“Rise and shine, brat! Don’t tell me you’re planning to sleep through your own coming of age party!” I found myself repeatedly slapped in the face by the ridiculously adorned goblin that previously brought us out of our chamber.
“Fucking hell, I’m awake! I’m awake! Stop hitting me already!” I growled angrily to goblin’s great joy.
“Haha!” he roared. “Blessed by the Mother just moments ago and already using Her grace to curse his elders! Good blood!” I looked at his beaming face questioningly, what is he talking about? Wait…
“I can understand you?” I asked and realised that what I heard wasn’t my native tongue, but rather some strange mix of raspy growls and hissing sounds. My throat and tongue nimbly executed all the required actions without any hesitation, as if they were trained to do this all my life.
“Sharp one, aren’t you?” He laughed, displaying his collection of not so white teeth. I found myself shocked once again. Despite facing what objectively could be called a beast brandishing its fangs in my face, even discounting the context of his words, I could feel no malice coming from this person.
This mangled face, from which the most I could read previously was that I wouldn’t want to cross its owner, now displayed, if not exactly a plethora, then a fair amount of meaning. It wasn’t that I could only understand their spoken words, even their body language and facial expressions became clear to me!
“Hurry up and get on your feet, already. We haven’t had a weakling dropping down during the ceremony in a long time, but, then again, I don’t remember ever getting a blue warrior, either!” He unceremoniously lifted me up by the shoulders and set back down next to the other goblins. “Today marks the day you lot truly joined the tribe. We’ve nursed you and fed you for a long time. You can consider this party to be the last time you’re going to be pampered this way. Now that you’ve received the blessing, you’re going to fight for the tribe like the rest of us. Which reminds me…”
“Chief, isn’t it time?” he turned towards the massive goblin who conducted the ceremony. The chief, who I just realized couldn’t possibly be a goblin, but rather some sort of an orc, nodded his head.
“Warriors of the tribe.” He spoke in a deep, booming voice. “You have received Mother's blessing and became true tribesman of Shakhra. She bestowed upon you the gift of tongue, but also the gift of strength. Show us now that you’re worthy of Her grace.”
As his words echoed along the walls of the hall, the surrounding mass of goblins grew excited again. The droning melody picked up again, only this time I could understand the word that came after the thud.
Boom. Shakhra! Boom. Shakhra!
Our group was separated into three teams, following the composition we were in when they first brought us here, and directed to the opposite sides of the main ring of the hall. It was the first time I had the chance to look at the changes that occurred in the bodies of my companions.
Alpha’s face was miraculously healed. The bridge of his nose no longer followed an unnerving zig-zag line, and his mouth sported a brand new set of teeth. This was clearly a source of joy to the grinning savage. He kept opening and closing his mouth, his molars making clicking noises as they hit each other.
That is not to say that his visage lost its ferociousness. Goblin physiognomy isn’t too pleasant to begin with, and Alpha’s face certainly didn’t stop at that baseline. His skin gained a reddish tint. Eyes that were previously yellow now turned black, his faintly golden irises being the only source of color in these twin pools of darkness. His stature itself didn’t change to any great extent, but his muscles seemed to hide more energy within them.
The two goblins who never managed to partake in the better gruel also experienced clear benefits from this so called blessing. While their skin color maintained the usual muddy green shade of the goblin race, their height increased, now coming close to mine and Alpha’s. Their change could be considered the most comprehensive, since their bodies lost all the trappings of a child and looked fully developed.
Bob also underwent some significant changes. His body became more lithe and springy. His gait displayed now a certain sense harmony and energy that was pleasing to the eye. His skin, unlike the muddy shade of most goblins, was a clear, vibrant green. It was difficult to say to what extent his strength has increased, but judging by the confidence and satisfaction he exuded, it couldn’t have been trivial.
It was the changes in my body that were the most difficult to judge. Lacking a mirror, all I could see was that the ground once more distanced itself from me and the blue tint that my skin now possessed. It wasn’t as clear defined as Bob’s, more of a mix between blue and brown, rather than a true clear-sky-blue azure.
I didn’t have much time to ponder these changes, because soon the chief’s voice was heard once again. “Warriors of the tribe. The time has come to show your prowess. Challenge each other and show your valor in the arena.”
I was still confused by what was going on, though that didn’t apply to the rest of my group. It seemed like it wasn’t just the gift of language that we were granted but also a sort of common heritage. A memory of various rituals and norms was imprinted onto my mind. However unlike the language, which I could command without even thinking about it, these records of goblin culture required conscious effort to access.
Before I had time to make sense of the situation, I felt a hand falling on my shoulder. “I, Gharak, challenge this one for the position of group leader!” announced red faced Alpha. “Very well” replied chief. “And what is your name?” he asked, turning to me. “Rhys” I answered. I had already managed to remember some details of the coming of age ceremony and knew fully well that I wouldn’t get any chance to ponder my situation until it was over. Young goblins were made to challenge each other to establish a ranking among themselves. First came the inner group contest and later the group leaders would fight each other again, till a clear hierarchy was created.
We walked to the center of the ring. Alpha, or I guess it’s Gharak now, was brimming with excitement, almost unable to wait for the fight to begin. I’ve always wondered why he never challenged me back then, and the goblin memories I inherited finally helped me solve this mystery.
It turns out that since he could never defeat Bob, who considered me as his superior, he felt he didn’t have the qualifications to challenge me. Now, after the advancement, our positions were once again thrown into the flux, so after months of waiting he jumped at the first occasion to fight me.
Gharak charged before the chief’s command even fully resounded. His speed has increased dramatically. I barely managed to sidestep him, when he turned and charged at me again.
His tactics didn’t evolve much and I could see he was trying to grapple with me, but just knowing it didn’t help me much. Alpha's newly reformed jaws were clearly aching to bite into my body, and all I could do was barely evade the swipes he made with his extended fingers.
His nails weren’t any less sharp than his teeth, though. Whenever I haven’t retreated in time, they’d leave deep scratches on my pristine body. This couldn’t go on, but there was little I could do. My lack of fighting experience, something that worried me previously, revealed itself clearly.
As I kept utilizing my speed advantage to dodge his attacks, I realized that it wasn’t just his strength that increased. It wasn’t readily apparent, but his stance and coordination have also improved. His fighting style was still akin to that of a maddened beast, but there was some newfound logic to his actions also. At the very least, I couldn’t find any easy openings to sneak in a hit between the dodges.
The battle had only just begun and I couldn’t count on him running out of stamina any time soon. Instead, his attacks only increased in ferocity. Dodging became useless, and my forearms, which blocked his furious swipes, had long started seeping blood.
Still, I couldn’t let that monster become the leader of the group. If I couldn’t stop him from grappling with me, then at least I’d be the one to initiate it.
Evading another swipe of his claws and taking advantage of the brief moment before he regained his balance, instead of retreating, I charged at him myself. I could see clear happiness on his face when he realized this game of cat and mouse had come to conclusion, but I didn’t care.
His jaws opened, revealing two rows of teeth ready to bite and I satisfied them by plunging the side of my arm in between of them. They clamped, instantly piercing flesh and assailing me with incredible pain, but I continued my charge. For a second I thought it was all for naught and I couldn’t topple him, but I’ve managed to sneak one of my legs between his, finally imbalancing him, and we came falling down, with me on top.
My instincts were screaming at me to pull my arm from this monster's jaws, but I fought them down, instead using my left arm to push his head to the ground. My right fist meanwhile started its assault on his face. Alpha first tried to push me off, but I held steady, and when he finally thought of grabbing my other arm, it was too late.
One blow after another landed on his renewed face, recreating its former appearance. I didn’t have a stone this time, but my newfound strength after the advancement finally revealed itself. Just two hits were enough to break his nose again and a few more smashed even the cartilage. The following blows moved onto his forehead. It might not have been the most optimal spot, but I wasn’t in the state to consider it anymore. Roaring and crying I wailed on his head like a beast. My blood was constantly pouring down his throat and I wasn’t going to stop till he finally let go of my arm.
It wasn’t until I was pulled of by someone that this fight had ended. Alpha never let go of my arm but he did lose consciousness at some point.
My victory was announced to common jubilation of the surrounding goblins, but I wasn’t in a mood to celebrate. The flesh on my forearm was ripped open, the wound so gruesome, you could barely even tell that it was caused by teeth. There were just two ravines of bloody meat with the white of the bone at the bottom. The sight was nauseating and even after I received a bit of the healing potion, these wounds wouldn’t heal at the amazing speeds I’ve seen previously. In the end I had to be satisfied with having them bandaged and hope they would mend overtime.
A chorus of excited howls marked the beginning of the next round to determine the leaders of our three groups. I wanted to observe it closely to glean something about our relative strength, but the constant throbbing in my arm was distracting me and the duel ended too quickly to learn much anyway. The two goblins didn’t even bother with trying to dodge each others attacks, just punching and swiping, until one of them fell. At which point the one still standing started pummeling his opponent with his fists, till the goblin acting as a referee separated them.
In the case of the third group, there wasn’t even a fight at all. A hulking red goblin simply stared the other members of his group down, and they all cowered under his gaze. I noticed that unlike the rest, he was the only colored goblin in their group.
This made everyone’s gazes turn back to us. To my horror, I heard a somewhat melodic voice declare: “I challenge Rhys for the position of leader.”
“And what’s your name, young one?” The chief asked in his usual, somber tone.
I stared at Bob with a reproachful look, but he was already walking towards the centre of the ring, and I had little choice but to follow.
The potion I drank somewhat alleviated injury, I could move my arm at least, but that was about it. I definitely couldn’t use it in a fight, and if Bob targeted it, the pain itself would nearly immobilize me.
Once we were facing each other I glared at him again, hoping to convey all the resentment I was feeling. Sadly, it didn’t really seem to register with him, anticipation for the coming fight all too clear on his face.
I grumbled inwardly, bemoaning the fact that I didn’t just dump all the remaining gruel on the ground, while my eyes were at the same time searching for a possible stone hidden in his fist.
The referee declared the beginning of the duel and I immediately noticed the difference between Bob’s and Alpha’s fighting styles.
Whereas Alpha’s advancement pushed him to double down on pure strength and ferocity, Bob went the opposite way. Similarly to how I fought in my previous match, he focused on agility.
His attacks were swift and seemingly unending. The only upside I could see was that they didn’t pack enough strength to instantly knock me out.
Faced with no other choice, I resorted to blocking his onslaught using both of my arms. Which quickly proved to be a mistake. A punch I blocked with my wounded arm sent waves of pain that eclipsed even the suffering I felt when they were literally bitten into by Alpha.
I dropped my arm and stumbled, earning myself a quick swipe to the face. Any hopes of ever finding a mirror and seeing my body in the pristine condition of post-advancement forever dashed.
The situation wasn’t looking good. In theory, I could have just surrendered this fight. It wasn’t like the battle against Alpha, I didn’t really care if Bob was the one to lead our small group.
The thing is, I was so infuriated by the fact that a brat, who wouldn’t even get a whiff of the nourishing gruel if it weren’t for me, was now punching and scratching me bloody, that I didn’t want to give up.
I understood that it was part of their customs and Bob clearly wasn’t aiming to really hurt me. To him it was socializing. Still, I never stopped considering myself a human, and it enraged me to no end that someone who I’ve once helped, was now giving me a walloping.
The only advantage I had left was my somewhat greater endurance. Bob may have enjoyed a far larger share of the gruel than Alpha, but ultimately, he wouldn’t have gotten zilch if not for my initial help. I could only barely contend with him in speed, but that wasn’t the case with sheer physical strength. Wrestling your opponent to the ground seemed to be the go-to strategy for these fights and I had no qualms about employing it again.
The only problem lied in getting a hold of the slippery brat. I missed my first attempt, and once he noticed the change of strategy, he became annoyingly wary of my charges. Still, it wasn’t like he could elude me for long if I simply gave up on avoiding his strikes.
When his fist came flying again I made a feint, seemingly to dodge it, only to bend forward straight into the path of his attack. Hard nails stabbed into my cheek, blood spraying from under his fingers, but I pushed ahead. Making use of the forward momentum, I grabbed his torso with my right arm, and we both came crashing down.
Unfortunately, I somehow forgot that what I just performed was precisely the favorite maneuver of Alpha, who Bob spent the last few months fighting exclusively. Instead of pinning my opponent to the ground, like I planned, we found each other tumbling on the floor, constantly contending for the position on top.
My arm flared up in excruciating pain every time we rolled. Having lost my patience, I stopped holding back and went for any advantage I could grasp. My hand would rip Bob's clothes, choke his neck, while his fingers, similarly, didn’t shy away from clawing into my wounded arm or trying to pierce my eyeballs.
Our bodies were at this point completely drenched in each others blood. The spectating goblins grew ecstatic watching the fiercest battle yet, and chanted the name of the tribe in rapturous voices.
When I finally made it back on top, I arched my head and then snapped it back down, headbutting Bob with all the strength I had left. A loud crack resounded when our skulls connected, the impact shaking my brain.
For a second my vision grew dark, but I powered through it, and managed to repeat my feat. This time even the sounds grew fuzzy. I couldn’t even tell if Bob was moving any more. So just to make sure, I headbutted him again.
I came to just a few moments later. The referee was holding my arm up in a victory pose, this act of mutual destruction somehow counting as my win. All the goblins erupted in cheers, and I’d be a dirty liar if I claimed that their adoration didn’t fill me with satisfaction.
As hateful as I found this whole affair, this sort of no holds barred, blood and glory melee had a certain bit of appeal. At least until the pain, temporarily held off by my head concussion and buckets of adrenaline flowing through my veins, made itself apparent again.
Bob regained his consciousness not long after I did and we were both brought back to our group. There, we chugged down the healing potions which alleviated our wounds to a certain extent.
They couldn’t do much for our clothes, however, this short bout having reduced them to tatters. Bob smiled at me with a radiant smile, and I couldn’t find the strength in me not to reply in kind.
I glanced down at his exposed chest, still dizzy from our repeated head smashing, and asked in a confused voice.
"Why do you have breasts?"