The King of Goblins rode through burning fields and across battlefields filled with death and ash. Blood ran from his sword and the dead grew in heaps and mounds tall as mountains.
He roared, and a hundred thousand Goblins in his vanguard rose to follow. His armies swept across the land, burning, pillaging. Killing.
No quarter! No mercy! The playthings must die! Kill them. Burn them. All that the Gods have wrought must be destroyed.
His rage was endless. The Goblin King threw himself into battle, killing Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, and every species that got in his way. He only paused when the half-Elven archer raised her bow. The Goblin King’s last thought was regret as the arrow pierced his skull—
Rags sat up and screamed. Her tribe leapt to their feet, shouting as she struggled to sit up in her dirty blankets. Rags looked around wildly, and realized it had been a dream.
No—not a dream. A memory. One of her visions of a time long past, when the most recent Goblin King had lived.
Only a fragment, though. As Rags shouted her Goblins back down and waved her hands, she knew her tribe wasn’t large enough to let her truly focus on those memories. This was more like a…bubble, floating up into her mind.
She still remembered the rage. Endless, consuming rage. Had that been the last King? In Rags’ mind, he was more like an avenging nightmare, driven only by death and slaughter. She couldn’t understand.
But then, the Goblin King had been leader of a tribe that was nearly limitless. He would have been able to look back—perhaps a thousand years! If Rags had a tribe that long, she might understand more of his rage, his past, and most importantly, his death.
Rags had never heard of a Goblin dying of old age. Their kind had lives like matches; they burned out in seconds in the cold winds of this world.
But Rags would be different. She would never die.
The still very young Goblin rubbed at her eyes. She was awake. The memory of dying was too vivid to sleep on. She pulled the blankets up around her shoulders—yanking it from three Goblins who protested until she kicked them—and looked around her new home.
It wasn’t great. But given that the last cave the Goblins had lived in could be accurately described as a waste of space, this was fine.
Rags shuffled her way through sleeping bodies, heedless of what or who she stepped on until she got to the pot that miraculously hadn’t yet been emptied by the coals at one end of the cavern. Rags opened the dented lid, tasted the soup and made a face.
It tasted horrible. But then, most Goblin cooking tasted bad given the things that went in them. Rags wouldn’t have minded normally, but Erin’s cooking had spoiled her.
The Goblin found a bowl, ate the leftovers still stuck to the bottom, and filled it again. She had standing orders that other Goblins weren’t allowed to serve themselves except at meal times, and then only a limited amount. Her warriors ate twice what the other Goblins did.
But Rags was a Chief, and what good was being a Chief if you didn’t get special privileges? Other Goblins didn’t really grumble about a Chief using their power; it was unfair, yes, but it was just another thing they would do if they were Chief.
Rags ate the warm soup with her fingers, spooning it efficiently into her mouth as she looked around her cave. She turned, thinking to go back to her bed, and met two purple eyes made of flame.
The Goblin choked on her soup and reached for her sword. She never let her weapons leave her side, even in sleep. But Toren just caught the bowl as it fell, ignoring Rags as the Goblin stumbled back.
The soup bowl was caught, but since it was caught face-down, all the soup dripped between the skeleton’s fingers. He regarded the slimy mixture, and then shook it off his hands.
Rags glared at Toren, ignoring the spilled food. Someone would eat it later. She glared at him in much the same way Erin did, but the skeleton was not impressed.
He was crossing his arms, waiting for something. What? Toren could not speak, so Rags had to guess. Ah. Of course; he wanted her to fulfill the bargain so he could go back. The Goblins had been too exhausted to do anything after making camp, but his patience was clearly at an end.
Yes. The cave. The battle with the enchanted plate armor. Rags closed her eyes as the events of yesterday came flooding back to her.
She remembered. But since it was her memory, it was even more glorious.
The enchanted suit of armor roared in fury, metal screeching as it swung at Toren. The skeleton dodged, and Rags popped up behind the armor and fired another crossbow bolt.
The quarrel punched through the shoulder of the chest plate, but like all of her other arrows it barely phased the magical armor. It turned, and Rags immediately ran. The armor lumbered after her, but Rags had learned [Rapid Retreat] and she outdistanced the swinging sword easily.
Other Goblins shouted, and the suit of armor turned just in time to be struck by a dozen clay pellets. Even together, the impact barely rocked the massive construct. It began to chase the Goblins, but Toren leapt on it from behind, bashing it wildly.
His bones scattered, and Rags saw the team of Goblins arrive at last. They tossed three rolls of the boom bark on the ground and Rags shouted a challenge. She knocked the helmet of the armor off with a quarrel, and he charged her, greatsword raised to end her life. Rags cast [Firefly] directly at the rolls of bark as he ran past—
It had been a battle like those Rags remembered from her furthest Chieftain’s memories. Back when multiple high-level Hobs had challenged deadly monsters and won. In this case, it had been luck, daring, the new crossbows and the boom bark that had won the day.
And only just. Rags remembered how the armor had gotten back up after it had been blasted once, and how they’d had to pelt it with almost all of their ammunition before it stopped moving. But they’d done it. They’d won.
The next Chieftain would be able to see this memory, Rags knew. Whoever followed her would learn much about how to do battle properly. Their skirmish had not cost a single Goblin’s life, or even an undead one. Toren had survived, albeit in pieces, and in the aftermath, Rags had put together several important points.
Firstly, it appeared Toren knew of the ‘place of death’. In fact, he had even fallen into it somehow, finding another entrance to the dungeon. Which led Rags to her second discovery, which was that this place was a dungeon.
Obviously. She wasn’t sure why no other Goblin had put that together, but then, not many had been witness to the many conversations at Erin’s inn. Sometimes the speakers even forgot Rags was there, and she would learn wonderful secrets.
But more information followed the first. This dungeon was massive. Rags knew this, because Toren had fallen into a rift miles away from where they were. This, Rags had learned due to the most important point:
Toren could understand her.
Yes, she had been stunned to realize the skeleton could understand the Goblin’s chattering language. The dead speak all tongues, and so Toren could understand Rags. And she could understand him because she was a genius.
It was easy. Ask a question, and Toren would gesticulate. Ask more questions to clarify, and he would draw images, or nod or shake his head. It was a basic system of communication, but through it, Rags had realized the skeleton was a lot smarter than he acted. She wondered why no one else had noticed.
Or…perhaps he had become smarter over time. Rags didn’t remember him being quite this knowing before. It made her wary, but the exchange of information had been worth it.
The entrance where so many monsters had come out of over the decades was indeed the entrance to part of the dungeon—the same type of dungeon as the ruins with the undead, although these were even more magical and dangerous, if that was possible.
But there was power down there, and Rags needed power. So she was going to explore the dungeon. With Toren’s help. That was the bargain.
Initially, Toren had been apathetic to the Goblins. He’d wandered off as Rags was marshaling her tribe, only returning when it became apparent that, among the sterling qualities the skeleton might have, a sense of direction was not among them.
Rags had talked, and he’d mainly agreed. Toren had done a rough sketch of the dungeon, indicated what levels had the most danger, and agreed to show her the first few levels he’d run through in exchange for her taking him back to the inn.
It was a good deal, and full of confidence after the battle, Rags’ tribe had marched into the crevasse in the side of the mountain. They’d lost nearly ten Goblins within the hour.
Three died when the gargantuan bats dropped down from overhead and began trying to tear them apart. As the close walls of the entrance had become wider, the Goblins had begun to relax. They’d come to a large cavern filled with lichen and dripping water, and that was when the Goblins had disturbed a nest of Dropclaw Bats.
This species of bat was so named because unlike other bats, they had evolved to enjoy and hunt after meat as much as smaller insects. They were twice as large as a human’s head—and they had sharp claws and the inclination and ability to drop on the heads of anything that entered their nests.
It would have gone badly for the unarmored Goblins if it weren’t for two facts. The first was that Goblins had good night vision, and the second was that Rags knew [Firefly]. The fire panicked the large predators, and made them easy targets for the Goblins holding slings and crossbows.
One Goblin had died from a combination of further wounds inflicted by the bats and friendly fire in the form of shrapnel falling from above by the time it was over.
That was bad, and Rags had kicked herself for being so careless. Just because Toren had been unmolested while he was fleeing the suit of armor didn’t mean everywhere was safe.
She’d ordered the dead bats collected and made into edible food, while she pinned down the living ones with stones on their wings. Not out of any generosity; it would just prolong the freshness of their new food source.
They had become dinner, and tomorrow’s breakfast as well. Tough as the leathery skin of the Dropclaw Bats might have been, everything melted quite nicely with enough water and heat.
But that was only part of the Goblin’s discovery. As they explored the further reaches of the cavern, they’d found the entrance to the dungeon. A part of the walls had caved in—due to some kind of collapse of the stone overhead. Rags had cautiously poked her head out into a long, winding corridor full of statues.
Nothing had moved, and Toren only recalled running for his life while he’d been navigating this area, so Rags had decided to risk it.
She had ventured a few steps out into the rows of stone statues, her Goblin warriors flanking her and Toren wandering around aimlessly when she spotted a pedestal holding a shining ring glowing with violet light. It was clearly valuable, and Rags wanted it. In fact, there were several pedestals scattered down the long corridor amidst the stone statues, each holding a prize of its own.
Goblins loved treasure as much as any other species, and Rags had decided that ring would look good on her finger. She’d gone two steps, and touched a pressure plate. A flurry of spectral arrows had flown over Rags’ head, missing her by two good inches. That wasn’t dangerous, but the two Stone Golems posing as statues that each snatched up a Goblin and ripped them apart were.
Six Goblins were dead before they evaded the stone hands and stomping feet—and swinging blades made of magic and spells ricocheting out of the room from concealed glyphs—and retreated back through the hole in the dungeon.
Fifteen Stone Golems had pursued the Goblins at frightening speed, but they’d stopped when the Goblins fled back into the hole in the dungeon wall. Why? Because…it wasn’t someplace they recognized?
It was the only thing Rags could come up with, and it was that which had saved her and her tribe, she suspected. But despite their losses, the Goblins had not come away empty-handed.
One of her Goblins had snatched a pendant from a pedestal. It was glowing, a blue-white gem in the shape of a circle, gilded with gold and hung on a necklace of gold as well. It was so beautiful the other Goblins immediately started fighting over it until Rags took it for herself.
Her [Detect Magic] spell showed that the item was magical, but Rags still had no idea what it did. She would have made one of her Goblins wear it, but then she’d heard the loud squeaking and remembered the Dropclaw Bats.
The bat had wriggled when Rags fastened the pendant around its neck, and then nothing had happened. Rags had reached for the pendant—
And then the bat had screamed as its flesh and bones began to melt. It took five minutes to die, and the entire time it was still intact enough to shriek. Rags and the other Goblins had stayed as far away as possible until it was over.
What remained of the unlucky bat was just a mixture of…it couldn’t even be called flesh anymore. Remains was the only word. The pendant had gone with the bat, and left only a foul stench and the memory of what it had done.
The Goblins and Toren had exchanged glances, and eyed the melted remains. They’d come to a swift decision, and worked on implementing it all of yesterday.
So that was how Rags found herself eating another bowl of bat soup and watching her Goblins labor at the far end of the cavern with a skeleton by her side. The Goblins heaved the last boulder into place as Toren watched disapprovingly. They were hurrying to finish the barrier to the dungeon they’d started yesterday.
It was necessary, and Rags had refused outright to leave until it was completed. Toren had glared silently at Rags, but acquiesced in the end, mainly because he had no choice. Rags almost expected him to start tapping his foot like Erin did. The skeleton seemed to mirror a lot of the innkeeper girl’s reactions.
Rags stepped back and regarded her tribe’s handiwork. The pile of stones was by no means an impenetrable barrier, but from both sides it looked like a rock slide that could be too much trouble to move. She hoped it would seal off the cavern from any monsters wandering from below until she could come up with a better solution.
Like a door with a pit trap five hundred feet deep. But Rags was determined to stay near the dungeon. The Stone Golems were a terrible enemy—and some of the things Toren had seen suggested they were only the beginnings of the challenges that lurked below. But if there was anywhere to level up and challenge her tribe, it would be there.
For now though, Rags had to fulfill her promise. Toren was starting to smack Goblins whenever they tried to come near him, and he had a dangerous look in his eyes. True, he always had a dangerous look in his eyes, but Rags sensed trouble if she didn’t move fast.
She left the cave, the skeleton stomping out behind her. Rags inhaled the crisp, winter air, and decided she liked the cave better. Out here was too exposed.
A bony finger prodded Rags in the back and she turned and glared. Toren glared back, and it had to be said that he was better at it. Rags debated trying to punch him, and then gave up and stomped through the snow.
It was a long, quiet march through the plains. Rags set a fast pace; she knew roughly where all the Shield Spider nests were, and she could spot the snowy mounds that were Rock Crabs quite easily. Toren followed Rags silently, only pausing when she did.
Rags and Toren walked through the snow, both looking up as a last group of the reptilian birds flew south overhead. Rags saw a fox dash by and wished she’d brought her crossbow; Toren stared at a bird.
They paused to watch another herd of boars pass, this group not domesticated like the last group Rags had seen. The herd of hairy creatures sloughed through the snow, tusks helping to break apart the clumps of snow.
It was peaceful. Then a Carn Wolf howled, and the world became dangerous and deadly once more.
Rags immediately crouched in the snow, looking for the wolf. Normally, they didn’t howl when hunting Goblins so she might get lucky. Carn Wolves liked to sneak up and kill Goblins, but this sounded like they were hunting the boars, who had started to rush through the snow.
Rags looked around as she began to unsheathe her sword. But—Carn Wolves were huge, far bigger than normal wolves. She saw Toren reaching for a sword he didn’t have, and felt at a hard object secure in her belt. She pulled it out as the Carn Wolves loped out into the open.
It was an entire pack, and they closed on the boars quickly, even as the pigs squealed and changed directions. Rags watched as the wolves ran towards the herd, spreading out as they moved to create a net. It was a maneuver performed by hunters in this world and in Erin’s. The wolves would separate a weak link, a child or elderly boar from the pack and then work together to bring it down.
Except that this time, the lead wolf made a mistake. Too eager to send panic into the herd of boars, he rushed towards the center. The wall of hair opened up as he ran towards them, and then suddenly closed together, trapping the wolf.
He howled and bit, but suddenly the fleeing boars had turned their tusks on him. They charged into the wolf, slashing upwards with their tusks, smashing him from all sides. In a blink, they’d separated again, leaving a gored mess of fur and blood behind.
The other Carn Wolves slowed, and Rags watched them hesitate. Yes, that was the problem. Even the mightiest predator was in danger of being brought down by many smaller enemies. It was far easier to prey on the weak, the small, the isolated.
It was somewhat depressing, and predictable, when the leader of the wolves sniffed the air and looked at Rags and Toren. Mainly at Rags. She sighed as he ran at her, and pulled the object out of her pouch.
A red jewel rose into the air, and Rags felt sickening fear pulse through her veins. Not just from her jewel; as the wolves ran towards them, Toren suddenly emitted the same aura of pure terror.
The wolves faltered, stopped, and then turned and ran, yelping and whining in fear. Some left yellow trails as they ran; Rags watched them go as she calmly tucked one of Skinner’s ‘eyes’ back into her belt.
She’d forgotten Toren took the other one. Well, the gem was good for moments like this. More than once Rags had stopped something from attacking her or her tribe with the gem, but she knew it had its limits.
The problem—yes, the problem was that while the blood-red gem was extremely useful, it was useless against other Goblins. Skinner had realized that to his cost, and Rags had no intention of forgetting it.
Goblins were always afraid. Pure terror didn’t slow them down like other species; if anything, it made them fight harder. If Rags tried to use this on another tribe, she’d just get herself killed.
Plus, there were things the gemstone didn’t work on. The Antinium, for one, and Erin for another. And the undead. And Relc, or so Rags had overheard. And of course it didn’t stop long-range attacks, magic, traps…
Really, it wasn’t that useful. Rags put the stone away and took her hand away from her sword hilt as the yelping faded in the distance. But it did allow her to traverse the plains by herself, which was important. She could leave her warriors behind to guard the cave, and make better time this way.
Indeed, Toren was able to match Rags’ speed. The skeleton strode through the snow after her, flaming eyes tracking her movement and the seemingly unchanging landscape.
Rags ignored the look. The skeleton seemed to be able to control the fear effect from his gem, so she ignored him. She had to think.
Well, her idea with the dungeon had been a partial success. She’d found a place to live, at least temporarily. And it was a good spot to expand in; the stone could be mined away and the Watch wouldn’t patrol out that far. If Rags’ goblins kept to themselves, they wouldn’t be harassed.
Unfortunately, the new problem became food. Goblins didn’t just ambush travelers and attack herds for fun. They had no natural food sources besides what little they could scavenge, and in the winter their already precarious situation often became fatal. As Chieftain, Rags had to provide for her tribe, but she couldn’t do that without risking the wrath of the Watch.
So what now? Well, once Rags had finished delivering Toren, she’d play some chess with Erin. One of the reasons why she didn’t want to leave Liscor was chess. It was…different. Rags could be a Chieftain and she enjoyed it, but sometimes she just wanted to sit in the inn and play a game.
As the wooden building sitting on the hill finally came into view, Rags saw Toren’s eyes grow brighter. He abandoned Rags, running through the snow as she tromped on. She didn’t care.
Her job was done.
Toren paused and seemed to hesitate as he climbed the hill. Rags saw the other human besides Erin—the tall one with dark hair and different skin—sprinting out of the inn. She was followed by what looked like a fuzzy blue cloud of dots. Rags recognized them. They were the strange, mischievous things that liked to annoy people in the winter. They left Goblins alone, though, so Rags paid no attention to them.
Instead, she focused on the girl that ran out of the inn, waving her arms. Erin shouted something and the swarm stopped as it surrounded Ryoka. Something was going on.
Rags didn’t care. She pushed her way into the inn as other people came out and stared and talked. She just had one thing on her mind.
There they were. Several boards were already set up on the tables. Rags hopped into a seat and smiled.
Yes, chess. It was so strange. But it had been the first time she’d learned…anything. From a game.
She’d never known about tactics, or trying to outsmart the enemy. Well, she had—but not in the careful, considered way you had to do it in chess. The game had taught her about thinking ahead, about patience. It had taught her to think, that was the thing.
And it had given her a gift, made her special. Unique. For that, Rags would always love the game.
Playing other people was nice too, of course. Rags listened to the commotion outside, kicking her heels with impatience.
At last the door opened and Erin walked back in, looking upset. Rags didn’t care. She waited for Erin to notice her; she had too much dignity to wave her hands or shout out. But the girl had frozen. She was staring at the skeleton who was standing patiently in the center of the room.
“Oh my god. Toren!”
Rags made a disgusted sound as Erin rushed over to Toren. She ignored the questions, the commentary from the people whose names she barely remembered. She waited for Erin to notice her.
“Hey, what happened to your eyes?”
The small Goblin glared, but Erin was too busy peering at her skeleton’s eyes to notice her. She stood up in her chair, but again she was ignored.
And a terrible thing happened. Suddenly, Rags was small again.
She was small. Physically, Rags was small even for a Goblin. But she was young, and that would change. She might not be a Hob in the sense of growing to become a giant, but she was still a colossus in her head.
But here, in this inn, Rags felt tiny. No one was paying attention to her. And she wasn’t important enough to command it.
She looked around the room. The mage Pisces, the other mage with the dead hand, Ceria. Olesm, the [Tactician], Erin, and Toren. And of course there had been the other girl, Ryoka. They were all important in their own way.
The mages had high levels, Olesm had twice as many levels in [Tactician] as Rags, and Erin was Erin, the girl who’d killed the last Chief. And Toren…
He was closest to Rags, but he was important to Erin because he was hers. But Rags was a Goblin. She was weakest, and she wasn’t valuable.
She didn’t matter.
At last, Erin looked around. She spotted Rags and did a double-take.
“Hey Rags! I didn’t see you there! When did you come in?”
Rags scowled at her, and tried to push away the thoughts lurking in her head. But they always came back, now and then, to remind her she wasn’t important. Yes, she liked this inn. But sometimes…
“Oh, I know you’ll just love this! Wait a second Rags—you’ll never guess what’s happened since you’ve been gone!”
Erin bustled into the kitchen, followed closely by Toren. Rags heard her exclaim, berate her skeleton, and then she reemerged with something wonderful.
It was a sandwich with meat in the center. Rags bit into it, and the worries of the world eased for a second. Erin called it a ham burger, although there was no ham inside. But Rags didn’t care.
Content now, she sat in the chair and waited to play Erin. But again—she was overlooked.
Now Erin was talking worriedly about the girl who had left, and arguing with one of the blue glowing spots in the air. Rags squinted at it, but she couldn’t hear anything. Was Erin talking to it, or just to herself? She seemed to be carrying on a one-sided conversation as far as Rags could tell, but then she went into the kitchen.
More waiting. Rags couldn’t stand it. She was a Chief. She shouldn’t have to wait! She looked around. If Erin was busy, what about the Drake?
But Olesm was busy watching Erin, and he didn’t even notice when Rags threw a chess piece at him. He just scratched the spot absently.
Being ignored. Rags felt a hot burning in her stomach as she glared around. But then her eye fell on something fascinating.
It was a chessboard, but the pieces were made of…air? Ghostly, frozen wisps of wind. Rags eyed Erin as the girl waved her arms about and shouted, and then made her way over to the table.
Yes, it was a magical chessboard of some kind. And by the looks of it, a game was in progress. Rags eyed the pieces, and picked one up experimentally.
It felt like lifting nothing, but there was something between her fingers. Entranced, Rags moved the queen and took a piece.
Suddenly, the board moved. A piece moved and cut down her queen. Rags leapt back and stared wide-eyed at the board. But then she understood.
There was someone else playing! Of course! It wasn’t a hard conclusion to come to if you assumed the board was magical, which it clearly was. So who was playing?
Whoever it was, they’d been playing a complex game. Rags sat down at the table and stared at the pieces. Only Erin could have played this game. And now Rags had messed up her game, trading a queen for a pawn. But—
The Goblin’s heart began to beat faster, and she stared around the room. Yes, Erin was still busy with the blue floating thing. Rags looked back at the board. Whoever was on the other side was waiting for Erin’s next move. Or Rags’.
Could she do it? Rags hesitated as she looked at the pieces. Erin was better than she was. But—
Rags moved a piece. She traded a knight for a bishop and watched her knight get taken off the board. She immediately attacked again, aggressively pushing with all the pieces Erin had.
She could do it. If Erin could do it, Rags could learn to do the same. Besides, this player wasn’t Erin. How good could…could…
Rags stared at the board. All of her pieces were gone. Her king was surrounded, and he’d just been forced into a check that would lead to checkmate.
No. This other player had just taken her to pieces in a matter of moves. How?
Rags slowly tipped the king over. Instantly, the board began to reset itself as she watched. Numbly, Rags moved her own pieces back to their starting positions.
It was impossible. That was just a—a fluke. Rags was better than anyone else, except for Erin and maybe, maybe Olesm.
Furiously, she opened up the board, moving a knight out as a starting move. It was because she’d started with Erin’s game and not her own. But this time, Rags would play her own way she’d…
Lose. Lose and lose again. It wasn’t even a drawn-out game. Rags stared at the board as her king tipped over again.
Who was this other player. How—
The pieces were moving. Rags reached to pull hers away, but the pieces weren’t moving back to their original positions. Instead, they were forming a…face.
It was a basic face, the basic expression Erin would have recognized as an emoji, or a smiley face. It had two eyes, and an upside-down smile.
He knew. Rags stared at the board and felt the same feeling of smallness again. Whoever the other player was, he knew he wasn’t playing Erin. And he was disappointed.
For a second, Rags stared at the board. Then she hurled it off the table.
The Goblin jumped as Erin shouted. The girl came over and picked up the board as the ghostly pieces reset. She glared at Rags.
“What are you—hey! You moved my pieces!”
She glared at Rags as the Goblin stared the other way. Rags couldn’t even face Erin. Shame and anger wormed through her stomach in equal parts.
“Aw. It was a good game, too. I thought I might actually l—well, maybe not. Anyways!”
Erin shook her finger at Rags.
“This is mine. I’m fine with you using another chess board, but this one is connected to another one somewhere and—well, I’m playing, okay?”
Rags shrugged, still not looking at Erin. She heard the girl sigh.
“Okay. Sorry for getting mad, but—it’s bad manners to play another game, you know? I’ll play you, if you want.”
And have her confidence crushed even further? Rags hesitated, but she still loved the game. Reluctantly, she nodded, and Erin beamed. It was hard to hate her, even when Rags tried.
“Cool! You just sit there and I’ll—oh?”
Someone knocked at the door. Rags turned in her seat, ready to kill whoever walked in as Erin called out.
The door opened, and Rags saw a familiar face. Or rather, a familiar body. The Antinium still looked alike to her, but she could recognize Klbkch by his lack of four arms and slimmer physique. The Antinium nodded to Erin as he entered the inn.
He was joined by the other Antinium Rags recognized—Pawn. He was a good player, almost as good as Rags, but she scowled when she saw the third person who entered the inn.
He made much the same face when he saw Rags.
“Oh good. The stinking Goblin’s back.”
Erin propped her hands on her hips as Rags stared at the Drake. He looked at her once without any trace of emotion, and then smiled and talked to Erin.
Rags listened impatiently. The two Antinium and one Drake weren’t alone. They’d brought twelve other Workers with them. And they were here for…
No. But it seemed they wanted to play chess like they had before. Yet Rags knew the Workers who had played in the inn before, and all these Workers were new to her. They behaved differently, and with Klbkch in the room, they acted…differently.
“Well of course! I mean, I agreed to it and I love to play chess so why not? And I’ve got enough boards so…”
Erin began organizing the Workers while Rags stared at the black-bodied Antinium. Something was off. She couldn’t place her finger on it, but she had a sense this was different.
“Rags? Sorry, but I’ve got to teach some chess. You could play a game with me to demonstrate if you want.”
Rags had no interest in a game where Erin would stop every move to explain what was happening. She sat in her chair, watching suspiciously as Erin first ran through the rules of the game and then had the Workers pair up and play.
It was the same, but not. Rags remembered learning chess, and this was…different. The Drake yawned as he leaned against one wall and tried to chat with Ceria, but the two other Antinium watched.
And as the games between the Workers began, Rags knew something was wrong. It showed in every move, and soon Erin realized it as well. She saw the girl frowning, and knew the games would soon stop.
But Rags had no real interest in the whys and wherefores of why this was all wrong. She’d come here to relax, possibly to level up, but to learn something and…and figure out what to do next. Instead, she was stuck in an inn watching other people play chess – badly – and with the Drake.
Every now and then he would glance at her, and she would stare back. His gaze sent wriggling worms into her stomach, but she knew he was just as bothered by her stare. And as it happened, he had less patience than she did.
“Hey, mind if I toss this Goblin outside? She keeps staring at me.”
Erin was talking to Klbkch, but she looked over long enough to scowl at the Drake.
“Don’t be a jerk.”
He made a face at her, but desisted. For a few seconds. Then he casually propelled himself off the wall and ambled over to Rags. She tensed up.
The Drake stopped, standing over the table and staring down at Rags. He was grinning, but not in a friendly way. He bent his head and spoke quietly to Rags.
“I went looking for your little nest, but looks like you lot ran away. Lucky you; if you’d stayed I’d be turning in Goblin ears to the Adventurer’s Guild by now.”
She remained stock-still, fighting not to show any emotion. The Drake stared at her, and she saw the malice in his eyes. It was a familiar look, one she’d seen often.
“Of course, you’re too afraid to do anything than hide in this inn. If Erin weren’t here, I’d bet you’d be too scared to get within a hundred miles of Liscor.”
Rags bit her lip. She wanted to say something—do something. Anger was boiling in her gut, but he was dangerous. She knew it. Say nothing. Do nothing. Wait until Erin looked around.
“You lot are all cowards. The second I raise my spear, you run away. Makes it easier to catch you, I guess.”
Rags snapped. She looked up at the Drake, and saw his smile. Rags’ lips pursed, and then she spat.
A glob of spit landed on the Drake’s arm. He blinked down at it, and she saw his eyes narrow.
—Rags woke up on the floor, head spinning and jaw agony. She tried to sit up and fell back. Something was ringing loudly in her ears, and her teeth felt…loose.
Above her she could hear angry voices. The Drake was holding up two hands, shrugging his shoulders as Erin shouted at him.
“—dare you! How could you do that to her?”
“She spat on me.”
“You’re four times her size! And you’re a guardsman! You’re not supposed to hurt innocent people!”
“Innocent? People? It’s a Goblin.”
The Drake pointed at Rags as she slowly got up. Erin was red in the face as she yelled at him.
“Why are you doing this? You’ve never had a problem with her before!”
Rags saw the Drake’s eyes narrow.
“I didn’t have a problem? I didn’t visit your inn, remember? That’s because I didn’t want to come to this inn and see those filthy little bastards running around!”
For a second Erin hesitated, but she refused to back down.
“But you came here. And I have rules. The sign says—”
“‘No killing Goblins’. Right, right. But I didn’t kill her. And anyways, who cares what the sign says? You’re not part of Liscor, and I’m an officer of the Watch. My responsibility is to kill Goblins and other pests. You can’t stop me from doing it.”
He pointed at Rags and she flinched. Erin just stared at him for a few seconds, and then her voice was soft.
“Why are you doing this? Why now? What’s wrong with her coming in here to play chess? What’s so different?”
“It’s different because Klb’s back, and our orders are to get rid of these things. And we will, believe me. The instant they start attacking travelers—”
Erin shot an anguished glance at Rags. Yes, there it was. Ceria had spoken the truth. Rags saw the half-Elf standing at the other end of the room. Her fingers were glowing, but Pisces was holding her back. Good. The Drake could kill them all quite easily. Just like Gazi.
“Relc. I will be fine. There is no need for you to act on my behalf.”
Klbkch said the words calmly, and Erin chimed in as Relc shook his head.
“Rags is just a kid. You can’t hurt kids—or anyone who’s not dangerous! She’s a friend.”
He glared at Rags.
“Great. So now I’m the bad guy because I’m the only person here with a brain? The Goblins aren’t your friends. They’ll stab you in the back first chance they get! Stupid little—”
He kicked out. The Goblin barely saw the foot before the table she had been sitting on flipped over. She cried out and tried to get out of the way. The edge of the table crashed into the ground, nearly crushing her stomach as Rags rolled aside just in time.
“Relc! You do that again and—”
The Drake looked at Erin and she froze. He pointed at Rags, and spoke with icy calm.
“I see this thing anywhere near Klb or the city, and I’ll cut it down.”
Rags stared at him, and knew he meant every word. She stared up at him, and felt heaviness settle over her.
There was no safe place. Not even here. She’d been relying on Erin, but she couldn’t stop the Drake with words. He was strong. She was weak.
She wanted to run. It was the same feeling she’d gotten, only magnified tenfold.
She was small. And when the Drake was looking at her, Rags could see the same sight. Always the same moment in her head.
A fleeing back, a blur of movement. The Goblin’s chest explodes as Rags hides in the grass, and the Drake crows in triumph as he severs the head. Neatly. So neatly.
The Goblin child hides in the grass, wide-eyed, trembling, watching staring at the torso. Such a familiar thing, but alien. How many times did those hands pick her up when she’d fallen? But the body is bloody now, and lifeless.
The child does not cry. She waits for death as the second one who raised her is cut down feet away. And then a third Goblin. She waits for the Drake to find her, but he only saw three. Three Goblins, and a child they left so they could steal from a lone human.
She hides in the grass, trying to be as small as possible. If she is small, he won’t find her. If she pretends not to exist, he will not hear her heart beating.
The bloody torso sits in the grass with her throughout the night and in the next day, slowly rotting and stinking. Until the human comes.
Reality hit Rags in the same moment the memory flashed through her mind. She felt it, the same fear as before. But never. Never again.
She couldn’t allow it. So Rags stared at Relc. His eyes were murder.
She drew her sword.
The small Goblin trembled as she faced Relc. He towered above her, muscled, deadly. She was afraid. She was going to die. She remembered the dead, and wanted to run, to scream and hide, to cower. But she stood, holding her sword.
She would not be small again.
“See? What did I tell you? I’d be doing you a favor, getting rid of this thing right now.”
The Drake’s spear was in his hands. Rags hadn’t even seen him move. She knew he could run her through in an instant, but she couldn’t back down. Wouldn’t.
He was stronger, faster, more deadly. But if she kept running from him, she’d never stop. She couldn’t. She couldn’t be small any longer.
She looked at the Drake and thought of his name. Relc. She would remember it until she died. Whether it was now or in ten thousand years.
Relc. She would not forgive him. He was her enemy.
“Come on. Take a cut at me. I’ll even let you get the first three shots. Then it’s my turn.”
Relc beckoned with one hand. Rags wanted to do it. She wanted to strike, but then he’d kill her. She stood in a deadlock. She would not run. But she wouldn’t die ever. Not yet. Not—
Erin’s voice was a cold piece of iron in the heat of the room. She walked in front of Rags and Relc and stared the Drake down.
“Get out of my inn. And if you touch Rags—”
“You’ll what? Hit me?”
Relc sneered at Erin. He spread his arms, daring her to take a shot.
“You can’t stop me. Not you, not that Goblin—not even you, Klb, so take your hand off the sword.”
Klbkch said something, but Relc wasn’t looking at him. He was still staring at Rags, and she knew that he was waiting for her to make a move. But she wasn’t looking at him, but rather, something above his head.
Rags looked up. Something blue and indistinct was hovering over the Drake’s head. His eyes narrowed as he followed the path of her vision and he looked up.
“Oh for—buzz off you stupid thing!”
He swiped at it, but the fuzzy creature dodged out of the way effortlessly. They always did. But as Relc raised his hand to chase it away again, Rags felt the air freeze, and then the Drake’s entire body was covered in frost.
Even the Drake wasn’t immune to cold. He clawed at his scales, and the Winter Sprite hovered around him again. He snapped at it with his mouth, but no sooner did he do so than the air seemed to get even colder, and his mouth was suddenly full of snow.
Icicles fell from the ceiling, materializing out of nowhere. Relc spat out snow, and nearly got an eyeful of ice. He roared in fury and slammed out of the door as the Winter Sprite chased him, letting the cold air blow in from outside.
Erin was staring at the place he’d gone, but then she turned towards Rags, full of concern.
“Rags! Are you alright?”
She reached for the Goblin, but Rags stepped away. But Erin ignored that and reached out to inspect Rags’ face.
“Stop that. He hit you, didn’t he? I can’t believe that! How do you feel? Do you need an ice pack…some ice? Is anything broken?”
Rags pushed the hands away and shook her head. Erin tried to fuss over her, but Rags didn’t need it. She heard Klbkch speaking.
“I will make apologies for my partner, Erin Solstice, and to you, Rags. I believe he cares about me, and you. But he fought in the Goblin Wars and thinks of Goblins as enemies…”
Rags barely heard the rest. She sat back at the table, shaking. Her jaw ached. The flesh was already swelling, but that wasn’t important.
She’d done it. She’d actually done it. She’d stood up to him. She hadn’t run.
She wasn’t small.
“Rags? Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Rags looked up. Erin was back, trying to fuss over her. Again, Rags had to fend her off. But Erin kept coming back, hovering over her, anxious, fussing.
Just like the Goblins who Relc had killed. Rags could barely remember that time. Barely, but—
After a while, she slid under the table. Not because she wanted to hide; but because she couldn’t bear Erin coming over to ask how she was every few minutes.
No one saw her move. Rags was small. She was invisible, as Goblins were. No one looked at Goblins except as a threat or a pest. Only one person stared at them, and she—
—She was different. But she was busy, and so Rags sat under the table and thought.
Vengeance. Hatred. She would never seek revenge, even with the rest of her tribe it was suicide. No, now was a time for cold thought. The Watch was out for her tribe, but that meant she had to make the choice, and quickly.
Where could they go? The only ways were north or south, and south led to the Blood Fields and the Broken Spear tribe had sent her the threat of death with her messenger. They would fall upon her people and slaughter them should she go south.
North, then. The Red Fang tribe was marginally more accepting, or rather, indifferent to her tribe, but that would quickly turn to bloodshed as well if she stayed in their territory. So what could she do?
Think. Think logically about the threats she faced. Rags concentrated. What was more dangerous, staying here and facing the Watch or risking the wrath of the Red Fang tribe and monsters further north?
Even without the Drake—no, Relc, his name was Relc—the Red Fang Tribe was no match for the Watch. There were nearly a hundred guardsmen—well, some were always on the walls and many stayed inside the city—but the ones who went on patrols were stronger than Goblins by far. Even if not all of them were a match for a Hob one-on-one, they fought together, with discipline and intelligence.
Besides, the Red Fang Tribe would break themselves on Liscor’s walls. That was the real advantage the Watch had. They could defend easily and come out to attack in force at any time. If you make it an equal battleground, perhaps there was a chance…
But with Relc, there was not. He could kill four Hobs by himself, Rags was certain. In speed, strength, and especially his iron skin, he was another kind of creature, closer to a monster himself than anything else.
The Red Fang Tribe it was, then.
So then what? Did she bring the fight to them? How? The Red Fang Tribe numbered nearly a thousand, not even including the smaller tribes that paid them tribute. Rags had one special new type of weapon, some acid jars and explosive bark. How was she supposed to fight that?
But cause trouble and death would come for her tribe. So Rags would be ground to pieces with the Watch on one side and the Red Fang Tribe on the other. The dungeon—she couldn’t risk it yet. So how…?
Small. She was small. But she had faced Relc and not run away. Rags remembered it. She remembered the trembling fear, the knowledge of death. But she’d stood tall. She hadn’t run. She had been mortally afraid but in that moment—
She hadn’t been small.
And in that moment, Rags knew what she had to do.
The Goblin jumped. Erin’s head had appeared between two chair legs.
“There you are. Look, come on out. No one’s going to hurt you, I promise.”
As if Rags cared about that. She came out anyways, though. Erin touched at Rags’ face in concern, and asked her unimportant questions. But the knowledge was burning within Rags. The feeling.
“I guess you’re okay. I’m just so sorry this happened. Look, let me give you some food or—or let’s play a game of chess.”
Rags shook her head. There was no time. She pointed towards the door, and Erin looked at it.
“You want to—of course. You can come back at any time, though, okay? It will be safe here.”
A wonderful lie. Or perhaps—Rags hesitated, looking at Erin. Perhaps she would make it true. But that wasn’t where salvation lay. That wasn’t where Rags could grow.
She shook her head, and pointed at the door again.
“Sure, sure. I know you’re busy. You’re going to go off and…”
Erin hesitated, and frowned.
“What do Goblins do all day when they’re not…trying to stab me or foraging for food?”
Rags looked up at Erin. And then she smiled.
“…You smile? I don’t get it.”
The Jawbreaker Tribe was a small tribe of Goblins closest to Liscor. Besides the Flooded Waters Tribe, of course. In truth, both tribes were small-fry even among Goblins. But the Jawbreaker clan was one of those who paid regular tribute to the Red Fang Tribe, and so they enjoyed a modicum of protection.
Even so, they rested in a secluded grove of trees far away from any settlements, in a small valley where they wouldn’t be so easily noticed. The tribe was mostly asleep at this time of day—just before dawn.
It was winter, and cold was in the air. No Goblin wanted to be up, especially since being up meant scavenging all day for food, or chasing reindeer or other animals miles through the snow. Food might mean survival or death, but it didn’t mean they had to be proactive about it.
Their Chief thought the same way. Rockgaw, an approximate translation of his name from the Goblin’s language, was just waking up as the sunlight hit his face. He was a Hob, one of two in the tribe. He was the stronger of the two, but just by one or two levels, and he was lazy as well.
But even Rockgaw’s inclination to sleep couldn’t keep him abed when the sunlight was filtering down from over the hill top. He’d chosen the valley so it would take longer for the sun to reach him, but Rockgaw always felt the light was far too early.
He yawned, sat up, and looked around at his tribe as he scratched at his loincloth. Rockgaw pushed himself to his feet—
—And because Rags had no sense of the dramatic moment, that was when the crossbow bolt exited his spine and nailed his corpse to the ground.
The other Goblins in the tribe looked up and around. In the shocked silence, Rags gave the order to fire.
Clay bullets rained down from above, striking Goblins and sending the camp into chaos. Rags slowly loaded the black crossbow with another bolt and waited. Pound the enemy. Harass their flanks. She looked at the rows of Goblins holding crossbows and smiled.
Experiment. Change. Evolve. Oh, and pillage, steal, and stab in the back. That was the Goblin way.
The north was hers. The Red Fang tribe might control the local Goblins, but Rags had new weapons, new ideas, and most importantly, a new base to fight from. She could win. She would win.
She would claim the northern territory if the south was too dangerous. Rags would become stronger. She would level. And then, when she was ready she would explore the dungeon again. She would create a tribe large enough to kill the Drake and oppose the Watch. She would gather enough Goblins to remember what drove the Goblin King into such a rage.
She would grow. Until she could defeat the strange person who played chess from far away. Until she could beat Erin herself.
Rags had a list. She raised the crossbow, sighted at the Hob who came charging uphill and fired. Not at his head; lower down. At his second head, as it were.
She would not lose here, or ever. She had to be bigger, stronger. She would learn, and be merciful. To survive, Rags would be anything.
The Hob clasped the stricken area and collapsed to the ground. Rags eyed the object she’d partially severed with her bolt. Not too merciful; she was a Goblin after all.
But she could do it, Rags knew. She would do it. No matter what it took.
She would never die.