“So how’s it look out there?” Sneppit demanded the instant Gizmit walked into the room.
“Pretty much exactly how I told you it would be the entire way here,” Gizmit replied. “The situation’s volatile, no place this close to Fallencourt proper is more than provisionally secure, and you have no business being this close to the action, boss. If Jadrak finds out you’re here—”
“Fortunately I pay the very best people to make sure he doesn’t find out things like that,” Sneppit interrupted, rather than have to listen to that speech again.
“This complex is as secure as we can make it,” Dapp said, defensiveness audible in his tone.
Gizmit gave him a look and a sigh. “I believe you. But as secure as it can be made is not fucking very.”
Sneppit cleared her throat, rescuing Dapp before he could properly get his back up. She did not need infighting among her underlings, now of all times. Gizmit wasn’t wrong, but Dapp was still sensitive and raring to prove himself worthy of his quick promotion to chief of Sneppit’s personal guard, since she’d left her actual head of security in charge of her headquarters.
“Noted. What else, Gizmit?”
“I have a few details I can contribute, but the most important thing I found out there can speak for herself.”
Gizmit stepped deeper into the room and then to one side, clearing the way for the person who’d been following her to enter, carefully adjusting her polearm in the process so it didn’t whack the door frame.
“Rizz!” Sneppit put on a broad smile, spreading her arms in an effusive greeting.
“What the hell are you doing here, Sneppit?” the Judge demanded. “The girl’s right, this is no place for a paper-pushing backroom dealer. What, you think Kzidnak doesn’t have enough chaos right now? The little of it that’s still relatively stable will go belly up if you succeed in gettin’ your little pink ass killed like you’re so earnestly trying to.”
“And it’s lovely to see you too, Rizz. I was also worried about your well-being, thank you for asking. Your boys are fine, they’ve been pitching in back at my HQ, really helpful in keeping all the refugees organized. How’s Rhoka?”
“Rhoka’s doing her goddamn job, and when she doesn’t it’s out of misguided compassion for situations that’re none of her business. As opposed to you, swooping in on this mess like the scavenger you are in the hope you can hook up with the Dark Lord when he gets here.”
“Rizz, you met the guy; he leads by charisma and raw firepower, not by having any idea what he’s doing. When he swoops in here he’s gonna need somebody with actual administrative skills to help, otherwise all of this is gonna get even messier than it needs to.”
“Uh huh.” Rizz propped the polearm against her shoulder and folded her arms. “And you’re definitely only interested in what’s best for Kzidnak, not at all in positioning yourself to take as much credit as possible for as little work possible so the Dark Lord’ll appoint you Jadrak’s replacement.”
Sneppit’s already-sunny smile widened by a couple more teeth. “C’mon now, Judge, we’re all adults here. Nobody needs to explain to anybody else that more than one thing can be simultaneously true. So, what’s the news out there?”
Rizz grimaced at her, but opted not to push the argument further. “Well, as it happens, the news is goin’ down right now. You’re already too close to the action; a little more shouldn’t hurt, provided you’re supervised. And,” she added, her broad hatbrim bobbing as she looked Sneppit up and down, “assuming you can manage not to look like a hot pink exhibition for five minutes outta your life.”
“As usual, Rizz, I am a step ahead of you. Ydleth, honey!” Sneppit called, raising her voice.
Amid the sounds of hurried activity as her entourage bustled about setting up and fortifying her field HQ in this residence on the outskirts of Fallencourt which they’d found abandoned, there rose the slaps of heavier-than-average foosteps. Seconds later, a human face appeared in the upper corner of the doorframe, having to bend down to peek through. Luckily the ceilings in here were high enough not to give their tallfolk allies much trouble, but the doors were rather inconvenient for them.
“Yo, boss lady,” Ydleth replied.
“Good thinking on that disguise you arranged, darling,” Sneppit purred. “I’m gonna need that sooner than expected. Can you be a lamb and dig it up for me?”
“No digging required, I packed that on top. Back in two shakes!” Ydleth promised cheerily as she vanished. Sneppit’s smile diminished by a couple of degrees as the human’s slightly muffled voice carried back to them from the room beyond. “Obviously, we all knew you weren’t gonna have the sense to stay put and keep your head down like absolutely everybody’s been telling you. Gotta be prepared!”
“Interesting operation you’re running here, Snep,” Rizz drawled.
“Hey, be nice to my new assistants, they’re more than pulling their weight. And Ydleth there can kick a guy clear across the room.”
There came a crash from the adjacent chamber, followed by peals of laughter in Madyn’s voice.
“Why did you tell her that?” Ydleth complained loudly.
“Aw, don’t be like that, nobody blames you,” Madyn chortled. “It’s a great story! And he deserved it.”
Rizz turned a very expressive stare upon Sneppit.
“See? They fit right in,” Sneppit said sweetly. “Gives me a good feeling about Lord Seiji. You tend to think of humans as stuffy and obsessed with hierarchy, but he’s clearly got his people accustomed to speaking their minds. It’s like he’s been preparing himself to lead goblins this whole time and didn’t even know it. Ah, thanks, Ydleth, perfect. Okay, Rizz, let’s go see what’s so important.”
Sneppit had to hand it to her: the sight of the Hero attempting to assault the Goblin King’s fortress, alone, was pretty important. Especially given the way it appeared to be going.
“What is that boy doing?” she breathed in horror.
“Embarrassing himself,” Rizz said dryly.
Jadrak had set himself up in Fallencourt’s most ostentatious structure, a colossal pillar of stone formed by the union of a stalagmite with about the same floor footage as a modest Fflyr mansion and an only slightly smaller stalactite above. The originally natural formation had been fully carved out by goblins eons ago, both hollowed from within and its exterior shaved down so that it was now a neatly hexagonal tower connecting the floor and ceiling of Fallencourt’s main cavern. Until this disastrous conflict, its ownership had most recently been shared by a consortium of business owners running several trading concerns which specialized in higher-value goods than most goblins could afford. The Core Tower’s defensibility made it ideal for both their purposes and Jadrak’s, with thick walls, narrow windows, and only two points of access. There was a downward-sloping bridge from its main entrance to a broad ledge running along one side of the cavern’s wall, itself a market space in better times; the Tower’s only other entry was through a covered bridge of stone and iron leading into its secondary complex inside the walls of Fallencourt.
That, as any native of Kzidnak knew, would be the most sensible angle of attack if someone wanted to invade the Core Tower. Though the bridge itself made a highly defensible choke point, the complex on the other side had multiple entrances, including a small ledge which opened onto one of Sneppit’s own tram tunnels. Unfortunately that particular spot hung over a bottomless drop into the core and the tram tracks leading there had been sabotaged over the last several hours, so that wasn’t really a viable insertion point right now. Still, there were other accesses to those chambers; they were quite secure, but less so than the Core Tower itself.
The Hero Yoshi had chosen to go about this the hardest way possible, resulting in not only failure but ridicule; he was getting stymied right out in the open in the middle of Fallencourt, in full view of any goblin who might care to peek out a window. Or just stand openly in their doorways and bridges and ledges, laughing and jeering at his expense.
As they watched, Yoshi made another run for the bridge, his elf companion right on his heels with her artifact rapier up. Being more heavily armored and carrying a shield, he of course took the lead, though it barely helped. The second they began moving they came under heavy fire from every window of the Tower which overlooked them—and in particular from what had to have been every remaining sorcerer Jadrak had to call upon.
“Light Barrier!” Their support priestess did her best from her more secure position huddling under the stone awning of a nearby storefront, which was why their inevitable defeat was merely humiliating instead of lethal.
Shouts of “Fire Lance!” were followed by a volley of flame and force that pounded the magical shield, causing it to flicker to the very brink of collapse. A follow-up volley of slingshot projectiles finished it off, the last few breaking through to impact Yoshi’s shield; one scored a glancing blow against his armor, causing him to falter. Flaethwyn swiped two deftly out of the air with her rapier, an impressive display of the artifact’s power. It wasn’t enough, though.
Flaethwyn was the first to retreat as the projectiles kept up, not that she really had a choice. Yoshi actually hunkered behind his shield as best he was able and attempted to press forward, managing to get one boot on the foot of the bridge before the sheer concentrated force of slingshot rounds brought him to a halt.
Slingshot rounds, broken bottles, loose brickwork… Every window in the Core Tower that wasn’t covered by one of the ridiculous green banners Jadrak had draped from the top of the structure had goblins crowded into them, jeering and hurling trash at the beleaguered Hero.
“Light Barrier!” Pashilyn’s voice was growing hoarse; if not from the shouting alone, she was starting to falter. Sneppit knew that spell cost stamina from the caster as it absorbed impacts. Again, she barely managed to save Yoshi from the next round of Fire Lances.
He retreated again. Not fully back to shelter as Flaethwyn had done, but at least far enough that civilians couldn’t just chuck junk at him. Still, he cowered behind his shield, carefully shuffling backward as the Light Barrier faltered and broke again. The last few spiked balls thunked against his shield.
Well, at least they didn’t seem to have any more bombs to throw.
“What an absolute disaster,” Sneppit groaned, absently adjusting the plain brown hood that covered her immaculately dyed hair. That and a heavy cloak were all that constituted Ydleth’s “disguise;” it wouldn’t fool anybody up close, but from this distance it should at least obscure her characteristic, vivid pinkness. Rizz had found them a deserted gallery high up toward the ceiling that afforded both an excellent view over Fallencourt and a measure of privacy from anybody looking up. “Doesn’t that kid know anything about public relations? Nobody’s gonna take him seriously after this.”
“Why the hell would a Hero know anything about public relations?” Rizz asked wearily.
“Incoming,” Gizmit suddenly said. By the time Sneppit looked up and managed to follow the direction of her gaze, Dapp had already moved to place himself between her and the threat. “Wait… Weapons down, it’s a Judge. No…an Arbiter.”
Dapp looked to Sneppit for confirmation; she gave him a reassuring nod, and he gestured his team backward. Meanwhile Rhoka, who’d been keeping this ledge secure until Rizz brought them here, moved in that direction to greet the newcomer. Sneppit couldn’t actually see anything except the odd flash of furtive movement from a similar ledge some distance below and to their right, but she trusted Gizmit’s eyes and know-how.
“Well, we gotta get the boy under control somehow,” she murmured, watching Yoshi being driven back again. “This is a battle for hearts and minds more than territory; he’s makin’ our entire side look like assholes.”
A roar suddenly echoed through the cavern, goblins from every corner of Fallencourt raising their voices in unison. If it wasn’t every onlooker—and it wouldn’t be, Sneppit knew many if not most of the goblins here were just trying to survive this madness—it was enough to create that illusion, which of course was exactly what he wanted.
The Core Tower featured a small balcony directly above its main entrance, two stories up. Onto this, from behind the livid green curtains hung there for just such an entrance, had just stepped the goblin who would proclaim himself King.
Jadrak was a handsome goblin, famously so; Sneppit had to acknowledge that and didn’t begrudge it. He understood public relations and the value of putting an attractive face forward. His black hair was immaculately styled, flowing about his shoulders as if it were a softer texture than goblin hair actually was, the locks and the fluffy bangs that hovered dashingly over one of his eyes streaked with shining, metallic gold. That was his color scheme: he wore a stark black coat embellished with gold at the cuffs and embroidered along the sleeves, with a golden mantle draped over his shoulders.
Sneppit thought it was significant that there was no green in his ensemble except that of his skin. The symbol of his great revolution was for other people to wear; it signified followers, rather than leaders. Marks and stooges. Sneppit dressed her security people in pink, but that was because she wore it first and foremost. That, and Youda had happened across a cheap way to dye akornin armor pink and she hadn’t been able to resist.
The Goblin King held up his hands, and the cheering quieted as the twang of slingshots fell silent. Below him, Yoshi risked peeking over the rim of his shield.
“So this is the Hero,” he thundered, his voice echoing across Fallencourt and filling the space. Jadrak was more a match for Seiji than Yoshi; he definitely understood the value of performance. Also, he had a powerful set of lungs. “Look, I know this is a cliché, but I expected someone…taller. And that doesn’t begin to cover why I’m disappointed.”
Yoshi lowered his shield, his shoulders heaving with visible exertion. Still, he had the energy to strike a pose, planting his feet in a balanced stance and pointing his sword up at the Goblin King. Sneppit cringed; it was just so forced and clearly put on, making him look utterly foolish in contrast to Jadrak’s effortless charisma.
“You are already dead,” Yoshi shouted, causing her to cringe even harder. Clearly Seiji had not taught him how to project; his voice was thin and strained with the effort of yelling and didn’t even travel as far as Jadrak’s calmer tone. “Come down from there and face me yourself, if you…”
Whatever other nonsense he spewed was utterly drowned out by laughter and catcalls. Jadrak just stood there, smiling down at the embarrassed Hero, and waited for Yoshi to get tired of wasting air. Then waited further until he lowered his sword. The poor boy just couldn’t look anything but sheepish in that moment.
Only then did the Goblin King raise his hands again. Fallencourt quieted at his wordless command, further emphasizing his power and dominant position.
“You like to talk, human,” Jadrak said once it was quiet enough for him to be the undisputed center of attention. “But this is Kzidnak, and we know the value of talk—especially talk from your kind. If you want your words taken seriously, put them in writing. In fact, when you’re ready, just ask politely and I’ll draw up an agreement for us. Having the Hero’s signature under articles of surrender will make a nice souvenir.”
He smirked down at Yoshi, keeping his head tilted just enough to maintain his stare on the boy as he turned away until he finally sauntered back inside through his ridiculous curtains. No sooner had he vanished from view than another round of slingshot balls were being launched, forcing the chastened Hero to backpedal away from the bridge entirely.
“We gotta get that kid outta there before he dooms us all,” Sneppit hissed, glaring down at the scene of Yoshi’s disgrace. “Dapp, move out, we need to secure an exit route and—”
“Wait wait wait! Stop, don’t do it!”
She turned, scowling in annoyance—nobody interrupted Miss Sneppit—to behold the Arbiter Gizmit had spotted approaching along the ledge at a run, waving her free hand overhead as if they didn’t need to be discreet about their presence.
“Arbiter Fram,” Rizz called out. “Where is Judge Gazmo? Please tell me you’re not all that’s left.”
“Gazmo’s fine, he’s down there keeping an eye on the Hero,” Fram panted, staggering to a halt next to them. “We came with them. Look, don’t jump in, okay? This is under control! Everything’s going according to plan, the Hero’s doing his job perfectly. If this keeps up, we could actually win this!”
“Fram,” Rizz said in a dangerous tone, “this is not the time for one of your what you incorrectly think are jokes.”
“I’m dead serious, Judge, I swear!”
“If you came with him, then what happened to Lord Seiji?” Sneppit demanded.
“He’s doing his part, too. Look, just trust me, we’ll get everybody on the same page. See? They’re retreating down there, it’s time for a break. Hero or no, he can’t keep that up forever, the boy needs to rest and recover. Gazmo’s got some local allies we rustled up, they’ll cover their tracks so they can get away. I’ll grab ‘em and we can convene for a chat, right? I assume you’ve got some kinda secure base set up here, Miss Sneppit, or you wouldn’t’ve come yourself.”
The Arbiter paused, then tilted her head to one side, looking Sneppit curiously up and down.
“Uh, speaking of… Why the hell did you come here? This is no place for—”
“Gizmit, go with her,” Sneppit ordered. “Lead the Hero, the Judge and whoever else they approve back to our hideout, and make sure nobody else follows.”
“I’ll do my best, but we’re way too close to the action here for guarantees.”
“Your best is what I pay you for. C’mon, Dapp, back to base. Let’s get ready to receive guests.”
“Okay…that’s not a bad plan, considering what you were working with,” Sneppit said slowly, digesting the implications. Impressively quickly, Gazmo and Gizmit had gathered up the Hero’s party and managed to get them back to Sneppit’s improvised base of operations. Both had said, with dour looks, that they’d done their best to cover their exit, but actual security out here wasn’t a prospect.
Madyn and Youda were busy handing out rations, both to the exhausted humans (and elf) and the assembled goblins. It was about breakfast time anyway, and even those who hadn’t just been publicly spanked by the Goblin King’s forces needed sustenance.
Sneppit kept her composure better than most of her followers; she could tell at a glance that she was far from the only one reeling from the revelations Yoshi and company had brought. By Virya’s swinging teats, what a catastrophe. Even the pixie’s hasty reassurance that none of them were in danger of having their souls taken wasn’t much comfort. If it was only Jadrak’s most devoted loyalists…well, Sneppit had zero sympathy for any of those assholes. She wouldn’t personally have done anything as horrible as sacrifice them to a devil, but whatever took them off the board. If only that were the only effect it would have. Goddess, with the kind of Void power Jadrak could gain from potentially hundreds of souls… Never mind Kzidnak, nowhere would be safe from him.
“I see a big flaw in your strategy, though,” she said after contemplating for a moment.
Yoshi had just been handed a bowl of stewed mushrooms and khora root, and now lowered it to give her a serious look. It still bemused Sneppit, how the Hero treated her with automatic respect. Granted, it had taken some intervention from the Dark Lord to get him there, but this wasn’t how things worked in any of the stories.
“To be honest, it’s more flaws than strategy,” Yoshi admitted. “Omura agreed to the plan, but… I’m under no illusions. We’re doing the best with what little we have in an extremely bad situation, Miss Sneppit. I know you’re a more strategic thinker; if you have any suggestions, I’ll be grateful for them.”
“Yeah, it’s not great, but you’re right—for what you’re working with, it’s a good gambit. The issue that jumps out at me is that you’re propping up Jadrak’s mystique at the same time you’re keeping him hopefully too calm to pull that doomsday trigger. Making him look good in front of all his followers is only cementing their loyalty, which is keeping them on the table as potential sources of Void fuel.”
“There’s not really a way around that, though,” said Judge Gazmo.
“And I’d contest the idea that this is keeping that option open,” Rizz added. “At worst, it’s prolonging the situation, not securing it. Goblins are still goblins, Sneppit. If Virya herself came down on a cloud and gave Jadrak everything his little heart desired right in front of all his sycophants, he’d still run out of the kind of loyalty he needs to invoke this soul contingency. He’s coasting on crisis and showmanship right now, but goblins will not maintain that kind of slavish devotion over the long term. I give it days at most before the option’s effectively dead.”
“I’m not sure we can hold off for days,” Yoshi said with a grimace, picking up his spoon.
“Itadakimasu!” chorused Ydleth, Madyn, and the dozen goblins of Sneppit’s entourage as they tucked into their own breakfast.
Yoshi dropped his spoon into his stew, staring at them in shock.
“Oh, you recognize that?” Sneppit asked. “What are they saying, anyway?”
“W-where did they hear that?” he stammered.
She shrugged, scooping up a bite of her own. “It’s something those two butts do at meals. They immediately got basically every goblin in my company doing it over the last couple days, plus most of the refugees we took in. I don’t even think it was on purpose, people just enjoy having fads to glom onto. Specially during rough times like this, eh? Seemed harmless enough.”
The Hero raised a trembling hand to cover his eyes. “Omura, you absolute…”
“This…is harmless, right?” Sneppit asked pointedly. “Is there something I should know?”
“I…that… Uh, I think we should focus on immediate problems,” Yoshi hedged. “If we all survive this, though, you should ask Omura about it as soon as everything here is settled.”
“Well, sure, I’ll add it to the list,” she shrugged. “He and I have a lot to discuss, anyway.”
Sitting silently beside Yoshi, the priestess glanced over at Sneppit over the rims of her spectacles. Not for the first time, she observed that Pashilyn was far too quiet and observant. In any other circumstances, Sneppit would regard her as the greatest long-term danger in the Hero’s party. And circumstances could change quickly.
Like the subject, which she now smoothly diverted from what she sensed could become a problematic matter.
“How long do you think you can keep this up, then? Sorry to put the weight on your shoulders, kid, but it sure seems like there’s nothing else we can do until Lord Seiji finishes off that Void witch and gets back here.”
“If,” Flaethwyn muttered. “The word you want is if.”
“If I can manage to hold up my end, I have to have faith Omura can handle his,” Yoshi said, nodding decisively. “We’ll hold out as long as we can. The chance to rest and refuel is very much appreciated, Miss Sneppit, but we’d better not linger long. I’ll go make another run at the defenses as soon as we’re finished up here. If we pace ourselves…” He looked over at his friends questioningly. “And as long as Amell’s potions hold out… Most of today, hopefully? Optimistically.”
“I, um, I’m not sure my stocks are going to keep us on our feet that long,” Amell said, cringing. “After everything, even with what we took from the old mining offices, I’m low on…all of it.”
“Now that we can definitely help with,” Sneppit stated. “Youda? I want the stocks opened to the Hero’s team. This is no time for scrimping and saving; anything and everything they might could use, they get.”
“You got it, boss!” Youda said cheerfully, waving his spoon at her. “Ain’t like I brought my entire lab out here, but we’re kitted out for a decent support plan. Bet I can keep ‘em upright for at least a few more hours.”
“I know the Hero’s going to be on the front lines, but it’s a good idea to keep some supplies for your own people, Sneppit,” Rizz said pointedly. “You’re dreaming if you think you’re gonna stay undiscovered past lunchtime, optimistically. Everyone is going to be fighting by the time the Dark Lord gets back. Don’t keep all your coins in one pouch.”
“Well, sure, it’s not as if they can even carry our entire stock,” Sneppit countered. “Trust me, Rizz, this is not my first time planning an operation under pressure.”
“I’m a bit surprised to see you out here yourself, Miss Sneppit,” Yoshi said in a careful tone. “You seem like more of a behind-the-scenes planner. No offense, of course! It’s just, we’re awfully close to the center of danger here.”
“Yes, so everyone has been pointing out to me,” she said sweetly, “repeatedly and at length, as if I were unable to discern obvious facts for myself.”
“And yet, here you damn well are,” Rizz growled. “If it’s so obvious—”
“Life’s not about what you can see, it’s about what you understand, and how well you’re able to leverage what you learn. Yeah, it’s risky. Everyone knows it’s risky. But while you all see only the risks, I see the opportunity.”
Sneppit leaned back in the high-backed chair she’d insisted on bringing exactly for moments such as this, smiling knowingly over the assembled goblins, humans, and one disgruntled elf.
“That’s why I’m the boss.”
The bad timing was probably just a result of the dicey situation they were all in, but she wouldn’t have put it past Gizmit to do it on purpose. Whatever the cause, that was the moment her most senior intelligence agent chose to dart into the room, making a beeline for Sneppit’s side.
“They’ve found us,” Gizmit stated curtly.
Immediately, everyone set down spoons and grabbed for weapons.
“There’s nobody in the vicinity closing in,” the Hero’s pixie familiar protested. “The only goblins outside this complex are Sneppit’s own guards.”
“You think they’ve figured out the range of your senses?” Yoshi asked.
“It’s not that,” said Gizmit, shaking her head. “They’re keeping at a distance on purpose. I was hailed while doing a sweep. Boss, Jadrak does know you’re here, personally. And the Hero. He sent somebody with a message. They want to open negotiations.”
There was a momentary pause.
“Trap,” Gazmo stated. “Obvious trap.”
“Obviously, yes,” said Sneppit, a smile beginning to curl across her lips. “But…but.”
“Oh, here we go,” Rizz groaned.
“Rizz, don’t be melodramatic, you don’t have the delivery for it. Yoshi, hon, eat your stew. All of you need your strength. This is how we win. We just need to make Jadrak feel secure and waste his time, right? Well, let him have his trap; ours is on his way here with news of a dead Void witch and the end of all this carnage. Because trust me, if there is one thing I can do, it’s keep Jadrak occupied with pointless bullshit until it’s too late for him to salvage his little revolution.”
“You’re hanging a lot on that,” Gazmo said skeptically. “What happens if the Dark Lord fails?”
“If the Dark Lord fails,” Sneppit answered, “then we’re all as good as dead, all of Kzidnak is shortly to follow, and the entire rest of Ephemera will be on the chopping block unless the Goddesses themselves get off their celestial asses for once and step in. So yeah, I’ve got faith in Lord Seiji, because I have to. We will proceed upon the assumption that we are not irretrievably fucked. What the hell else are we gonna do?”
For once, nobody argued.