In a dark forgotten woodland, goblins rushed through the wrecked gates of the castle. Vix let them all attack ahead of him. He had to ensure no cowardly goblins lagged behind to let others do the hard work of fighting.
Vix worried little though. The goblins had waited a month to storm the final stronghold of the goblin lords.
Finished patrolling the outside of the castle, Vix walked past the gates, stepping over the body of a goblin that had met a dagger to the throat.
Though the goblin lords called the place a castle, it was truly just an abandoned manor. It had a moat but no outer gates and a guard tower in disrepair that likely stored foodstuffs. The state of the tower didn’t stop a goblin loyal to the lords from taking shots at them before he died.
Observing the dusty hallway, Vix found the goblin lords engaged in combat with a group of goblins. The strength of the lords meant only one of them was needed to take on multiple goblins. For this reason, Vix had ordered his goblins never to take them on in single combat.
An order they followed even without his warnings. All goblins feared lords. All except him.
Dashing through the hallways, Vix searched for an unoccupied enemy. He found one after a goblin lord skewered the last of three goblins that had surrounded him. The lord’s ragged, dark cloak was stained from not just their blood, but the blood of enemies long past. He turned to Vix and sneered.
Vix placed his long knife at level with his eyes. Unlike the other goblins’ weapons, his was stained and chipped. As the goblins loyal to him looted the stashes of lords and shamans, they found an assortment of brand-new weapons that the goblins took to like candy.
Vix, however, liked a weapon that showed its age. If it lasted so long then it must have known what it was doing. He hoped that will to survive would carry through to him.
The lord chucked the corpse of the goblin aside dismissively and walked toward Vix, then rushed him, sword thrusting toward Vix like a spear. Vix saw it coming. This wasn’t his first fight with a lord but after this battle, it may be the last.
Vix jumped, grabbing onto a board of wood on the ceiling and shimmied his way along it with nimble limbs. Growling with frustration that Vix had not let himself be impaled like the other goblin, the lord shot daggers at him, and not just with his eyes. The lord’s quick hand shot several daggers, long and thin. The daggers stuck into the wood as each missed Vix who refused to get stabbed by them.
Letting himself fall from the ceiling, he prepared to activate his skill. The lord saw an opening in Vix’s fall and again lunged at him, this time leaping as he did so to intercept Vix’s fall. The lord’s beady black and yellow eyes narrowed at the imminent kill.
Only for his sword to slash empty air. Vix had activated his skill Hop Step to jump on the air. With Vix’s feet back on the ceiling, he pushed off hard to impale the lord with his dagger.
Both fell to the floor. Vix used the lord’s body to break the fall.
The lord survived and crawled away. Unlike the past, he had no other goblins to use as fodder and make his escape.
Vix watched him crawl, curious. The fight ended quickly. He wondered if his opponent was really a lord and not a regular goblin in disguise. Then again, all the lords were like this after a loss. Weak.
The strength of the lords came from their use of skills awakened in them from a long life of struggle. Though tall, many goblins who stood properly and refrained from hunching their backs could meet their height. The strength of a lord was little more than other goblins and their intelligence only passable in Vix’s eyes. With their skills though, they could suppress any other goblin.
Vix used that reliance on skills to his advantage. The goblin lords used their skills in bursts to finish a fight quickly. So, when the attack on their last refuge began, they expended themselves fighting the first wave of goblins. Now all he had to do was clean up the rest.
He left the lord’s body and searched for others to fight, not worrying the lord would escape. There were two goblins peeking out from a corner. Those types waited for moments of weakness to come out. The screams of the lord as the two goblins came from their hiding place to kill him brought a grim smile to Vix’s face.
Once the battle turned their way, the goblins scattered throughout the manor in search of loot. Vix let them, not having the energy to bark orders at them. In their frenzied state, he would have to kill a few to get them in line.
The cause of Vix’s lack of energy came from the now lifeless bodies of two shamans and a lord that had ambushed him in a dead-end of the manor. The shamans fogged his vision with a strange illusion while the lord attacked. Unfortunately for them, they’d forgotten he led an army. Armies have soldiers.
Two of his loyal goblins snuck up behind the shamans and made a smile across their throats with their knives.
Those two goblins now searched the bodies for valuables. Krack had a varied collection of scars on his face. He stopped his search periodically to scratch at them with his sharp fingernails. Only Vix knew that Krack had scarred himself to look more intimidating. It worked.
Mulch, finding nothing interesting, settled with the lord’s cape. It wouldn’t suit his current dress. The dress he currently wore was pink and must have belonged to some girl-child. He held out the cape to see if it would fit him. Mulch liked nice clothes no matter where and how they were obtained.
The odd goblins were his most competent followers in his rebellion against the current goblin leadership. A leadership that after this day was no more. When he found Mulch and Krack, they had already killed their leaders or tried to. They had acted fast to secure themselves in the new order Vix was creating. Odd they were, dumb they were not.
Vix got up from the body of the shaman he sat on. “They have had enough time to loot. If it goes on any longer a fire will start.”
Mulch finally decided the cloak didn’t go with his pink dress and threw it to the side. “No fire, not like last time.”
A disappointed and empty-handed Krack answered. “We will make sure the really valuable stuff stays safe. No fire, not like last time.”
Having found nothing for himself, Krack intended to take from the others. Vix afforded him the luxury because as his loyal follower, Krack had the responsibility of making sure the objectives of the battle were met. It left Krack with no time to get loot like the others and his life was in greater danger as a leader.
Vix gestured with his chin to the door and the two goblins took their leave, eager to get their share of loot and crack others over the head while doing so. Alone again, Vix left the room as well to stroll through the halls. Eventually, he came upon the manor study.
To his great surprise, the books were intact and the room in good condition. The shelves were sparsely filled, but the books had little dust caking their covers. Tables were upturned and windows were broken of course but other than a few dead rodents and a foul-smelling corner of the room, the library was usable.
Shamans must have stayed here. They may have suspected the books held magic to study, or they just had no other room left. Whatever the reason, the library’s good condition gladdened Vix.
He trailed his green fingers along spines of the books and found one that interested him: Of Gods and Monsters. He carefully removed it from the shelves and opened it, flipping through the pages. It would surprise the humans to know that most goblins found human language easy to understand, only the different dialects of those languages confused them.
If his fellow goblins were willing to learn, they could achieve great things. Few creatures could understand all the languages of the world. Goblins could dominate trade, travel the world, see—Vix stopped. He was getting ahead of himself. They had only just finished freeing themselves of the Inimi, trading with the world was a far way away.
To his delight the book was a work of history, not a children’s book. In the past, those were the easiest for him to obtain as villages held them to educate their little ones. That is what gave the humans power, knowledge.
The book explored relationships between, as the title hinted, gods and monsters. It proposed that more so than humans, monsters held a closer bond with gods as the many varied forms of monsters matched that of the gods. The author brushed aside arguments of the serene presence of the gods as a matter of perception, not of intrinsic nature. If a god wanted to scare humans, they could and often did.
While it pleased Vix to read of such an open view of monsters, it put a nasty taste on his tongue that he could be anything like the manipulative beings called gods. Thankfully, before he could work himself up and destroy the precious book, Krack’s scarred face came into the room.
“Prisoners,” Krack said simply.
“Mulch is watching them?”
Krack nodded his scarred face. Vix hurried off, knowing that if he didn’t arrive in time the goblins would kill the prisoners. His policy toward prisoners was to let them run off. His mercy was not out of any great love for humans but a matter of practicality.
If the goblins fell into their old ways, they would forget that overthrowing their abusive leaders was the objective, not the death of humans. Shamans and lords offered petty violence to distract stupid goblins.
Krack led Vix through the halls littered with the bodies of enemy goblins and lords. Cleaning up didn’t matter. Using the dingy manor held little appeal to Vix. He would take what he needed and leave it to the dust of time.
They reached a room with several cages. Some hung down from the ceiling. A makeshift prison. Or a torture room.
Goblins surrounded a cage large enough to hold a bear, likely its original purpose. The goblins slobbered and looked ready to pounce toward the cage if not for Mulch fending them off with his curved knife, looking fearsome in his pink child’s dress.
The reaction of the goblins told Vix all he needed to know. A woman was inside the cage.
Pushing through the goblins, they parted once they realized he was there. Two women huddled in the cage in tattered clothes. One woman had the figure of a fighter, likely a captured Coalition worshiper. The other was—it couldn’t be!
“That really an elf boss?” Krack peered at the elf prisoner from over Vix’s shoulder.
Being much older than the other goblins, Vix knew his history. The woman huddled in the cage was no elf. When Vix failed to answer, Krack predicted Vix’s wants and started helping Mulch push the other goblins back.
“Who are you ... elf?” Vix wouldn’t let her know what he knew.
After giving him a look up and down, she answered. “My name is Alvina. I am from the Corpsewood.”
The goblins drew back. Vix heard of the Corpsewood. In his time, it was a forest of little significance but since he fell under the sway of the miasma that had changed. Zombies of the Corpsewood had ripped apart the Inimi armies that entered it.
This woman could have said this to scare off the goblins but Vix believed her and wanted to know more. “How did you come to be in this situation?”
“How are you speaking?” said the other prisoner.
“A shaman’s trick originally meant to prevent enemies from communicating. I convinced the shaman to change its use.” The Coalition woman spoke no more, convinced. He turned back to Alvina, the false elf. “Answer.”
“We heard of the Inimi army’s defeat and thought it safe to travel to Ridgehill and find out how such an event took place. Then my vision blurred and when my senses of sight returned, those black-cloaked goblins had me and my guards surrounded.”
Seeing no other prisoners, Vix assumed they were long dead. “What did they want you for?” Vix could guess but had to know.
“I thought it was for ... what you goblins do. But all they wanted to know was what happened to the Corpsewood god.” Vix waited. “I will not tell you.”
He sighed, but it came out as a grunt and the woman edged back against the bars. He turned to the other prisoner. “Who are you then?”
She stayed silent but Alvina answered for her. “She is a Coalition knight.” The knight glared at her but Alvina whispered to her. “If we are unimportant, then we die.”
“I can still hear you, and Alvina is right. I have no use for humans who can’t help me.”
Mulch cursed at a goblin behind Vix. Vix almost forgot they were there.
The choices were simple, let them go, kill them, or take these potentially important prisoners to safety.
He made his choice. “These prisoners are under my protection. We are going to Ridgehill.”
The goblins hollered and cheered, thinking they were going to attack the town but Vix had other plans. If things worked out as planned, they could come out of this stronger than ever. If not, well, then he may come to regret the choice he made.
After the battle, Axel had rushed Rayner away and to the brothel to receive healing and to hide from the eyes of others. Such a display of power was catnip to an army. The grateful Coalition officers had agreed to keep their mouths shut about the full extent of Rayner’s role in the battle, happy to take credit for his bravery.
Mostly Axel needed to uncoil his muscles and take in the day’s events. The battle came out of nowhere. Not one report from Evans had suggested such a large and disciplined horde of monsters was coming at them. The leaders of the three armies had no idea or they would have prepared better defenses. Or would they?
The talk of the town was the absolute failure of the armies to protect the people. Not only were they caught off guard, but they were also dis-unified and uncoordinated. One rumor spoke of a small battle taking place between the three armies. That would explain the lack of cooperation.
The point was: nobody was satisfied with how events played out.
Only the quick action of three brave Coalition officers backed by a ragtag team of militiamen and Altan soldiers saved the day. This was the story Axel told the officers and others who witnessed the fight to peddle. If asked about the green light, they would lie and say it was a blessing from the gods.
The irony of a man with the title of Faithless being credited with a blessing wasn’t lost on Axel.
He tried to keep his spirit. He rested on his belly on a soft table receiving an erotic massage from one of Grace’s girls. The whore worked her soft expert fingers into his back, uncoiling his strained muscles. She hummed sweetly as she worked him over and crept closer to his buttocks as the massage went on.
Rayner sat on the table next to Axel having his hands cleaned by another girl. The skill Rayner used to defeat the kobolds had severely burnt his palm, charring his skin black and leaving him unable to grip his hammer without severe pain. The hammer too was damaged but unlike Rayner’s hand, it couldn’t be healed.
Axel would rather talk about this later without the girls present but if he stalled, Rayner would have time to conjure excuses. “When did you get that skill?” He could have said learn, but most people used skills at the pleasure of their chosen god. He and Rayner played by different rules.
“A week after the quest.”
“A whole week! Why did—” Axel bit off his words, not wanting to yell. “Why didn’t you tell me? Don’t get me wrong, it was a pleasant surprise but I could have used that knowledge to make a better plan. How did you not pass out from such a skill?”
Rather than answer him, Rayner hung his head in guilt and raised his palm. Axel peered into the pattern of tattoos until he could read Rayner’s stats.
Double. Rayner’s mana nearly doubled since last Axel checked. Even Rayner’s experience, a stat Rayner struggled to raise, got a slight bump and Axel suspected not from the last battle.
It still didn’t explain how Rayner remained upright with such little mana remaining. If it were Axel, he would be a blob on the ground.
He narrowed his gaze on his friend to show that his explanation wasn’t sufficient.
Wincing at a stitch the girl attending to him tied off, Rayner lifted his chin to explain. “I have been going out every day.”
Axel quirked his in head in confusion. “Evans does those patrols only a few times a week and in shifts so that no group goes more than twice a week at most. The distance they travel wouldn’t allow it anyway—at least not by foot.”
“I have been going by myself.”
Axel blinked. Then gaped.
That was how Rayner built up a resistance to mana exhaustion. “Am I hearing you right you dumb fuck? You trying to die, huh?”
Anger flashed across Rayner’s face. “I’m fine. Those families you left behind, not so much.”
It had little to do with what they discussed. The comment was fired to wound, and it lodged deep.
Axel’s face contorted in a jumble of emotions before settling on a blank stare.
Axel could see Rayner wanted to apologize, but he held his tongue. Pride silenced him. Axel thought such an emotion was alien to Rayner. Maybe he knew any apology now wouldn’t reach Axel.
The girls, to their credit, carried on as if the two friends weren’t fighting, focusing on their duties instead.
Axel’s anger dissipated as the girl induced moans from him when she unbundled a tight knot of muscle at his side. At the same time, Rayner’s attendant used her skill: Stitch, to neatly erase any signs of her medical handy work.
Madam Grace chose that time to stride into the room. “Are the girls performing to expectations?” She put it as a question but knew the answer, his masseuse choosing then to squeeze his shoulders until he moaned out a yes.
The girls, sensing their madam wanted to be alone with the teens, stepped out of the room. Now alone with Grace, Axel gave her a once over and noticed some changes. She was more fancied up than usual. Her low-cut dress revealed more cleavage. The exposed portions of her breast stopped just at the point where her nipples would be revealed and dark pink flowery designs were at the edges of her pitch-dark dress. She kept patting at her thick hair hung at the back of her neck instead of in a bun.
“Going on a date Grace?” Axel wiggled his brow suggestively.
Rayner gave him a look of reproach. Good. They would pretend as if their argument hadn’t taken place.
“Yes, we are.”
“We?” Rayner said.
“The Ridgehill town council is meeting. Emergency session, tonight. I have invited you both.”
“Is it about the battle?”
“Of course, it’s about the battle. Early numbers are coming in and it is grim, to say the least.”
Axel raised from the comfortable table. “How many did we lose?”
Grace seemed surprised that Axel had asked rather than Rayner. He tried not to pause to think what that meant she thought about him. “About a fourth are dead or wounded from all the armies. A third of the camp followers died. They were being defended until some coward left them behind.”
Axel’s stomach curled in on itself. He was that coward.
“It had to be done. The officers needed to be saved in order to win the battle,” Rayner said. They were still friends, and he still stuck up for him.
Grace realized what happened and blushed. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again.
Whatever. So, what if people judged him? What were they doing when everything turned to riot and ruin?
He took action.
He made a choice.
And a third of the women and children breathed their last.
“I know you don’t want to go right now.” She glanced at him as she said it. “However, it is in your contracts. This meeting is essential to the survival of Ridgehill and my brothel.” Her tone indicated which was more important. “We need our own solution to this disaster and ways to prevent them in the future.”
Once Grace left, Axel asked Rayner, “Is that part of our contracts?”
Rayner shrugged before laying down on the table. “Don’t know. If not, by the end of the night it will be.”
And so, Rayner proved correct. The girl from his first night at the brothel visited Axel again after a long absence, whispering words of comfort. She stroked his cock until he came over her nimble hand. She briskly cleaned him up and left. He felt like a favored cow to be milked promptly rather than a valued client.
She was effective though, and he rested easy. But he knew the following nights he would be troubled with nightmares. Nightmares of families begging for help as Axel showed them his back.