5.59

She had to get ready. Erin Solstice woke up on the eleventh day with that thought echoing in her mind. She didn’t know how she knew, or why, but she knew she had to get ready. They were coming. Whoever they were. So Erin opened her eyes, half-sat up—

And decided she could use a few more minutes of sleep.

 

—-

 

“Morning, Lyonette.”

By the time Erin got up for the second time, it was mid-morning, uncharacteristically late. The [Innkeeper] pulled herself upright in time to see Lyonette carefully pulling out a plate of pre-made pasta covered with bolognese out of a cupboard. Since that was completely natural, Erin ignored it at once and focused on the young woman. Lyonette jumped, and then turned guiltily.

“Morning, Erin. Sorry, did I wake you?”

“No. I was getting up.”

Erin yawned and stretched. She felt awful. Tired, lethargic, and sore. As if she’d spent a day lifting rocks and then having said rocks dropped on her back. She wondered why—usually she was able to get up no matter the early hour. Her [Lesser Endurance] Skill meant that she could keep ticking on less sleep. But not today. Erin remembered the events of last night and unconsciously ran her tongue across her teeth. She frowned as her tongue encountered nothing but smooth enamel.

“How’re the teeth?”

Lyonette put the room-temperature pasta next to the stove’s lit fire to warm it up. Erin shrugged and her belly rumbled.

“Good. They feel different. I think so, but then again it could be in my mind. They feel like they should be different, you know?”

“I’d imagine so. Pisces used bear teeth, didn’t he?”

“Yup.”

“Do they taste or seem…?”

Erin shrugged.

“Not bearish to me. But I keep feeling like they should be. I’m just amazed he fixed them, really.”

She ran her tongue over the caps Pisces had made to fix three of her partially broken teeth and winced. Her tongue was sore from doing that a hundred plus times. But the teeth were good.

“He should be a dentist.”

“A what?”

“Someone who fixes teeth.”

“Ah.”

Erin rummaged around in her nest that occupied one side of the kitchen. She saw Lyonette taking some utensils out of a drawer and opened a cupboard by her side. It contained Erin’s clothes. The [Princess] kept her back turned as Erin quickly changed clothes under her blankets. Too late, Erin remembered she should have asked if anyone was working this morning.

“Is, uh, Ishkr—”

“Drassi’s here.”

“Oh. Good.”

Erin breathed a sigh of relief. Now that she had more than just a few employees, the kitchen was filled with at least one person more often than not. And there had been a few incidents. Erin began stuffing her bedding into another cupboard as Lyonette checked the pasta’s temperature. She shook her head and then looked at Erin.

“You should really stay in a room, you know. There are some rooms available, even if the Hobgoblins come back. And Mrsha and I could share the room if you wanted to. There’s plenty of space. Mrsha does steal your blankets, though.”

“I should. I know.”

Erin made a face. She’d had the same conversation with Lyonette. It was just that—she sighed as she hunted around for her toothbrush. Which cupboard was that? Oh, right. It was the drawer. Erin pulled it out and grabbed the jar of toothpaste Octavia had made up.

“It’s just that I have so much to do, you know? And changing rooms is more work than I want to do.”

“Says the [Innkeeper] who just lost some of her teeth confronting a Goblin Chieftain and got twenty thousand Cave Goblins to run off.”

Erin grimaced as she applied some toothpaste to her toothbrush. It was a very astringent substance that Octavia sold, but it did make Erin’s teeth feel clean.

“They were supposed to go south. I have no idea what happened. Or if they’re coming back.”

Lyonette glanced out of the kitchen and Erin knew she was looking towards the magic door. Her face wasn’t apprehensive, but there was a note of tension in her voice.

“Do you think the Goblins would come here? I mean, if they’re still hostile.”

Erin paused.

“If they do, we’re running into Liscor. The door’s set up. But Numbtongue and the others—they’re not back. And Jelaqua said they did something. The old Chieftain ran off. Garen. If they come back—we’ll see.”

Lyonette nodded. The two waited while Erin scrubbed at her teeth, then decided she had to spit and wash her mouth. She got up as Lyonette took the plate of hot pasta away from the fire. The smell made Erin’s stomach grumble. But…pasta? She pointed at the spaghetti, which had been seasoned with sauce, sliced sausage, and just a little bit of spicy peppers.

Whof fhat for?

She tried not to spit all over the plate. Lyonette stared at Erin’s mouth and the toothbrush sticking out.

“Dawil ordered it.”

Fo? Fhe Filver Fwords fhare here?

Lyonette opened her mouth and then gave up. Erin walked outside into the common room and thus began her day.

“Erin!”

A number of voices greeted Erin as she walked towards the door of her inn. The [Innkeeper] stopped and the people waiting for her saw her turn towards them. A bit of toothpaste was dribbling down her mouth. Despite the myriad and pressing issues that demanded her attention, all those present agreed that she should attend to business first. So Erin stumbled out of her inn and went to the outhouse.

There were three, now. And each one was set far enough apart so as not to carry smells or worse, sounds to the other stall. Unless someone was having a really bad day. That was an important design decision, which had required the outhouses to be moved when Erin had first discovered the issue. The third stall was huge, big enough to accommodate Moore. It was also the nicest, so Erin sat in that after knocking to make sure no one was inside.

“Toilet bowl, toilet bowl. This is…nicer than a toilet bowl, actually.”

Erin sat on the polished hardwood, having spat and washed out her mouth already. Her feet were a bit wet from the walk to the outhouse, but the grass had only been dewy, as opposed to rain-slicked and muddy. The rain had stopped. Now, the air was humid, muggy, and foggy. Erin liked it not one bit; nor did she like the way a lot of the hills had turned to mostly mud and water gathered in the valleys. But it still beat buckets of rain dumping from the sky.

That was why the outhouse had a roof. And it was better than a bathroom, at least in some senses. The wood was just as smooth as porcelain, but it didn’t get as chilly. As for the…other concerns, Erin did have a type of toilet paper at her disposal. The main issue was flushing, or lack of it.

If plumbing had been invented, it was too costly and too unknown in Liscor for Erin to obtain. So the outhouse was an outhouse, which meant that it accumulated rather than moved waste. Erin had originally solved the issue of acquisition by making Toren pour acid into the pit below the outhouse, handily vaporizing the problem. But since he was gone, she’d had to resort to other measures. She still used acid, though.

Octavia had a wonderful mixture that dissolved undesirable objects slowly. It was enough to keep the outhouses from needing to be emptied, and a lot of fresh-smelling herbs did the rest of the job. Erin looked at the bundle of herbs that Lyonette had placed just the other day. Not having to tend to the outhouse herself was another perk of being the boss.

Now, what did the evolving and dynamic nature of Erin’s restroom facilities have to do with today or recent events? Nothing. But Erin sat on the toilet for a good while. She had a feeling she was going to be busy if the faces that had been waiting for her were any indication. And she wanted to delay work as long as possible. She managed to hold out five minutes before she decided to go back. After all, she was mostly responsible and over half the people waiting on her were her friends.

And they were coming. Erin’s head turned north. She stared at the place where the mountain ranges parted to let travellers come through the pass. It was slightly obscured by a tall hill, but she saw no signs of movement. Yet. She shook her head and walked back to her inn.

“Erin!”

The first person to hurry up to Erin was Olesm. She smiled at him, and her face fell as she looked at Zevara. Erin threw a mock salute as she walked over to their table. The Drake Watch Captain eyed her.

“Human.”

“Hey, Zevara. Olesm. What’s up?”

“Where are the Goblins now? What do you know about their status? Will they attack the city? I’ve heard the report from the Gold-rank teams. Ignoring the fact that they were carrying one of your magical doorways north for now, explain to me how twenty thousand Cave Goblins and this new tribe aren’t a threat?”

Erin blinked at Zevara. Not even a hello. The Watch Captain looked anxious, if her swishing tail was anything to go by. Erin sat down and waved at Drassi.

“Hey Drassi, can I have some of our scrambled eggs?”

She waited until she got a wave and a smile from Drassi. Then she looked at Zevara.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know, and I think they’re not a threat. Jelaqua said the old Chieftain ran away.”

“Garen Redfang. A traitorous former Gold-rank adventurer who slaughtered four of his former teammates. And nearly did for the other three. How is his absence supposed to reassure me?”

“Well, he’s not leading his tribe. Ooh, thanks Drassi.”

Erin picked up a fork. Zevara eyed her as if she’d gladly grab the fork and poke it into Erin’s eye.

“His tribe is still there. Or we assume so. They’re dangerous.”

“Yeah, but Headscratcher and the others are with them. They’re nice.”

The two Drakes exchanged a look as Erin began eating breakfast. Olesm coughed.

“So you’re saying we should hope that they move on, Erin?”

“Hm. Yeah?”

Erin looked up. The Drakes stared at her, one with wrath, the other appalled. The [Innkeeper] shrugged.

“Look, what other choice is there? What do you expect me to do about it? Open the door to the Goblin cave and solve everything myself?”

Zevara and Olesm didn’t meet Erin’s eyes, which told her that was exactly what they’d hoped she’d do. The young woman scowled.

“Tempting as that is, I don’t know those particular Goblins. And I don’t want to get my brains punched out again. Did you hear that I lost some teeth? Do they look weird to you?”

She showed them her teeth. Zevara sighed.

“They’re fine. Hearing about that was the only amusing news I’ve gotten all day. It was about time someone kicked your teeth in, with how many fights you seem to escape unscathed.”

“I let other people hit things for me. And I’m good at ducking.”

Erin scowled. But Zevara was right. She hadn’t processed her one-sided punching bag experience, but the memory of trying to fight that muscular Goblin guy stuck with her. She rubbed at her mouth. It had been terrifying, trying to get past all the Goblins with only the five Redfangs shielding her.

But it had to be done. Jelaqua and the Halfseekers had been in danger. But she’d nearly died herself. If it happened again—could she risk her life like that? Was it smart? Was she an idiot? Erin sighed. She barely noticed Zevara getting up.

“If the Goblins come back to the city, Miss Solstice—”

“I’ll try and talk to them. But I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not opening that door to their cave until I know. Sorry.”

Zevara nodded. She strode off as Olesm sighed.

“I should get going too. I’d stay and talk, but—we’re at full alert. It’s nice seeing you, uh, Erin.”

He stood up awkwardly. Erin blinked up at him.

“Hey Olesm. How’re the defenses going?”

The Drake [Strategist] hesitated. He averted his gaze.

“I can’t say. Military secrets, Erin. We’re…doing good. We got reinforcements from Pallass and we’ve found homes for them. And uh, we’re meeting with Klbkch, checking the walls—it will be fine.”

The tone in his voice and his posture—not to mention his curled up tail—told Erin that was a dead lie. She stared at him and nodded.

“Okay, I won’t keep you.”

Olesm turned to go. Erin raised her voice.

“Olesm!”

He looked back at her. Erin smiled with more upbeat emotion than she actually felt.

“We’re uh, cool with the me punching you and you throwing me in jail, right?”

For a second Olesm stared, and then he grinned.

“We are. If you’re okay with it?”

“I liked prison food. And it’s a nice place when you get to know your cellmates.”

He grinned. Erin kept her smile until Olesm had hurried to the magic door and left. Then she sighed. She turned her head.

“Next!”

Someone else was already coming up to her. Dawil. The Dwarf slid into the vacant seat. He had a half-finished plate of pasta with him and was slurping down some noodles. The sauce got into his beard—well, part of his beard.

A good bit of hair was burnt off of Dawil’s face. His eyebrows, part of the hair on his head—and a lot of his beard. The sight of his chin and face was terribly disconcerting. Erin stared at Dawil, and then averted her gaze. The Dwarf sighed.

“Go on, look. And have a laugh, why don’t you. That bastard Pisces was laughing all day about it and the damned half-Elf—mine, not Ceria—wouldn’t leave me alone.”

“Are you okay? Does it hurt?”

Dawil shrugged. He scratched at his missing spots, where thick stubble was already growing. His voice held a note of complaint. Well, more like a symphony of complaints.

“It’s cold. But the healing potion did the burns right. I drank a hair-growing tonic, but it’ll be a week before my beard’s halfway decent. It’s not a problem compared to the shite we’re in, but it’s embarrassing more than anything else. But I didn’t come here to talk about hair to you, girl. We’re all in trouble, so I need to speak on behalf of the adventurers in Liscor. This is good pasta, by the way. Needs more meat, though.”

“I can have Lyonette cut up a steak if you want. Or some pork? A sausage?”

“Next time, maybe.”

Dawil slurped down more noodles as Erin finished her eggs. He wiped his mouth with a napkin—Erin used the back of her hand. The Dwarf was actually quite fastidious as he cleaned his beard. He even had his own utensils he packed into a small case—silver and gold filigree forks were a new concept to Erin. The Dwarf leaned back in his chair and looked up at Erin.

“Now, let me be blunt since no one’s said it. And you were in jail. We’re leaving Liscor. The Silver Swords, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt—and your Horns too, I imagine. Us and a good number of other Gold-rank teams, though I can’t speak for all in Pallass.”

Erin frowned.

“Okay. I heard about that from Lyonette. The Halfseekers were taking a door north, right?”

“Correct. They were trying to get to Celum so we had a route out, since those Drakes confiscated the mana stone. It would have worked too, but for those Goblins. Now we’re caught between a hammer and an anvil, because there’s a tribe of Goblins north of us that can kick the crap out of six Gold-rank teams without breaking a sweat.”

Dawil scowled. He drummed his fingers on the table, reached for his pasta, and then swatted a white paw aside.

“Not today, you thieving little mole rat!”

Mrsha scampered as Dawil roared under the table. His roar sent her flying and the Dwarf looked quite pleased with himself as he turned back to Erin.

“Fun little brat. Where was I? Oh yeah, we can’t go north anymore. Which is a problem because going south takes us longer to get to civilization. And it takes us past the Blood Fields and it is active in the spring. But there’s no choice, so we’re headed south. With another magic door anchor thing.”

“Oh. Do you need to get a mana stone?”

Erin looked at the door. Dawil waved a hand and coughed, looking embarrassed.

“Thing is…we’ve already got one. It’s the orange stone, see? Already in the bowl. I’ve been getting your [Barmaid] to check it every half-hour. The Flamewardens are lugging the door south and they’ll trade off soon. We would have told you, but we decided they needed to go right this morning.”

“I see. So what’s the problem?”

It all sounded good to Erin. Well, not the Gold-rank teams fleeing Liscor, but if it was that or fight and maybe die, what choice was there? She hadn’t decided what to do either. She could take refuge in the city easily enough, but…the scope of both threats just hadn’t really sunk in for Erin. Having a second escape route would be good, though. Dawil shrugged uncomfortably.

“Nothing. In theory. But we wanted to let you know seeing as you had the door. However, if that fire breathing Watch Captain asks…don’t tell her we’re planning to leave. She’d try and stop us and we’re not willing to die here.”

He waited, perhaps expecting Erin to object. She just doodled on her plate with a finger. Then Erin looked up.

“Do you think Liscor will fall?”

Dawil sighed.

“Honestly, lass? Can I call you lass? Sorry. I’m thirty eight, and Humans feel so young to me. You’ve barely lived through any of the big wars, have you?”

“None of Izril’s. A few started where I came from. Not sure if they really ended.”

Dawil raised an eyebrow and Erin kept her poker face up. She wasn’t sure what he knew, but Dawil was someone she trusted. More than Pisces or Olesm, about something like this, even. He struck her as honorable, more so than Falene or Ylawes in his own way. The Dwarf shrugged.

“Right. Well, it’s a bad scene. I’ve never been sitting in a besieged city, but I’ve seen the aftermath and heard the stories. Flying limbs, people getting slaughtered, and so forth. War is messy. And adventurers get killed in wars. We’re big targets because we can do a lot of damage, but we hunt monsters, not armies. Get it?”

“…Maybe? Could you explain that?”

The Dwarf nodded. He looked around and waved a hand.

“Ale?”

“Got it!”

Drassi passed by their table. Dawil blinked as an ale appeared in front of him. The Drake winked at Erin and passed her a cup of milk. Erin stared.

“Wait, how did you know—”

“[Server’s Prescience]! I got a Skill the other day! Isn’t it cool?”

Erin stared down at her drink.

“Very cool.”

“Hah! Now there’s a Skill worth having! Almost as good as the battlefield edition.”

Dawil drained a quarter of his mug, wiped his mouth, and then sighed.

“Okay. Wars. It’s an easy concept. I think you’ll get it better than the lad—I mean, my team captain. He’s a bit thick between the ears when it comes to things like this. Not exactly a tactical mind, if you know what I’m saying. Neither is the half-Elf, for all she’s Wistram. ‘Swhy I have to come up with the plans.”

He tapped the side of his head. Erin grinned, tickled.

You, Dawil?”

“How else do you think we survived this long? Someone’s got to be the voice of reason and it’s not those two. Anyways…”

He heaved a sigh.

“Wars. One last time. Adventurers have armor, or we hit fast enough so we’re not in danger. Say we’re hunting a Chimera. Or some other monster. We can take them on—hell, we can take on a nest. A small Goblin tribe? Doable. But in large numbers, armor fails. Take my armor for instance. It’s steel, Dwarf-forged and strong. I can fight in it and guard my face. But in yesterday’s scrap? There are too many arrows flying and damn Goblins with fire paste in jars. And in a war—”

“You can’t defend yourself from all sides.”

“Exactly. We’re too fragile. Knew you’d get it. I know there’s a bunch of Gold-ranks with Tyrion Veltras’ army. But I’ll bet my beard—what’s left of it—that they’re under contract to only fight if he needs something taken and stay well clear of the main battle. Besides, it’s bad to get wrapped up in politics. Ylawes’ father is marching with the Humans…look, the point is that we don’t want to die. We think Liscor will fall. So when the army arrives, we’ll be going. And if you want, we’ll escort you to Pallass. You and anyone you care to bring.”

Dawil eyed Erin over the top of his mug. She hesitated. Rather than address his statement directly, she twiddled her thumbs.

“When will you be going?”

“On the day we see the army roll in. Or sooner. But we’ll carry the door as far as we can before then. We’ll still be at least a day or two out from the nearest city, but—ah, lass. When we go, it will be quick. Make up your mind before then.”

Dawil and Erin sat together in silence. Erin stared at the table. For some reason, Dawil’s words put the urgency of Liscor’s siege closer to home than anything else. She looked at him.

“If you thought there was a chance—there are the Antinium. And the Drakes are sending an army. Is there any way…?”

The Dwarf’s eyes were brown, deep and soft as earthy loam, and sad. He shook his head.

“There may be an army of Antinium. And the Drakes may get here in time to break the siege. The Humans may be stumped or they may win. But the cost will be blood, Erin. We won’t pay the price.”

“Okay. Thank you for telling me.”

Erin sat at the table, feeling tired and helpless. Dawil nodded. He got up, walked over, and patted Erin on the shoulder.

“I’ll be here all day. The other teams will. We’re watching your door—and the inn—so don’t worry about someone making off with the door like last time. If you have any questions, ask.”

He wandered off to his table. Erin looked around and saw Bevussa sitting at a table, along with Nailren and a few Gnolls, and Falene. They were talking to each other, relaxing. And watching her. They turned as Dawil wandered over to them. Erin heard his voice clearly as she turned back to her drink.

“You lot are about as inconspicuous as a bunch of farting Dragons! She’s not stopping us, so settle down. And you can stop listening in, you pointy-eared git! I know you’re casting a listening spell when you get that constipated look on your face.”

The young woman leaned on her arms. She stared at the empty chair ahead of her as a third body slid into the seat. This time it was Mrsha. The little Gnoll stared up at Erin, wagging her tail.

“Hey Mrsha. How are you doing?”

The Gnoll raised a paw with the thumb up. Erin smiled at her.

“That’s good. Hey, do you want to play catch?”

The Gnoll cub smiled. Erin slid out of her seat as Mrsha ran to get her ball. She raced over and tossed it at Erin. The young woman caught it, tossed it back, and the two moved down the long common room. Erin’s [Grand Theatre] Skill was in effect, but there weren’t nearly enough people to fill the vast space. Mrsha and Erin cleared some tables and chairs and began to play catch. Just for a while.

“Erin.”

Ceria came over after a few minutes. She watched as Mrsha scampered after a ball and Erin turned to her. The half-Elf had her hands in her pockets. She watched as Mrsha threw the ball back, clumsily. She raised a finger and the ball swung towards Erin. The [Innkeeper] caught it and threw it back.

“Hey Ceria. What’s up?”

The half-Elf looked unhappy.

“It’s uh, about the door. I’ve been talking with the others.”

“You’re going?”

“Are you? We don’t want to leave without you, but—what are you going to do, Erin?”

Erin turned. The two stared at each other, Ceria unhappy, and Erin uncertain. They looked at each other until Mrsha’s ball bounced off the side of Erin’s head.

So it went. Ceria wasn’t the last person to talk to Erin either. After the young woman had talked to her, there came Pisces, to offer unsolicited advice which Erin listened to. Krshia, to play with Mrsha, talk about Erin’s door, and about commitments and not to ask Erin so loudly that it hurt. Selys stopped in to check with Erin how she was doing and stare at the door for a second. A few Drakes and Gnolls came by to inquire about her door.

Her door, and the Goblins. And what Erin thought. The trouble was, Erin wasn’t thinking. She was deliberately not thinking of what was coming. Because if she did, she’d have to make a choice. Stay or go. Risk dying or leave. Which was better. Which was right? Erin didn’t know. But she kept looking north. She was talking with Jelaqua at midday when it happened.

“How’s the body?”

The Selphid was sitting at a table. By this point the inn was getting more business, and Ishkr and two more Gnolls had come by to help work the tables. They stared at Jelaqua and kept clear of her. Because the Selphid was wearing the Raskghar’s body.

It was disturbing to Erin. The Raskghar looked bestial, compared to the Gnolls. It had a more hunched posture, a bigger body, and thicker fur. But the main change was the eyes. The Raskghar had been savage with a spark of intelligence. Now, there was a sharp intelligence looking out of the dead pupils. Somehow, that was even more uncanny. Jelaqua raised a paw and scratched at her neck.

“Fine. It’s a good body, actually.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. Lots of muscle fiber, great condition—a few pests, but they were mostly dead and I got rid of the rest. My main complaint is that this body’s a bit too bulky for my tastes, but hell, the nose works wonders. The only thing is that I can’t go in Liscor without causing a panic. I nearly got stabbed by a Gnoll [Guardsman]—and that was just at the gate.”

“You are wearing a Raskghar’s body.”

“Yup. But there’s a shortage of other bodies, so what can you do?”

Jelaqua spread her paws in a Human shrug. Erin stared at her and the Selphid grinned weakly, another very disturbing sight.

“Sorry. I’m a bit mixed up after yesterday. I…took a few hits to my body.”

“I saw.”

“No, I mean my real body.”

“Oh. Is it bad? Did you heal up?”

Jelaqua hesitated.

“It’s not quite that simple. But yeah, I’m doing okay. I think. Look, about last night. You really can’t tell anyone—anything. Not that it happened, okay?”

“What happened?”

The Selphid eyed Erin and nodded.

“It’s just really important, okay, Erin? Really important.”

“I got it. Lips sealed. About nothing.”

The Gold-rank adventurer nodded, but she was clearly still uneasy. She scratched at her neck again. Erin wondered if one of the pests had been fleas. She saw Mrsha staring at Jelaqua as she slunk around Lyonette, who was giving Jelaqua much the same look.

“Jelaqua. I wonder if it would be a good idea for you to say hi to Ishkr and Mrsha. Maybe that would make them feel better. Or would it make them feel worse?”

The Selphid grimaced.

“It can’t hurt. Showing them it’s me rather than my body usually helps. I had the same problem with bodies I got from executed criminals. I’ll have a word later.”

“Thanks. Uh—how’s Moore and Seborn?”

The Raskghar’s expression softened in a way that was true to Jelaqua. She looked towards the stairs.

“Resting. Moore’s too weak to get out of bed—or eat anything other than liquids. Thanks for all the soup.”

“No problem. What about Seborn?”

“He’s better. He just lost blood. But he’s not talking to me. I think he’s angry about what happened.”

“At you?”

Jelaqua shook her head.

“At himself. For letting Garen get away. He was right in front of us. But we choked up. And he spared us.”

Erin stared at Jelaqua.

“And how do you feel?”

The Selphid smiled with the Raskghar’s mouth.

“Me? It’s over and done with. Garen lost his tribe. They told him to his face he was a traitor and he ran off. I’m alive, and so is Moore and Seborn. And we know a bit more of—of what happened that day. It’s all we can ask for, Erin.”

She kept smiling as Erin studied her. She was lying. But she did it with a smile, and Erin felt like pushing Jelaqua would be the worst of ideas. So she let it drop.

“You just let me know if you need anything, alright?”

“Sure thing. I’ll just have a few drinks, reassure the Gnolls, and check on the others.”

Jelaqua smiled. Erin smiled too, and tried to ignore the sense of roiling emotions she was getting from the Selphid. If anyone was close to exploding…she made a note to keep Jelaqua away from Relc if he stopped by. Or Pisces. Or Revi. Erin stood up to accompany Jelaqua in case any of the Gnolls freaked out—or she did—

And then it happened. Erin’s head turned to the right. She stared straight towards the north wall and she felt a tingle go down her spine. They were coming. And they were coming here. It wasn’t a bad sense, not like it had been whenever her [Dangersense] went off. No, it was more like a certainty at the back of her mind. They were coming, and they were tired and hungry and desperate.

Erin hadn’t known who they were in the morning, but now she was certain. And as they came across the Floodplains and Liscor sounded the alarm, Erin stood on the ruined roof of her inn where Bird’s watchtower had been and saw them pour across the muddy hills and valleys like a green wave.

Goblins.

 

—-

 

At first it was the Cave Goblins and Redfangs. The mounted warriors rode ahead of the Cave Goblins, a small army of elite warriors followed by the hordes of grey-green Goblins. That was enough to get Olesm’s heart pounding. But when he saw the second Goblin force emerging from the pass leading north, his heart began trying to dig its way out of his chest.

“It’s the Goblin Lord’s army!”

“It can’t be! They’re too early! They’re too early!

Olesm screamed at Embria, who had raised the alarm the instant she’d spotted the second Goblin force. It was vast; it dwarfed the Cave Goblin force by a good margin. Olesm tried to count how many Goblins were present. Forty thousand? Fifty? Sixty? It was too small to be the Goblin Lord’s army—not unless they’d taken massive casualties since they’d last been spotted. And yet, it was far too large to be just any random tribe. He watched as they spread across the Floodplains.

“What am I seeing, Olesm?”

Zevara stood on the walls minutes later, breathing hard and looking at the approaching Goblins. Olesm’s heart was trying to escape via his mouth at this point, but he kept his voice as level as possible as he replied. He wished it didn’t wobble so, though. Everyone was listening.

“In a word, Watch Captain? Dissidents. Or rebels. That’s probably a better word for it?”

“Rebels?”

Both Embria and Zevara looked at him. Ilvriss, who’d just made it to the walls—since a Wall Lord didn’t run unless the city was under attack—stared sharply at Olesm.

“That’s right. Dissidents. Reports from Esthelm claimed the Goblin Lord’s army was moving past them. They were erroneous, but it does match another piece of information we received from an informant in the Human army. They reported a battle between the Goblins—apparently some kind of inter-tribal dispute. The Goblin Lord absorbed a good deal of the defeated tribe, but the rest of them fled and managed to get ahead of the Humans. They’re coming through Liscor because they have nowhere else to go.”

“Caught between an axe and the headman’s block, huh?”

Embria narrowed her eyes. Olesm nodded.

“But still dangerous. They’re not allied with the Cave Goblins or the tribe that fought the adventurers yesterday. See how they’re running ahead of this tribe? They may be at odds.”

“So will we see a battle between them? Or will they move past our walls?”

Zevara glanced sharply at Olesm. He peered at the Goblins, twisting the Ring of Sight on his claws, picking out Goblins and staring at them.

“I don’t know, Watch Captain. The Goblins look exhausted. Half are falling down the hills. They may just stay here until the Human army arrives.”

“In which case they’re another variable that might go against us. Can we get rid of them?”

Zevara frowned, folding her arms and eying the Goblins.

“With what? A few well-placed spells from the wall? If that lot wants, it could shower us with arrows. I’d say avoid conflict.”

“How do we get rid of them, then?”

“We wait. They may just camp here for a day or two and then keep moving.”

Embria shifted from foot to foot. She eyed the Goblins. They were still approaching Liscor.

“If that’s the case, why aren’t they keeping clear of Liscor? They know this is a Drake city. Aren’t they wary of us?”

“They outnumber the Watch many times over.”

“Still. They keep coming. Should we be ready for an attack?”

The Drakes looked at each other. Ilvriss stared at the Goblins, and then shook his head.

“No. I think they’re coming for a different reason.”

He stared down from the walls, at a much closer landmark. Zevara closed her eyes as she followed his gaze.

“Her. It’s always her, isn’t it?”

Olesm shook his head. He murmured as he watched the Goblins draw closer. Yes, they were moving to one spot.

“Not always. But when it comes to Goblins, I think she’s…special.”

The other three looked at him. Embria folded her arms, exasperated.

“Then what do we do? What can we do?”

She was impatient. But Olesm just stared onwards. He shrugged, feeling tired. Drakes were a people of law and action. Discipline. But it occurred to him that they weren’t good at being helpless. He looked at Embria and said the one word that she didn’t want to hear.

“Watch.”

 

—-

 

The Flooded Waters tribe walked across the muddy hills. They fell down valleys, crawled up the hills, and some lay where they had fallen, too tired to move. They were…fading. Faded, rather.

At the end of their tether. And afraid. They had seen the Redfangs and the foreign, strange Goblin tribe moving ahead of them and they didn’t know what to expect. They were worried too, because the Redfangs were headed in the same direction they were. The Flooded Waters tribe didn’t quite know why, but they sensed their destinations were the same.

It wasn’t that Redscar was leading them that way on purpose, or that he’d said anything like it. But like the other Goblins, Redscar was moving towards the city. Or—to something just ahead of it. Despite the danger of the city, despite their exhaustion, the tribe kept moving. It was just a bit further ahead. They could feel it.

It was a strange sensation. Something none of them had quite felt before. A feeling—like they had felt from Chieftains and Reiss, but different at the same time. Alien. But entirely pleasant. It was a feeling that ahead of them lay safety. It was a beacon in their heads. Ahead of them was a friend.

But what a thought! Friend? Safety? Those were completely foreign concepts to Goblins. And yet, the feeling was a certainty. So the Goblins kept moving. It wasn’t just that instinct in their head that propelled them forwards either. Something else kept them going.

It was a rumor. Something their Chieftain had said. A memory, or perhaps a promise: a vision of an inn on a hill. A name.

Erin Solstice. And as they kept going, the distant building on the hill became a symbol to them. A symbol that Goblins had never associated with a building before. But it was a familiar concept to other races.

After all, it was an inn. A gathering place for the weary, for travellers, for the hungry or tired. Only, to Goblins an inn was death—or a place to target unwary victims. Not a place for their kind. And yet, this inn was different.

Still, they hesitated when they saw the Redfangs had gathered around the hill. They were a stone’s throw away from the city and the walls were ablaze with torches. Redscar drew up, patting his weary Carn Wolf. He eyed the Redfangs, and the strange grey Goblins. They stared at him. He couldn’t see Garen among them and he sensed something had changed, though he didn’t know what. Then he saw the Redfangs move.

To the left, and to the right. Goblins shifted out of the way, opening a path for him. Redscar narrowed his eyes. He looked at Poisonbite and Noears, both trudging wearily after him. The Goblins looked up at him and both looked as tired as he felt. Redscar hesitated and looked behind him.

A sea of Goblins stretched behind him, slowly moving forwards. They were all flowing to this spot. Redscar hesitated. But they had come so far. What was the point of turning back now? He dismounted from Thunderfur and patted the Carn Wolf.

“Stay.”

He looked at Poisonbite and Noears. The two looked at him and Redscar pointed.

“I go. If don’t come back…”

He trailed off. If he didn’t come back, what then? The two waited, but Redscar had nothing else to say. He turned and began trudging up the hill. The Redfangs stared at him. So did the strange grey Goblins. Redscar kept his vision ahead as he walked up the hill. He knew the rest of his tribe—of Rags’ tribe—was gathering behind him, watching him progress.

Redscar’s legs burned. He was so tired. He’d let other Goblins ride Thunderfur until now. He tried not to fall as he climbed the muddy slope, avoiding the water pooling in the valley next to him. He could see shapes moving in the water. Fish? He was hungry. Hungry, but so tired he could sleep right then and there.

Something moved behind him. Redscar turned, and saw Thunderfur padding up the hill. The Carn Wolf growled softly. Redscar looked at him. He’d told Thunderfur to stay. But the Carn Wolf was good at ignoring commands Redscar didn’t mean. The Goblin smiled and together, the two kept walking.

Up the hill, onto wet grass that hadn’t been killed by the flooding waters. Redscar saw the inn rise above him. Tall. Wide. The windows were open and the shutters—shutters on the outside?—were thrown open. Yellow light spilled from within. The Goblin hesitated, then.

It was an inn. It was just like the ones he’d seen in other cities. A Human building, or a Drake’s. Not meant for Goblins. And yet, the door called to him. Redscar trudged over to it, heart pounding.

He was afraid. Afraid in a way that had nothing to do with fear of battle. He had come so far. He had lost his Chieftain, failed her. The tribe had been broken. And this—this was just an inn. Redscar bowed his head. What could an inn do for his tribe? He almost turned away, and Thunderfur nudged him. The Carn Wolf could smell something inside it wanted. It whined pleadingly and Redscar looked back.

He still might have turned back. He still would have walked away, rather than be disappointed. It was just an inn. But as the setting sun shone down on the inn, Redscar saw something. He stared, and his eyes narrowed as he tried to make sense of what he saw. It took him a while, because he was a poor reader. But then he blinked. And laughed.

The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe saw Redscar laugh. They saw him step back, and wave, urging them forwards.

Poisonbite and Noears were first up the hill. They staggered up the slope, wondering what Redscar had seen. They too hesitated as they saw the inn, a symbol of civilization, a place they could never enter. Perhaps at this point they might have wavered. But then they saw it too.

It was the sign that hung proudly on the door. Right in front, hanging on a nail freshly hammered into the wood. The lettering had been enlarged and underlined by a steady hand, and the sign hung at head height for the shorter Goblins. It was a simple message, but it changed everything. Noears read the name of the inn and the sign out loud for the others.

The Wandering Inn.

That was the name of the inn. And on the door, the sign.

No killing Goblins.

And so they entered the inn.

 

—-

 

Redscar, Poisonbite, and Noears stepped into the inn. They felt warm air rush over their faces and hesitated. The scent of cooked food hung in the air and the inn was bright. Their eyes were first drawn to the warm bright fireplace, then the candles lighting up the tables, freshly placed, only beginning to drip with wax. They stared at the rug placed just in front of the door. Noears shuffled his feet. Redscar tried to block Thunderfur from poking his head through the door.

The three Goblins plus one Carn Wolf kept still, looking about the inn. Their eyes picked out only tables and chairs at first. And then—movement. They froze as they saw one table was occupied.

A group of six Goblins, five Hobs and one smaller Goblin, sat at a table. They had mugs and plates with food on them. Poisonbite gaped, but Redscar’s eyes narrowed.

Redfangs.

There was no mistaking the war paint on their bodies. The Redfangs turned to look at him, and Redscar tensed. He recognized one of them. The other five were hauntingly familiar in some way, but the regular-sized Goblin who tensed was one of Redscar’s old comrades.

Spiderslicer began to stand up at his table, but one of the Hobs grabbed him and forced him down. The smaller Goblin glared up at the Hob, but he kept sitting. The Hob offered him something. A bit of meat on a stick? Redscar’s stomach rumbled and Thunderfur sniffed. The sound seemed to draw attention to them, because at that moment, someone exited a door across from them.

A young woman walked out of the inn’s kitchen. She was holding a pot with a wooden spoon’s handle sticking out of it, and something was steaming and giving off a very inviting smell. All three Goblin’s stomachs rumbled. But it was the Human they looked at. She stopped and blinked as she saw them standing there.

“Well hello there. I wondered when someone else would stop by. One second, please!”

The Flooded Waters tribe Goblins stared as the young woman flashed them a smile and then went over to the table. She put the pot down in front of the Hobs and Spiderslicer, all of whom sat up. Spiderslicer kept trying to glare at Redscar, but his attention was drawn to the pot. The young woman’s voice was audible quite clearly in the very large—and very empty—common room.

Soup du jour. That’s French, by the way. It means ‘soup of the day’, which in this case is borscht. That’s egg, sausage, bacon, butter…it’s sour and I’ve got some bread warming by the stove, so don’t eat it right off. And it’s hot, so be careful, got it? Badarrow, I’m trusting you to serve.”

She handed the bowls to Badarrow, who grumbled and took the stack and began serving soup in the bowls. Noears’ stomach rumbled plaintively. The young woman turned towards them. She walked over as Poisonbite backed up, hands on the hilts of her daggers. Redscar put a hand out, warning her to keep her blades sheathed. Thunderfur sniffed and made a low rumbling sound. The young woman stopped. She eyed the huge Carn Wolf, who was as tall as she was.

“Is that wolf trained? If it’s going to pee in my inn, it has to stay outside.”

She looked at Thunderfur and then at Redscar. The Goblin stared at her. The young woman put her hands on her hips after she got no response. Her mouth twitched, then she frowned.

“Well?”

Thunderfur didn’t care for her tone. He growled and the young woman’s eyes flicked towards him.

Sit.

For a second the three Goblins felt the air grow heavy around them. But the [Innkeeper]’s attention hadn’t been focused on them. Thunderfur whined, then sat down. It stared at the young woman and its head lowered submissively. The young woman smiled and then looked at Redscar, who was open-mouthed.

“I guess that’s a good start. Hey, why are you all standing around? Here, take a seat. Do you have a preference?”

She indicated the tables. The Goblins stared at her, and then edged forwards. They sat at a table, staring at the other Goblins, and at the young woman. She nodded, pleased.

“Alright. Now, can I get you anything? We’ve got soup de jour. Or du jour, whatever the right one is—hot bread, pasta, steaks, and I’ve got specialty treats like pizza, hamburger, and even a cake. Tons of food—but no menu. Just tell me if you want a meat dish or what sounds good. I’ve also got a lot of drinks. We have wines, water, milk, honey milk, a dark lager, this orange beer I haven’t tried yet, Flamebreath Whiskey—very hot stuff, so watch out—apple juice, soft and hard cider…”

She rattled off a list of drinks as the Goblins stared up at her. The [Innkeeper] paused.

“…but if you’re not certain, we can start you with some soup and milk. And bread. With butter, obviously. How about that?”

It was a dream. The three felt certain they were in a shared dream, or in some other reality where up was sideways and nothing was real. They nodded silently. Thunderfur whuffed, and the young woman eyed him.

“And I’ll get you some raw meat for your doggy.”

Doggy. Redscar opened his mouth, but the young woman was already moving into the kitchen. The three Goblins stared as they heard her clatter about in there, and then looked at the Redfangs. The Hobs were eating already, and chattering to Spiderslicer, gesturing around the room. Redscar leaned over to Noears and Poisonbite. The three looked at each other, lost for words. Then Redscar poked Noears. The Goblin yelped as Redscar’s claw poked his side. Redscar pinched himself and found that it hurt.

“Hey, is your dog okay with raw meat? They can eat that, right? Or is cooked meat worse? Tell you what—we’ll give him this steak for starters, okay?”

The Goblins started. The Human was back! And she had a steak. Thunderfur got up and Redscar grabbed his fur to keep him still. The Carn Wolf wagged his tail as the young woman approached. She eyed its open jaws and large, large teeth.

“Oh my what large teeth you have, doggy. Sit.

Thunderfur sat. The young woman offered him a steak and Thunderfur drooled onto Redscar’s hand.

“Here. You can give it to him. I don’t have a plate that’s not pottery, so he’ll have to eat it off the floor. Don’t worry, it’s so clean you could eat your dinner off it. The tables too.”

Redscar blinked at the cooked steak and took hold of it with one hand. It was warm. And it smelled so good he wanted to bite it himself. But since the young woman was already coming back with another pot and bowls, he offered it to Thunderfur. The Carn Wolf practically tore the meat from his master’s hands and began to scarf it down.

“How do you feed those things without running out of food? Never mind. Here’s the borscht! And bread.”

A bowl appeared in front of each of the Goblins. And the young woman began ladling hot soup into each bowl. She put a loaf of bread on the table, and some soft butter and a blunt knife. The Goblins stared at the bread, round-eyed. The young woman smiled as she filled Noears’ bowl and stood back. There was silence. The Goblins didn’t move.

They knew how this worked. Now was the time when they would reach for bowls and find they were lying in a ditch, half-starved and delirious. It had happened before. This wasn’t happening. This was a happy dream and so they didn’t move, trying to prolong the moment. They waited for ten seconds, and then twenty as Thunderfur savaged the steak and Redscar felt his stomach begin to try and stage a takeover from his belly. It was a dream. Right up until the young woman coughed.

“It’s getting cold.”

They looked at her. She smiled at them.

“Are you worried about the cost? No charge. It’s on the house tonight.”

She gave them a broad grin, and her eyes twinkled. The Goblins looked at each other. Then, slowly, Noears reached for the bread. It was pre-sliced into generous portions and puffy. It smelled fresh, not like the bread they found in adventurer’s rations, or the stale stuff they sometimes looted. It was soft. And Noears’ claws trembled as he brought it to his mouth and bit.

He chewed, slowly. Poisonbite and Redscar watched him. Noears’ eyes rolled up in his head and they thought he was having a seizure. But no—he was just chewing. And chewing. And then he bit and chewed again. Every line in his body told them he was enjoying himself.

That settled it. Redscar picked up another piece of bread and discovered something else. It was warm. The bread squished in his claw and, trembling, he brought it to his mouth. He opened his mouth, bit, and the world changed. He began to chew the bread, slowly, and then with increasing speed as his salivary glands, already prepped, began working overtime.

He had never tasted fresh bread before. Poisonbite looked at Redscar’s face, and then at Noears, and then took things a step further. Awkwardly, she spread some of the butter on the bread and began to eat it. And the wonders continued.

The young woman watched the Goblins eating the bread. They finished one piece, and reached for another. She smiled.

“I make good bread, huh? Try it with the soup, though.”

They jumped and looked at her. She indicated the bowls and then they realized that yes, they had soup! They tried that.

Sour. Warm! Complex flavors! None of them bad! Redscar had never tasted the like, even when he’d eaten horse stew or Eater Goats. This wasn’t just meat and water with a few extras thrown in. Even Rags’ filling soup wasn’t half as good. This was—this was cuisine. He began to eat, and only remembered to dip his bread and try that when he saw Noears doing it. Another taste. Another experience!

Thunderfur watched his master eating, trying to scarf the food and make it last forever at the same time. He whined, licking his chops, and the young woman found another steak for him to gobble. The Goblins ate, chewing their way through one bowl, before halting for a moment. Their stomachs felt full given how much they normally ate, but they wanted more. And there was a pot. The young woman waited.

“Help yourselves.”

They looked at her. She indicated the pot. The Goblins peered into it, and then at her. The [Innkeeper] nodded.

“We don’t do table serving here. Sorry. You’ll have to fill your bowls yourself. We do refill mugs. Want more milk?”

She indicated the mugs of yet-untouched white stuff, which none of the Goblins had quite been certain of. Redscar sipped from the strange substance and his jaw dropped. He saw the young woman’s eyes twinkle again, and her lips twitch. This time, Redscar recognized it. She was suppressing a smile.

“Well? Any good? I’ve got more, you know. If your friends can behave, there’s enough for a crowd. Not all of them by far, but my inn’s open for business.”

She glanced towards the door. The Flooded Waters Goblins stared at her, and then realized she was talking about the others. The others. They stared at the full pot, realizing they’d been stuffing themselves while the rest of their tribe was waiting outside. Redscar got up slowly. He looked at Spiderslicer, and understood in a flash that the other Redfang leader had been invited for the same reason. He looked at the young woman. She folded her arms, regarding him.

“Are you the Chieftain? My name is Erin. Erin Solstice. I run this inn and I’m happy to feed you all. If you’re not here to cause trouble. I’m assured by my regulars—”

She nodded to the five Hobs, one of whom waved a hand. Poisonbite looked stunned.

“—that you’re actually good folk. But I had to be sure. How about it? No trouble? Food? Do we have a deal?”

She looked down at Redscar. Not by much; Redscar was tall for an ordinary Goblin and she wasn’t the tallest Human in the world. He hesitated. Erin Solstice. She was nothing like he imagined or what Rags had said. But—her casual tone, as if she was speaking to another Human. The hint of a smile on her face, the twinkle in her eye that said she was laughing inside. And the sign. He looked at Noears and Poisonbite. And he dared to believe this was reality.

“Yes. Thank you.”

Erin jumped. She actually jumped. She stared at Redscar as he took a step back. Her eyes widened.

“You can talk? Wait, you can speak English?”

English? The Goblins didn’t know about that. But Redscar nodded.

“Can talk.”

“Me too.”

Noears raised a hand. Poisonbite nodded. Erin blinked.

“Wait—but I thought only Numbtongue—wow. Okay. Uh—hi. Pleased to meet you. I’m Erin. You knew that.”

She held out a hand. Redscar stared at it. He slowly took it and Erin squeezed his hand. He squeezed back gingerly.

“Redscar.”

“Redscar? Hey, that’s like Redfang, isn’t it? Are you one of them? Wait—Numbtongue explained it to me. I’m going to get your name mixed up, aren’t I? Sorry in advance! And you are?”

Erin turned to Noears. The [Mage] blinked up at her, unusually shy.

“I am Noears.”

The young woman stared at the ragged flesh around both earholes.

Noears? Well that’s—uh—well, that’s very accurate. Literal names, Goblins. Yep. And who’s your female friend?”

“I Poisonbite.”

The female Goblin bared her teeth challengingly at Erin. The young woman smiled.

“Poisonbite? Are your bites poisonous? Hah! I kid.”

Her smile made Poisonbite narrow her eyes. The Goblin reached for her sheathes and Redscar and Noears tensed.

“No. This.”

She drew her blades. Erin took a step back as Redscar grabbed Poisonbite’s arms. The [Innkeeper] eyed the coated daggers and Poisonbite.

“I see. Well, keep your daggers sheathed, Poisonbite. And no fighting in my inn. No fighting, no attacking anyone else, no bad names, and no wolves peeing or doing the other thing in my inn. None of you do that either, got it? I have outhouses. If we can agree on that—you can stay at my inn.”

The three Goblins looked at each other. They looked at Erin. They had a thousand questions, a thousand things to say. And perhaps she saw it, because she just smiled. They had come a long way. A long way, and despaired. The journey had ground them down. But at last, at long last, it felt like they had arrived somewhere.

A little inn on a hill. Redscar took Erin’s hand again and Poisonbite stowed her daggers. The young woman smiled as Noears went to the door and began to shout.

“One last thing. The Redfangs want to come through, so you’ll be sharing the inn with them. Like I said: no fighting. And you may have a few more guests.”

Redscar blinked, but nodded. Erin watched him, and then nodded too. She walked over to the far wall and Redscar saw another door, set against the wall. He frowned. Wait, but there hadn’t been another door on the outside of the inn. So what—

Erin opened the door. Redscar saw another place appear in the doorway. A city, with the sun setting behind it. He stared. The sun was at the wrong angle! He stared out of the window in the inn. And then he saw them.

A half-Elf. Humans. Drakes. A huge furry monster—and Gnolls. A small white one that hid behind a bird-woman with blue feathers. They stared at the Goblins, at Thunderfur. And at Erin Solstice. She smiled and raised her voice, beckoning them in.

“Hey, everyone! You can come back through! But only if you’re cool with Goblins.”

The people standing in the city—in Liscor—hesitated. Some of them turned away. Others backed up. But then a young woman came through. She tied her hair back, and turned to the white Gnoll.

“You stay here, Mrsha. You can stay at Krshia’s place. Drassi, Ishkr? Let’s get to work.”

She walked through the doorway. A Gnoll, several Gnolls, and a few Drakes joined her. Some of them stared at the Goblins and one of the Gnolls sniffed, but the Drake just walked into the kitchen. And then a half-Elf followed them. And a young man in robes who sniffed the air much like Thunderfur.

“I trust you have suitable victuals for tonight, Erin? May I inquire as to tonight’s course?”

Erin rolled her eyes.

“Soup, Pisces. Don’t worry, I’ve got enough even with the Goblins. Although you’re paying. Krshia! I’m going to need as much food as I can get on short notice.”

“You’ll never feed them all.”

A haughty, dark-skinned [Mage] walked past the Human called Pisces. She had stitching running around her neck and arms. Erin nodded.

“Of course not. But I think they can feed themselves. At least, I hope so. There’s fish in the Floodplains—Relc told me you can just fish them out. But I’ll feed who I can. Who else is coming through?”

And they came. One after another. Adventurers, civilians, Drakes and Gnolls and Humans. They came into the inn, staring at the Goblins who began trickling through the doors. Some were uncomfortable. Others calm but wary. A few were openly at ease and they were the oddest of all.

But they came, and the Goblins from both the Redfang and Flooded Waters tribe who entered fell under the same aegis as the people from Liscor. They were enemies, possibly mortal ones. But in the inn, on this night, and with her there, there was peace. And so the night continued as Redscar sat and more food appeared. The strangest night he had ever lived through.

The best.

 

—-

 

“Well, that’s that.”

Olesm stared at the door as the Horns of Hammerad walked through, and then the Silver Swords, following Lyonette and Drassi and the others. Mrsha circled Krshia, looking unhappy as the Gnoll shook her head, looking appalled and delighted by the amount of food Erin wanted. Olesm turned to the others gathered in front of the magic doorway. Bevussa looked appalled.

“So Erin’s just going to feed the Goblins? There are tens of thousands outside!”

The [Strategist] grinned weakly. He looked at the door and spotted Embria and Zevara staring at it. He tried to move towards the door and failed.

“That’s Erin for you. And we can go through, if we’re willing to dine in company, it sounds like fun. Anyone going?”

“Are you serious? They’re Goblins.

Keldrass spat a few wisps of flame. He stared at the door, fists clenched. He looked around.

“We’re about to be under siege from the Goblin Lord and the Humans and she’s letting them in! We just fought with Goblins! Killed them!”

“Did you expect anything else from her, Keldrass? And yeah, we killed them. They tore us up. If they’re not holding a grudge, I won’t. Not against them, at any rate.”

Jelaqua rolled her eyes. She looked at the half-Giant clutching his side.

“Moore, you want to go through? We can stay somewhere else or go to our rooms if—”

“I’m going through.”

The half-Giant shook his head and walked through the door. Keldrass made a sound of fury.

“This is an outrage. If we weren’t—”

He broke off, eying Olesm. The [Strategist] looked suspiciously at Keldrass and the Drake cleared his throat.

“—That is, I refuse to enter that inn. And Erin Solstice is courting arrest or worse by letting the Goblins into her establishment, even if it is outside of Liscor’s jurisdiction! The doorway is connected to the city!”

“True. We need to close it off once everyone’s through. But it’s not that big of a risk.”

Olesm nodded to Zevara, Embria, and the small army of soldiers and guardsmen gathered around the doorway. The odds of the Goblins forcing their way into the city was remote at this moment. Keldrass growled and Embria frowned.

“Still, isn’t this a good chance to…?”

She subtly indicated the door with a nod of her head. Olesm’s stomach twisted up. Zevara frowned.

“You think all of the Goblin’s leaders are in one spot?”

“Maybe. Watch Captain, this is an opportunity. If you want to risk it…”

The two Drakes looked at each other. Zevara gritted her teeth.

“Maybe we should check first. Send reconnaissance. Olesm, you’re on good terms with Erin. Go through, check the Goblins.”

“I can’t, Watch Captain.”

Olesm shuffled his feet miserably. Zevara looked at him and her brows snapped together.

“That was an order, Olesm. I know you have personal feelings, but—”

“It’s not that, Zevara. I can’t go through that door. Can you?”

The Watch Captain stared at Olesm. Then she stared at the doorway. Olesm heard Embria snort.

“What are you talking about? Of course we…”

She trailed off. The crowd gathered around the door looked at each other. They began to realize what Olesm had picked up on. Zevara stared at her feet.

“I can’t walk towards the door.”

“Me neither.”

“Or me.”

Olesm confirmed it. None of the [Soldiers] or [Guards] or adventurers like Keldrass could enter the inn. There were a few exceptions. Bevussa walked forwards, frowning.

“I’m fine. Look, see?”

She walked through the door, walked back, and then opened and closed the door a few times. Pisces appeared in the doorframe after the third time.

“You’re letting the cool air in. Please refrain from doing that.”

He shut the door. The others stared at the shut door. Aside from Bevussa, Mrsha, and Krshia, none of the others could open it. The real question they began debating was why.

“It has to be her aura skill. Erin told me she had one. And she’s using it now, I think. The door’s her property and you heard what she said. Only Goblins and people who can be civil to Goblins are allowed inside.”

Miserably, Olesm stared at the door. He bet they could overcome the effects, but it would be detrimental to anyone going through. They’d have to fight just to stay in the inn. Embria scowled.

“Only Goblins? That’s racist.”

“Speciesist, you mean.”

“It’s ridiculous! She’s using an aura skill against us? And it’s not—I’m a Wing Commander—I can’t be held back by this!”

She took a step forwards and stopped. Olesm tried to do the same and barely got his foot to move towards the door.

It wasn’t so much of a physical barrier as Olesm strongly not wanting to put his hand on the door handle and swing it open. It wasn’t that he couldn’t—he just didn’t want to. And because that was the case, there was no fighting the emotion unless Olesm concentrated on why he didn’t want to go in. And even then, it was like fighting to keep his eyes open when he was exhausted; if he wavered once, he stepped backwards.

“That is a powerful amount of concentration. Impressive for an [Innkeeper]. No, it would be impressive for a [Lord] below Level 30.”

A quiet voice made Olesm turn. Ilvriss was studying the inn. The [Strategist] looked at him.

“Can you enter the inn, Wall Lord Ilvriss?”

“Of course.”

Ilvriss looked affronted.

“I can enter the inn. If I choose to. And I could repel the effects of her aura around me. The question is whether or not it is tactically viable.”

He strode forwards and opened the door, unimpeded by whatever was happening. He took one look inside the inn and shut the door.

“I see.”

The others waited as Ilvriss stood there, pondering for a second. Then the Wall Lord shook his head.

“Leave them. There’s no point to interference. If the Goblins leave tomorrow morning all will be satisfactory.”

“And if they don’t, Wall Lord?”

Embria looked angry as she walked forwards, clearly determined to prove a point. She opened the door with effort and stared inside, narrow-eyed. Ilvriss’ voice grew cold.

“My understanding is that Goblins elect new Chieftains if the old ones fall, Wing Commander. Moreover, fighting with Miss Solstice’s aura impeding most of us would be dangerous. If the Goblins are here tomorrow—then we take steps. But as Strategist Olesm has said—what real choice do we have? Let us trust to Erin Solstice’s unique brand of…”

He trailed off. There was no word for it. Ilvriss turned. Zevara stared at the doorway, and then turned.

“Get someone with a scroll of [Fireball] and put up some temporary barricades. Just in case. If a Goblin comes through, blast the door and seal it. Otherwise…leave them.”

She strode off. So did Embria, swearing a blue streak much like her father. Olesm watched them go. He stared back at the inn and tried to walk towards the door. But he couldn’t. Shamefaced, he turned away. The inn blazed as he climbed the walls and sat there, staring down at them. Below, the army of Goblins was mingling, campfires going up.

Tomorrow they would be an issue. But tonight was for them. They sat around her inn, eating, mingling, flowing in and out of the building. The one place in the world they knew they would be safe. For one night.

 

—-

 

At first she asked no questions. She just marshaled her staff. Gnolls, Drakes, a young Human girl like herself. She sent them in and out of the kitchen as bodies filled chairs, serving drinks, bringing out food. Then she addressed the larger problem.

“There’s a lotta Goblins out there. Redfang—I mean, Redscar. Do your people have enough food for them? What about you, Spiderbite?”

“Spiderslicer.

Numbtongue corrected Erin. The two Redfangs exchanged a look, which turned into a staring contest. Redscar put his hand on the hilt of his sword and answered slowly.

“Have food. Supplies. But hungry. Use more.”

He didn’t know how much food Erin’s inn held, but even if it was packed from floor to rafters, it wouldn’t be enough. Erin nodded.

“Spiderslicer?”

The Goblin kept glaring at Redscar. By now Redscar had heard the news. Garen was gone. He’d been overthrown by the strange five Hobs. He couldn’t help but think he knew them. But that didn’t matter to Spiderslicer. His grudge against Redscar was personal. The Goblin grunted.

“Have food.”

“Okay then.”

Erin stepped between the two. She looked at both, and then at one of the Hobs.

“If there’s not enough food, then we’ll just have to make more. Rabbiteater!”

Redscar jumped. Rabbiteater? He stared as one of the Hobs stood up. But Rabbiteater was a small Goblin! And this Hob who stood up looked—impressive. He had a cloak made of liquid and his armor looked pristine. He looked like…well, an adventurer. He had been filling a goblet from his cloak, and the liquid looked like blood. Or wine. He walked over as Erin waved at him.

“Rabbiteater, get Pebblesnatch and your people to grab all the fish they can out of the water. Watch out for Rock Crabs—tell them to make a fillet. Something simple. As for here, I’ve got a lot of food. The Goblins can come in and out.”

She directed Rabbiteater and the Hob nodded and walked out of the inn. Redscar stared at his back and then looked at the other. No. It couldn’t be. But then—he stared at their war paint, remembering the group of warriors that Garen had sent out of the tribe. His eyes widened.

Headscratcher?

One of the Hobs looked up. He stared at Redscar, and then got up slowly.

“Redscar?”

The two met. Erin came back from a quick conference with Pebblesnatch and her fancy chef’s hat to see Redscar surrounded by the other Redfangs, sans Spiderslicer, laughing in delight. She watched as the former Redfang second-in-command reunited with his old subordinates.

It was a lot of backslapping and quick Goblin chatter that Erin couldn’t follow, but the body language was good. The five clearly knew Redscar and held him in some esteem. For his part, the smaller Goblin looked surprised and then happy to see them. What she couldn’t understand was his relationship with the scowling Goblin called Spiderslicer. They were both Redfangs, but there was some serious beef between them. Numbtongue had to explain it in the end.

“Redfangs. We are all Redfangs. Redscar’s warriors and Spiderslicer’s. But our tribe split. They left with Rags. And they went with Garen, our old Chieftain.”

“Wow. They went with Rags over that Garen guy? And wait—that means those two are enemies?”

Numbtongue shook his head. Spiderslicer was walking towards Redscar, hand on the hilt of his sword.

“No. Yes. Not enemies. Redfangs are always Redfangs. Now we are all on the same side. We all…left Garen.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Spiderslicer was the third-best fighter in all of the Redfang tribe.”

“Okay.”

“And Redscar is second-best in all of Redfang tribe. Or was until he left.”

Oh. Now I get it.”

Erin wanted to roll her eyes as Spiderslicer snapped something and the other Redfangs fell silent. The Goblins who’d entered Erin’s inn grew quiet as the two Goblins stared each other down. Redscar put a hand on his sword’s hilt and Erin felt motivated to interject.

Hey! I said no fighting!

The two Goblins looked at her. Redscar looked at Spiderslicer, who growled something. The two looked at each other in tense silence, and then Redscar jerked his head. They began walking for the door.

“Wait, where are you going?”

Redscar paused to look at Erin.

“No fighting. In inn. So going out.”

Erin’s mouth opened, but Numbtongue grabbed her and whispered urgently to her.

“Will fight anyways. Has to fight. Redfangs have to know who is best.”

“Yeah, but they’ll kill each other!”

“No. They won’t use their own swords. Spiderslicer broke his falchion and Redscar has an enchanted blade. It won’t be fair, so they’ll use other weapons.”

“Well that’s a relief—”

“They’ll use ordinary swords instead.”

What?

The fight went down on a hill close to Erin’s inn. She stood outside the inn with a crowd of adventurers. And Goblins. They stood there, eating and watching as the two Goblins stood in a circle of Redfang warriors. The two were using steel blades, shortswords of identical length. Unenchanted, as Numbtongue had said. But they were sharp and metal.

“They’re going to kill each other.”

Erin put her hands on her head. Earlia, who was snacking on some french fries, shook her head.

“Nah, not if they have healing potions. Sparring can be lethal, but it’s not bad if there’s potions nearby. The real injuries happen when you sever a limb or poke out an eye. Or crush bones. But experts can usually avoid that. Hey, anyone care for a bet?”

Heads turned. Pisces drifted over.

“I could back a few wagers. What’re the odds?”

“Redscar will win. Second-best.”

Headscratcher folded his arms. Shorthilt shook his head dismissively.

“Not certain. Redscar is best on Thunderfur. Riding. But Spiderslicer fights best on ground.”

“Spiderslicer doesn’t have falchion.”

Rabbiteater pointed that fact out. The other Redfangs nodded. Revi, staring down at the commotion, looked around.

“The one with the spider name looks good to me. Put two gold pieces on him, Pisces.”

“Oh come now, Revi. Surely you can stand a larger bet. Fifty gold on the spider fellow, young Pisces. How much will that earn me?”

Typhenous chuckled. Pisces looked up as the other adventurers whistled.

“I’ll give you even odds on both sides for the moment. Any takers?”

A clamor of voices arose and Pisces began to take money or vocal bets from other sides. Erin looked disgusted as some of the Goblins began to offer Pisces bits of food as well, or coins of their own. Then she saw a dour looking face appear at Pisces’ back. Erin drifted closer just in time to hear Halrac speak to Pisces.

“Two hundred gold on the one with the scar.”

Pisces paused. He glanced at Halrac, and immediately adjusted the odds to favor Redscar. Erin slapped her forehead. The [Scout] met her eyes and shrugged.

The fight went down independent of the betting around The Wandering Inn. Spiderslicer and Redscar advanced slowly. They didn’t touch weapons or nod to each other. They just waited a beat, and then tried to stab each other to death. Or at least, that was what Erin made of it. She couldn’t watch the entire thing; every time they leaned back and avoided a close cut or worse, cut each other, she had to cover her eyes. They were indeed careful—but only to avoid killing each other. Blood soon ran in the mud and Erin heard the shouts from outside.

It was over in minutes, which was a surprise to everyone who’d expected a quick match. Both Goblins trooped into the inn, having healed their wounds. Spiderslicer followed Redscar into the inn and sat at the same table as the scarred Goblin. He seemed…calmer now. Erin eyed both Goblins but couldn’t tell who’d won at a glance.

“Well?”

She walked over to a table of adventurers. And Headscratcher and Shorthilt. Halrac was drinking and counting the coins that Pisces had sullenly paid out—the [Necromancer] had taken a loss thanks to the big bet—and the others were animatedly discussing the fight. Bevussa looked up.

“Those Goblins are good!”

“Beyond good, I’d say. They actually look like they know swordsmanship. They’re better than almost all the Silver-rank adventurers I see practicing. Some of the Gold-rank ones, too.”

Earlia grumbled into her mug. She looked disgruntled, almost uneasy. Pisces nodded, sniffing knowledgably.

“Their form is impeccable. The one called Redscar is clearly better than Spiderslicer, but both had superior posture, timing, and a modicum of grace. It was certainly a battle worth watching.”

“From Goblins.

“Don’t underestimate them.”

Halrac admonished the other adventurers. Typhenous, who was sadly drinking from his mug, looked up at Halrac.

“You’re keen-eyed, Halrac. Share your insights with us. How would you rate them on a purely technical level against someone of say, Ylawes’ caliber?”

He glanced slyly at the [Knight], who was sitting stiffly at a table and looking at the Goblins around him. Yvlon was sitting across from her brother, clearly displeased. But the two were talking. Halrac eyed Ylawes. He grunted.

“No comment.”

“Oh come on, Halrac.”

“I don’t gossip about my peers. Especially if what I say will get back to them and ruffle feathers.”

“Hold on, you don’t mean—”

The adventurers and Goblins sat forwards at the table. Halrac folded his arms. Erin rolled her eyes. She passed by their table and circulated the room.

A dozen conversations were happening in different spots at once. Erin saw Noears sitting at another table near the magic door, clearly studying it, Hobgoblins bickering over food with smaller Goblins—and adventurers, cautiously eating and watching them. But she wasn’t interested in them. She found one Goblin sitting with a group of female Goblins—at least, they all looked female to Erin.

Poisonbite looked up suspiciously as Erin grabbed a chair and scooted over. The young woman stared up at a large Hob with a helmet still on her head. The Hob stared down at Erin. She smiled.

“Hi.”

Then Erin looked at Poisonbite. The small Goblin stared up at her.

“What?”

“I’m told you know Rags.”

All the female Goblins stared hard at Erin. She raised her hands.

“Hey, I’m not trying to start anything. But I knew her. Before she became your Chieftain. I think. She used to stay at this inn. She was…a friend.”

The Goblins kept staring. Poisonbite looked at the others.

‘You knew Chieftain?”

“A little bit. But she never spoke. I don’t think she knew how. And she definitely didn’t have a big tribe. Heck, at first I don’t think she had a tribe. She was just…Rags. How did she end up leading such a huge army?”

Erin’s question provoked a minor furor among the Goblins. Poisonbite hit the table with the butt of her knife and glared.

“Not army. Tribe. Flooded Waters tribe.”

“Sorry. But can you tell me about her? What was she like? How is she doing? Is she…okay? I heard she was missing.”

“Chieftain is alive.”

Poisonbite said it instantly. She glared at Erin as if hinting otherwise was tantamount to treason. She raised her voice.

“Chieftain is smart! Cunning! She rebelled from Tremborag of the Mountain. Fought [Emperor]! Defeated pink-death [Knights]! Spoke to him. Greybeard!”

“Greybeard.”

The other Goblins nodded conspiratorially and stared at Erin. She looked around blankly.

“Rags did all that? Rags?

“Yes. She is our Chieftain. Worthy. You should know.”

Poisonbite sneered down at Erin. The young woman nodded.

“I should. So tell me.”

The smaller Goblin hesitated. She looked uncertain. Then the Hob with the helmet spoke. She rumbled and Erin jumped.

“First Chieftain was in Flooded Waters tribe. First fight other tribes. Had crossbows. Very smart. Very deadly. Shoot in head very dead.”

The other Goblins nodded. The Hob fell silent, drank from her mug, and folded her arms. She was clearly done. Another Goblin took up the story. She had a very clear tone. Some of the Goblins were clearly very good at English, or rather, the common tongue, and others were not.

“Chieftain fought many tribes. Garen Redfang himself came to fight Chieftain. Fought. Won. Chased Chieftain and fought and fought. But then Chieftain lured into Shield Spider trap. Garen Redfang submit. Then Chieftain fight other tribes! Redfangs and Flooded Waters tribe, too strong! But Goblin Lord coming. So go north. Fight Goldstone Chieftain tribe. Get Pyrite—Goldstone Chieftain.”

“Pyrite.”

The others murmured his name. Erin looked around.

“Who was he?”

The female Goblins stared at Erin. They tried to explain. Erin tried to listen. It was a confusing story, made harder by poor grammar and an unreliable narrative structure. But Erin kept listening. The Goblins argued over the details, threw food at each other, but kept telling the story. And they kept looking at Erin, although the [Innkeeper] didn’t know why. But it was the expression on her face as they told her more of Rags, of her triumphs and failures.

She was smiling.

 

—-

 

Noears sat amid some of the [Mages] and adventurers. Or rather, he sat at a table and they sat at their tables near him and stared at him. They couldn’t help it. Ceria wished she’d joined Pisces at his table, even if it meant listening to him sniff. He had a cold. Anything would be better than this.

“So I uh, won my axe during that competition. Dead drunk, you know. Woke up with a splitting headache and the [Axe Champion] class. Never been able to get rid of it, for all I use a hammer. Damn class. I mean, the Skill’s nice, but it’s the wrong specialization. Maybe I should pick up an axe, but it’s just not my thing. So I’m screwed two ways.”

Dawil finished his story as he spoke to Falene, Ylawes, Yvlon, Ceria, and Ksmvr. The other adventurers nodded without much enthusiasm. Only Ksmvr seemed animated.

“That is a very poignant story illuminating the dangers of inebriation, friend Dawil. May I ask what Skills your class gives you? I am attempting to ascertain which class will be of most use to my team.”

“Ah, well, if it’s Skills you want to talk, you’d do worse than following Ylawes’ example. He’s always blocking things with his shield. Or his face. [Knights] are a good class. Better than most [Warrior] classes. Right, lad?”

Dawil raised his voice and slapped Ylawes on the back. The [Knight] lurched and slopped some of his drink on the table. He looked around.

“What? I’m sorry, Dawil. I was distracted.”

Ksmvr nodded knowingly.

“Yes. You were staring hard at the Goblin without ears for quite some time. So was everyone else. May I ask what the issue is? Is he horribly disfigured or is this a mark of some kind of sexual attractiveness I am not aware of?”

The entire table went silent. Noears looked around and the other Goblins at his table—including Badarrow—looked up. They stared at the adventurers and Noears raised his voice.

“Black thing asks about this?”

He tapped his ears. Ksmvr nodded politely as Ceria tried to kick him under the table.

“Ow. Yes, I am Ksmvr. I am an Antinium and a member of the Horns of Hammerad. Ow. Captain Ceria, you are kicking me. May I ask about your missing ears? My companions clearly wish to, but have not broached the subject. I wish to ask so we may continue our discussion unimpeded.”

He stared at Noears. The [Mage] grinned and shot a spark from one finger to the other. Electricity danced along one claw as he stood up. The adventurers looked as he moved over, ushering a Goblin out of his seat. Noears tilted his head to show them the missing ears.

“Ksmvr Antinium wants to know why ears are missing? Other adventurers know. You don’t?”

“I have no idea. Ow.”

Noears grinned. He looked from face to face. Ceria couldn’t meet his eyes. Noears tapped the side of his head again.

“Answer is bounty. Adventurers get paid for Goblin ears. Two copper coins for Goblin ears. Good money, right?”

He grinned at the others. Ylawes stared ahead. Dawil looked into his mug and then drank. He uttered an oath. Ceria closed her eyes, remembering. Yes. It was good money, especially if you were starting out. If you got a request to hunt Goblins—or if you met some on the road, you could earn a few silver pieces easy. A request to subjugate a tribe? You added the ears onto whatever money you made. And you never thought twice about it after the first few times. You never—

None of the other adventurers would say anything. But it was Falene who looked around and felt the need to justify things. She pursed her lips and spoke, avoiding looking at Noears.

“It may be distasteful, but the practice of placing bounties has historically been a key motivator in culling problematic populations. Rural Adventurer’s Guilds lack access to truth spells, so the practice of collecting trophies is necessary, however—”

“Dead gods, Falene!”

Dawil slammed his mug down on the table. Ceria jumped. The Dwarf looked up as Falene fell silent. Her face was slightly paler than usual. Dawil glared at her, and then at Noears.

“Yes. We know. It’s a thing adventurers do, lad. We kill Goblins and Shield Spiders and other monsters and don’t think twice about it. I didn’t until I came here. Then I started imagining every Goblin I ever killed. I’m sorry for it. But sometimes the Goblins were bastards. Other times…”

He looked away, and at a group of Redfang warriors. They were sitting, eating, looking around, in good spirits. Only, now and then, Ceria had caught one of them looking towards the Silver Swords, or Bevussa, or one of the other teams that had fought them. Just for a moment. But Erin’s peace held. Dawil shook his head.

“We fought Goblins on the road not a day ago and they’re sitting here without so much as blaming us. I don’t know what to make of that, but I’d defend myself and my team again. But the ears—I can’t excuse the ears.”

The others fell silent. Ksmvr looked from face to face and then at Noears. The Goblin [Mage] shrugged.

“Adventurers kill. Goblins kill. But next time make sure Goblin is dead. Or Goblins grows up and does this.”

He pointed a finger. A miniature bolt of lightning crackled up past Ksmvr’s antennae. Falene pursed her lips but said nothing. Ylawes looked down at Noears.

“I am sorry for your loss, sir. But enemies are enemies. I am aware that there are good examples of your species—once my team encountered a group of—of noble Goblins in a city besieged by their kind and the undead. But can you speak to the depredations others of your kind cause? What other options is there but to make war against Goblins who kill or steal?”

“Silver and steel, Ylawes!”

Yvlon glared at her brother. He returned her look, sitting stiffly in his chair. Noears cackled.

“No, good point! Good point! Fair is fair. Goblins do wrong, get killed. So. Here.”

He slapped something on the table in front of Ylawes. The [Knight] blinked.

“What is this?”

Two filthy gold coins lay on the table. Noears grinned at him.

“Anyone who wants coins cuts off your ears. Don’t have to die either. Free coin! Fair is fair.”

He cackled and lightning flickered from the tips of his claws. Falene eyed Noears as Ylawes flushed. Yvlon bit her lip and Ceria saw she was trying not to laugh. Ksmvr eyed Ylawes.

“Monetarily, would it make sense to—”

“Shut up, Ksmvr.”

Dawil chortled. The mood at the table relaxed a tiny bit, odd as that seemed. Falene indicated Noears’ claws circumspectly.

“Mister…Noears. Are you a [Aeromancer]?”

“What?”

Noears stared at the half-Elf. Falene hesitated.

“A [Lightning Mage]?”

“Oh! Yes!”

The Goblin grinned. He shot more sparks of electricity, blackening the table. A few struck Ylawes’ armor and Yvlon’s gauntlets. Both winced. Dawil, who’d sensibly gone without his armor, swore and threw a piece of bread at Noears anyways.

“Cut that out, you no-eared bastard!”

Ceria sucked in her breath, but the Goblins at Noears’ table including him laughed. It was a genuine laugh, and Noears relented. He nodded at Falene, who’d deflected a few of the sparks meant for her.

“Lightning mage! Yes! Practiced with spells. Can shoot lightning.”

Falene shook her head, looking unhappily surprised.

“Fascinating. It was speculated that a Goblin could learn magic, but one of your level is…unprecedented. However, your control of mana is wildly inefficient. And the spells are twisted.”

“Yep. Look better that way.”

Noears agreed happily. Falene sighed.

“I don’t suppose there are any Goblins with a more complete grasp of magic? General magic? Not just a single school?”

Noears looked blankly at the [Battle Mage]. He scratched at his head.

“What, like stupid magic? Lifting rocks and things?”

Ceria snorted some ale out of her nose. Falene gave her a long look as the younger half-Elf wiped her nose. Ceria ignored her. She hesitated and looked at Noears, then raised her mug.

“Hey. You do lightning magic? I’m an [Ice Mage].”

Noears brightened. He looked inquiringly at Ceria and she raised her hand. The Goblins oohed as Ceria coated her hand and arm in a layer of ice, her new spell. Noears responded by making a little ball of electricity which he shot at Ceria. She deflected it with her ice-covered hand. Falene sighed loudly.

Elementalists.

 

—-

 

At another table, no laughter of any kind was going on, and the tension was of a different kind. Moore sat gingerly at the table—on the ground since there were no chairs built for his weight. He was surrounded by pillows that supported his back and allowed him to lean back a bit. He was eating gingerly. The other two sitting at his table, Jelaqua and Seborn, ate very little, but they’d been drinking into their cups.

“I can’t believe those Redfangs don’t hold a grudge. We killed a lot of them.”

Jelaqua spoke quietly after a few minutes of silence. Moore looked up.

“I asked Erin about it. She said they’re not happy, but apparently it was because they were fighting under Garen. His problems aren’t the tribe’s problems. So they let it go. They’re quite stoic about some things. It is surprising.”

“I don’t know how they do it.”

Jelaqua stared into her mug. The sight of a huge Raskghar hunched over was eerie, but the other two had learned to look beyond form. Seborn grunted.

I don’t think they are. I think they just know that there’s nothing to be gained from starting a fight right now.

He looked at a group of Redfangs. They all turned back in their chairs. Seborn nodded to himself.

They’ll eat. But they’re memorizing our faces.

“Let them.”

Jelaqua stared at her mostly untouched plate. She pushed it back and looked at the other two. Only now, a few hours into the night, did she finally bring up the topic they’d danced around.

“So. What he said.”

“I don’t believe it. How could Halassia do that? She always believed in the best of us.”

“She was a Drake, Moore.”

“They cast her out of their city. They called her cursed!”

The half-Giant looked distressed as he shifted, trying to sit upright. Jelaqua put a paw on his leg.

“Keep still. Healer’s orders.”

Reluctantly, he did. Seborn stared ahead.

It doesn’t matter if they hated her. She was a patriot. So was Ukrina in her own way. They loved their cities. And they lived through the Second Antinium War, Moore. They grew up with that devastation. What do you think they would have done if they met Ksmvr? Remember how we never stopped at Liscor when we went from north to south?

“Yeah. We’d take a ship and do guard duty instead, never mind how boring it was.”

“Even so.”

Moore looked down at his bowl. Jelaqua sighed.

“He might have been lying.”

Do you think he was?

“What, Garen? No. He’s a terrible liar. He might have exaggerated, or twisted what happened, but I can imagine it.”

The Selphid fell silent. She traced on the table.

“It was Ukrina and Halassia, definitely. They’re Drakes. The Goblin King matters to them. To the others too, but you know Keilam wouldn’t say anything outright. And Thornst was new. He’d be keeping quiet. So it was them.”

“Why did they provoke him? Why not wait? He was offering the information. Why did they push him that far? Surely they did. Or was it him?”

Moore whispered. Seborn shook his head.

I don’t know. They were right, though.

The other two looked at him. Moore’s jaw dropped in astonishment.

“How can you say that, Seborn?”

The Drowned Man looked up.

What? It’s a Goblin King. If I was with them, I would agree. One cannot reappear again.

“Of course, but that’s not—”

Seborn gritted his teeth.

Garen was in the wrong. He attacked them.

“But if they were threatening to hurt him—”

He. Attacked. Them. I remember what I saw. It was murder.

“Seborn. Enough.”

Jelaqua interrupted him. The Drowned Man sat back, simmering. He sipped from the hard spirits in his mug, then drank down the water in another tankard. Drowned People had to watch out for dehydration on land, and that went double when drinking. Jelaqua waited until both he and Moore had relaxed a bit to go on.

“They should have waited for the rest of us. Regardless of anything else, they should have waited.”

No one had anything to say to that. Moore looked down and put his bowl on the table, no longer hungry. Seborn kept drinking. Jelaqua thought. At last, her lips twitched. The two looked at her, but it wasn’t a happy smile. It was bitter. Jelaqua looked up at the two of them.

“It doesn’t matter what we would have done. But think of it this way, Seborn. Even if we all agreed that the Goblin King’s treasure was too dangerous to give to the Goblins—what is it? Is it just a magic weapon or is it something else? We’d have to find out, and bring Garen with us, probably. Especially if the treasure is something only a Goblin could find.”

“True. So what?”

Jelaqua shook her head.

“We’d have gone to get it and decided afterwards what to do. It would have probably taken multiple Gold-rank teams and maybe even Named Adventurers. The High Passes. Dead gods. But we would have gone looking for it. That’s what Ukrina and Halassia didn’t understand. Either way…”

Moore went pale. Seborn stared at Jelaqua for a long moment. Then he cursed and looked around.

I need another drink. Drassi!

He waved a hand. The Drake saw it and nodded. Seborn waited, but instead of his drink, someone else wandered over. All three Halfseekers froze as a Goblin with a scar on his face walked over. He sat at their table without asking and looked at them.

“Redscar. Second to Garen. Second strongest in Redfang tribe.”

It was an introduction, however curt. Redscar eyed the Halfseekers, and Jelaqua knew that he knew how many Goblins from his tribe they’d killed. She eyed the enchanted sword at his side and remembered the flails in her room. Seborn shifted and she knew he was checking the positions of his daggers. Moore reached out.

“Seborn.”

“Not here to fight.”

Redscar looked at Seborn as he said that. The [Rogue] stopped.

What do you want?

The Goblin waited as Drassi came by with another mug and took Seborn’s old one. He looked at the two of them.

“Garen. He talked about old team to me.”

The Halfseekers looked up sharply. Moore tried to sit up again.

“He did?”

“Sometimes. When drank. Very few times.”

“What did he say?”

Jelaqua looked at Redscar. The Goblin shrugged.

“Sometimes said about how strong. Or one of them. Cunning [Rogue]. Strong [Green Mage]. Brave Captain. Drake made of ash who was beautiful. Sometimes curse and throw things. Sometimes old stories.”

He gestured, indicating the others. The Halfseekers were silent. Redscar looked at them.

“Heard from Spiderslicer what did. Traitor. Betray tribe.”

We were a team. Not a tribe.

Redscar shrugged as if to say ‘same thing’. He looked at Jelaqua, then Seborn, and then Moore. He hesitated, then came out with it.

“Was he good? Good teammate? Good…adventurer? Before?”

The three looked at him. Jelaqua saw a bit of anxiety in Redscar’s eyes. And it wasn’t about the Goblins they’d killed. It was about something simpler. His question. He was asking—was Garen a good teammate? Had he told the truth? Was anything true?

It would be so easy to crush those fragile hopes. To tell the truth, but in such a way that Garen became a monster completely in the eyes of his tribe. And part of Jelaqua wanted to. She saw Moore hesitate and close his mouth. Seborn was stirring. She met his eyes and said not a word. The Drowned Man opened his mouth. He hesitated, looked at Redscar, and shook his head.

Was he a good adventurer? He was a terrible one. He betrayed his team. He could barely read. He got us into more trouble than any of our other teammates just by walking around the city.

Redscar sagged a bit in his chair. Seborn went on, bitterly.

Adventurers started fights with him, he got arrested, started panics—if he’d started any of it himself we’d have kicked him out from the start. But he never did. And he was strong. Aside from Jelaqua, he was the best in the group. When he found that enchanted blade, he became our front line.

Jelaqua looked up. She saw Moore’s head raise. Seborn made a disgusted sound.

Bastard. I nearly lost an arm twice thanks to him and I had a rope around my neck one time. We were nearly lynched.

He looked at his teammates. Jelaqua slowly smiled. The Selphid looked at Moore, and then at Redscar, who’d glanced back up. She tried to remember, and surprisingly, the memory came into her head without hurting as hard. It still hurt like a needle to the chest, but Jelaqua spoke anyways.

“That’s true. Garen had a knack for trouble. But he was hardly as bad as Ukrina, was he? The number of times she got in trouble for her tail tickling the wrong young woman—remember the time we nearly got killed by that angry [Lord]? Lord Tourants or whatever he was called? Garen wasn’t with us—mainly because we were afraid he would get executed if he wandered around in plain sight.”

Moore nodded.

“There was a bounty on Goblins, and we couldn’t convince anyone even though Garen was Silver-rank at the time. So he was hiding in the forest with Halassia waiting for us to come back. When he learned we were being held prisoner he attacked the prison with her. People were screaming about a Goblin army when it was him and a few illusion spells.”

The other two snorted. They’d nearly forgotten that detail. Redscar scooted closer, listening as Jelaqua fished for another memory.

“Remember the time he got tricked and paid that [Wagon Driver] in gold instead of silver? He got so mad when he found out he tore up half the city.”

Or the time when he tried to beat a Minotaur in a fist fight?

The Halfseekers laughed. They began telling stories. It hurt each time they brought up Garen’s name, much less Halassia, Ukrina, Thornst, or Keilam’s. And it hurt worst of all to remember a happy moment when everything was going well. It hurt because it was a good memory, poisoned by what had happened. It felt to Jelaqua like all their memories had been infected with it.

A slow, bitter poison. It hurt, coming out. But as Jelaqua spoke, the poison did drip away, leaving the wounds clearer at last. Not entirely, but some. Jelaqua paused in the middle of a tale about Garen, a flying boot, and a battle with a Creler nest, and stopped.

“He was our friend. Our comrade in arms. I wish I could have stopped him. He was our friend, but there’s no forgiveness. Some things you forgive. But other things you can’t.”

The other two nodded. Redscar nodded as well. He looked at his arm, where a bit of red paint was beginning to flake away. He picked at it.

“Bad friend. Bad teammate. Bad Chieftain. But good one, sometimes.”

And that was it. The Halfseekers nodded and began telling stories without a second beat. So did Redscar, and some of the other Redfang warriors. Garen had betrayed their trust. He couldn’t be forgiven and that couldn’t be forgotten, no matter how much time passed. Neither the Halfseekers nor his tribe could bury the past.

But they had liked him.

 

—-

 

Goblins cycled in and out of the inn. A few, the lucky few, stayed. The Redfang five, Headscratcher and company, Redscar, Spiderslicer, Noears, and Poisonbite. But the others came and went, eating a meal, pausing to listen, to look around, or to point out Erin to each other, to listen to her shout obscenities as she lost a game of chess on her magic chessboard or try to teach someone how to play. They came and went, offering other Goblins a chance to see.

The myth was true. The legend was real. And the inn was safe. For a little bit. The Goblins were relaxed, more at ease than they had been in a long time. But they were still watchful. It was ingrained in the psyche. So they noticed the dark shapes marching out of the darkness and over the hills.

Of course, they’d come under the hills first. Goblins shouted in alarm and backed up. Many didn’t recognize the strangers, but they didn’t need to know the Antinium to be wary. They raced towards the inn as Pawn and a group of Painted Soldiers walked out of the darkness. The [Acolyte] swung a censer and the Painted Soldiers walked ahead of him. But something was strange.

“They are Antinium. Not a threat. They are guests of the inn.”

Numbtongue insisted as Redscar stared down at the Antinium. The Goblin looked extremely doubtful, but he whistled and the Redscar warriors backed up and quieted their growling Carn Wolves. The Goblins drew back, and Erin, who’d come to see, peered down at the Antinium.

“They didn’t come through Liscor. I wonder why?”

“They probably don’t want to walk through the barricades. But there’s still water down there. Aren’t they nervous? They could slip and fall.”

Ceria appeared at Erin’s side. The young woman peered down.

“No, they’ve got a light and Pawn’s taking a good path. But—is that a lantern he’s swinging?”

The half-Elf’s eyes narrowed.

“No. That’s not a lantern. That’s a…what is that? It’s that burning thing you had him make.”

“His censer. It’s glowing.

Erin breathed softly. The censer was indeed glowing. It was a soft yellow light, and it had seemed exactly like a lantern at first. But the light was too pure and it never wavered. The Antinium shook it and it lit up the area in front of him as he and the Painted Solders—eleven or so—walked towards the inn, past the staring Goblins.

“An enchantment? It has to be an artifact. Did they get it spelled somehow? But who would—no. Wait.”

Ceria’s voice faltered. She stared down at Pawn. Erin heard her gulp.

“Ceria? What is it?”

“There’s no magic. I can’t see it coming from the lantern.”

“What?”

Erin looked down. The censer was glowing, just like a light spell. Only, it wasn’t like a light spell, was it? The censer was glowing, not an orb of light. And Antinium couldn’t cast magic. At least, Pawn couldn’t. Ceria looked pale.

“How is he doing that? How—”

“I think it’s faith.”

What?

The Goblins looked at Erin. She nodded and stared at Pawn. She could hear it now. A faint click. The Painted Soldiers were marching rhythmically. And every ninth step, their mandibles would click together.

Click.

It was a hypnotic, gentle procession up the hill. And the light reminded her of…well, it reminded her of something. Erin stood with her noisy inn behind her and watched Pawn approaching. She whispered.

“Faith made manifest.”

“Then it is not faith, is it?”

Ceria looked suspiciously at Erin. The young woman turned.

“No. I suppose it’s not. In that case, I guess you’d call it…religion.

The half-Elf opened her mouth to tell Erin the gods were dead. But then she looked down and realized there were no gods there. Just the Antinium. And the censer, humble though it was, small though it was, glowed. Any Tier 0 spell could do the same, and make light just as bright or brighter. But it wasn’t magic. And that made Ceria wonder.

 

—-

 

“Attention everyone! These are Antinium! They’re guests! No one scream or stab them! Thank you!”

Erin clapped her hands together. The Goblins looked up, stared at the Antinium, and kept stuffing their faces.

“Thank you, Erin.”

Pawn leaned his censer on a stick against a table as the Soldiers sat in the provided chairs. Erin saw Lyonette coming over with some hot, gluten-free food and smiled.

“It’s great to see you, Pawn.”

“And you, Erin. And you too, Lyonette. I wished to come tonight when I heard what was occurring. Will you please help me feed my Soldiers? I wish to speak with the Goblins.”

The Worker nodded to the Soldiers who were staring at the borscht and then looked around. He spotted the Goblin he was looking for quickly and walked over.

“Numbtongue. I have returned with Purple Smile. Yellow Splatters was forced to remain in the Hive, as it is tactically unsound to bring both [Sergeants] in case we were attacked and killed. Shall we resume our chat?”

Numbtongue grinned. He looked at the curious Soldier who was waving with three of his four hands while one of them grasped a special mug designed for him. Purple Smile raised his mandibles and Numbtongue waved over some of the curious Goblins. The Antinium and Goblins mixed, cautiously at first, and then with ease as they found that they could actually understand each other through sign language as much as words. Erin blinked, mystified.

“I thought they only met once. Since when did they become friends?”

Bevussa shrugged as she passed by Erin.

“A lot goes by that we don’t know about. Do you have any more beer, Erin? We’re all out.”

“Aw!”

The Goblins and Antinium sat together. Numbtongue pointed at Pawn’s censer. The Antinium admired the Redfang’s war paint. They were quite similar, for all they were different. And then Erin turned from a conversation and shouted the words that made the entire inn look up.

“Hey you lot! Lyonette tells me you can dance! Is that true?”

 

—-

 

“Fascinating.”

Pisces stood by the door with a drink in hand. Wine, unfortified and delicate. Taken from Rabbiteater’s cloak of all places. He supposed the location didn’t matter since the quality of the wine was a fine vintage, but he couldn’t help but feel that it cheapened the entire experience a bit. Well, free wine was free wine. He drank and looked at Ceria, Falene and Typhenous, who’d both gathered around Noears. The Goblin was flicking balls of lightning up which exploded harmlessly. But that wasn’t what had prompted Pisces’ rare outburst of admiration.

It was the floating orbs of multicolored lights that Noears had conjured with a single [Light] spell. Pisces admired the colors—the Goblin had an eye for pleasing aesthetics—and then looked at the other [Mages].

“You can see the spell was clearly boosted by the ambient mana. In fact, all of our magics tonight are. If you see—”

He flicked his fingers and his wine glass turned upside down. But the wine within remained perfectly still, controlled by the telekinesis. Pisces lifted it to his lips and drank, letting gravity take over.

“You see? That would be far more difficult normally, especially as I am not well-versed in telekinetic magic. But the ambient mana in Erin’s inn is charged.”

“It hasn’t been until now. Why is that?”

Ceria frowned at the glowing light spell. Typhenous cleared his throat.

“I do recall Miss Lyonette mentioning a similar phenomenon. But why would it only occur now after so long? Unless…”

All the [Mages] looked to the magic door. Pisces stroked his chin.

“When was the last time the door wasn’t teleporting someone to Celum every night? Or Pallass? How much mana does it take to send someone a hundred miles in a second?”

“We have been using the door today—”

“Only to go back and forth between Liscor. And the teams taking the door south. But Nailren’s team is only, what, twenty miles south of here? Thirty at most.”

“So the door isn’t consuming as much mana! Of course! Imagine the drain—how much magic is Erin’s inn producing normally, do you think?”

“Enough to make that spell possible.”

Ceria eyed Falene and Moore. The two were sitting together and the half-Elf had conjured a floating procession of plates to move past Moore’s head while he sat back. Thus he could eat without having to sit up and she could keep talking without having to look up at him.

Pisces waved that away.

“That is a spell fueled by Miss Skystrall’s magic. A product of ability. But that [Light] spell was overcharged. I wonder, how much power could you draw without the door present?”

“Wanna try? Blow up rocks?”

Noears grinned and shot a few tiny lightning bolts from his fingers. Pisces sniffed.

“Tempting, but I think that would be considered an act of aggression from Liscor at the moment. But I do wonder if we could—”

He was discussing spells with the others when he heard a sound break through the general hubbub. Goblins turned their heads as a Hobgoblin with a guitar struck a chord. Numbtongue played a riff, and then modulated the tone. Instead of the crackling electric chords, he played something much softer.

Another sound joined him. A Cave Goblin on a pair of improvised drums. A pair of Goblins blew into flutes they’d carved out of wood. A third had a kind of violin. Pisces’ jaw dropped.

Cave Goblins took their places as a young woman waved a stick, mimicking a conductor without in fact lending anything to the performance. Numbtongue ignored her as he plucked at his guitar. The Cave Goblins played. Their instruments were crude. But the sounds they made were pure. After all, they’d listened to Numbtongue and he knew what the other musical instruments should look and sound like, at least in theory.

The sound they made as a whole was discordant at first. The Cave Goblins hadn’t played in symphony and this song was new. But they were Goblins. Cooperation was in their blood, and in time, they had a song going that was…close.

It sounded vaguely like something Pisces would hear in a ballroom in Terandria, albeit with a faster tune, more bass and drums, and a good deal more mistakes. But the resemblance was uncanny. He stared at the Goblins. And then he got the shock of his life.

The Painted Soldiers had turned at the sound of the music. They had stood up as one. Now they stepped into the middle of the common room, which had been cleared of tables and chairs. Pisces watched them a tad bit apprehensively. He wasn’t sure what they’d do. What he was not prepared for was to see two of the Soldiers lock hands and begin to dance.

Not just dance. They began to step in pairs, in a classic ballroom waltz. Across the room, Halrac nearly choked on his drink as the Antinium slowly walked down the long [Grand Theatre], towards the dais at the back of the room. They turned stepped, turned—their steps were perfectly in synch. Memorized, coordinated. As only the Antinium could do.

The Antinium—and a [Princess]. Lyonette spun past the Soldiers, Pawn holding her hand gingerly. Pisces rubbed at his eyes and stared down into his mug as Typhenous went to sit down and landed on the floor. Everyone watched as the song played on and the Antinium danced. For a minute, two, the Antinium moved to the sound of the playing Goblins. And then the music changed.

“Okay, Numbtongue! Hit it! Better When I’m Dancing! This is my song!”

Erin jumped into the middle of the dance floor. The music changed, picking up in tempo. It took a distinctly un-ballroom-like melody. Pisces saw Erin stop, and then began shuffling her feet. She winked.

“I learned this one from Charlie Brown.”

She began to dance, in a way that had nothing to do with memorized steps or patterns. It was individual, cheerful, and completely embarrassing. Pisces saw Revi snort, and the Goblins exchanged glances, unsure if this was comedy or something serious. Erin just laughed. She beckoned.

“Come on!”

There was a moment of hesitation, then a Goblin pushed her way through the crowd. Pebblesnatch looked around importantly, then handed her prized chef’s hat off to another Goblin. She began to copy Erin. The young woman laughed. The two began to dance, and then another Goblin came forwards. He struck a pose and that was it.

The dance floor began to fill. The Antinium Soldiers watched, then began to copy Erin. Pisces watched, dribbling wine onto the floor. Ceria laughed and laughed and then grabbed Pisces’ hand.

“Come on! You’ve seen Erin dance, Pisces! And they’re playing all of the songs on Ryoka’s music thing! How did Erin teach Numbtongue that?

“No, absolutely not—”

Pisces raised his hands. But then Ksmvr was there.

“Comrade Pisces, will you dance with me?”

Ksmvr didn’t seem to understand the traditional gender pairing that went along with such things. Pisces was trying to explain it to him as Typhenous tried to muffle his laughter with his beard. That was when Erin grabbed his hand and towed the old man into the dance.

Bright music. The Goblins standing outside the inn waiting for their turn stared through the windows. They looked at each other, and then shouted for the others to see. And the dancing spread. After all, Goblins were thieves. And stealing music and footwork was considerably more easy than food. All they had to do was watch.

 

—-

 

A pair of blonde figures sat at a table as Erin led the Goblins through the evolution of dancing throughout the ages. She had to describe some of it, not being capable of advanced moves like breakdancing, moonwalking, or anything past the electric slide, really. But it was a sight to see Antinium Soldiers doing that.

Yvlon had to wrench her eyes away from the mesmerizing sight. She looked at her brother and blew a bit of hair out of her face. Somehow, Ylawes was capable of ignoring even the most wondrous of sights. He frowned at her as he drank from a small cup, his face slightly flushed from the alcohol.

“It’s dangerous, Yvlon. All the adventuring teams are going south. They intend to go through Drake lands, but we’re Human. If it does come to war, we’d be in danger. I had another idea, though. If we go north, we’d run right into the Goblin Lord’s army.”

“That’s your idea?”

Her sarcastic tone made her brother grimace.

“Just wait, Yv. Yes, the Goblin Lord would be marching towards us, but Lord Veltras is pursuing his army. I doubt he’d let us come to harm. And our father is marching with him.”

Yvlon folded her arms.

“So you want to run to Tyrion Veltras. Just in time to participate in the attack on Liscor?”

“He wouldn’t demand that—”

“No? You’re a Gold-rank team, Ylawes. He’ll conscript you.”

The [Knight] paused.

“Perhaps we could talk him into negotiating instead. Or at the very least, ensure that the battle is merciful to the defeated if—”

“Dead gods, Ylawes! He’s going to sack Liscor with the Goblins! You think he’ll be merciful when—”

Ylawes signaled frantically as the aforementioned Goblins looked around. Yvlon lowered her voice.

“You think this is right? No! He’s going to start a war and we’re on the wrong side. Father was an idiot for supporting him.”

“Don’t talk about our father that way.”

Yvlon’s older brother frowned angrily. Yvlon clenched one fist.

“Shouldn’t I? He’ll be part of the bloodshed, Ylawes.”

That made him hesitate. Ylawes took another drink from his cup.

“He is part of the army. He must cooperate or be seen as dishonorable. You can see the integrity in his decision—”

Yvlon tossed the contents of her mug at Ylawes. He dodged it and an unhappy Goblin shook a fist at both of them. Yvlon snapped.

“You’re unbelievable. Integrity? Father threw out centuries of our family’s friendship with the Reinharts. You want to talk about honor, Ylawes?”

He held still, face red, but looking serious.

“No one is perfect, Yvlon. We try. I have seen a lot which has changed my mind, but the facts cannot themselves change. Liscor will be under siege and I think you and I both know it will fall. Please think on what I’ve said. If not for yourself, then for your team.”

“Ksmvr’s Antinium.”

“But he is your team. And if you convinced Erin to go with you—”

“What about Selys? Mrsha? The others? Will you take them all as prisoners, Ylawes?”

The [Knight] shook his head.

“I could order you to go. I am your brother and I outrank you.”

Yvlon raised her middle finger. Ylawes sat up straight with shock.

“Shove this up your ass, Ylawes. I’m not a [Knight] and adventurers don’t follow military command. That’s Drakes you’re thinking of. And I’m not your little sister. I’m a member of the Horns and I refuse to—”

Alright Gangnam style! Follow me, everyone!

Yvlon and Ylawes both looked left. They stared as Erin pranced across the room, doing a dance the armored woman could only describe as a horse prancing crossed with a wagon driver flapping his reins. Yvlon stared as Erin crossed the inn, singing a nonsensical song and dancing that ridiculous dance. Ylawes watched with open mouth as Erin showed the other Goblins how to do it.

The entire inn came to a standstill as they watched Erin lead the Goblins, Drassi (and a few of the Antinium) across the floor doing the iconic dance. Dawil laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair and couldn’t stand up for a good three minutes.

“What in the name of silver was…”

Ylawes shook his head, coming out of his trance. He looked at his sister and saw her getting up.

“Yvlon! Where are you going? We haven’t finished this discussion.”

“I’m going to try that dance.”

“That?”

Ylawes looked aghast. Yvlon smiled.

“Why not? And the answer is no, Ylawes.”

“This isn’t over.”

The [Knight] vowed as he got up. Yvlon stared at him. Then she turned her head.

“You can’t force me to change my mind, Ylawes. I’m with my team.”

She walked off. Ylawes saw her tap Ceria on the shoulder and try to drag the half-Elf onto the dance floor. Embarrassment hated company, but it couldn’t do without. He sat back down.

“I can’t force you to change your mind, but I promised I’d keep you safe.”

The [Knight] muttered to himself. He watched Yvlon and then shook his head. They called this dancing? It was…well, he might have given it a shot. If there weren’t so many witnesses. Or if Dawil wasn’t watching. The Dwarf still hadn’t stopped laughing.

 

—-

 

As all things happened, it ended. Goblins fell asleep. In piles. Outside. Adventurers went to their beds. Erin stumbled about, trying not to step on bodies. And the adventurers looked at each other, deep into their cups. Not a little bit drunk, but still high on the remnants of the party.

A party. When all that had happened and was going to happen was in the air, they’d had a party. Ceria rubbed at her head. It was an Erin thing. But somehow, it was fitting. There had been a truce. She went from table to table, trying to find where her teammates had passed out. She found Ksmvr lying under a chair, moaning about water as some dripped from a cup onto his head. She decided he was fine. Then she looked for Yvlon. She found Pisces instead.

The [Necromancer] was sitting at a table, wine cup in hand. He was murmuring to himself. Ceria went to take the cup away. Pisces let her. She lifted him up.

“Come on, Pisces. To your bed. I can’t carry Ksmvr without Yvlon, but you’re light enough.”

“I resent that…Springwalker. I was deep—immersed in my thoughts. Creating art, if you must know. A reflection of this moment. In celebration.”

Pisces’ breath was full of wine. Ceria, none too steady herself, dragged him to the steps, avoiding a sleeping Hob.

“Oh yeah? Tell me another one.”

“If you insist. It is an opus of sorts, however unpolished. Ahem.”

Pisces cleared his throat. Ceria turned to tell him she didn’t want to hear, but it was too late. He began speaking softly. And perhaps it was her inebriation, but the poem was quiet and pleasing to the ear in the silence punctuated by soft footsteps and snores.

 

What madness, what fright!

A terrible, glorious sight!

When traitor fled and Goblins rode

And came to rest, here on nowhere’s road

A strange thing happened; an inn they stayed

Where Antinium danced and Goblins played

Oh, how I wish I’d stayed

But too quick the night stole by

And I,

Had to bid the day goodbye

On this, a springtime

Miraculous night.

 

He broke off, swaying, and Ceria stopped. She looked at him.

“That wasn’t half bad.”

“You think so? Ah, but I knew so.”

Pisces grinned blearily at her. Ceria rolled her eyes.

“Yes, yes. Don’t let it go to your head. Who did you steal that from?”

“As a matter of fact…”

The two went up the stairs, arguing quietly. The last of the Goblins fell asleep now that the noisy Humans were gone. They slept where they’d fallen, full to bursting, filled with alcohol, and, strangest of all, feeling safe.

Safe. What a word. They were camped beneath a Drake city with the Goblin Lord and Humans hot on their heels. But…tonight had been a reprieve. A special moment. For a little bit, for one night in their lives, Goblins had been people and people weren’t any better than Goblins.

It was indeed a miracle. Or perhaps a changing of opinions.

A much quieter Human listened to Ceria and Pisces go upstairs. Erin Solstice looked around at the slumbering Goblins. It would be a problem tomorrow. It might be a problem in two hours, when the sun rose. She didn’t know what to do. Still. It wasn’t as if dancing or drinking could solve the real crisis ahead of her. And yet, she couldn’t regret tonight. It was needed.

One good night. Erin walked into her kitchen. She lay down and sighed. She dreaded tomorrow and hoped it would never come. But she knew it would. But at least tonight, she savored forever and let the night stretch on into one eternal, immortal moment.

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 37!]

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.58

They came for him. Three of them. Old friends. They charged forwards, howling, ghosts from his past, aiming at him through thousands of Goblins. For a second Garen was frozen, staring into each face. Then he reacted. He drew his sword and time slowed.

In battle, time always felt elongated to Garen. It wasn’t that he didn’t move as quickly, but his mind outpaced his body. He turned his Carn Wolf as the three came at him and saw his tribe react. Like him, they had been caught off-guard by the Halfseekers’ attack. But only for a moment. As they saw the Gold-rank adventurers going for their Chieftain, they moved to intercept, to bring the three down.

Just like Garen had taught them. In fact, his entire tribe had been forged, trained for this very moment. Garen had dreamed of a day when his past would catch up to him. He had imagined an army of adventurers, a war in the High Passes. Instead he fought in a quiet bend in the road, next to a cave, just north of Liscor. It changed nothing. The three didn’t so much as hesitate, though they had to know the odds.

They didn’t stop.

The first was Jelaqua. She ran ahead, so fast that she was running past Carn Wolves and Goblins on horseback as they turned to catch her. Her legs moved at a pace few creatures could match, Skills or not. She was wearing a Drake’s body, the skin dead and pale. But Garen knew her by the two-handed flail she whirled around her, and the look in her eye.

A Goblin raced at her, falchion raised. Spiderslicer slashed down at Jelaqua and she twisted. The whirling flail struck Spiderslicer’s Carn Wolf and nearly struck the Goblin in the face as Spiderslicer pulled back. He cursed—the other Goblins were caught by the spinning flail and screamed in pain. Jelaqua kept running. She was already rampaging, forcing her body beyond its normal limits.

Garen!

She screamed his name. The Hob turned in his saddle. He was urging his Carn Wolf away, further behind his warriors. He couldn’t afford to fight her. Jelaqua was—she had been his Captain. When she was using a fresh body and rampaging, she was stronger and quicker than he was. Or, she had been. Her flail could strike from any angle. She’d stop him, and let the other two catch up for the kill.

Archers!

The word came not from Garen’s mouth, but from Spiderslicer. The Goblin raced around Jelaqua, pointing at her. Goblins grabbed bows, and a Hob lifted his spear. Jelaqua ignored the threat. She crashed into a pair of riders who charged at her with stolen lances and downed both in a moment. Their horses collapsed, screaming. Jelaqua knocked one aside, looking for Garen—

And a spear struck her in the back. It passed through her leather armor and embedded itself in her right shoulder blade. The force made Jelaqua stagger. The Redfang warriors shouted in triumph and moved forwards to finish her off.

“No, back!

He bellowed at them too late. They came at her, eight of them from every direction. Jelaqua turned, and her flail spun.

Death. Garen heard the sickening thumps, saw his warriors fall. Jelaqua turned and the Redfangs faltered. The spear stuck out of her back, but she did not bleed. She looked around and Garen and Jelaqua both saw the other two faltering. Goblins were intercepting both. Jelaqua cursed.

You two! Go! I’ll cover you!

She ran back. The Redfang Warriors heard her of course, and moved to intercept. They were contemptuous, still. There were thousands of them, and they’d fought and killed Gold-rank adventurers before. What could one warrior do?

Everything. Nothing. Garen was looking for a spot to make a stand. He saw Jelaqua leap, bring down two warriors as her flail tore at the air. She landed and the other two ran past her. The other Redfangs were slowed by the zone threatened by Jelaqua’s spinning flail. They hesitated, realizing how suicidal it would be to charge. So instead they raised their bows and shot her.

Arrows snapped and spun as Jelaqua’s whirling flail caught some mid-flight. But she couldn’t strike them all down. Again, Jelaqua staggered as arrows struck her from all sides. One struck her in the cheek and the Redfang Goblins roared. Again they surged forwards. Jelaqua crushed the first wave and the second without slowing. The Redfang Warriors backed up, wide-eyed. An arrow struck Jelaqua in the chest and she didn’t slow. And then they realized.

She didn’t bleed.

Garen saw his tribe slow, bottlenecked by the Selphid. It wasn’t that they couldn’t run past her or around her, but she dominated the field. Redfangs didn’t run from a fight. But they had never fought a Selphid before. Jelaqua turned, the spear sticking out of her back. The spear splintered as the whirling flail struck the haft. The tip of the spear twisted in Jelaqua’s back. She turned and the Redfang tribe saw no fear in her eyes, no pain.

Go! I’ll hold them here!

She called at her companions. But it was a futile boast. Garen saw it. The other two were still far from him and Jelaqua couldn’t hold his warriors. Not alone. He dared to relax. He’d ridden around the perimeter of his tribe rather than charge in. Against any other adventurers he would have. But them? He met the burning gaze that hid behind Jelaqua’s body. The intelligence that lived in the dead body, Jelaqua’s true form, stared back.

Not them. Not her. He would let his warriors bring them down. Garen relaxed. He stared down at the strange thing they’d dropped. A door, lying on the grass. Strange. It was just a…door. As if someone had yanked it off its hinges. Garen frowned down at it. Why would they be carrying…?

Then he saw the white, glowing stone set in the door brighten. The door moved. It swung over in the grass. Garen’s Carn Wolf leapt back. He saw another place appear where grass should be. He stared down, into a room that looked like an inn—and then he saw something blue charging at him. The feathered adventurer leapt and Garen saw her dive forwards, and then she was flying up through the door and into the sky.

Wings of Pallass! On me!

Bevussa shrieked and the other three Drakes flew through the door. They shot up into the air and faltered—they had run through the door, but because it was on the ground, they had shot straight up. They turned and the Redfangs looked up, surprised by the sudden appearance of these strangers. But then Spiderslicer pointed and bows raised. Goblins drew back, aiming for the fliers.

The Wings of Pallass didn’t hesitate. As their leader shouted, they dove, and the arrows missed. They slashed down, striking, and four Goblins fell, struck from behind and above. The Wings of Pallass flew up again as more arrows flew, choosing another target as the Redfang tribe scattered, trying to adjust to this new foe. Garen snarled. He urged his Carn Wolf towards the door—

And then there was fire.

Another figure jumped out—a Drake wearing full-body plate armor. He spat blue fire and the Goblins retreated, Carn Wolves howling and bounding away to roll on the ground. More Drakes ran out of the door, leaping up and them stumbling, finding themselves oriented differently. The first group was like the Drake, and breathed fire. The next was a Human in armor. A half-Elf who began throwing spells, a Dwarf who climbed out of the door and pushed himself up.

Adventurers. They were coming from the open door, from another place! Garen roared and pointed at it.

“Break the door!”

His warriors moved to obey. They charged the adventurers. Garen turned. His Carn Wolf howled, and Garen swatted at the fire that had ignited part of its coat. He heard a voice coming from the open door as he backed away from it, eying the adventurers, looking for a weak spot. The Drakes in armor were tough, forming a wall. The [Knight] and Dwarf both wore heavy armor, but that half-Elf—

“Move the door! Move the fucking door! We’re jumping out the wrong way!”

Revi screamed as she and Griffon Hunt waited on the other side. Halrac was standing at the door as Dawil and Yvlon wrestled it upright. The [Scout]’s hand shot up and he snatched an arrow aimed at Typhenous out of the air. Revi ducked as the Redfangs began shooting arrows through the doorway.

“Get clear! Get the civilians outside or upstairs! And get the other teams! Tell Erin—

Garen saw more adventurers gathered behind the team in the doorway. He snarled. A portal door? Well then, he’d break the door and cut the adventurers off. He pointed forwards, uttered a command. His Carn Wolf whoofed, and turned its head. Garen felt a prickle on his spine and turned as a shadow blocked the setting sun. His heart skipped a beat.

A huge head covered in thorns blocked the light. A body wreathed in an armor of vines reached out. Garen’s huge Carn Wolf, the largest of its kind, snapped and bit. The colossus swatted it aside, knocking Garen from the saddle. His staff swung—the Redfangs trying to charge him flew like broken toys.

There he stood. He’d simply run through the lines of Garen’s tribe. His eyes shone with the magic of the green. But he didn’t use magic. He just swung again, and Garen had to roll away or die as the staff thudded into the ground where he had been. He looked up, at the half-Giant who claimed the sky.

“Moore.”

A fist punched down at him. Garen dodged left, cutting at the hand. Moore’s [Armor of Thorns] spell took most of the cut, but Garen’s crimson blade sheared through the thick vines. But Moore’s skin was barely cut. [Barkskin]. Garen twisted. He saw a staff swinging at him, and ducked rather than block. It whistled over his head. Moore let go of his staff as Garen charged forwards, trying to get past the half-Giant. He grabbed at Garen, bellowing.

You! How could you? How dare you? They were your friends! We were your friends!

Garen didn’t reply. He cut at Moore’s legs. He had to bring Moore down, get behind his warriors. Or else finish him.

Finish him? Garen hesitated. The half-Giant did not. One hand shot out. Garen reflexively stabbed at it. This time his strike was good.

The tip of his sword pierced Moore’s palm, with almost no resistance. Garen stared in horror at the splintered bone and flesh. He heard Moore scream. He tried to pull the blade out—then caught himself and began to twist. But the hand never stopped. It closed around Garen and he felt the thorns and vines dig into his flesh. Something squeezed him, grinding his bones and flesh together. Moore raised him up.

“Thornst! Keilam! Ukrina! Hallassia! Do you remember them?”

He slammed Garen into the ground, and Garen’s entire world went black for a moment. The Goblin woke up staring at Moore. The half-Giant’s fist was raised. Garen blinked at it.

“Nice punch.”

He and Moore stood together in the bar. Or rather, what remained of it. The brief bar fight had carried them halfway out into the street, but given the wrecked walls of the bar, that meant they could still stare back inside. Two adventuring teams lay slumped over as the horrified bar owner stared around at the destruction.

The half-Giant groaned and massaged his knuckles. Garen grinned up at him. Moore looked a bit reproachful as he shook his head.

“Don’t say that. I regret it, Garen. Truly. That man shouldn’t have drawn steel on you, but this?”

He gestured to the devastation. Garen eyed it and wondered if it would mean they’d have to leave the city. Again. He hoped they wouldn’t have to pay for the damages; the City Watch would surely want someone to pay, but they were too afraid to approach right now. He could see them hanging back, calling for reinforcements.

“He started it. Captain will agree.”

Moore sighed. He ran one huge hand through his hair worriedly, as he often did when he was around Garen. Or Jelaqua. Or Ukrina.

“It’s not about who started what, Garen. We’re all adventurers. We should be working together, not fighting over issues like species. If we could show them that not all Goblins are monsters—”

He broke off, sadly shaking his head. Garen looked up at Moore, blinking. He didn’t often understand the half-Giant. Moore was a walking contradiction. He hated fighting, but he had just thrown a Gold-rank adventurer through a wall. He spoke of peace, but he slew monsters for a living. Garen didn’t know what to make of Moore. But he couldn’t help but like the half-Giant, for all he had been with the Halfseekers only four months. Moore was a gentle soul. He grinned and looked up.

“Want to kick them?”

“Honestly, Garen…”

The half-Giant’s fist fell downwards. Garen raised his arms, crossing them, trying to block. Moore roared a word.

Murderer.

The fist crushed Garen against the ground, a hammer blow that made the earth shake. The impact drove the breath from Garen’s body. He lay there, and saw Moore raising a foot. The half-Giant’s face was twisted in fury. Garen had only seen him like that—like that—

Move. Garen rolled and Moore’s foot missed him. The Hobgoblin grabbed his sword and stood. Without breath. He sucked in air and then cut Moore’s hand as it reached for him again. This time, Garen stabbed into Moore’s arm. The half-Giant screamed and Garen leapt away.

“Come back!”

Moore charged after him. But more Redfang warriors raced around him. The half-Giant turned as someone thrust a spear at his side. He snapped the haft, grabbed the Goblin, and squeezed. Moore grabbed a Carn Wolf and hurled it over the heads of the other Redfang warriors. The other Redfangs hung back, out of reach. But they did not fall back. They surrounded Moore, and reached for a different weapon.

Rope. The first noose missed Moore, and then the second. But a pair of Redfang veterans clotheslined him and another snared his arm. More ropes flew and Moore roared as the Carn Wolves and horses strained to drag him down. The Redfangs shouted and dug in. They had fought Gargoyles in the passes. They knew how to bring giants down. But this one spoke.

Garen!

He kept coming, dragging horses and wolves out of place, ignoring the arrows and blades that cut him from all sides. He bellowed, with enough fury to make even the Carn Wolves back up. He never looked away from Garen. The Hobgoblin staggered away from him, drinking a healing potion and reaching for the Ironhide bottle. He drank it down in one gulp and looked for his wolf. The adventurers were fighting his tribe, holding a position around the door. Garen stared at them, saw one of the Drakes point directly at him.

“Burn left! Aim for that Chieftain! On me!”

Keldrass and his Flamewardens took aim at Garen. As one they inhaled and opened their mouths. They were poised to obliterate everything in front of them. They commanded destructive power worthy of any Gold-rank team. But Garen sneered at them. As Keldrass opened his mouth, a Redfang warrior with a crossbow pulled the trigger. A crossbow bolt shot towards the Drake’s mouth.

Other archers loosed at the same time. Keldrass’ eyes went wide. He turned his head. The crossbow bolt struck the side of his helmet instead. Keldrass staggered, swore. The other Flamewardens raised their shields or covered their faces, unable to breathe.

“Ancestors!”

They hunched behind their shields, unable to use their flaming breath. Garen turned away dismissively. He saw the [Knight] fighting three Redfangs at once, bellowing.

“Falene! Buy us an opening! Dawil, with me!”

“I’m trying! But—”

The half-Elf turned and her lips moved wordlessly. Another [Force Wall] rose as the last failed. The Redfang tribe was mercilessly assaulting the adventurers, giving them no quarter to press their attack. Ylawes stared incredulously at Spiderslicer as the Goblin held him back with two veterans.

“Impossible.”

“They’re elites! Pull back, lad!”

Dawil swung his hammer and shielded his face with one arm as an alchemist’s potion exploded, showering him with flaming liquid. The Redfang Goblins were using potions and alchemist weapons as well! Another flew towards Keldrass’ group, and an arrow shot it, making the Tripvine Bag explode harmlessly in the air.

Hold the line.

Halrac nocked another arrow, loosed it, and then took cover behind the wall of stone that Typhenous had raised. Revi’s summoned warriors held another gap, and another adventuring team came through the door. But even the teams trying to pass through the door had to come in slowly—the Redfangs were assaulting the door relentlessly.

It was their battle to lose. Garen knew that. But his eyes were scanning the milling Goblins, moving past the struggling Moore. The half-Giant was as obvious as the sun. But he never attacked where you expected it. He was silent. Relentless. Garen had always admired that about him. The Hobgoblin turned. He saw a black shadow flash, heard a Goblin shout.

A dark figure leapt over the heads of the warriors riding Carn Wolves. He flipped and landed in a gap. His crab arm moved at the same time as his left one, stabbing left and right. Into a horse’s side and a Goblin’s chest. The enchanted blades seared and chilled at the same time. He slid under the surprised Redfang warriors who tried to cut at him, leapt forwards and vanished between the press of bodies. And then he was there, thrusting at Garen’s stomach.

Seborn.

Garen deflected the first dagger that went for his stomach. He swung at Seborn’s chest, but the Drowned Man wasn’t there any longer. He had leapt and vanished, his body half-turning to shadows. Or smoke. It was an illusion. Garen whirled, and caught the second dagger thrusting for his face. A terrible cold chilled him—his left arm went numb for a second. But Garen felt the pain as soon as the dagger left it. Seborn’s slash opened up Garen’s arm. If not for the Ironhide Potion, it might have cut a tendon.

The [Rogue] danced back as Garen whirled his blade at his chest. Garen was too quick for Seborn to dodge fully—the enchanted blade nicked his own magical leather armor. The two enchantments clashed and Garen’s sword won, shearing through the leather and drawing blood. Just a scratch above the chest. The Drowned Man and Hobgoblin stared at each other. Seborn raised his blades and advanced. Garen—hesitated.

Garen was a [Warrior] and Seborn was a [Rogue]. Broadly speaking, it was impossible for Seborn to win a battle head-on. He and Garen were roughly the same level. It was insane for him to challenge Garen like this. But Seborn had never been afraid. And he left no opening for Garen to exploit as he came at Garen, blades whirling.

Left, right, head, knee. Stomach, side—Seborn’s daggers flashed, leaving glowing orange and blue trails in the air. He never stopped stabbing, cutting at Garen’s body, ignoring his own safety. That was what saved him. If he’d given Garen a single opening—

Instead he cut. Garen felt small slashes opening across his body. Light cuts, but they burned or froze him by degrees. He growled.

“Not—”

This time he used a Skill. [Frenzy Cuts]. Garen hacked, feeling his blade grow lighter, move faster, strike harder for a brief instant. The sword left red afterimages in the air. Each cut sought Seborn, but the Drowned Man dodged each one. He danced back, leaning, dodging, becoming shadow and mist.

[Shadowsteps]. [Blur Leap]. [Cat’s Evasion]. And then it was his turn. Garen saw Seborn feint left, then come close. The two were so close Seborn’s shoulder was at Garen’s chest. The Drowned Man looked up and met Garen’s gaze.

“[Flurry Blades].”

Fire and ice. Garen howled as the blades pierced his stomach and chest. He felt the tips strike a dozen times, seeking his heart. But too shallow—just—Garen stumbled back, slashing at Seborn. Reaching for a potion. The Drowned Man didn’t want to let him use it. He narrowed his eyes. Vanished.

[Rearward Cut]. Garen felt Seborn appear at his back. He lurched forwards, feeling the blades tear open his back. It didn’t matter. He drank the potion as Seborn cursed. The enchanted wounds refused to heal quickly. But they did begin to heal. Lucky. If Seborn had had his old blade—

It’s worth buying.

Seborn showed Garen the dagger. The Hobgoblin eyed the sickly green edge of his new dagger skeptically.

“Lots of money. Why not other dagger?”

The Drowned Man sighed. He and Garen had been arguing over blades for the last half-hour, and the [Blacksmith] was clearly growing impatient. Still, Seborn explained patiently. He was very patient. He didn’t speak much, but when it came to his opinion, he was as impossible to shift as the ocean he hailed from.

It’s an acid enchantment, Garen. A weak one, I know, but it’s all I can afford. I have one blade enchanted with [Frostbite] already.

“Could buy two new blades. Very fiery. See?”

Garen pointed out the longer, and decidedly more menacing daggers, both of which were enchanted with a higher-grade spell. Seborn nodded.

I could. And if I was a warrior, I might. But I’m a [Rogue]. Acid works best. A thousand cuts that grow worse is better than a cheap fire spell. Anyone with an eye for fighting knows that, which is why this is worth twice as much as a regular blade. I saved up for this.

He gestured to the acid dagger, which the [Blacksmith] had indeed priced much higher than the other daggers. The Drake grunted, which was a mark of approval. Garen still wasn’t convinced.

“Why all other daggers enchanted with other spells, then? Why not all acid?”

Because it’s harder? That’s what I’ve heard. And [Enchanters] get to decide what they spell a blade with. Maybe the metal isn’t good for acid. Maybe they need something else. They probably think fire spells are more attractive anyways. Just let me buy this.

Seborn watched as Garen grumbled and folded his arm, but the Hobgoblin didn’t object. The two often talked or argued, but it was a difference of opinion on how to do things. Garen liked hitting things and Seborn was the cold voice of reason in the group. And yet—Seborn flashed one of his rare smiles as he made his purchase.

I’ve been waiting for this for a while. If we get another big payout, I can change my other blade to lightning.

“Why lightning?”

Paralyzes, makes the muscles weak.

Garen grunted.

“This blade is better. One strong enchantment is best.”

He tapped his own sword. Seborn smiled.

Goblin’s logic. Isn’t two better than one, then?

He showed Garen his two daggers. The Hobgoblin scowled, and Seborn laughed—

If he’d had his old blade, it would be over. Garen turned. White flames burst from his blade. Redfang glowed as Seborn cursed and backed up. He knew what was coming.

“Redfang.”

Garen whispered. His blade turned transparent. Seborn leapt, shielding himself—but Garen’s slash went through his enchanted armor. It cut down the Drowned Man’s side, laid open his flesh, sawed through the carapace that was his monster half, his aquatic self. Again, Seborn tried to block with his daggers, but it was futile. Garen’s blade could pass through lesser enchantments, cut even the thickest hides.

Blood. Seborn staggered. Like Garen, he reached for a potion, breaking the vial across his wounds before Garen could stop him. He stood up, panting. Garen waited for him.

It was over. Seborn had used two of his Skills. He hadn’t downed Garen, and the Redfang Warriors had caught up. The Drowned Man looked around as Goblins dismounted rather than try and fight him from above where he could dodge and disappear. He bared his teeth.

“Come on. Come on, traitor!

He leapt at Garen. The Hob pivoted, taking another slice from the flaming blade across his chest. He kicked Seborn back. The other Redfang warriors closed in, attacking Seborn from all sides. The Drowned Man spun, slashing, cursing.

“Alive. Alive!

Garen bellowed at his warriors. He saw them adjust, slightly. Garen didn’t know why he’d said it. But he could afford to say it. The battle was going his way.

The Wings of Pallass dove and struck, again and again. Like hawks, they circled before finding unwary targets and striking. Or at least, they had for a minute. But the next time they dove, they had a surprise waiting for them. One of the Redfang warriors riding a Carn Wolf rode at the diving Drakes and Garuda. He shouted and his Carn Wolf leapt. The Redfang Warrior jumped from the back of his mount and caught one of the fliers. The Drake, Zassil, shouted in panic as the Redfang Warrior began stabbing at him, grabbing at his wings, trying to bring him down.

“Ancestors preserve us! Get off! Get—

Bevussa grabbed the Redfang warrior and hurled him off. Zassil flapped higher and Bevussa shouted.

Watch out!

More Goblins were leaping, using their Carn Wolves as launching pads. Each time the Wings of Pallass dove, dozens of Goblins leapt for them, and more shot arrows, trying to intercept them on the wing. And now the adventurers were being pressed from all sides on the ground as well.

Moore was wrapped up in ropes. Seborn was downed. Garen walked forwards, feeling his wounds healing slowly. His Carn Wolf padded towards him. He reached for it, and stopped.

The adventurers still fought around their door. And the winged adventurers held the skies, posing a threat from above. But everywhere else the Redfangs were present. They filled the pass. They blocked every path towards Garen with their bodies. Despite that, she was there.

Arrows feathered her body like spores. Broken spears and swords and daggers torn out of their owner’s hands were still embedded in her flesh. She was damaged beyond any living creature’s ability to survive. But her body was dead. And she was still moving, coming towards him.

Jelaqua Ivirith.

Garen stopped. He turned, and his Carn Wolf backed up. It couldn’t help it. It smelled Jelaqua’s dead body. And it saw her wounds. But she did not fall. And that terrified the animal, just as it frightened the Redfang warriors.

They surrounded her, every line in their bodies radiating uncertainty. Fear. The Redfang tribe had fought the horrors of the High Passes. They had fought creatures that looked like them, braved Creler invasions—even brought down the seemingly immortal colossi of stone and ice. But they had never met someone like her.

“Hey Garen.”

She grinned bloodlessly at him. Garen hesitated. Jelaqua was walking towards him. Just walking. But her body—he raised his blade.

“You can’t win.”

“Oh yeah? Prove it, you coward.”

Jelaqua rasped. She raised her flail as the other Redfangs drew back, trusting their Chieftain to win. Expecting him to. Garen wanted to be anywhere else in the world. Seborn’s blood still dripped from his blade. He and Jelaqua looked at each other.

“I trusted you.”

That was all she said. The knife twisted in Garen’s heart. Jelaqua ran at him and he raised his blade—

“Drop it, Goblin.”

Keilam pointed his wand at Garen. The Hob hesitated, his steel sword raised. The dead Eater Goat’s blood ran from his sword. It had been an easy kill, and one Garen was confident in doing. He’d earned his bounty—or so he’d thought. But he hadn’t expected company, and so his mask and hood had come loose during the battle. And they had seen.

Six adventurers. A huge, terrifying creature that looked like an oversized Human. A half man, half…crab? A Drake whose scales looked burnt, a regular Drake, at least, seemingly, and a Gnoll who looked like a cat. And—Garen’s eyes flicked to the last figure. A Human woman, or so she looked at first glance. But her skin was too pale. She looked dead. But it was she who stopped Keilam, the half-Gnoll, half-Cat, before he could cast a spell.

“Hold it, Keilam. See that? He’s an adventurer. Same as us. Bronze-rank.”

“No way. That’s a Goblin, Jelaqua!”

The half-Gnoll exclaimed. Jelaqua, the dead woman, ignored him. She studied Garen as the Hobgoblin backed up. He was ready to fight—or run. This wasn’t the first time he’d been discovered. But she didn’t seem hostile, just curious, and amused. Jelaqua eyed Garen.

“So this is the ‘terrifying monster’ everyone’s been talking about, huh? The scourge of local villages. Slayer of innocent sheep and cows everywhere?”

“Why would a Hob pretend to be an adventurer just to prey on livestock?”

The Drake with the ashy scales asked curiously. Jelaqua rolled her eyes.

“Not him, Halassia. That dead goat-thing. I think he got to the monster before we did.”

“Oh.”

The adventurers stared at the dead goat. Garen heard them whispering amongst themselves.

“It really killed the monster? It’s…an adventurer?”

“But it’s a Goblin!”

“Now, now, Ukrina. Let’s not judge by appearances.”

“By—Moore! That is a Goblin!”

“Yes.”

Jelaqua spoke calmly. She looked at Garen and he thought she could see everything that had led to this point. Him struggling to learn how to speak, figuring out how to disguise himself, give excuses, learn Human customs. Entering cities, being found out, running, pretending—trying so hard to fit in, to learn—all of the long months he’d endured were laid out in a glance. As if she could stare into his soul. As if she knew what it was like.

“Nice kill. What’s your name, friend?”

Garen started. He stared at Jelaqua and backed up a step. He saw the other adventurers tensing, but Jelaqua just smiled.

“The name’s Jelaqua Ivirith. I lead a team of Silver-rank adventurers. Well, we’re Silver-rank on this continent, but two of us are already Gold-ranks and Moore’d be Gold-rank too if they ever gave him a fair test.”

She waited, but Garen didn’t speak. The Human’s language came hard to him, not like his brother. He could still barely read. Jelaqua didn’t seem to mind, though. She looked around, and seemed to come to a quick decision.

“We’re a band of misfits. And we could always use a new member.”

“What? Jelaqua, are you insane?

One of the Drakes, the normal-looking one, exclaimed. But the strange woman just turned to argue with her. Garen watched her face, her ready smile. Then he heard the shriek and turned. His heart sank. He’d forgotten about the others! He hadn’t time to poison the first Eater Goat’s corpse. Jelaqua looked up sharply as more Eater Goats emerged, scenting their comrade’s blood.

“Aha! Knew it. It had to be a pack. Hold on, strange Goblin guy. Halfseekers, to arms!”

They fought, then, as the Eater Goats came from all sides. As stupid and suicidal as their kind, but deadly. Garen finished them off, making sure each was dead. Eater Goats could survive incredible amounts of damage and heal fast. All they needed was food and a mate and they’d repopulate rapidly. He stood, wiping his steel sword, when Jelaqua came over to him. He froze again, but she just grinned at him.

“What’s your name, stranger? If you don’t want to say, that’s fine. But I’d rather know who fought by my side.”

He looked into her eyes, then. And he saw that her body was dead, but something lived in her. Garen hesitated, then took a chance. He held out a gloved hand, as he had seen Humans do.

“Garen.”

She took his hand and grinned. And that was how he became a Halfseeker, an adventurer in truth. And in time he would lose his mask, walk openly as a Goblin and she and the others would pit themselves against the Adventurer’s Guild and other adventurers for him. For that he would follow her for years, into battle, trying to be her greatest warrior. Because he owed her nothing less.

Yes, it was that smile which had captivated him. That look. The age in her voice, the feeling that she understood him despite their many differences. She was the Captain of the Halfseekers, someone he looked up to. Admired. The only being in the world that Garen had ever called his—his—

Chieftain—

He ran her through. Jelaqua’s flail struck his shoulder. Garen heard a crunch, but if it was a fractured bone, it wasn’t a strong one. He tore up with the blade and Jelaqua caught it.

“Not yet. Not yet!

She kicked, and Garen felt his sword twist out of his grip. Seborn’s blood. He stumbled back. She was still strong. Jelaqua tore the sword from her stomach and tossed it behind her. She’d dropped her flail. But she still came at him. Garen grabbed her arms as they went for his neck.

Strong. Unbelievably strong! Jelaqua cursed as her arms slowly moved towards Garen’s neck. He tried to hold her off, but even now, even now she was stronger.

“Tell me why. Tell me why!

He couldn’t answer. Jelaqua’s claws were around his throat, squeezing, talons digging into his flesh. He saw Redfangs shouting, striking at Jelaqua’s back, but she ignored the blows. She was squeezing, and it was all Garen could do to push at her arms. He pushed her claws off of him, and the two were deadlocked for a moment. But he was growing tired.

His arms trembled—and then he felt something tear in Jelaqua’s body. The Selphid’s right arm suddenly lost all its strength. She cursed as Garen began striking her chest, frantically, trying to tear open her wounds and expose her true body. She leaned forwards—

And she bit him. The Drake’s teeth tore at Garen’s skin and he roared and threw her off. Jelaqua fell back, and Garen struck her in the chest with his foot. She sat back.

Sword!

Garen bellowed and a Goblin tossed his blade at him. Jelaqua looked up, bitterly.

“Just like the others, eh?”

He stabbed her in the chest. Jelaqua fell back. Not dead. She tried to move and Garen stabbed her again and again, aiming for her stomach, her heart. He knew she was in there. It was hard, very hard to kill a Selphid with a blade. But he could incapacitate her body. At last, Jelaqua lay still. She stared up at him and her mouth opened.

“Damn it.”

That was all. Garen turned, shaking, coughing. The battle was over. The Halfseekers were down. And the adventurers were in full retreat.

“Fall back. I said, fall back! Revi, buy us a window! Typhenous, webs!”

Halrac bellowed at the others. Keldrass stumbled towards the door, bearing one of his wounded teammates to safety. Garen saw the [Scout] shout into the door as more of the summoned warriors and a giant Face-Eater Moth held back the advancing Redfangs. They were moving slowly, pushing the adventurers back rather than risk losing their numbers. Wisely as it turned out.

Get those undead through the door, now!

Garen didn’t believe his ears for a second. Then he saw the first shape of yellowed bone duck through the doorway and unfold. A grinning bear’s skull looked down at him. Three of them. The Redfang Goblins backed up as a three-headed Bone Horror, nearly as tall as Moore, moved forwards, swinging multiple whip-arms of bone and striking at everything in range. The Redfangs bared their teeth, but didn’t retreat.

Undead, half-Giant, monster, adventurer. It didn’t matter. They could kill anything. They reached for their ropes, but this time added hooks, snaring the Bone Horror as it tried to advance. A cry went up from the Goblins at the front.

Hobs!

Two of them rode forwards on huge warhorses. The first Hob had a warhammer, the second a mace. As the other Redfangs snared the Bone Horrors with their hooks, the Hobs began smashing the creature to pieces, raining blows on the joints and hammering at the skull.

“Dead gods damn it! Retreat! Retreat!”

Halrac moved back towards the door. The Silver Swords were running back, blood running down Ylawes’ head, Falene half-dragging Dawil, who was roaring, trying to extinguish the flaming oil burning his face and armor. Ylawes half-turned at the door and shouted. Someone came through it. Several someones.

“Erin! What are you doing? Get back—”

He grabbed for her. Too late. A young woman ran past him. The Redfangs in front saw her running at them and raised their weapons, eying her dubiously. Spiderslicer lifted his falchion and aimed for her head, waiting for a trap. He saw the young woman look up, and then another figure ran forwards. They’d come from the door too. Spiderslicer turned, poised to strike—

And froze when he saw a Hobgoblin’s face. The Hob lifted his axe, protecting the young woman. The jade edge and golden axe gleamed, and the Hobgoblin’s muscles stood out as he swung, forcing the other Redfang warriors back.

A foreign Goblin? Why was he on the Human’s side? Spiderslicer snarled in surprise, raising his weapon. But—no! This Hob had the war paint of the Redfang tribe on his body! He stared, hesitating, as the young woman raced past him. The Hob looked up. His face was unfamiliar, and Spiderslicer knew almost every Goblin in the Redfang tribe. But the war paint was a pattern, unique to him. Spiderslicer’s eyes widened.

“Headscratcher?”

The Hob looked up at him.

“Spiderslicer?”

The two gaped at each other. Then, Spiderslicer saw another Goblin he half-recognized run past. Was that Badarrow? Numbtongue, with a strange stringed instrument in his hand? Shorthilt—that had to be Shorthilt with the gleaming sword. And…who was that Goblin with the shining armor and the glistening red cloak?

Hobs. They were all Hobs. Spiderslicer faltered, so amazed he forgot about the Human for a second. But then he realized: they were shielding her! The young woman ran through the tribe of Redfangs, who turned, ready to cut her down. But each time her guardians were in the way.

The five Hobgoblins blocked them, shielding her with their bodies, shouting at the others. And the Goblins of the Redfang tribe recognized their own, and hesitated for that crucial second. The young woman ran forwards, towards the Selphid.

“Jelaqua!”

She skidded to a halt and knelt by the Selphid, wide-eyed. Jelaqua blinked up at her.

“Erin? What the hell are you doing—get away! Run! Moore told you to go!”

Erin ignored her. She knelt, hesitating, then grabbed Jelaqua’s nearly destroyed arm. She looked at the other Hobs desperately.

“Come on, come on. Someone help me lift—”

She was trying to pull Jelaqua up. The Selphid was shouting at her to go. That was when Erin turned and saw him. And he saw her.

Garen Redfang couldn’t have missed the strange sight, or the Hobs. He hadn’t recognized them as Spiderslicer had—he was focused on the Human. She looked familiar. A distant part of Garen told him he had seen her, but he was too focused on what she was doing. She was trying to drag Jelaqua to the door. Unacceptable. He snarled and advanced on her.

“Run, Erin.”

Jelaqua turned her head towards Garen. The young woman hesitated. The Selphid slowly sat up.

“Get away from her, you bastard.”

Garen stared at her, and then lifted his blade. Jelaqua lunged. For the third time, Garen ran her through. This time he aimed for the Selphid’s stomach and pinned her to the ground, impaling her onto the dirt. She grabbed his sword with both claws. Garen growled, let go of the hilt. He saw the Human girl raise a fist.

[Minotaur P—

He stood up and struck her in the chest, twice. The Human stumbled back, choking. Garen paused. He’d expected her to be a Gold-rank of some kind, perhaps a high-level [Brawler] or a [Mage]. But she was too slow to be a Gold-rank adventurer. Silver-rank? She had no armor. She raised a fist again.

[M—

This time he hit her in the jaw and felt her teeth break. The Human fell back, making a pained sound. Garen advanced, kicking her in the chest. She tried to dodge. He saw that. But she was far, far slower than he was. He looked for his sword, then just aimed for her neck. He raised a hand and someone grabbed it. Garen twisted, outraged, and saw a Hobgoblin staring at him. An unfamiliar face. The Hob howled and grabbed Garen’s other arm as the Chieftain tried to punch him.

The strength! Garen roared as the unknown Hob lifted him up and then hurled him to the ground. He rolled as a foot stomped, nearly striking him in the chest, and got up. He caught a punch and staggered. The Hob was as strong as he was! He looked into two familiar eyes and received a head butt that made his head ring.

Garen shook his head, shoved the Hob back, and heard a shout. The Redfang warriors all around him had finally decided these strangers were not their allies, for all they wore their colors. They trained their weapons on the Hob and his allies, who froze. The Hob who’d struck Garen panted as the Chieftain shook his head to clear the stars. Garen clenched one fist, stared at the strange Hob, and then, at last, his eyes went to the war paint. He froze.

All the Redfang warriors not pressing the last of the adventurers into the doorway stared at their Chieftain. They saw his eyes go wide, his ears twitch, and then visibly jerk in shock. They waited, eyes on the strange Hobs as Garen peered at the one who’d struck him. The Chieftain of the Redfang tribe blinked.

“Headscratcher?”

Headscratcher jumped. He looked at Garen, half-afraid, but still burning with fury. Garen felt at his bruised forehead and remembered the strength with which he’d been thrown. He stared at Headscratcher and the others, who he recognized as well by their war paint. One of them, the one with chainmail, had a lot of his war paint obscured, but the rest were familiar from other clues.

Badarrow, Numbtongue, Shorthilt. And the last had to be one of the others he’d sent out, so long ago. Garen remembered. He looked from face to face. And then, to the surprise of his tribe, he laughed.

It was a joyous, amazed, relieved, happy sound. Garen laughed. He rose, laughing with delight and gripped Headscratcher by the arms, slapping him on the shoulder. The confused Hob looked at him, but Garen’s joy needed no reciprocation.

“Headscratcher! So long! And now a Hob! So much stronger! How?”

He looked at the other Redfangs.

“Put weapons down! It is Headscratcher! Badarrow! Numbtongue, Shorthilt! And…Rabbiteater?

The other Redfangs blinked. They stared and more recognized their lost comrades. They exclaimed, and Garen greeted the others, no less exuberant. They blinked, and then smiled shyly. Here was their Chieftain. Their hero. And the rest of their tribe gathered around them. Until Garen noticed the young woman.

She had gotten up. She was trying to pull Jelaqua away. He snarled and turned on her. A hand gripped his shoulder.

“Kill—”

No!

Headscratcher grabbed Garen. So did Numbtongue, and Shorthilt. Garen froze, and the Redfangs did likewise. Numbtongue looked around, desperately.

“No. Chieftain—let her go.”

Spiderslicer gripped his falchion, eyes narrowing. No one laid hands on their Chieftain. Garen stared at Headscratcher. He looked down at the Human girl, who abandoned the Selphid and turned. She gave him a look without fear and raised a hand, made a fist. The Goblins waited as Garen looked back at the five Hobs. He hesitated, and then looked at the young woman.

Go.

She hesitated. She looked down at Jelaqua, and the Selphid croaked at her.

“Don’t be stupid. Run. I’ll—settle my tab later.”

The young woman hesitated. For a long second, Garen thought she’d stay. But then she ran, stumbling towards the door. She half-collapsed by it and the [Scout] dragged her through. Garen barked an order as the Redfangs loosed arrows at him.

“Leave adventurers!”

The hail of projectiles stopped. The door closed. The Hob with the warhammer strode forwards and brought it down. The doorway splintered, and it was done. The Wings of Pallass flew south, and the Redfangs were left with their wounded and dead.

And the adventurers. There were three of them. The Halfseekers, bound and bleeding. And…the five Hobgoblins.

And a lot of Cave Goblins. They came north as Garen looked around, smiling once more. He blinked in astonishment at them as they stared in awe at this strange and powerful tribe. He listened to a garbled explanation from Numbtongue, and smiled and shook his head. He laughed—

And then he saw them looking at him. Moore. Seborn. Jelaqua. They sat under guard, bleeding, captive. But their eyes never left him. They looked just like he remembered—except for Jelaqua. But she was the same, if not in body. They were what he had dreamed of, what he had feared in his nightmares.

Garen’s smile faded. He turned away as memory became reality. The past had caught up and it was time. To put an end to it for good.

 

—-

 

They were the Redfang tribe. Where they were didn’t really matter. It was who they were that mattered, how they fought. They had fought another battle and won. There was glory and that. But death, too. There was always death.

Many Redfangs had died fighting the adventurers. Over a hundred, and most to the Halfseekers. The adventurers at the door had been contained fairly well—it was only the half-Elf [Mage]’s spells and the [Scout] and his cursed enchanted arrows who had done a lot of damage. And the Garuda had killed a half dozen.

Too many. It was to be expected when one fought Gold-ranks, but it hurt. The Redfangs mourned their dead, even as they became food or were stripped of their gear. But unlike other Goblins, they had a different sort of culture. As the dead were laid to rest, Redfangs, the closest friends of the fallen, would bend down and collect blood from the fallen. Barring that, they would cut themselves and add markings to their body.

A stripe of blood on a cheek. An added bit of blood on an arm, or ear. The location didn’t matter, or the length of the marking. But the blood would stay. And when it faded, it would be replaced by paint. Forever. So long as the Redfang in question had access to war paints, he or she would decorate their body with their individual set of markings.

And they would never forget where they were, even if circumstances dictated that they be clean, or prohibited them from using their war paints. The red stripes would always be there. Reminders of failure. Of the fallen. It was a promise not to fail next time.

The new Redfangs earned their first stripes that day. It was a mark of shame and honor. They had survived a battle. The veterans had red paint all over their body. But they did not revel in the markings, like the young Goblins. It was a symbol, that was all. It made them unique. Stronger.

Five Hobgoblins sat in the center of the Redfang tribe. Unlike the others, they didn’t need to bandage their wounds or tend to their mounts. They hadn’t fought. Rather, they’d come through the magic door as soon as they’d heard what was going on. The Redfang Warriors—that was to say, the five Hobgoblins who stayed at Erin’s inn—sat uneasily, just across from their Chieftain. Or their former Chieftain?

Garen Redfang grinned at them, not put out one bit that Headscratcher had attacked him. He had even let Erin go. He was…just as they’d remembered. Larger than life. Glorious. And his famous blade hung by his side. He couldn’t stop looking at the five. Garen faced them, and deliberately did not look behind him. He didn’t listen to the three adventurers, who had been unceremoniously carried to the same spot and were under heavy guard.

Jelaqua could barely move and the broken weapons in her body protruded from her flesh. Seborn’s bleeding had stopped, but Moore was still injured from dozens upon dozens of wounds. Their voices were low.

“Can’t move my right arm. Ripped almost all my muscle fibers there. I’m torn up everywhere else too.”

I’m bleeding, but I managed to heal up before they got me. I don’t have any weapons. They found all of my daggers.

“Moore…?”

He needs a healing potion.

The half-Giant was breathing laboriously. Jelaqua looked up. She bit her lip.

“Think we’ll get him to let us use one before he axes us?”

Seborn stared at Garen’s back.

Don’t count on it. If you can give me an opening—

“Forget it. He’s expecting it. Let’s just…wait. Damn it. It’ll be over soon.”

I’m sorry.

“For what? I had the best shot. Damn arm gave out. I should have—”

Garen ignored them. He looked around instead, focusing on the Goblins who were sitting just outside the circle of his Redfang tribe. They were curious. Small, many of them smaller than even the average Goblin. They had greyer skin, but besides that they were identical to regular Goblins. He spotted what looked like emerging Hobgoblins among them. But what really stood out was their numbers.

The Cave Goblins of the dungeon sat, watching the Redfangs with awe. They had followed their five leaders north, not bothering with the door but streaming across the Floodplains, much to the horror of the Drakes in Liscor.

Garen didn’t know all the details, of what had happened to have so many Cave Goblins following his warriors, but he had gotten the details, at least a broad outline from Numbtongue. Pressed, the Hobgoblin had given a quick summary and Garen had gotten the basics.

So, his warriors had gone into a dungeon and liberated the Cave Goblins there? They’d fought strange primordial Gnolls—Raskghar—and triumphed. They’d become Hobs, all of them. Hobs!

He could remember them before they’d left. Tiny, regular-sized Goblins. Good warriors, some of his best, but infantry. Not his prized Carn Wolf [Riders] and not his few Hobs. Garen’s heart hurt. He remembered he’d sent Grunter to lead them, Grunter and seven more. He’d asked, but the silence had been enough of an answer.

Thirteen had left, five remained. As outcomes went, that was good for Goblins. And they were Hobs.

Garen couldn’t get over that fact. Hobgoblins only emerged as a result of great strength or triumph. Each of the Redfangs had a unique class. The other members of his tribe were glancing at them in awe, especially after they’d heard what their classes were.

“[Berserker]. [Weapon Master]. [Sniper]. [Bard]. And [Champion]!”

Garen spoke loudly, looking from face to face with overwhelming pride. Each of the Redfangs ducked their heads. Garen looked at Rabbiteater last, twice as amazed. Rabbiteater—now there was a shock. He was a good fighter, decent at most things, but a [Champion]? Those who knew him were beside themselves with surprise.

“And these…Cave Goblins? You taught them how to fight?”

“Small bit, Chieftain.”

Shorthilt answered for the others. He played with his sword, an action that was familiar to Garen, but with a different body. Shorthilt gestured and Garen saw a group of Goblins with sharp weapons raise them over their heads and cheer.

“Taught to fight like Redfangs. By a Redfang.”

Spiderslicer grumbled, seemingly unsure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. But Garen knew it was a good thing. He looked at the Cave Goblins.

Twenty thousand new Redfangs. That was what they were. Twenty thousand warriors—or the makings of them. He couldn’t help smiling.

“Tell me what happened. From the start. Not a summary. Tell me—all of it!”

He urged Headscratcher. The Goblin was bashful, embarrassed. He looked at the others and then hesitated. He had smiled with pure joy to see Garen, but now he was concerned.

“Chieft…”

He trailed off. Garen waited, smiling. Headscratcher looked at him. What was it? He looked so worried. And then Headscratcher said it.

“Where is Chieftain? Where is Rags?”

Garen—froze. So did the other Redfangs. For a beat Garen stared at Headscratcher, wondering what had possessed him to ask that? Chieftain? He was Chieftain! Why would Headscratcher—

He hadn’t been here. He didn’t know. None of them did. The rest of the tribe realized that and sat still, an army of statues. The five Hobs looked around, confused. They focused on Garen and he realized he had to say something. He spoke haltingly.

“Rags is…gone. Maybe dead. Her tribe split from Redfangs. Betrayed us.”

Betrayed? How?

The five reacted in shock. The other Redfangs avoided looking at them. Garen ignored the question as well.

“They did. And then they were attacked by Reiss—by the Goblin Lord. He betrayed them, too. Rags disappeared in fighting. May be dead. Rest of her tribe is broken. Fleeing this way. We left too.”

The five stared at Garen, jaws agape, full of horror. They began to ask questions all at once, but Garen didn’t want to answer them. He shook his head, then raised his voice.

“No. No! It is in the past! They betrayed us. Rags is gone. The Redfang are the Redfangs. Same as before.”

Badarrow stared at Garen. The Chieftain avoided his gaze. It was true. He turned, seeking another topic. Three pairs of eyes stared at him. He froze.

“Chieftain. Who are they? Should we kill?”

Spiderslicer stared at the Halfseekers with hatred in his eyes. He fingered the handle of the falchion. The other Redfangs murmured agreement. Headscratcher and the other four Hobs looked uneasy. Rabbiteater opened his mouth and the others elbowed him quickly. Garen ignored that and shook his head slowly.

“I will deal with them. Myself.”

“Chieftain knows them?”

Garen nodded slowly. He couldn’t avoid it after all. He got up and looked at the Halfseekers.

“Yes. I do know them. And so do you.”

The Redfang tribe looked at each other. He couldn’t mean—they had all heard the old stories. They turned as one and focused on the Halfseekers and Garen walked over to them. He studied each face. Moore tried to sit up and groaned as blood ran from his wounds.

“They are my old team. The Halfseekers. Half Freaks. A Gold-rank team. The ones who betrayed me.”

An awed silence fell over the Redfang tribe. They stared at the Halfseekers, not with anger, but with amazement now. Garen’s original team. They all knew the story—or a version of the tale. They had heard how his team betrayed him, how he had retreated, formed a tribe in the High Passes. But to see them in real life was different. Garen stared down at his old comrades, and then heard a strangled laugh.

“We betrayed you? You damn liar.”

Jelaqua sat up. Her eyes focused unsteadily on Garen, one drifting slightly. But her voice was strong. Furious.

“You betrayed us. Don’t lie!”

The accusation made Garen freeze in place. He felt a hot flash of shame, and then fury go through him. He snapped back at Jelaqua.

I did not! The others did!”

Liar.

The voice came from Moore. He hauled himself upright. The Redfangs guarding him stirred uneasily. The half-Giant’s voice rose. He boomed, and the Redfangs instinctively flinched as he shouted Garen.

“You lie! You killed them! In cold blood! You murderer! You—”

He tried to break the ropes holding him, but failed. He sat back, face white as a sheet. Garen looked away from him. He clenched his claw into a fist.

“I did not betray. They did.”

Liar.

This time Garen whirled and nearly kicked Seborn. The Drowned Man looked up at him. His voice echoed, quieter than the other two. But it was no less furious.

We know what we saw. You ran, and we’ve been waiting for this day for years. If you had any courage you’d fight me. Give me a dagger, Garen. And we’ll end this.

“No. You are my prisoners. I beat you.”

Garen clenched his fists. Seborn looked away.

With numbers. Coward.

The Redfangs rumbled. Garen roared.

“I am not a coward!

He strode up to Seborn and grabbed the [Rogue]. Quick as a flash, Seborn lunged at him. He’d untied himself! Garen saw the claw go for his throat, threw Seborn back. The Redfangs tackled him. There was a brief scuffle, then Seborn was back in his bindings, worse for the wear.

“You are the coward. You—”

Garen was still breathing heavily. Seborn looked up at him, speaking around a bloody lip.

No less than you deserve. Team killer.

“Monster.”

The whisper came from Moore. Garen howled in fury.

“I am not! They were! They were!

He strode back and forth, trembling, unable to speak straight. His tribe watched, uncertain. They had never seen their Chieftain like this. They watched, and so did the Cave Goblins. They were all witness to the argument. But they had not been there.

Jelaqua looked up at Garen, silent, letting him vent his fury at the other two. She tugged at her bindings, but her right arm was torn. And Garen was quick. She looked around for anything, but there were hundreds of eyes on her. And yet—Jelaqua looked straight at Numbtongue, at Headscratcher.

They were watching her. All five of the Redfangs. Uncertainly, nervously eying their Chieftain, whom they’d just reunited with. Or was he their Chieftain? Jelaqua’s eyes narrowed slightly. She looked up as Garen rounded on Moore and spoke, her dead voice rasping, the broken body she was wearing slowly deteriorating every time she moved.

“You’re a filthy liar, Garen. Do your tribe know you’ve been lying to them all this time? Or have you told them your story of what happened?”

He turned on her, full of wrath. Just like she remembered in some ways. The same face, the same body. But not the same person. Selphids counted personality more than physical appearance, and this Garen was nothing like the one Jelaqua knew. He was uncontrolled, raging. Guilty.

“I told them the truth! The truth! I was betrayed!”

“Oh yeah? That’s not how we remember it. And we were there. Right, Moore? Seborn? You guys remember what went down.”

Jelaqua looked sideways at Moore and Seborn, hoping they’d understand what she wanted. The other two looked at her and caught on. As always. They glanced around, and abandoned their fury for one second. Seborn nodded.

I remember. So does Moore.

“In my dreams. Every night.”

The half-Giant rasped. Blood ran from his hand, his side. Jelaqua was worried. He’d bleed out soon. But Garen wasn’t about to heal him. So the Selphid spoke as quickly as she could. She looked up at Garen and raised her voice so everyone, all the Goblins both Redfang and Cave Goblin, could hear.

“Tell me, Garen. Did you tell your tribe what happened before we ‘betrayed’ you? Did you give them all the details? Because I remember that night very well. We’d just cleared that damn cavern. Gone deeper than anyone had ever gone before. Past the roaches and the other crawling monsters. Into the heart of the caves. I thought we’d die when we fought the things down there, but somehow our team made it out, in one piece no less.”

She looked around. The Redfang warriors were staring at her, listening to her words. Jelaqua nodded. Of course, they’d listen to any story about their Chieftain. She looked at Garen, and saw the Hob had stopped raging. Cold memory flickered in his eyes, the same one in Jelaqua’s own mind as she went on.

“Of course there were costs. We’d blown all our healing potions—and we took over a hundred bottles—wasted more alchemist brews than I could count. My body was almost destroyed, Seborn had broken one of his enchanted daggers, and Moore was throwing up all the bugs he ate.”

“I was sick. I remember being in my room until Seborn came to get me.”

Moore spoke guiltily. Seborn nodded.

I was speaking to a [Blacksmith]. Jelaqua was the first to return.

The Selphid shifted. She had perfect control over her body. But she still wanted to shake, to clench her hands.

“That’s right. I got back, in a new body. And I found the inn was surrounded by [Guards], and blood and corpses where my team should have been. I thought it was an attack at first. Or—or one of our enemies had hired an assassin. Or worse, the items we’d recovered had been cursed. But it was none of those things. The [Innkeeper] told us that he’d seen a Goblin running out of our private rooms with a bloody sword. And then he’d found the bodies.”

Garen was silent. Jelaqua shook her head as Moore bit back a sound.

“Seborn came running as soon as he heard and got Moore. We had to figure out what had happened. None of us wanted to believe it. But there were eye witnesses and nothing else could have happened. None of the items were cursed. They were all there, except for one small thing you’d taken. So we figured it out.”

Moore interrupted. He looked up at Garen, eyes wet.

“You killed them. You killed them and stole that key and ran. In cold blood. With no warning.”

Garen didn’t reply. He stood there, face pale. Jelaqua spoke quietly.

“You filthy traitor. We welcomed you into our team. We fought with you, side-by-side for years. And you killed your friends in a moment. For what? A key? We would have given it to you!”

“I did not betray.”

Garen repeated the words like a mantra. Jelaqua spat. She looked at the other Redfangs.

“False words, Garen. Do they know what you did? Did you tell them? Or are they just tools for you to throw away, like we were?”

The Goblins stirred. Garen started, and then stared down at Jelaqua. He seemed to realize what she was doing at last. A note of heat entered his tone.

“They are not! They are my tribe! I did not betray my team! I—it was not like that. It did not happen that way. I was betrayed.

Liar!

The word came from all three Halfseekers. Garen recoiled, and then he shouted back.

“You were not there! You did not hear! Only I was there!”

“Then tell us! What happened?”

Jelaqua hurled it at Garen. She strained against the ropes, not needing to act. Garen hesitated. He looked from face to face. And then he nodded. He looked around, at the watching Redfangs. At Spiderslicer, at the five returned warriors. He raised his voice.

“You want to know? Fine. This is what happened. This. This is how I was betrayed.”

The Halfseekers stared up at Garen. He saw them exchange glances, strain against their bindings, and then, slowly, relax.

For a second their anger faded, and Garen saw a burning hole. A yearning to know. He turned away. The memories rose in him, until he could remember the smell of the room, how he’d felt, even the smallest details, like the way his heart started to jump as they unpacked the treasure and he knew he was right.

Garen’s voice was hollow in his ears. He looked at Jelaqua. She had not been a female Drake, then. She had been a male Human, a castoff body, the only one she’d been able to find.

“Do you remember that day? Before the adventurer?”

“Yes.”

Jelaqua closed her eyes. She spoke hollowly, replaying the memories in her own mind as they flashed before Garen’s eyes.

“Back then, I remember it was you that told us there was treasure at the bottom of the roach caverns. Other adventurers had cleared the caverns before, but given up. The place was—is—disgusting. No one ever wanted to go near the place. But you insisted. You told us you were certain. And when I asked, you said you’d learned it from another Goblin. A Chieftain. I remember thinking it was curious how a Goblin would know about the treasure, but I didn’t ask then.”

Seborn nodded.

We thought we knew the depths, but you kept insisting we go deeper. Farther down. You could drown amid the insects down there. But those were only the ones who lived near the surface. The ones who ate the roaches and other bugs lived deeper. And we had to fight through them.

The Selphid’s voice was soft. Now all three—all four were in a sort of trance. The Goblins listened as the Halfseekers recalled that day and night. Jelaqua stared at another sight, and Garen heard the clicking, moving sounds, the shouting of voices, crunching.

“Walls of vines while we recovered. Halassia and Keilam had to burn us a path. If we hadn’t been at our best, we would have been overwhelmed. And when we got to the bottom and those things began crawling towards us—Seborn nearly died grabbing the chest. But he tossed it into the bag of holding and we ran for it.”

“We had the treasure.”

Garen spoke quietly. Jelaqua smiled without mirth.

“We did. We checked the treasure the moment we got out of the cave. Good stuff, but we decided to unpack it at the inn. We headed for the nearest city. Celebrating. We were happy.”

“We were.”

Moore hunched over. He looked up, his voice hollow.

“I remember I was so happy that day. For all I was as sick as a dog. And it was all thanks to you, Garen. A Goblin’s tipoff. A fortune, or at least, we hoped. It was a fortune, a small one at least. It paid for the funerals. For money to the families of Thornst, Keilam, and Halassia. Ukrina’s kin wanted nothing to do with her.”

We left you in a private room we’d rented. That was the last time we were together.

Yes. Garen closed his eyes. He looked up—

And dodged. Just in time. Moore spewed onto the table again. Halassia made a horrified sound and Jelaqua groaned.

“Aw, Moore!”

“Sorry.”

The half-Giant wiped his mouth. Something crawled out of what he’d puked up and the half-Giant was immediately sick again. All of the adventurers had swallowed bugs in the caverns, but he’d been the biggest target. Garen patted him on the back as Ukrina went for another bucket and cloths. The [Innkeeper] had not been happy about them trooping into his inn covered in filth and insects, but they’d paid him enough. Well, probably enough.

“I think Moore’s done in, guys. And my body’s shot.”

Jelaqua looked tired. She gestured at her body—with her left arm. She’d left the right one behind, and her current body was not only bitten in a thousand places, but—infested. Moore avoided looking at her as he wiped his mouth. He looked pale and green. Garen silently plucked a wiggling bug off of Moore’s ear and popped it into his mouth.

“Ew, Garen!”

Halassia covered her eyes. Moore looked at Garen and then covered his mouth. Ukrina sighed.

“Moore, please don’t throw up, or that [Innkeeper] will kick us out. At least he’s giving us enough soap and water and hot towels.”

Jelaqua shook her head.

“They’d better, with what we’re paying them. Moore, get yourself to your room. And uh, let’s get him a few basins. And a cleansing spell?”

I’ll do it. I need to see if my dagger can be repaired.

Seborn volunteered, lifting the broken acid dagger he’d sacrificed to distract one of the insects at the bottom of the caverns. Jelaqua nodded.

“Then I’ll haul myself off to the local crypt. I think the [Gravedigger] told me they’ve got a body that’s not too rotten…anything’s better than this. You lot think you can hold down the fort?”

Thornst, the half-Elf and newest member of their group, looked up hopefully. He was the oldest among them save for Jelaqua, but he acted like the youngest at times, younger than even Garen.

“If we can check the treasure—”

“Be our guests. But no fighting over the items until I get back, okay, kids?”

“Deal.”

Ukrina rubbed her claws together in delight. Keilam, who had stayed out of range of Moore’s vomiting, leapt to the ground as the other three departed. He peered at the moldy, worn treasure chest that had been sitting at the bottom of the caverns. Garen eyed another bug that crawled from the edge of the chest, but decided he was full. Keilam prowled around the chest.

“Tell me what we got. If there’s a spellbook, I’d like—”

“No dibs, Keilam! Jelaqua just said! Hold on, let’s open it. Garen, do you want to do the honors? You did give us the lead on this one.”

Halassia smiled at Garen. Her dark, ashy scales were flaking off, and red, distressed skin, showed in placed where her scales had fallen off. But it was a familiar sight and Garen admired his teammate. He nodded, heart pounding.

“I will. It was good secret, right?”

“Right!”

The others chorused. Ukrina laughed. She slapped Garen on the back.

“A Goblin’s secrets! Every team should have a Goblin in it, right Garen? What other treasures does your kind know about? I should have been shaking down Goblins left and right instead of—uh, never mind.”

She trailed off awkwardly. Garen just shook his head.

“Goblins have few secrets. Just…a few. This one, and some others. But this is important. Think so, anyways.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. He was afraid, terribly afraid that he was wrong. But if he was right—his claws trembled as he reached for the lid of the chest. The others held their breaths. They’d done a quick inventory already, but this was different. Garen opened the chest and they sighed as a glitter shone from within.

“Well, would you look at that.

Keilam prowled around the chest, reaching into it. Halassia slapped his paws away.

“Hands off! Let Garen pull them out.”

“Should we be careful of traps?”

Thornst asked the question a bit too late. Halassia shook her head.

“Seborn checked it already. Besides, it would have gone off when he grabbed it anyways, right? Go on, Garen.”

The Hobgoblin nodded and began pulling items out. Ukrina whistled as he lifted a large, golden yellow orb, translucent and set on a small bronze stand.

“Looks like a scrying orb. Nice size. And this—this is a fine set of gemstones.”

She eyed the handful of sparkling gems Garen pulled out. The next item made Keilam reach for it and earn another swat. His tail wagged back and forth as he peered at a studded silver gauntlet, shaped for a Drake’s claws rather than a Human’s hand.

“A gauntlet! I wonder what its enchantment is? And look, a wand! I call it!”

Keilam! I told you no!”

Halassia sprayed a bit of water from the tip of her staff at Keilam. The half-Gnoll yowled and backed up, raising his paws. Halassia sighed, but then her face burst into a smile as Garen kept pulling out item after item.

“Would you look at this? Potions and gems and magical artifacts! We’re rich! This is twice as good as the treasure we got in Meribeth’s Sanctum!”

The others nodded. Halassia paused, a frown crossing her face.

“An odd collection, though. All of this stuff’s expensive, but who just packs this randomly into a chest? And leaves it at the bottom of a cavern full of bugs?”

Garen had reached the bottom of the chest. His breath caught as, at last, he found what he was looking for. He answered Halassia with a trembling voice.

“A distraction. Small treasure. Reward for getting chest. But this—”

He reached into the chest and came up with something. A small key, iron, or so it seemed. The other Halfseekers stared at it, perplexed.

“What? Are you serious, Garen? There’s no way that this is a distraction. You’re telling me that’s the treasure? How did you know about it?”

Ukrina looked skeptically at the key. Keilam’s ears perked up. Halassia blinked and Thornst leaned forwards.

“What’s that key for, Garen? What does it unlock? Is this another Goblin secret?”

Garen smiled at them. He hesitated, and looked down at the key. This was it. Every part of him knew it was the key. It was the same as the one he had seen in his memories. But should he tell them?

Yes. Every part of him said yes. Garen had debated this very question for months now, ever since he had taken a leave of absence from the Halfseekers and discovered his brother had given his soul away. But now even that memory couldn’t dampen his spirits.

Yes, tell them! His brother was wrong. His strange master couldn’t be trusted. Undead couldn’t be trusted. But Garen knew his team. He looked around and held the key up proudly. It shone dully in the light. It looked just like iron, and it didn’t seem enchanted, not on first inspection. But Garen felt the power in it. He looked at the others, practically trembling with joy.

“This is the true treasure. The one I knew of. It was hidden in caverns. Rest of the treasure is a distraction a…”

“Decoy?”

Halassia offered. Garen nodded.

“Yes. Decoy. But this. This is valuable. It is—it is the key of the Goblin King.”  

The others felt silent. Their eyes went wide. Fixed on Garen and the key. He looked around, smiling at them. His friends. He waved the key.

“This is his key. I know it from memory. All Goblins who remember do. This is Velan’s key. One of two. And it unlocks a great, great treasure in the High Passes. The treasure of Goblins. Our hope. Our legacy. Will you help me find it?”

He waited for them to say yes. To smile and congratulate him. To agree. He waited, and waited. But that was not what they said. Instead, they broke Garen’s heart.

 

—-

 

“The key of the Goblin King.”

Garen held it up. The little iron key was dull, worn. Small. But it had never broken, and he could still feel the power within. The Halfseekers, the living ones, stared at him.

“And that was it? You killed them for that?”

Jelaqua whispered through bloodless lips. Garen jerked. He twisted and looked at her.

“No! I told them what it was! I told you—”

“And then what? It makes no sense! Did you try and keep the key and they stopped you? Did you ask for it? We didn’t even divide the loot yet! Why did you steal it and run?”

Jelaqua cried out, frustrated. Garen clenched the key in his fist, feeling the teeth dig into his palm.

“I did not steal it! You didn’t listen! I told them exactly what I told you! I told them everything! I told them this key was the key of Velan. One of two! And it unlocked a greater treasure.”

Garen stared down at the key. Such a precious thing. Such a terrible weight. He had debated throwing it away a thousand times. It was a reminder. He put it in the pouch at his belt, closed it, looked around. His tribe stared at him. The Halfseekers stared at him. Did they not see it yet? Garen spoke quietly.

“I told them. Our hope. A treasure for my kind. The only thing Goblins have ever been left besides death. I thought they would be happy. But they weren’t. They tried to take the key from me. They said I should never have it.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

Garen didn’t look up. He stared down at his hands.

“That was what Halassia said. She looked at me. And Ukrina told me to give her the key or bleed. But Halassia said—she said—”

He swallowed. The words came back to him, burning, unforgettable. Garen looked up and stared into her eyes as she pointed a wand at his chest.

“This cannot be. And this can never be, Garen. I am sorry, but your species is too dangerous. Too monstrous. The world must never have another Goblin King, not if we can prevent it. Give me the key.”

He looked around, and there was silence. No one spoke. Garen stared at Jelaqua, at Seborn, at Moore. He looked around at his warriors, at the Cave Goblins, and then stared back years at Halassia’s face. He stared and stared, until a strangled, halting voice spoke. Moore looked up, shaking his head in denial.

“No, no. Halassia wouldn’t try to attack you. She wouldn’t do that. She was gentle. She would never—”

“She did.”

“She couldn’t! She would never threaten one of her teammates. You lie, Garen. She wouldn’t do—”

I am not lying!

Garen bellowed at Moore. The half-Giant opened his mouth. Jelaqua interrupted him quietly.

“I think she might have, Moore.”

He made a small noise. Jelaqua looked up at him, her expression bleak. She looked at Garen, shook her head.

“She said that? Exactly? Word for word?”

He nodded. Jelaqua closed her eyes.

“Halassia. She shouldn’t have—and Ukrina would—those idiots always did love their cities, even if they were outcast. They should have waited for me to…”

She trailed off. Moore looked at Jelaqua and then seemed to fold in on himself. The two sat there, and Garen felt a surge of—what? Vindictiveness? Triumph? Relief? It didn’t make him feel better. But then Seborn looked up.

So what?

The other two looked at him. Garen did too. Seborn shook his head. His eyes were cold. Unchanged. He looked at Jelaqua,  then straight at Garen.

“So what? This changes nothing. They tried to take the key from you. You were the one who struck first. I saw their bodies. You stabbed the other three before they could so much as move. Only Ukrina fought.

“I was…”

Garen remembered that moment. He remembered Ukrina pressing him, Halassia insisting. Reaching for the key. Reaching for hope. And the way their expressions changed. He remembered the sword in his hand, making a decision—

“It was not my fault.”

Wrong.

Garen shook. He looked at Seborn, at Jelaqua, and at Moore. He whipped his head back and forth.

“Wrong? Wrong? I did nothing wrong! They threatened me! They denied me! To my face! I told them all, the greatest Goblin secrets, and they told me I was wrong. They threatened to kill me.”

To stop a Goblin King? Absolutely.

Seborn nodded. Garen shouted at him.

“But I am not a King! I was a teammate! Part of—part of the tribe! A Halfseeker! It was not my fault! I fought with others for years! I gave all to team! But I was betrayed. Again. And again.”

He turned away from the Halfseekers, looked past his tribe. They stared at him, still, silent. Garen spoke, bitterly.

“I have always been betrayed. Before, I would have been my brother’s champion. Strongest warrior in a tribe. But I was betrayed. And then, I would have been part of my team, become Named Adventurer. Found the Goblin King’s treasure, shared it if it could be shared. But I was betrayed. And then I would have fought with Rags as Chieftain. But she betrayed me. Redscar betrayed me and others. And then Tremborag’s tribe betrayed. Reiss betrayed. It is all betrayal. All of you. I did nothing wrong.

He looked around, pointing at the Halfseekers, at each face in turn. Garen waited for them to acknowledged their guilt, to agree, at last. Now the truth had come out. But they didn’t. They looked at each other. Each face was different. There was pain, regret, and shaken beliefs. But Jelaqua still shook her head. She looked back at Garen.

“But you killed them.”

Garen’s stomach turned over. The Selphid looked at him from behind the dead eyes, and her tone was bitter.

“You keep saying you were betrayed. And they did wrong, Garen. I can’t deny that. They shouldn’t have threatened their teammate. Not like that. But. You. Killed. Them. And that we do not forgive.”

She glanced down at her claws. Then she gazed up at him and her eyes were cold again.

“This changes nothing. Let us go and give us our weapons, Garen. We’ll finish this here in front of your precious tribe.”

He felt as if he’d been punched. Garen looked at Jelaqua. She shook her head.

“Traitor.”

The word struck him like a rock. Garen rocked back on his heels and saw a huge head lift. Moore hunched his broad shoulders. His voice was low, pained. He stared at Garen with grief and helpless anger. Regret.

“Traitor.”

There was no pity in Seborn’s eyes. He sat, motionless, his eyes burning. He spoke, his echoing voice a condemnation, a promise.

“Traitor.

The Halfseekers stared at him. And Garen knew then that he would never hear anything else from them. Ever. They would never look at him differently. That knowledge was the bitterest poison on his tongue. He turned away from them.

“Fine. That is what you call me.”

He looked up. At his warriors, at Spiderslicer. Garen waved a claw.

“Kill them.”

Spiderslicer hesitated. He looked around. The other Redfangs looked from him to Garen, uncertain. Garen raised his voice, impatiently, hearing it break and hating that weakness.

Kill them!

“Yes, Chieftain.”

Mechanically, Spiderslicer stood. He drew his falchion, and walked forwards slowly. The other Redfangs looked at Garen. They had heard everything. They had heard his betrayal, and seen how his comrades, his old team refused to understand. Refused to listen. So why did they look at him with such horror? Garen tried to look away, but they were all around him. Why, why—

“Chieftain Garen!”

A voice spoke up. A body rose. Headscratcher barred Spiderslicer’s way. The shorter Goblin stared up at him. Spiderslicer frowned.

“Move, Headscratcher.”

Headscratcher didn’t budge. He spread his arms wide and looked at Garen.

“Chieftain Garen. Question.”

“Ask.”

Garen looked up. The sun had set. The stars were coming out. A cool wind blew on his face. He just wanted it to be done with. The Halfseekers could die. Then he could forget at last and go…go to the High Passes. Leave this place and never come back. Headscratcher’s voice was insistent as he blocked Spiderslicer. The smaller Goblin hesitated, and then decided to stay put.

“Chieftain Garen gave orders to us. Redfangs sent on mission. To kill Human. Innkeeper.”

“I did. And you did. So what?”

Rags didn’t know about that. Garen stared blankly at the rising moon. He heard a noise from one of the Halfseekers. Moore? Headscratcher lowered his voice.

“Didn’t.”

“What?”

Garen turned. He glared at Headscratcher. The Hob hunched his shoulders.

“Didn’t. Met innkeeper. She was nice.”

Rabbiteater nodded. He spoke up, his voice trembling slightly.

“She is good. Very good!”

“And has name.”

Shorthilt glanced up. Numbtongue nodded.

“Erin Solstice.”

“I told you to kill her.”

Garen’s voice was low. Furious. He glared at the Hobs and then realized the young woman he’d hit had been her. He’d wiped her from his mind, assuming she was dead. Garen thrust a finger at the Hobs, who flinched as one.

“You failed! Disobeyed orders!”

“Bad orders. And we tried.”

Badarrow met Garen’s eyes. The other Redfangs nodded. They spoke all together. Headscratcher was first. He summed up the entirety of the problem in four words.

“Got orders. Got lost.”

The other Redfangs groaned. They understood that. Garen held his tongue. Rabbiteater nodded quickly.

“Innkeeper left Celum. Couldn’t find trail. Many days walk.”

He gestured wildly, and Garen remembered that neither Grunter nor any of the warriors he’d sent had tracking Skills or classes. The other Redfangs nodded. Numbtongue spoke, his voice clear, as fluent as any Human. When had he begun talking so much? He used to refuse to speak so much as a word…

“We searched for her, and ran into a raiding party sent by the Goblin Lord. We found a city—Esthelm—”

He faltered at the magnitude of what had happened next. Shorthilt shook his head.

“Undead. City destroyed. Many Humans. Panic death. Goblin Lord forces come back, big fight, three sides…”

He spread his arms, trying to encompass the magnitude of what had happened. Then he looked at Badarrow. The [Sniper] cradled his bow and rasped.

“Grunter died. Orangepoo died. Leftstep died. Patchhelm died. Justrust died. Rocksoup died…”

The words were deafening. The Redfang tribe sat still. The five Hobs looked at each other. And then they began to tell their tale from the beginning. In whole, not just in parts.

Each one told a part of the story, gesturing, faltering, falling silent. Then another would take up the momentum, telling it to their audience, to Garen.

A skeleton with purple eyes. A [Knight] in shining armor. A girl who was a monster and a person. A battle for the city. Leaving the fallen. Wandering. Hiding. The Eater Goats. A village in danger, and the young woman who offered them food. Eating, becoming welcome. Becoming security, seeing plays, defending the inn. Fighting Raskghar, going into the dungeon. Leading the Cave Goblins. Fighting the strange Hob. Being arrested.

They had gone through so much. Garen listened with awe, surprise, and pride. He couldn’t help it. The Hobs had gone through a story of their own, as much as he had—more than he had when he was just starting out. And they had come through it together. When they finished, the other Redfangs looked at them as they looked at him when he told their own tales. The five Redfang warriors stood together, proud, tired, looking up at him.

Their Chieftain. Only, there was something different in their eyes. Chieftain Garen, they’d called him. Not just Chieftain. Headscratcher spoke at last.

“Chieftain Garen gave orders. But…”

He looked at the others. They nodded, giving him support. Headscratcher looked up and took a deep breath.

“Bad orders, Chieftain Garen. Rags was Chieftain, so old Chieftain’s orders not good. Rags liked innkeeper. Erin Solstice is good. Can’t kill her.”

“I see.”

That was all Garen said. He stared numbly down at the Redfangs. So they couldn’t kill her. Did they even realize why? It wasn’t just that she was good. He wondered. They were so young. Did they know they loved her? As much as any Goblin could love a Human. He had loved someone, once. As much as a Goblin could love a Drake.

What a bitter poison. Garen shook his head. He tried to think of something to say, and just gave up. He looked at the five and couldn’t find it in his heart to chastise them.

“Fine. Fine. Don’t kill her.”

The five relaxed. Garen pointed at Spiderslicer, who’d sat down to listen.

“But Halfseekers. They die. And then we go south. All of us. Cave Goblins, old Redfangs and new—we go south. Past Liscor, back to High Passes.”

Spiderslicer slowly got up. Headscratcher stiffened. Again, he shook his head.

“No, Chieftain.”

Garen frowned.

“Why not?”

Headscratcher struggled for words. He flushed, conscious he was in front of his peers, some of them Goblins who were far older than he was. And his Chieftain. He gestured, speaking slowly.

“If Goblin Lord is coming, Redfangs should fight! That what Chieftain Garen said to Rags, said to us! If Chieftain Rags is alive—should go to her. Chieftain is still Chieftain. Can’t abandon her. Would be not-Goblin.

The Redfangs stirred. They looked at Headscratcher, ashamed, embarrassed, but no one said a word. Rags was Chieftain. And they had betrayed her.

That was true. You couldn’t deny that. Yes, Garen had usurped Rags’ authority. He had—done a Human thing. Pretended to be part of her tribe, then not listened to her orders. Gone behind her back. That was not a Goblin thing. And yes, she had left Tremborag’s mountain, betrayed him. But that was her betrayal. They had still abandoned her.

Betrayal, and betrayal again. Garen was angry. It was all that seemed to happen to him. He snapped down at Headscratcher.

“That was different! Rags was—not strong! Not enough! She could not be Chieftain! She was too weak! Who could lead the Redfangs but me?”

No one answered. Obviously, only Garen could be their Chieftain. There was no Goblin that could match him. No one could replace him, or defeat him. And yet, Headscratcher looked up steadily.

“That true, Chieftain Garen. But Rags was still true Chieftain. She was smart.

Garen opened his mouth. He looked around, and the Redfang tribe gazed down at Headscratcher, ready to shout agreement. But for some reason the words didn’t come out. The five Hobs, Headscratcher, Rabbiteater, Numbtongue, Badarrow, and Shorthilt, looked around, their eyes steady. Confident that what they were saying was true, was right.

They had not been here for Tremborag, or the betrayal at the mountain. They had not witnessed the Human army bearing down on them, or felt the fear of seeing the Kingslayer staring down at them. They had not seen Tremborag fall, or Rags’ new tribe. Or Reiss’ betrayal. They had not seen…anything.

And they remembered a different time. A time when their tribe had been under Rags’ command, however tenuous. The other Redfang goblins shifted uneasily. How could you explain all that had passed to bring them here?

“Enough.”

Garen croaked the words. He waved a claw.

“Just—enough. Rags is gone. Maybe dead. Won’t get to her tribe. Reiss defeated her. Too far, too many Humans and Reiss’ army in the way. We go. Kill Halfseekers.”

It sounded like a plea. Garen’s sword weighed at his side. He could do it himself, in an instant. But he couldn’t—no, he had given an order. But still Headscratcher barred Spiderslicer’s way. The smaller Goblin raised his weapon threateningly, but this time Numbtongue blocked him, guitar in hand. He looked around, his words loud, authoritative.

“No. The Halfseekers are her friends. If they die, she will be sad. They fought with us. They were your tribe.”

He pointed at Garen. The Chieftain felt a thrill of outrage and something else. The other Hobs nodded. Shorthilt polished his sword.

“Can’t kill own tribe.”

“They are traitors!

Garen couldn’t believe he was arguing with them. He strode forwards, pointing at Headscratcher, who began to back up and then caught himself. Garen shouted at Headscratcher.

“I am your Chieftain! You do not argue! You obey!”

Headscratcher’s knees shook. But he refused to step back. He looked Garen in the eye, and Garen saw all their history together. He had taught Headscratcher how to fight. He had shown him how to work with his tribe to bring down larger foes. He had given Headscratcher everything that made him what he was. And Headscratcher saw the same thing. But still, he shook his head.

“Only Chieftain can give orders. And true Chieftain is Rags. Not you. Garen.”

You could have dropped a pin and heard the sound as the tribe stared at Headscratcher in silence. Garen’s hand closed over the hilt of his sword.

“Traitor.”

Headscratcher flinched. Garen looked at Spiderslicer, and the Goblin looked around. Redfang warriors got to their feet, uncertainly. Garen began to unsheathe his sword, waiting for Headscratcher to take back his words. Then he heard a sound.

Rustling. He turned his head and saw the sea of grey-green bodies get to their feet. Twenty thousand Cave Goblins stood up. Their crimson eyes gleamed as they hoisted weapons into the air. The Redfangs turned, warily.

Sit.”

Garen turned and growled an order. The Cave Goblins rippled and some began to sit at the authority in his tone. But they didn’t. He was a Chieftain, the only [Chieftain] present. But somehow, the Cave Goblins stood. They had overthrown their masters once. They stared down at the Redfang tribe, who stared back without fear.

They were Redfangs, and the Cave Goblins, for all there were five times as many, were far weaker. If it was a battle, the Redfangs would take to their mounts and ride forth until the last one was dead. But still—they looked at Garen, their Chieftain, and hesitated. It was in the air. Headscratcher looked Garen in the eye. He was afraid, terribly afraid. But he still barred Garen’s way.

“Can’t let you kill Halfseekers. Can’t let them die. Won’t go.”

“Then leave.

Garen hissed at him. He just wanted Headscratcher out of his sight. But the Hob refused to budge. He shook his head.

“I am Redfang. We are Redfang. They are Redfang.”

He touched his chest, gestured at his four friends, and pointed at the Cave Goblins. They echoed the word, a whisper twenty thousand times.

Redfang.

Headscratcher nodded. He closed his eyes, and then looked at the others. They nodded too. Garen didn’t understand. Not until Headscratcher reached for his axe. He drew the precious, enchanted blade, and pointed it at Garen’s chest. He spoke softly, but in words every member of the Redfang tribe heard.

“Garen Redfang. I challenge you for Chieftain of Redfang tribe.”

For a moment all was still. Then Garen laughed. He threw his head back and laughed, surprising everyone present. Headscratcher looked at him uncertainly. Then Garen moved, in one motion, he drew his sword and pointed Redfang, the fabled blade at Headscratcher’s throat. The [Berserker] froze.

“You cannot challenge me. You are dead. Too weak! Too young! Bow! Or die!”

Garen shouted at Headscratcher. The young Hob wavered, but refused to budge. Garen’s grip tightened—and then Numbtongue stepped forwards. He brought his guitar down on the flat of Garen’s blade, knocking it down. The Chieftain stared at him. Numbtongue spoke, his voice echoing.

“I challenge you too.”

A blade slid from its scabbard. Garen turned his head and saw Rabbiteater draw his blade. The [Champion] held his sword up, pointing at Garen’s chest. His crimson cloak—liquid wine, a fine vintage—rippled behind him. He spoke, his voice quavering, his sword arm steady.

“I challenge.”

Another blade. This one barely whispered as it was unsheathed. Shorthilt held the sword in one hand, and a parrying dagger in the other. He smiled.

“Challenge.”

Badarrow calmly nocked an arrow and aimed it at Garen’s throat.

“Me too.”

Garen looked around. The Redfang tribe was frozen in place. Headscratcher looked around and then smiled.

“We challenge you, Chieftain. All of us.”

They stood there, weapons bared, five of them. In the center of a ring of warriors. Garen stared from face to face. And then he sighed. He dropped his sword. It landed tip-first in the ground and slid into the earth like butter. The other Redfangs stared at it. Headscratcher blinked down at the blade. Garen grabbed his axe hand, threw him to the ground, and leapt at the others with a roar.

 

—-

 

This is what Spiderslicer saw. He stood with the other Redfang warriors of the tribe, in a circle of bodies. Carn Wolves prowled restlessly and the horses shuffled, caught between sleep and wakefulness. The Cave Goblins stood and watched. And in the center of the ring, a challenge was fought.

It was without blades. Garen Redfang had dropped his, and he gave the other five Hobs no chance to use their weapons. Shorthilt’s sword went flying as he kicked it out of the Hob’s hand. He kicked Rabbiteater in the groin, threw Badarrow over his shoulder as the arrow went astray, and blocked Numbtongue’s guitar with one arm. He threw a punch and Numbtongue fell backwards, bleeding.

Perhaps there was mercy in it. But Spiderslicer saw Garen’s eyes. They were wide with fury. He caught Headscratcher as the younger Goblin rushed at him and kneed him in the chest, punched him twice, and then turned and backhanded Shorthilt. He wasn’t doing this to be kind. He could have killed all five Hobs in a moment. But he was making them submit. They would surrender to him. Or Garen would kill them with his bare hands.

It wasn’t a fair fight. Not even with their new classes. Not even five against one. Headscratcher roared as he swung at Garen. The two were as strong as each other, but Garen was faster, more experienced. He dodged the swings and struck as Headscratcher was mid-punch. The Hob collapsed and Garen turned and kicked. Rabbiteater choked as the blow drove into his stomach. He folded over and Garen kicked dirt into Badarrow’s face. He brought his hands down on the Hobgoblin’s back.

Flawless. Spiderslicer had seen Garen fight and knew he was beyond his abilities. Beyond Redscar, or anyone else. Garen stood over the battered Redfangs. He wasn’t breathing hard. He spoke one harsh word.

Obey.

They lay on the ground, coughing. Rabbiteater was spewing, and Numbtongue might have a broken nose. Headscratcher had lost a tooth. He was flat on his back. He looked up, past Garen, and mumbled something.

Garen walked over to him. He stared down at Headscratcher. Spiderslicer edged closer. He heard a whisper, a cough, and then Headscratcher’s voice.

“She hugged me.”

Garen stared down at him.

“What?”

Headscratcher didn’t respond. He pushed himself up, and Numbtongue sat up. He spat blood and growled.

“I played music.”

He rose. Shorthilt got up, shaking his head. He wiped blood from his nose.

“Every night, I sleep and feel safe. I smile. She gave me this.”

He patted the sheathed sword at his side and stood. Garen looked at him in disbelief. Badarrow rolled over. Badarrow, who wouldn’t pick up a sword if he could shoot a bow, made a fist.

“I met a friend who hunts for birds.”

He rose. Rabbiteater looked around. He wiped his mouth and looked at Garen, and then past him, at the Cave Goblins.

“They call me [Champion].”

They stood with light shining from their eyes. Garen looked from face to face. He shook his head and made an inarticulate sound. He lashed out and Headscratcher reeled back. The fight continued, but this time it was savage.

Shorthilt had trained with other Redfang warriors and with Garen. He had been battered, bloodied a hundred times. Broken bones. But this time Garen showed no mercy. He struck the Redfangs, knocking them down, hitting them hard enough to fracture their bones. Spiderslicer watched him snap one of Headscratcher’s fingers like that. He saw the Hob stumble, then throw a punch, broken finger or not.

Garen kicked him down. But Badarrow was next. He swung for Garen, ignoring the two punches he received. The third downed him. Shorthilt and Numbtongue jumped forwards and were knocked flat as Garen hurled Numbtongue into Shorthilt. And then Rabbiteater raised his hands. He threw a punch and Garen countered. He threw another punch and received a blow to the face.

He staggered. But he refused to fall. Garen lashed out. He struck Rabbiteater six times in the chest, face, groin. But Rabbiteater kept swinging. He struck Garen’s chest, took a punch in the ribs. He blocked a fist that went for his right shoulder, punched, sidestepped a kick. Garen blinked and Rabbiteater hit him in the stomach.

Rabbiteater. Spiderslicer remembered a little Goblin. He saw a [Champion]. The two traded blows for another second. Garen swept Rabbiteater’s legs out from under him and stomped. Rabbiteater’s ribs did break, then.

Headscratcher lunged at Garen from the side. The two went down, punching, grappling. Garen threw Headscratcher off him. He got up and received a punch from Badarrow. Shorthilt kicked him in the back. Garen seized the leg, gripped Shorthilt by an ankle and threw him into Badarrow. The blow sent both Hobgoblins down. The Redfang tribe winced as they saw the two writhing.

Numbtongue. The Goblin was on his feet. He lifted his guitar and struck. Garen blocked with one arm. Lightning flashed from the strings of the guitar and Garen recoiled. Numbtongue held up his guitar and Garen leapt. He kicked Numbtongue in the chin, snapping his head back. Down Numbtongue fell, like a rock. Garen landed, and Headscratcher was waiting.

One punch. The [Berserker] roared and caught Garen with a blow that lifted the Chieftain’s feet off the ground. He swung again and Garen hit him back. Headscratcher choked but didn’t fall. He swung and Garen knocked him down. The Chieftain turned, panting.

And Rabbiteater got off the ground. Numbtongue was shaking his head. Rabbiteater pulled him up. Shorthilt and Badarrow were getting up too. Garen turned. He knocked all of them down, but it wasn’t enough.

Again and again. Spiderslicer thought that each time one of the Redfangs fell it had to be the last time. They had broken bones now, and blood ran from their ears, noses. But still they rose, supporting each other, leaning on each other’s shoulders. Each time they were struck down, they stood up, battered, broken, but still rising.

It was an impossible foe. There was no way they could beat Garen Redfang. No way. But they took the fight to him, attacking as one. As a team. Garen was a blur, fighting them all at once. But it wasn’t Garen that Spiderslicer and the other Redfangs were looking at now.

It was them. They refused to fall.

It was the essence, the quintessential thing that defined the Redfang Tribe. Spiderslicer felt his eyes sting as he saw the five Redfangs fighting, bleeding. Garen hammered them down, kicked them, beat them as they struggled to land a single blow, two blows—

“Submit or die!”

Garen howled it at them. He stood over Headscratcher as the Hob knelt, too weak to stand. But the Hob still swung at Garen’s legs. A weak blow. Garen struck him and then turned. He strode over to the crimson blade lodged in the ground and drew it.

A groan ran around the circle. It was unconscious. Garen advanced on Headscratcher, kicking Rabbiteater as the Hob lunged at him. He pointed the blade down at Headscratcher.

Surrender.

“No.”

Headscratcher looked up. He reached for an axe he didn’t have. Garen hesitated. He looked down and shook his head. He raised his blade.

To kill Headscratcher. His own tribe. Spiderslicer howled and it felt like every Redfang howled with him. The tale of the Halfseekers’ betrayal played in his mind again. His own tribe! Headscratcher looked up, baring his teeth, waiting. The other four were trying to get up, but they couldn’t. He couldn’t die. Spiderslicer saw Garen swing down, but no one was going to stop him. He couldn’t—

The rust-red blade fell. A sword swept up to stop it. The blade deflected the enchanted sword, swept it away. Spiderslicer stared at the sword. It was thin, a razor’s edge of a blade. A falchion, in fact.

He looked around. He was standing in front of Headscratcher. It was his hand that held the weapon. His falchion rang with the impact. Spiderslicer reflexively checked it to make sure the thin blade hadn’t bent—and then he realized what he’d done. He looked around. Redfang warriors stared at him. Garen looked down.

“Spiderslicer. What are you doing?”

Spiderslicer quivered. He looked up. He tried to move, to back away and leave Headscratcher. But he couldn’t help it. He trembled as he lifted his falchion. But a part of him screamed the words. He looked up at his Chieftain.

“Redfangs don’t fight alone.”

Garen stared down at him. The color drained from his face. He took a step back, and then what Spiderslicer said hit him. He closed his eyes and then looked at Spiderslicer. Bitter anger flared in his gaze.

“Traitor.”

Spiderslicer recoiled from the words. They tore at him, hot barbs reaching for his heart. They were the same words that Garen had spoken when Redscar and the others had left. And they cut no less deep.

The Goblin’s eyes blurred with tears. Spiderslicer looked up at his idol, his Chieftain. The hero who had taught him how to fight, had shown him how to believe in himself, believe he was strong. But that had been when Spiderslicer was young. Now he looked up and just saw a lost Goblin, who did the same things. He was strong, but he did not have a vision like Reiss. He was not confident of himself like Tremborag had been. He did not offer hope, like Rags.

“Sorry, Chieftain.”

And he meant it. With every fiber of his being. But still, he raised the falchion. Garen looked down at him. He looked at Headscratcher, at Rabbiteater, at Numbtongue and Shorthilt and Badarrow.

“Traitor. You are a traitor. All of you are.”

All six Goblins looked up at him. They shook their heads. Slowly. Sadly. How did he not see? Headscratcher was the one who said it.

“No, Chieftain. You are.”

Garen swung his sword. Spiderslicer raised his blade as he threw himself at Headscratcher. The two fell. Spiderslicer felt his sword sunder as Garen’s blade sheared through the steel. He got up and stared at the hilt of his sword. Garen pointed his sword at Spiderslicer’s chest. Then another Goblin stepped forwards.

The Hob who carried the warhammer stepped forwards. She looked down at Garen and shook her head. He turned towards her. On the Hob’s left, another Goblin drew a dirk. A pair of Goblin twins pulled cleavers from their waistbands. They gathered behind Spiderslicer. Garen stopped.

A veteran warrior made a sound of outrage. He moved behind Garen, his spear aimed at the Hob with the warhammer. But then another Goblin moved. He raised a halberd and joined the others behind Spiderslicer and Headscratcher. And another Goblin joined them. And another.

Garen looked around. The Redfang tribe slowly stood. They drew their weapons and walked past him. They formed a line, a mass. Thousands of Goblins stood, weapons drawn, forming a wall between him and Headscratcher and Spiderslicer. Some were weeping. Others were dry-eyed but shaking, holding their weapons so hard their hands began to bleed. But none of them looked away. They met his eyes, and there was nothing but grief there.

But they stood. Some of the Redfangs didn’t join the ones around Headscratcher. They stood at Garen’s back. But so few. Less than a hundred stood around Garen. Less than a hundred. They stared at their friends with shock in their eyes. It was a mirror of Garen’s own expression.

A Hob struggled to his feet, supported by Spiderslicer. Headscratcher coughed. He looked at Garen and his eye ran with blood and water.

“Chieft—”

Headscratcher fell silent. The Redfangs stared at Garen. He looked around, and his expression was hurt. Lost.

“You are my tribe.”

They didn’t answer him. They were his tribe. His. He had made them, given them everything. But still, he was wrong. He had been wrong. He had abandoned his first tribe, abandoned his brother and Rags. It was true. They had betrayed him. But he had betrayed them too. That was the great tragedy.

Sometimes your sisters and brothers struck at you. Sometimes they broke your heart. But he had shed blood first. He had given up on them. And Redfangs did not do that. He had taught them better. So they stood in opposition to him. Meeting his eyes until it became too much for him to bear.

Slowly, Garen began to back up. He stumbled on the uneven ground, no longer surefooted. He looked around and walked towards his Carn Wolf. The great wolf had watched all that had passed, anxious and confused. It had seen Garen sparring, but this was different. It lowered its head, nuzzling Garen. He stood with it as the few Redfangs that had joined him went to their mounts.

Garen began to walk away. Slowly, as if he was in a dream. He looked back once, and then twice. No one moved. Garen’s Carn Wolf whined, slinking over to Garen to lick at his master’s bloody cuts. The Hobgoblin Chieftain kept looking back. Spiderslicer could barely see him. Hot water ran down his face, though it wasn’t raining.

The Chieftain of the Redfang tribe was halfway down the road when someone called out.

“Stop.”

He turned back. Hope in his eyes. But it faded as he saw who was walking towards him. Cave Goblins and Redfangs parted as three figures walked forwards. Jelaqua’s body was torn. Moore clutched at his side, partially healed by a potion. Seborn drew his reclaimed blades.

“We’re not done with you, Garen. Stop.”

He looked back at them, and now he seemed ready to run. But he held his ground and turned, sword in hand. The Halfseekers walked towards him, leaving a trail behind them.

“No.”

Numbtongue moved to block them. The Halfseekers didn’t stop. The Hobgoblin tugged at Jelaqua. She stumbled unsteadily. Her innards were visible through her wounds and something orange and fluid pulsed through her organs.

“You’ll die.”

The Hobgoblin looked from face to face. Jelaqua looked at him once. Then she shook her head.

“We swore an oath. We cannot forgive him. Move or die.”

And because they were his team, his tribe, and because they understood, the Redfangs parted. They couldn’t stop it. They could only bear witness. Garen waited, his eyes fixed on his friends. The Goblins stood back as the four figures stopped for a moment. Maybe they said something. But it was too late, after all. Years too late.

The Redfang tribe bore witness to the end. They stood in the middle of the road and watched as the tale of the Halfseekers drew to its close.

It was not raining. It should have been. The skies should have been dark and cloudy, and the wind should have blown and made the ground shiver and lurch. It should have been dark. But it wasn’t. The skies were starry, and it was a pleasant spring night.

They watched the end. Garen stood over a Drake. She was slumped, unable to move, staring up at him. A half-Giant lay on the grass, clutching at his side. Wet entrails glistened in the starlight. A Drowned Man lay, gasping, reaching for his daggers. Drowning in his blood.

A sword as red as rust, as sharp as memory, swung down. The Drake’s head rolled and her body slumped. The Hobgoblin turned. He looked at the three, as the half-Giant tried to move and failed. Then he climbed onto the Carn Wolf that waited for him.

Less than a hundred Goblins waited for the Hobgoblin as he slowly rode away from the cave. He rode slowly, then faster than faster. The few gathered around him as he headed north. Back. Perhaps to death. Or to something else. Perhaps he just couldn’t ride past them all, or there was nothing left for him to the south. But they saw him go, and knew he was going.

Their Chieftain. The one who defined them. Going. Going. But what hurt most was the flash of crimson that kept appearing in the distance, even when he was a distant shape. It meant little until you remembered that a Goblin’s eyes were crimson. Until you thought of Garen, riding faster and faster as the wind blew across his face. But always the crimson light shone towards the Redfangs gathered there. It meant one thing that hurt most of all.

He kept looking back.

 

—-

 

“Hold. Hold still!”

Pisces trembled as, in The Wandering Inn, he bent over Erin. The [Innkeeper] was half-conscious. Bleeding from her mouth. Pisces was working as quickly as he could, but he dared not apply a healing potion. Not until her teeth were mended.

They weren’t bones, but a [Necromancer] could manipulate any natural part of the body in theory. But it was a thousand times harder to do that to a living person and Pisces was sweating. He’d already fixed broken bones and helped stave the worst of the injuries off.

The inn was bloody. Adventurers lay on the ground, wounded by arrows. Some, like Dawil, were burned, and others had been rushed to Liscor for a [Healer]. Pisces’ hand shook as he tried to mend Erin’s teeth. If only he had the broken fragments.

“It’s not enough. I can’t do it without excess material. If I try to mend it—I’ll make the teeth as fragile as glass. Enough. Enough. I’ll send my undead through the doorway.”

He strode towards the magic door. Erin half-lurched up, but it was Ceria who caught Pisces.

“Don’t be an idiot! A bunch of Gold-rank teams just got torn apart! Sit down and figure something else out! If you can’t fix Erin’s teeth, let her use a potion!”

Pisces clenched his hands, but some of what Ceria was saying got through to him. He stalked back over to the doorway. Bevussa was lying on a table, an arrow that had gone through her side lying in front of her. She looked at the door.

A red gemstone was set in the door. It was open to the Redfang’s cave. It was practically right next to where the fighting had been. Despite the smashed door the Halfseekers had been carrying, they could go back to the spot. But no one had dared open the door.

And yet, Erin had insisted on keeping it open. If the Redfangs, their Redfangs needed a way out, it was there. So the door was set. But closed. And every adventurer was keeping an eye on the door. Halrac had an enchanted arrow nocked and he was sitting, facing the door’s entrance.

“I’ll—try and fix your teeth. It would be possible if I mixed teeth from another skull, but adding a foreign substance to a living body seldom works well. Still, if it’s just a…a cap on your teeth…I have bear teeth…”

Pisces muttered to himself. Erin murmured something and spat some blood. Mrsha offered her a cloth and Erin wiped at her mouth.

“Not a normal tribe. That wasn’t normal. I’ve only heard of Goblins riding wolves in stories. That had to be the Redfang tribe. But I never expected—”

Keldrass was muttering to himself. The other adventurers were groaning, or whispering, but making very little noise. It felt like a vigil. A wake. The Halfseekers had been gone. And the odds of them coming back were shrinking by the moment.

But no one wanted to say it. Pisces was bending over Erin, mending her teeth by attaching shaped enamel to her broken teeth and cursing the blood when the door crashed open. Halrac stood in a flash as everyone spun. He drew the arrow to his cheek and froze.

Help.

A figure stood in the doorway. A bleeding shape. Moore staggered into the room, but something was wrong. He moved awkwardly, in jerking motions. And he was holding something. A dark shape, bleeding.

Seborn.

“Help him.”

Moore whispered. He placed the Drowned Man on a table. Seborn jerked. Blood was spilling from his mouth. Pisces fought off the paralysis and rushed over to him.

“Healing potion—”

Bevussa was there before him.

“His lungs are shot. Someone suck out the blood—”

“Me! [Vacuum Sphere]!”

Falene knocked both aside. Seborn choked as blood rushed out of his lungs, funneling up into a swirling vortex in the air. Pisces grabbed for a healing potion. Bevussa snared it and poured it down Seborn’s throat. He choked.

“Get him upright—”

“Dead gods, his wounds!”

Someone help Moore!

Lyonette shouted. Pisces turned. He saw the half-Giant swaying. Then his eyes went to Moore’s side. He saw entrails spilling out of a cut in his side. Pisces swore. There was no blood coming from the wound. Moore was—he had to be—

Body. Need a body. She needs a body.”

Moore gasped at the others. He looked around. Two voices seemed to come from his mouth. Both were his voice, but one was—different. A different inflection. Pisces froze. His eyes went to Moore’s side as his mind connected the dots. Surely not—

“Moore, you’re dying. The blood—”

Stopped. I stopped it. It’s fine. She needs a body.”

The half-Giant looked around. He sagged to the ground. Pisces stared at him.

“A body? Where would we find a host for—”

“Basement. It’s the basement.”

He turned. Erin staggered to her feet. Her partially fixed teeth moved around her bloody mouth. She looked at the others.

“Raskghar in the basement. Get one. Hurry.”

For a moment no one moved, then Yvlon got up.

“Ylawes.”

They ran to the trapdoor. Moore was sitting on the ground, surrounded by other Gold-rank adventurers. They tried to pack his insides back into his body before applying the healing potion. All the while, the second voice whispered to them, telling them what was wrong. Moore’s eyes were rolling back in his head.

“Here!”

Yvlon came out of the basement, dragging a huge body behind her. Pisces’ heart jumped as he saw a Raskghar’s head and Ceria swore. But Moore lurched over to it. He bent, exposing his open side towards the body.

Don’t look. Don’t look!”

At first the others didn’t know what he meant. Pisces did, and he watched in horror and fascination as something slithered out of Moore’s open wound. The half-Giant groaned and passed out, but the orange, semi-liquid…thing flowed towards the Raskghar’s body.

Yvlon and Ylawes backed up as it crawled down the creature’s mouth. The other adventurers watched in horror. The Raskghar began to jerk, and then a voice began to speak from its mouth, though the gaping muzzle never so much as twitched.

You didn’t see. Didn’t see it.

The voice was confused. Female. It didn’t sound like a voice that came from lips. The Raskghar kept twitching as the thing—the Selphid began invading its nervous system. The adventurers looked at each other.

“What didn’t we see?”

Ceria looked around in confusion. The voice—Jelaqua, whispered again.

They’ll kill us for it. Didn’t happen. You didn’t see. Please.

Bevussa looked around. The Garuda understood, and she spoke decisively.

“We saw nothing. No one will tell anything.”

Pisces nodded. The others began to understand, at least in part. Jelaqua was talking about how she’d entered Moore’s body. To invade a living host, willing or not, was the height of Selphid sin.

The Selphid had almost gained control of the Raskghar’s body. It began sitting up, raising its arms, blinking, as if going through a test. It was unnatural to see. But for all the precision, it seemed like the controller was—damaged. How could she not be? She kept whispering, forgetting to use the Raskghar’s vocal chords and lungs.

I didn’t break the rule. I didn’t—

“What happened? Are the Goblins still there?”

“What about Headscratcher?”

Halrac and Erin pressed Jelaqua. The Raskghar’s head turned and stared blankly at them.

“Garen. It was Garen. His tribe. Others alive.”

“Garen?”

The name evoked confusion in some of the other adventurers. Pisces felt his heart skip a beat. Dawil, his face burned, sat up from his cot.

“That was their old teammate, wasn’t it? I heard about a Goblin Chieftain that no adventuring team had managed to bring down. But he was supposed to be in the High Passes.”

Jelaqua didn’t respond. Halrac looked at the body, then at Seborn and Moore. He stared at the door.

“What in the name of the Five Families happened?”

Erin shook her head. She looked back at the Halfseekers. They were all breathing, but just. She stared at the door, closed again.

“I don’t know. But I think—I think something happened with the Redfangs. I mean, Headscratcher and the others. And Garen. They swore to kill him.”

“By the looks of it, he killed them.

Revi commented softly. A strangled laugh rose from the Raskghar. All of the adventurers jerked as Jelaqua finally spoke with the Raskghar’s growling voice,

“He couldn’t do it.”

“Do what?”

Erin bent down towards her. Jelaqua looked up at her. She laughed again, weakly. Hysterically.

“He couldn’t kill us. He tried, but he didn’t. Who beheads a Selphid?

She laughed, and then tears began seeping from the Raskghar’s eyes. Not water; the Raskghar’s body was dead. But a thin, yellow substance, like a mucus. Erin drew back. Jelaqua kept laughing, a weird giggling sound like a hyena’s laugh.

She was laughing and crying in the Raskghar’s body. It was a strange, unnatural sight and sound. But the sobs that quickly usurped the laughter and the tears were all too familiar.

The adventurers sat and stood in silence. Erin looked around. She was bloody, battered, and the others were hurt as well. She ran her tongue over her broken teeth and winced. She shook her head. For once, no witty quotes came to mind. She just sat down and put her head in her hands.

“I need a drink.”

 

—-

 

The Redfangs stood outside the cave. Four thousand of them and twenty thousand Cave Goblins. They looked at the five swollen and bruised Hobgoblins among them. They had splints and were keeping still, most of them. Even the best healing potions didn’t go so far.

Garen Redfang was gone. And with his absence, a void had opened up in the tribe. After all, no one Goblin could equal Garen Redfang.

And that was the problem. It had been a problem even when Rags was there, and Reiss. But the Redfangs had realized there was a solution.

No one could replace him. That was a fact. But five? Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badarrow, Numbtongue, and Rabbiteater sat together. And the Redfangs looked at them. Headscratcher spoke slowly, around a swollen mouth.

“We are Redfangs. We were, and are. And will be. Garen is gone, but he was not us. We were, are, us.”

There was nothing else to say. The Redfangs sat there, as night fell. Wondering what they would be tomorrow.

 

—-

 

So night fell. The Redfangs and Cave Goblins sat, talking, debating. Erin Solstice and the adventurers lay in their inn, not understanding all of what had gone on. And Garen Redfang rode away, haunted by regret, words echoing in his mind. Those were their concerns.

The issues of a small Human city just north of Liscor was more immediate. Esthelm, the city that had fallen and then reclaimed its honor, was in a state of high alert. They’d reported the Redfang tribe riding past their walls. Now they locked their gates, and put everyone they could fit on their walls. They sent a [Message] spell to all the cities, a dire warning.

The Goblin Lord’s army was coming. They were within range of Esthelm’s walls. The news sparked alarm through all the cities, who had expected the Goblin Lord to arrive days later.

Only, it wasn’t the Goblin Lord’s army. They were close behind, but this band of Goblins had outrun them. It was an army large enough to fool Esthelm, but it was not Reiss’ Goblins.

Instead, it was a tribe. Redscar, Poisonbite, and Noears led the broken, bloody Flooded Waters tribe south, running ahead of death, despairing. Their Chieftain was missing. Alive, but lost to them. In her absence, they ran south, past Esthelm, continually on the move, fleeing the traitorous Goblin Lord who was slowly following behind them with the Humans.

They were despairing, hurt, betrayed. Most were half-dead from running all day and all night, but they dared not stop lest the Humans on horseback caught up. In their desperation they’d outpaced even horses, not stopping to sleep or rest or eat. It felt like the end of all things, and all the Goblins could do was keep moving, one step after another, late into the night until they collapsed of exhaustion and woke, only to feel the same fear again. They ran and ran, without purpose or hope.

On the eleventh day, they reached Liscor.

 


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5.57

So. This was how it went down. None of them had really expected it. Not like this. Then again, they hadn’t expected to expect. Foresight wasn’t a huge ability of theirs by and large, at least for the grand things. Small things—the way a nick in a sword caught in a sheathe and held just too long, presenting an opening, or where an old rabbit’s nest presented a foothold that would give at the right moment—they were masters of that. But the large things they left up to chance.

It was more entertaining that way.

So Rags was dead. Or if not dead, then defeated. Her tribe was broken—taken by Reiss the Goblin Lord or running south, led by Redscar, a desperate bunch fleeing death. They’d probably survive. All of them agreed that Redscar was good enough for that. He had been one of them, once. The best of them, really. They didn’t know why he’d left, but he had to have reasons.

Not good ones, but reasons nonetheless. And it was all moot, anyways. They were leaving too. The Humans were stuck fighting Eater Goats, but they’d be along shortly. They were headed south, through the only pass in the mountains. Past Liscor. Nobody really knew what would happen when they reached the Drake city, but there was a rumor going around that there would be a fight. That made sense.

There was always a fight. It was just a shame then, that the Redfang Tribe wouldn’t be part of this one.

They rode. Four thousand of them, or nearly. They’d taken casualties in their last battle. It happened. But they were larger than they’d been this morning. Some of the old guard, the first Redfangs who’d abandoned the tribe for Rags had returned to them. Some of Tremborag’s Goblins too. They rode horses.

Horses.

The Redfang Tribe laughed about that. The veterans, the originals, clung to the Carn Wolves as the huge, bounding beasts loped across the ground. Carn Wolves were tireless, their teeth as large as your hands. Their breath stank of meat, and their fur was coarse. Rough. Painful to hold, even; it could turn away a weak thrust from a blade or protect them from arrows sometimes. But Carn Wolves were playful. Intelligent.

It would be a mistake to think that this pack lived with the Redfang Tribe bore their riders just because of a Skill or because they’d been domesticated. They hadn’t.

They were wolves. And unlike dogs, wolves didn’t seek masters. Respect had to be won. Newborn pups, or older Carn Wolves had to be trained to follow orders, persuaded through might and kindness to obey. It wasn’t the same as making pets. The Redfangs had to show they were superior—teach their companions not to bite or snarl and to listen. And they had to be kind. That part was easy.

As the Redfangs rode they offered their wolves scraps of meat, patted them, whispered into their ears. In bad times, a Redfang warrior would offer his food to his wolf first. Or an arm. After all, you could fight with one arm, but you couldn’t fight without a friend.

Laughter. One of the Redfangs laughed as his Carn Wolf cleared a boulder in a single bound, perched there for the briefest of moments, then leapt again. The other riders whooped and cheered. Laughing. Like a frog! The other Goblin clinging to the back of the leaping wolf didn’t laugh. He’d nearly fallen off. And his Carn Wolf was dead. He was not crying so loudly it hurt to look at him.

Shouts and a thump made the laughter stop. Heads turned. The Redfangs saw a bloom of magic, like a flower explode behind them. They saw the petals of gold-green light open up. A beautiful thing. But the brightness blinded, and whatever the petals touched turned to ash. A burning spell, but limited. The Redfangs shook their heads. Better to use a [Fireball]. Besides, the spell missed. They saw a group of Humans on horseback charging out of the smoke. Wearing armor.

Knights of the Clairei Field. The Redfangs had clashed with them once, and knew them by their insignia. A stylized stalk of wheat blowing on an open field, only, the grains on the wheat were sharp like swords. The Clairei [Knights] wore bright green chest plates with their insignia etched on the front in silver, and their shoulders, arms, and leggings were bright blue. Their helmets were the same green, deep and majestic as a deep forest, gilded with gold.

Showoffs. The Redfangs sneered, but only a bit. The Clairei Knights lost points for dressing up, but they were fast. Faster than even the bounding wolves or the Goblins riding horses. They could outrun birds on the wing. And in a charge, that made them deadly. Worthy foes.

They were coming. Either they hadn’t heard the call to breakaway and face the goats, or they had ignored it. Either way, they were out for blood. The Redfangs looked ahead, at the largest wolf running at the front of their tribe. It was the largest by far, a beast that could easily bear its rider, a full-grown Hob.

He rode in front. He wore cheap leather armor, scarred by battle, and he didn’t bother with a helmet. Some of the Redfangs wore far better gear than he did. But his sword was red, pure rust, and the edges caught the light. Garen Redfang looked back at the charging [Knights] and spoke.

They didn’t hear it. The wind caught words and tore them away. But they didn’t need to. They saw the word spread from rider to rider, quick as thought. The riders broke up. Eighty of the rear-most Redfangs, a dozen veterans on Carn Wolves and the rest newer recruits on horses. They turned back to meet the dozen or so [Knights] and the [Mage Knight] riding with them. The Clairei Knights hesitated as the Redfangs charged them.

Eighty versus twelve? It was an insult. On both sides, as it turned out. The Humans regarded seven-to-one odds as an insult, especially against Goblins. Didn’t they have enchanted gear, high levels and a [Mage] on their side? The Redfangs saw it the same way. Obviously they’d lose one-on-one, but eighty of them was overkill. Sixty, or even forty would have been fairer odds. But that was battle for you.

The fight was over quick. The Clairei Knights were good, but they weren’t used to fighting the Redfangs. They had their lances out—first mistake. They thought they could hit and run, like they were fighting mindless monsters or slow, uncoordinated Goblins. The second mistake was trusting their armor. It was enchanted—but for lightness, not strength. The Clairei Knights were speedy attackers, skirmishers, not like the Knights of the Petal or a more heavily-armored group. And the Redfangs were experts at taking down high-level enemies, even ones who wore fully enchanted armor.

There were ways. More ways if both sides were mounted, actually. Horses couldn’t wear full armor like Humans. They left too many spots exposed. Legs, underbellies. Eyes. It was a pity, but you did what you had to in battle.

Horses reared. Carn Wolves howled. There was very little clashing of metal and no locking of swords. A few screams. The main Redfang tribe watched. Goblins died. Humans died.

The Clairei Knights fled. Three galloped away. A fourth stood, dismounted, guarding the bodies of her friends. She was ready to die. Fifty three Goblins circled her, some dismounted. One claimed the rearing horse of a fallen Clairei Knight.

The Human screamed a challenge. The Redfangs waited. They saw the way she was holding herself. Armor torn in the left side. She’d taken an arrow to the shoulder point-blank but her armor had held. The mace to the side of her helmet made her stagger. But still she stood, guarding her friends.

The nine surviving veterans conferred. They nodded to each other, and then whistled. The other Redfangs turned and moved back. The [Knight] looked around, bewildered. She set herself for an attack—and none came. The Redfangs nodded to her and turned away. The Clairei Knight stood there in disbelief, watching as they raced to catch up with their tribe.

Over two dozen dead Redfangs lay on the ground as the attack group returned to their tribe. Those who’d lost their mounts were shuffled onto fresher horses or Carn Wolves, and what bandaging was needed was done on the march. The wounded horses were left behind.

It was lucky—if you could call it that—that of the three veterans who had died, their Carn Wolves had died with them. If one had been wounded or injured beyond a healing potion’s power, their rider would have stayed with them, tried to hide and catch up later. The odds of them surviving would have been remote.

The attack group fell into position with the others, tossing a few weapons from the fallen at those who needed better gear. A healing potion that hadn’t been used. Scraps of meat cut quickly from a dead horse. No loot from the Clairei Knights.

No one commented on it, although some of the new Goblins looked confused. The other Redfangs ignored it and congratulated the victors on their return. The newbies would get it soon enough.

Obviously the armor and enchanted weapons would have been nice. And the potions. Not to mention the horsemeat. But the knights had put up a good fight and the survivor had been defending her comrades. You had to respect that, sometimes. Other tribes wouldn’t. The Mountain City tribe, the Goblin Lord’s army, the Flooded Waters tribe—they’d probably all loot the dead. Kill the [Knight].

Actually, Tremborag’s tribe would kill her. Or capture her, which would be worse. The other two tribes might kill her, but the Flooded Waters tribe would probably capture her too, only not in a bad way. Anyways, none of them would ride away. But that was because they didn’t respect their opponents.

They didn’t have honor. But the Redfangs did. If you didn’t have honor, if you didn’t respect the battle and your opponent, what did you have?

The Redfang tribe rode on. Evening was swiftly approaching and the cool spring winds blew wet moisture into their faces as they rode south. The High Passes loomed above them, tall mountains casting long shadows. The Redfang Tribe kept moving, talking sparingly—using hand signs and body language to communicate. Through the winding pass they would run, past Esthelm, the last Human city and then to Liscor, where the rains had just stopped and the floodwaters were still retreating, leaving mud in their wake.

The Redfang tribe did everything on the go, pausing only briefly to rest their mounts. Everything the Goblins needed to do could be done in the saddle, or on wolf-back. Eat, talk, sleep, poo—although that was an advanced technique that was extremely dangerous if you were riding ahead of others.

And in between the loping stride, the rush of wind and the draining of adrenaline from their bodies, the Goblins spared a thought for their fallen brothers and sisters. Mostly brothers—the Redfang tribe was unique in that it had mainly male Goblins in it. But both genders fought and died equally in battle, and there had been deaths today, for all the Redfangs had won every battle they’d fought.

They’d died in the fight to break the Human’s encirclement. More had died fighting the Clairei Knights and other pursuers just now. The fallen were remembered in the Redfang’s way. But no tears were shed, and the deaths were accepted. Not celebrated. And there was mourning. But it was to be expected. Deaths happened. The Redfangs knew they would die in one battle or another.

Fight well as you go. That was the Redfang Tribe. They were the strongest warriors. The quickest, too. It was actually strange—they accepted only the best warriors into their tribe. Regular Goblins as well as Hobs. In fact, Hobs were actually rarer in the tribe because they had to be able to ride these days, and there were some types of Hobs, like Pyrite, for whom no horse would bear their weight.

That was a change from the old days. Before, the Redfangs had been both riders and infantry. But ever since the betrayal, the split, Garen had made theirs a fully-mounted force that could fight on the ground if need be, but prioritized movement.

The split had changed a lot of things. It had been the hardest challenge the Redfang tribe had ever faced. Harder than their first war against the Eater Goats until they’d managed to imprint a kind of truce into the goat’s minds. More strenuous than fighting Gargoyles, or even the other horrors lurking at the bottom of the High Passes. More deadly than going above? No—but it had taken just as many of their number without a single blade being drawn.

Rags or Garen. Garen or Rags. He’d submitted to her, let her become Chieftain, but everyone knew he’d thrown the battle. He’d tested her, and the Redfangs knew she was a…better leader. At least, in areas not relating to battle. She was good at strategy, keeping the wolves fed—Garen was a warrior and his skills in every other area were beyond lacking. And they had made her their Chieftain. They owed her loyalty, so that even if it meant leaving Garen, it was right. Because she was a Chieftain?

No. Yes. The Redfangs were still reluctant to talk about that. They’d stayed because they couldn’t leave the tribe, even if parts of them had thought that was the right thing to do. Redscar and all the ones who’d seen it that way had left. But they’d stayed.

All the things that had gone before had been …not good. Messy. Abandoning their new Chieftain, Rags, having to sit in Tremborag’s mountain while his Goblins disgraced themselves, running from the Humans—all of that wasn’t good. The Redfangs didn’t talk about it. They didn’t like to think on it, really. But they stayed because they’d made their choice. And of course, there was their Chieftain.

Who could replace him? No one Goblin was his equal. Not Tremborag, not the Goblin Lord, not Rags—not even Greydath of Blades. He was their hero. He defined the tribe. They couldn’t leave him. When he called, they answered. They were his warriors, and the Redfangs didn’t desert their own. Not the first. Not the one who had forged them, given him their name to shout, to be proud of.

The Hobgoblin who had been a Gold-rank adventurer.

The brother of the Goblin Lord.

Garen Redfang.

 

—-

 

After another twenty minutes more of riding, Garen called a halt. It was time to change things up, especially if he wanted to pass by Liscor tonight. His tribe came to a standstill as they circled around him, Goblins jumping off of Carn Wolves. Those with horses had to do more work; temporarily unsaddling their mounts and rubbing them down. There wasn’t much grass about—the area around the High Passes grew rockier the further in you went. So dried hay was broken out and the horse handlers munched on a few stalks while their affronted mounts quickly ate the rest.

Garen’s Carn Wolf lolled on the ground, panting lightly. It wasn’t winded from the run, but some of the other wolves were younger, had less wind. Garen understood that. He knew his tribe’s ability to move, how much they could fight, and what kind of enemies they could take on most easily. He knew war. Little else but that, but it was enough.

He was Garen Redfang. Leader of the Redfang tribe. Former Gold-rank adventurer. And he had been betrayed.

Again. The taste was bitter in Garen’s mouth, like bile. He remembered the Goblins staring up at him, Redscar looking towards Garen. Turning away.

It had happened again. First in the mountain, then after Tremborag’s death. And then today. And before that—and before that too—

Garen’s life was a litany of betrayals. Of false friends. The memories were still with him. They surged in times like these, and he let them pass through his head as he squatted, offering his wolf a handful of meat scraps. It ate them greedily, licking his hand. Garen smiled and scratched his wolf behind the ears. You could trust a Carn Wolf. They were ferocious and if they didn’t respect you they’d kill you. But loyalty, once won, was never lost. His wolf wouldn’t leave Garen.

Everyone else would. That was what Garen had learned over the years. You couldn’t really trust anyone. Not your fellow Goblins, and certainly not other species. Not even your own tribe, apparently. Redscar, his right hand, had left him. Another lesson.

“Chieftain?”

Garen looked up. He saw his new second, Spiderslicer, walking towards him. Garen nodded and stood up.

“Time, Chieftain?”

Garen nodded. He grunted.

“Time. Get treasure. Pile.”

The other Redfangs looked up. The new recruits didn’t understand what was going on, but they followed along willingly. They didn’t have to be told; they’d learn by watching. The Redfangs congregated around Garen. They tossed items on the ground at his feet. A sword snatched from a Human’s hand, a potion bottle ripped from a belt. Magic rings, armor, and so on. The spoils of war. Each Goblin did it. There were a lot of them, so it took a while, but soon there was a pile of every object they’d snatched in the latest battles.

Garen looked down at the pile when it was done. He squatted down and pushed items back and forth. He’d seen most of what had been dropped, and he knew he only wanted a new potion. He found a strong healing potion, or what seemed like one and tested it. He grunted and corked the bottle after one swig.

“Bleh. Mana potion.”

He tried again with another. The Redfangs nudged each other, pointing out what they’d taken, laughing at their leader’s expression. The second potion was a healing potion and the third surprised Garen.

“Ironhide Potion.”

He blinked down at the bottle of greyish liquid which tasted like metal and looked like sludge. Garen stowed it on his belt at once and stood up. He nodded at the others, indicating that it was their turn. He had no need of other weapons besides his sword and he hadn’t seen any lightweight enchanted armor that would fit him.

Spiderslicer went next. He looked through the items, found a potion like Garen, and stood up with it. The other veterans, the oldest Redfangs who rode Carn Wolves had had been fighting with Garen for years followed him in a group. They found rings they were willing to try on as an experiment, potions, and a magic buckler. Then came the newer Goblins, who took armor and weapons. The last ones, the recruits who had joined today, got to argue over what was left at the end.

Garen watched the new Goblins pick up weapons and test them out. They looked surprised; there was still good iron and steel weapons left over, and bits of armor for them. They needn’t have been, though.

This was how the Redfangs divided loot. Garen had first pick, and then the more experienced Goblins. They usually took potions unless there was something really good that had been found. And they left weapons, even good ones, for Goblins who needed it. Not all of Garen’s warriors had enchanted weapons—only a few, really. But all of the ones who’d ridden with him for a few years wore steel and carried as much gear as any Silver-rank adventurer.

The Redfangs equipped the last of their weapons, replacing damaged bucklers, spears, swords, and other pieces of gear too badly damaged to mend, and stood up. What was left they let lie. It was a haul for another tribe or anyone who chanced upon the collection on the ground. But the Redfangs wouldn’t carry it. They had secondary weapons, spare blades, but they didn’t carry anything else. They moved and travelled light. And neither would they hoard their new artifacts and potions either. In the next big battle, they’d use up most of their potions.

The Redfang tribe had no motto. But if they did have one, it would probably be the opposite of ‘be prepared’. They used everything they had right away. Anything for an edge. You won the battle in front of you and let everything else work itself out. Beyond that, you just trusted that the next fight would be coming soon.

That was how it worked. The Redfangs followed Garen into battle and didn’t sweat the rest. They trusted him to lead them to bigger opponents. After all, he was Garen Redfang. He had made them into what they were.

Warriors. Elites of the Goblin world. You could see it if you looked. The Goblins sitting around Garen, the original Redfangs, were head-and-shoulders apart from the new ones. Tremborag’s Goblins, the new recruits gained in the mountain and on the road—they were good. The best in the mountain, probably. They could probably boast any number of kills and some of them even had weakly enchanted gear, a mark of their status. But they weren’t Redfangs. And it showed.

Muscles, a honed body beyond regular Goblin warriors. Economy of movement. A fearless walk. And coordination in battle. Redfangs trained in their off time, where regular Goblin warriors just lazed about. Even now, as Garen walked about, stretching his legs, he saw the new warriors talking with the old ones. About the last battle, about tactics. Learning. Watching the veterans stretch, swap stories, laugh. In time, they’d become reflections of the best. If they lived long enough, that was.

They made Garen proud. The Redfangs were his tribe. His family, the ones who he trusted. Never mind the ones who’d left. He’d taken them and changed them from weak Goblins into warriors. He’d given them pride, strength. And most importantly, brotherhood.

One of the Goblins caught Garen’s eye as he walked around the sitting warriors. He spotted a younger Goblin, a full Redfang, but newer. He was clutching something.

The severed stump of his left hand. The skin was nearly healed—a healing potion had been used, but it couldn’t regrow what was lost. The Goblin looked up as Garen paused.

“Chieftain.”

“Furgatherer.”

Garen looked down at him. The young Goblin nodded. He bared his teeth as Garen squatted down. The Chieftain looked at his hand.

“Lost?”

“[Knight] cut off, Chieftain. Bad block. Sorry.”

Furgatherer looked down at his hand. One of the other Redfangs punched him softly in the shoulder. Garen looked at the young Goblin. Furgatherer was trying to keep a strong face up, but anyone could tell he was upset. His Carn Wolf padded around him, too upset to rest, licking him.

“You left handed?”

“Was, Chieftain.”

That explained it. Furgatherer gave Garen an anguished look. He’d lost his dominant hand. Fear was in his eyes. Fear of being useless. Crippled. Garen thought for a second, then reached out. He plucked Furgatherer’s mace from his belt.

“Try right hand.”

The young Goblin took the mace awkwardly. Garen made him swing at him. Furgatherer adjusted his grip, attacked fast and hard, but awkwardly. Garen blocked the blocks with his sword as the other Redfangs turned to look.

“Slow! Faster! Hit high low, faster!

He spun, dodging a blow to the face, and kicked. Furgatherer stumbled back, wincing. Garen let him charge back towards him and blocked a strike to his chest, groin, arm—he knocked the mace down and Furgatherer stopped, panting. He looked up at Garen, afraid. And his Chieftain smiled.

“Good! Not bad for right hand.”

The other Redfangs called out encouragement as well. Furgatherer flushed, and then his face fell. He gestured at his missing left hand.

“But Chieftain—can’t fight on left.”

“So?”

Garen challenged him. He kicked at Furgatherer’s left side, dismissively.

“Can’t fight on left? Fight on right! Let others fight on left! Find partner. Doesn’t matter.”

Furgatherer nodded, but he wasn’t convinced.

“But if weak—”

He got no further. Garen punched him lightly on the shoulder. He roared, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“If weak? If weak, get stronger! Other Goblins guard left! Doesn’t matter! Redfangs don’t fight alone!”

He turned. The other Redfangs knew the cue and raised their weapons. They shouted, and Furgatherer looked up. More Goblins came around him, critiquing his stance, the way he held his mace.

“Wear buckler. Tie to arm. Can still block.”

One of the older Redfangs, a female Hob, advised Furgatherer. She winked at Garen, who nodded as Furgatherer found himself supported. He turned away, reassured the younger Goblin wouldn’t do something stupid like get himself killed on purpose or run away. The other Redfangs grinned at the sight as Furgatherer sat among his peers.

Redfangs don’t fight alone. It was what made them strong. They didn’t abandon their own. It was what Garen had taught them. The Chieftain’s own smile lasted for a few more seconds. Then his mood grew dark again.

He’d taught them that. So why had Redscar left? He’d never gotten a chance to ask him. Why had he and so many of the others abandoned Garen, after all he’d done for them? That was like last time.

Annoyed, but determined not to show it, Garen walked back over to his Carn Wolf and lay down. Just for a few minutes. He turned his face towards the fur of his wolf. They’d have to go soon. This was only a short break. And then they’d go…to Liscor, right? There weren’t many other options, not with the Humans behind them. And what about after there? Which way?

The memory stole over Garen, too fast to stop.

“Which way?”

“Hmm?”

Garen looked up. He heard a male voice, unfamiliar for a second. Then he remembered and recognized it was Jelaqua who was speaking to him.

“Garen? Which way now? North? South? West? East? Pick a direction, would you? I’m out of ideas and Seborn keeps bugging me about which way we’re headed.”

Garen turned. He blinked at Jelaqua as she grinned at him, her pale face Human, at least for now. She pointed down at the map. Her fingers were hairy. She wore a male Human’s body, big and burly. She wasn’t comfortable in it. Neither was he, but he edged over anyways and stared at the map.

Jelaqua didn’t often ask him for advice. Well, she did, but he seldom gave it. As the newest member of the Halfseekers, he felt out of place still, even though he’d been with them for a year already. He shrugged, a tad uncomfortably.

“What about others?”

“Oh, you know what Halassia and Ukrina always want. Go south, as if we’d find more work around the Walled Cities. Moore’s still moping over that girl, and Keilam’s snoring away upstairs. I’d get Seborn to pick a spot, but he keeps telling me it’s my choice. Jerk. So uh, why don’t you pick a good spot?”

Jelaqua’s finger slid across the map, tapping spots as she talked conversationally.

“We could go to Invrisil. Always work over there. Or hey—why don’t we head towards Celum? They dug up some treasure in Albez. Or the bug caverns? I hate that place, but heck, I’m sure it’s not fully explored. Just pick a spot and I’ll pretend it was my idea, okay, Garen?”

“Garen?”

The Hobgoblin opened his eyes. For a second he didn’t know where he was. Then he recognized Spiderslicer staring at him. He sat up as the past faded away.

“What?”

“Which way, Chieftain?”

Spiderslicer looked a bit uncomfortable asking. Garen spotted several Redfangs behind him glancing their way and then pretending to be chattering. So they’d gotten Spiderslicer to ask the question on everyone’s minds. He rubbed his face, trying to erase the past. But it was impossible. He heard an echo.

“Crawling caverns sound good.”

“Chieftain?”

Spiderslicer stared at Garen. The Redfang Chieftain shook himself.

“Nothing. We go south. Past Liscor.”

The other Redfangs stirred. Spiderslicer frowned.

“Not going to High Passes, Chieftain?”

“Yes. But going other way. Past Liscor. Down south into Drake lands. West, back through High Passes from other side.”

Garen grunted as he sketched a quick map. They’d have to go through Liscor and loop a long ways around to get to the other side of the High Passes. Spiderslicer made a face.

“Long trip.”

“Better than fighting hungry Eater Goats and Humans. Too many. Too much slaughter.”

Spiderslicer grimaced and nodded. All that slaughter had called the Eater Goats down from the High Passes. They’d be ravening, and might even attack the Redfang tribe, red stripes or not.

“And after that, Chieftain?”

“After that?”

Garen gave Spiderslicer a blank look. He shrugged.

“After that—we’re in High Passes. We’ll fight. Train. Push Gargoyles out of territory. Expand up, maybe. Find more Carn Wolves instead of horses. Normal stuff.”

That was all Garen wanted. A return to normality. He saw Spiderslicer nod, but hesitantly.

“What?”

The Goblin squirmed. He looked back at the others and they waved him on, clearly saying ‘get on with it’. That was Spiderslicer’s trouble. He was an excellent warrior, but he was no Redscar, brave with words as well as battle. Spiderslicer muttered to himself, and then looked at Garen.

“Chieftain—we not fighting Goblin Lord? Or Humans?”

“No.”

Garen scowled. He looked around and raised his voice a little louder, so all could hear.

“Too risky. Too many Goblins. Too many stupid Humans.”

The others nodded. It was suicide, even for Redfangs to fight that many. Still—they looked at Spiderslicer. He hesitated.

“Could have fought with Flooded Waters tribe, Chieftain. Reiss—Goblin Lord—was exposed.”

They could have cut towards him. Garen knew that. His scowl deepened.

“Yes, but—too risky. No way out. No. Let Reiss fight. Don’t need to waste lives.”

Some of the Redfangs nodded, but most looked confused. Risky? That wasn’t what Garen would normally say, and both they and he knew it. Garen growled. Spiderslicer eyed him, but the peer pressure was too great for him to drop it.

“So Chieftain. We go back. Then we fight Gargoyles. Get more wolves. And…use key?”

He gestured obliquely to Garen’s side. Instantly, the chieftain clamped a hand to the small key he carried on him at all times. Spiderslicer sat back on his heels. Garen tried not to glare at him. He trusted Spiderslicer. He was just asking. He forced himself to respond normally.

“Not yet. Other one missing.”

“Okay. We get?”

“Not yet. Later. I—I’ll come up with plan. Later.”

Garen growled. Spiderslicer nodded. He seemed to sense Garen’s patience was at an end and looked back towards the others.

“Okay, Chieftain. Past Liscor. We ride soon?”

“Yes. Get ready.”

Garen watched the Goblin move back. He saw him exchange looks, not quite glance back at him, and begin a rapid and furtive conversation with the others. Garen didn’t need to know what they said. They were probably debating his words.

They could sense it too. Garen didn’t know what he’d do after he got back home. The High Passes always had something to fight, something to do. But he didn’t have any plans beyond surviving there. He just knew he was done. Done with Rags and Reiss and the Humans. Done with betrayal. After all, what reason did he have to stay? It wasn’t his battle. It wasn’t his war. Reiss could die fighting for his master. Garen didn’t care anymore.

He was going home.

 

—-

 

Olesm had seen armies passing by Liscor. Human ones, going to battle in the Blood Fields. Recently he had seen the Goblin Lord’s army, a vast host passing in the darkness. And he had seen Skinner’s undead—the hordes of Face-Eater Moths. Each time he’d been cowed by the numbers, but he had trusted Liscor’s walls to hold.

However, today he felt uneasy for a reason that had nothing to do with numbers. The army of Cave Goblins spread out in front of him, twenty four thousand strong. Enough Goblins to cover the muddy hills. They were spread out, camped on the wet Floodplains. Some were fishing from the water. Others were milling about, kicking mud at each other. A few were trying to spar. But the rest were motionless.

They were staring at the city. Thousands of Goblins, just standing or sitting. Staring. Olesm recognized the Hobgoblin leading them. Numbtongue.

“What are they doing now, Olesm?”

He turned. Wing Commander Embria was standing on the walls next to him. She was staring at the Cave Goblins. She could see as well as he could, but he stated the obvious for both their sakes.

“Nothing yet, Wing Commander. They’ve stopped chanting, but I expect they’ll start up in a few minutes.”

The Cave Goblins were indeed silent. But that wouldn’t last. For the last thirty minutes, they’d been chanting. A single name.

Redfang. They would shout it as one, scream it at Liscor’s walls, and then go silent. But it would start up again, Olesm knew. He looked around.

The battlements were occupied. Full, in fact. The City Watch manned the walls with bows, Gnolls and Drakes ready to unleash volley after volley. But not just them. Embria’s 4th Company also held the walls, and Olesm saw four of her [Captains] taking posts along the wall. And spread out between Watch and Liscor’s army were other [Soldiers] in yellow armor. Pallassian troops, the ones brought through the door before it had been sabotaged. And if Olesm looked over his shoulder—

He looked and wished he hadn’t. A crowd of faces, furry and scaled, looked up at him. Liscor’s citizens had gathered by the eastern wall, and they were staring up at Olesm’s back. They’d heard the chanting of course, and you’d have to be blind as a Dropclaw Bat to miss the Goblin army camped outside the walls. There had been panic at first—people had thought it was the Goblin Lord’s army. But Zevara had restored order and now everyone was watching. Wary and silent.

“Could you take the Hob out with a spell? Would that disperse them, do you think?”

Olesm looked up. Embria was eying the set of key-scrolls that triggered the enchantments on Liscor’s walls. He covered them with one claw.

“I don’t have perfect accuracy, Wing Commander. And I don’t think that would be wise. The Goblins might disperse if Numbtongue dies. Or they might rush the city all at once.”

“Hrmph. I see.”

Embria looked disgruntled, but she dropped it. Privately, Olesm doubted the Cave Goblins would do something as stupid as attack the walls, but he was sure, absolutely sure that blasting Numbtongue was not in Liscor’s interests. He drummed his claws on the stone battlements and then heard a voice.

Watch Commander on the walls! Wall Lord on the walls!

He turned. Zevara and Ilvriss were striding up the battlements. The Gnoll who’d called them out, as per military rules, stepped aside. The two made a beeline for Olesm and Embria.

“Wing Commander. Olesm. What’s the situation?”

“Unchanged, Watch Captain.”

Olesm eyed Zevara. She looked tired, grumpy, and sleep-deprived. Not much different than usual, really, but she looked even more stressed than normal. Ilvriss looked better—but even he seemed at a loss as he stared down at the Cave Goblins.

“The citizenry have calmed down. We’re not in danger of a panic any longer. I have also reassured the Walled Cities that were alerted by those scatterbrained idiots in the Mage’s Guild that we were under siege.”

Ilvriss grumbled as he adjusted his armor. He was wearing a blood red cloak made of what appeared to be liquid. Olesm eyed it, but forbade comment. Ilvriss turned to him.

“So. The Cave Goblins have left the dungeon. And there are quite a bit more of them than any of us expected. I take it this is related to the four Hobgoblins in Liscor’s dungeon? And Miss Solstice, no doubt?”

Olesm winced.

“Yes, sir. I uh, think they’re angry. I didn’t know it would lead to this, I truly didn’t. If I had known—”

Ilvriss shook his head.

“The fact that one of them got away is distressing, but it was the right move to make. We could hardly have Hobgoblins running about, especially in light of the Antinium Queen’s wrath. Not to mention this mysterious bearded one in your report. My only concern now is this situation. How do we resolve it? Thoughts?”

He looked at Zevara and Embria. The two female Drakes were silent. Zevara was thinking. Embria looked at her, and then stood straighter.

“Give me command of the Pallassian forces and a thousand of the Watch and I can rout the Goblins, Wall Lord. With fire from the walls and spell artillery, we can easily defeat the Goblins.”

“What? No!”

Olesm’s jaw fell in horror. His tail curled up as Embria glanced sideways at him. If Embria slaughtered the Goblins, Erin would never talk to him again. Ilvriss also looked concerned, but for different reasons.

“You think you could achieve a victory with just two thousand soldiers and your 4th Company, Wing Commander Embria?”

The fiery Drake nodded. She folded her claws behind her back.

“I told you we could take on a regular army twice our size, Wall Lord Ilvriss. These Goblins lack Hobs—fully grown ones at any rate. With archery support and at least two of Liscor’s wall spells it would be easy to take them down in droves.”

“But that’s not a good idea. Respectfully, Wing Commander, Wall Lord.”

Olesm hopped from one foot to another in his urgency. Ilvriss looked at him.

“How so, Swifttail.”

Embria looked annoyed as well. Perhaps she thought he was disputing her abilities. Olesm tried to explain as fast as he could.

“I have no doubt that Wing Commander Embria could achieve a victory. But it would cost hundreds of casualties, at least. Casualties Liscor cannot afford. Moreover, Wing Commander Embria would rout the enemy. That doesn’t mean the same thing as obliterating the Cave Goblins.”

“True. It would be impossible to slaughter them all.”

Ilvriss stroked his chin with a claw. Olesm nodded frantically.

“—and while that works with regular armies, it just means the Goblins would go to ground and hide. And if they do, then they’ll heal up and pop out when the Goblin Lord’s army gets here. So then we’ll have a bunch of angry Cave Goblins—”

“—as well as the Goblin Lord and the Humans to deal with. Indeed. I don’t suppose you could encircle and obliterate the entire tribe, Wing Commander?”

Ilvriss sighed. Embria looked unhappy.

“No, Wall Lord. That would be impossible, I’m afraid. Or, as Strategist Olesm said, not without excessive casualties. I could take down that Hob in a lightning strike though…”

“Indeed. But that’s not the issue, is it? I doubt the Cave Goblins will disperse from the loss of one Chieftain—if that Goblin even is the Chieftain. There are five of them. We need to drive them off somehow without incurring losses to the city. Perhaps it would be possible to—”

Embria and Ilvriss began to debate. Olesm watched them anxiously. He saw Zevara look up from her study of the Cave Goblins. She glanced at him and lowered her voice.

“That’s the Hob at Erin’s inn, right, Olesm?”

“Yes.”

“The one with the guitar?”

“Numbtongue.”

“What do you think he wants?”

“At a guess? His friends back.”

Zevara grunted. Olesm’s tail twitched nervously. This was all his fault.

“This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have arrested them.”

“I would have. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“But maybe if—”

Olesm’s next words were cut off. He saw Numbtongue raise his guitar out of the corner of his eye and his body was already wincing before the roar of noise came up from the Cave Goblins.

Redfang!

It was one word, a roar of sound. Zevara recoiled and both Ilvriss and Embria reached instinctively for their weapons. The City Watch half-raised their bows, then forced themselves to hold. Numbtongue raised his arms and the word rolled across the Floodplains again.

Redfang.

This time the cadence was different. Zevara frowned and turned towards the others.

“They’ve been shouting that all this time?”

“Yes, Watch Captain.”

Olesm watched Numbtongue lower his guitar, his stomach churning. Zevara frowned. Her own tail was very still, but Olesm could see it slightly squirming. She had to be holding it still so she wouldn’t alarm anyone else.

“I see. Then it seems to me, Wall Lord, Wing Commander, that the Cave Goblins want a parley.”

Parley?

The other Drakes looked astonished. And affronted. Zevara nodded.

“They haven’t assaulted the city and that isn’t an aggressive formation. They’re out of bow range and all they’ve been doing is chanting a name. The name of the Redfang Goblins, in fact. We have four Hobs in lockup. They’re the leaders of this tribe. Or allies. Or something.”

“So, what? We should release them under duress? Unacceptable.”

Ilvriss snapped. Olesm hesitated.

“Well…I did arrest them on a technicality. They were Goblins in the city, which is illegal, but they were helping Erin—”

“And they’re Goblins. You’re not suggesting we accede to their demands, surely, Watch Captain?”

Embria stared at Zevara. The older Drake glared at her.

“And what would you propose? An assault? This is an army we do not need right now. The Hobs staying at Erin’s inn are reasonable—for Goblins, or so I’ve been given to understand.”

She shot a quick glance at Olesm, who nodded slowly. Zevara shrugged.

“In that case, what do we have to lose by giving them what they want?”

“But if we return their leaders—”

Zevara brusquely interrupted Embria. She addressed Ilvriss, who was staring down at the Goblins with narrowed eyes.

“Four Hobs won’t make a difference in the battle for Liscor. Twenty thousand Goblins might. I propose we make a deal with them. If we can force them to retreat south, towards the Blood Fields in exchange for letting the other Hobs go—”

“We’d keep them from reinforcing the Goblin Lord. A sound idea, Watch Captain.”

Ilvriss spoke slowly. He looked up, at Olesm, Zevara, and Embria.

“As options go, I think that is the best one in front of us. Unless you have any better suggestions, Wing Commander? Strategist Olesm?”

Neither one did, although Embria looked upset. Ilvriss nodded.

“In that case, I would agree to Watch Captain Zevara’s proposal. It is unprecedented—but it seems precedent is damned around Liscor in any case. I have only one objection, though.”

“Which is?”

Zevara looked sharply at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord frowned.

“We do not negotiate with monsters. It is beneath us as a species.”

Olesm groaned internally. Zevara opened her mouth, but Ilvriss forestalled her. He raised a claw, and then looked around.

“Someone get the Human.”

 

—-

 

After a few more minutes of rest, Garen ordered his tribe to keep moving. They had to cover ground fast—not because they were afraid of the Goblin Lord or the Humans catching up, but because Garen wanted to outrun his nagging thoughts. So the Redfangs took a different strategy. Rather than gallop on wolf or horseback the entire way, they jumped off their mounts and began running alongside them.

It was a trick mounted units had used throughout the ages. The Redfangs kept up a quick pace, letting the wolves and horses take up a slow gait, for them. And when the Goblins tired, they leapt on the backs of their wolves, resting until they were able to run again. It paced both rider and mount. The only thing faster would be if Garen had multiple Skills that could enhance his tribe’s speed all the time, like Rags. Or if they had enough stamina and healing potions to run at full-sprint all day and night.

They did not. And it didn’t matter anyways, because their progress was lightning-fast compared to the slow pace they’d taken while on the march with the armies on foot. In no time, they were running down the wide pass. Sparse trees and grass mixed with the rugged terrain. There was little of worth here, although there were a few mining spots in the area, and space enough for grazing or limited agriculture. Some people had thought it was worth settling, because quick enough, Spiderslicer called out to Garen.

“City approaching!”

The scouts had spotted the sole city in the pass before it opened into the Floodplains and Liscor. Garen saw the distant city as he passed by a bend in the mountainous pass. He spoke a word.

“Esthelm.”

“Thought it got smashed.”

One of the Hobs commented. Garen shrugged. He’d heard the same. But the city was standing and populated. There was damage along its walls, but it looked repaired, and the walls were sturdy. And now that he looked twice, there were a lot of Humans on the walls.

“[Archers]!”

A Redfang shouted a warning. The Humans had spotted their tribe and a few were loosing arrows even now. They fell far short of the approaching Redfang tribe, but it was enough to make Garen eye Esthelm twice. The city was small, but its defenders looked ready for a fight. They must have retaken the city. By the laws of leveling and classes, that meant they would be tougher than before. Not a city he would assault if he had a choice. And he didn’t need to anyways.

“Go around city. Ignore it.”

“Watch out for arrows.”

One of the older Hobs instructed the others. He looked to Garen, his one good eye flashing at his Chieftain out of a scarred face.

“Chieftain, what to do if Humans shoot arrows?”

“Hmm?”

Garen turned his head. He looked for the grizzled Hobgoblin’s face, and saw a Drake grinning at him instead.

Her scales were blackened, as if by soot. Many were missing, so her burnt flesh stood out instead. On a Drake, it was a disturbing sight, but her entire body was like that. Burned, ashy. Scarred by her nature. She was of the Oldblood, but cursed by it. Fire burned within her and unlike the Drakes who could breathe flame, it had ravaged her. She was an outcast among Drakes, a Scorchling, rumored to be cursed or tainted. But those were only rumors. To Garen, she was his friend.

Halassia Evergleam smiled as she thought about his question. She shrugged lightly and tapped the wand at her side.

“Shoot arrows at you? Don’t worry about it. If they try, I’ll block the arrows with a spell.”

“And I’ll swat them down, don’t worry about it!”

Another Drake, also female but broad-shouldered, laughed and slapped her chest. She was a full Drake, but she was an outcast in a different way. For different reasons. Ukrina had been exiled from Drake society for what she was known for, rather than her looks. She was a Turnscale, a word Garen didn’t quite understand. But it qualified her for the Halfseekers, who accepted anyone who was outcast from society.

The two Drakes nodded. Garen turned and saw Jelaqua, riding ahead of them and wearing a Gnoll’s body, turn.

“You still worried, Garen? Relax! You say this every time we visit a new city.”

The others laughed. Garen hunched his shoulders.

“Went to this one before. Got caught.”

“Well, you didn’t kill anyone, did you? No? Then relax. It’s best to relax on trips, yes? Relax, take a nap…do we have to work today?”

A purring voice from Garen’s left made him look. Keilam, the group’s third [Mage] if you counted Moore—who doubled as a front-line fighter—draped himself over his disgruntled mare. He was half-Gnoll, half Cat-tribe Beastkin. He had inherited his feline ancestry, but there was enough Gnoll to make him both sinuous and strong. Too barbarian for the Cat-tribe, and too strange for Gnoll tribes. Wit and laziness came to him in equal measures.

“Could still shoot arrows.”

Garen wasn’t convinced. Seborn shrugged. Moore stroked his chin, looking worried. He had to walk; there wasn’t a horse large enough for him. Garen was walking too, in solidarity. He hated riding horses anyways. They bit.

“I know the feeling. Some villages would shoot arrows at me. They thought I was an Ogre or a Troll. Can you believe it? Me, a Troll?”

“I can believe it.”

An amused voice from Moore’s right made the half-Giant look down, crestfallen. The half-Elf walking with him laughed up at him. Thornst, a half-Elf from Terandria and the newest Halfseeker, grinned up at Moore.

“It’s not an insult, friend Moore. But you must admit, you’re a startling sight to anyone who’s not seen a half-Giant before. They’ll panic, and when they panic, the first monster that fits comes to mind.”

“I suppose so. It’s hurtful, though. But at least they hesitate. I can’t imagine what it would be like to—”

Moore broke off and eyed Garen. The Hobgoblin pretended not to notice. Halassia cleared her throat, shedding an ashy scale.

“Just stay behind us, Garen. Let me do the talking. We’re a Gold-rank team. If they want to start a fight with the Adventurer’s Guilds, let them.”

“That’s right! Here’s to Gold-rank! I knew we’d make it! Let’s have another party!”

Keilam waved a paw. The other Halfseekers grinned. Seborn just sighed.

Some of us were Gold-ranks before we joined the team. It’s just that we’re a certified team, now. It was going to happen.

“Yeah, but there’s always time for another drink.”

Jelaqua grinned and slapped Seborn on the back. The Drowned Man glared, but Jelaqua just laughed.

“Come on, everyone! To the city! And if Garen gets shot, we’ll buy him a round. Watch for arrows, now!”

Garen grumbled as the others laughed. But he followed them, not as worried as he normally was. After all, for his team he’d gladly take an arrow, or a dozen—

Reality came back in a moment. Garen stared at the Hobgoblin with the missing eye for a moment, and then came to his senses. It was like the Chieftain’s memories, but stronger! He realized he’d been staring too long. The others were looking at him. Garen raised his voice.

“Ignore arrows. Don’t shoot. Keep out of range. Get moving.”

He turned back and kept riding. Why was this happening? It didn’t happen often in the High Passes. But these flashes of memory had been growing stronger day after day. At first it had just been moments, or replayed conversations. But now—

He’d never heard of another Chieftain remembering their own life like this. But he knew some of them, like Rags, had dreams or visions of past Goblins, uncontrollable ones. Sometimes it was need, or seeing a familiar scene that brought it on. In Garen’s case…it was nostalgia. Unresolved business.

Some days he wanted to ask them why. Why it had gone down like it had. But the dead were dead and the living—impossible. Garen had been a Halfseeker once. No more.

Reiss had called him a traitor. So had Greydath. But that was all wrong. What had happened was—Garen closed his eyes.

No. It didn’t matter. It was in the past. He’d left it behind. He’d become a Chieftain, gone back to his kind. He’d leave it behind him. Rags too. And Reiss. Go back to the mountains. Forget. Garen urged his Carn Wolf to go faster. But the memories kept coming back and back. Growing stronger. He didn’t know why.

 

—-

 

In the end, three of them went to get Erin. Embria stayed on the walls just in case. Olesm, Zevara, and Ilvriss walked together.

“Getting her to deal with the Goblins will be a hassle. But then again, I’d expect nothing less.”

“Will she be willing to help is my question.”

Zevara muttered. She glanced at Olesm. The [Strategist] shrugged.

“I think—she does care about Liscor. But she cares about the Goblins. So…I don’t know what to say.”

“If she cares about the Goblins she will tell them to move. Need we do anything else besides release them?”

Ilvriss strode ahead of them, towards Liscor’s dungeon. Olesm coughed and eyed the red cloak on Ilvriss’ back meaningfully.

“We might have to return their possessions, Wall Lord. Weapons and armor at least.”

“What? Oh.”

The Wall Lord of Salazsar took a moment to figure out what Olesm meant. He stopped and put a claw on the flowing cloak.

“But it would be a crime to—you don’t suppose I could provide a different cloak in exchange? No?”

Zevara and Olesm exchanged a glance.

“That cloak’s not that valuable, surely, Wall Lord? It’s one of a few artifacts the Goblins have. That damn bell, the axe that I have never seen before, that cloak—it’s just a liquid cloak, right?”

“Liquid cloak? It’s not a—Great Ancestors. Have neither of you any understanding of what this is? This is a Cloak of Plenty! It’s an incredibly valuable artifact! Far more expensive than an axe!

Ilvriss brandished the cloak at the two Drakes. Zevara raised her brows and Olesm restrained the urge to whistle.

“A Cloak of Plenty? Are you serious, Wall Lord?”

He nodded.

“I tested it myself. It can replicate mundane liquids. Nothing magical or complex mixtures, which rules out alchemical liquids, but with it you could provision a thirsty army with water, or create a nourishing broth. Or supply [Mages] with blood or other liquid reagents. Of course, that’s hardly the only function of such a cloak. I would have it for myself.”

“How do you mean?”

Olesm couldn’t see Ilvriss needing a fresh supply of water, which was the standard use for objects of plenty. He’d heard of cornucopias that dispensed free food each day, which was a boon to armies and adventurers alike. Although if you ate too much of the enchanted food alone, you’d eventually grow sick. Ilvriss sighed.

“It’s wine, Swifttail. Wine. There are fine vintages—incredibly fine ones—that have no magical component to them at all. In fact, non-magical wines are preferable to magical ones. When did the custom of adding magic to every dish arise? As if that guarantees better taste—anyways, I digress. With a single drop of a quality vintage, I could serve my guests the most delicate bouquets at my estates each night without it costing a copper penny. Even I would consider that a windfall in saved coin, although of course I’d have to keep the cloak secret…”

He broke off, clearing his throat. Olesm and Zevara exchanged a glance. That was Wall Lords for you. Ilvriss stroked the cloak.

“I suppose I must give it up?”

“I don’t think the Goblins care to trade, Wall Lord. Although I can ask Erin if she’d be willing to intercede—I thought the cloak kept changing properties, though. Wouldn’t that be inconvenient?”

Ilvriss looked mildly insulted.

“Changing properties? Oh, you mean if it comes in contact with another liquid. That isn’t an issue, Olesm. Willpower is enough to fix the cloak into whatever property I wish. In this case wine.”

He raised a fold of the liquid wine cloak. Olesm blinked.

“Have you been sampling that cloak all day, Wall Lord?”

Ilvriss looked mildly abashed.

“Not me. I’m not drinking—I had my subordinates test the quality of the cloak. Along with the [Innkeeper] in my inn and a number of interested patrons. I believe they’re all asleep at the moment. The changing nature of the cloak was not an issue. I knew what I wanted.”

“Really. In my talk with Erin, as uh, translator, she said the cloak kept changing and the Hob who owned it—Rabbiteater—couldn’t get it to stop.”

“The flaw of being open-minded, one supposes. Curiosity will inevitably lead to change. Ah well, if we must give it to the Goblins…I’ll ask about it later. Dealing with this issue takes priority.”

The Wall Lord ignored the look Zevara and Olesm gave each other and undid the claps of the cloak. He reluctantly handed it to Olesm and kept walking.

A few [Guards] met them at the prison, along with the rest of the Hobgoblin’s gear. Zevara eyed the collection of weapons and armor.

“Put it in a holding spot. We’re not letting them go just yet. How’s the Human?”

The Drake on duty grimaced.

“Good, Watch Captain. Although we had to shut her up several times last night and this morning. She kept trying to get the other prisoners to sing.”

“And?”

“She succeeded.”

Zevara stared at the Drake. Olesm sighed. That said it all, really.

“Anything else?”

“No, Watch Captain. Nothing from the Hobs. Or the Minotaur. The Gold-ranks are clamoring to be let out, though.”

Zevara grimaced.

“I bet they are. Release the overnight prisoners then, with a warning. We’ll see to the Human ourselves.”

The [Guardsman] nodded. He handed Zevara a key and followed them into the prison. The three Drakes walked down the line of cells as those with menial offenses were let go, provided they’d paid their fines. They walked down to the major holding cells and Olesm froze as he saw a tall, horned figure standing silently in his cell. Ilvriss stared at the Minotaur who stared blankly at them and looked away.

“Scum.”

The Drakes turned to a cell just before Calruz. Four Hobs sat or stood in their cells, watching the Drakes warily. A young woman lay on a cot. She’d been standing, talking to the others, but she’d scrambled into her bed. She stared up at the ceiling, hands folded behind her head, as Zevara paused before the cage. She didn’t look up. The Watch Captain eyed Erin Solstice and looked at Olesm. He cleared his throat nervously.

“Erin?”

She didn’t respond. Olesm looked at Zevara. The Watch Captain made a face. Was Erin upset? She hadn’t been here more than a single night. Olesm called out to her.

“Erin, we’re going to let you go. You’ve uh, served your sentence and there’s a situation we might need your help with.”

“I can’t go back.”

Erin spoke slowly, not looking away from the ceiling. Olesm paused.

“Excuse me?”

He saw Erin’s head slowly turn towards him. The young woman spoke in a slow, monotone voice.

“I can’t go back, Olesm. I’ve been in here too long. Prison’s changed me, man. I’ve seen things. How can I return to the outside world?”

The Drakes stared at her. Olesm scratched the back of his head.

“This is an act, right? You’re doing something like those plays again.”

Erin stared at the ceiling.

“…No?”

Olesm sighed.

“Erin, this is an emergency. We don’t have time for—any of this!”

Erin blinked. She sat up a bit and eyed Olesm.

“It is? Okay, just a few more.”

To Olesm’s consternation, she lay back down and stared at the ceiling.

“It’s funny. I was an honest [Innkeeper] before all of this. I had to go to prison to become a [Criminal]. [Thug]. Whatever. This is a [Thug]’s life, y’know?”

Zevara slammed the cell door open.

“Get. Out.”

“Aw, fine.

Erin swung herself up. She walked over, stretching. Then she blinked at Ilvriss.

“Hey, Wall Lord. Hey, Zevara. Olesm. How’s the eye? Are you letting me and the Redfangs out? Or just me?”

The Drakes looked at each other. Ilvriss glanced severely at the watching Hobs.

“That remains to be seen. For now, you will come with us. There’s a situation that has arisen that—strangely—we believe only you can resolve.”

“Really? Me? Well, okay then. Let’s go. Hey guys, I’ll be back soon! Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here, even if I have to bake a cake! If I do—don’t eat the entire thing, got it?”

Erin waved at the Hobs. They waved back. She smiled at them as she left the prison, and then looked at Olesm. She didn’t smile then.

“So what’s the problem?”

Olesm shuffled his feet. He couldn’t look Erin in the eye. He’d been—upset—yesterday. And maybe he’d made some rash decisions. But she had hit him. However, Olesm was certain that he wasn’t going to be receiving an apology any time soon.

“You’ll see. Follow us, and keep up.”

 

—-

 

It wasn’t that Erin resented being in jail for so long. Okay, she resented it a bit. It was already past midday and quickly becoming evening and she was sick of staring at the stone walls of her cell. Walking through the streets of Liscor did feel great by comparison. Maybe there was something to going to prison after all that gave you a new lease on life.

Anyways, Erin wasn’t about to hold a grudge. At least, not right now. Something was up, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out it had to do with Goblins. Or that it was serious. Drakes and Gnolls were doing that ‘standing in the streets’ thing that meant something was occurring that city life couldn’t work around. And they were coming up to Zevara and Ilvriss, or trying to.

“Keep moving! Watch business! Clear the streets!”

Zevara barked orders and her [Guardspeople] headed off anyone trying to get to her. The people of Liscor stared at her. And at Ilvriss. And Olesm. And at Erin. She could hear them whispering, and caught fragments of what was being said.

“—Watch Captain and Wall Lord. And the Strategist

“—the Human. You know, the one who runs The Wandering Inn? The one with—”

“—friends to Goblins. Think she’ll—”

“—Goblin Lord camped right outside—”

Erin looked around nervously.

“So uh, what exactly is going on?”

“You’ll see.”

Ilvriss glanced impassively back at Erin. The Drakes led her up to the eastern wall, past a large gathering of people. And Erin did see, then. She stared at the Goblins, thousands of Goblins standing on the hilltops. She listened to the roar as they shouted the Redfang’s battle cry. She blinked.

“Huh. That’s a lot of Goblins.”

Erin stared at the Cave Goblins. Her eyes found Numbtongue. She looked around at the grim Drakes, the wary Gnolls.

“So what did you want me to do, again?”

“Get them to leave. Speak to that Goblin. Tell them we will only release the Hobs once they march south. Fifty miles, perhaps. We’ll release the prisoners then.”

Ilvriss folded his arms. Erin stared at him. She looked at Numbtongue, brave Numbtongue holding his guitar aloft like a banner. He still had the manacles attached to his arms, the cuffs at least.

“And then what? They just leave?”

“If they return to the Floodplains we’ll bombard them. They cannot remain here when the Goblin Lord arrives.”

Zevara’s eyes were hard as she stared at the Goblins. She glanced at Erin.

“You need to make them understand that.”

“I see.”

Erin looked at Olesm. He looked uneasy and kept glancing at her. She gazed at Embria, who was watching her warily, and then looked back at the Goblins.

It can’t be this way forever. Erin had said something like that to Headscratcher in jail. And yet, when she looked at Numbtongue, at the Cave Goblins—her heart hurt. They’d done no wrong. No wrong, if you understood that they had been slaves to the Raskghar before that. And now they were marching on Liscor, peacefully, all for Numbtongue’s friends.

“Okay.”

“You’ll do it? In that case—”

Zevara turned, relieved. Erin shook her head.

“No. Take me back to jail.”

She held out her hands. The Drakes froze.

“Wait, what?”

Erin looked at Olesm.

“I can’t deal with them. And I can’t get them to go. So…take me back to jail. I hear we’re getting beef stew for dinner.”

“You cannot do that.”

Zevara stared at Erin. The young woman smiled, a bit mockingly.

“Oh yeah? Why not? I’m not cooperating. What’re you gonna do, arrest me twice?”

“We could kick you off this wall for aiding the enemy.”

Embria offered. Ilvriss quieted her with a look. He stared at Erin and then sighed.

“What do you want, then?”

Erin smiled.

“You’re willing to talk instead of give ultimatums?”

“If there is no other choice…my patience is limited, however. As are the concessions I’m willing to make. The Goblins leaving is paramount. Tell me your demands.”

Ilvriss looked down at Erin. She nodded.

“In that case, give the Redfangs back their gear and get ready to let them go. And let me negotiate with Numbtongue. On my own terms.”

“You’ll get them to leave? Really?”

Olesm looked at Erin. She hesitated.

“I think so. He’s not an idiot. But you have to let the Redfangs go. I’m positive Numbtongue won’t budge unless we do.”

A grinding sound came from Embria. She did not like this plan, any more than the others did.

“And if we refuse? If we attack the Goblins or don’t release our hostages?”

Erin shrugged. She stared at Embria without blinking.

“If you kill them, or hurt them or refuse to let them go? I guess he’ll stay put. Without hurting anyone or doing much more than this. Horrible, right? He probably won’t hurt me or attack my inn. But I’ll bet you that when the Goblin Lord arrives, Numbtongue will join right up. So there you are.”

She waited. Ilvriss looked disgusted and resigned by turns. Zevara just nodded.

“We’ll get the Hobgoblins out of prison. We have some terms of our own.”

She outlined them succinctly. Erin shrugged.

“I’ll tell him that. Now, if you could let me get back to my inn? And give me a key for Numbtongue’s shackles. Oh, and get me a new guitar. His is broken.”

 

—-

 

Erin climbed down a ladder down to the muddy Floodplains. She still couldn’t leave the city via the gates—not because of the water, but because of the Goblin ‘threat’. She grimaced as her feet landed in the mud.

“Ew. Squishy.”

At least the bridge to her inn was still there. The valleys were still flooded and Erin could make out dark shapes swimming in the murky waters. She crossed her bridge, trying not to slip on the wooden slats as she clung to the damp ropes. Her inn was farther away than she remembered it being—then again, she’d been used to the magic door so she’d forgotten it was a ten minute walk.

For some reason the magic door hadn’t connected to Liscor no matter how long Erin had waited. So she made the journey on foot, key in hand. Zevara had refused to get Erin a guitar and she hadn’t let Erin go buy one either. Erin was nearly at her inn when the door flew open and someone rushed out. Several someones, in fact.

“Mrsha, no, don’t jump—”

Erin yelped and nearly tumbled down the hill as Mrsha leapt at her. Her feet skidded in the mud and Erin nearly fell butt-first into the mud. She was only saved by Lyonette grabbing her. The two girls skidded halfway down the hill, then saved themselves.

“Erin! You’re back! Are you okay?”

“I’m good! Mrsha, you’re covered in mud! Let’s get to the inn!”

Erin shepherded the muddy Mrsha up the hill and entered the inn. Lyonette was speaking rapidly the entire time.

“You’ve seen the Goblins, right? Numbtongue is leading them! And there was an attack on the inn while you were away, Erin! Someone stole the door!”

“I heard. Olesm told me some of it. And we got the door back?”

“Yes! But the mana stone that connects us to Pallass is—”

“—gone. Which puts Liscor up poo creek without a paddle.”

Erin succinctly summarized the situation. She stared around her inn as Mrsha went to roll on some white towels. She saw heads turn.

“Erin?”

Her inn was full. Not of her regular clientele, but adventurers. The Horns, Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords…even teams like Bevussa’s Wings of Pallass were there, sitting together. It seemed as though all the teams in Liscor had congregated in Erin’s inn—they were the only ones willing to leave the city with the Goblins so nearby.

“Erin! How was jail? Wait—how’s Bird? Lyonette asked at the Hive and they only said that he was alive!”

Ceria stood up. Pisces sniffed as he passed by Mrsha.

“It seems we’re both fellow victims of incarceration now. Has your sojourn in prison kept you from noticing the obvious, Erin? There are quite a number of Goblins roaming the Floodplains.”

Erin laughed as her friends greeted her.

“Hi Ceria, hi Pisces. Yvlon, Ksmvr. Hey Halrac, Revi—yes, I saw the Goblins, Pisces. I’m actually supposed to do something about them. Bevussa! I just saw you and Keldrass in jail!”

The Garuda raised a mug and Keldrass nodded to her. Both teams were sitting far apart and giving each other the stink-eye now and then. It had been a brawl between a number of adventuring teams in the guild that had landed them in prison.

“What are you going to do, Erin?”

The young woman paused. She was wiping away some mud with a towel—not that it would matter since she was going right back out in the thick of it. She scratched her head and shrugged.

“Talk to him. That’s all. I think it’ll be fine. But I need to go now, before Zevara burns my inn down. I’ll be back in a moment to talk with you all.”

The adventurers exchanged a glance. Ceria cleared her throat.

“Need an escort? We have some things we need to tell you, Erin.”

“We’d be honored.”

Ylawes sat up. Erin frowned. She glanced around her inn and noticed a conspicuous absence. And Lyonette was giving Erin a meaningful look.

“No…I think I’m good, Ceria, Ylawes. Adventurers make Goblins uneasy. I’ll go and be back soon. Lyonette, can you walk with me part of the way? Just for a few minutes. Not you, Mrsha. You have to stay.”

The Gnoll cub didn’t like that, but Yvlon picked her up and even squirming as hard as she could, Mrsha couldn’t get free. She whined as Lyonette and Erin left the inn. They walked down the hill and Erin grimaced.

“Ew. There’s a path, but it’s mud.”

Indeed, to get to where the Goblins were standing, Erin would have to go up and down the hills, which meant walking through the mud and occasionally through knee-deep water. If she slipped, Erin would tumble to the bottom of the hill—which meant a reintroduction to water if the valley was deep.

“There are boots and a special type of stick they use to walk around in. Do you want me to try and get one?”

“No. I’ll walk. It’s a big mess and I can’t delay.”

Erin sighed. She and Lyonette began to slip their way down a hill and up the first one. As they walked, Erin talked.

“So who stole the door? Any ideas?”

“No one knows. But some people came through it, from Celum. That’s why Olesm confiscated the mana stone leading there. None of the adventurers were happy. Also, this isn’t proof, but the night the door was stolen, that [Magician]—Eltistiman—he vanished.”

“What? But I liked him.”

Erin’s face fell. Lyonette pursed her lips.

“He might be innocent. Or a victim.”

“You think so?”

“No. And neither does Olesm. There’s a bounty on his head.”

“Damn.”

Erin cursed. It felt wholly insufficient to the moment. She glared at nothing, remembering the smiling, charming illusion-mage.

“Eltistiman Verdue. I’m gonna remember his…face. Not the name. If I see that guy again, he’s gonna get what for. Okay, what’s the next problem?”

Lyonette glanced back at the inn.

“The door to Celum’s out. And so is the door to Pallass. All the adventurers are stuck in Liscor and they want out.”

“Oh, is that why they’re all at my inn?”

“Yes. They won’t say as much to Watch Captain Zevara—much less Wall Lord Ilvriss—but I think that even the Pallassian adventurers don’t want to stay and fight. They all want to leave.”

“Makes sense. But Liscor will be under attack. And my door’s outta juice. So what’s their plan?”

Lyonette glanced around again. But there was no one nearby. Just the watchers on Liscor, the adventurers following their slow progress in the mud—and the Goblins on the nearby hills. They were staring at Erin and Lyonette, although not with hostility. So many watchers. It  made Erin’s shoulders itch. The [Princess] whispered to her, keeping a wary eye on the Cave Goblins.

“They still want to use your door. They’re trying to leave Liscor, Erin. They’re going north. Towards Celum.”

“Who is?”

All of the adventurers!”

“You’re kidding. And Olesm is okay with that?”

“He doesn’t know! They’re taking a door with them with a new mana stone embedded in it. I objected—so did Typhenous and Dawil and Ceria. They wanted you to weigh in before they started this. But the other teams said they had to go now, or at least get started.”

“Oh boy. That’s not good.”

Erin’s stomach, already a bit seasick from all the churning, began to make gastric butter. Lyonette nodded.

“Remember how you got here from Celum? They’re doing the same thing—but in reverse. They’re trading it off, going back through the door so only one team has to carry it each time. They’re going to try and get to Esthelm and hire horses—or a wagon to move faster—by tonight. They think they can get out of the pass before the Goblin Lord’s army arrives.”

“Wonderful. At least it’s a tried and true method. And how far are they?”

“Jelaqua’s team was the first shift, and they left this morning. I think they’re nearing the edge of the Floodplains by foot. It’s slow progress right now, but soon—Erin, what are we going to do?”

“Tell Olesm. Or maybe not. I dunno. Liscor needs to be defended, but the adventurers don’t want to fight. I’ll think about it. Right now I have to deal with the Cave Goblins. You want to go back?”

“I’ll stick with you.”

Lyonette squared her shoulders. Erin smiled at her. The two climbed a hill. And then they saw the Cave Goblins spread out ahead of them.

It was a strange sight. Goblins sat about on hilltops, twenty odd thousand of them scattered in different spots. Some were cooking or sitting around the fires, others fishing, or just…going about the task of living. Erin saw some of them diving around the rift to the dungeon and hauling stuff up. The Cave Goblins were everywhere.

“Holy smokes. I knew there were more than I thought, but this many?”

Erin blinked at the Goblins. Lyonette shook her head in wonder.

“There are so many. How are they feeding themselves? There’s no way the food you were giving them was enough!”

“I think they had food from the dungeon. And—oh wow. Yeah, they have food. Just not good food. Look at that.”

Erin pointed. She’d spotted the Cave Goblins bringing up something from the underwater rift to the dungeon. Lyonette saw what they were lugging across the muddy floodplains to a waiting fire. She put a hand over her mouth.

“Is that—”

“Uh huh. That’s a dead, giant caterpillar. A dead caterpillar with hair. They’re sautéing it.”

Lyonette turned green. Erin felt her stomach lurch.

“Well, I guess monsters from the dungeon are like…half of their food supply. I did wonder what all that salt and oil was being used for. And they’ve got fish here, cooking equipment…”

Pleasantly, the only smells the two girls were inhaling were coming from a nearby cook fire, where some Goblins were frying up muddy fish they’d scooped from the valley-lakes. Erin stared at them, to get the image of Goblins sawing chunks off the caterpillar out of her head.

“I’m going in. You stay put, Lyonette. Or go back. That caterpillar’s gonna smell soon.”

“What does Zevara want you to do?”

Lyonette called after Erin as the [Innkeeper] began to walk down the hill. Erin didn’t respond.

What did Zevara want her to do? What did Ilvriss and Olesm want? Well, they wanted her to wave her hands and make the Goblins go away. They were about to fight a war. A war. And Erin was going to be caught up in it.

It didn’t feel quite real. Erin had trouble taking it seriously. War was coming to Liscor? Actual armies and a siege? She couldn’t imagine it. She’d never seen an army—well, the Goblin Lord maybe—but the idea of a bunch of Humans, her people, coming to attack Liscor? It was too much to imagine.

Erin thought of Magnolia and her incredible mansion. She remembered the landscape flashing by as she rode with Reynold. Hundreds of miles of land she’d never set foot on. An entire world and politics and people she knew nothing about. Liscor was her home. She’d only gone to Pallass, and even then, she’d barely explored the city. All she knew was this one place.

In some ways, Erin knew so little of this world for all the time she’d been in it. She wished Ryoka were here, to give her some perspective. She wished she knew more of what to do. But as she walked down the hill and the Cave Goblin’s heads turned, she knew there was no one who could give her advice. She saw a ripple go through the Cave Goblins, and then a tall figure appeared at the top of a hill. Erin stared up and smiled.

“Numbtongue.”

He walked down the hill towards her, his eyes wide. She smiled up at him as Cave Goblins poured over the sides of the hills. They watched as Erin and Numbtongue met. The Hobgoblin [Bard] and Human girl stared at each other. Then Erin smiled.

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

Numbtongue was oddly shy. Erin smiled. She reached out and hugged him. A susurration ran through the Cave Goblins. Numbtongue froze, and then patted Erin on the shoulder. Erin stared at his hands. The shackles had been broken—snapped by a bunch of impacts by the looks of it. She dug in her pocket.

“I’ve got a key for those cuffs. Let’s go find somewhere dry to sit, okay?”

The two found a dry spot to sit. Next to a fire, actually. The Cave Goblins had found some kind of fuel supply—made it, rather. Erin saw dried grass pellets being tossed into fires along with the precious and scarce wood. She asked Numbtongue about it.

“They dragged it from the pass.”

He pointed north. Erin’s blinked.

“That’s far! And they carried all that wood here?”

He shrugged.

“Lots of wood is easy to carry. If you have lots of hands.”

“That’s true.”

They sat together in silence for a bit. A small Goblin with a huge chef’s hat came by and offered Erin some roast fish. To be polite, Erin nibbled it and found it was actually really good.

“Thanks, Pebblesnatch. You’ve outdone yourself!”

The Cave Goblin beamed with pride. She adjusted her hat and walked off self-importantly. Numbtongue watched Erin spit out a fish bone. At last, he came out with it.

“Are they alive? Is Bird alive?”

“Yes, and yes. They’re both fine. Bird’s in the Hive. Klbkch won’t say how he’s doing, but he made it. And the Redfangs are in prison. I was with them just now and they’re fine.”

Numbtongue breathed out slowly. He relaxed, and some of the tension in him that had been there all day slowly eased. Erin looked at him.

“You did a lot while I was in jail, huh?”

“Yes. I did not know what to do. So I did—”

Numbtongue waved a claw at the Cave Goblins. Erin looked at them. Some were carrying weapons. Others were even sparring, practicing fighting in the mud. Some were cooks and some—

“Are they making guitars?

She pointed. Numbtongue glanced at a group of Goblins energetically carving at a piece of wood and fumbling with pieces of string.

“Maybe. Will Liscor let my…will they let the Hobgoblins go?”

“Yes. I think so. But it’s tricky. You scared them, Numbtongue. You know what’s happening, right?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged again.

“The Goblin Lord is coming. Humans are forcing him to attack Liscor. A big war is coming. Dangerous. For Drakes, for Gnolls…for Humans too.”

“That’s about it. How do you know about what’s going on?”

Erin was impressed. Numbtongue didn’t look that surprised by what was happening. He tapped one ear.

“People talk in the inn all the time. No one pays attention to listening Goblins. Even big Hobs.”

“Huh. Okay. So…what is your tribe going to do?”

“If they let the others go—”

“They will.”

“—then we will go south. No point staying here. It would be a pointless-death. Against Humans. Against the Goblin Lord.”

Erin glanced sideways at Numbtongue.

“You wouldn’t join up with him?”

He bared his teeth.

“No. He is our tribe’s enemy.”

“But you don’t know where your tribe is.”

Numbtongue hesitated. He bowed his head.

“No. Don’t even know if Chieftain is alive. I think she is. But I don’t know.”

Erin was tempted to ask who his Chieftain was. She’d never gotten a chance to talk. In fact, this was the most Numbtongue had ever said to her without being coaxed. She thought about what he’d said.

“Okay. So you’re going south.”

“Yes. We’ll take Cave Goblins south. Go west, towards High Passes. That is home. Maybe our tribe went back. Maybe—we know how to live there.”

“That’s a long way away.”

“Yes.”

Numbtongue looked towards Liscor, and then past it. He looked at Erin.

“Liscor will let my brothers go?”

Erin smiled.

“If they don’t, you’ll stay here. And that would be bad for them. They think you might join the Goblin Lord. So yeah, they’ll let Headscratcher and the others go.”

“Good.”

Numbtongue nodded a few times. Then he hesitated. He looked at Erin.

“The Human army is coming. The Goblin Lord is coming. They’ll kill a city and start a war. Will you stay? Will you run? We can protect you.”

The question caught Erin off-guard. She hesitated.

“I—I’m not going. Not yet.  But I don’t want to leave you guys. I was thinking—I’ll send a magic doorway with you. How about that? That way, you can stay at my inn.”

“You’d do that?”

“Of course. I heard how you protected my inn. And got the door back. Thank you for that.”

Erin smiled at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin looked abashed. He waved a claw.

“We saw the door. Saw Humans—[Rogues]. Ambushed them. It wasn’t a fair fight.”

“Well, that’s the best kind of fight. And I was in jail the entire time. It’s not actually that bad in there. But I got out early because you showed up.”

“Sorry?”

Erin laughed. Numbtongue smiled, and for a second the two sat together. Erin had so many things she wanted to say, or ask, or do. But she thought of the adventurers marching north and knew she couldn’t. Regretfully, she stood up.

“They’ll let the other guys go now. Zevara says she’ll do it as a sign of goodwill—but if you’re not gone by night, she’ll start bombarding you with spells. So…I guess that’s sorta nice. For her.”

“For her. We’ll leave as soon as I see the others.”

Numbtongue agreed. He stood up with Erin and looked towards Liscor. She saw movement on the battlements and waved her hands. That meant ‘yes’, or so she’d agreed with Zevara. Numbtongue stood beside her. He hesitated.

“Is it a good idea? Going away? We—I feel like it’s running away.”

Erin frowned. She looked at Numbtongue.

“But this isn’t your battle. It’s a silly Human thing. And a Drake thing, I guess. The Goblin Lord’s a Goblin, yeah, but he’s not your problem.”

For a long time the Hobgoblin hesitated. He looked at Erin. He opened and closed his mouth and then whispered hoarsely.

“Yes, but you’re—”

He didn’t get to finish. Erin jumped up excitedly.

“Hey. There they come! Look, look!”

Numbtongue’s head snapped around. He saw four shapes appear on the battlements. The Cave Goblins leapt to their feet. The figures were tiny, but familiar. Numbtongue watched as a rope ladder was lowered, and the people on the wall exchanged brief words with the Hobgoblins. Then, slowly, they began to descend.

“There they are! I told you! Headscratcher and Badarrow and—whoa! Where’s everyone going?”

The Cave Goblins charged across the muddy plains as one. On the walls, the Drakes readied themselves, but the Goblins weren’t headed towards them. They swarmed towards the four figures that walked towards them. The Redfang Warriors were surrounded in an instant. Numbtongue and Erin stood together. Erin was smiling. Numbtongue couldn’t contain his grin either. She turned to him.

“Well, that’s that. You guys should start going south. But stop by my inn—I need to get a door and a mana stone. Or—can you bring the one from your cave? I’ll get in contact with you tonight, but I have this thing with adventurers…”

He looked at her. There were so many things Numbtongue wanted to say. And do. Not least of which was hug her again, but he was too embarrassed. But if he could talk to her—he hesitated.

“You’re going?”

She smiled at him. A kind smile, a happy one. The kind that lit you up from your toes to the top of your head.

“Sorry, Numbtongue. But it’s okay! I’ve got a magic door. We’ll see each other tonight. Just get somewhere safe. You and the Cave Goblins shouldn’t get mixed up in all this mess.”

“What about you?”

She was already marching down the hill, back towards her inn. Numbtongue could see his friends, his companions, running towards him. He saw Erin turn. Heard her call out.

“I’m not leaving. Not yet.”

And then she was gone. Erin took two steps, slipped, and cursed as she slipped and fell down the side of a hill. Numbtongue listened to her swearing a blue streak, and then turned. His four brothers came towards him, surrounded by a tribe. Only, they weren’t Chieftains. Not proper ones. And they had no purpose or place. Except here. Numbtongue narrowed his eyes. He stared back at Erin. At her inn. And at Liscor.

Well then. It was time to speak with Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badarrow, and Rabbiteater. And really figure out what they were going to do next.

 

—-

 

The Redfang tribe was rounding the last bend in the pass leading to Liscor. They could already smell the moisture ahead of them, the mud and evaporating water in the air. Their Carn Wolves panted, and Garen wondered if they’d have to swim across the Floodplains. Probably not. Rags had said it would drain around now. Was that why the Humans were driving Reiss’ army this way? What was their plan?

Not that he cared. Not that it mattered. It was just that if Reiss was going to die, Garen would like to know. He was going to fail, obviously. His master was deranged and a monster. Reiss would never realize his stupid dream. He might have, with Garen’s help. With his help, Garen could have defeated any enemy. But he’d betrayed Garen.

Just like the others. Just like—

They came up across one another as the Redfang Tribe raced past a cave set into the side of a mountain. Strangely, it looked like there were Goblins around here, and the Redfangs had paused to investigate. They were heading inside the cave, noting the archery targets and deforestation of the area—sure signs of a growing tribe—when one of the sentries whistled.

Travellers on the road. Three!

Garen relaxed. Three travellers—no matter who they were—weren’t a match for his warriors. Still, he decided to check them out himself, in case it was three [Mages] or something dangerous. He rode his Carn Wolf down the road and saw a strange sight.

Three people were headed up the road, talking to each other, laughing. They weren’t your run-of-the-mill wanderers either. One was huge, a man, but a giant as well, easily eight feet tall, possibly nine. He wore patchwork clothing, smaller strips sewn together to fit his frame. He walked with a staff in hand, and under his arm he carried a wooden door of all things. Inset in the door’s frame was a glowing white stone.

Beside him walked two smaller folk, but both just as unique. One was a Drake, or at least, appeared to be a Drake on first glance. Her scales were too pale, and no blood flowed beneath her skin. She was dead. Or at least, her body was. She carried a flail on her shoulder, but wore only light leather armor.

The last was a man who seemed to blend with the shadows, even in the light. He wore dark clothing and half his body was carapace, his left hand a crab’s claw as opposed to his hand. His face, his leg—his left side looked like it had merged with some kind of crustacean from the ocean. And indeed, it was from there that he had come. He seldom laughed, but he did smile, if you looked for it.

The three were adventurers. And they had been walking for a while to judge by the mud stains on their clothing. Nevertheless, they were in good humor. They walked easily. Until they saw the Goblins, that was.

The Redfang Tribe spread out in front of the cave made the adventurers freeze. But rather than scream, flee, or panic, they moved at once, setting themselves together and preparing for combat. Their leader, the Selphid, shouted for the half-Giant to send a [Message] spell. The Redfangs roused themselves, sensing a fight. They looked to their leader, waiting for the order to attack.

But it didn’t come. Garen Redfang sat on his Carn Wolf, frozen. He stared at the three adventurers. They were here. As if his mind had called them into existence. Or perhaps they had called to him. Almost exactly as he remembered them. And as the three adventurers looked around, weighing the odds, bracing themselves for the worst, they looked up and saw him.

All three froze. Garen stared into Jelaqua’s eyes as she went limp with shock. At Moore, who froze, door half-raised like a shield. At Seborn, who gripped his daggers and uttered an oath. At his friends. And he saw hatred—and the knowledge of what he’d done. The blood—

The blood was on his hands. It ran from the tabletop, dripped onto the floor. Blood. It splashed across the rest of the room as well. The private sitting area the Halfseekers had requested to divide up their loot was painted with it.

Blood. So little of it was Garen’s own. It dripped from the bodies. Four of them. Garen looked around. Slumped shapes. Twisted expressions, caught in their final moments. And then one of the bodies moved and he realized she was still alive.

“You—you’re just—”

Halassia Evergleam croaked, blood running around her bloody scales. For once they weren’t ashy or black. Red and black mixed as she tried to raise the wand, not realizing that her clawed hand was severed. Torn flesh and bone stared at Garen as he looked down at her.

“They’re all—all dead.

Dead. Yes. Garen looked around. Keilam lay in a pool of his blood, dead before he’d been able to chant a spell. Thornst was fallen, bow in hand. Like Keilam he’d not been able to attack in the brief moments before his death. Ukrina’s body lay in the center of the room, surrounded by destruction. She hadn’t fallen half as easily. And she had fought until her body was nothing but tatters.

The last was Halassia. He’d thought he killed her in the first moments, but she’d survived. The Scorchling gurgled, and blood ran from her mouth. She looked at Garen, and the hate in her made him flinch.

“We never should have taken you in. Never. We shouldn’t have trusted you. You can’t trust—they’ll get you for this. You. Traitor. I hope you and every last one of your kind burns in—”

She raised her stump of a hand and Garen saw a flash of magic. He moved unconsciously, reflexively. The crimson blade he had named Redfang buried itself in Halassia’s chest. She jerked once, fell still. And then it was over.

Garen stood in the room, surrounded by his friends, his companions. Blood ran over the treasure they’d worked so hard to acquire that day. It ran over the key he held in his trembling left hand. He stared down at his bloody blade, the key, and then at his team. Four out of the seven people he trusted more than anything in his life. Dead. By his hand.

Garen screamed, then. He screamed and screamed, until his throat was raw. Then he ran, key in hand. He fled the city, ignoring the Humans who panicked at the sight of him, covered in blood. He ran and ran, knowing there was no way back. But it wasn’t his fault. He had been betrayed. He had done the killing but it wasn’t his fault.

It wasn’t his—

“Hey. Is that who I think it is?”

Jelaqua spoke dreamily. She looked at Moore and Seborn and shook herself. The other two were staring. Jelaqua stared at the Hobgoblin sitting astride the Carn Wolf. She blinked. Rubbed at one eye. Then she looked up.

“I’ve gotta be dreaming. Moore. Moore. Hit me!”

The half-Giant blinked. He looked down and swatted Jelaqua across the back of the head. The watching Goblins heard a tremendous thud, slightly hollow. Jelaqua fell over. When she got up, there was a dent in the back of her head. She felt at it and grinned.

“Yeah, I’m definitely not dreaming. That’s Garen.”

The name made the other two start. Seborn straightened. Moore ground his staff into the ground.

“Here? After we looked for so long?”

“Yeah. And here I thought we’d have to go into the High Passes with an army one day. And here he is. Funny coincidence, that.”

Jelaqua smiled. She looked at the other two.

“You up for this? Moore, you might wanna cancel that [Message].”

“Right.”

The half-Giant put a finger to his temple. He let the door fall onto the ground with a soft thump. Seborn eyed the watching Goblins. The Redfangs hadn’t moved from their spot. They were looking at Garen and at the adventurers, waiting, but growing more and more confused by the second. And Garen was just watching, his eyes flicking from face to face.

“Seborn.”

Jelaqua.

The two turned to each other. They shook hands. Then Moore lowered his fingers from his temple. He breathed out raggedly.

“I told them. It’s done. Let’s go.”

“Alright.”

Jelaqua slapped Moore on the arm. Seborn touched the half-Giant’s elbow. The three walked forwards. Jelaqua smiling. Moore’s eyes on Garen’s face. Seborn reaching for the daggers at his sides.

“Hey Garen. Long time no see!”

Jelaqua called out cheerfully. Garen started. He looked down as the Selphid walked towards him. The Goblins and Carn Wolves growled warningly, but the Gold-rank adventurers had no eyes for them. The four thousand Goblins could have been dust to Jelaqua. She looked up at Garen and smiled.

His former captain. His former friends. They spread out, adopting an old formation. Only, there were five empty spaces. So it wasn’t a formation, but a memory. A calling. Jelaqua beamed up at Garen as she gripped the flail with both hands. For a moment she was the Jelaqua he remembered. She spoke softly, her eyes meeting Garen’s.

“We’ve been looking for you.”

Then she screamed and leapt for him. Seborn drew his blades and Moore bellowed. It was a sound that made the howling Carn Wolves fall silent, that sent a cold jolt of fear through Garen’s heart. A sound as loud as grief, a cry torn by years of anguish, of hatred and rage. Jelaqua took up the cry and Seborn charged, silent. They came for him, with all the fury in the world.

Old friends. Garen drew his sword. Familiar faces. Friends for life. The flail whirled towards his head. Twin daggers sought his heart. His family. A staff fell towards his head like thunder.

The Halfseekers.

Together at last.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.56 G

Garen Redfang saw the axe spin through the air. He saw the silver flash, the way Reiss recoiled. And the way the Goblin Lord stared dumbfounded down at his severed stump of a hand. He didn’t see the second one coming.

“Look up.”

The leader of the Redfang Tribe growled. But he was sitting on his Carn Wolf, separated by tens of thousands of confused, screaming Goblins. Too far to shout a warning even if he had been so inclined. And he wasn’t. Reiss was his enemy. He served the Necromancer.

But still, he couldn’t die like that. Garen saw Reiss look about. The second whirling axe missed him by what had to be a foot. Garen saw Reiss jerk in surprise. He stared at the Hob who had thrown the axe and nearly fell from his seat on the undead spider. Garen looked too.

Pyrite, the former Goldstone Chieftain, the second-in-command of the Flooded Waters tribe, turned. Garen saw him say something to the huge muscle-bound Hob, Eater of Spears. He reached for his battleaxe. Too late. Eater of Spears grabbed him, roaring with fury, and hurled Pyrite through the crowd of Goblins. Garen watched as Pyrite slammed into the ground.

“Mistake. Should have killed. Snap neck.”

He commented to one of the Redfangs sitting on a Carn Wolf next to him. The scarred veteran Goblin grimaced and nodded. He was named Spiderslicer and was Garen’s second. He had been the third-strongest Redfang in the tribe, but with Redscar’s absence, he was now second. And he clearly resented it.

Spiderslicer frowned into the mass of panicking Goblins. One of them wasn’t just staring. Redscar and the traitorous warriors around him had seen the [Deathbolt] spell and Reiss’ treachery. They were charging towards the Goblin Lord, but there were thousands of the black-armored Goblins in the way. Spiderslicer stared at Redscar and looked at Garen. He fingered the thin, deadly falchion at his side.

“We going in, Chieftain?”

He clearly wanted to settle the old score between him and Redscar. Not only had the other Goblin beaten him time and time again, but he had abandoned his tribe for Rags, leaving Spiderslicer eternally second-best. Garen watched as both the Flooded Waters tribe and Reiss’s army became a confused melee. He shook his head.

“Not yet. We watch.”

“Yes, Chieftain.”

Spiderslicer nodded sourly. He relayed Garen’s orders, bellowing at the other Redfangs milling about. The warriors grunted, but didn’t respond—Spiderslicer was not Redscar, and lacked the other Goblin’s leadership qualities.

Garen eyed his Redfangs, sitting and watching with half an eye as both tribes began attacking each other. His Carn Wolf flicked its ears and growled, but didn’t move about restlessly. Nor did the Redfangs, for all they clearly wanted to join the fray. They were disciplined, albeit overeager for a fight. They hadn’t done any fighting since the siege of Tremborag’s mountain. A few Eater Goats didn’t count.

But Garen didn’t intend to draw his sword. Not now. He stared at Reiss and Rags. The small Goblin Chieftain had retreated, swaying, as her Carn Wolf tried to carry her to safety. The animal was intelligent—it bounded away as the Goblin Lord’s personal escort of Hobs tried to bring it down, howling and surrounding their leader. Garen watched Rags clinging to the wolf’s back. He had given her that wolf after she’d refused the rare, albino pup he’d offered her.

“Stupid Rags.”

Garen gritted his teeth. He wasn’t riding to her aid. And neither was he going to try and kill Reiss. There were too many Goblins between him and the Goblin Lord. Besides—Garen cast an eye to the north. Even Reiss and the Necromancer weren’t the biggest problem.

The Human army had halted for the Eater Goats attack. They’d been on the march, but this sudden battle between the Goblins had caught them off-guard. Garen could see them milling about, waiting for their leader, Tyrion Veltras, to make a decision.

“Stupid Human [Lord].”

Garen had seen the Human. He’d watched him fight. And—it was hard to admit—Garen had realized Tyrion was stronger than he was. By just a bit. He had enchanted gear like an adventurer, and his Skills had overwhelmed even Tremborag. And he had his army.

So long as he was watching, Garen would stay where he was. Besides, this battle was to his advantage. Garen turned back to stare at the battlefield.

See. Rags was retreating, shouting at her warriors who were trying to move into their formations. But the Goblin Lord’s army was besieging them, and Rags’ tribe was patchwork. Tremborag’s Goblins fought, but without the discipline and cohesion that made her tribe strong. And all her lieutenants were too far away from her.

Pyrite was retreating from Eater of Spears. Redscar was fighting, caught in Reiss’ forces, pressing them back, but mired. Poisonbite was screaming. She and Snapjaw had been riding together and now she was fighting with Snapjaw as the Hob’s horse reared in panic. And Reiss was looking down. For what? His hand?

He could die here. Garen watched, seeing Rags scream and point at the Goblin Lord. She was weak, pale, but at her command the Goblins with crossbows around her aimed at her target. The Goblin Lord looked up—threw himself from the back of the Shield Spider. Hundreds of bolts struck the undead Shield Spider, which recoiled, but didn’t fall.

Reiss could die here. Rags could kill him. Garen gripped the hilt of his sword. If Reiss died it was good. If Rags died, he would lead the Goblins against Reiss. Against the Necromancer.

And if Rags died, he would control her tribe. They wouldn’t go to Reiss. They hated him. They should have gone to Garen to begin with. Ulvama, Tremborag’s lieutenants…why had they turned to Rags instead of him?

Garen was angry. Furious. He hated Reiss because he was a traitor, because he had given his soul to a monster. He hated Rags because she had betrayed him, because she had taken his tribe and because they had gone to her. He hated the Humans because they were treacherous. And sometimes he hated himself.

Why was he here? Why had everything gone wrong? Garen remembered smiling faces. Laughter. Friends, or people he’d thought were friends.

His team. His first…tribe. The Halfseekers. And then—living in the mountains. Forming his own tribe, making them strong. It had all been so simple. And now it wasn’t. Now—Garen stared across the battlefield. He wanted to act. He was a warrior. But he couldn’t find a place to join in. He was not on Rags’ side. He was not on Reiss’.

He was alone.

 

—-

 

Flying hurt. Landing hurt more. Pyrite wished he’d fallen on his back, or at the very least, been tossed in a more vertical arc. If he’d been thrown down, he could have landed on his back, stared dizzily at the sky, and then gotten up.

Instead, he felt himself strike the ground, roll, cutting his back and shoulders open as he landed on several armed Goblins. Wearing armor. Holding weapons. The impact lacerated Pyrite’s flesh. The rolling impact tore more from him. He didn’t bother staring at the sky—when the world stopped moving, he stared face-down at a pile of torn-up dirt. Then he pushed himself up.

“Ow.”

Battleaxe. Where was…? It was still holstered on his back. Pyrite grunted. He freed it from its sheathe and looked around.

Goblins in black armor stared at him. Eater of Spears had thrown Pyrite into the ranks of his own army. The Hob blinked. The Goblins uncertainly raised their weapons. Some of them looked around.

“Kill traitors!”

A Hob—not Pyrite, one of Reiss’ Hobs—bellowed and pointed at Pyrite. He’d seen the entire thing. But some of the Goblin Lord’s warriors still hesitated. Half of them hadn’t even seen Reiss’ betrayal. They were supposed to attack their allies? But a Hob was a Hob, so they began to approach.

Pyrite grunted. He swung his battleaxe at the nearest three Goblins, putting his weight behind it. He felt the axe slice through one of the Goblins, and then another. The third screamed as the blow tore open his chest.

The other Goblins stared in horror at the three. They looked at Pyrite. The Hob staggered with the force of his swing. Then he swung, backhanded. More Goblins died. He roared and the Goblins backed up.

Treachery. Pyrite looked around. He could see his tribe fighting now, skirmishing with Reiss’ army. But where was Rags? Pyrite turned back and saw the Hob charging at him, sword and shield in hand. He bellowed and Pyrite swung the tip of his enchanted axe into the dirt. The axe head ignited as it struck earth and grass and a plume of smoke billowed up. The Hob recoiled. Pyrite tore up with his axe and the Hob fell back, cut from groin to chest.

Where was Rags? Pyrite whirled. The smaller Goblins backed up. Pyrite cast about, saw a familiar giant spider. He charged towards it, bellowing and swinging his axe. Most of the Goblins before him scattered. But a few were brave or suicidal. They attacked Pyrite and he cut them down.

Reach. Strength. Speed. Greydath had taught him how to fight. With a greatsword, with a battleaxe, you could cut down almost anyone before they got to you. And Pyrite’s was enchanted. Flesh, steel, it didn’t matter. The weapon bit through both and the flames burned whatever it struck.

Death. Pyrite cut through the ranks of Reiss’ army. Goblins fled or died. He stared at their faces. They hadn’t asked for this. They hadn’t tried to hurt him. But their leader had betrayed his honor. And so they had to die.

Later, Pyrite would think on what he did. For now—Rags. He looked around. Where? There.

She was clinging to her Carn Wolf, face pale, but still shouting orders. She was trying to organize her army in the chaos. And Reiss was on the ground as his elite Hobs pressed Rags’ warriors back. He was looking for something. His missing hand. Pyrite bared his teeth. He heard a shout and turned his head.

Pyrite! Get to Chieftain!

Redscar shouted above the chaos. He and Pyrite were separated by about a thousand Goblins. The Redfangs were attacking from the flanks, driving Reiss’ warriors back. Without them there, the Goblin Lord’s army would envelop the Flooded Waters tribe. Redscar pointed and Pyrite nodded. He began to run—then heard a roar from behind him.

Few things scared Pyrite. He had fought Trolls and other monsters before. He’d seen Greydath angry and had witnessed Tremborag’s furious beast form. But as the Hob looked over his shoulder, he added another image to haunt his nightmares.

Eater of Spears. The Hob sprayed spit as he opened his mouth and bellowed. His gargantuan body flexed as he ran towards Pyrite. His eyes were locked on the smaller Hob and his mouth was open. He was coming. Pyrite stared for a second and then began to run.

You! YOU!

Eater of Spears was throwing Goblins aside, charging at him, heedless of who was in the way. Allies and enemies scattered as the huge Hob came onwards. Pyrite cast a glance over his shoulder, heart thundering wildly. He wasn’t going to reach Rags in time. He had to turn and fight. He did not want to turn and fight. Eater of Spears wouldn’t go down from a single swing. And if he got his hands on Pyrite, he’d tear Pyrite’s head off this time, rather than just throw him.

He was coming. Pyrite had to turn. The Hob looked around for something, anything that would give him an edge. He patted his belt. Healing potions. His bag of gemstones—could he eat one? No, the magic wouldn’t slow that. He braced himself, raising his battleaxe. He had to go for a leg and run—

Eater of Spears was flexing his hands, lowering himself for a leaping charge. Pyrite braced—and saw a row of Goblins run in front of him. He nearly cut them down, and then realized they weren’t wearing black armor. Eater of Spears pulled up as, suddenly, he was looking at a row of metal-tipped pikes. Aiming at his chest.

“Hold ground! Stop big Hob!”

A voice shouted from behind Pyrite. He whirled and saw Noears, pointing as more Goblins with pikes formed a second layer in front of him and Eater of Spears. The muscular Hob bellowed in fury and Reiss’ warriors tried to close in, but more and more of Rags’ Goblins poured forwards, fighting or setting up a longer line of pikes.

“Noears!”

Pyrite could have hugged the Goblin [Mage]. Noears grinned. He raised a hand and crackling electricity began to gather in his palm. He pointed at Rags.

“You go. We stay!”

Pyrite hesitated. Eater of Spears was roaring, knocking aside pikes and coming onwards. But Noears was drawing more electricity out of the air. He pointed at Eater of Spears. The Hob was too furious to notice, until he saw the flash. He stopped, raised his arms—

Noears shot a bolt of lightning and the sound it made as it struck Eater of Spears made all the Goblins around Pyrite duck. The Goblins with pikes ran back as Eater of Spears staggered. His flesh was black and charred and his body jerked as the electricity grounded itself through him. But even that couldn’t fell the Hob. He stumbled forwards. Noears turned.

“Run, run!”

He pointed as more electricity gathered around his fingers. Pyrite didn’t hesitate. He ran as Eater of Spears bellowed and Noears shot more lightning.

Now Rags’ tribe was forming a battle line. Pyrite ran through his allies as they fought with Reiss’ warriors—Goblins they had just been laughing and marching with. Newfound friends died and Goblins without weapons on both sides fled backwards, screaming in fear.

No one had expected this. No one but Reiss. And Pyrite. And even he had been surprised at the speed of the betrayal. It was unexpected. Not-Goblin. Surely not even Tremborag would have betrayed his allies so suddenly. They had joined forces! Doing something like this—it was something a Human would do. And that was Reiss’ fault. He was too much like his master.

And look what it caused. Pyrite caught flashes as he ran through the battlefield, cursing his weight and the battleaxe that slowed him down. He saw Redscar fighting, trying to hold off the bulk of Reiss’ army before it could bring its superior numbers to bear. He heard more thunder as Noears dueled Eater of Spears. And he saw another tragedy play out to his left.

A fallen horse. A Hob with a head that was too large and huge, metal teeth. Snapjaw. Her mount was dead, stabbed in the sides by poisoned daggers. And facing her, tears in her eyes, was a small Goblin with a pair of daggers.

Poisonbite had unhorsed Snapjaw. Now the two female Goblins were facing off, Poisonbite using her female raiders as backup while Snapjaw fought with her riders.

Tears. Betrayal. Treachery. Someone had to answer for it. And Pyrite knew who. He reached Reiss, at last and saw a line of Rags’ warriors in their scrap armor battling with Reiss’ Hobs, who were advancing despite the crossbow bolts hammering them. And behind them, holding something to the severed stump of his right arm, was Reiss.

Pyrite slowed, breathing hard. He saw Rags, riding backwards, ordering her own Hobs forwards to hold the line. He couldn’t hear her voice over the roar in his ears. All his attention was on Reiss. Rags couldn’t fight him. He was a Goblin Lord with death magic and she—

What was he doing? Pyrite stared at the thing Reiss was holding. Then he saw. It was his hand. The severed hand was pressed against Reiss’ bleeding stump. And the bone was moving. As Pyrite watched, Reiss took his hand away. The severed hand stayed in place. He’d fused the bone somehow. And he was uncorking a healing potion, pouring it over the wound and pressing his hand to the mending bone.

He was reattaching his hand as he ordered his warriors to surround Rags! Pyrite spared one moment to curse [Necromancers] and healing potions and then he lifted his battleaxe. He couldn’t feel the weight. He couldn’t feel the pain from his injuries, or hear anything. All he could focus on was Reiss. He had to end it here. He had to do it. He ran forwards. He might have been screaming. He saw Reiss look up and was rewarded by a glimpse of fear in the Goblin Lord’s black eyes.

Reiss!

The Goblin Lord raised his hand as he backed up.

“[Bone Wall]!”

Yellow bones sprang from the ground, knitting together, rising and forming a pattern, a wall several feet thick that grew up between him and Pyrite. The Hob roared as he swung his axe.

The enchanted edge of his battleaxe sliced through the bone wall, igniting the bones. The second blow hacked bone fragments out of the wall, which quickly began to vanish. Reiss backed up as Pyrite struck the wall a third time and then rammed the wall. The weakened spots caved in as the entire assembly of bones cracked. Reiss looked around.

“Hold him back!”

The Hobs turned towards Pyrite. They advanced towards him, trying to shield themselves as Rags shouted and more crossbows loosed deadly bolts at them from the side. A Hob fell, a crossbow quarrel in his cheek. Another groaned as one struck him in the shoulder, penetrating his armor, but came on regardless. Pyrite buried his axe in his chest and charged at the others.

A Hob in black armor tried to block him, thrusting a spear at Pyrite’s shoulder. The steel tip pierced the Hob’s flesh, tore skin and drew blood. Pyrite ignored the wound and brought the battleaxe down, bellowing. The Hob in black armor’s head disappeared and Pyrite roared again.

“[Deathbolt]!”

Pyrite turned. He saw the black, flickering light shooting at his chest and raised his battleaxe. The [Deathbolt] glanced off the enchanted battleaxe, splashing harmlessly against the magicked metal. Reiss lowered his hand.

“How—”

He leapt backwards, nearly falling as Pyrite took a swing at him. Again he shot a [Deathbolt] and again Pyrite blocked it.

Armor was no good against that magic. Shielding spells would fail. But if you held a piece of metal out far enough or stood behind a tree, the [Deathbolt] would dissipate before it reached you. Pyrite charged Reiss, bodily checking a Hob who tried to seize him. And Reiss retreated.

The Flooded Waters tribe battled the Goblin Lord’s army. Friend versus friend. Former allies fighting, not knowing why, only that someone had betrayed the other. It was all chaos and confusion. But like a magnet, the conflict at the center of both tribes drew attention. Goblins turned.

They saw the Goblin Lord, shooting magic at a Hob with a flaming battleaxe. They saw him retreating, falling back. Reiss’ warriors faltered. The Flooded Waters tribe cheered and pressed forwards. It wasn’t Rags, their Chieftain who advanced. But it was someone they recognized. Someone they knew. Pyrite roared as he charged the Goblin Lord, and Rags held the Goblin Lord’s Hobs back. Reiss retreated, running.

Running.

 

—-

 

He was losing. Garen stared in disbelief. Reiss was stumbling backwards, casting his death magic as Pyrite came on. But it was futile. The other Hob was pausing to block, using his battleaxe as a shield. Garen had no idea you could block death magic like that. But the enchanted axe was broad and so long as Pyrite was that close, Reiss was in danger every time Pyrite swung his axe.

Garen saw Reiss point at the ground. He couldn’t hear Reiss, but he saw one of the fallen Hobs rise back upwards. It lunged at Pyrite. The Hob turned and saw the Ghoul. He brought his axe down and split the undead in two. He whirled—more undead were rising. Reiss frantically backpedalled, trying to claim any distance, but Pyrite swung his axe and the undead died just as fast. He advanced and Garen clenched his fists.

“No. Idiot! Make more walls!”

What was Reiss doing? Undead would slow a warrior like Pyrite down for only moments. At least the bone walls bought time. Why didn’t he order his undead spider forwards? Headless or not, it could at least block Pyrite!

One of the Redfang warriors glanced at Garen and he gritted his teeth. He wasn’t Reiss’ ally. He wanted Reiss to lose. Right? Right. But this wasn’t the Reiss that Garen knew. He was panicking.

Small wonder. Reiss ducked as Pyrite nearly took his head off with a horizontal slice that took down a Hob. Even with his bodyguards, Reiss was being pressured. By one Hob! Rags was sending her warriors forwards, distracting his other warriors, but still—

“Who is he?”

Garen stared at Pyrite. When he’d first met the Goldstone Chieftain, he had seemed so…ordinary. So normal. Why had he been hiding his true abilities in his tribe for so long? Why hadn’t he tried to become a powerful Chieftain? Why was he like—

Greydath? Garen watched Pyrite parry a blow from a Goblin and kick them in the groin. He wasn’t as strong as Greydath. Or as fast. But he fought a bit like him. Could he kill Reiss? He was advancing. And then Reiss made a mistake. As he stepped backwards, throwing bone shards that cut open Pyrite’s arms and chest, he collided with a Hob engaged in fighting behind him. Reiss half-turned—and Pyrite lunged.

The Hob swung his battleaxe, shards of bone protruding from his arms. And Reiss staggered.  Garen saw a charred line open on his chest and blood begin to pour down. Pyrite had been too far away for a fatal cut. But the Goblin Lord stared at the blood in shock as Pyrite was tackled by two Hobs. He staggered back, reaching for a potion as Pyrite fought both Hobs off him. Garen watched Reiss moving back, eyes wide, stumbling.

He couldn’t die here. He couldn’t. He was going to win, Garen was sure. Even if Pyrite was in range, even if he was a [Warrior] and Reiss was a [Mage]. Even if—

He was a Goblin Lord. He was Reiss. He couldn’t lose to anyone but Garen.

Could he?

 

—-

 

He was bleeding. Reiss felt the searing pain run down his chest. He looked up and saw him standing there.

“Stop moving.”

Reiss couldn’t obey the words. He forced himself to leap backwards and duck away, pulling himself with his hands. The Goblin behind him took the blow. He—she—fell, dead. Reiss had not known whoever it was. But they had answered his call.

They were dying. For his sake. His brave warriors. And he was running. Retreating. From a single Hob.

Pyrite strode forwards. Reiss ducked behind a pair of struggling Hobs, robes covered in mud and watched Pyrite’s head turn. Spells ran through his mind, one after another. Raise Draug? No. Blindness? He had to touch Pyrite. Bloodbats? The Hob could probably survive one casting.

He was too close. Each time Reiss tried to get away, Pyrite lunged at him. And each time he got nearer to ending Reiss for good. He ignored Reiss’ spells. His flesh was lacerated from a spray of bone shards. He’d taken wounds from Reiss’ bodyguards. Half the skin on his back was torn off from being thrown by Eater of Spears.

And still he came on. Indomitable. In that moment Reiss hated and admired Pyrite for everything he was. He was what Goblins could be. He was a leader.

But Reiss couldn’t die here. He’d sacrificed too much. Too much. He’d slaughtered innocent Drakes and Gnolls, killed his own kind. For what? For his dream. And if he let it end here, it would be for nothing.

So Reiss waited, crouched, as Pyrite cast about. Another Hob approached Pyrite, swinging a mace at his side. Pyrite turned, roared.

[Power Strike]!

Reiss felt the impact. And another of his warriors was gone, like that. The other Hobs were afraid to approach. They could not see him. Reiss could feel his entire army wavering. They had seen him run.

But what was he supposed to do? Reiss closed his eyes. He had to fight. But this enemy was—

Undefeatable? Indestructible? Overwhelming? Reiss looked back at Pyrite. The Hob was roaring, challenging Reiss.

No. He was mortal. But his image called to mind another figure. Not here. But as Reiss looked at Pyrite, he recalled.

A swell in the fighting opened up a gap behind him. Reiss looked at it. He could run. Pyrite had lost him. He could run and let the other Goblins bring him down, or Snapjaw. Or Eater of Spears. But he couldn’t, could he?

“No running. A Lord cannot run from a Goblin.”

But he, Reiss, couldn’t win. Not at this distance. So Reiss could not fight. Someone else would have to. And Reiss knew who.

Memory. The Goblin Lord turned. He gripped his reattached hand with his other one and muttered, pulling the mana out of his body. Remember. He needed to remember. And it was easy. How could he forget?

“[Bone Claws]. [Fortified Body]. [Draug Strength].”

Pyrite heard the spellcasting. He saw Reiss stand. His eyes narrowed and he braced, but none of the spells were aimed at him. He blinked as the Goblin Lord stepped forwards. White bone had grown around the tips of Reiss’ fingers, on his hands. Sharp, wicked talons. And Reiss’s body felt stronger. He was taller, for a moment.

Reiss walked forwards, abandoning his fear. He flexed his claws and beckoned to Pyrite. The Goblin Lord wore a wide smile despite the blood running down his chest. Around him, Goblins turned. They saw their Lord and drew strength from the sight of him.

A Lord had to be strong. A Goblin Lord had to be a hero. Reiss spread his arms wide and waited for Pyrite. The Hob hesitated, sensing something was different. But there Reiss was, so Pyrite attacked. He shifted his grip on the battleaxe, then swung fast and low, aiming for Reiss’ legs. At the last moment he twisted and cut diagonally up.

Reiss ducked backwards from the blade, then rushed forwards. But Pyrite had been expecting that. He punched as he let go of the battleaxe with one hand. The blow was fast. It caught Reiss on the cheek, snapped his head back.

“Ow.”

It hurt. But it was just a punch. Reiss staggered, then rammed Pyrite. His claws came up. One slash opened up Pyrite’s chest, a shallow wound. The second cut across his arm. Both cuts drew blood. Pyrite howled in pain and surprise and swung again. But his battleaxe was slow. Reiss danced back, light as a feather. The tip of the axe barely missed his stomach. But it did miss.

Pyrite felt at his chest. His eyes narrowed and he lashed out with his axe. Reiss stepped forwards, but the blow was a feint. It came back at him from the side. Too quick to dodge. So Reiss leapt and Pyrite had to move back or the claws would take out his throat. He did, and Reiss cut him.

Left, right, left—his claws cut across Pyrite’s chest and arms, shredding armor, tearing flesh. Pyrite struck at him. Reiss was gone. The Goblin Lord danced back and grinned. Pyrite stared at him. Reiss beckoned him again. Blood spattered the ground.

 

—-

 

“Who?”

Garen watched Reiss charge Pyrite. He watched the Goblin Lord attack, and cut Pyrite. One-two, fast slashes that opened up Pyrite’s arms, bled him. The Hob tried to cut Reiss in half with his battleaxe and received a kick to the stomach. A heavy one. Reiss punched him, backed up before Pyrite could cut him, and raised a fist. The Goblins around him roared.

“Chieftain.”

The Redfang warriors looked at Garen, equal parts surprised and uneasy. They saw it too. Garen shook his head.

“Who is he?”

Reiss faced Pyrite again, not trying to take his distance. And he was different. The way he fought, the way he moved was different. Garen watched, blinking, confused. Reiss had always been good at learning. At copying others. He had even copied Garen’s way of fighting with a sword. He could do it with anyone. But who was he mimicking now?

 

—-

 

Pyrite didn’t know. The Flooded Waters tribe didn’t understand. But Reiss did. His warriors saw it. They roared as Reiss turned and raised a fist. Bloody claws opened. He pointed at Pyrite. And when he stood, when he smiled, he was not him.

He was playing a part. Calling a memory into life.

An echo of a giant. A fearless smile. Reiss grabbed Pyrite’s arm as the Hob tried to bring his axe to bear and caught the other arm. Pyrite tried to kick. Reiss kicked him back and then head-butted Pyrite. His forehead collided with Pyrite’s and both Goblins stumbled back. But Reiss kept coming.

How would he do it? He’d never retreat. He’d punch like this, smile here. He wouldn’t fall back. He’d keep coming until he was dead. Stronger. Faster. Pyrite stumbled back, on the defensive. His eyes were wide and he was trying to keep up. But he wasn’t fighting Reiss. He was fighting a shadow of someone else.

A fearless Drake. A [General of the Line]. A hero of the Antinium Wars. Tidebreaker.

Zel Shivertail.

Reiss roared as he shoulder-charged Pyrite. He was smaller, but the impact still pushed Pyrite. He slashed across Pyrite’s chest. The other Hob struck him. This time the blow made Reiss’ ribs creak. So Reiss hit him back. Pyrite slid backwards in the mud. He clutched at his battleaxe and stared at Reiss.

“How?”

The Goblin Lord was breathing hard. Focus. He flexed his claws. His voice rasped.

“I have had greater enemies than you.”

Pyrite looked at Reiss. Then, slowly, he abandoned his battleaxe. He tossed it to one side and raised his fists. Then he nodded.

“Probably.”

The two said nothing else. They waited a beat, then came at each other. Reiss hit Pyrite first. The Hob hit him back and Reiss staggered.

Heavy. Pyrite knocked Reiss back. Without magic, without enchantments. His fists felt like falling mountains. But Reiss punched back. Pyrite was strong. As strong as any Goblin that Reiss had met. But he lacked one thing. He didn’t know—

A blow across the face. Pyrite grabbed Reiss’ neck, tried to twist. The Goblin Lord roared.

He didn’t know what it meant to be a Lord. He broke Pyrite’s grip. Claws tearing flesh. Pyrite raised his fists. Reiss was faster. Was it Zel who punched or him?

The first punch stopped Pyrite in his tracks. The second made the entire Hob’s body shudder with the impact. The third lifted his feet off the ground. Reiss felt Pyrite’s ribs break.

The Goblin Lord hurled Pyrite back. The Hob fell and rolled. He tried to get up. But it was done. Reiss roared and his warriors screamed as they raised their weapons. The Flooded Waters tribe stared at Pyrite. Rags looked at her champion, disbelieving.

Pyrite was getting up. He had a small sack in his hands and he was reaching into it. Reiss whirled. Time to end this.

“You should have stayed down.”

The Hob paused. He looked at Reiss and sighed.

“Can’t.”

Pyrite lurched forwards, raising something to his mouth. A healing potion? But Reiss had taken a position across from him. The Goblin Lord raised a finger and aimed at Pyrite’s chest.

“[Deathbolt].”

The magic shot through Pyrite. It left a dark trail in the air, and passed through Pyrite before dissipating. A line of pitch-black. A moment of death.

Color ran from Pyrite’s face. He gritted his teeth and moved forwards. He had no axe. He was torn. But he charged Reiss. The Goblin Lord sighed.

“[Deathbolt].”

The second bolt brought Pyrite to his knees. The Goblin Lord stared down at Pyrite. He heard a scream. He looked up and met Rags’ eyes. She was riding towards him, aiming a crossbow at his chest. She pulled the trigger. The bolt went wide. Reiss met her eyes and looked back at Pyrite. The Hob looked up and met his eyes.

“I am sorry.”

Pyrite gritted his teeth and said nothing. He tried to stand—he pulled at the ground. But for once his body betrayed him. He slumped, staring up at Reiss. The Goblin Lord pointed down at him.

“[Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt].”

Four times. Four black streaks of magic shot from Reiss’ fingertip. Pyrite jerked. Rags screamed. The Hob froze, half-risen. Reiss stared into his eyes. He watched something drain away. A bright spark, quiet intelligence. A smile.

“[Deathbolt].”

A final streak of black magic shot through Pyrite, but it didn’t matter. The Hob was already collapsing. Reiss stepped back, staring. He was sure Pyrite was dead. Almost completely sure. But still he waited.

The Hob didn’t get up. He lay there, slumped forwards on the ground. There was no last surge of life. No dying flame. He was gone. Just like that. And the wail that arose from the Flooded Waters tribe was despair and grief incarnate.

Gone. Reiss closed his eyes and felt the world grey out around him. He felt like collapsing. Drained.

No, he had to stand. The Goblin Lord fumbled at his belt. He found a bottle. A mana potion. He drank from it and wiped his mouth. Then he turned and aimed at Rags. She was staring at Pyrite in shock. For a moment Reiss’ heart pinched.

“[Bloodbat Swarm].”

Glowing black bats with red eyes shot through the air. They took wings and arced towards Rags. She jerked. Her crossbow raised. Her Carn Wolf reared. It bounded back, but the magical bats struck it in the side. Tearing. Absorbing blood. Rags screamed as the Carn Wolf howled and tried to shake itself. Reiss’ warriors were running at her. The Goblin Lord aimed at her chest.

“[Deathbolt].”

 

—-

 

The black magic shot across the battlefield. It passed over the heads of Reiss’ warriors, past the running Hobs. It was a good shot. Reiss had always been good with spells. But this time he missed. The [Deathbolt] didn’t strike Rags. It was aimed at her, but the wolf she rode caught it instead. The Carn Wolf had been howling, throwing off the bloodbats conjured by the spell, trying to shake them off. Perhaps in desperation it leapt—

And the spell struck it in the side.

The Carn Wolf landed, bleeding weakly. Garen watched it stumble. He saw Rags slide from the saddle, grabbing at the wolf’s fur as it lay down. It would have been easy to pretend it had taken the spell meant for her. But it hadn’t. It curled up and the little Goblin clutched at it. Crying, trying to get it to rise.

It was useless. The Carn Wolf, the faithful creature that had born Rags since Garen had given it to her, died. Garen watched as it sank to the ground. The Hob clenched one hand. Rags had refused to name it. Refused to become a [Beast Tamer].

She clung to it as it lay on the ground. Garen saw her look up. Reiss’ warriors were charging. Rags’ tribe surged around her, making a stand. But their spirits were broken. Pyrite was dead. And Rags was—

The two sides met in a roar. Rags disappeared from sight. On his Carn Wolf, Redscar turned. He roared and his warriors charged towards her. Noears whirled, standing in front of the kneeling Eater of Spears. Poisonbite looked around.

Chieftain!

Garen waited. He saw Reiss aiming for the same spot he was looking. The place where Rags had been. Goblins fought in a bloody melee, sliding back and forth, smaller Goblins fighting Hobs. Hobgoblins gutting each other, killing their brethren. Seconds passed. A minute. Then both sides fell back, leaving the dead.

When the clash ended, Goblins lay strewn on the ground by the hundreds, lying in piles, where they had died. Blood painted the ground. And Rags was gone.

Garen waited for her to appear. He looked for her at the same time Reiss did, searching for a small figure among the retreating warriors. On the ground. But he couldn’t see her. Neither could Reiss.

Neither could her tribe. They all searched for her, breathless. Waiting. But Rags did not appear. A groan ran through her tribe. They wavered. And then they broke and ran.

It began with Tremborag’s Goblins. His former tribe broke formation abandoning their places, shouting.

“Chieftain is dead! Chieftain is dead!

The other Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe hesitated. But as hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of Goblins streamed past them, their nerve left them. They began to run as well.

They’d lost. It wasn’t the first time Garen had seen a tribe break up after their Chieftain had fallen. But this one—he watched, jaw clenched. The Goblins were all running now, as Reiss’ army advanced.

Some threw down their weapons and surrendered. Others just turned to flee. Reiss’ soldiers pursued them, forcing Goblins to submit, join the tribe, or die. In pockets the fighting still continued, but it went only one way.

“Betrayer! Cowards!”

Redscar’s voice echoed as the former Redfang lieutenant tried to rally the Goblins to him. He was pulling back. He had no choice. But he had not surrendered. Garen saw him pointing, shouting orders. His warriors formed a screen, held back Reiss’ warriors as more of the tribe flocked around him. That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. They were supposed to either flee or submit to Reiss. But this wasn’t an ordinary battle between Chieftains.

“Now.”

Garen kicked his Carn Wolf in the side. The wolf looked up, and then bounded forwards. Garen heard Spiderslicer shout and his tribe streamed forwards. Not towards Reiss, but towards the running Goblins.

Flooded Waters tribe!

The Goblins screamed and halted as Garen rode towards them. But the Redfang Chieftain did not draw his blade. He raised a fist as Rags’ shattered tribe stopped. Staring up at him. Garen shouted.

Join me! Fight Goblin Lord! Follow!”

Redscar froze. Poisonbite, Noears—the Goblins of Rags’ tribe halted in place. Tremborag’s former Goblins. All of them stared up at Garen. He waited. Now they would come. He waited and waited and waited—

And they began to run. Not towards him, but around him. Garen stared in disbelief.

“Wait—”

Goblins streamed to the left and to the right, avoiding his tribe. His warriors stared, the Carn Wolves growling uncertainly. Countless thousands of Goblins ran past Garen, fleeing Reiss’ soldiers. Garen looked for Redscar, but the other Goblin was shouting orders. Trying to lead Rags’ tribe. Not going towards him. Poisonbite and Noears were doing the same.

They’d refused him. He was Garen Redfang. But they still turned away. Garen sat on his Carn Wolf as the Goblins streamed past him. They were running.

“Chieftain?”

Spiderslicer’s uncertain voice made Garen look up. He saw Reiss’ soldiers advancing. And behind them, the Human army. They’d witnessed the conclusion of the battle and now they were advancing. They weren’t going to let the Goblins run.

For a moment, Garen felt a surge of despair rise in his chest. Then—reckless anger replaced it. So that was it? He turned and drew his sword.

Redfang!

The bellow made his warriors look up. Some of his former Redfangs, the ones around Redscar, turned. Garen waved his sword.

Redfangs, follow! We ride!

The call was familiar. Urgent. And this time, it worked. Some of his warriors streamed towards him. But the ones around Redscar did not. The smaller Goblin looked at Garen and bared his teeth. He pointed and shouted in fury. Despair.

Run!

And so he did. Redscar fled, and Garen looked back towards Reiss’ army as well. He growled, and then pointed south. He was done with Reiss. Done with all of this.

He was going home.

 

—-

 

They were all running. Reiss staggered to his undead spider, pulled himself up. He was injured, exhausted. He could barely crawl up the spider’s back, and there he lay for a moment.

Reiss!

A familiar voice below him made Reiss look down. He saw Snapjaw riding towards him. She was riding a different horse than her beloved grey mare. Reiss stared down at her.

“Snapjaw. I won.”

It didn’t feel like a victory. Reiss looked about. He could see the entire battlefield and all he saw were dead Goblins. Dead Goblins, and fleeing Goblins.

The Flooded Waters tribe was running. They’d refused to join him. The core of Rags’ tribe, the loyal ones were fleeing south. But the new additions, the former Tremborag Goblins weren’t as committed.

Some, yes, some of Tremborag’s tribe joined the fleeing Goblins. But more and more surrendered, joining Reiss’ tribe. And a few just…left. They ran in every direction, ignoring both the fleeing Goblins heading south and Reiss’ army. They were truly broken. Gone.

“We won. Big victory! Reiss! You need healing potion. You, get [Healer]!”

Snapjaw was talking urgently to the Hobs around Reiss. The Goblin Lord shook his head. He stared at the running Goblins. The Flooded Waters tribe, the real tribe, was still in one piece. They were still moving, running even without their Chieftain.

Even without her? Reiss’ eyes narrowed. They were moving…fast. Outdistancing even his mounted warriors, who were being slowed up by all of Tremborag’s surrendering Goblins. Too fast.

“She’s alive.”

“What?”

Snapjaw was circling his spider with her horse. Reiss looked down at her. It had to be that.

Rags! She is still alive. Find her. Kill her.”

The female Hob’s mouth fell open. She looked around.

Where?

Reiss didn’t know. He stared at the place Rags had been. Just dead bodies. But maybe—

“Search dead. Chase the running Goblins! She is out there somewhere. Kill her!”

“Yes, Lord!”

Snapjaw shot away, riding on her mount and screaming orders. Reiss saw Eater of Spears, stumbling towards him, chest blackened with the damage from Noears’ spells, turn. Reiss’ army began to assault the Flooded Waters tribe from behind. Reiss clenched his jaw. He saw the tribe fleeing. Garen was running too. He’d left sometime during the battle. Why hadn’t he joined Rags?

It didn’t matter. Fast as they were, the Flooded Waters tribe wasn’t getting away. They had fought a bloody battle against his army, but they had forgotten they were being watched. As he stared south, he saw a line of silver charge the green figures from the side. Cutting them off.

Humans.

 

—-

 

“Charge the Goblins! Force them back until Lord Veltras can send reinforcements! [Knights], on me!”

The [Commander] in charge of the advance group raced his mount through the lines of Goblins. Two thousand riders followed him, cutting down Goblins, trying to force them back. His was the forward scouting group, meant to deter the Goblins from advancing too far. The [Commander] had seen the fleeing Goblins and was trying to stop them until reinforcements could arrive.

It was a futile effort. The Humans hacked down Goblin after Goblin, but the panicked mass of running Goblins were too frightened to stop. Some fought the Humans; the rest just ran around them.

Stop them!

Desperately, the [Commander] cut down a fleeing Hob and then speared a Goblin through the back. The others just ran around his horse which reared, panicked by all the monsters. The [Commander] turned. Where was his relief? Lord Veltras had to have seen—

There. More riders were racing to intercept. This group was far larger. They were on a collision course with the Goblins, [Knights] and [Mages] standing out. They’d break the Goblins and either wipe them out or force them back. The [Commander] smiled in relief—and then lost the smile as he heard a howl. He turned, raising sword and shield in his saddle. A red blade cut the top of his head off. Garen Redfang bounded past him on his Carn Wolf’s back. He stabbed a [Knight] through his unenchanted armor and raised his blade up into the air.

Redfangs! Kill them!

The Humans turned as more wolves howled. Goblins on Carn Wolves screamed and charged them, not part of the fleeing Goblins. The howls from the Carn Wolves made the untrained horses rear, and Garen led his warriors through the Humans on horseback, cutting them down and knocking them from their saddles.

“Grab weapons and move! Follow!”

Garen bellowed at his warriors and led them through the Flooded Waters tribe. Garen bounded out of the chaos of Goblins on foot and saw his Redfang tribe struggling to catch up. He looked ahead and saw the second group of Humans. They were probably six thousand strong? Already they were casting spells, bombarding the Goblins with [Fireballs]. And they’d seen Garen tearing apart their friends.

Kill that Hob!

An authoritative voice shouted and Garen snarled as both arrows and spells began targeting his position. He whistled and his Carn Wolf ran in the direction he pointed. The Humans raced after him, thinking he was heading south. Garen’s warriors knew better. They raced ahead, pretending to be making a break for it. Then Garen turned his head.

“Slaughter Humans!”

He pointed right and his entire tribe turned. The surprised Humans had only a second to react. He could see them waver. Garen’s tribe was about the size of theirs. Surely he was going to run. After all, they were Humans. They had [Knights] and [Mages].

They were dead. The Humans on horseback tried to turn, but Garen roared and his Carn Wolf howled. The poorly-trained horses reared and Garen’s Redfangs raced forwards, led by Garen himself. He was laughing. Garen led the howling Goblins straight towards the advance group. He cut down the first [Mage] he saw, ignoring the man’s scream, and hunted down the female [Commander], then another [Mage]. Then the [Knights].

The Humans were good, but they weren’t a match for his Redfangs. They broke up, fleeing back towards the rest of the Humans as Garen turned, counting his losses. Redfangs looted the dead. Those who’d lost their mounts paused beside their companions, then joined other riders and rode doubled-up, or secured a horse. Garen nodded, and then eyed the fleeing Goblins.

He’d inadvertently given them a chance to flee as well. Not towards the High Passes or away from the mountains. The Human army was galloping to both sides, trying to envelop them. There was only one way the Goblins could go. South, ahead of Reiss’ army. That wasn’t where Garen was headed. He stared west, towards the High Passes. The gaping fissure in the mountains called to him.

“Chieftain! We go home?”

Spiderslicer grinned, blood running down his blade. Garen smiled, but he didn’t order a rush towards the welcoming mountains just yet. He was eying the Human army. They were mad now. Wings of cavalry were breaking off to the left and right, around Reiss’ army. They were trying to contain Reiss and catch up with the running Goblins. Garen wasn’t worried about that. He was more concerned with the vanguard around Tyrion Veltras. They were aimed at Garen, and he didn’t know if he could reach the High Passes before having to turn and fight.

The Carn Wolves were quick, but they couldn’t beat horses on flat ground. Garen knew that. He was calculating how far to go to the High Passes, to safety. If he couldn’t get to the passes in time, he’d take his tribe up the slopes. Carn Wolves could bound up the rocky terrain, while the Humans’ horses couldn’t. They’d have to dodge mage spells though. If they could make a break for the High Passes…

Garen stared at the gaping fissure in the mountains and his eyes caught something. A distant speck, no, many specks moving in the mountain range. His eyes widened and he turned to look back at the Humans and Reiss’ army. They were still cutting down the last of the Flooded Waters tribe that were fleeing, forcing them to submit or die. Garen looked back at the High Passes and shook his head.

“No. We outrun. South!”

Spiderslicer’s jaw dropped, but he didn’t question the orders. Garen was already turning. He pointed south, past the Flooded Waters tribe. He narrowed his eyes as he saw another group of quicker Humans trying to cut them off again. They’d have to fight. But not for long.

“We break through. Come! Show the Humans the strength of Redfang Tribe! Follow me!”

Garen pointed and his tribe rode south. Away from the High Passes. It wasn’t what Garen wanted, but he could always return, loop past Liscor and go back to the passes from the southern side, through Drake territory. Besides, it wasn’t wise to go towards the High Passes at the moment. Even Garen had battles he wasn’t willing to fight.

 

—-

 

Lord Yitton Byres saw the third forward group disappear as the Goblin riders charged into them. He sucked in his breath, but didn’t dare speak. He was riding hard, right behind Tyrion Veltras and an inadvertent comment might cost him his tongue. He did hear curses from those less cautious, and, yes, a stifled cry of pain as someone bit their tongue while they galloped.

“It’s the smaller Goblin tribe! The one on Carn Wolves! They’ve killed [Commander] Geim, [Commander] Helica and [Knight Commander] Sir Meilmen!”

“Unforgivable.”

Lord Tyrion snapped as he stared ahead at the tribe of Goblins. Yitton couldn’t take his eyes off them either. There had to be less than seven thousand of them, but they were all mounted, on the monstrous Carn Wolves or stolen horses. And—they were strong.

The Redfang Tribe was tiny compared to the Goblin Lord’s army. But they’d cut through three groups of riders nearly equal to their size without slowing down. And their chieftain was a monster on his own. He’d killed all three commanders himself.

Yitton Byres had read the reports. He knew who was leading that tribe. Garen Redfang, a Goblin with the most unusual of pasts. A former Gold-rank adventurer who’d proven Goblins couldn’t be trusted. Leader of the Redfang Tribe, a group of notoriety that preyed on travelers from the High Passes. But not an active danger—one that kept to the mountains and rarely troubled populated cities. He had dismissed the Hobgoblin as a lesser threat compared to the Goblin Lord—or Tremborag, the Great Chieftain. And that had been a mistake.

He had never seen Garen Redfang fight. Neither had Tyrion Veltras. Or any of the other Humans riding with him. Now their ignorance was costing them lives.

“Two monsters. Two. First that Great Chieftain, now this one. Have the Goblins been hiding—”

Yitton heard a voice from ahead. One of the [Strategists]. Tyrion Veltras turned his head. He glared at Garen Redfang’s distant form.

“Not for long. [Knights], on me! We will pursue and bring down that Chieftain.”

He clicked his tongue and accelerated. Yitton watched as Tyrion effortlessly pulled ahead—as if he was riding a legendary Pegasus or magical steed in a different class from the horses around him. At his words, a shining lance of [Knights] rode forwards, propelled by the same Skill.

The group that pulled ahead of the main force was about three thousand strong, give or take several hundred. It was small, but elite. The [Knights] in Tyrion’s vanguard wore gilded armor, marking their order and allegiance. They rode ahead, following Tyrion’s back, lances in hand, shields raised. Their gear was enchanted. Not one of them was below Level 20. Most were above Level 30.

Even so, this was a mistake. Yitton raised his voice, praying he wouldn’t bite his tongue.

“Tyrion! Don’t be a fool, man! Let the [Knights] fight that Chieftain! Don’t risk yourself!”

He was outnumbered two-to-one! The rest of his riders were tangled up trying to contain the Goblins. Tyrion Veltras glanced back at Yitton and didn’t respond. Yitton, cursing, tried to catch up, but he had no Skills and might as well tried to fly. He was looking about for Tyrion’s aide, someone who could stop the man. He’d taken a risk with Tremborag and he had been wounded. If Garen Redfang managed to unhorse him or surround him with his tribe—

“Lord Veltras! Lord Veltras! We’re under attack!

A panicked voice called out from the left. Yitton saw a [Scout] racing towards them, trying to catch up. Reluctantly, Tyrion slowed and Yitton managed to force his mount to catch up.

“Report! Where is the attack?”

Tyrion scanned the Goblin army. So did Yitton. Was the Goblin Lord attacking? No, he was pulling his Goblins back. He’d won his battle. Was it Garen? Again, no. He and the other Goblins were just running now. Both [Lords] looked at the frantic young woman. The [Scout] pointed at the High Passes.

“It’s not Goblins! It’s them! They’re back! They’re coming down from the mountains! Tens of thousands of them! I don’t—”

The frantic voice didn’t register with Yitton for a second. He stared blankly at the High Passes. Who was back? Who was—

Then he saw it. They were racing out of the mouth of the passes. Coming down the cliffs. Like last time. Only this group was much, much larger. A wave of brown came out of the High Passes. And as they charged the Humans and Goblins from the side, they began to scream.

Eater Goats. They ran by the tens of thousands, a group far larger than the last one. The predators of the mountains had smelled the bloodshed. And they were coming to eat. In the distance, they took up a warbling shriek that sounded almost Human—but too wild and horrific at the same time. Yitton’s mount snorted, eyes wide, and he patted it. Around him horses reared.

“Lord Veltras—”

“I see them.”

Tyrion Veltras scowled at the Eater Goats. He looked ahead at the fleeing Goblins. Yitton could almost see him calculating the odds of catching Garen Redfang. But the Eater Goats were headed towards the last battlefield, and there were too many of them to fend off without numerous casualties. Tyrion turned his horse around. Did Yitton hear him curse? Surely not.

“Halt the advance. [Mages], begin bombarding the goats! Pull back the cavalry to contain the Goblin Lord’s army—let the other tribes flee ahead. Send word to the infantry, to prepare for combat! Lord Pellmia and Lord Gralton will attack from the northeastern flank. [Knights], on me. We halt the advance of these monsters. Anyone without sufficient defensive Skills or enchanted gear will fall back! Ride!

The Human army began to pull back. They turned to meet the Eater Goats, who ignored the numbers and common sense. They took the first charge from Tyrion Veltras, swarming around him and the nearly impervious [Knights] on their warhorses, then broke up for easier targets. Some headed towards the fleeing Goblins, the rest fell upon the Humans and Reiss’s army.

Eater Goats. The scourge of the mountains. For ten that died, another would stagger back to the mountains, bloated on meat, ready to breed and replenish their numbers. Fearless to the point of suicide, they attacked everything. Everything except for one group of Goblins.

Garen Redfang and his tribe rode past them, as the Eater Goats saw their red war paint and the Carn Wolves they rode and grudgingly avoided them. They fell on the fleeing Flooded Waters tribe, on Reiss’ army and Tyrion Veltras’ force. Only when the Humans began to blow them to shreds, when the bodies of their kin began to pile up like firewood did the goats break off. And only because they were more interested in eating their dead.

In the aftermath, Yitton wiped blood off his sword and saw Tyrion Veltras riding past him, his stallion steaming in the cool air. There was no wiping blood off of his armor; it was splashed liberally across his greaves, chest plate, arms—a [Mage] had to wash him and the other [Knights] off with water.

“It seems the Goblins have gained a lead, Lord Veltras. Should we pursue?”

One of the [Knights], a member of the Order of Clairei Fields, inquired politely. She was one of the fastest warriors on the field, armor or not. She pointed at the distant Goblins, who had kept running while fighting. Yitton eyed them.

They were about a fourth as large as they had been just this morning. The Goblin Lord had well and truly shattered them, and absorbed the bulk of their army into his own as a result. What had possessed him? Was it just more Goblin infighting? Yitton had seen the Goblins react with shock. It had seemed like—a betrayal. An odd thing to imagine.

“No.”

Tyrion bit off the words as he offered his tired horse a feedbag. He stared at the Goblins.

“That Redfang tribe has escaped. They may circle around cut your people off. No, let them run. Our army will spread out as it approaches Liscor and ensure the Goblins cannot double back. The Goblins will run past Liscor and head into Drake lands or be dealt with at Liscor. ”

“Yes, Lord Veltras.”

The Clairei Fields [Knight] nodded and turned away. Yitton dismounted and walked stiffly up to Tyrion.

“Veltras.”

“I don’t appreciate being given orders, Lord Byres. Even well-intentioned ones.”

Tyrion looked up coldly. Yitton flushed.

“My apologies.”

“Very well. Your disposition?”

Yitton stroked his mustache and glanced back at the Goblin Lord’s army. They’d remained stationary after the fighting, but he could see them milling about. Reorganizing. Absorbing the defeated Goblins into their ranks. He wondered if there was any ill-will. Another odd thought to have.

“I—what do you think that was, Veltras? Silver and steel, I thought the Goblins were getting along.”

“Apparently not. Either this Goblin Lord decided to consolidate his forces, or they had a falling out. Either way, their numbers have been reduced, but we’re left with a single tribe now. No more Chieftains will oppose the Goblin Lord. The last one—Garen Redfang—ran. And I didn’t spot the small Chieftain. I suppose she perished.”

“And does that affect your plans?”

Tyrion paused as he stroked his stallion’s head. He looked back at the Goblins.

“There are enough to serve.”

That was all he said. After a while, Yitton walked away. Tyrion Veltras stood and counted losses, gave orders for the march to continue immediately. He didn’t stop.

And neither did Reiss. He couldn’t. He sat on his Shield Spider as the last of the Goblins joined his army and were absorbed into his warriors. He looked down at the hand he’d reattached and flexed it slowly. His nerves sang with phantom pain.

He did not feel good. He felt sick at heart and ill with what he’d done. He kept remembering Pyrite trying to stand. He had been a good Hob. A good second-in-command. Loyal.

He was still lying there. So was she. Reiss was certain of it. He could feel Garen ahead of him, heading south, a burning flame in his mind. And behind him was another flame, burning even brighter. Reiss looked back.

The battlefield was filled with dead goats and Goblins. Humans too, but they’d found most of their dead and cremated them. Now they were driving his tribe onwards. But he could still feel her there.

Behind him. He stared back towards the bloody battlefield where corpses lay in piles. She was alive. And so long as she was alive, perhaps her tribe would keep together. But it didn’t matter, did it? So long as she was behind them, without her wolf, without allies, she’d be helpless.

“I—”

Reiss stared back at the battlefield. He wanted to say something to Rags, though she couldn’t hear him. Something that would explain everything. Tell her why it had to be like this. He sat there, staring, as his undead creation crawled forwards and he drew further and further way.

He never finished his sentence.

 

—-

 

She lay among the dead. That was how she’d survived. Wet fur covered her, almost suffocating her. It was wet and more wetness dripped down from above.

Blood. Rags lay still, listening to the thunder of marching footsteps die down. Tens of thousands of Humans on foot had passed by here. The infantry of the Human army. She’d heard voices—laughter—weeping. They sounded so familiar. Not like Goblins, but like her.

They were all dead. Rags knew it. She lay beneath her Carn Wolf, the brave wolf who she’d never named. And she knew the other bodies, the cold things touching her were dead. Reiss’ warriors. Her own.

Pyrite.

Pyrite. Rags struggled to move. She had to—he couldn’t be dead. He just couldn’t be. She pushed at the furry body on top of her, tried to worm away. She kicked—and then felt horribly guilty.

Slowly, painfully, Rags pulled her way out of the dead. She staggered upright and saw the setting sun. It was orange and sinking below the horizon. It should have been red. But there was enough around her.

Dead. Goblins stared up at the sky through blank eyes. Hobs lay on the ground, their armor shattered. And in front of her—Rags stared at her Carn Wolf. He was far larger than she was. He was curled up, his rust-red fur torn from where Reiss’ spell had laid into him. Gone.

“Sorry.”

Rags knelt. She looked at the Carn Wolf, at his blank half-open eyes. She hugged him one last time, stroking the cold, wet fur of her Carn Wolf’s head. Then she let the body drop and stood up.

“Where?”

She stumbled across the battlefield, staring at faces she thought she recognized. Where was he? She passed by dead Carn Wolves, a Human half-eaten by something. Eater Goats? There were small shapes roaming the battlefield. They took no notice of Rags; they had enough to gorge on.

She found him lying on the ground on his back, staring up at the sky. Pyrite looked almost peaceful as he lay there. His jaws were closed. The bloody injures he’d taken still glistened, half-scabbed over. Rags fell to her knees.

“No.”

She’d seen Reiss kill him. [Deathbolt]. That stupid spell. Again and again it had struck Pyrite, too many times for anyone to survive.

It wasn’t fair. Rags pounded the ground. She couldn’t cry. She wasn’t going to. She had to be strong. But her tribe was gone. Her wolf was gone. She’d lost her warriors, her people—

And her friend. Rags felt the first hiccup of pain force its way out her throat. She gagged, sobbed, and began to cry. It was so childish. So—useless. It wasn’t Goblin.

But she couldn’t help it. Rags crawled towards Pyrite. She hammered on his chest.

“Why? Why?

No one answered her. Rags shouted.

Why? Why does it—why?

She buried her head on Pyrite’s chest. He still felt warm. He still felt alive. She sobbed. And then she heard a sound.

Crunch.

It was loud. A thunderous cracking sound, like grinding gravel but a thousand times louder. A horrific grinding noise. Rags leapt back. She saw something move.

Pyrite pursed his lips, turned his head, and spat something onto the ground. Rags stared as a handful of glittering, bloody fragments landed in the mud. The Goldstone Chieftain regarded them for a second, then put something else in his mouth. He began to chew again, and the grinding sound continued.

“Pyrite?”

He opened his eyes and blinked up at her. Rags stared at him. She was staring at a ghost. Pyrite chewed, and then spat out more of whatever he was eating.

“Hi.”

She kicked him. Pyrite grunted. He made a sound. Almost as if he were alive. She poked him in the side and saw blood run from one of his scabbed over wounds. Pyrite frowned reproachfully.

“That hurt, Chieftain.”

“You’re dead!

“Wish.”

Pyrite grunted. He fumbled for something, and his head lolled back. He tried again, but he seemed too weak to even grab for—whatever it was.

“Need another. Give.”

“What?”

Rags was dreaming. She stared at the thing Pyrite wanted. It was a rough, plain hemp sack. Worn, dirty. Spattered with his blood. She recognized it. It was Pyrite’s special sack of gemstones.

“You want?”

“Give.”

He repeated the words, faintly, but urgently. Rags delved into the sack and pulled something out. An emerald as large as a fist. She offered it to Pyrite. He grunted.

“No. Shiny.”

Shiny? Rags peered into the sack. She saw something flash at her, despite the lack of light. She reached in and pulled out a glowing bit of blue quartz. It had…a mote of light that danced inside the crystalline structure. Rags stared at it. Then she heard Pyrite’s voice.

“Give.”

She looked up. He was dead. She had seen him die. He’d been hit by too many [Deathbolts]. But then how—? She handed the stone to him and Pyrite slowly lifted it to his mouth. He opened his jaws and let the glittering quartz fall into his mouth. Then he began to chew.

The sound he made was horrendous. Even Rags, who had eaten bark and dirt and bugs, winced. Pyrite chewed and chewed and then turned his head and spat. Blood and bits of quartz expectorated onto the ground. Rags stared at the shards. They were bloody. And the mote of light was gone.

“Give another.”

Pyrite’s voice was weak. Rags stared into the sack.

“No more.”

“No more? Bad.”

Pyrite wheezed. He lay there. She realized he was breathing, but faintly. His face was pale. But he was breathing. Could he really be…?

“How? How are you…”

Rags knelt over Pyrite. Now she remembered her healing potions and fumbled for them. Pyrite grunted weakly.

“Had stupid idea. Knew [Deathbolt] coming. Tried stupid thing.”

“What? What try?”

Pyrite groaned as Rags dumped a healing potion on his wounds. He must have used one already, because his wounds had been half-scabbed already.

“Shiny stones. Magic. Put in mouth. Thought could eat magic.”

Shiny stones? Rags remembered. Pyrite had his magic gemstones. She stared down at him.

“And?”

The Hob blinked reproachfully up at Rags.

“Think it worked. Tell me if I’m dead.”

She stared at him. And then, shakily, she laughed. Rags sat back and began to laugh. She heard a rumble. Pyrite chuckled. Rags lay on her back and giggled, then guffawed. She heard Pyrite laughing and the two of them laughed until it hurt and they were quiet. Then Rags wiped at her eyes. She kicked Pyrite in the stomach.

“Ow.”

“Don’t do again. Ever.”

“Won’t promise.”

The two sat there. Well, Pyrite lay on his back. Rags wiped at her eyes. After a while, Pyrite spoke.

“We lost.”

It wasn’t a question. Rags nodded.

“Yes. I…hid. Knew die if showed face. Reiss won. Tribe ran.”

“Okay.”

That was all Pyrite said. All he could say. Rags sat there, and buried her face in her hands. It was over. Pyrite lived, but her tribe was gone. She laughed again, but this time with bitter bile.

“I am stupidest, smallest, worst Chieftain ever.”

“And ugly.”

She kicked Pyrite again. She wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. She just wanted to curl up next to Pyrite and sleep until she was dead. It was really over.

“All gone. I fail. Reiss wins.”

“Not over.”

Pyrite spoke insistently. Rags looked at him.

“You can’t move. I lost—wolf. Tribe. Crossbow.”

She looked around blankly for it. It was gone. Her beloved black crossbow was gone too. Somehow that hurt almost as much as the Carn Wolf. Rags patted her belt.

“And sword. And shield. And everything.”

She looked around the battlefield. Had someone torn it off her? Was it lying in the mud? It didn’t matter. Rags bowed her head.

“Lost everything. Have nothing.”

“Still have one. Me, Chieftain. Not done yet.”

Rags glared at Pyrite.

“What good is one Goblin? What good is stupid Chieftain without tribe?”

Pyrite was silent for a long moment. Then, slowly, he sat up. His body groaned and creaked with the effort. His face was pale as it rose, but he did rise. He looked at Rags, tired, weary. One foot in death. But he smiled and when he did, Rags thought the world seemed brighter.

“I’m not stupid. Just fat. Not ugly, either. And Chieftain has no tribe. But has me. [Magestone Chieftain].”

Her breath caught.

“Magestone…?”

Pyrite nodded. He rummaged in his sack for a gemstone and lifted it up. The emerald flashed in his fingers. It had been dull, just a pretty bit of rock when Rags held it. But as Pyrite lifted it, a flicker of light ran between the faults in the gemstone. A curving trail of energy.

Magic.

Rags stared at the gem. Pyrite smiled, and then groaned. The light went out and he lay back with a whumph. Rags stood up.

“You not able to walk. I—what can we do? Humans gone. Reiss gone. Heading to Liscor. No way to catch up.”

“Just rest today. Tomorrow I follow.”

Pyrite groaned. Rags shook her head. He was talking nonsense.

How?

“Make sled with Eater Goats?”

The Hob winced before Rags kicked him this time. That was a stupid idea. As stupid as anything she’d heard. Only someone like—like her would come up with that. Rags wanted to laugh and cry. She wanted Pyrite to meet Erin. She wanted—

She bowed her head and sat by Pyrite. She was out of plans. Out of fancy ideas and schemes. She was alone. But that was the thing about Goblins. They were never truly alone. Not when there were two.

And then Rags heard crunching in the dirt. She turned and reached for a sword she didn’t have. She saw dark figures moving towards her. Hobs. Goblins. Rags scrambled up. Pyrite tried to sit up again and groaned.

“Who is?”

Rags’ voice felt small and quavery. She clenched her fists and reached for her magic. There were at least two dozen shapes. They held still, just out of sight. And then one of them, a tall figure with curves, stepped forwards.

Ulvama, her tribal paint smudged, her face dirty, stepped forwards. Hobs followed her. Goblins who Rags recognized. Not hers. Not her Goblins, but Tremborag’s. Goblins who had joined her tribe but owed no allegiance to her. Goblins who’d fled when she’d fallen. They surrounded her and Pyrite.

And more Goblins appeared, those who had hid like Rags, or escaped the Humans in the fighting. Ulvama stared down at Pyrite. She stared down at Rags, leaning on her staff. Rags waited for something. Anything. Then, Ulvama bowed. She bowed low in her skimpy feathered outfit, and the other Hobs bowed too. Ulvama smiled as Rags blinked at her. There was mischief in her eyes. Mischief, relief, and something else. A spark that if Rags didn’t know better, she would have called hope. Ulvama gestured around at the other Goblins.

“What now, Chieftain?”

 

—-

 

It was a time of endings. Numbtongue knew it. He had come so far, from the little Goblin he’d been. The one sent to kill an [Innkeeper], who had gotten lost. He had grown. He had lost friends. He had won and lost and become someone different. And perhaps, yes, perhaps it was time to run again. To flee.

But he didn’t want to. He couldn’t. He knew in his heart that Goblins couldn’t live among people. He knew that the inn was a dream, and that reality would cut him down in time. But it was a beautiful dream. And she was beautiful. And he couldn’t run any longer.

He had seen the bright star shining above Liscor. He had felt it give him strength. A bit of determination. Courage to do what he had to do. So Numbtongue walked out of the cave. And his followers joined him. The other Cave Goblins joined him. They flooded out of the cave. They swam out of the dungeon. They appeared out of holes in the ground, from hiding places only they knew. And they followed him.

The first person to see anything on the walls was Olesm. He was walking up and down the walls, muttering to himself and trying to calculate ranges based on a report he’d obtained from Zeres about the trebuchets they had. He was trying to figure out if there was time, and eyeing the floodplains.

The water level had fallen so far that only the valleys contained any water now. That still meant there was a lot of water, but the hilltops were muddy instead of underwater, and the fish that hadn’t been smart enough to escape to…wherever they went…were now trapped in the valleys. They’d be scooped up by Liscor’s fishers for food, or eaten by predators like the Rock Crabs. Or they’d die when the waters became too stagnant or finally evaporated.

Right now Liscor was a mud pit. A watery mud pit, which gave Olesm some hope. The [Mages] would have to dry the land and shore it up or the recoil from the trebuchets would literally send them flying into pieces. Maybe they didn’t know about the dangers. It would also slow their advance. But for each good came an ill. Would the Antinium be able to tunnel and attack the trebuchets in this water? Klbkch had not been responding to Olesm or Zevara’s requests to speak. Was something wrong?

Olesm was staring at one spot in particular from the walls. The rift that led down into the dungeon. That concerned him greatly. Mainly because…it was one of the few ways down into the dungeon and it was currently flooded. Of course, there was the main entrance, but that led through a series of randomized, trapped rooms that hadn’t been cleared. If you were going to move thousands of people through there, it would be suicide.

But the rift was flooded. And if he wanted to bring people into the dungeon—hypothetically—it would be impossible with that much water. That only left the Antinium’s entrance, and what were the odds they’d let anyone into their Hive? Olesm paced back and forth. Could he get a [Mage] to heat the water, boil it away, perhaps? Or—what about Erin’s door? Could they drain the water somehow? Maybe—

Something rose from the watery, muddy waters of the rift. Olesm froze. He saw a little green head poke out of the water. The rift was miles away, but Olesm recognized the green skin and distinctive head anywhere.

“A Goblin?”

No, a Cave Goblin. Olesm stared at it, wondering if it had gotten lost or something. Then he saw another Goblin surface and gasp for breath. And another. And another. The first Cave Goblin clambered out and tugged its fellows out of the water. And then more surfaced and began swimming to land. More and more and more—

Olesm looked around. There were dozens, no, nearly a hundred Cave Goblins surfacing now, and more heads were popping up by the second. Was this some kind of evacuation of the dungeon? Was something happening? Should he tell someone? He looked back at the rift and then his eye caught another source of movement on the plains.

A Rock Crab. It was scuttling up the side of a hill, quite rapidly. Olesm blinked. Rock Crabs normally didn’t move that fast unless they were hunting. But they would have enough to eat in the valleys with the captive fish. Why was it going so fast? Then he realized the Rock Crab wasn’t hunting something. It was running.

The first of the Cave Goblins crested the hill. Olesm stared. The little Goblin had a spear. It raised it over its head and it was joined by another. It was carrying a bow. A third joined it. Was it holding a lute? And then the hill filled with Goblins. They surged over it. And then another hill had Goblins. And another.

Olesm’s vision slowly began to fill with green. He saw them climbing over other hills, swimming out of the dungeon. Some had swords, others clubs, or bows, or improvised spears. Some had frying pans and others carried musical instruments. And there were thousands of them. Each second more poured over the hills. Olesm backed up.

“Ancestors.”

They spread out, marching up the muddy hillsides around the valleys full of water. Some peered at the desperate fish swimming in the little lakes. Others stared up at the city ahead of them, the only structure of stone in the entire area. They walked ahead slowly, picking their noses, chattering. Following a tall shape that Olesm recognized. The [Strategist] went running and the [Guardsmen] on the wall sounded the alarm. Again.

At first Ilvriss didn’t understand the confused message Olesm garbled at him. Neither did Zevara. Cave Goblins? They reluctantly abandoned their discussion and came to the walls. Then they saw them.

Cave Goblins. Tens of thousands of them. By Olesm’s count, at least twenty four thousand, some of them extremely tall. As if they were emerging Hobs. And at their head stood a Goblin with a guitar. He wore a sword at his side and he stared up at the battlements of Liscor with narrowed crimson eyes.

Numbtongue. Olesm stood on the battlements with the whole of the City Watch, all four thousand of them. And the eight hundred-odd soldiers that had been sent through from Pallass on the first day. And Embria’s hundred or so 4th Company. They stared down at the army of Goblins, a precursor of what was to come. Olesm saw Numbtongue raise his guitar overhead. The Cave Goblins raised their weapons. As one, they roared a word.

Redfang!

The word reverberated from the Floodplains. It echoed across Liscor and made the citizens look up in alarm. It was a call to arms, a cry for justice.

Redfang!

Numbtongue howled the word. The Cave Goblins screamed it. They weren’t running. They weren’t going to leave. This wasn’t Numbtongue’s home. He didn’t belong here. But—he looked at the inn on the hilltop. But he wanted to stay. And so he screamed the word again and the Goblins roared it. Calling for their leaders. For their friends.

For her.

 

—-

 

In a prison, sitting behind the bars of her cell, Erin Solstice scratched at one arm and regarded her meal. It was a good one, all things considered. Well, for prison food. She’d expected moldy bread and maybe a dead rat or something. The dead rat obviously being optional if you could kill the ones in your cell. Instead, she’d gotten a rather decent meal.

She’d have preferred to be let go of course, but no one seemed to have remembered she was in here. She’d asked the guards who served food about it, but he’d said there was an incident with the magic door and that Olesm was busy. So Erin looked at lunch instead. She frowned as her ears picked up a distant sound and glanced up.

“You guys hear something?”

Badarrow paused as he ate from his tray. He looked around and scowled.

“No.”

Erin waited a beat, and then shrugged.

“Okay. Hey, Headscratcher? I’ll trade you my sausage for your cheese and crackers. Mine’s too fatty.”

The Hob looked up. He nodded and Erin tossed her sausage at him. She clumsily caught the cheese and crackers and began to munch on hers as Badarrow grumbled, sipping from his cup. Erin sighed and stared at the bars of her cell.

“…I wonder when we’ll get out of here.”

 

5.55 G

Day 10

 

On the tenth day, it was three Goblins who made a difference. As the sun rose, the Humans led by Tyrion Veltras drove the Goblin tribes south once more. Today was the day that they moved by the entrance to the High Passes, the home of Garen Redfang’s tribe and one of the most inhospitable environments for people of any kind to settle. If the Humans were going to push the Goblins into the pass or trap them there, it would be today.

No one expected them to. Everyone who was anyone knew that they would be turning and marching along the flatlands, following the mountain range to the second pass that ran through Liscor instead. And in just three days they would be at the city and if all went according to the various plans in motion, Liscor would be under siege.

Everyone knew that. [Spies], [Informants], and [Scouts] were all watching the movement of the army, relaying each move Tyrion Veltras made to interested parties. Hundreds of thousands of Drakes were marching north, some flying or riding at breakneck speed to get to Liscor in time. The Antinium were digging. Magnolia Reinhart was kicking over tables and swearing. The Necromancer was meditating. Again, everyone knew.

Except the Goblins. They woke up pretty much as usual. By now some were even sleeping through the morning’s volley of fireballs and had to be kicked until they got up. They ate, began to march, and generally trusted that their leaders would sort things out. When you had death behind you and no way to escape, there was really nothing else you could do.

However, if you were one of the leaders, life wasn’t that easy. And it was Pyrite who woke up worrying, which was his wont.

Actually, it wasn’t his wont. He didn’t want to worry at all. Pyrite had lived a very happy life as a [Mining Chieftain] with his Goldstone Tribe for years and he had devoted energy and effort into ensuring his life was as stress and death-free as possible. He’d hidden away from most Humans, cultivated an interest in rocks, and kept from massacring the occasional Silver or Bronze-rank team that was sent to slaughter his tribe. Of course, he’d been running away, but it had been fun while it lasted.

Now though, Pyrite regretted the months he’d spent chipping away at stones and finding gemstones to give to the children of his tribe. He’d leveled of course; he had quite a number of Skills, all of which allowed him to find gemstones, cut and polish them—even find the extremely rare stones that glowed or had magical auras, the ones infused with mana. Like the ultra-rare teleporting citrine he’d found just once—

“Stupid.”

Pyrite sighed as he walked along, battleaxe on his shoulder. One of the smaller Goblins gave him an affronted look, and Pyrite flicked a finger, indicating that it wasn’t about them. Reassured, the Goblins moved around him. Pyrite trudged on, feeling the weight of the enchanted fiery battleaxe on his shoulder.

Yes, he’d leveled, but he’d gotten the wrong Skills and he knew it. If Greydath were here—he’d—he’d—

Probably laugh and pat Pyrite on the head. He would understand. He’d never told Pyrite what to do. He’d given the young Goblin a chance, that was all. And Pyrite had squandered it.

“Pyrite. Chieftain wants to see you.”

A Goblin rode up to Pyrite on a Carn Wolf. Pyrite didn’t have to look to know it was Redscar. The Hob grunted and looked around. Normally it would be easy to spot Rags, distinctive as she was, but today was a bit different. Because today, their small tribe of thousands had…

Pyrite’s forehead wrinkled. What was the word? If you took something and multiplied it by eleven, what would you call that? Double, triple…what came after that?

Elevenuple. Pyrite decided that was the word, though it didn’t sound good to him. Yes, they’d elevenupled yesterday. Tremborag had fallen. His tribe had split in three parts, and the lion’s share had gone to Rags. Pyrite was just a bit proud of that.

And worried. There were now thousands of Hobs marching in the Flooded Waters tribe and regular Goblin warriors who had served Tremborag. Not to mention Ulvama and a handful of [Shamans]. All of them were new, and all looked to Rags. And Pyrite didn’t like it one bit.

“Where Chieftain?”

He looked up at Redscar. The smaller Goblin was looking about with much the same look on his face that Pyrite felt. He had to be wary too; both had seen the strange Goblin politics of Tremborag’s mountain and the way treachery and infighting had turned the Goblins there into something else. He pointed.

“There. We go together. Chieftain wants us.”

By ‘us’, he clearly meant Poisonbite, Noears, as well as himself and Pyrite. The Hob nodded and began walking in the direction of the small Goblin on the back of the Carn Wolf. Redscar let his mount pad alongside him and the other Goblins got out of the way as the two walked forwards. Redscar lay on the back of his wolf, speaking quietly to Pyrite.

“New Goblins.”

“Mhm.”

“Tremborag’s.”

“Mm.”

“Trouble maybe.”

“Yup.”

Pyrite nodded absently, completely failing to carry his end of the conversation. He was too busy thinking.

Redscar, now there was a Goblin who’d done the right thing, at least in how Pyrite understood classes and leveling. Greydath had never been too clear on the subject no matter how Pyrite asked. Pyrite suspected that Greydath hadn’t known as much about that subject either—probably because he didn’t pay attention to any class outside of combat-related ones. But he had been clear on what made someone strong, and Redscar was an example of that.

He had only two classes as far as Pyrite knew. [Beast Tamer], and [Raid Leader]. Both were directly useful to whatever Redscar wanted to do and all his Skills were highly practical. Pyrite had seen Redscar fighting and short of Garen Redfang, Reiss, or Eater of Spears, he thought Redscar was the best fighter among all the Goblins marching here.

If it came to a fight between Pyrite and Redscar, well, Pyrite would win if he and Redscar both had more or less equal footing. But only the first time, because Redscar would be caught off guard. And because Pyrite would go for his wolf, Thunderfur, first.

Anyways, the point was that in terms of potential, Redscar had done himself all the favors he needed to keep getting stronger. Pyrite was certain that in time his two classes would merge if Redscar lived long enough. He’d become a—[Beastraider Leader] or something. Pyrite didn’t know. He was bad with coming up with names.

But what would Pyrite be? He had a mining class and he wasn’t going to put that to use any time soon. He had to fight. He had to be strong, and he’d wasted half his levels and Skills. All he had to show for it was his pouch of shiny gemstones, which were shiny but—

Pyrite was feeling at the little pouch of gems for one of the magical gemstones he had left—he’d lost the teleporting citrine years ago—when he felt someone poke him. He looked up and saw Redscar was glaring and poking him with the tip of his sheathed sword.

“What? Oh.”

The Hob realized he’d abandoned the conversation. He shrugged apologetically.

“Mountain City tribe will be trouble. But Chieftain can probably handle.”

“Yes. But needs protect.”

From Reiss? Garen? No—Pyrite realized Redscar meant from Tremborag’s Goblins stabbing Rags in the back. He scratched at his belly.

“True. But not yet. Tremborag Goblins will wait and see how strong Chieftain is. Form alliances. Or try. At least a few days before stabbing in back. Or challenge.”

“Sure?”

Pyrite nodded. Redscar relaxed slightly. He grinned, exposing his teeth.

“You know. You were in tribe once. With Greydath.”

He said the name almost reverentially. Pyrite winced. For someone like Redscar, meeting Greydath of Blades had to be awe-inspiring. Pyrite nodded warily.

“Did.”

He did not elaborate, and Redscar didn’t press him, despite clearly wanting to. The Goblin warrior just nodded and urged his Carn Wolf to keep up. Pyrite shut his mouth.

Secrets. It was un-Goblinlike to have them. But Pyrite had as many secrets as he had gemstones. He wished he could tell Redscar everything. And Rags. Especially Rags. It would make things so much easier.

And why not? It wasn’t like they were grand secrets. It was just that they were private things. Shameful. Mysterious. Clues that had made Pyrite doubt Greydath when he’d heard them, had driven him from Tremborag’s mountain. Knowledge that hurt and made Pyrite wonder whether Velan had been betrayed. Or whether he and Greydath had known something about Goblin Kings that no one else did.

It didn’t matter. Not right now. Rags was all that mattered. Pyrite forced himself back to reality. He looked up as he and Redscar approached their Chieftain. The little female Goblin was issuing orders as she rode. She was so small. So young. And yet, she led them. And Pyrite saw in her something worth following. A leader, or the makings of one worth fighting for. He only wished he were strong enough to be her second in command.

“Pyrite. Redscar.”

Rags looked up at the two of them and gave her customary put-upon scowl. She waved at another duo of Goblins, Poisonbite and Noears as they approached. The five Goblins stood together, and Pyrite realized that he was the only Hob among them.

Of course, Quietstab had been one of the lieutenants as well. But it was something, that a tribe this large and this strong could be led by more regular Goblins than Hobs. Pyrite walked alongside Noears on Rags’ left, nodding to the Goblin [Mage] and getting a grin in response. Rags muttered to herself as Poisonbite and Redscar took a position on her right and then came out with her first grievance.

“Food is low! More Goblins means more eat, and fat Tremborag ate too much!”

Pyrite nodded. The Goblins who’d flocked to Rags’ tribe had brought their supplies, but a quick inventory had revealed that they’d stockpiled a lot less than Rags had. They’d relied on the herds of cattle and supplies the Humans drove or dropped into their path for food, which wasn’t wise. Rags pointed at Noears, who was in charge of the bag of holding.

“Noears has problem with Hobs. What?”

The [Mage] frowned.

“The Mountain City Hobs keep asking for a snack, Chieftain.”

“No snack!”

He nodded.

“Said that, Chieftain. But they said—”

He broke off as Rags waved her arms in the air.

“No snacks! Eat when time to eat! If want snack, dig up bugs while marching or shoot birds! And move in formations! Must practice.”

Redscar nodded.

“Can practice tonight before sleep.”

Poisonbite looked uneasy.

“They not like that. Tremborag Goblins don’t practice. Only if lieutenants do. Not together.”

“Too bad. They practice or go away. Redscar you and Redfangs in charge of Mountain City tribe. They march in formation or you—”

Rags mimed smacking the back of a head. Redscar grinned and nodded. Rags turned to Pyrite.

“Need to figure out how to fight. Big tribe. Different strategy.”

Pyrite nodded. That was Rags. She’d already realized they couldn’t operate like they used to—holding ground with pikes and using the Redfangs and Hobs to break enemy lines while the crossbows operated from the back. Now she had a bunch of Goblins with traditional weapons who weren’t able to move and conduct her precise tactics. He leaned in.

“Mountain City tribe does know how to fight, Chieftain. But knows Tremborag way of fighting. You saw. Regular Goblins go in, then Hobs. Can teach them how to fight Flooded Waters tribe style with same tactics. Just have to make groups with leaders.”

“Like they have.”

Redscar and the others looked at Pyrite. He nodded.

“But different. Make factions—sword and shield faction, archer faction, naked Hobgoblin [Shaman] faction—”

Rags snorted and glanced towards Ulvama. The [Shaman] was riding on a wagon, having refused to walk. Pyrite didn’t know why she’d joined Rags instead of Garen—the Hob would have never gone to Reiss, he was certain—but he regarded her as a huge asset, albeit a dangerous one. Rags nodded.

“Good idea. But will work?”

“Appoint strong Goblins as leaders. Choose from old lieutenants for new ones. Other Goblins fight them instead of you.”

Rags brightened up at the prospect. She looked at Pyrite approvingly and nodded. Redscar, Noears, and Poisonbite all liked the idea too.

“Good! Will do. Send Tremborag lieutenants here. They compete. I pick.”

Rags cackled, and Pyrite wondered if she’d have an impromptu competition on the march. It wouldn’t be the worst idea. She pointed around, giving orders.

“Redscar, go tell Tremborag Goblins. Have Redfangs divide up. Noears, go to supplies and hit stupid Goblins trying to steal. Poisonbite, go solve problems over there.”

She waved a claw. The other three Goblins nodded. Poisonbite sighed as she got what was the worst job in any tribe—being the one the Hobs went to when they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve. That was how it worked. Regular Goblins solved a problem or went to a Hob, who in turn solved it or went to a smarter Hob or a leader like Poisonbite in this case. And if she couldn’t solve it, it went to Rags.

The others dispersed, leaving only Rags and Pyrite for a moment. And the hundreds of Goblins marching around them in earshot, but they didn’t count. Pyrite and Rags glanced at each other. Then both simultaneously looked across the heads of marching Goblins.

“There.”

Pyrite pointed out two figures, marching on their left and right respectively. One was a Hob riding a Carn Wolf, leading a much smaller tribe, most of whom were mounted. Garen Redfang looked furious as he stared at Rags’ suddenly engorged tribe. And on the right rode another Hob, seated on the back of a headless undead spider. Reiss, the Goblin Lord. His army had grown as well, but now it was rivaled by Rags’ tribe. He stared ahead, lost in thought.

“Garen angry.”

Rags smiled gleefully. Pyrite nodded.

“But not cause trouble now. Too small.”

It was odd thinking of the famed leader of the Redfang tribe that way. But in a very real sense, yesterday had shown that to everyone. Garen hadn’t inherited Tremborag’s warriors as he’d clearly expected. They’d gone to Rags instead, and even to Reiss. Because, in a way no Goblin could quite articulate, for multiple reasons, Garen was wanting as a leader. The Hob was a mighty warrior, perhaps the strongest of all the Goblins who rode here. Certainly in physical combat now that Tremborag was dead. But he could not be a Chieftain like Rags or Reiss. But the Goblin Lord—

Rags’ smile faded as she looked at Reiss. If Garen was not a danger now, at least in the sense of threatening her tribe, Reiss was a different matter. She looked at Pyrite.

“Last night. What he do?”

“I don’t know.”

Pyrite stared at Reiss. Last night after Tremborag’s death, the Goblin Lord had been possessed by something. They’d all seen it. At first it hadn’t been clear, but as Reiss had begun walking around and looking at the Humans, at the Goblins here, he’d started talking to himself. Only, one of the voices that left his mouth wasn’t his own. And his posture, his way of moving, all of it, had changed.

It might not have been obvious to another species, but to Goblins it had been apparent that someone else was in Reiss. Talking to the Goblin Lord. And it had not taken any stretch of the imagination to figure out who. When they’d realized what was going on, all the Goblins—even Reiss’ own tribe—had given him a wide berth.

Pyrite remembered Rags wavering over going up to Reiss last night. He’d talked her out of it, not least because when Garen had found out what was happening, he’d drawn his sword and stared Reiss down. The Goblin Lord and Necromancer had both ignored him, though. Pyrite had wondered if Garen would charge Reiss, but the other Hob had held himself back.

It was wise, too; Pyrite had never felt so ill at ease around another Goblin. Whatever had been looking out of Reiss’ eyes had been cold and dangerous. It had been late last night when Reiss had finally stopped talking to himself. Near the end, his words had gone silent and Pyrite suspected he’d cast a spell to avoid being overheard. But whatever he’d discussed with his master, the Necromancer, nothing had come of it so far.

“He said he would ask his master about Humans. About what they do. Think he knows?”

Rags looked speculatively at Reiss. Pyrite shrugged.

“Could ask. Want me?”

He saw Rags hesitate. Then she shook her head.

“I’ll ask later. After choose new lieutenants. You go ahead lead tribe forwards.”

“Yes, Chieftain.”

Pyrite nodded. He wasn’t sure he was relieved or not. He stared again at Reiss, and then glanced at Garen. Now Tremborag was dead, there were only three Chieftains left. And while Rags was in a better place than before—Pyrite didn’t like it. As her second-in-command he felt her position was precarious. Both from within, with Tremborag’s Goblins, and from the other two tribes.

“Chieftain.”

Rags paused as she began to ride towards Redfang, who had already marshaled Tremborag’s old lieutenants and had them moving her way. She shot a quizzical glance back at Pyrite. He nodded to the approaching Goblins.

“Tremborag Goblins think like Tremborag did. Respect strength.”

She scowled.

“Will respect me.

He nodded.

“Yes, Chieftain. But need to see tribe is strong. Chieftain is strong.”

A worried look crossed Rags’ face. She was strong, for a Goblin of her age, but both she and Pyrite knew she was far, far weaker than someone like Reiss, or Garen. Or even Redscar.

“How can show?”

Pyrite smiled. She didn’t see that she’d already done some of the showing, in the brief attack against Tremborag’s forces yesterday. He dipped his head.

“I will, Chieftain. After choose lieutenants, let me.”

Rags studied Pyrite. Then she nodded slowly. He walked away, keeping his back straight. The enchanted battleaxe felt heavy on his shoulder. That was right. He had chosen poorly with his classes, his Skills, and he had wasted too many years of his life. But he could still be her second-in-command. He could still show Tremborag’s Goblins what they needed to see. And when he couldn’t, when his mistakes caught up with him—

Well, that was why Redscar was around, wasn’t it? Pyrite moved faster, striding through the Goblins until he reached the front. And at last, he stared ahead and saw not the backs of Goblins and Hobgoblins, but the open sky, the High Passes—

And the Humans.

There was an advance force moving ahead of the Goblins, guiding them and ensuring that if they made a break for it, they’d be penned in. There were smaller groups of riders to the left and right as well, acting as guides while the vast majority of Humans marched behind the Goblins. Pyrite stared ahead at the Humans, who were leading them on a track right past the High Passes. He shrugged, sighed, and began to trudge after them.

Rags had ordered him to lead the tribe while she handled matters. It sounded like a lot of work, but in fact, it was the easiest thing to do out of all the jobs—assuming nothing came up. In fact, it was easy.

Here was how Pyrite did it. He walked and the tribe followed. The Hob set an easy pace; thanks to Rags’ Skill, the tribe could fast walk rather than jog and still move fast enough for the Human’s needs. Every time he moved left or right, the entire tribe rippled as it changed directions to follow him, wagons turning, Goblins riding horses moving left, smaller Goblins changing course, following the Goblins ahead of them.

Pyrite kept walking, undeterred by the importance of his job. He glanced at Reiss’ army keeping pace with him and saw a tall figure approaching him. He grinned. Someone had noticed he was in front and was coming to see him.

Eater of Spears strode towards Pyrite, followed by Reiss’ army. Pyrite walked left and the two met, both of their tribes walking side-by-side now. He glanced up at the much taller Hob and grunted. Eater of Spears flicked his ears and gave Pyrite a pleased grin.

Eater of Spears was slowly striding along and the Goblins in armor were marching hard to keep up. The huge Hob was the biggest that Pyrite had ever seen—aside from Tremborag. He looked like someone had carved muscles out of a green wall and only added a head as an afterthought. But Eater of Spears was deceptive. Much like Pyrite, actually. Perhaps that was why the two got along so well.

“Pyrite.”

“Eater of Spears.”

The two nodded at each other. They didn’t need to say much. Both understood the economy of words, and so they kept their chatter to a minimum. But they did touch on important topics, delicately saying what they could without betraying their Chieftains’ trust. Pyrite nodded back towards Reiss.

“Necromancer?”

“Mhm.”

Eater of Spear looked troubled. Pyrite nodded.

“Happen often?”

“Sometimes. Is good stay away.”

“Dangerous?”

“Mhm. Drake got hit by spell.”

“Not good.”

“Mm. But also good.”

“Really? Necromancer uses Goblins. How good?”

At this point Eater of Spears had to break their nearly monosyllabic rapport.

“Reiss is wise. Necromancer does not know all. He sees, but not everything. But he tells Reiss what he knows, about the Humans. About their plans. And now Reiss has his plan.”

Pyrite’s ears perked up. A plan? He didn’t like that. Not one bit. Casually, he looked at Eater of Spears.

“What kind of plan?”

The Hob looked down at Pyrite and shook his head reluctantly. He was barehanded, unlike Pyrite who carried an battleaxe. He didn’t need weapons; Pyrite thought he could kill anything he needed to just by punching it. If Redscar had to fight Eater of Spears he might lose unless that enchanted sword he had was capable of slicing through the Hob’s bones. If Pyrite had to fight…well, he’d want the drop on Eater of Spears. Preferably from the top of a cliff with a bow and arrow.

“Cannot say. Reiss will say to your Chieftain.”

Pyrite nodded. He’d expected as much. But he silently glanced back towards Reiss. If he had to fight Reiss, or if Reiss fought Rags…Pyrite didn’t enjoy playing out life-and-death battles in his head. But as Rags’ second-in-command he had to protect her. Which meant he had to assume the worst.

He noticed Eater of Spears looking at him and realized he was staring at Reiss for too long. Pyrite said a few Human curse words inside his head. He’d fallen for the same trap people usually fell into around him! Never forget the big Hob isn’t stupid. To cover for his mistake, he fished at his belt and pulled out a sack. When he opened it, Eater of Spear sniffed. A savory smell was coming from the bag, the scent of roasted meat. Pyrite pulled an object out and held it up.

“Want snack?”

Eater of Spears stared down. Pyrite was holding a rat. A dead and roasted rat. He blinked.

“Where find that?”

“Underground.”

Pyrite grinned. After a second, Eater of Spears laughed.

“Good place for them. You dig?”

“Mhm. Have more. Here.”

Pyrite handed the morsel up to Eater of Spears, who delicately crunched the morsel whole. The Goblins from both tribes looked jealous, so Pyrite opened his bag and passed more rats around, much to the delight of all present. He had over three dozen rats in his sack, many small, but some of a good size. Pyrite was relieved to get rid of them as they were heavy, but he’d been saving them for this purpose. He supposed this was one use of his Skills, a small boon.

That was because for Pyrite, digging was easy. Pyrite had found a nest of burrowing rats practically right next to him when he’d settled in for a nap. With his ability to hunt for gemstones, locating their nest and plucking them out had been easy. The real trick had been finding a [Cook] willing to accept only two of the rodents in exchange for roasting them. Most wanted three or four, but Pyrite knew the value of a good rat.

“Mm. Good. I have nothing to give.”

Eater of Spears looked guilty. He tried to object, but Pyrite made him take three more rats. The former Goldstone Chieftain shrugged.

“Isn’t hard to get rats. Digging easy. Not like rocks. Have to use pickaxe for that. Very tricky to get.”

“Can’t make?”

Pyrite shook his head.

“Stone ones break too easy. Need iron or steel. Have to take from Humans. Very hard to sneak.”

“How do it?”

“Get shiny gold rocks. Dump in mining camp. Shout. Let Humans find and start huge fight. Then grab pickaxes and run.”

He winked and Eater of Spears grinned. Both Hobs laughed and Eater of Spears slapped his chest, making a thwacking sound that one didn’t normally expect to come from flesh. Pyrite eyed the Hob. Now those were muscles. Pyrite was confident of his strength, but sometimes he wished he’d been able to turn into a pillar of physical might like Eater of Spears or even Tremborag.

Greydath had told him that Tremborag’s ability to turn into a monster hadn’t been due to a Skill or class. He’d probably been enhanced by his class, but his ability was actually part of Goblin heritage, albeit largely unknown. In fact, Tremborag had been weak according to Greydath, which was why he couldn’t maintain the transformation. But Eater of Spears was in his prime, and so he had to be getting close. If Pyrite told him—

No. They were friends, but Pyrite wasn’t sure. The Hob kept his mouth shut as Eater of Spears finished laughing and spoke.

“My tribe, Rockbreakers Tribe, was not so good as yours. I told you. Not enough food for…”

He indicated Pyrite’s layers of fat, clearly envious. Pyrite nodded, although he privately thought that any tribe that could sustain someone of Eater of Spears’ size had to be doing well. He and Eater of Spears had swapped stories before. Apparently, before he’d joined Reiss, Eater of Spears had led a tribe of less than eighty Goblins, almost all Hobs. They’d been the terror of the cliffs and beaten Wyverns to death for food. Eater of Spears crunched another rat and went on.

“Anyways. One time, had to get healing potions for bad injury on many after big fight with Wyverns. So went to Drake city. Small city, but dangerous. Had to scare away Drakes on walls, but not enough stones.”

“So what did you do?”

Pyrite smiled. Eater of Spears grinned and flex an arm.

“Got dead Wyvern heads. Threw them. Drakes scream and run, and we climb walls.”

Pyrite chortled. Eater of Spears smiled, and then his face fell, grew somber.

“Had to kill many Drakes after that. Got potions, but Drakes sent army. Tribe had to flee. Go high up into mountains. Bad things there. Worse than Wyverns. Over half tribe died.”

The two Hobs felt silent. Pyrite had known similar disasters. He searched for something to say, and then raised his voice lightly.

“One time, when mining, I found a shiny yellow gem. When I reach for it, it disappeared. Found it lying on ground behind me. Teleporting magic stone. I chase after it—”

Eater of Spears brightened a bit as Pyrite told the embellished story of how he’d nearly died when chasing after the elusive teleportation stone and figured out a way to stop it from moving about. The two Hobs kept swapping stories for nearly an hour as they walked, until both spotted something unusual happening ahead of them.

The High Passes was a gaping rift, a steep incline that quickly became cliffs, leaving only a valley between two mountains. It was clearly the result of some fissure in the mountains, perhaps caused by a seismic rift in the past. Whatever the case, it was narrow, winding and jagged. The Humans had been steering the Goblins past it without issue—until something came out of the High Passes for a snack.

“What’s that?”

Eater of Spears pointed at the advance group of Humans. They were blowing their horns and racing about, clearly fighting something. Pyrite checked his grip on his battleaxe.

“Don’t know. Redfangs!

He bellowed and both Garen’s tribe and the Redfang warriors in Rags’ tribe looked around. Pyrite pointed and a pair of his warriors took off. Not to be outdone, Garen pointed and a band of his warriors raced ahead as well. Both Pyrite and Eater of Spears exchanged a look and stopped, halting the progress of the Goblins. It was risky, but they weren’t about to advance without knowing what was going on.

The scouts came back within minutes. The pair of Redfangs Pyrite had sent halted in front of the two Hobs. One of them pointed towards the fighting Humans.

“Eater Goats!”

“Eater Goats?”

Pyrite and Eater of Spears exchanged a look, Pyrite’s of concern, and Eater of Spears’ a blank one. Pyrite knew of the dangerous, all-consuming goats of the High Passes. He’d killed a few that had wandered into his tribe’s territory and he knew the goats, while not individually as powerful as say, a Hob, were more than capable of ripping anything to shreds given enough numbers. They could eat a Gargoyle and they were without fear.

And there were lots of them. Thousands, in fact. They’d charged into the Humans from the side, completely ignoring the spells and arrows that had blown a number of their brethren apart. Now they were engaged and the Humans were getting the worst of it. Their horses were not at home fighting enemies that low to the ground, and the Eater Goats could jump and chew through armor. Plus, they screamed.

The Goblins listened to the report with no lack of satisfaction. At last the Humans were in trouble! Pyrite was about to suggest to Eater of Spears they get moving and let the Humans shield them when he heard horns blowing from behind. He saw the Humans break up and race away.

“That’s bad.”

Eater of Spears grumbled. The Humans were running, and the Eater Goats were breaking away from their pursuit of the faster horses. They’d just spotted their second dinner in the form of the Goblin army and they were charging towards them, never mind that there were only a few thousand goats and hundreds of thousands of Goblins. To them, that just meant there was more to eat.

Goblins!

Eater of Spears roared and the Goblin Lord’s army turned to face the goats. Pyrite strode through the ranks of his Goblins as well, and heard a familiar voice.

Crossbows and bows front! Big shields forwards! Hobs and warriors behind! Redfangs to side!

Rags surged forwards, shouting and pointing. Her tribe set itself up, preparing for the goats. They were right in the path of the oncoming monsters. Pyrite took his position behind the line of pikes, thinking fast. Rags was employing both her old and new Goblins, but she was relying on a rank of Goblins with tower shields to slow the goats down while the bows went to work. She screamed an order and the first ranks of crossbows and bows fired.

A stream of arrows rained down and struck the first wave of goats, eliciting braying screams. Some fell, but even the ones with arrows sticking out of their legs and torsos kept running. Rags shouted and another volley fell, and another. The first rank of Eater Goats struck the Goblins with shields and bounced back. Some leapt, but were skewered before they landed. The Eater Goats circled as they tried to find a way into the defensive formation. They nipped and bit—the Goblins with tower shields held their ground.

“Wait! Wait!

Rags shouted at the Goblins warriors pushing the goats back. Pyrite saw a wing of her archers and warriors moving to the left side. She was going to pin the Eater Goats down and shoot them to death without risking her warriors. That was a smart move. Someone—Redscar—must have told Rags how dangerous it was to fight Eater Goats up close.

Pyrite saw it all happening as the Eater Goats began biting through the shields. Goblins shouted and screamed as they tried to force the goats back. He knew some of them would fall, but this tactic Rags had come up with was the safest. Only—Pyrite looked around.

Every eye was on Rags. Tremborag’s former Goblins were assessing her. They could see she was a genius when it came to strategy, but like Pyrite had told her, it wasn’t enough. They needed to see strength as well as intelligence. Pyrite stared at the Eater Goats fighting the Goblins with shields. Then he groaned.

“My turn.”

The Hobs around him looked confused. Pyrite turned to them and took a deep breath. He bellowed.

Hobs!

They straightened. Pyrite pointed ahead and roared.

Charge! Shields back! Archers back! Hobs charge behind me! Redfangs charge!

The Goblins gaped and Pyrite heard an exclamation from Rags. This was not part of the plan! But Pyrite was already moving. He charged forwards and Goblins scattered in front of him. The first rank of shields was folding as the Eater Goats leapt up, biting, ripping at the wood and metal shields, Pyrite thrust a terrified Goblin aside and raised his battleaxe.

There were thousands of the goats. They screamed, a hoarse, piercing shriek magnified from a thousand throats. Pyrite roared and charged at them. The Eater Goats didn’t expect that.

“Forwards!”

The enchanted battleaxe left Pyrite’s shoulder. He swung it and flame burst from the edge of the axe. Five Eater Goats leaping for him were caught by the swing, and the pieces landed around Pyrite. He charged forwards, kicking a goat head-over-hooves and bringing his axe down on another. The goat gurgled and Pyrite swept his axe.

Forwards!

Hobs charged through the ranks of Goblins behind him. They clashed with the front rank of Goblins, but Pyrite was still running forwards. Eater Goats were all around him. They leapt and Pyrite swung his axe. Greydath had taught him how to use weapons. Swinging with huge strikes would get Pyrite killed. And it wasn’t necessary—his enchanted axe could cut through the goats easily. He swung the axe as fast as possible instead, covering the area ahead of him. High, low, high, low—

It was like he was a farmer with a scythe and the Eater Goats were wheat. But the wheat moved and bit. Pyrite roared as a goat got past his guard and tore a chunk off his shoulder. But he didn’t stop. He kept moving, swinging the axe with one arm as he tore the goat—and more of his flesh—off and hurled it to the ground. If he stopped they’d swarm him. He could only move forwards and trust the Hobs to his back, forwards and forwards, screaming that one order.

Forwards! FORWARDS!

Where were the Redfangs? He should have called them up earlier. Something bit Pyrite on the leg and he kicked, shaking it off. Blood ran down his arms and he could smell burning, the stench of cooked meat. At the very least they’d have food. Pyrite saw the goats leaping at him, swung his axe. He slipped—

And a bounding red wolf leapt and bit the Eater Goat, snatching it out of the air. The massive wolf, Thunderfur, worried the goat and threw it to one side. On its back, Redscar turned, his blade flashing. He leaned down and sliced an Eater Goat across the neck, killing it instantly, then turned and stabbed a leaping goat through the mouth. Redfangs bounded past him, screaming war cries and attacking the goats from the side.

“Pyrite!”

Redscar bellowed. Pyrite stood up and raised his axe. He swung it wide and the goats in front of him vanished. Redscar blinked as Pyrite pointed.

Attack! Don’t stop attacking!

He charged forwards and Redscar and the Redfangs were with him. The Hobs could barely keep up as they scythed through the Eater Goats. Pyrite kept running, swinging the heavy axe though his arms burned and his chest hurt. He only stopped when he looked around and realized there was nothing ahead of him. He looked back and saw the last of the Eater Goats being finished off behind him.

A red trail marked his passage through the monsters. Pyrite leaned on his axe, gasping, then remembered. He stood up straight as Redscar rode back towards him. The [Raid Leader] had an odd look in his eyes as he fished something from his belt and tossed it at Pyrite.

“Here.”

Pyrite caught it and blinked down at the green healing potion. He looked down and realized the goats had torn chunks out of his arms, shoulders, and legs. Absently, he drank the potion and tossed the bottle down.

“How many lost?”

“Few. Eater Goats got surprised. No good when defending. Think they started to run.”

Redscar grinned. He patted Thunderfur and let the Carn Wolf begin to eat one of the goat’s corpses in front of him. But he was still looking at Pyrite. He wiped his blade with one hand.

“That was—good. Impressive. Not like you.”

He nodded to Pyrite. The Hob silently wiped blood from his arms and chest. He was drenched in it. Pyrite nodded shortly.

“I know. Had to do.”

“Why?”

“To show them.”

Pyrite pointed. The Hobs were panting, while the Redfang warriors of Rags’ tribe were cleaning their weapons or letting their Carn Wolves eat, tending to their injuries. But the Goblins behind them—the Hobs from Tremborag’s tribe—they were all staring at Pyrite. At the Hob who’d just cut a hole through a thousand Eater Goats by himself.

Redscar grinned at Pyrite. He understood. It was only Rags who didn’t. She rode up to Pyrite, swearing and looking ready to murder him.

“What that? That was not plan! Why attack?”

“Pyrite showing off, Chieftain.”

Redscar grinned and saluted Rags with his sword. She gave him an evil look and then looked at Pyrite.

“Why?”

Pyrite shrugged tiredly. His arms hurt.

“Have to show them, Chieftain. Show them you are smart, but also strong. I am second-in-command. Have to be strong. Show them—and show others.”

“Others?”

Rags looked around blankly. Then she noticed the other tribes.

The Eater Goats had split up in their attack. Most had gone for Rags’ tribe, but two groups had split off and attacked the other two tribes. The last of them were dying on Reiss’ side now.

The Goblin Lord’s troops had fought the Eater Goats well, although without half as much flashy tactics or aggression as Rags’ tribe. Eater of Spears was pounding the Eater Goats flat while the warriors in black armor supported him. On the other side, Garen’s warriors were already dissecting the Eater Goats that had attacked them.

“Fast.”

Pyrite murmured. He hadn’t even seen Garen’s tribe fight. Redscar shook his head.

“They didn’t attack. Garen attacked them when he saw you—”

He mimed Pyrite swinging his axe. Rags and Pyrite both looked confused.

“Why not attack?”

Redscar looked a bit sad. He glanced over at Garen then tapped a streak of red on his green skin. He had a slash of crimson paint running down his left cheek.

“Warpaint. Garen tribe has it. Mark of Redfangs. Eater Goats see, they don’t attack. Know it means death.”

“Really?”

Rags blinked. Pyrite saw Redscar was right—every Goblin in Garen’s tribe was wearing their signature war paint. Rags frowned, musing.

“Good to know. Could use, maybe.”

Then she looked over at Pyrite and scowled again. She poked one of his healing wounds and he winced. Redscar chortled as he left them alone to order the Goblins to butcher the dead goats for food. Rags and Pyrite looked at each other.

“Took big risk.”

“Yes, Chieftain. But did show them. I think.”

Pyrite felt at his shoulder, pulled out a tooth so the flesh could regrow. He flicked it to the ground and looked at her.

“Did it work? Did it seem strong?”

He hoped it had, or else he’d taken a big risk for nothing. Rags hesitated, then smiled.

“Looked like scary monster to me. Scary, big, fat Hob.”

“But not smelly.”

“But not smelly.”

They laughed. Pyrite walked back, noting the difference in the way the Goblins looked at him. One of the Hobs he recognized, a lieutenant of Tremborag’s, had been part of the fighting. Pyrite slowed and stared at him. What was his name?

“Hammersteel?”

The Hob blinked. He nodded slowly. He had a wicked maul and steel cuirass on his front, as well as a reputation for picking fights.

“Pyrite. Good fight. Knew Flooded Waters tribe was right choice.”

“You think so?”

Pyrite tilted his head quizzically. Hammersteel grinned and spat.

“Think so! Garen not smart, but Chieftain Rags is. Better than traitor lord. And has strong second! Pyrite with the axe!”

He pointed to the axe and cackled. Pyrite smiled a bit. Hammersteel looked envious. He made a circumspect gesture.

“I hold?”

Pyrite nodded. Hammersteel approached—and was promptly shoved out of the way. Ulvama appeared, smiling widely. Pyrite blinked. The [Shaman] of Tremborag’s tribe wore very little in the way of clothing, and instead had colorful paint on her skin instead. She smiled seductively at Pyrite as she kicked Hammersteel, forcing him back.

“Strong Hob. Didn’t know so strong! Good second for Chieftain Rags. I am Ulvama. You are Pyrite? We should talk. Meet each other.”

She laid a hand on Pyrite’s arm, brushing at the blood and ignoring the flies buzzing around Pyrite. He noticed the flies though, and resolved to wash himself as soon as possible. He hated being dirty. Pyrite stared at Ulvama’s soft touch and grunted.

“We have met before. Long time ago.”

Ulvama’s smile slipped.

“We have?”

“Mhm. Back in Tremborag tribe. I was Goblin. Small. You were small Goblin too. Apprentice to Chief Shaman. Remember you getting in trouble for using paints.”

Ulvama’s jaw dropped. Hammersteel cackled with laughter. She turned and pointed a finger at his groin, and he yelped as the air grew subzero rapidly and fled. Ulvama turned back to Pyrite. She tilted her head.

“You were Tremborag’s?”

“Yes.”

Pyrite met her eyes. Ulvama hesitated. He could see her thinking. Her gambit to tie herself to the highest-ranked Goblin in Rags’ tribe wasn’t going well. But she didn’t give up—mainly because she had no choice. Noears had been in Tremborag’s tribe so he was well aware of Ulvama’s ways—and he didn’t get along with Tremborag’s Goblins to begin with. It was why he’d left and why he was called Noears to begin with. Poisonbite was female, as was Rags, and neither of them were interested in other females in a way that would help Ulvama. And Redscar liked male Goblins. So Ulvama tried again.

“You want sex?”

Goblins didn’t do much subtlety. Ulvama’s first attempt had been as subtle as it got. Pyrite shook his head.

“No.”

“Why not?”

She stared at Pyrite suspiciously. He shrugged.

“Too busy. And don’t like you. You go back to wagons now. We keep moving.”

He shooed Ulvama away, ignoring her hissing and threats. Pyrite walked back to the front of his tribe. Eater of Spears was there, rubbing at a chunk taken out of one bicep. Pyrite nodded and began walking. The tribe marched after him, hurriedly packing away the meat from the dead goats. It was just one thing in a day.

But it mattered. Pyrite could sense Eater of Spears looking at him. The Hob absently swatted a fly trying to lick blood from his skin.

“What?”

“Never saw that before. Strong. Cut goats apart so quick even Garen Redfang looked scared. Why do it?”

Pyrite paused. He looked around and saw Garen Redfang was staring at him. He shrugged and looked ahead.

“It was a warning.”

“To Garen? To Tremborag Goblins?”

“To everyone.”

Pyrite looked up at Eater of Spears. The Hob paused. Then he nodded. The two walked on. Pyrite found his water skin and tried to wipe off the blood with a little bit of water. Eater of Spears silently offered him his water skin and Pyrite grunted in thanks. He noticed Eater of Spears hadn’t healed the bites he’d taken—not that the Eater Goats had been able to do much damage to his skin.

“Need potion?”

“No. Have, but not waste. Will heal quick.”

The Hob shook his head and tapped a bottle on his belt. He had three potions, actually. A sign of how important he was. For the first time, Pyrite noticed that Eater of Spears had a number of objects on his belt. A little band of feathers, a token of some sort, his own belt pouches, the water skin—and two glittering hatchets.

“What are those?”

Eater of Spears blinked down at his belt. Then he grinned.

“Throwing axes. Weak enchanted. Sharp. Reiss gave as reward.”

“Any good with axes?”

Pyrite was intrigued. He glanced back at Reiss, and then at Garen, and had another thought. Another bad idea, or perhaps, a good one. He raised his eyebrows and Eater of Spears grinned.

“Have Skill. And class! Was a [Thrower] before. Can hit flying Wyverns with rocks. Don’t level class much anymore, though. But this good for [Mages]. Threw at fast-fast flying pink thing, but missed.”

Flying pink what? Pyrite decided to ignore that. He pursed his lips, and then spoke casually.

“I have another class. [Blademaster]. Only Level 3, though.”

[Blademaster]?

Eater of Spears’ brows shot up. He looked impressed, as anyone might. Pyrite shrugged.

“Was taught by Greydath of Blades. You know?”

“I do. He taught you?”

“Yes. But no good with sword. Axes better.”

Pyrite sighed. No matter how hard he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to get past Greydath’s ‘basic’ training. Which was still something. He looked speculatively at Eater of Spears and decided to tell him another secret.

“Trained a bit. Didn’t learn much, but…in fight. I can see when someone is going to hit. And where, sometimes. Not a Skill. I learned it from Greydath.”

Really?

Eater of Spears was fascinated. His eyes flickered, and Pyrite was sure that information was going straight to Reiss later. Not necessarily maliciously—but it was definitely important. The big Hob looked at Pyrite, and the Hob waited. Wait—wait—

He saw the movement and raised a fist to block as Eater of Spears threw a fist. The Hob stopped before he hit Pyrite, which was a relief. Pyrite had known the punch was coming, but blocking it—

Eater of Spears blinked and some of the Goblins who’d been watching and listening murmured in awe. No doubt they’d pass this on as well. That was how the Goblin social network functioned. But Pyrite didn’t care about them. He focused on Eater of Spears and smiled.

“Told you.”

The Hob grinned, delighted. He nearly forgot to keep walking as he stared at Pyrite.

“How? Can teach?”

“Very hard. Took long time to master, even with Greydath show. All about muscles. Arm position. Stance. Easy on Eater of Spears because muscles are easy to see.”

Pyrite smiled and Eater of Spears laughed. The Hob smiled too. And in his mind, from his glittering treasury of secrets, Pyrite plucked a pair of gems and offered them up. Two secrets he’d given. And in return, he gained something back, invisible though it might be.

Trust. Eater of Spears quizzed Pyrite on how the trick worked, and about Greydath. Pyrite answered politely without going into details, and then casually pointed at Eater of Spears’ axes when he found a break in the conversation.

“Greydath taught more than just sword. Like axes. Not Skill, but can throw. Let me try?”

Eater of Spears hesitated, but then he willingly unhooked an axe and handed it to Pyrite. The Hob grunted as he lifted the throwing axe. It was superbly balanced and it felt sharp enough to cut through anything. A gift indeed. He looked around, spotted a target, and then turned and hurled the axe. Eater of Spears roared in surprise and Goblins looked up and threw themselves flat.

Ulvama was sitting in her wagon, growling to herself, when the blade of the axe embedded itself into the wooden frame next to her. Pyrite winced—he hadn’t meant to throw it that close. He saw the [Shaman]’s eyes go wide.

Ulvama screeched, leapt away from the quivering axe, and then stared across the heads of Goblins at Pyrite. She starting screaming insults at him. Pyrite ignored her as he lowered his hand. He looked around and saw that every Goblin around him, Reiss’ Goblins and Rags’ tribe, were staring at him with open mouths. He looked up at Eater of Spears, who was gaping at him.

“Good at throwing things too. Want to play game?”

The Hob blinked, then he bellowed with laughter and slapped Pyrite on the back, nearly knocking him over. The axe was returned and Eater of Spears handed the axe to Pyrite. The two began throwing at objects ahead of them, aiming at birds, rocks, any target that came to mind.

Pyrite threw economically, Eater of Spears with less accuracy but enough force to split almost any object in two or shatter stone. It was just as well the axes were enchanted. So the two Hobs walked together and Pyrite knew he was at the center of attention. He’d done all he could. He’d prepared, and sent…a warning. As clear as he could make it.

He just hoped it would be enough.

 

—-

 

“[Deathbolt].”

The black light had struck Osthia. She had fallen as it sapped the life, the very core of energy from her. She lay on the ground, motionless, breathless, eyes still open wide and mouth slightly agape. The Necromancer studied her for a moment, then walked off.

It took a while for the Goblins to dare retrieve her body. When they did, she was loaded onto a wagon with other dead Goblins and animals, to be made into food for later. After all, they couldn’t waste food. There Osthia lay as night passed to day, until the wagon was bumping and threatening to knock her onto the ground.

The Goblin driver was dozing until Snapjaw rode over and snapped an order. The Hob leapt onto the wagon and found Osthia’s corpse. She eyed the black ring on Osthia’s claws, bent, tugged it off, and waited.

Nothing happened. Snapjaw scratched her head anxiously. She bent to listen by Osthia’s mouth and heard no intake of breath. She poked Osthia in the chest, then poked her in the cheek. Snapjaw gulped, then saw one eye swivel towards her.

“Do you mind?”

The Hob nearly leapt off the wagon. She lurched back as Osthia sat up, gasping and coughing. The Drake spat—several dead flies shot out of her mouth. She looked around, blinked at the sunlight streaming down, and then turned to Snapjaw.

“What in the name of the Ancestors—how long was I out?”

“Half day.”

Snapjaw shrugged. Osthia gaped.

“Half a day? Your leader told me I’d be recovered in minutes! Do you know how dangerous it is to keep someone under the [False Death] spell that long? Why the hell—”

“I forgot.”

The female Hob picked at her teeth with one claw, looking embarrassed. Osthia inhaled, and spat another fly out.

“You forgot? You forg—

“Necromancer took long time to go. Long time. So forgot. Remembered before you got eaten.”

Snapjaw said it as if that righted all wrongs. Osthia balled her claws into a fist, then looked around.

“He’s gone? Then where’s Reiss?”

The Hob glared at the Drake. She enunciated her words carefully.

Goblin Lord Reiss is busy. Big thinking after plan.”

“Plan? What plan?”

Osthia looked at Snapjaw. The Hob closed her mouth. Osthia tried to sit up, but her body refused to obey her.

What plan? What are the Humans going to do? What is the Necromancer doing? What is Reiss—”

She was trying to get up. Snapjaw scratched her head, and then brightened.

“Oh! Remember the second thing I was supposed to do.”

“What?”

Osthia turned to glare at her. Snapjaw scooted forwards. She picked up the black ring, its charge exhausted, and then looked at Osthia. Reiss had come up with the ring after worrying she might be killed. He was reasonably certain she could survive a single [Deathbolt]—it killed all those under Level 30 when Az’kerash used it, and all those under Level 15 when he used it—which meant it would take multiple casts to kill Osthia. But he hadn’t wanted to risk it. She didn’t know why he liked the Drake so much, but orders were orders.

What second thing?”

The Drake glared at Snapjaw. The Hobgoblin shrugged.

“This.”

She brought her head forwards and head-butted Osthia. The Drake’s head snapped back and she reeled.

“You—”

She tried to spit acid, but Snapjaw struck her in the face with a second head-butt, then a third. She shook her head as Osthia fell back, unconscious. Snapjaw looked down at the prone Drake and sighed.

“Reiss says sorry.”

Then she turned to the Goblin driver.

“Put in chains. Hands, feet, mouth. Hobs guard. Don’t let run.”

She hopped off the wagon and onto the back of her waiting horse. Snapjaw rode away, rubbing her aching head. She headed straight for Reiss, visible on the back of his shield spider. Snapjaw couldn’t wait for him to tell the others, so she could tell Poisonbite. It was time. It was finally time. She grinned, showing all of her metallic, enhanced teeth.

Time for war.

 

—-

 

The second Goblin was Reiss. He sat on his Shield Spider and thought. He thought about tactics, about a city called Liscor, about the undead and the Chosen of Az’kerash. And most of all, he thought about Garen. He didn’t look up, lost in thought as he was. When Eater of Spears sent a Goblin to relay his curious exchanges with Pyrite, Reiss barely took notice, though the news would have fascinated him another time. When Snapjaw told him about Osthia, he just looked up.

“Thank you, Snapjaw.”

She grinned at him. Reiss did not smile back. He couldn’t feel happy about Osthia. But it had to be done and he didn’t have the courage to confront her. She would not understand. Or worse, she might understand all too well. Either way, she would have tried to kill him. Because he was going to take Liscor. Reiss was only afraid—

That he’d have to kill Garen to do it.

Tell them. Force them to kneel, and bring one army to take Liscor. His master’s last injunction echoed in Reiss’ mind. He knew it had to be done. His army was strong, but Rags had an army roughly two thirds as large as his. And Garen? Well, his warriors were few, but they were elite.

How had it happened? Tremborag’s tribe had gone to Rags rather than Reiss or Garen. It had shocked him, although his conversation with Az’kerash had put it out of his mind. Now Reiss wondered. He supposed it made sense; Tremborag’s tribe blamed him for losing their mountain, but why had they passed over Garen?

It didn’t matter. Both tribes had to ally with him. They didn’t have to be his—his master was wrong there. Forcing Rags to submit to him would be close to impossible, and Garen would be truly impossible. They just had to fight together. He could convince Rags of that when he told her the full scope of the plan, Reiss was certain.

Garen would be the obstacle. That was why Reiss hesitated to tell him. When Garen Redfang learned of Az’kerash’s plans, he would oppose them on principle, regardless of how they made sense. He might even try to kill Reiss. Or run.

If they fought—if Reiss had to kill him—the Goblin Lord closed his eyes. They were brothers. Brothers, still, after so long.

“It will not come to that. He will see reason. I just need—to force him to agree. If Rags agrees, he must.”

They’d surround his tribe. In the night. Give him an ultimatum and force him to agree. And if he fought, if he resisted—they could capture him. Alive.

It wasn’t as if his tribe was necessary in the battle. Important, but not necessary. And it might not come to that. Garen was stubborn, but he wasn’t a complete idiot.

Reiss told himself that again and again. Then, at last, he decided it was time. Rags had to know, then Garen. He forced himself not to tremble as he sat up and directed his Shield Spider to crawl towards Rags’ tribe. It was time. Time at last! Time for war. Time to take Liscor and find a home.

“Chieftain Rags! Gather your lieutenants. I must speak with you.”

Reiss shouted at the small figure riding on Carn Wolf. He saw Rags’ head turn, and felt a hush go through both his and her tribe. The Goblins could tell something was happening, even if most did not know what. He saw Rags hesitate, then nod. She rode to join him with her four most trusted lieutenants. Eater of Spears and Snapjaw joined Reiss. He wished the others were here. But they had died at Invrisil, in battle. So many dead. But the end was in sight.

“What?”

Rags stared up at Reiss, her eyes narrowed. She knew he had spoken with Az’kerash. But not about what. The Goblin Lord took a steadying breath. Garen was watching suspiciously.

“I have spoken with my master. He has discovered the Human’s plans. What they intend. My master is certain they are moving us to Liscor. Not to slaughter us there, but to use us. With trebuchets they will tear open Liscor’s walls. Then, they mean to force us to take the city. And once it has fallen, rush in and slaughter us to the last.”

The Goblins went silent. Rags’ eyes went wide and Noears uttered a curse. Redscar turned to look at the Humans, Poisonbite gulped, and Pyrite narrowed his eyes and glanced at his Chieftain. Fear, sharp and electric ran through all the Goblins around Reiss. He could feel it, but kept calm. So did the Goblins in his army, sensing his confidence, drawing resolve from it.

Snapjaw ground her teeth together, almost dancing from foot to foot with glee and Eater of Spears waited silently. They knew what was coming next. Rags looked pale as she looked at Reiss.

“Okay. That bad. Necromancer has a plan?”

“Yes. We will take the city and hold it. With his aid. He will resurrect every warrior that falls in battle. He will provide us with his elite undead warriors, his Chosen. With them, we will take Liscor, and when the Humans attack, we will hold it and beat them back.”

Reiss saw the eyes of the Goblins widen around him. Some reacted in shock, others horror or disbelief. Rags just blinked. Reiss went on, outlining the plan Az’kerash had given to him.

“Liscor can be taken. It can fall. With your tribe and mine, we can secure the city. My master can raise walls of bone to hold the breaches, seal the Humans in when they attack and cut their army in two. Chieftain Rags, join your Flooded Waters tribe to mine and claim Liscor. Your home. It will be the first city of Goblins.”

Rags’ eyes flickered. She looked at Reiss, then at Snapjaw’s grin, Eater of Spears slowly nodding. She looked around at Reiss’ warriors, who were caught up by his words, and then at her own uncertain tribe, who looked to the Goblin Lord with apprehension and a bit of—hope. Reiss waited, his eyes going to Garen. What would he say? What would he do? Would he run if he heard the news being spread? No, he’d come to say something even if it was a refusal. Would he—

“No.”

The word was quiet, and so soft Reiss’ thoughts kept going until they got tangled up on the word. The Goblin Lord blinked. He looked down at Rags.

“What?”

“No. We will not fight.”

Rags folded her arms. Her lieutenants looked at her. Poisonbite in disbelief, Noears frowning, Redscar uneasily. And Pyrite? The Hob smiled.

“You are not serious.”

Reiss refocused on Rags. She had to be telling a joke. But the little Goblin just shook her head.

“I told you. Goblins live in circles. We kill Humans. Humans kill us. We kill Drakes, Drakes kill us. Adventurers come to kill us, we kill them, so more come. It never ends. That is the circle of Goblins.”

“Cycle.”

Reiss automatically corrected her. Rags shrugged as if to say the words were the same. Reiss scrambled to say something.

“I know. But this will break the cycle. Chieftain Rags—taking Liscor will mean a safe haven for Goblins! If we hold Liscor, no one will be able to take it. It is one of the most defensive cities on the continent—”

“Mhm. So Humans and Drakes both want it. And not very safe if we can take it. Sounds like we put big ‘stab me’ sign on back. Not doing it.”

The little Chieftain scratched at one ear. Reiss stared at her.

“You don’t have a choice. The Humans will slaughter all of us to force us to attack Liscor. Tyrion Veltras wants to take the city.”

“So? Let him. We won’t fight. We will run. Into mountains, maybe. Fight big battle while other Goblins climb.”

Rags pointed to the mountains. They were high and practically impassable. Reiss tried to imagine forcing over two hundred thousand Goblins up the slopes. They’d have to abandon everything while they held the Humans off.

“Impossible.”

“Okay. Then another plan. We go into dungeon. There is cave. Dungeon is…probably big. Could hold some. Or go around Liscor. Fight Humans and get away. But not attack city. Bad idea.”

“You will die if you attempt that. Why not take Liscor? Why not fight to hold it? With all the advantages my master can bring to the battle—”

Reiss stared down at Rags. She scratched her ears, not looking directly at him or anyone else. Finally, she muttered.

“Don’t want to kill people in Liscor.”

What?

This time the question was a chorus. Everyone stared at Rags. Her points about not fighting had been good, if scattered. But this? Reiss shook his head, growing angry.

“What has Liscor done for you? Chieftain—the Drakes care nothing for you! They have killed our people for thousands of years, just like the Humans!”

“They have. And they are stupid poos. Especially Relc.”

Rags agreed. She sighed, and scrubbed at the back of her head. Then she looked around. Two tribes stared at Rags, hung on her words. She looked at Reiss, who was trembling, unable to believe what she was saying. Rags sighed louder, then raised one claw.

“Okay. This is why. There is a Human there. In Liscor.”

Everyone stared at Rags. She raised her voice as she went on, not speaking just at Reiss, but to Pyrite, to Redscar and Poisonbite and Noears and all the others. She spread her arms, speaking to the hundreds of thousands of Goblins who listened to her.

“Her name is Erin Solstice. And she is good. She lives in Liscor—in a little inn outside it. And she likes Goblins. She is my…my friend. And no one is going to kill her.”

“A Human? That’s not—Humans aren’t friends with Goblins.”

Reiss whispered. Rags shook her head.

“That was what I thought! But—she is different. She kills, but only to defend. She does not attack. And she does not let others attack. She has—she has a sign by her inn! I have seen it! It says ‘No Killing Goblins’. No killing Goblins in her inn. She is my friend and she is friends with Antinium and Drakes and Gnolls. She is good.”

The other Goblins stared at Rags. A friend? A Human as a friend? It sounded like a joke. Some of Tremborag’s former Goblins began grinning, but Rags didn’t laugh. She was as serious as could be as she met Reiss’ eyes. And slowly, it dawned on the other Goblins.

She was telling the truth. Because, after all, Goblins didn’t lie. There was a Human in Liscor who was friends with a Goblin. The murmurs began to spread. Reiss looked around.

“That is one Human. One Human cannot save you!”

“No.”

Rag agreed readily. She nodded, looking around.

“Don’t expect her to. But she could help. She could do…something. Anything?”

“Like what?”

Reiss raised his voice. He heard the sarcasm in his tone, the anger. He couldn’t help it. He pointed down at Rags.

“What could one Human do? What could any Human do?”

She shrugged. It was the most classically Goblin thing she could do. She looked up at Reiss and smiled.

“Don’t know. But she is my friend. You have your Necromancer. I have Erin. You have your Human, and I have mine. I will not fight Liscor. I will run or hide or do whatever it takes. But I will not fight. The destiny of Goblins is a circle. And it must stop.”

For a second Reiss couldn’t speak. He was lost with fury, indignation at the stupidity of what Rags was saying. Then he heard a cheer.

Everyone’s head turned. They saw a little Goblin standing on a cart, cheering and waving. It was alone at first, and then a Hob raised her arms and bellowed as well. Goblins around them began to cheer too. Reiss stared as Rags’ tribe began to laugh and shout. They were cheering. Cheering her, celebrating.

They didn’t want to fight. He looked and saw more Goblins on their feet. And they were shouting.

Rags! Rags! Rags!

Her name. Rags flushed with pride and looked around, puffing her chest out. Her lieutenants took up the call. Reiss stared around. He saw thousands of Goblins cheering, and Garen’s tribe staring. Garen Redfang himself sat on the back of his Carn Wolf, staring at Rags. He was glaring. The Human army had halted, perhaps wondering what the strange cheering was for.

Rags turned away. Her lieutenants dispersed, and the Goblins moved ahead, hurrying to keep going before the Humans started throwing spells. Snapjaw and Eater of Spears stayed back, looking anxiously at Reiss. He didn’t move. At last, they left too. Reiss sat on his undead spider’s back as the Goblins flowed past him. And only darkness filled his mind.

A Human for a friend? Breaking the cycle? Running? It was unacceptable. They had to fight. They had to take Liscor. His master would not accept anything else. He would not accept anything else. It was right in front of them. A city. A kingdom! And she was wrong.

Something black was in Reiss’ chest, making his heart beat faster. It was welling up in him, dark intentions. He looked around and saw his army marching ahead of him. And Rags’ lieutenants and his people.

They’d all gone back to each other. His tribe and Rags’. His lieutenants and hers. Snapjaw and Poisonbite were talking to each other, arguing, but talking, riding on her horse. And Eater of Spears was throwing axes with Pyrite, speaking. Reiss’ heart hurt.

Eater of Spears spoke with no one as closely as he was speaking with Pyrite. There were so few Hobs like him, but he had found a kindred spirit in the fat Hob. And Reiss was going to—

No. They could still walk together and smile. Nothing needed to change. It was just her. Reiss looked up. At Rags, who was riding along, arguing with the [Shaman], Ulvama. She was the one who led this tribe. And she was the one who was wrong.

A home for your kind. His master’s words echoed in Reiss’ mind. It was so close. He had sacrificed so much for it. And Rags would run? No. No, it couldn’t be. It wouldn’t be. He would not let her.

Slowly, Reiss rode his Shield Spider forwards. This time he was fixated on Rags. Something dark whispered to him. It sounded like his master, but it had his voice. Reiss felt pitch blackness spilling forth, beating from his heart, in his veins, his blood. He was rigid with the horror of what he was going to do. But he was going to do it anyways.

“Rags.”

This time, when she turned, Rags paused. The Goblins around her paused as well. They stared back at Reiss’ face and grew silent. Snapjaw looked up. Eater of Spears paused, pointing out a target for Pyrite to hit. Rags looked back at Reiss.

“What?”

Reiss was calm. Very calm. And cold. He looked at Rags and then past her, at the mountains and the sky. Not a few hours past midday. Plenty of time. He spoke pleasantly, feeling the magic growing in him, running down his arm.

“Do you remember my dream?”

“About Goblin kingdom? Yes. Silly dream. But nice one.”

Rags nodded. Reiss smiled. He looked down at her.

“It is. But there’s something I didn’t tell you about it. I have that dream some nights. A dream of a Goblin kingdom, a place where Goblins are safe and live in peace. But in that dream, the Goblins have no faces.”

“No faces?”

She blinked. He nodded. The magic ran down into his fingers and gathered there, as thick as sin, as dark as midnight.

“None. I look around in my dream and see no one I recognize. Not Eater of Spears. Not Snapjaw. Not even me. I look at my reflection and see another Goblin’s face. Do you know why?”

She held still, looking at him.

“Tell me.”

Reiss smiled sadly.

“It is because for my dream, I would sacrifice anything. Anything and anyone. I have my dream, and it is worth all the pain in the world to make real. So I am sorry for this.”

He raised his hand. Rags blinked.

“For wh—”

[Deathbolt].

The black energy shot through Reiss’ fingers, coalescing into a line of energy that sucked away the light. It shot through Rags at point black range. She swayed, gasping, her face drained of color. She swayed, put a hand on her saddle.

She was still alive. Reiss had hoped she’d die right away. She kept looking at him, kept trying to say something. But there was nothing left to say. She was trying to turn her Carn Wolf, but she was too weak. The Goblins around her were just staring, shocked by the suddenness of it all. Reiss raised his fingers and pointed at Rags’ chest. Then he looked up. He heard something.

A whirring sound. Something tugged at his hand. Reiss blinked and stared at the silvery axe that softly thunked into the breast of a Hob standing next to him. The Hob blinked and fell. Reiss stared at the axe. He’d given that to Eater of Spears. Then he felt an odd sensation. He looked down at his hand. He couldn’t see it.

It was missing. Reiss stared down at the stump of his hand as blood began to gush from the severed arteries. He looked around, and saw the Hob. The second axe passed by his face and Reiss nearly fell from the back of his undead spider. He blinked and stared at the thrower.

Pyrite. The Hob straightened. He saw Reiss catch himself, saw Rags reeling backwards and her Carn Wolf bounding backwards in fright, howling. He looked up and saw Eater of Spears staring at him, face white. Pyrite sighed.

“Told you.”

He reached for his battleaxe. His hands closed around the haft too slow. Eater of Spears grabbed Pyrite and roared. Pyrite felt something slam into him and saw the world spinning around him until he slammed into the ground. Goblins screamed, and both the Flooded Waters tribe and the Goblin Lord’s army broke ranks and began to fight as everything descended into chaos.

 


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