the scolding older Goblins produced some tiny steel-tipped claws, which they inserted onto the seagull’s talons. Daggers were too heavy.
Aside from dangerously arming the wildlife, the Goblins gathered on the edge of the island were watching the archipelago in the distance come closer. They were waiting. The ships were ready. The warriors were gathering.
This coming month would see their floating island come closer to the House of Minos, close enough for nothing but ship-based combat, but they would be ‘in range’ of each other for a good month before swinging away.
It was a period of strife that both species knew and were ready for. Indeed, for all they continued business as normal, the main harbor of the House of Minos was locking down. Minotaurs were checking siege weapons along the walls, and their fleet was preparing for the first day of conflict.
This time—it would not be a slow escalation. The Minotaurs and Goblins fought, one to keep the other from gaining too much power.
To keep the Goblins of this island from spreading across the world. It was a war of attrition. However—the Minotaurs did not enjoy the conflict.
It was costly. But they could count how many ships were loitering in the Goblin island’s bays. So they were preparing for a decisive strike to scuttle as many as possible. Their duty was to deny the Goblins a seafaring force.
It was a conflict many nations didn’t remember or care much about. Like Drathians and Seamwalkers, or even the Blighted King and Demons to some extent—this was a Minotaurian affair. Containment of a worldwide threat, often thankless and unnoticed.
But then, the rest of the world thought of the Island of Goblins as a bunch of savages, if at all. Just like they thought the House of Minos contained almost exclusively sweaty Minotaurs preparing for war, they had no idea what it looked like.
The truth might surprise you. For instance, if anyone thought ‘why didn’t the Minotaurs, with their superior island, siege weapons, and warriors just eradicate the Goblins once and for all?’, they would quickly earn Khedal’s stinging rebuke. If the Minotaurs could do that…wouldn’t they?
If the Minotaurs could do that.
The Goblin who’d found the piece of paper studied the few words he could read. They were mangled from the weather and raven spit. He said one word out loud, sounding it out.
The other Goblins glanced at him. He shrugged as he showed them the scrap of paper. It was a mystery. So the Goblin petted the raven on the head and took the piece of paper to a Goblin wearing a [Shaman]’s outfit.
Feathers, mostly. She was surrounded by birds and negotiating for some of the Roc’s handsome plumage. She blinked at the piece of paper the Goblin had found. Then she took it.
“Paper. Letter. Message. Show me what you said. Show me who wrote you. What is in your head?”
She shook out the piece of paper and then had to use both arms to unfold it. She handed the same letter the Minotaur King had torn up to the curious Goblin.
It was fully intact, and the Goblin puzzled over it. But the [Shaman] wasn’t done. She bent down and sprinkled some sand in the air.
It did not turn into a silhouette of the person she was expecting. She looked around, confused…then saw a tiny rat on the ground with a quill. The sand-image of Haldagaz made both Goblins’ eyes bug out.
Then they started laughing. More Goblins looked up as birds took wing, and they gathered around and pointed and laughed so much one threw up.
The rat-letter in its entirety was so popular that the male Goblin had to take it down across the coast. He ran until a Goblin sleeping in the trees noticed him and swung down. She took the letter, heard the story, and ran to her village to see the rat-writer for herself.
By the end of the day, half the Goblins on the island had heard about the rat-letter. It was so funny one of them went to the warriors gathering and preparing for battle.
She kept poking the Goblin four times her size. He was twelve feet tall and barely grunted as she explained how funny it was. The giant Goblin was all muscle. He was, to be precise…Fomirelin. What other species called Great Goblins.
He also had apparently traded his sense of humor for more muscles, because not even the image of the tiny rat with the quill made him smile. He just sat there…staring into the distance.
The House of Minos would come, tomorrow or the day after at the latest. This particular Hob had been waiting a while.
You could tell because he was covered with a light shower of dirt where he sat cross-legged. Moss was growing on his back and shoulders. If he moved, he would destroy an ecosystem.
He and a second, female Fomirelin sat there as the Goblin holding the piece of paper grumbled and walked off. They were among the oldest of the Goblins there. The other warriors laughed or ignored the rat-letter as they chose. They stretched and talked and waited.
And oh, one more thing.
They were all Hobs.
Not ‘mostly hobs’ or ‘there were fifty hobs and a hundred regular Goblins’. They were, all of them, Hobgoblins. Over six hundred had mustered at this point, and more would be coming once the Minotaurs appeared.
This place was a beach, an inlet protecting their small harbor to the west where warships weighed at anchor, some built from the tall trees creating the vast forests of this island. Others were spoils of war. Most? Salvaged wrecks that had a distinctly Minotaurian design.
It had taken years to gather this many. The Goblins hadn’t tried to hide them or sail them away; the risk was too high the Minotaurs would just assail them at sea and find them magically.
No, they had put them here, where the Minotaurs often attacked. At the strongest point of the Isle of Goblins.
This shallow cove wasn’t very strategically sound, mind you. A narrow, rocky cliff offered some protection from above, but it had all the defensive qualities of a beach exposed on multiple angles. It wasn’t even a big cliff. The isle of Goblins floated on the water, such that there weren’t any giant rock faces like Avel’s natural beaches, nor a long stretch of land until the Goblins’ inhabited terrain.
Any enemy could land on the beach and get to the island proper with a five minute jog. And yet—it was the people here that would force the Minotaurs to attack the Goblins directly or stay far, far away.
Not just because of the two mossy Fomirelin boulders. Oh, no. There were more Great Goblins, although they were still far fewer than their Hob cousins, much less ‘regular’ Goblins.
The reason was because of the small cliff facing the sea. A tree grew there, nothing special, bearing no particularly grand fruit. It wasn’t that old, but it faced the House of Minos.
Oh—and it smiled. The bark was oddly warped in places. If you looked closely, you might see the outline of something. Someone…sitting there.
Then, if you were really close, you might see a pair of deep crimson eyes open. And the face in the tree would move.
Then you’d realize it wasn’t just a tree. It was another Goblin, who had sat for so long in one place that a tree had grown up around her.
She didn’t move. Not during storms. Not during war or battle. The Goblin Lord sat there as the delighted younger Goblin showed her the letter. And you could tell she was amused because she smiled. But then her eyes fixed on the letter, and she whispered one word.
The hilarity of the rat’s letter faded from the younger Goblin’s gaze as she faced the leader of this island. The other warriors were looking up, and she put her claws behind her back nervously. The younger Goblin, her hair tied back with delicate loops of fishbone, brought forwards the letter nervously.
She wore simple clothing, but not primitive. It was akin to cloth, but made from some soft reeds on the island that were combed and spun like cotton. The warriors were different—many had gone bare-chested, male and female, so they could be marked with magical paint.
Metal was in short supply, but they had more than enough for weapons. Some still preferred stone or wood for their arrowheads, but one look at a hardwood point etched with tiny glowing lines of magic would set off a Gold-rank adventurer’s [Dangersense].
The young Goblin timidly held out the letter to the Goblin Lord, and it was ready. That smile never wavered. Then the Goblin Lord did something unexpected.
She nodded, and the bark cracked and the tree shivered. The two Fomirelin bodyguards stirred, and the warriors went silent. The Goblin Lord spoke again.
The Goblin with the letter fled, all hilarity forgotten. A [Shaman] chased after her, scolding, but then froze and approached the cliff. A spire of sand from the beaches grew, lifting the Goblin [Shaman] up. He listened to the Goblin Lord speaking quietly, and then when he was let down, he did smile. He waved up at the still figure, who went back to watching the sea.
That evening, the Isle of Goblins was busy. Alight, in fact, with Goblins hard at work. They sent some of their kind into the forests to grab bark and make more papyrus. They didn’t bother with paper or writing as much, and so quills were produced from the birds who offered spare feathers.
The difference between the Isle of Goblins and Minos was notable in many ways. They had some similarities—their isolation, statues, great leaders, and preparations for war.
However, the Goblins had more of a sense of humor.
Venaz listened to Calruz begin his testimony from meeting the Horns of Hammerad, the originals, and they had just gotten to him getting to the dungeon after meeting Ryoka Griffin. It was a long story, and they had spent some time catching up on home.
It was important, because Calruz seemed more relaxed, understanding the process. Venaz had arranged to meet him the next day.
The strangeness began that evening, when he returned to Liscor. He was checking in the Mage’s Guild for anything for him, probably more love-instructions from the Professor. Yet the Minotaur’s vague sense of dread was overturned by a [Mage] catching sight of him and pointing.
“You! It’s that bastard! Get him!”
The Minotaur put a hand on his sword, but the angry [Mage] was no fighter. Nor was he able to get to Venaz past the…mountain of parchment.
“What’s going on?”
“We’ve been getting [Messages] all day! All addressed to you! Venaz of Hammerad? Judging Calruz of Hammerad’s case?”
That was supposed to be secret. How did—
The [Mage] picked up a stack of letters and began throwing them at Venaz, one after another. They were bound with twine, but he had ammunition to keep throwing non-stop.
Venaz stared down at the letters as Wil and Merrik took cover. Peki was just punching the stacks of letters flying at her face.
Then he picked up one message and saw what it said.
To Minotaur King and Venaz.
I am a very honorable warrior. [Honor Warrior] Gerise. I have written you from my home to vouch for Calruz of Hammerad. I have never met him, but the rat is right.
You must not kill a Minotaur! For the rat!
Venaz’s lips moved, but the more he re-read, the less it made sense. And they were all like that. One of the letters that Wil picked up made him gasp.
“Venaz! Did Calruz mention being in Terandria?”
“He knows a—look at this!”
Wil showed Venaz the letter, and the Minotaur blinked.
Dear Venaz, sir.
I am writing you very urgently about Calruz. I have just heard of his plight. I am a [Prince] of Ailendamus. Calruz saved my life from a hundred Crelers when we were small. I request on behalf of my country that you not execute him. Please give my best to your King.
Sincerely, Prince Omalous of Ailendamus.
It took Venaz exactly four minutes to catch onto the problem with the letter.
“This is fake. There’s no Prince Omalous of Ailendamus.”
“How are all these being sent? The cost…”
The amount of money per [Message] spell had to be high, even if these were being sent from a Mage’s Guild waiving the sending and spell cost. The Liscorian [Mages] didn’t look happy, even if they were making good coin.
“The money’s all been verified, more’s the problem. There’s a few backers. A few Merchant’s Guild funds owned by some [Merchants] who set it up, somewhere called Anazuland…they cut off the letters after the first thousand. I can’t imagine how much gold it cost.”
A very unhappy [Witch] had heard about the mass-sending, but Venaz just stared at the piles of letters he had to stuff into a bag of holding. Apparently, the King of Minos was getting these letters too.
Who was sending them, though?
The answer might surprise you. Yes, it was funny to the Goblins. Yes, they did it because a rat had written the first letter and because they were sending it to Minotaurs.
But there was some sincerity in it too. Thousands of Goblins wrote letters and sent them across the world for a Minotaur’s life. Not for him.
For the rat. The Goblins reasoned simply that if any person, Minotaur or otherwise, could get a rat to plead on their behalf, they were probably worth saving.
That night, the Goblins’ island was awash with mirth, reading responses as they came in, and the laughter reached the Goblin Lord’s ears, though she sat far away from any one settlement.
Her island was no larger than any one of the House of Minos’ islands. Enough to support tens of thousands of Goblins. No more.
Not the House of Minos’ full numbers. It floated on the sea, and she looked ahead, that smile fading hour by hour.
Waiting. That night, the Goblins pleaded for a Minotaur’s life. If it had been allowed, if they had been wanted, they would have strode into that city of the Minotaur King’s throne room to demand his life.
It didn’t have to be this way. The days that would come next did not have to begin. But they did, time and again. Like Goblin Kings and the rest of their race’s struggle.
The one difference lay on this island. They knew much of the truth. And as they waited for the Minotaurs to come, the Goblins looked out. They knew no fear.
The day of the battle, Prince Khedal heard Prince Lareqol requesting permission to join the fleet.
He was refused. Khedal backed the Minotaur King’s verdict.
“We have taken you to slay Creler nests, Lareqol. Into the dungeon below the isles. If we re-complete the [Labyrinth of Fithel], I will personally vouch for your candidacy to enter—with suitable training and a team.”
“But you won’t let me sail in defense of the House of Minos?”
To that, Prince Khedal only nodded as he adjusted his helmet. His enchanted armor glowed as he took hold of his axes, then let go of one to touch Lareqol’s shoulder.
“This is no common war. This is…bloody. I am reasonably sure I will survive. Not all of our army will join in the fighting either. Our King is not judging you as a son, but as a warrior. Even Venaz would not be allowed to join our fighters, only observe from the rear.”
That did clear the younger Minotaur’s face. Khedal rose, and a Minotaur on a throne raised a hand.
“Khedal. I will be here, as ever.”
The Minotaur King had a view of the island from her throne room, which was open to the outside. A single axe rested against her throne. The axe she had given Ozem. Khedal nodded.
“We will stop that fleet from leaving the island. My oath on it.”
“Do not push in too far this time, Khedal. Something is different. My instincts tell me to be wary.”
The Minotaur King looked his way, and Khedal met Inreza’s gaze. He nodded tightly, and his sense of tension ratcheted up another notch.
When the House of Minos went to war, it was an impressive thing. Khedal set foot on the largest warship, The Horns of Valar, with a crew of Minotaurs armed to the teeth.
Each one was over Level 30. They were the vanguard. Around them, the ship’s crew managed the siege weapons. This warship had sixteen on either side; they were capable of the same tactics used against the King of Destruction. Dedicated [Artillery Experts] could hurl dozens of shots per minute with trained crews.
However, the warships that followed Khedal into the sea only contributed to a third of the firepower aimed at the Goblins. The rest was aligned on the harbor walls.
Massive weapons turning and training their payloads on the Goblins’ isle.
Enough enchanted munitions to turn their entire island to glass and dust. If only it reached them. Khedal felt Inreza’s warning prickle his spine as the ships cut through the choppy waters.
“Storm coming. Summoned or natural?”
“Too early to tell, Prince Khedal. We did not see magic in the air, but our eyes are worthless here.”
A [Battle Caster] spoke up from next to Khedal. He wore a full suit of armor and had a staff more like a giant lightning rod, which he was anchoring to the deck. With it, he could throw a bolt of [Grand Lightning] into the air.
But all species had their standard [Mages]. The interesting Minotaur was pacing down the decks. She had a bowl of red liquid in one hand. With the other, she was pressing a hand to the chest or armor of each warrior who passed.
The bloody handprint sizzled, and the warriors grunted, but the [Blood Mage] whispered.
“[Coldfury of the Lizard]. [Boar’s Strength]. Prince?”
She turned to him, but the Minotaur declined the enchantment.
“My Skills supercede that magic.”
The Minotaur nodded and walked on. A third caster was preparing his weapons.
Talismans, some drawn with summoned monsters, others wards to be deployed one after another. He would unleash summoned Manticores by the looks of it. That was Drathian magic, but they traded with the House of Minos enough to have shared classes.
“Ballista One, operational.”
“Ballista Two, operational!”
A Minotaur roared across the deck, and a chorus of voices reported in. The [Captain] was watching the island growing larger in the distance. Khedal couldn’t see them well, but he knew what to expect.
The Goblins would be on the beaches, waiting for the warships. However, most would be in that dense jungle behind. Hidden.
They were already in range of each other. Technically, the Isle of Goblins had been for nearly a week now.
Functionally, neither side bothered to fire a shot. They were waiting to get closer. Khedal kept turning his head.
“Captain. If I am indisposed, I want you to hold two ships in reserve. Watch for flanking ambushes or some other trick. Have our [Diviners] seen anything in the water?”
“Not yet. Are you expecting an ambush, Prince?”
The Goblins were always unpredictable. The House of Minos had battled them here for centuries. They changed tactics, both sides, but…Khedal’s nerves were prickling.
Sometimes, the Minotaurs didn’t send a fleet out. The need to remove those ships was pressing them into an attack. Long-range fire from both islands was more common some years.
This time, there would be blood. Khedal raised one axe.
“The Month of Strife is upon us! Warriors, the House of Minos sends you from its shores. Ready!”
Minotaurs roared, and their eyes began to fill with blood as the Prince of Minotaurs stared ahead at that figure on the cliff.
Not once had she moved. That contempt, that…he ground his teeth together.
They didn’t sing. The Minotaurs were close to home. The Goblins watched in silence, standing from where they had been sitting. The owners of their home, waiting to greet the visitors year after year.
A line of glowing eyes and bared teeth. Goblins wearing armor cast from trees or vines—or salvaged metal armor, some still with the faded regalia of the House of Minos. That alone made Khedal’s jaw creak, but he looked at the Hobgoblins and saw more than one resting on the balls of their feet, perfectly balanced in the sand, a hand on a sword, or balancing a throwing axe or the middle of a spear on a finger.
Experts every bit as familiar with their weapons as the Minotaurs standing at his shoulders, their hilts clashing off their armor and shields as they roared challenges. Yet the Goblins said nothing at all, just grinned, watching. Biding their time.
Khedal waited as the first ships passed the invisible line in the water. He felt his sense of danger spike and roared.
They were still three thousand paces from the islands when the warships began unloading. Far closer than they needed to be, but the deadly barrage shot towards that cliff and the first beachhead like rain.
Glowing munitions, one wave, then another, fired in seconds of each other. Followed by a salute twice as large from the House of Minos’ harbors. A storm descended upon the Island of Goblins, each bolt and stone enchanted to explode and tear across the Goblins’ home.
They never landed.
Kheldal had seen it time and time again, but it never ceased to make his stomach roil. He saw a ballista fire next to him, heard the snap tear the air. The ballista bolt was as long as he was, made of iron, and enchanted to unleash a stored bolt of lightning wherever it struck.
It shot through the air at one of the Hobgoblins on shore, and the Hob jerked—too slow to dodge. But then there was a flash—an explosion, and the Hob was grinning as the others pushed him back into place.
A new warrior who’d never seen this happen before. Khedal’s eyes locked on the Goblin Lord. That tree.
And he saw another flicker, hundreds, thousands, as the bolts exploded in midair. You could only see what was happening with someone of Khedal’s level. If you slowed down time, you’d see something catching the enchanted ammunition out of the air.
A net, a dome of twisting vines. They shot out of the sea, snatching the magical projectiles, letting them detonate harmlessly around the island. They kept regrowing, kept shielding the Goblins from the deadly fire.
A single Goblin was doing that. A single Goblin Lord. Without moving, without visibly chanting—Khedal watched the fury that had humbled the King of Destruction and forced him to charge, a greater onslaught than that, grounding itself helplessly against the air.
Of course, that network of vines was not perfect. One single Goblin could not handle all of the ammunition coming down, and the Minotaurs had pushed past that limit with the sheer volume and speed of fire.
However…Khedal’s eyes picked out a flicker from the treetops. A Goblin perched there loosed an arrow straight up and hit a falling comet, a boulder thrown by a trebuchet.
Hundreds of Goblins were adding their arrows to covering their home. [Shamans] were throwing up walls in the air, others casting blooms of magic to detonate the danger above their heads.
The Goblin warriors didn’t move as shrapnel fell around them. This was just the welcome. All of this wasn’t enough to overload their protections.
“Vanguard, ready! Follow the Prince!”
One of the [Battle Leaders] roared, and Prince Khedal’s warship surged forwards. The [Captain] shouted.
“[Ramming Speed]. Brace. Three—two—one—”
The Minotaurs held onto something, save for Khedal, as the ship plowed onto the beach. Not towards the harbor with the Goblin ships. Khedal had chosen the stronger point to distract the Goblins.
It was impossible for a regular warship to perform this maneuver normally. They were deep-water vessels, and their hulls didn’t allow them to come this close to land; they’d run aground unless they had a specifically-adapted hull to let them perform this trick.
The House of Minos had many such vessels, but Khedal had no need to use one of those warships for the simple reason that the Isle of Goblins floated. Past their beaches, the terrain just dropped into the sea. It meant that he could take his ship in. Assuming he was willing to lose it.
They were aimed straight at that cliff. At the Goblin Lord. She saw them coming, but she didn’t even look down from warding the island. The ship was willing to ground itself permanently to so much as disrupt her concentration.
They never made it. Khedal felt The Horn of Valar slowing and looked down.
The two giant Fomirelin had moved. The moss-covered boulders stood and blocked the ship. Their feet dug into sand, and they skidded backwards—then the ship began to slow.
One of the vanguard spoke into that breathless silence. Khedal said nothing at all. He leapt from the railings as the ramps lowered. The Minotaurs stormed down onto the beach, and the Goblins screamed their peculiar, high-pitched warcry. Khedal brought down his axe on a Goblin head and then—
Ocello whispered. He was watching from the harbor with an enchanted spyglass. He was allowed to be out during the fighting—but the Minotaurs had said they would not take responsibility for his death.
Because there was fire coming back from the island. The Goblins had neither siege weapons nor ships, but some were still throwing arrows miles upon miles.
It looked like…a cloud of arrows frozen in time. It blew gently overhead, then the arrows unfroze and rained down. Minotaurs took cover as the Goblins’ reply blew a ballista apart.
Merchant Saimh watched with his own spyglass. What rattled Ocello to his core was the fighting. He had already seen the magical protections of the Goblins with disbelieving eyes, but any Walled Cities could do better.
But he’d realized he was in denial because the Goblins had no enchantments. They were doing that with the magic they possessed.
When the Minotaurs took the beach, he realized—there was no way the Minotaurs were taking it easy on the Goblins.
“They’re not winning.”
Eight-foot tall Minotaurs were charging down the ramps with axes and shields mostly, but also swords, spears, each one one of the finest of Minos. Yet it seemed like for every Goblin that fell—so did a Minotaur.
The Hobs. They were everywhere. More Hobs than Ocello had ever seen in his life, even in the Goblin Lord of Izril’s army. They were strong and fought in small squads, but the Minotaurs had the edge there.
Not against the Great Goblins. Giant Goblins lunged into the battle and then backed off to heal their wounds. One swung an axe and crushed a Minotaur against the lead warship. Another took a ballista bolt straight-on and was still alive when the Prince of Minotaurs buried his axes in the Goblin’s chest.
“This is why Minotaurs don’t always have armies to spare on the rest of the world.”
Saimh spoke quietly. Ocello shook his head.
“Why don’t they leave it alone?”
“They were entrusted with the responsibility. Also—it’s probably why the Minotaurs are so renowned. They keep their armies in conflict. For the rest, you’d have to ask someone like the Minotaur King or their [Generals]. This war has already gotten twice as bloody as previous years. See? They’re pulling back.”
The Prince was withdrawing to his ship, and Minotaurs were heaving it back to sea. Their charge onto the beachhead had failed. Or maybe it had done exactly what they wanted.
The rest of the fleet had headed for the harbor with the unmanned Goblin warships. They had abandoned targeting the island or Goblin Lord and were unleashing their weapons at point-blank range.
Trying to shred the Goblin ships. The Goblins were trying to push them back.
A foolhardy effort, or so Ocello thought. Right until he saw the first giant Fomirelin emerge from the water and—
“Great Goblins in the water!”
Khedal was falling back. He’d left twenty Minotaurs on the beach and cracked a rib when one of the Great Goblins slammed him into the ground. He looked up and saw the warships at the harbor mouth were under attack.
The giant Goblins were in the surf. One was trying to smash the enchanted hulls of a Minotaur’s ship. Another had a shield raised. A tiny figure leapt from its back, pasted the hull with something that began to glow—
The alchemical blaze ignited, ignoring the water as Minotaurs shouted and tried to put out the blaze or patch the hull from within.
That was the first wave. The second came from the sky.
Khedal’s warship was under attack too. The Prince looked straight up and saw a giant albatross flying overhead. Then—an arrow flashed down. He lowered his head, and it cracked off his helmet.
“Archers in the air!”
A small Goblin was riding on one of the birds, loosing shots from overhead. The Minotaurs began to fire upwards, but their siege weapons were ill-suited to tagging the nimble Goblins.
“Nets! Ballistae 1-4, nets and scattershot munitions! Lightning in the skies!”
The Goblins peeled off as the weapons switched. Khedal kept one eye on the skies, but he knew it wasn’t over.
Snipers in the forests. He slashed an arrow out of the sky as a Goblin took a shot at him. A Minotaur ignited the trees, and a Goblin leapt out of the canopy, howling.
“Three ships down…First to Shore is sinking. Prince Khedal, the Goblins are constructing a land-bridge!”
“Do not let them near the ships.”
Khedal spun and saw land rising from the sea. A cluster of [Shamans] were creating a bridge for the warriors to storm onto the ships. It was rising higher than the decks; they’d be able to leap onto the ramps and kill the exposed deck gunners.
However, they had to charge across the bare space, and the ships switched targets again to create a killing field. The Goblins milled about, hunkering behind shields. A suicide charge?
No, these ones didn’t do that. Why risk it?
Khedal had his answer in minutes as his warship maneuvered towards the Goblin ships. The Goblins in the surf were skirmishing with his deck, but he was waiting for an opening. The two Fomirelin bodyguards protected the Goblin Lord—but Khedal just needed twenty seconds if he could get to that cliff unaided.
However—-a single Goblin with a giant tower shield was waiting at the largest land bridge. The [Shamans] were clustering around him, now. What were they doing? A single Goblin wasn’t…
Then Khedal’s head turned as if a magnet had seized it.
The [Shamans] were applying their magic. So were other [War Leaders]. The lone Hobgoblin was grinning as his fellows chanted.
They chanted one word.
“Doom. Doom. Doom!”
The first [Shaman] raised a hand that crackled with violet light. She drew a sigil on his back, and the [Hex of Damnation] activated. Then a second [Shaman] touched him.
“[Curse: Bad Luck].”
Another Goblin marked his ally as the recipient of fire. The lone Goblin waited until he got a nod. Then—he charged.
[Taunting Warcry]. [Fire Magnet]. [One Stands Before All].
He charged as every warship fired uncontrollably at him, a void of luck and destiny. The other Goblins charged down the land-bridge as a single target took the deaths meant for them.
The Hobgoblin was wearing the thickest armor the island had, enchanted by the Goblin Lord herself. It might as well have been paper in front of so many attacks. He kept his shield up and struck it with his sword, laughing.
He had asked for this role. But he wouldn’t die. He would not—
The land bridge the Goblin was on was a smoking crater. Even the sea couldn’t rush in. Had that Goblin lived or died? Khedal didn’t know. He had no eyes for that spot.
The warships were under attack. Goblins leapt onto the decks. The diversion had worked.
“Kingfall, withdraw. [Captain], take us in to relieve Terandria’s Shores!”
Prince Khedal leapt across the decks and threw his axe into the side of the first Goblin he saw. The Minotaurs were locked in combat, and half the gunner crews had to leave their stations to defend themselves.
“How many warships burning?”
They were aiming for fourteen. Khedal snarled.
“We are engaged. Tell the mainland to fire on our position!”
“They have not enough friendly fire denial Skills—”
More shells began exploding around the Minotaurs within two minutes of Khedal’s order. The Goblins stopped their advance and pulled back as the Minotaurs came under friendly fire. Khedal felt a sting across one shoulder.
Advanced piercing Skill or magic—it had gone right through his armor. He grunted.
“Evercut arrow. Status?”
“Five enemy ships down. Three friendly. The Goblin Lord is blocking our incoming fire.”
“Take us around and prepare to volley on the Lord’s position. Unleash the Lordslayer munitions on my mark.”
Khedal saw most of the Goblins trying to protect their ships. His feint had worked. His first, costly assault on the Goblin Lord meant the Goblins, confident he wouldn’t try that again, had moved to protect what they perceived as his true target.
Which was the ships. But the Goblin Lord had less than a third of her original defenders. The Goblins reacted too slowly as the Minotaur warships turned. They began to race back—but walls of stone and intercepting fire turned the ground between them and their Goblin Lord into death.
What about the ships, though? Prince Khedal was waiting. Then he heard it.
The thwoom of sound was the loudest sound yet, even louder than the enchanted artillery firing. It was the sound of water exploding in a geyser that rained down along with the beginning of the storm.
The sound of the deck of one of the Goblin ships exploding into shrapnel and two pieces of the ship sinking to the seafloor below. Khedal grinned through the blood on his face. He looked left, and a second axe the size of one of the Great Goblins hit the deck of a second ship.
The Minotaur King had entered the battle. She was hurling axes from her throne room.
[Axe of the Gigant]. The Goblin Lord caught one in midair and failed to stop another. Even her protective dome didn’t have enough force to stop the full might of the Minotaur King.
Eight warships…Khedal spun.
“The King has given us our opening—target the Goblin Lord! Fire!”
This time, the munitions that each ballista loosed were the most expensive, costly weapons the House of Minos could produce. Mithril-tipped arrows, enchanted steel bolts—
Not as explosive, but incredibly hard to break in midair. Meant to penetrate the cage of vines that the Goblin Lord created. And it worked. Suddenly, the Goblins on the beach were falling. Walls of stone began rising around the cliff, trying to form an actual dome.
“Not this time. Horn of Valar—charge.”
Seven warships surged towards the beach, following Khedal’s charge. The Minotaurs would outnumber the Goblins four-to-one.
Khedal was after the Goblin Lord. He saw that figure remain still, shielding her forces, as the two bodyguards watched him. He raised his axe with a roar. Then Khedal felt the prickling on the back of his neck turn to a cold chill.
“Prince—a Goblin ship from behind.”
The Minotaur spun, and there it was. A single warship, maneuvering away from the battle. His eyes locked on the Goblin ship which had been spotted at sea months ago. But it was fleeing the barrage locked on it. Its job was done.
Kingfall had escaped the Goblins’ attack by land bridge and was coming in for the Goblin Lord attack. The Minotaurs on the deck were aware of their surroundings—but not one expected the greatsword to come hurtling across the sea and explode their main mast.
“What hit us? To arms!”
The [Captain] whirled around and had just one second to see the Goblin warship. Then—a figure with red, glowing eyes hauled himself on board.
A Goblin, the oldest Goblin she had ever seen. With a grey beard. He looked lean, but there was only muscle and sinew beneath skin. And when she gazed at him, the [Captain] drew a sword without hesitation.
“Kingfall is sinking.”
Khedal whirled. He barely saw a figure leap from the decks. His eyes were locked on the ship. And the line in the center that was dividing the vessel in half. Both sides were collapsing into the sea.
“That Goblin isn’t on record. All ships, continue advancing!”
“No. Take us in.”
Khedal pointed, and the Captain whirled the ship. The Goblin was climbing another ship, and Khedal saw a crew fire a ballista at point blank range. His name, his soul was screaming a name at him the moment he saw the greatsword. But it was confirmed when he saw the Goblin swing his sword and deflect the bolt like an arrow. Then he lunged and cut the ballista in half.
Minotaurs charging down the deck at him fell one by one as his sword moved. The vanguard on Khedal’s ship murmured one name.
The Goblin Lord of Blades. He should have been dead. But Khedal didn’t ask any more questions. He just pointed an axe at the Goblin Lord.
“Greydath of Blades. FACE ME.”
The Goblin Lord turned his head, and his grin was mocking. He turned, drove his greatsword point-first in the warship, and twisted.
The entire ship cracked. The Goblin Lord sprinted across the dying vessel as Minotaurs began to evacuate. Heading for the third.
Then he looked up and blinked. He raised his sword—dodged ten feet left and then swung his greatsword up. Even so, he staggered slightly as he deflected the gigantic axe that curved after him.
The Goblin Lord raised his head and stared into the distance at the tiny palace on the horizon. As if he could see the Minotaur King—
The deck exploded behind him as an armored figure landed like thunder. The Goblin Lord of Blades turned, and Prince Khedal raised his axes.
The Minotaur took one look at Greydath’s rusted, notched greatsword and spat.
“Battle gives me no time to give you a proper weapon, Goblin Lord. Face—”
The Goblin Lord sighed and walked away from Khedal, ignoring the Minotaur. He put the greatsword at his side as if it were a regular longsword and watched the palace in the distance.
Khedal snarled. Greydath tapped his hilt, and Khedal’s armor exploded in a diagonal line. The Minotaur stumbled backwards and stared down at the sliced bone from his shoulder to his stomach.
Cut? His blood rushed onto the deck. He hadn’t even seen the slash.
[Delayed Cut]. And a lightning-speed draw that the Minotaur hadn’t even noticed. It might not be a death wound, but it probably was. Overconfident, despite his level. Greydath was watching the palace, still.
A [Thrower] of that caliber was far more dangerous than…
The pattering of blood on the decks was a slight sound amidst the thunderous volley of fighting and screaming. Even so—Greydath realized it had stopped. Slowly, he turned his head.
And Prince Khedal swung one axe where the Goblin Lord’s head had been. He whirled his blades as Greydath dodged back, eyes open with surprise. Not quite shock—but—
There was no way that wound could have healed that fast. And no way…he looked at Khedal’s armor.
His undamaged armor save for the wound in his shoulder. Khedal spat.
“[Your Dishonorable Blow, I Deny It].”
Greydath rolled his eyes. He slid sideways, leaping across the deck. He had no time for this.
An archer was trying to track Greydath. She rotated across her body, but he had leapt across a warship’s deck so fast she gave up targeting him and grabbed a wounded companion to drag to safety.
There was no way to even catch a foe who could move faster than she could aim. The Goblin Lord was moving in a world of his own.
—And so was Prince Khedal.
Greydath halted as a blur caught up with him. He leaned back from an axe swinging across his face, parried a second blow, and hesitated.
The Minotaur Prince was as fast as he was. He left an afterimage where he had been standing, and suddenly—Greydath jerked back as the second swing from above and below nearly caught him.
That speed! Greydath launched himself from the ship and leapt across the railing. He actually hopped from one ship to another, a twenty-eight foot jump—and saw the Minotaur right behind him.
This time, Khedal actually scored a cut on Greydath’s arm. The Goblin Lord twisted away, but he wasn’t prepared for Khedal’s swiftness. It was as if the gap in speed had suddenly—vanished.
Then the Goblin Lord turned. The Minotaur spoke into the void of time between them.
“[You Cannot Escape My Steps].”
He lunged, and Greydath struck his armor with a kick, then brought his sword down. He moved to cut the ship in half, with the Minotaur on it. The greatsword swung down—
A wave of silver came up. Khedal’s axes cut the air, one, then another, as he activated a Skill that chopped half of the sail apart. Greydath parried the Skill and landed on the deck. The Minotaur advanced.
“[I Match Your Strength for Strength].”
Relentlessly, he advanced, using the two axes to threaten both of Greydath’s sides. He wanted to get in close, where the greatsword was useless. Greydath spun.
“Evacuate the deck!”
The [Captain] of the ship shouted, and six Minotaurs fell as Greydath’s horizontal sword slashed them across the waists, cut through the railing, a ballista—
And stopped as Khedal blocked it, saving the ship. The impact rocked the ship, but the Goblin Lord’s eyes were locked on Khedal.
“[Until Death or Dishonor, I Challenge You].”
The Prince hissed. Greydath looked in his eyes and, finally, read his class.
[The Glorious Challenger].
A third warship was being destroyed by the Minotaur Prince’s conflict with Greydath of Blades. However, Khedal was keeping up with Greydath’s insane speed.
Greydath of Blades was bleeding. Yet his arrival should have been a great portent for the Goblins, an ally in this battle.
So why was the female Goblin Lord frowning? Perhaps because this had not been predicted. And with the Prince’s life in danger—
The House of Minos was unleashing everything.
Another giant axe struck down as a tree exploded out of the waters, taking the impact. It still spun towards the island, and one of the two Fomirelin raised a shield and stumbled backwards as he absorbed the rest of the throw.
A warning shout—the Goblin Lord looked up and saw the first of Valmira’s Comets coming down.
No…Valmira’s Comet Storm. They were using spells. And if anything, despite the warships sinking and embattled, the House of Minos was throwing more ammunition into the fight. She clicked her tongue. Escalation.
“Tidal wave! Tidal wave—evacuate the—”
Merchant Saimh grabbed Ocello as a wall of water began to rise up. The Drake saw it rolling slowly, slowly, towards the harbor—then realized how big it had to be. Minotaurs began throwing up magic shields around their ballistae. The rest?
They took cover as the King of Minotaurs turned her head slightly.
Her son was watching her throw each axe, slowly, gauging her target. It might be a minute or two between throws. He started.
“Evacuate the throne room.”
Then she slowly stood and reached up for something hanging above her throne. She had been throwing axes she had used while she rose to her title. Now—she pulled down the relic passed between Minotaur Kings.
The Axe of Minos.
Khedal was bleeding. But he was also grinning. He whirled ever-faster, the twin axes he carried seeking Greydath’s skin. The Goblin Lord had no armor, and the shallow wounds he took bled, but Khedal had gone for a healing potion twice.
Yet one blow was all Khedal wanted. The two were fighting across the ruins of the warship, the Goblin Lord forgotten. This was a duel of honor, and Greydath couldn’t escape without dishonoring himself.
And he refused to do so. The Goblin Lord whirled from blade dance to art, yet Khedal charged into a cut trying to open a void, aware he was behind in Skill. One cut—and he was willing to sacrifice his body for that cut.
He was forcing Greydath into the end of that deadly dance when the axe roared in Khedal’s ears. He looked up.
“My King? No—”
Greydath whirled as the Axe of Minos howled through the air, and the storm broke. The Goblin Lord stared at the single relic, not a giant axe, shooting towards him like an arrow.
The challenge ended. Greydath spun, and his body twisted as he threw himself up. Far over the spinning axe. It twisted up with him. Greydath’s eyes narrowed. His greatsword flashed, and he parried the b—
He stared at the hilt of his greatsword as the Axe of Minos severed the blade in half. Greydath grabbed the axe as the head tried to spin into his neck. His arms bulged. His veins stood out, and his muscles contorted.
It lodged an inch into his neck, and the Goblin Lord held it there, quivering—then tore it out. He threw it down, and the axe zoomed into the air. Back towards the thrower. The Goblin Lord looked up as Khedal approached him uncertainly.
“…Nevertheless. Take it.”
Khedal tossed one axe down, and Greydath sneered. He lifted the hilt of the greatsword—
And both he and Khedal turned as the Goblin Lord on her cliff stood up.
The bark cracked. The tree groaned. Her bodyguards looked up and cried out, and the centuries the Goblin Lord had sat were over.
She landed on the warship as lightly as a feather. Khedal spun. Greydath moved, and the Minotaur Prince cursed—without the duel, he was no longer as f—
Greydath kicked him. The Minotaur Prince landed two minutes later. The Goblin Lord was watching him fall towards the island, and Greydath raised his hilt to throw when the [Shaman], the great female Goblin Lord, tapped him on the shoulder.
He looked the other Goblin Lord in the eyes and saw the mask of bark and nature, the greatest [Shaman] of Goblins, smiling at him. A descendant of Sóve, the Goblin King who had raised this very island.
Izikere pressed a finger to Greydath’s chest, and he jerked back, forgetting Khed—
The Minotaur warships were retreating in the face of Greydath of Blades. Not all the warships were burning. Two-thirds…but they had lost Prince Khedal. The ranged fire was still continuing as evening fell, but the giant tree encasing the Goblin Lord finally split open as the angry Greydath of Blades cut his way out.
The Minotaur King watched as her generals reported in.
“Is Khedal alive?”
No one knew. Nor did they quite understand why the Goblin Lord, Izikere, had attacked Greydath.
Inreza stared at the Isle of Goblins. Khedal’s survival was remote, but not impossible for his level. After all…
She too had once walked the Isle of Goblins. She wondered what he would see.
Khedal landed, obviously. But he only woke up an hour later.
Consider the impact a single kick had to transmit to launch a Minotaur wearing full plate armor into the air. Then consider how hard Khedal hit the ground.
He buried himself in the soil. That was probably why no Goblin found him at first. When he tore his way out of the earth, he had to dislodge a shattered tree that had fallen on him after he struck it.
That was all he said. Khedal had healed his wounds as he woke up. Only when he looked around did he realize.
He was in enemy territory. He was on the Island of Goblins…and while he could hear explosions in the distance, it was clear that the navy wasn’t on the attack.
Khedal understood he might be dead. If so—he swore to make it a death to remember. He had one axe, he was sure the healing potions had only partially healed his cracked ribs, and his right arm clicked every time he raised it.
Left arm, then, and find a shield for his right. Khedal looked around. His armor was in tatters, but it would do.
Now, when behind enemy lines, there were a few methods for a fighter to survive. Hiding, disguising oneself, covertly signal for extraction or make your way back to—
Khedal started running. He charged through the brush, eyes scanning for opponents. He found one within four minutes. The Minotaur burst out of the brush onto a dirt trail, long worn out of the jungle, where a little Goblin was gathering fruits from a bush.
The Minotaur raised his axe and saw the little Goblin jerk up. She stared at him—her clothes were bright green, and she had a necklace of beads. The Minotaur realized it was a child.
The child dropped her basket and ran, shrieking, into the distance. Khedal lowered his axe.
He had never seen one of the Goblin villages from shore. Seconds later, he heard shouts and horns in the distance. The Minotaur knew the village was alarmed, and well they should be.
He was headed straight for it. The Prince burst into the open as he followed the child, looking for their warriors. He saw Goblins in turn bursting out of houses, whirling, shouting the alarm to their warriors that a Minotaur was here.
One raised a hoe in front of a garden, and the Minotaur saw a Goblin glance up, sitting while a squirrel ate an acorn on top of its head. He saw a Goblin in a tree house swing down and another train a bow on him.
Not because of the children running into homes. Nor the [Shaman] or older Goblins trying to block him. The young warriors calling out challenges. Not because of how familiar it surely should be.
No, he saw Goblins. It was the architecture that confused him. He looked up and saw, for a second, before the first poisoned arrow shot down, a house among the trees. Built into the trees, but not a tree house.
A tree house, a cabin in the air was so primitive. So ungraceful compared to the flowing architecture. The bridge across the air.
The gardens…Khedal deflected a blow from a Goblin youth and nearly took their head off until the Goblin who’d been feeding the squirrel pulled the young one back. He made a gesture and then punched Khedal from a dozen paces away. A…[Martial Artist]? A [Monk]?
A poisoned dart from the side. Goblins screeching at each other. Khedal’s one axe swung as he seized a shield from an attacker, backing away.
A garden? His mind whirled as the poison bit him, and he backed up. He was confused, so he fled backwards. The leader of the village shot a third arrow into his back. Khedal looked over his shoulder once.
He was a traveller of many lands. He had sailed across the world for fifty years. Why…
Why did that village look like the ones he’d seen in Terandria? The Claiven Earth?
Like a half-Elf’s…
Greydath was nursing his wounds when Izikere spoke. She stood, warding the isle against the Minotaurs’ wrath.
“The fleet is coming back. For the ships.”
“Let them. You. Sit.”
The Goblin Lord of Blades glowered, but the rest of the Goblins were so terrified by Izikere standing that they ran to their posts.
“I could sink half of them before they retreat.”
“Sit. You have done enough. Is that Minotaur dead?”
A Goblin raced towards her and reported no, he had just been seen in one of the villages. He was poisoned—but alive.
“Leave him. Let them [Scry] him. Watch where he goes. No fighting.”
“I could kill him t—”
The [Shaman] kicked at him, and the [Blademaster] leaned back. Izikere wore an expression of rare discontent. Centuries she had sat on the cliff. She pointed a staff she had grown out of the ground at him.
“You have done enough. Sit. The King of Minotaurs will not be idle if her Prince dies. Did you think I was in danger?”
Greydath just glowered back. They spoke in the Goblin tongue, but not in the crude hodge-podge, the barely-literate sentences he used with Rags and the others. This was the flowing language as it should be.
“I return to this island and fight for you, and you greet me like this, Goblin Lord Izikere.”
“Greydath. What happened to Izril?”
He shrugged, and the Goblin Shaman turned her head dangerously. Greydath spoke, making his words short like the Goblins he had lived among for decades.
“Goblin Lord appears. Goblin Lord dies. Many Goblins die. Sad. Death. Always death. Here…”
He gazed around the Island of Goblins with almost as much distaste as he’d had for Tremborag’s mountain. The gift of a Goblin Lord. A memory, perhaps their potential on display.
He hated it here. And yet it drew him back each and every time. Like a memory of something beautiful, but so sad it cut you apart every time you saw it. A dream. Izikere was going to spare that arrogant Minotaur’s life?
It was her island and domain. Greydath wondered what Khedal would see.
The arrows were poisoned. He’d forgotten…the Goblins here were more dangerous than Drowned Folk on their ships.
Too strong. No—that wasn’t it. He could have taken a score of them down. The foreign architecture had disturbed him. He didn’t need to slaughter them in their village.
Why half-Elves? Design? The Minotaur ran down forest trails, aware he was being watched. His head was dizzy—he was feverish.
He would take a long time to die. Perhaps that was why they didn’t close with him. Yet the more Khedal ran across the island—the stranger it got.
Perhaps it was the venom in his blood, but nothing made sense. The forest trails were primitive, but no more than any overgrown part of Minos where Minotaurs might hike. There were bugs and wild plants in profusion, yet the Goblins lived in cleared areas.
Was that a town he skirted, Goblins watching him from homes, bows drawn? So many bows. Living amongst nature like—
No. Just pointed ears. He ran past a fishing village and saw the nets neatly waiting for low tide. Fish in a bowl for colorful birds to eat. They flew off around him as he charged past.
A thousand kinds of bird, fluttering down the beach. A Goblin staring at him unafraid, holding a fishing spear. Unlike the savages he’d met who—
Fomirelin. Coming out of the waves like a charging bull, roaring. Khedal cut him three times and landed as he was thrown, getting to his feet. The sounds of fighting would be his guide to his people.
He couldn’t let himself die. His King needed him. Prince Lareqol…
His skin was burning with whatever the Goblins had hit him with. Khedal felt like he was breathing blood, but he was just thirsty.
The Minotaur burst across a stream and drank greedily. He splashed water over his face and then realized…it was a garden. Abandoned?
No, not like the other villages or roads. A single Goblin sat there with a tiny knife in hand. She was watching him.
Grey hair. He lifted his axe, but she didn’t move. She sat protectively in front of something she was working on. Then he realized it was a carving knife, and she sat among flowers which bloomed a light blue, in neat beds, and he’d just rampaged through another one.
The Minotaur was sick, dizzy, and he knew he had a fever. Or how else did he look at that statue and hallucinate further? His lips moved, and he grinned.
The Titan of Baleros had once boasted to him like that. Could he now say it? There was no mistaking the differences.
Pointed ears. Half-Elves, Goblins. So what? That was one feature. But there was something in the face. The eyes? A timelessness captured. The Minotaur shook his head.
He was seeing something else. It was a statue of a Goblin. It had to be. Or else why was it here? Why…
His lips moved, and he spat blood into the stream. Hoarsely, the Minotaur repeated that boast the Fraerling had once told to him.
“…I have looked upon the faces of Elves.”
The Goblin [Sculptor] said nothing as the Minotaur looked at the half-Elf standing there. His red eyes, his bloody armor…he stared at her in silence. Slowly, her lips moved.
He didn’t know who it was. Khedal stumbled forwards, but the words on the statue were foreign to him…and the Goblin blocked the statue with her body. Protectively. He heard sounds from behind him and turned. One last time, he looked at the statue and thought it seemed familiar.
Oh, so many things were different, nuances of the body, hair, but the blood threw true. The Elf looked a bit like…that Named Adventurer.
He left a trail of blood behind him. The Evercut Arrow dug into his shoulder, and the poison wormed at his mind. Imagining this.
He crashed through a hedge-maze and stopped before a row of Goblins. They knelt or sat or raged at the sky. He realized they were made of stone, some as old as…
That made sense. Khedal ran past the last one, Velan the Kind. Then looked back once. Each Goblin had been carved with something unreal, something—an object or something more than their face and features.
One held an island in her claw. Sóve. The one who had made this island. The second-to-last Goblin King was one that Khedal knew. His great-great-grandfather had died in battle against Curulac of a Hundred Days.
He held a little Goblin child wrapped in cloth in his hands. A greatsword leaned against the chair he sat in. That wasn’t the monster who had ravaged Terandria ere he died.
And Velan…Khedal saw the Goblin King kneeling next to bowls of herbs and stone potions. In his claws, he held a ring with two keys.
Then Khedal blinked, and he was running into the sand as Goblins shot arrows at the ship surging towards him. Minotaurs leapt into the water, grabbing him, shouting his name, and Khedal was rambling. They felt at his bandaged shoulder and called for an antidote—
The Goblin kept poking him. Khedal raised his bloody axe, or tried to, but the old Goblin just pushed it down. He finally found the Evercut Arrow and yanked the head out.
He slapped something on the shoulder and bound it with a bit of cloth. A poultice? Khedal rasped.
“I won’t be a prisoner.”
The Goblin tilted his head. He glanced at the hole that Khedal had put in his hut when the Minotaur had run straight through it and collapsed. He spoke, and Khedal blinked uncomprehendingly at the chattering voice. Then the Goblin concentrated and tried again.
“We…not you death. Not you.”
He tapped Khedal on the forehead. The Prince rasped at him.
The Goblin grinned and shook his head.
“Kings mad. Kings…long ago. Not you. See?”
Khedal didn’t. The delirious Minotaur saw the Goblin pull something out. It was very important—he kept snapping his fingers as the Minotaur tried not to close his eyes. Khedal had to get to shore. But the Goblin showed him a tiny, carved figure.
“…the faces of Elves…”
The Minotaur whispered. He looked at the old Goblin, and the [Herbalist] shook his head.
He poked Khedal in the snout, and the Minotaur growled.
And he was lying on the deck of the ship. The [Battle Healer] leaning over him jerked back.
“Prince Khedal? Stay still.”
“Safe. The Goblin’s poison is mostly neutralized. Lie still. We are headed back to harbor.”
“The King is asking about the Prince. What is your response?”
The [Healer] turned.
“He will live.”
Khedal’s mind was still reeling from the disjointed memories. Slowly, he felt at his shoulder and found no grassy bandage, but a professional one. The Evercut Wound needed to heal regularly, but the [Healer] had applied it.
“Of course. I—was hallucinating. Under fire from Goblins.”
“Only you would survive that, Prince. It is good you did not fall to Greydath of Blades.”
“Is it confirmed it was him?”
“Confirmed. The King is debating announcing it to the other world powers. Hold on—[Fill the Sails]! We are still in danger.”
Khedal lay still until something poked him in the side. He grimaced and fished out what he thought was a piece of shrapnel out of his side. But it wasn’t.
“Ah, Prince. Did you buy that from the harbor? It’s well made.”
The relieved Minotaurs were speaking to each other. One noticed what Khedal was holding and assumed he’d pulled it out of a bag of holding.
“Perhaps a [Good Luck Charm]? If I were you, I’d wear the same boots and helmet in any battle.”
Even the [Battlefield Healer] joined in. Khedal just stared at the tiny figurine. To the others, it looked like a half-Elf from afar. He stared back at the island.
“I don’t know what it means.”
His hand tightened over the figurine, and he almost made to throw it overboard. Then he lay back down.
After every battle, the House of Minos sat down and looked at how it had gone, where they had taken casualties or failed to make ground, and adjusted their tactics. It exposed peculiarities of their commanders as well.
Unfortunately, sometimes the conclusion you drew was ‘don’t fight a Kraken’. Similarly, the Goblin Lords were just—difficult.
The tidal wave that Izikere the Guardian had summoned hadn’t been as large as some, and it had been directed at the harbor. Minotaurs had built up their seawalls enough so that while most of the streets were flooded, the biggest results were a few cracked walls and a lot of debris.
There was only one real casualty of the wave—and that was all the art and statues that had been readied in a warehouse by the docks for sale. Most had been damaged by the water or smashed by the impacts. Artisans were attempting to repair them, and [Mages] were casting restoration spells, but the Merchant Saimh had little to buy.
He had accepted the Minotaur King’s personal apology with assurances he understood. It was their legacy that had broken there. He would collect what there was to buy and leave, though the journey would doubtless cost him a small fortune with how many ships he’d brought.
The memories of their people were ruined. But few Minotaurs had died.
It could have been worse. And, as Izikere pointed out as the Goblins did their retrospective, it would have been worse if Prince Khedal had died.
She punctuated her points by hitting him on the head. Or rather, trying to. Or rather, three trees in the grove they were sitting in kept leaning down and trying to whack him with their branches.
He refused to let them touch his skin. Greydath slapped a branch off a tree, and the thunderous crack as wood sprayed everywhere made the other trees withdraw. Izikere glowered harder, and the tree branch began to regrow.
That was her talent. She sat cross-legged, once again almost immobile. She spoke—but she had no need to fidget or move more than her mouth. A bunch of sparrows, some magical, were balanced on her head and shoulders, but they flew off when Greydath glared.
It was the most animated Izikere had ever been, and the other Goblins regarded her with a kind of awe. As if the mountain you’d been walking past all your life asked how you were doing and if that were really the shirt you wanted to wear for your date today.
Greydath, by contrast, was more annoyed than he had been on Izril. And if the Goblins of the island treated Izikere with reverence—he, they avoided.
The Goblin Lord of Blades was eating from a huge bowl of eel. Giant, oversized eels—big cuts of them marinated in the Goblins’ hand-made sauce. Oysters, sweetberries for the sugar, a local bean…
They had more than most tribes could dream of. Greydath spoke irritably.
“This place hasn’t changed in what, sixty years?”
“I don’t count time. You were here when the last Minotaur King was alive. This one is dangerous, isn’t she? When she was younger, her axes would strike the island every year.”
He grunted in disdain.
“She caught me off-guard.”
As mentioned, the Goblins spoke with the flowing nuance and grammar unknown to most Goblins. Their language was complete.
No, not even complete—it was finished. The crude way Goblins expressed things vocally was always made up for by their rich body language. When Greydath spoke to Izikere, they were combining both body language and verbal.
She did not move, but the patterns of moss changed on her body and even grew to copy the way he spoke. For instance, when Greydath commented about the island not changing, he had stuck one leg out and tapped a big toe against the ground.
Derisively. As one would use punctuation to emphasize a point. Similarly, when talking about Izikere, the moss on the [Shaman]’s hands moved like pattering rain.
At any rate, Greydath was still annoyed by the interrupted battle. He had done a quick tour of the island and seen something different than Khedal.
“The island is nearly overfull. You must be fishing nonstop to feed them.”
“They will leave, soon.”
Greydath picked up a cup of tea and gulped it down.
“The Minotaurs didn’t get all the ships? They sank at least eight.”
“We have enough to send them forth. This time—they will all go together.”
The male Goblin stopped, a pair of chopsticks expertly holding a piece of eel. He glanced up. That was big news.
The Goblin ships that reinforced tribes on other continents were one thing. It was a perilous journey, but they used stealth. Izikere intended to do the opposite this time.
She intended to send thousands.
“Are you going to the ‘new lands’ too?”
The other Goblin Lord laughed at this, and Greydath chuckled at his own joke.
“No. I may split them by continent. Each a tribe. Isn’t that why you came here? I felt the Goblin Lord of Izril rise and die in moments.”
…And like that, he wasn’t hungry anymore. Greydath tossed the bowl over his shoulder, and the cup followed.
Savage. Barbaric. You put plates and dishes away. But what did the Goblins of this island think of their cousins across the world? Greydath sneered.
“The last one called himself Reiss before he died.”
Izikere looked curious. Greydath nodded.
“He was a servant of a dead Human [Necromancer]. But he still became a Goblin Lord. He had a dream, to build a city of Goblins where they could live in peace.”
“Did he not know of the island?”
The blademaster sneered around at the island, and Izikere’s eyes glowed a bit brighter.
“If he did, I did not tell him. His dream sounded better. You could take a nation, secure it, and demand to be like the cloth-people. You would just have to risk your life.”
It was a challenge, an old argument, and the fundamental difference between the two. Izikere was the Guardian. She stayed here, like the last three Goblin Lords before her.
Greydath travelled continents abroad, alone. Seeking the next Goblin King.
Izikere took her time replying. She didn’t seem to need to drink nor eat, but the talking had clearly made her want to wet her mouth, so she inhaled a mist that drifted down before speaking.
“We take a nation and do what? Scream out our voices to the world and say, ‘we are a people, we are kind, ignore the Goblin Kings’? Do you know what Demons do?”
The [Shaman] turned her head as if she could see across the world towards Rhir. Greydath, who had met Demons, spat.
“I know. Their [Diplomats] die in beds, in shadows. Everyone who listens dies. So? Is this easier?”
The Minotaur barrage had damaged the island. Nevermind the [Shamans] and [Druids] who could repair it. Nevermind that fewer Goblins had died than anyone could reasonably ask. They were still dead, and this conflict was yearly.
Greydath leaned forwards.
“You could throw yourself behind the next Goblin King. But it would take the island, everyone. Risk it all for…”
They had this argument almost every time he returned. Sixty years felt like six. Greydath stopped talking, because there was no point.
He saw the fear in her eyes. Izikere replied with a gaze that looked through him, not at him.
“It will change nothing. The battle is already lost. Or won—”
She held up a claw to forestall his snarl.
“—I will not destroy this island. You sneer at the villages.”
“You could build a city, here.”
He jabbed the plain soil. Izikere was no [Druid]. And even if she were, [Druids] could build wondrous cities. They could have at least put this floating island on some great animal, like a turtle. Or a sea-elephant. Or five sea-elephants on top of a turtle.
The [Shaman] laughed in his face. He had such stupid ideas.
“Cities alarm them. We are contained. We are the Minotaurs’ problem. You, Greydath, wish to destroy the greatest achievement of Goblins? No.”
His eyes narrowed. Greydath had no more cups or plates to break, so he dug a claw into the ground and picked up a handful of dirt.
“This is worth nothing. Since this island was made—not once has a Goblin King emerged from the Goblins here. Not because your Goblins are less ‘Goblin’. Silly words. If anything, yours know more of the truth and who we should be than any others. And yet, do you know why they will never even become Goblin Lords?”
She was getting annoyed, and the ground was sinking slightly around them, turning into a bog. Izikere didn’t reply, and Greydath went on with a laugh.
“Because your Goblins are as foreign to the rest of the world as Antinium are to Drowned Folk. They cannot lead our people.”
“So you keep searching for a single shining soul among children who can barely talk or remember the truth. My warriors found the tribes that come to greatness. The [Witch] of the Molten Stone tribe of Izril came from these shores. Kraken Eaters were descendants of my people!”
“Tremborag was not. Nor were the Redfangs.”
Izikere gave Greydath a long, cold stare. She didn’t even know their names. Greydath grunted as he tossed the dirt down and dusted his hands.
“I fought for Velan. You hid here even when he came—twice. Once to learn, then to make war.”
“I sent warriors. The Goblin Kings are trapped in the past. If they did not remember, perhaps Goblins would not be hunted.”
Izikere the Guardian’s tone was bitter. Yet Greydath picked up the greatsword she had grown for him out of the oldest tree in the forest and slashed at the ground. He drew a line between them fifty feet long in the soil.
“The past? Have we won? Lost? If that is so—why do they scream war every time they rise?”
“Trapped by madness.”
She turned and wouldn’t look at him. Tremborag was right. Right—and wrong.
Every Goblin Lord who rose with Velan the Kind had been young. Ones he knew, or ones who had come to their position as contemporaries.
The old ones, though—and there were a few—did not go to Velan. They were like Izikere. Only Greydath of Blades had served the Goblin King. And the next might be the last, if he even lasted that long.
He would be hunted, now that the Minotaurs knew he was still alive. A Goblin Lord who had fought with Velan was entirely more alarming to any nation than Izikere was.
Because their fight might start destroying parts of the island, the two Goblins went for a walk. They stood on a cliff over a village, and Greydath watched the necessity of this island.
Young Goblins grew up at any task they wanted. Much like the House of Minos. Yet…the difference was that you could be too good at something.
One Goblin child was making cups out of clay. She knew how to spin the wheel and make a cup as fine as anything you could buy in a Walled City already, and played with colors and shapes.
She was too good with her hands. A [Shaman] had watched her at work for two years. He took the last cup she made from the kiln and then offered the Goblin child a spear. The [Potter]’s face fell, and she protested, but weakly. And stopped when she saw the Goblin Lords looking down at her.
Greydath spoke bitterly as Izikere avoided his glance. The newest recruit slowly joined the most talented Goblins to become warriors.
“She will never become a Goblin Lord. She might, following her passion. Clay would make her a Goblin King. Not blood. Not your choice.”
“She will become a fine warrior. This island is safe, Greydath. Safe—it is a place of Goblins and will not fall. I have met the last two Goblin Kings. I am not as old as you, but when he became a King—Curulac vanished. All that was left was rage. That is what happens to them.”
And for once, Greydath hesitated. He put out his claw, and Izikere stirred.
No? Few things surprised Izikere, but she turned her head, blinking, as the Goblins in the village pointed up at the Goblin Lords. Some waved. Greydath stared past them and whispered.
“Not Curulac. Nor Velan. They were filled with fury. Consumed at times, yes. But Goblin Kings are only partly insane. Whatever happens to them—they have lucid moments. I was with both until their ends. That is why each one leaves something.”
“Curulac destroyed Terandrian Kingdoms at random. All that he ruined is rebuilt—”
“No. He fought for a reason. He went to Terandria and broke the enemies he sought to kill. Servants of our foes, he called them. Do you know the ones they call Agelum and Lucifen?”
Izikere tilted her head back and forth.
“…I thought they were dead.”
“More are, now. Just like Velan, they all left something. Sóve, this island. Velan, his challenge to the Goblins of Izril.”
The other Goblin Lord was looking at Greydath with sadness, now. She spoke.
“And Curulac left you.”
Greydath of Blades’ hand tightened on his greatsword, and every Goblin decided it was a really good time to go inside their homes.
“Not me. My mother. And he was not the Goblin I knew when he became King.”
And still, he wanted them to rise. The two Goblins stood there, arguing, sharing secrets, but in truth—Greydath looked tired. He had seen another Goblin Lord fall as soon as he rose. Greydath turned away from Izikere.
“—I came to tell you that the Redfangs of the High Passes are gone. Their Chieftain was Level 38, I think. Two classes. Garen Redfang. He is dead. Another tribe has begun setting up there, but the Goblins of the north have lost many tribes. South, too.”
“I will send many Goblins to their shores, then. It will be the most dangerous, with all the nations fighting for land.”
“Good. I will go to Terandria. Something…calls me. Not the other tribes. A strange Goblin. Do you watch the news?”
Izikere gave Greydath the blankest look in creation, and he laughed. The Goblins of this isle hadn’t even heard of television, yet. That did make him smile.
“The Goblins will be launching their armada. We have witnessed them preparing the ships at night, covertly. Even with Greydath of Blades, it seems they have no confidence they can protect their flotilla.”
It was a huge migration of Goblins, the very thing the House of Minos wanted to avoid. Prince Khedal was preparing to lead the fleet against the Goblins, though it would be a running battle against two Goblin Lords.
The Minotaur King, Inreza, had asked if Khedal were able to keep fighting. He had assured her he was capable. Of course, he probably would have said that if he were breathing out a hole in his chest, but she hadn’t forbidden him.
He felt…slightly off after surviving the Isle of Goblins. Most put it down to the poison and harrowing journey—or his defeat, all of which could damage the prideful prince.
Inreza thought the real reason might be different. She approved Khedal’s warplans with the [Admirals] and then spoke to him alone.
“You have been unhappy with me, Khedal. For interrupting your duel with the Goblin Lord.”
He hesitated. Khedal, who spoke his mind about any dishonor he saw, no matter the situation, was loath to contradict her. Once, when rumors had spread that Inreza might be best served by appointing Khedal her replacement and retiring due to her wounds, he had offered to abdicate his claims to the throne on the spot.
His jaw worked as he put his hands behind his back.
“I—understand you acted as a leader of the battle, my King. But I had the chance to slay one or both of the Goblin Lords, or wound them enough to be finished. My life—”
“Khedal. I can kill Izikere.”
The Prince’s eyes widened, and he swung around to the Minotaur King. She leaned on the balcony, staring at the Goblins’ isle in the distance. No one was loosing weapons tonight; they were saving up for tomorrow.
A fortune in ammunition. Dead soldiers…warships destroyed. Each island would be working to replace the losses. Inreza turned to Khedal.
“It is no guarantee. But it is possible. Do you know why I do not? If you killed Greydath or Izikere—the Goblins would have charged. They would ram their island into ours and fight until fury left them. I would count the deaths in the hundreds of thousands at least.”
Khedal turned to the island. His first words, which he’d snatched back, were, ‘then it would be done’.
Two nations, two powers too equal for one to triumph over the other. At least, without that kind of cost. It was the Minotaur King’s duty to decide whether it was worth it.
“You saw something on the island, Khedal. More than you reported.”
“I was delirious and sick. I cannot substantiate any claims…even material.”
Khedal stalled for time. He still had the figurine he had found in his armor. Inreza raised her brows.
“Tell me. I will listen. You know, I won my way onto that island thirty-eight years ago.”
The Minotaur King rested her arms on the balcony, back to the island, and nodded. She stared at him, and he felt like the child he had once been standing before the throne the first time he came here.
“What did you see?”
For a long time, Khedal hesitated. He paced back and forth and looked at that island in the distance. When he did speak, it was slowly, watching her face, but she gave him nothing.
“I saw—a level of civilization to frighten the complacent. Goblins advance much like Trolls or Ogres given time. I saw statues…a mystery. Our enemy may have laid a trap for me, mind-games. I was left alive for a reason, so the rest of what I saw, I doubt.”
Was that the right answer? He saw Inreza sigh faintly. Khedal’s heart sank because he never understood what he said that was wrong. But he thought there was something. Inreza turned and nodded.
“If that is what you saw, I believe you. I have been thinking, Khedal, about the new lands.”
“As every leader must. Are we to try to colonize it?”
The question made Khedal uneasy. The House of Minos had sworn not to expand past these islands. It was an old pact, but they had honored it. When first they had come to these islands, the House of Minos had been less than a third of the size it now was. They had dredged and built these islands, bucket of sand by bucket, until they were as large as they were.
Inreza knew their history even better than Khedal. She craned her neck up at the stars.
“We were exiled here to contain the Goblins, Khedal. Yet I have heard it said that the Goblins contain us. This war keeps our forces strong, but it also keeps us from growing with our yearly enemy. You know, few Goblin Lords ever come from that island.”
“But the tribes they found—”
“—Later contain great Chieftains and Goblin Lords. Save for the one that guards the island or those that visit, few emerge here. An interesting phenomenon, don’t you think?”
It was. Khedal frowned as he tried to piece that into his knowledge of Goblins. He knew how to fight them, but not much else. And in fact—no one did.
“There is no theory of Goblins, Khedal. Nothing but observations, rudimentary analyses of their race by the kind of writer like Krsysl Wordsmith. [Naturalists], [Historians], document them, but there are no writings on them, no interviews, no first-hand accounts by anyone save adventurers who come with magic and sword. There was one book published in recent memory, though.”
“Really? I had no idea. By whom?”
The Minotaur King’s smile was bitter.
“Niers Astoragon. Every single book was burned when Velan the Kind became a Goblin King. I have read it.”
She waited for his response, and Khedal uncertainly gazed at Inreza.
“Did you learn much about our enemy?”
This time, he missed her second sigh. Inreza shook her head as she dismissed him; he would need rest for the battle tomorrow.
“No. Not much about our enemy.”
The next day, the Minotaur King sat in her throne room with the throwing axes and the Axe of Minos. She waited for Greydath to show himself; her Skills were limited, and her [Strategists] had agreed keeping the deadly Goblin Lord from battle was the most important.
She watched the naval chase as the Goblins made their exodus from the island. Nine warships set sail. They had apparently managed to patch a few, and they were racing ahead of the Minotaur fleet.
Enough to colonize every continent with a tribe or two. Khedal led the chase, and his ships kept up a constant barrage.
However, Izikere made their task difficult. She shielded her people’s ships while they were in her range, then produced massive waves to slow the Minotaurs. She even spawned a huge clump of tangling seaweed that stalled their rudders.
Greydath threw a sword through the mast of one of the ships, but he didn’t join the Goblins at sea. Perhaps because he knew they were doomed.
They almost made it. But Inreza saw—the Goblins’ knowledge of the sea was turned against them. Rather than catching the current that could take them into the sea and scatter, they found nothing with the oceans changed by the new lands of Izril. And the Minotaurs, who had deployed oars, would catch up.
Inreza listened to the terse reports and watched. She had one eye on the battle, another out at the island in the distance.
The House of Minos had shifted its aim away from the island to the Goblin fleet. Inreza thought about throwing an axe, but Khedal had things in hand.
And she could well kill her people if her aim were just a hair off. She was a [Thrower]. That was not her current class, but she had been a [Thrower], and a Minotaur King was not like a [King], so she was one of the most dangerous leaders, in personal combat at least, in the world.
There was some nuance to hurling a giant block of metal at someone. A direct nuance, but even a [Thrower] had guile. A basic feint was to aim at one target and hit the other.
Just like Khedal had done. Minotaurs were not stupid. If anything, the assumption that they were straightforward had cost many armies in battle when the House of Minos flanked or ambushed them.
An entire world of strategy lay simply in aiming at a target—or letting your opponent think you were aiming at one thing and not the other. Inreza glanced out the balcony and saw a few ships sailing out to sea.
Merchant Saimh had left, skirting the battleground and trusting to the House of Minos’ protection. His fleet of ships were now out of range of the coastal batteries, and presumably, loaded with the salvaged artwork from the palace.
The Minotaur King murmured. Someone rapped hard on her door.
“Prince Lareqol. My King—m—it is urgent. I know there’s a battle, but—”
Her son called out. Inreza called out.
“Enter. What is it?”
He strode into the room. He’d failed to best Venaz, but the fact that he had been vying with the [Strategist] for his post had meant he had been second-best among all the applicants. Lareqol was sharp, and he had just been walking the harbor.
“My King—I just met a Drake called Ocello. He was at the docks, shouting for help. He and his entire crew were at the warehouse with our art.”
“The ruined art? What of it? Saimh is at sea. Has he forgotten his apprentice?”
Prince Lareqol’s expression was urgent, and he nearly tripped over his words, so he didn’t see Inreza’s calm expression.
“No! They never picked up the art.”
He strode to the balcony, and the Minotaur King glanced at the flotilla of nice, big, cargo ships…circling around to the isle of Goblins.
My oh my. Who could have predicted that?
The Drake was a curiosity to Greydath. He had assumed Izikere had a plan, but hadn’t known her ships would be replaced by these. The Drake sat on the ground as the rest of his crew shouted curses at him.
Well, some. A few just sat there as the rest were loaded on a rowboat to be sent to the House of Minos. The Drake stared at a Goblin offering him a beautiful cup.
“Is this a welcoming present? I hope I get a house.”
“Big house. Nice house. Lots of flowers and food.”
One of the village leaders assured him happily. The Goblins were inspecting their new ships, but most were loading in a hurry. The Minotaur fleet was at sea, but they wanted to be gone before the Minotaurs began firing.
The Drake would never leave this island. He had a death warrant on his head, but he seemed at home with the decision. He scratched at the large scar on his chest as Greydath squatted down.
“You are Greydath of Blades, aren’t you?”
“Yes. And you…why did you give your ships up?”
For answer, the [Merchant] pointed at the scar he’d received as a child from an infection.
“Every single [Healer] in the world told me I would be dead as a boy. Except for a certain Goblin Chieftain who saved my life. I came to these islands long ago—in secret. I’ve been here every year since. Not when it comes to the House of Minos, of course. This was planned long ago.”
Greydath looked at Saimh and then at Izikere. She had found a new place to sit where she clearly intended to turn into a second tree. She didn’t turn her head, but one eye winked at him. And this was closer to Reiss’ dream than the island had ever seemed before.
The Goblins set sail as the Minotaur armada reported that the laughing Goblins who had made a skeleton crew on the ships—complete with fake Goblins made of reeds and vines and grass—had merrily teleported away once Khedal’s warship closed and began to board.
Disastrous. Greydath decided he’d join one of the ships bound for Terandria, and the Isle of Goblins celebrated merrily at the House of Minos’ expense. A Goblin’s trick.
Just as planned, really. Inreza offered a short report to the other nations and reported Khedal’s vow to hunt the Goblins down. Then she also announced that Minotaurs would join the races seeking to explore the new lands, the first expansion of their nation since their inception.
While the rest of her nation tried to calculate the Goblins’ trajectory and see whether there was a point in assailing the island after this, she pulled out a worn book from her personal quarters.
Goblin [Mercenaries]. Leading Goblins and being led by Goblins, by Niers Astoragon.
It was one of the last copies in the world, and she wondered if the Fraerling had kept any. Perhaps, in Fraerling cities where only his kind could read them. It was one of the few books with anything like interviews with actual Goblins. As she had told Khedal, few species got to observe them in anything more than an adversarial role.
However—the journals of Minotaur Kings before her also provided insights. Some were like Khedal. Some saw nothing, and some had fought Crelers and been too busy for Goblins. Except to note moments where the Island of Goblins and House of Minos had slain an Elder Creler and their warriors had withdrawn without spilling each other’s blood.
Khedal, in some ways, was like a rock. His journey to the Isle of Goblins might not change him immediately, but perhaps, like a drop of water falling on a boulder over a decade…well. Under Inreza, the House of Minos had taken fewer casualties in their war against the Goblins—that had allowed them to battle the King of Destruction’s ambitions abroad.
Presently, after reading, Inreza heard a sharp pinging sound, like someone tapping a crystal with a hammer, and felt a buzzing at her side. She closed the book and put the high-quality speaking stone on the armrest of her throne.
“—You never did gain the Titan’s confidence to ask him about meeting Velan the Kind, did you?”
“I—no, my King.”
The voice that spoke through the stone was slightly sheepish. The King of Minotaurs nodded.
“He is a cautious man. Perhaps when you return. How many letters did you receive, Venaz?”
“Over two thousand. Do you know what caused it? Calruz swears he has no knowledge. They kept referencing a ‘rat’.”
Venaz, the [Strategist] from the House of Minos, was reporting in. Inreza sighed as she plucked a letter she had received from her bag of holding.
“I believe the Minotaur has two rats as pets. Is that correct?”
“Yes…I think he mentioned…are you saying…?”
“One of the rats is intelligent enough to write a letter. Treat them like Sariant Lambs. How was his testimony of yesterday?”
Venaz was apparently trying to choke himself to death of his own volition. The Minotaur King waited for him to finish.
“Pets can be intelligent, Venaz. Sariant Lambs can read books. The Hundredfriend Courier’s companions are all around that intelligent. Are they a people in all but name, dignity, and the way they are treated? I have often wondered that.”
“I…will consider that carefully, my King.”
She was currently giving Venaz a migraine, so Inreza relented. He had enough to do.
“Tell me about Calruz, then. If you wish. But I trust your judgment as Mneiol, Venaz.”
“I would still be grateful for your wisdom. I will not take up your time.”
The Minotaur King listened, leaning on one side of her throne, as Venaz reported in. She was not unsympathetic to the rat. It was just that Haldagaz—what a funny name—was not in possession of all the facts.
Nor was even Calruz or Khedal. A [Thrower] had to have guile. Or else what made them different from a ballista? Sometimes you hit a target no one was expecting.
Venaz, [Strategist], was in Liscor judging Calruz of Hammerad’s actions. As was well and proper. He would do that to the utmost of his ability. Yet…Inreza closed one eye as Venaz came to the end of his report.
“…I have heard that the Goblins have made an exodus from the isle, my King.”
“Yes, a problem. We shall deal with it as best we can. However, Venaz, concern yourself only with your studies and your duties abroad.”
“Of course, my King. I…have not as of yet begun any judgements on my second target. I only gained access to the inn two days ago, and I believe I am still somewhat unwelcome.”
“How long is your break?”
“I should return to the academy soon, but I can extend it as long as needed. The Professor will understand. Today, I will return to the inn and try to meet with…ah, him. Numbtongue seems the most well-versed and spoken.”
Inreza’s eyes opened fully, and she sat up.
That was all. A member of the Mneiol could judge another Minotaur’s actions. But who was Venaz there to investigate?
Perhaps—a Goblin in an inn inclined to talk. And if he was—Inreza glanced down at her books and her own journal. No, it would take more than a single Goblin’s testimony, but you saw honor where you found it. You didn’t have to seek it out if it were as visible as a hundred Antinium standing amidst the waves.
Antinium and Goblins. The rest of the world could say what they wanted, and no species was one people. But if one weren’t a monster…the Minotaur King waited until she had more facts. More facts, and evidence, and the opportunity to change this world.
If only she or Venaz could have read that [Innkeeper]’s Skills and seen [Natural Allies: Goblins]. Then Inreza would have had more questions to ask. If she had one fear…well.
She still had great reservations about Venaz’s ability to be tactful.
Author’s Note: The island of the Goblins. And the House of Minos. You can’t talk about one without the others. Goblins, Minotaurs. They go together like um…g-green tea and steak?
Yes, that’s my analogy and I’m standing by it. Hope you enjoyed. This is a longer chapter than what I hope to be average, and it took me all three days. It’ll be a busy week as well after this…personally busy, not writing-busy, but the more stuff I have to do, the less writing.
So we’ll see how this next chapter goes. For now, I’m sign off and see you next time! I left out more lore about Minotaurs and Goblins but I’ll cram them into other chapters. Thanks for reading and uh, pet your capybaras?
Behemoth by Miguel!
Voidgoat by Vescar!
Tom, by painterinthesky!