“There would be no change without defiance.”
We practically race through the forest. Before the attack, the caravan kept going at a leisurely pace in order not to stress the carriages. It seems like that philosophy went out of the window. I feel a little better after ten minutes of following the carriage in front of me, which gives me the chance to use my brain.
I wince. “Don't the goblins know about the riverbed? They live here. What if it's a trap?”
“It is a trap.” Halberd nods. “But we have no other choice than to walk right into it. The trap already closed around us.”
“What? Why?” Kiara stops the maintenance of her crossbow and glares at Halberd.
The dwarf sighs. “We have four choices. We could stay right where we are and fight inside the forest. That's something which the goblins do on a daily basis, so I am sure that they would have the advantage. We could turn around and travel back the way which we came. The glade from last night’s campsite is still there and it offers at least some free space.
“We could take a hike in the woods and get picked off one by one. It would be a bloodbath. There is no way to hide our tracks with all the merchants in tow. Maybe a single person who is a skilled ranger or scout could get away, but not the whole caravan. And what do we do then? I don't want to take my chances with the wilderness.
“Lastly, we can go forward. The riverbed is near and it offers solid ground. We can concentrate our forces, instead of having to fight in a long line while our foes use the underbrush to their advantage. If the merchants were out of the picture, I would take my chances with a forest battle.”
He frowns. “Maybe it will still come to that. If we abandon the carriages, we gain mobility.”
I don't argue. At least it seems like he thought it through.
Surprisingly, the goblins leave us alone until we reach the riverbed. The river is huge, but shallow, and more than a kilometre in width. The Marsh runs right through the Marshwoods. During summer, it dries up and leaves a long stretch of rocky terrain behind. When the snow melts, the melt water from the surrounding mountains fills the river, which in turn floods the Marshwoods.
Nobody dares to travel during that season, as it's almost impossible to get through the mud.
I study our situation from different angles and with detached emotions. The fact that we left the forest gives us the ability to see our enemies coming. We are bigger and stronger than goblins, so we have the advantage on a battlefield. But why did they give us this chance in the first place? I survey the riverbed. “At least it doesn't look like they will break a dam to wash us away. The river is much too wide for that.”
Fae chuckles. “It would be a lot of effort just to kill off a single caravan. And I never heard of goblins being good builders. And since they want the goods, it wouldn't help them to 'wash us away'.”
I grunt and search for other traps, but even my magesight doesn't reveal any magical traps. I take off my mask and relax a little. “Whatever they've planned, it doesn't look like it will hit us immediately.”
At the front of the caravan, I notice Norwick ordering everyone into a rough circle. They use the carriages as barricades. I frown, still not understanding why the goblins allowed us to leave. Yes, Tristen tricked them to break off their attack early. If he hadn't done so, we would've taken a lot more casualties. But the goblins could've easily reorganized themselves for a second attack.
“What's the point of attacking us, when they allow us to escape afterwards?” I ask.
Brian answers my question. “They want us to take a defensive position. Whatever they’ve planned, they want us all in one place.”
I grind my teeth. “Maybe we should try to convince Norwick to press on. Fuck this riverbed. What if we travel through the night?”
Halberd shakes his head. “They would pick us off one by one. Goblins can see in the dark and there is only forest from here on. Once night falls, they have the advantage.”
That's when we notice the drums. They are all around us. In the forest behind us and in front of us. They are loud and sound ominous.
While the others are watching the forest, I manoeuvre my little cart into the ring of defenders. This time I'll put on the armour. I pull off the top piece of my robes, which leaves just the tight under-shirt and the dragonbone armour beneath it.
“Wha- Wha- What are you doing!?” Brian almost chokes upon seeing my curves. What's his problem? I am not stripping.
“Getting dressed for the occasion! Don't ogle me, you leech!” I grab the breastplate from the small loading area behind me and strap it on. With Fae's help, I am ready shortly afterwards. There is just no way to join the mask with the armour's helmet. Given the choice, I choose the mask. I've put a lot of effort into enchanting it.
The drums aren't subsiding, even after an hour of waiting. Norwick passes by and gives us instructions for the inevitable attack. The demoness in his party is expecting a large scale magical attack, so we should ready our defences.
I debate with myself whether I should try to pull something out of my hat or not, but any spells I can come up with would reveal my knowledge. I never learned enough about this world's large rituals. All I picked up from Nemus is weather magic. Hm. Weather magic.
As the setting sun disappears behind the mountain, I jump off my cart and run to the sandy part of the riverbed. I pick up a piece of driftwood and prick my neck with a nail, drawing blood. Then I cover the tip of my improvised wand with it and channel a little magic through the item. It gets warm, but it holds without blowing up in my face.
Hastily, I scratch out the necessary runes as I make my way around the camp. I am almost done when I get interrupted by Norwick and a woman with horns on her head. The demoness, I suppose? Why are they called demons instead of goatpeople? Aren't they just hybrids like all the other beastkin?
“What are you doing?” Norwick asks. The woman smiles at me and decides to reprimand me with her slightly haughty voice. “It would be nice to inform us of a large-scale working.”
Her smile revealed sharp teeth, so I change my impression of her race from goats to... something else.
“Passive weather influence to encourage the formation of mist. If we stay here through the night, it might be helpful if our enemies don't see us either. The mist won't be too thick, but with a little time it will reduce everyone's vision to not more than twenty metres. It'll hardly inconvenience our warriors, while the goblins will loose a lot of their advantage,” I explain.
Norwick raises an eyebrow. “Go on.”
I ignore them and finish my work twenty minutes later. It feels like the drums are closing in on us as the light fades away and the mist rises. The riverbed isn't completely dried out. There is still a small trickle of water here and there, so my subtle spell does its job without further encouragement.
Without a better idea of what to do, I start whistling a tune and head back to the others. They are still at the perimeter where I left them. Halberd is holding his halberd, pun intended, while the others are eyeing the darkness. A few weak light globes are cast to illuminate the camp.
I notice a few pearls of sweat on Tristen's forehead. He grunts and draws his sword. “These drums are driving me crazy. What's their game?”
“I've experienced that before.” An old adventurer to our left shakes his fists. “Goblin wardrums. They have a shaman who is using them for a large working. The closer the drums get, the more fear they will instil in us. And if the shaman is powerful enough, we'll be so frightened that we can't even fight back when they attack. I've seen it during the Goblin War.”
A man next to him slaps the old man on the back of his head. “Shut up and concentrate your magic on your mental defences.”
I bite my lower lip and concentrate on my protections. There is indeed something brushing against the mental defences which I worked into my mask. It's so weak that I didn't notice it. Just a suggestion. The old man is right.
I study the faces of the adventurers. There are sixty-four of us and most look like they will cower down in fear any second. Turning around, I find that most of the merchants without magic are already at the point of hiding themselves under their carriages. They can't even run and are immobilized by their fear.
Tristen steps back and starts shaking. “Guys, I am afraid that I am no good at this. My teacher always told me that my mental defences suck.”
Scowling, I draw my dagger and take Tristen's hand. “Hold still!”
I etch a ward into the back of his hand. He winces, but doesn't protest. Even as the blood flows.
“Channel your mana through your hand and you will be fine.” I look around, bloody dagger in hand. “Has anybody else problems with withstanding their mental influence?”
They shake their heads. Apparently nobody else wants to get cut.
We wait as the drums close in all around us. Then figures appear in the dark and a hail of stones, arrows and spears rains down on us. I raise my shield and aim my staff, shooting out a bolt of energy.
The enhanced vision of my mask gave me a good idea of my target's whereabouts.
The following explosion causes yelps of fear and lights up several goblins. Other adventurers use the chance to take a shot, but not nearly enough. I realize that I am the only one who can see far enough. The others don’t have a clear target.
Slowly, the drums close in. They are loud, but one is louder than the others, somewhere to my left. It feels like it is empowering the rest.
The goblins repeat their attack and the rain of projectiles starts claiming victims on our side.
“Advance! They will wear us down if we allow them to take shots at us! Advance! Close the ranks.”
Norwick's voice echoes over the battlefield, but nobody moves. They are too enthralled by the drums. I try to shove Brian forward, but the paladin is rooted to the spot. Tristen isn't able to move either. My rune helped as long as the shaman wasn't close enough, but now the rogue is shaking again.
A group of goblins charges our perimeter somewhere to my right. Norwick tries to rally his men. “Fight you sons of bitches! Don't let the drums get to you!”
At least it seems to have some effect, as I hear the sound of steel on steel and battlecries. The sound of war. But it's all too late. We are inside their trap and if this goes on any further we are all doomed. Norwick and his party might be able to withstand the spell, but they alone won't win this.
Another rain of projectiles drops down on us. Some adventurers shoot back, but their aim is miles off. Then a group of goblins charges our line. They immediately break off and retreat when they are greeted by arrows and magic. It's clear that they are just testing us. They want to know if we are ripe for the picking.
“Aw, fuck it! I am not going to die here!” I step around Brian and run into the darkness.
“Joyce!” Fae calls after me, but she doesn't follow.
It's good like that. I have my own problems. The source of this ritual is the shaman and I am fairly sure that he must be near that strong concentration of magic which I sense to my left. The fear-spell must end.
“I'll kill you little pests. And if I die, I'll come back to haunt you!” I laugh haughtily. They have no idea that my threat is a real possibility. It's unlikely to reincarnate twice on the same world, but it has happened before.
I channel energy from my surroundings, but this time I just draw it in. Magic is the ability to shape energy. A mage doesn't have to take it from his own power. He or she can also absorb it. Me taking in energy causes the temperature around me to drop, which in turn allows more water to condense in the air. The mist thickens, lessening my range of vision.
Several shapes appear in front of me and I barrel right into one of them. The goblin is thrown to the ground and I go on, ignoring the rest. Their angered cries follow me and something is deflected by my armour. I raise the shield behind me to cover my head. It would be a shame if one of those shitstains gets a headshot achievement by killing me.
The drum is close. I covered about fifty metres and ran into just one group of enemies. There must be less of them than we thought. The goblins are completely relying on their fear magic to pick off the adventurers. But the drum and the shaman will surely be protected.
My hunch is confirmed a few steps later when a large shape appears out of the mist. The drum is huge, at least four metres in height. Taking notice, the goblins scream and point at me.
I aim my shield forward and charge, channelling magic through my entire being. Bodies bounce off of me like toddlers. But there are too many and my momentum is stopped. I sidestep a club and stab the owner. Dodge, kick, roll, block, my movements are suddenly commanded by instinct and necessity. There is no time to think.
The figure at the huge drum intensifies his efforts in an attempt to chase me off.
Close enough. I aim the staff and channel my magic for one last blast of power. As I release the spell, one of the little buggers throws himself onto my staff. The spell goes wide and hits the large carriage which is holding the drum.
Unperturbed, the drummer continues his work and I howl in rage as several of the stinking creatures throw themselves onto me. Something pierces through my thigh as one of the goblins finds a weak spot between my armour plates. Changing the grip on my staff, I hurl it at the figure and nail him to the drum.
With the ritual interrupted and the drum damaged, the spell's energies unload in a single, large explosion. The carriage is torn to shreds and a large piece of the drum is hurled upwards. Held down by an enraged mob of goblins, I grin and raise my shield in defiance as the large piece of debris comes crushing down on us.
Unsurprisingly, my last word in this world is a scream of pain.