His name was Tyrion Veltras. And to some he was a legend. To some he embodied the pride of Izril. He was a hero in that sense; the scion to the Veltras family, a military expert who commanded one of the most powerful private armies on the continent.
He had defended Izril from every threat that had encroached upon its soil for decades, and protected Humans, his subjects, first and foremost. There were those who admired him. Admired, but did not love. Tyrion was a hard man to love, for all his accomplishments.
Others thought of him as the embodiment of all the negative qualities of a [Lord]. They called him the closest thing to a tyrant as Izril had ever seen. A war hawk who was a match for the worst of the Drakes in his unwavering pro-Humanity stance. A man who looked down on diplomacy as a weaker alternative to war, who viewed other nations and continents as adversaries in a global competition for which there could be only one winner.
And yet those who hated him had to admit that he had his own sense of honor. The man was tyrannical, harsh, unrelenting, and merciless, yes. But he did not employ [Assassins] like the leading [Lady] of Izril, Magnolia Reinhart. He kept his word. If he was your enemy he came at you on the battlefield with lance in hand. It was a small comfort to those who had died on the tip of his spear or sword, but it meant that no one watched their backs around Tyrion Veltras. They were too busy watching their fronts.
All of this was meaningless to the man himself, of course. Tyrion Veltras had an opinion about himself and as far as he was concerned, it trumped whatever anyone might whisper about him. He did not waste time with idle self-doubt. He thought of himself as a soldier, a leader, a strategist and general and administrator; a [Lord] in short. He rarely thought of himself as a father.
But as Tyrion Veltras sat in his war camp, listening to the rain patter down on the roof of his tent he spared a thought for his sons. They were young—of course, Sammial was eight and Hethon was…twelve? No, he would be thirteen now. His birthday had been two weeks ago.
“I sent him a dagger. Or was it something else? Ullim took care of it. We spoke on the matter.”
The man restlessly shook his head and stood. His [Majordomo] would handle the matter. His sons were well protected and being raised properly. As properly as they could be, at any rate. He didn’t need to think of them when there were more pressing matters.
But Tyrion’s thoughts did stray back to his sons just once more. It wasn’t guilt that invaded his heart, but something more akin to resignation. A cold fact. He would not see his sons for at least another month or two, possibly many more. This campaign would take a while.
But that was necessary. So Tyrion strode out of his tent, grimacing as warm rain instantly buffeted his clothes. Of course his rings protected him from the rain as they would arrows, but Tyrion disliked rain. It was too nostalgic.
The [Soldiers] standing guard around his tent immediately straightened as the [Lord] came out. He nodded to them, and then paused when he saw the other man standing in the rain. He had patiently been awaiting Tyrion—that was clear from the rain that had soaked his bright silvery steel chainmail shirt and clothes beneath. But Yitton Byres was not the sort of man to wait with parasol in hand, or have someone else hold one for him. That he had no rings like Lord Tyrion was simply a matter of finances.
Yitton Byres, head of the Byres family, lowered his head slightly as his grey-brown hair and careful beard dripped with water. Tyrion, who was clean-shaven, eyed the man and nodded in return. He gestured and the two men began striding through the camp.
“You should have entered my tent. Waiting in the rain hardly befits a [Lord] of the realm.”
“I preferred to wait outside. I’m sure you were occupied in preparing for our strategy meeting.”
“Considerate of you.”
Lord Tyrion’s reply was cold and clipped, although that didn’t reflect his feeling towards Yitton Byres. The two men headed for a larger pavilion across the busy camp. They strode past [Soldiers] who saluted, [Knights] who turned and bowed, hurrying [Servants] and [Porters], [Cooks] and [Handlers], hearing the hustle and bustle of a massive army moving around them in the rain.
This was the largest force Izril had seen gathered all year. Tens of thousands of armed retainers and forces from Human cities had come at Lord Tyrion’s command and more arrived each day, by the hundreds or sometimes thousands. It was a massive host, sustained only by the equally large volume of supplies they’d brought with them. And they had been camped in this place for over half a month now.
Over three dozen [Lords] and [Ladies] and other leading figures of Izril had also come. It was they who Tyrion was headed towards now. As the two men walked, Tyrion considered that it was fortunate that Yitton was part of the strategy meeting they were headed towards.
Of course, Yitton Byres was a [Lord], but he was a lesser one. The Byres family was small and the man had brought over a thousand retainers, but it was almost all his house could spare. He was hardly as influential as Lord Tyrion, whose personal army had more than twenty thousand horse in his vanguard. He would not have been readily welcome in the smaller gathering that Lord Tyrion was headed towards normally.
However, Yitton Byres’ fortunes had changed in the last few days. Markedly so. It was nothing the man had done himself, but the incredible images from Liscor had caused his influence to rise sharply. That two of his offspring had helped vanquish the Face-Eater Moths that had besieged the city had made his political value soar to the point where he was included in the discussions as a matter of course. The Byres family had also been approached by several buyers looking to order their signature silver and steel arms, according to the reports Tyrion had glanced at.
That was all welcome to Lord Tyrion. Yitton Byres was known to him and if they weren’t friends or even that close, Tyrion respected the man. He was a good [Lord]. Solid. Unpretentious. He sensed Yitton Byres looking at him before the older man spoke.
“We’ve been camped for nearly three weeks now. Are we to move out within the week, or should I order my men to prepare for a longer wait while the Goblin Lord keeps razing settlements?”
He was also brave. Yitton had said what other, more powerful nobles would have hesitated to mention. Tyrion nodded to himself. Three weeks they’d been camped here, waiting. Any sane strategist would question why. After the Goblin Lord had defeated Zel Shivertail and the army formed by Magnolia Reinhart in battle they had expected Tyrion to march on the wounded Goblins at once. He was known as a decisive attacker, one who didn’t hesitate. But Tyrion had his reasons.
“I intend to keep your men waiting a while longer, Yitton.”
The other [Lord] eyed Tyrion sideways as they walked across the muddy ground.
“Possibly less than a week. I intend to move some of my forces ahead of the rest. I’ll take some of the horse and a few [Mages]. But the main army waits.”
“Why? To keep levying more forces? Is the Goblin Lord that dangerous?”
“He slew the Tidebreaker in combat. Isn’t that enough for caution?”
“For caution, yes. But this seems excessive.”
It did. But Zel Shivertail’s death had given Tyrion a useful excuse. No one had expected Zel to fall in battle. Tyrion hadn’t, for all he’d hoped Zel Shivertail would lose the battle and be forced to defend Invrisil instead. His death was an unexpected boon.
“I have my reasons, Yitton. As you’ll hear shortly. I’m aware the nobility is chafing at the delay. But I will lead the army in the best way I deem fit.”
“Which doesn’t include informing those under your command of your thoughts?”
“At the moment. There are too many factors I must consider.”
Yitton’s eyebrows rose.
Lord Tyrion looked up. The rain didn’t fall into his eyes; it flowed away from an invisible barrier a few centimeters away from his skin. Yitton looked up, shading his eyes.
“Rain. Hardly ideal for marching, but you’d have this army wait for weather?”
“I await a single, precise moment, Yitton. Give it time. The Goblin Lord is doing damage, but he’s on the move.”
“Marching towards that so-called ‘Great Chieftain’ in the mountain. I can’t believe he was living under our noses this entire time. If they combine forces…silver and steel, Veltras, tell me you’re not going to let that happen!”
“We’ll move out, Yitton. Trust me.”
“I do. But you have to understand that I have questions.”
It was a dramatic statement, coming from a Byres. They were normally staunch supporters of the Reinharts, who had strong ties to their family. But Yitton had placed his trust in the better commander. Tyrion intended to honor that trust.
“I’m afraid your questions will have to wait. This strategy meeting will be resolved shortly, to no one’s satisfaction, I suspect. But I do have one piece of information that might make us move out faster.”
“Apparently there’s a new province just southwest of Invrisil.”
“A new [Lord]?”
“The reports are confirmed. An [Emperor] has appeared and he has a rather unusual holding.”
Yitton had to shake his head as he avoided a large puddle of water.
“[Emperors] and Goblin Lords. What next?”
Tyrion smiled. The report he’d received had been intriguing. Possibly helpful. So Magnolia thought she could use him as an ally?
“More to consider, Yitton.”
“But not act on? The Goblin Lord is growing in strength. His forces were down to sixty thousand by most estimates. He’ll replenish his numbers heading north. And if he takes the mountain—”
“Patience, Lord Yitton.”
“An odd word to hear from you.”
Lord Tyrion paused in front of the pavilion. He looked up again. The rain was still falling. It fell over his camp, where countless Humans awaited his order. But he held his ground. He waited, as the continent of Izril and the world waited and wondered why. Soon the rains would stop. And then, or perhaps before then, Tyrion would make his move. He just had to wait. For the right moment.
At least Liscor was hot on everyone’s lips, distracting them from pressing him too hard. The events in the city had truly been newsworthy. Lord Tyrion was keeping a careful eye on the developments there. But he could have had no idea what was going on in the dungeon that very moment.
They fell through the water. Down. Into the rift. Into the dungeon. Their descent was not unnoticed. The dungeon waited for them. As the Redfang Warriors neared the bubble of air that marked the point at which the dungeon began they swam towards the edges of the rift, dropping the stones they held, moving quickly before they ran out of air. The blackness of oxygen deprivation swam around their thoughts.
They gasped as their heads broke out of the water and gravity asserted itself. The Redfang Goblins clung to the sides of the rift as the stones they’d dropped floated downwards through the water. They fell into the dungeon, bringing a small splattering of water from overhead. The Goblins grunted as they watched the stones fall, and began to climb down.
Into a trap. At the bottom of the rift, hidden further back with bows trained on the opening leading upwards were monsters. People.
Raskghar. The huge, furred beasts were larger than Gnolls, stronger, and their hunched forms and long claws and teeth made them look like a cross between an upright bear and lion. But for all their brute strength and muscle, they were intelligent. They held crude bows and they were armed with arrows coated with poison. The Raskghar were not mindless monsters; they had noticed this entry point to the dungeon and begun ambushing adventurers that came down.
The weak ones, at any rate. The Gold-rank teams the silent hunters left alone. But eight out of ten teams had fallen to the ancient Gnoll kin before leaving the entrance point to the dungeon here. Now the Raskghar waited, listening as the stones dropped and cracked on the stone floor.
The adventurers were coming. The not-Gnolls waited as the telltale droplets of water cascaded down from above. The Raskghar kept their poisoned arrows aimed at the stone walls. Waiting. They could pick off the climbing adventurers like flies. They just needed to see all of them. They waited. And waited. And…
After two minutes, the furred hunters began to grow restless. They didn’t do anything as foolish as make sound, but they did look at each other and silently urge each other forwards a few steps. Had the adventurers not come down after all? Had they decided to return above? The sentries had spotted something swimming down through the water above. But why were they taking so long?
Eight of the Raskghar were shifting positions and two had come closer for a furtive look. The lead not-Gnoll edged forwards and peered up at the rift. He moved a few feet forwards—
An arrow sprouted from his eye. He dropped without a sound. The other Raskghar stared at him in alarm and then stared at the rift. They saw something move right where ceiling met dungeon. A head dropped down. Something flashed.
Another Raskghar dropped with an arrow in his chest. He had time to choke and try to roar before he fell. The remaining six immediately scattered. They aimed back at the rift, but the archer had disappeared! They waited, and then the body appeared again—from another spot. The [Archer] aimed, spotted a Raskghar, and loosed. The not-Gnoll howled in pain as an arrow took him in the side. The other Raskghar loosed arrows at the spot where the [Archer] had been—too late. The face disappeared out of view again.
The howling Raskghar fell silent as one of his companions struck him with a clawed hand, silencing him. The five hunters aimed their bows carefully, waiting. Waiting. Then they saw a flicker of movement. A head peered down out of the hole. Crimson eyes blinked at the surprised not-Gnolls. Instantly, all five Raskghar loosed arrows. The head pulled up. The arrows broke against the wall and then another torso dropped down. The Hobgoblin holding the bow loosed an arrow as the Raskghar realized too late that they’d been baited to shoot!
An arrow took one of the Raskghar in the side of the head as she turned to duck. Another struck the wounded Raskghar in the leg. Now there were four of the ambushers left. They saw the Hobgoblin disappear again and looked at each other.
What was happening?
In the rift, hanging from the walls of the cliff leading up, the Redfang Warriors were completely silent. They gestured at each other, communicating the spots of the remaining four archers to their lone sniper.
Badarrow. The Hob hung upside down as Shorthilt and Headscratcher strained to hold his legs steady. He growled a soft order and they lowered him—he shot, cursed, and kicked both legs. They instantly hauled him upwards as more arrows missed his position.
Six shots. Four kills. The seventh elicited a brief howl and then silence. Badarrow raised a finger as Numbtongue poked his head down below and answered with a hand sign. The wounded Raskghar was dead. Three arrows had finally done it in.
Three left. The Hobgoblins didn’t hesitate. They dropped off the cliff walls, landing hard as the hunters began to retreat. The Raskghar hadn’t expected that either. Shorthilt and Numbtongue charged one of the not-Gnolls while Rabbiteater and Headscratcher rushed another. Badarrow’s eighth arrow cut down the third Raskghar.
It was over in a second. The two archers fell to Shorthilt’s sword and the dagger Headscratcher had borrowed from Badarrow. They were strong and quick, but faced with two Hobs each they went down fast, the victim of multiple cuts. In the silence, the Redfang Warriors looked around swiftly. There were no more monsters. The ambush team had well and truly been ambushed.
It had been an easy victory. Perhaps too easy, but the Raskghar had grown accustomed to easy pickings. Silver and Bronze-rank adventurers were easy targets. After all, who expected to be ambushed the first second they entered a dungeon?
Goblins would. Goblins always expected a trap. Badarrow sneered and kicked a twitching claw away as he inspected the arrows the Gnoll throwbacks carried. He grunted as he found fourteen he liked and tossed the bad ones at Rabbiteater along with one of the bows. The other Hob grunted and slung it over his shoulder.
The Redfang Warriors spread out, searching the bodies, still not making a sound. They came away with crude stone axes, one genuine steel waraxe—probably looted from an adventurer—and several iron and steel daggers. No swords though—it seemed the Raskghar preferred axes. The Hobs grabbed the bows and arrows and nodded to each other.
Well, now they had weapons.
This was the dungeon. It was dark. Quiet. But not silent.
The Redfang Warriors walked single file down a corridor. More like a tunnel. They could see well in the dark, but the blackness was oppressive. They could hear distant sounds, echoing down the corridor. The dungeon was filled with life.
But the things that moved in the dungeon didn’t move about loudly. Not unless they were the biggest and most dangerous thing. And that was a relative term. The monsters were all predators and they stalked each other until they met in a brief, loud flash of violence.
Sometimes the Goblins thought they heard a trap go off. The sounds were so faint they were practically inaudible over their heartbeats. But the Goblins kept their breathing silent, their footsteps invisible as they pressed forwards.
This was home. They were used to this. Not this dungeon, but this. Danger. Death. The Raskghar hadn’t known what hit them. They were used to adventurers, not Goblins who’d lived in the High Passes.
This is how they moved. Silently, five walking relatively spaced out down a corridor, following each other’s tracks exactly. Rabbiteater took point. As the only Goblin with [Dangersense], he was suited to checking for traps. But he was aware of his limitations and opted for a different method than Halrac’s precise techniques, or Seborn’s expertise at spotting tripwires and pressure plates and concealed magic runes.
Rabbiteater followed the tracks on the ground, the places where dust and debris had been stirred by passing. Because monsters had obviously learned to avoid the traps. So Rabbiteater followed those spots. That meant of course they would run into monsters, but that beat stepping on something nasty.
These are the things they carried. Healing potions and alchemical weapons, stolen from Octavia’s shop. Weapons from the Raskghar. A hemp bag, three of them, in fact. A bed sheet, stuffed into Headscratcher’s pack. Sharp rocks, a handmade sling of Rabbiteater’s.
Nothing else. No food, no artifacts. To adventurers they would have been horribly unprepared but the Redfang Goblins followed the Goblin way of doing things. Travel light to hide and run. They weren’t here to explore. They were on a mission.
Find the treasure. They’d memorized Vuliel Drae’s explanation of where to go. The Redfang Goblins had to cross about eighteen corridors between the entrance and the dungeon. They made it down two corridors, one filled with flame traps, another completely cleared, according to Vuliel Drae.
It wasn’t. The Redfang Goblins paused as they spotted something oozing its way down the corridor at a distance. Badarrow raised his bow, training his arrow on the…slug? Coming their way. Then the Goblins realized it was a lot of slugs and backed up.
They were headed down an intersection, dozens upon dozens of the long, oozing things. They were giant slugs with razor spines on their fronts. They were following something. The Redfang Goblins peered at the wounded, shambling giant thing that was stumbling from them. A…moth?
A Face-Eater Moth. One of the big, wagon-sized ones. It looked like it had been chewed apart. It was bleeding as it fled. The slugs pursued. The Redfang Goblins exchanged a look. How many moths had survived the battle at Liscor? Had they lost their position in the dungeon? Were things hunting them?
No time for questions. They moved on. This tunnel was odd. It was devoid of traps according to the scattered tracks, but it looked as if that was because it was part of some kind of crossing. The corridor split eight ways, two of the paths sloping downwards. The Redfang Goblins paused. Vuliel Drae had gone left here. They crossed to one edge of the corridor.
Rabbiteater peeked around the corner of the intersection swiftly. His first glance showed him nothing so he moved forwards. The other Hobs kept an eye on the other directions. They moved swiftly, each one tracking a different direction. This was like a hunting expedition in the High Passes.
They watched their surroundings, checking for camouflaged monsters. In the High Passes it was common to run into Gargoyles hiding in plain sight. And that was only the outer layers. Further in there were things that could kill two Goblins in the middle of a patrol without anyone noticing.
This corridor led to a labyrinth of doors, a maze of interconnected rooms. The Redfang Warriors slowed here and made even less noise than before. They crept along, silent, wary. They had to pass through this section—Vuliel Drae had fled though here, pursued by moths and Raskghar.
There were no moths today. But there were many, many doors. The Redfang Goblins paused at the first one. They stood back from it, in the center of the corridor. Their eyes narrowed.
Each Goblin was different. Erin had said so and she was close to the truth. They were all low-level, compared to adventurers at least. None of them had passed Level 20, for all they were elites. Goblins seldom lived long enough to level that high, so Garen Redfang had created Goblin warriors who trained hard and relied on their skills as much as their Skills.
Headscratcher was passionate. Angry, prone to fury in combat. Strongest of the five. Badarrow was an archer. Rabbiteater was a tracker, swift. Numbtongue could speak. And Shorthilt? He was a weapon expert. His sword had been the only one not to break from use against the Face-Eater Moths. He had a Skill, [Keener Edge], which allowed his iron blade to cut flawlessly for the first few blows. It was he who made the first move.
The door was old. Wooden—it looked like someone had broken it, and then rebuilt it with scraps. The Goblins eyed it. Shorthilt moved slowly towards it, his blade held in one hand. He paused, five steps from the door. He eyed it, and then darted forwards. He stabbed through the old wood at knee-height and was rewarded with a scream. The Goblins instantly charged forwards.
They hadn’t known something was behind the door. They’d guessed. The other doors flew open as Raskghar charged out. The furious beast people looked around for their prey—and saw them running down the corridor. They were escaping! Rabbiteater took the lead, dashing from safe spot to safe spot. The other four Hobs raised their bows and loosed arrows, making the Raskghar duck back under cover, snarling.
One, two, ten…there must have been over twenty of them waiting in ambush! They howled as they followed the Redfang Goblins. But the Goblins’ arrows forced them to stay back. And the Goblins knew where to go.
Forwards, down the corridor! Then left, though a low tunnel! Up a ramp—skirt the suspiciously clean section of flooring there. Now, through the right corridor. The howling of the Raskghar followed them. The Goblins ran as fast as Rabbiteater could move. They saw a figure appear out of the corridor behind them. Badarrow snarled, shot. The figure dropped.
He was no ordinary [Archer]! He was an expert, a marksman! Badarrow’s fingers plucked another arrow and he loosed it as more Raskghar poured around the wall.
[Shattershot]. His arrow struck one of the Raskghar. It should have fragmented into deadly shrapnel, but the not-Gnoll was armed with a wicker shield. Badarrow snarled as the Raskghar roared at him.
More arrows flew. This time back at the Hobs. The not-Gnolls charged down the tunnel. Shorthilt, Numbtongue, and Headscratcher went to meet them as Rabbiteater moved backwards, scouting the path forwards.
Raskghar. They were huge, taller than the Hobs, but hunched. They outweighed the Goblin. They wouldn’t have out massed Grunter, but all five of the Redfang Warriors were thinner. The first charge nearly knocked Headscratcher off his feet as Shorthilt cut his enemy. Numbtongue hacked at a Raskghar and was unpleasantly surprised as his axe barely cut through the fur and flesh. The muscles of the monster were thick!
And it had claws. And a stone mace. It struck Numbtongue on the shoulder and he shouted in fury. His axe struck the Raskghar across the face and it threw him backwards. The monster charged and Numbtongue swiveled. Rather than stand up he waited for the Raskghar warrior to leap at him and kicked.
It was a strong blow. The monster’s leap was diverted and it smashed into a wall. Quick as a flash, Numbtongue was on him. He swung with all his might—his iron axe bit into the Raskghar’s shoulder and stuck. It snarled and slashed at him with its claws. Numbtongue felt it lay open his arm and let go of his axe. He punched back, snapping the thing’s head back with powerful blows.
But it was too much beast. The Hob felt the Raskghar’s claws open up his chest, side—he stumbled back and the Raskghar chased him. Right into Shorthilt’s sword. The other Hob had dispatched his foe with a precise cut to the belly and face, hitting the vitals. He stepped back as Numbtongue garbled a word of thanks. They spun—Headscratcher rose from his foe. His steel waraxe was buried in its chest, having splintered the monster’s shield first.
Strong foes. The Hobs exchanged a glance as more Raskghar warriors and archers poured up the ramp. They turned. Rabbiteater shouted—the Hobs ran after him, following his trail.
How many tunnels had they gone down? Badarrow snapped a question as he grabbed Headscratcher’s quiver of arrows. Rabbiteater counted. Six? Twelve more to go! They had to lose their pursuers. The howling of the Raskghar was drawing attention their way!
Time for a diversion. Numbtongue asked a quick question as he splashed part of a healing potion over his injuries. Rabbiteater pointed. Numbtongue grabbed a bag from his belt and opened it. He tossed it to the ground as smoke began to billow forth.
A smoke bag. One of Ryoka’s specialty items, in fact. Only two gold coins and three silver at Octavia’s shop. Free, if you grabbed it when she wasn’t looking. The Raskghar coughed as the smoke obscured the Goblin’s progress. One snarled and charged through the smoke—and howled in agony. The other Raskghar paused and backed up.
The smoke lasted for a minute. Two minutes…it began to clear. They spotted their fallen comrade. He’d ventured onto the trap in the corridor—a pressure plate that had swung part of the wall out and sent a series of needle-sharp spikes into his body. The Raskghar growled and sniffed the air. They coughed. The smoke was getting in the way. But they had their prey’s scent. They followed, cautiously moving down the safe parts of the corridor they knew.
The Redfang Goblins had used their time to flee further. Rabbiteater was working off of Vuliel Drae’s directions still, but he had to check for traps. He was sweating with the effort of his work. Speed or safety? He hesitated, and then ran down a section of the corridor he thought was safe. He didn’t die. The other Hobs followed him.
Rabbiteater was an expert at running fast. He’d caught rabbits, hence his name. He was as close to a [Scout] as the Redfang Warriors had—he would have been one, but he was a better warrior and so Garen had promoted him. Now he ran forwards with reckless abandon. There was a trick to traps. If you were fast enough—
A glow underfoot. Rabbiteater dove and the snaking whip of light went right through his side, rather than his chest. He cried out as the other Hobs paused. They checked the right hand side of the corridor, rushed over to him.
The lance of light had gone right through Rabbiteater’s side. It hadn’t cauterized the wound, strangely. It was just light, not heat. Rabbiteater was already bleeding. He let Shorthilt pour a healing potion into the wound and got up. Headscratcher grabbed his shoulder. Rabbiteater nodded.
Not dead. So long as they weren’t dead, the Hobs could trust to the healing potions to mend their wounds. They’d get tired and lose blood, but they could go on. They’d stolen two potions per Hob. An extravagant amount for the Redfang Warriors, who’d grown used to having one or two healing potions between a group of thirteen.
On! The Raskghar had to be following. Numbtongue had heard a distant howl. The Hobs moved on as Rabbiteater slowed his rapid advance only marginally. They were so preoccupied with advancing that they nearly didn’t hear the heavy tread of echoing footsteps until it was too late.
The Hobs froze. Something was coming. This tunnel had a few alcoves to hide in, so the Goblins did just that. They hid as something came towards them. Whatever it was, it was metallic. Headscratcher saw a huge suit of enchanted armor come walking towards him. It paused as it saw him and raised an old sword. Numbtongue leapt on it from behind and Rabbiteater tackled its legs.
The suit of armor was strong! It threw Numbtongue, but was too slow to stop Shorthilt. He grabbed its right arm. The enchanted armor raised its left and Badarrow grabbed that. It struggled—both Hobs grunted as they used their strength to hold it still. Rabbiteater was holding the legs together and Numbtongue raced to help him. They held the armor still as Headscratcher raised his axe.
The first blow made the armor’s pauldrons ring with the impact. Headscratcher snarled and struck it again with the axe. The blow was heavy with all his force behind it, but the armor barely buckled. The armor was magical! But the Hobs held on and Headscratcher hit it again. And again! And again!
He had lost too many friends. Headscratcher had always been strong, but the grief of losing Bugear, the fury of battle—it had all made him stronger. As a Hob he was twice, perhaps three times as strong as he had been as a Goblin. The third blow bent the armor and Badarrow swore as the impact made his arms go numb. Headscratcher saw the suit of armor struggling to be free. The visored head swiveled back and forth from Badarrow to Shorthilt, outraged, as if demanding to be given a fair fight.
The Goblins didn’t believe in fair fights. Headscratcher raised his axe again.
The sixth blow finally split the armor’s right shoulder. Whatever binding was on the pauldrons came loose and Shorthilt ripped the arm off with a roar. The armor stumbled. Headscratcher abandoned his axe and grabbed the armor’s leg with Rabbiteater as Shorthilt tossed aside his arm and grabbed the head. All five Hobs nodded and they all pulled simultaneously.
The magic resisted the Hobs for a few seconds, and then the weakened enchantment gave. The Hobs tumbled backwards as the suit of armor came apart in a rending screech of old metal. They stumbled upright and grabbed the armor.
Now they had armor. They discarded most of it. The heavy chest piece would slow them down. The suit of armor had been built for a true giant among men. Or some other species. But the gauntlets, the greaves, and other smaller pieces? Loot that could be reused or resized perhaps. The Goblins each took a piece. Numbtongue tried the helmet on and grunted. Too big. He took it anyways. A helmet could save a life when arrows were flying at your head.
The battle had taken minutes. Long. Far too long. The Hobs had expected the Raskghar to appear behind them at any second. But as their heartbeats slowed and the pounding of blood stopped rushing through their ears they realized something was off. They couldn’t hear the howls of pursuit.
Had they escaped their pursuers? They’d run through at least one intersection. But—no. Hunters didn’t give up that easily, and this was the Raskghar’s territory! So why could they hear nothing?
The Hobs listened. Rabbiteater frowned. He had the best ears. And he could hear nothing. Not one sound.
Had something scared the Raskghar off? Or had they found other prey? Were they sneaking up on the Goblins? The Redfang Warriors exchanged a glance. Badarrow drew a finger slowly down his arm and pointed. Rabbiteater nodded. He took point while Badarrow and Numbtongue both watched their backs. This time the Redfang Warriors moved slowly, listening hard.
They knew this game. The Raskghar could be circling around, moving ahead and setting up an ambush. They advanced slowly until the tunnel widened and they entered…a bath house?
The Goblins paused as they entered a larger room. In the center was a long, deep pool filled with water. It would have looked like a swimming pool, if the Goblins had ever seen a swimming pool before. They could only compare it to a bath house, which was in itself a rather abstract concept to them.
It was strange. The Redfang Warriors had listened to Garen Redfang’s exploits time and time again and they were familiar with dungeons. Dungeons came in many forms. Some could be ruined castles, old mansions or cities lost to time. In such places you’d naturally find homes and other rooms once intended for leisure. But this dungeon was clearly a killing field meant to channel adventurers towards monsters and traps. Why was there such a room here?
Perhaps it was for the monsters. They had to drink and eat. The Redfang Goblins edged into the room. Vuliel Drae had described passing through here, but like the Redfang Goblins they’d refused to go anywhere near the water. It looked innocuous enough, but what might be living in the pool?
Something stirred near the far edge. The Goblins froze. They saw something hop backwards and then scuttle out of the room. The Redfang Warriors exchanged a glance and moved on.
How many corridors left? Ten? Eight? They were over halfway there and they hadn’t run into anything after the suit of armor. The sounds of pursuit were gone. That worried them, actually. Numbtongue kept glancing over his shoulder. Of the five Hobs he was probably the weakest, as his duel with the Raskghar had shown. That still meant he was a strong warrior, but if he had a role in the group, it was being smart.
Just…being smart. The fact that Numbtongue could read and speak the common tongue quite fluently made him unique even among other Hobs. He was better at reading and speaking than Garen Redfang, in fact, and it was rumored that he’d learned how to write in both the Human and Drakeish scripts. He was smart. But he was a warrior, which was more important in the Redfang Tribe.
It was Numbtongue who’d memorized every line Vuliel Drae had spoken and pointed left down the next intersection. He was good at remembering. He could remember every word from Erin’s song, the plays he’d listened to…it wasn’t that he had a perfect memory. It was just that he cared about important things. And Numbtongue also thought ahead. He wondered how they’d retrieve the treasure. Apparently it was trapped. Would they have to do the Goblin thing in retrieving it?
Another corridor, a long one. It felt like actual rooms were few and far between. This was a labyrinth, whereas the area that the Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt had so patiently attempted to disarm were room after room of challenges. The Redfang Goblins crept onwards. Shorthilt covered the back as Badarrow glanced down a side passage. The Goblin paused as he saw something behind him.
A face. A head. It was low to the ground. Peeking around the corner of the hallway they’d just passed though. It was…too low to the ground. As if whomever was there were lying on the ground and peeking around the corner. But. Shorthilt’s blood chilled. The distant face didn’t look…right.
It was a Human face, eyes wide and staring. A man’s? Shorthilt thought so. Instantly he spoke a word. Three Redfang Warriors whirled while Rabbiteater kept an eye ahead. They stared at the spot Shorthilt was pointing towards.
But the head was gone. The Goblins glanced at Shorthilt. He pointed, spoke a word.
It was the first word anyone had said since entering the dungeon. The Redfang Warriors exchanged looks. Shorthilt had said ‘head’. Not person. That was because Shorthilt wasn’t sure about what he’d seen. Headscratcher pointed, jerked his thumb. Head back and see? The other three considered it, shook their heads. Badarrow raised a finger and circled with it. Too risky of being snuck up on. He pointed. Rabbiteater nodded.
They moved on. But this time Shorthilt and Numbtongue kept an eye on their rear. They passed down another corridor, lingering to check to make sure nothing was headed towards them. Then they strode into another room.
This one had writing on the walls. Numbtongue paused to stare at it. It looked like…a story? Some kind of warning? He was familiar with Drake writing, and Human writing, and this was neither. It looked vaguely similar to Drake writing but there weren’t any distinguishable words. He shook his head as the others moved though the room. They were on track—Vuliel Drae hadn’t mentioned the words on the wall, though. Numbtongue turned and then cursed.
There was a head staring at them. It disappeared as the Redfang Warriors turned again. It had been fast. Numbtongue had barely seen it. But it had been a head alright.
Shorthilt looked questioningly at Numbtongue. The Hob nodded.
Shorthilt stopped. Numbtongue looked at him, sensing the Goblin’s sudden change in wariness. He raised his shoulders. What? Shorthilt hesitated and pointed back down the corridor.
The other Goblins stared at him. Shorthilt had seen a Human head. Not a Raskghar, staring blankly at him. Numbtongue’s skin crawled. He looked at the others. Headscratcher pointed. He shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the two. He wanted them to explain.
“Head. Low. Here.”
Numbtongue bent down and showed the others what he’d seen. A staring head, low to the ground. Too low. Peeking around as if…as if something was watching them. A Raskghar? But it had looked so…
The other Redfang Warriors looked at Numbtongue’s pantomime as Shorthilt nodded. They looked at each other uneasily. That didn’t look right. Headscratcher pointed. He walked two fingers back slowly and pointed at Badarrow. The Hob nodded.
Slowly, the Hobs left the room. Badarrow took a position at the doorway, watching the entrance. He waited as the other Hobs proceeded down the corridor, and then backed up. Not once did he turn around. Back down the next corridor, Numbtongue urging him backwards with low words. Badarrow did not want to get too far from the group. He kept staring. Now they were far from the room they’d left. He didn’t blink. And as he heard the other Hobs taking a few more wary steps he saw it.
A head, poking around the doorway. This one was a Human head. Male. Balding. Was it the one Shorthilt had seen? It peeked out, not turning but—Badarrow swore and loosed an arrow.
The head vanished before the arrow was halfway towards it. This time the Redfang Warriors froze. They heard the arrow crack against a distant wall. And then silence. They were ready for something. Anything. But the head didn’t reappear. Badarrow muttered. He looked at Numbtongue, gestured. The other Hobs waited for Numbtongue to make sense of it.
“Head not turn…not…not moving right?”
Numbtongue spoke quietly. Badarrow garbled an answer, nodded, showed Numbtongue what he meant. The Hob’s conclusion was quiet.
“Head not turning. Peek out—can’t move. Not like that. Not if it was attached to body.”
The Redfang Warriors looked at him. Headscratcher tightened his grip on his axe. Of course, they hadn’t expected adventurers to act like that. But what could it be?
What was following them? Had it killed the Raskghar? The Redfang Warriors came to a quick conclusion. If it had scared away or done in thirty of the Raskghar…they were no match. Headscratcher pointed towards Rabbiteater, uttered a command.
Faster. They picked up the pace. Down one corridor, around another. They watched their backs. The head popped up every time they rounded a corner. It felt like the head was watching them. And it felt like whatever was following was moving faster each time. A bit faster.
Creeping up on them. And what could they do if it decided it was time? The Redfang Goblins searched for a spot to take cover, to use as a chokepoint. Advantageous terrain. But they were following Vuliel Drae’s directions. And as they were all suddenly, painfully aware, they could find the treasure room. But getting back would mean taking a new route and getting lost—
Or going back and confronting whatever was behind them. Shorthilt nudged Rabbiteater, mimed asking about his [Dangersense]. Numbtongue thought. He made a strangled noise. The Hobs walked faster.
Too soon, the Redfang Goblins were walking down a long corridor when Numbtonuge called a halt. Badarrow muttered an oath—the head was peeking. He raised his bow and the head disappeared. Then two came back.
Raskghar and Human. Both leaned out from around the corner as all the Redfang Warriors stared. Both heads, practically on top of each other. If they had been alive the Raskghar would have had to be lying on the Human.
If they had been alive. But neither face blinked. Badarrow drew an arrow to his string and hesitated. The heads were waiting. Just staring.
Numbtongue’s voice didn’t quite shake. He pressed a hand to a section of wall and it vanished. He strode down the corridor. A long corridor with an open doorway to the left. A secret passageway.
With no way out. The Redfang Goblins hesitated, but there was no other option. They backed into the passageway. It could hold two of them abreast. Better, perhaps. They could hold off an enemy, let Badarrow shoot while they held whatever it was off. But on the other hand…
It was almost an afterthought to see the treasure room. Almost. Numbtongue stared at the pedestal in the center of the room, through a doorway without a door. Pedestals, in fact.
Three of them. One held a bundle of white cloth tied up with golden string. The second, a bell made of bronze and blue metal, half and half. The third? A necklace, a stone darker than obsidian with something carved on it, held on a long chain of glowing silver metal. All three objects made Numbtongue’s breath catch in his throat. He didn’t enter the room, though. He wasn’t an idiot.
The room was trapped. Trapped and deadly, according to the masked woman Vuliel Drae had met. And it must have been some trap to keep adventurers from going for the treasure. Rabbiteater could sense the danger too—he was grabbing at Numbtongue’s arm and shaking his head vehemently. The five Goblins all peeked at the treasure as Shorthilt and Headscratcher stood in front of Badarrow, facing the corridor.
It was coming. They had to make a plan. Fight, obviously. But grab the items first? The Goblins had no idea what the trap was, but they did have a solution. Rabbiteater pointed towards the objects. He could run in and grab one, throw it out and then try the others. It was a maneuver that would mostly likely kill him. But that was what the Goblins had agreed they would try.
A Goblin’s life for an artifact. Any Goblin would call it a good trade. They had had other plans they could execute. Trying to grab the artifacts with a rope, knocking them off the pedestals with an arrow—using a monster or Raskghar to get it. But they had no time.
And they didn’t know how far the trap extended. The five hobs glanced at each other. Rabbiteater’s face was set. It was Badarrow who grunted and shook his head.
Don’t risk it. He pointed towards the end of the corridor. It was coming. Rabbiteater hesitated. He raised his hand and tapped his head. The others looked at him. Rabbiteater made a sound. It was a small scream.
His [Dangersense] was telling them—the Hobs looked at each other. Numbtongue bit the inside of his cheek, drawing blood. He looked around.
Narrow corridor. Treasure room. No way out except the way they’d come. That thing was already waiting there. It had heads. It was—
An uttered oath. Headscratcher had seen a head poke around. Not the ones from earlier. This one was Drake. Female. Staring. It peered at him and Badarrow loosed an arrow. The head vanished. The arrow broke.
So quick! Numbtongue’s blood chilled as he readied his axe. There had to be something they could do! He was smart. This was his job. He studied the group. Healing potions, rocks, sling, bags. He saw Headscratcher arming himself with a vambrace from the enchanted suit of armor. Armor, a scant defense. But there had to be something more! Rabbiteater had his sling out. He was a better shot with that. Badarrow had his bow—
Sheets? Shorthilt tossed his bag to the ground, readying himself for a single decisive strike. The head poked around the corner again. A staring Human with hair. And then a Raskghar. The balding Human. The Drake. And a Gnoll. Five heads. One for each Goblin. They stared blankly. Not smiling, not frowning either. Just staring with wide, wide eyes. Unblinking.
The Goblins waited. Their pulses rose. Badarrow aimed from head to head, but didn’t waste the arrow. Numbtongue’s mind was empty. Heads. Monster. Rabbiteater was groaning, his [Dangersense] telling him what was waiting there. Numbtongue glanced at the treasure room. Salvation was one of the artifacts. But which one? Cloak? Necklace? Bell? He looked at the heads. They pulled back.
Now—Numbtongue turned. He threw something into the treasure room with a crash. Shorthilt’s gaze shifted over, flicked back. He saw something move around the corner—
Darkness. Headscratcher woke up on the floor. He stared up. He could see the corridor above him, dark, the ceiling ten feet overhead. He could hear a shuffling sound. But he couldn’t see what it was. And neither could he move. He lay on the ground and realized he was propped up on something.
Shorthilt. The other Hob was lying at an angle, eyes wide, body slumped against a wall. He was alive—Headscratcher could feel his pulse thundering wildly. But he couldn’t move.
None of the Hobs could. They lay where they had fallen, puppets filled with life as something shuffled around the corner into the secret tunnel.
It was Badarrow who had the best view. He’d fallen into a sitting position, his bow awkwardly propping him up. He saw a head appear around the corner, the bald Human’s. It stared at him, and then moved out more. Badarrow saw the neck come out—and then nothing. He stared as the head seemed to disappear past the neck. Then he realized it was attached.
It was on a stick. The staring Human’s face stared at Badarrow. It was joined by the Raskghar head and the Drake head. And followed by a hand.
It was large. Brown. Not furred, but leathery, a cracked, huge thing with long, thick fingers. And then an arm, as large as Badarrow’s chest. A torso—a—body—
Something shuffled around the corner, holding the heads. Five, three in the left hand, two in the right. It was leathery, skin cracked and old. It had two thick arms with six claws each. The claws were opposable, and gripped long sticks that were jammed into the neck of each head. And the thing that held them?
It had no head. No neck. Just a rounded upper torso with two gaping holes where the eyes should be. The sockets were dark and Badarrow couldn’t see if there were actually eyes in them. They were gaping ruins in its face. And it’s legs. It shuffled closer on stumps of legs. Then Badarrow realized.
It was kneeling. To enter the small tunnel the thing was kneeling. It was tall. And though it looked thick, if it stood to its full height it would be long and—Badarrow struggled with all his might to move.
Move! Raise his bow! Loose an arrow at it! But he couldn’t. He was paralyzed. Forced to stare. The thing rotated a head towards him. Badarrow saw a blank, staring Drake’s face, her eyes wide, unmoving. Was that how it saw?
Then he saw the sack. It was bloody, stained. The thing pushed it slowly over with one hand as it intruded in the corridor. It crept closer, shuffling on its…knees? The gaping sockets peered at the five Goblins.
A claw rose. Badarrow saw the thing stuff the heads it carried into the bag. It crept closer. The Hob struggled. Move a finger! Open his mouth to shout! Something.
Anything. He couldn’t do a thing. Badarrow could see Headscratcher and Shorthilt lying in front of him. Rabbiteater and Numbtongue were next to him. Their chests rose and fell but the Hobs were still. And the thing was creeping closer. It reached down and Badarrow saw it touch Headscratcher’s neck. It traced a line down his neck as beads of sweat ran down Headscratcher’s face.
Slowly. Lovingly. The thing had no talons. Just brute fingers. It bent and Badarrow saw into one of the gaping sockets. It went back too far into the thing’s head. Ruined flesh. And in the depths, something bright and dark. It swiveled to look at him. The thing turned.
It lifted Shorthilt up, a hand on the Hob’s chest, another around his neck. The thing squeezed gently and Badarrow saw the Hob’s eyes widen. Shorthilt’s entire body gave the weakest of twitches. Nothing more.
The fingers of the hollow-eyed thing began to close. They constricted slowly around Shorthilt’s neck, squeezing. Tighter. Tighter. The Hob was trying to move. Badarrow could see Headscratcher’s chest rising and falling faster. He tried to move—
A voice. The thing turned. It stopped squeezing Shorthilt’s neck, dropped the Hob. It turned to look past Badarrow.
At Numbtongue. It crept forwards, over Headscratcher’s body, past Shorthilt. Badarrow heard the Hobs’ bodies creaking as the thing shuffled over them. It brushed him aside and lifted Numbtongue up. The Hob made another sound.
It was all he could do. Slumped now, Badarrow saw the Hob staring defiantly into the thing’s sockets. It held him, fingers pressing slowly into his neck. Numbtongue’s face darkened. His flesh deformed. His eyes bulged. And moved.
Something happened. Badarrow saw the thing pause. It stared past Numbtongue. At…what? At something beyond him. In the treasure room. Slowly it dropped Numbtongue. Badarrow struggled to move, to see! He saw the thing shuffle past the Hob. Into the treasure room! It hesitated as it squeezed itself in. And then it passed the threshold—
There was a sound like a sigh. Suddenly Badarrow sat up. He heard a cry, saw Rabbiteater leap to his feet. The Redfang Warriors scrambled up and Badarrow lurched towards the doorway—
And froze. The thing was standing on the doorway, two six-fingers hands pressed up against a shining barrier of light. It was trapped in the treasure room! And whatever effect it had had on the Goblins had ended when the magic trap activated. Now it was pressed up against the barrier. And it was holding something in one hand.
A helmet. A steel helmet. A closed visor. If you looked at it right you could almost imagine it was a…head. Badarrow stared at Numbtongue. The Hob was gasping, coughing as he backed away from the room. The thing inside, the collector of heads, stared at the Redfang Warriors. Just stared.
And then the trap began to activate. At first, all the Hobs could see was a fine mist descending from above. Then they saw the thing’s flesh began to slough off. The acid poured down in a mist, melting the thing. Then fire burned. It engulfed the room, a searing blaze. The thing stood, its flesh smoking, not burning. Its hide was tough.
And then there was a hissing sound. Magic arrows blasted every corner of the room, avoiding the pedestals. The thing stood. The wind turned to blades. Water filled the room as the trap continued. It was melting, dying, its body disintegrating. But it just stared.
At the Redfang Goblins. From face to face, as if it was memorizing them. The five Hobs stood, watching the trap continue.
Water became acid again. And then fire. The trap continued. It didn’t stop. And as the second cycle began, the thing seemed to realize it couldn’t outwait the trap. It drew back a fist and struck the barrier. The Hobs heard a dull thump. The magic shimmered brighter but didn’t change. The thing drew back both hands and struck again.
Thump. The barrier held. The thing hit. Thump. Badarrow backed up from the doorway. The other Hobs drew their weapons as the thing struck again. Thump.
Thump. It was melting. The brown leather had flaked off, revealing something red and yellow underneath. Some kind of skeleton? Something else? It was a mess of blood and melted flesh. It struck the barrier. The blow was heavy.
Thump. Badarrow thought he saw something shift around the doorframe.
Thump. The thing’s hands were melting. It didn’t have—the fingers—Badarrow thought it would quit. Then its torso drew back. It slammed against the magical barrier.
Thump. The stones shook. A puff of powdered masonry dislodged itself. The Hobs backed up against the far wall nervously.
The trap was killing it. But the thing was still alive. Fire consumed it’s body.
Arrows of light tore pieces of it away.
Water drowned it. It didn’t breathe.
It was staring at them. The barrier was fading. The acid had melted it. Its head was deformed. It was exposed, its brown leather exterior revealing a yellow and bloody red mess. The eyes—
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The Redfang Warriors backed up. Thump. The thing was staring at them. The magic faded. The thing pulled back its melting head. Part of it sloughed off. It slammed its head. Thump. Thump.
This time it was Numbtongue who woke up first. He saw the empty room, felt a burning pain on his legs and shouted. The other Hobs were up in seconds. They stared around wildly.
The thing was gone. The magic barrier in the trap room had broken, as had the walls. They were partially torn open, stone bricks lying on the ground. The room was still filled with dissolved flesh, part of the thing. But it had gone.
And it had left behind the sack of heads. The Hobs stared around. Badarrow ran out into the main corridor with Shorthilt. The thing had left a trail of flesh and acid. It stopped after twenty feet. The Hobs looked at each other. Headscratcher opened the bloody bag. He stared into it and silently showed what was inside to Rabbiteater. The two Hobs stared into the bag and closed it. They refused to let the other three Redfang Warriors see what was inside. They left the bag where it was and refused to go near it.
The trap room was still filled with traces of acid. Numbtongue had gotten some on his legs and stomach. From where the thing had crawled over him to get away? The healing potion neutralized it, as did scrubbing fiercely at the spots with Erin’s bed sheet. Numbtongue looked into the trap room and took a deep breath. The three objects were still standing on the pedestals. He stepped into the room and waited.
Nothing happened. The magic had been broken. Slowly, Numbtongue reached for the bundle of cloth. He didn’t touch it, but rather poked it into one of the hemp bags, using the handle of his axe. He did the same for the necklace and bell, storing them in separate bags, making sure, very sure that the bell didn’t ring.
Then the Goblins looked at each other. They’d done it. They’d found the treasure. But they didn’t feel relieved. They had no idea whether that thing with the heads was dying or dead. They stared at the sack lying on the floor. Then they turned and ran.
They didn’t run far. That was a way to die. But the Goblin did march quickly back down the corridors. They stared in every direction and Badarrow kept looking behind him. Waiting to see a head peeking out from a corner. He never did, but that didn’t stop him from thinking he did. The other Redfang Warriors moved in silence, shaken.
What they’d seen—what that thing was—it was like something from the High Passes. One of the dark things. Far worse than Crelers. Why had it collected heads? Were there more of it? Why—
It was easy to trace their steps back. But in their haste, the Redfang Goblins nearly walked into the pile of dead Raskghar. Only Rabbiteater’s strangled exclamation warned them before they walked into the silent forms. The Raskghar lay where they had been killed, headless. Nearly thirty of them. The Redfang Warriors avoided the corpses and hurried back. Badarrow kept looking over his shoulder. It wasn’t dead. It wasn’t dead. And it had looked at them. At him.
Memorizing his face. Was it hiding? Why hadn’t it tried to kill them? Maybe it was too injured to keep them paralyzed for long. Maybe—
Two corridors away from the exit of the dungeon Badarrow saw it. A face. It peeked out of the corridor. He screamed, raised his bow and loosed an arrow. In his fear, his shot was wide. The arrow flew past the face and Badarrow heard an exclamation. The head twisted and he realized it wasn’t a disemboweled head! It was a—Goblin.
A Goblin. The small, pallid thing had far paler skin than the Redfang Goblins, and it was small, malnourished. But it was clearly a Goblin. The Redfang Warriors stared. The small Goblin stared at them. It had a sling in its hands. It whirled it and threw. The stone shot past Headscratcher. He stared.
Then they heard a howl. Behind the Goblin a dark shape bounded forwards. A Raskghar, followed by more of its kin and smaller Cave Goblins! They were armed and the Cave Goblins rushed forwards with uncertain shouts, staring wide-eyed at the Hobs.
For a second the Redfang Warriors were stunned. Then their reflexes kicked in. They turned and ran as the Raskghar hunting party pursued them. There were dozens of Raskghar and countless more Cave Goblins. They flooded the corridors, scaring the other monsters away. The Redfang Warriors ran, tracing their route back. Death came flooding down every corridor. But it was almost a relief. They spotted the rift and ran towards the walls leading up. But there were no ropes! They would have to climb.
Badarrow spun and raised his bow. He loosed an arrow and dropped the Raskghar in front. Headscratcher boosted Shorthilt up and turned. He punched a Goblin so hard it dropped, raised his axe, and then changed his mind and kicked another Goblin. They backed away as Headscratcher and Badarrow lashed out with fists, pummeling the small Goblins rather than slaughtering them.
Arrows were flying through the air. Numbtongue cried out in pain as one pierced his shoulder but he kept climbing. Headscratcher swore and pulled something from his belt. Another smoke bag? No, they’d stolen—
The vial broke and Badarrow gagged as Octavia’s stink potion exploded in his nostrils. He nearly vomited there and then, and saw the Cave Goblins staggering back, gagging. They were able to move though and one took a slice out of his calf with a dagger. Badarrow clubbed the Goblin with his bow.
The effect on the Raskghar was ten times stronger, though. The Hobs heard a howl as the Gnoll’s distant cousins writhed in agony, covering their noses, vomiting, or simply running to get out of range of the deathly odor. The Hobs took that opportunity. Badarrow and Headscratcher leapt for the walls, kicking Goblins swarming after them. Numbtongue and Rabbiteater were already at the water’s edge. They raised their arms and pulled themselves up into the water. Shorthilt followed and Headscratcher climbed after him.
Badarrow was about to enter the water when he felt a thud in his back. An arrow from one of the Raskghar! He twisted and another struck him in the shoulder. Headscratcher looked down at his friend and shouted. Badarrow grunted. He didn’t feel—
His grip slipped. He nearly fell, but Headscratcher grabbed him. The Hob hauled him up and somehow pulled Badarrow into the water as the Cave Goblins tried to pull him down. Headscratcher roared and then took a breath. Weakly, Badarrow did the same. Their heads plunged into the water overhead.
And then they were swimming. Or rather, Headscratcher was. One hand stroked and he kicked with both legs as he carried Badarrow with his other arm. Badarrow tried to paddle as well but he felt—tired. Poison? Right, the arrows had been…
It was a long way to the surface. Nearly a hundred feet overhead the light was shining dimly, obscured by moving shapes. Fish. Headscratcher strained, pulling his body and Badarrow’s up with every laborious kick. He struggled towards the light. But it was so far.
And there was blood in the water. Fish were attracted to Badarrow’s wounds. They swam around the two Hobs, some biting, others curious. Headscratcher tried to ward them away as he swam. But he was out of breath. He could swim a hundred feet up if he’d been by himself and hadn’t been exhausted. But two people?
A hand on his arm. The one that was gripping Badarrow. Headscratcher felt Badarrow trying to make him let go. One of them could make it. But Headscratcher refused to loosen his grip. Never. Never again. He’d rather die than…than…
Blackness. Again, creeping at the thoughts. Darkness. Headscratcher felt weary. It wasn’t fair! They’d done it. They’d come away with the treasure. But two wouldn’t make it. At least Numbtongue had the artifacts. At least…
So this was it. Headscratcher struggled, but the sky was far, far away. It was a good trade, in the end. They’d done it. Survived a dungeon. Sacrificed, taken treasure adventurers couldn’t get. That was worth it. That was a good Goblin death. That was good. Wasn’t it?
He wished he could see Erin again. One more time. Say something. Anything. He could almost see her face, smiling, asking him if he was really okay. It was funny. Headscratcher thought he was having a vision of her in the water. It looked like she was right there. Swimming towards him—
Erin reached down and grabbed Headscratcher. He stared at her, the blackness consuming him. Erin pulled something off her finger and clumsily fumbled it onto his. Headscratcher stared. And then he inhaled.
And he felt oxygen flood into his lungs. Pure, clear, air! Only it wasn’t air! It was water! But he could breathe it! He stared at the ring on his finger as he gasped, and then grabbed Badarrow. The Hob’s eyes were closed, but as Headscratcher shoved the ring onto his pinkie finger the Hob’s eyes widened suddenly. He gasped and Headscratcher realized his lungs were full of water. He began to choke and saw Erin was doing the same. Then he felt something yank him up.
Headscratcher, Erin, and Badarrow were pulled up through the water faster than any of them could swim! They passed by a swimming Pisces, making the water boil around a fish, Jelaqua, grappling with one of the giant black octopus-fish, Seborn, nimbly stabbing a swimming Raskghar as he breathed the water like air, and a sinking Dawil, flailing with hammer in hand. And then they broke out of the water and hung, vomiting water and gasping fresh, cool air.
The rain stung Headscratcher’s face. It was pouring! He turned and saw who had carried them out of the water. Falene, Typhenous, and Moore, standing on a hilltop! They pointed and Erin and the two Hobs floated towards them. By their side Ceria was shooting [Ice Spikes] into the water and Revi’s summoned warriors were shooting arrows with Halrac at the fish hounding the other Redfang Warriors and adventurers in the water.
“There they are!”
“Quick, get them out of the water! Damn it, someone get Dawil!”
“He’s got a Raskghar! Pull him up!”
The [Mages] were shouting as the other adventurers surfaced and pulled themselves into boats manned by scared-looking Drakes and Gnolls. The waters were churning with motion. The two Hobs and Erin were unceremoniously dropped to the ground. Headscratcher landed and scrabbled for a healing potion for Badarrow. He poured it over his friend, slapping Badarrow’s face urgently until the Hob punched him back. Then Headscratcher just lay back.
A voice made Headscratcher sit up weakly. He saw Erin, still breathing hard, panting and looking at him as the other adventurers struggled out of the water. She pointed to the ring on Badarrow’s fingers.
“Give that back to Ksmvr later, will you? That’s his. He lent it to me.”
Headscratcher stared at her and then fumbled with the ring. Erin shook her head.
Slowly, Headscratcher nodded. Erin gazed at him, then she punched him weakly.
“Don’t do that. Don’t…”
She trailed off weakly. Headscratcher hung his head. He hadn’t thought anyone would notice they’d gone. But somehow, Erin had. And she’d known exactly where they were.
“You did it. You actually did.”
Erin’s voice roused him. Headscratcher looked up and saw that she was staring at Numbtongue. The Hob looked drowned like the others, but he was holding the three bags filled with the artifacts tightly to his chest. The other adventurers were staring at him incredulously. Erin breathed out.
“Adventurers. I said you were, and Selys didn’t believe me.”
Headscratcher blinked. He pointed to himself questioningly, then at Badarrow. Erin nodded.
“That’s what you should be. That’s what I tried to get Selys to do. You should be adventurers. Goblin adventurers.”
Adventurers? Headscratcher couldn’t believe his ears. Like Garen Redfang? Like…them? He looked at his friends. His companions. Badarrow, sitting up groggily, Rabbiteater, still coughing up water. Shorthilt, the most unscathed but hopping mad because he’d dropped his sword while swimming, and Numbtongue. The one who’d saved them with a clever trick. All they’d done was go into a dungeon and loot it. Stole from it, really. Goblins were good at stealing things. But wasn’t that what adventurers did? When you really thought about it…
Adventurers. He had to admit, it had a nice ring to it. But it was too much to take in. Headscratcher lay on the grass. He stared up at the sky as rain hit him on the face. It was still raining. He was exhausted, hurt, and still frightened of what he had seen. But he was alive. The Hob lay there and began to laugh. After a while, Erin started laughing too.
They were alive.