No Gains for Goblins
The band of raiders set out from the tomb at a quick pace. They wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the dark creature, fearing it might follow at dusk. Goblin country was a mire of jagged hills and deep gullies. The nearest town was two days hard march east. It had taken them a week of combing this maze of wilderness to find the tomb where they stole the goblet. No roads or trails marked the way and Bronan and his company navigated by sun and starlight.
“Do you think it will follow, Kinesia?” Flye asked nervously.
The priestess of Fwheya threw a hard look at Bronan’s back.
“I’m not sure,” she said, and then raising her voice, “maybe we should go back and piss it off some more.”
Their chief looked over his shoulder and grinned.
“Let him come,” he said.
“What do they eat?” Kurle asked, scanning the hills. “There was nothing but bats and rats in that tomb. Nothing could live down there unless it came out to hunt.”
This last statement caused some uncomfortable looks to be passed around. They had all been wondering but avoided asking. No one really wanted to know the answer.
“They do not live at all, Kurle,” Kinesia said gravely.
“What do you mean?” he retorted. “It moved. It spoke.”
“Aye, that is true, but it had no life,” Kinesia continued. “They are beings in a state of undeath. They starve for life energy until a living person comes across their path. They have many unholy powers. They can possess your spirit and compel you to obey. You will think every word they say is the greatest wisdom and that you act of your own will, but that is false. They steal the strength of others to extend their own perverted versions of life.”
“Such terrifying creatures,” Kurle whispered. “What are they known as?”
The priestess shuddered, clearly disturbed by her own knowledge.
“They are the Crossferatu, Scions of Brahphomet. He is a dark god of a lost age. He seduces the spirits of the weak with promises of eternal life if they forsake the ways of Brodin and Fwheya. In a distorted cage of his will they commit unspeakable acts, curling around his cloven legs like dogs. His followers lose all control over their own fates and reason, obeying the foul beast and bleating his teachings like sheep.”
The rest of the party looked uneasily around the deep forest. Hours had passed since the encounter in the tomb and the lowering sun cast creeping shadows. Bronan, in the lead, turned his head to stare at a shadow like any other. Moments later a figure detached itself from the darkness and approached the band of raiders.
“Several signs of goblins paralleling our route,” Traps said in a raspy whisper.
Bronan signaled a halt and looked up into the darkening sky.
“How many and how long?” he asked.
Traps considered for a moment.
“Thirty at least. Fifty at most. If we stay on this path we will meet them at sundown. That is,” he added with emphasis, “if they are not yet aware of us.”
The implication was clear to everyone. They might be hunted and vastly outnumbered. Sunlight was running out and goblins were creatures of the night.
“Guess we were lucky on the way out here,” Flye joked.
“Our luck has not run out yet,” Jug answered.
A few chuckled passed around, but they were strained. A threat behind and a threat ahead made for tight smiles and grim thoughts. But the Swolerian’s smile was genuine at the thought of testing his strength.
“If it be the gods’ will, then by Brodin and Fwheya we will show them we are no sheep to be slaughtered,” Bronan said, heartening his followers. “Keep your weapons ready and torches at hand. It may be a bloody night. Traps, Flye,” he addressed his scouts, “find a strong place to make our stand. Those creatures have noses like hounds and can see in the dark so there is no use hiding.”
The two men nodded and melted into the trees. The rest of the group moved after them at a slower pace, keeping a watchful eye on the ever deepening shadows. The forest was undergoing the death of day and the birth of night. Bird calls and other animal sounds died out only to be replaced with more mysterious cries and rustles.
Nearly an hour passed before Bronan heard the sound of the scouts making their way back to the group. True night had taken hold. The footfalls were loud with urgency and the barbarian’s instincts told him trouble was near. His keen eyes picked out two moving shadows just as Traps and Flye broke from a dense stand of fir trees. Their weapons were drawn and the tang of blood was in the air.
“Two packs of about twenty,” Traps said. “We got two of the slower witted ones arguing over a rabbit carcass.”
“Did you find a good position?” Bronan asked, hand going to the hilt of his sword.
Flye pointed northerly into the trees.
“There is a tree choked defile between two steep hills,” he said, “no more than a mile. We might make it before they catch up with us.”
“Lead the way,” Bronan commanded, and the raiders quickly followed.
The band tore through the underbrush at a fast pace. The only light was that of a half moon. After a short time a burst of wicked cackles broke through the sound of the forest.
“They have caught our trail,” Kurle grunted.
“Torches, so we do not spear each other in the dark,” Bronan called.
All save Kinesia lit torches. The Fwheyan priestess was guided in the dark by more than light. As the sound of their pursuers grew louder a gap in the trees revealed open ground past which two hills reared up in the night. A narrow defile between them had grown dense with a thicket of trees. Traps was the first to reach it and sprang nimbly into a tree, the Core’nthian scaling it as agilely as a monkey. The moonlight would be more than enough for the archer to see his targets.
The others moved into the trees, pitching their torches just outside to see the enemy when they rushed in. Calls and inhuman grunts sounded from the pitch dark beyond the torch light.
“We have gained much on this journey, comrades,” Bronan said, again boosting his band’s spirits. “We will not lose it to lowly beasts such as these. If any of us should fall then I will see you in glorious Swolehalla.”
“They will not take our gains,” Jug declared, his native Hyperbroean not translating precisely.
Flye shook his head with a long suffering smile.
“Treasure, Jug,” he corrected. “They will not take our treasure.”
The giant nodded in understanding, though so focused was his gaze on the ring of torch light that he barely seemed to notice.
“They are here you fools,” Kinesia snapped.
She was correct. Light glinted off bits of dark iron and hinted at low, scuttling shapes just out of site. Many shapes. The two groups of goblins had merged in their pursuit and now crowded around the ring of light. Cautious and cowardly by nature, they preferred to test their quarry and attempt to determine their strength. Low grunts and squeals passed from the stronger goblins, urging them forward. A dark shape shot through the night, piercing a shadow and eliciting a screech of pain. The goblin, an arrow in its throat, fell into the torch light. Its grotesque shape writhed, now glistening with its own blood. The wasted limbs, bare as if from famine, slapped ineffectually at the shaft. A mouth full of broken, rotting teeth snapped empty air in the throes of death. Before the creature stopped moving another arrow struck, killing another goblin. The goblin leader leaped into the torch light, a human sword thrust forward, and roared for his pack to attack. He was larger than the others, but a gruesome shape in the twisting light. A human skull adorned his hide shield. Tusks made for goring grew from a maw set in a scarred and pitiless face. At his command the remaining goblins charged toward the trees, more dropping from Trap’s bow.
Shrieking shapes closed the gap quickly, thrusting with iron knives and spears of stone or scavenged metal. Jug, whose hammer could not easily be swung in the close confines of the defile, hewed left and right with a shorter battle axe, sending emaciated goblin parts flying in every direction. Flye and Kurle fought as a pair; Kurle in front with mace and shield, Flye behind with a long spear. Kinesia, close by their side, swung her staff as a club. Each strike smote a goblin’s skull with terrifying power and precision. Many of the beasts were laid low, barely scratching the raiders.
But their harvest was paltry compared to their leader’s reaping. Bronan’s sword was a scythe of lightning speed. Each swing and backswing took a life. His grace, speed, and fury pressed the goblin tide from crashing wave to scattering leaves in moments. The legendary Swolerian rage burned in his fierce, blue eyes. His war cry split the night, causing his attackers to shrink back.
But the weight of the beasts, driven by the cruel shrieks of their leader, pushed Bronan’s comrades deeper into the defile, isolating him. Arrows continued to fall from above, but were fewer due to the intervening tree branches. A goblin slipped by Kurle’s shield and launched itself at Flye, who dropped his spear to grapple with the bony creature.
“How about some fire or lightning, Kinesia!” Kurle shouted over the sound of the fight.
The priestess gave a fierce smile, smiting another goblin.
“Mother Fwheya is not a goddess of fire or lightning, you idiot!” she returned, aiming a thrust at the goblin scratching like a cat at Flye’s face. The beast went limp and Flye hurled the thing into its fellows before grabbing up his spear and nodding his thanks.
Several goblins had worked their way around Jug’s flanks and were set to attack while their fellows pressed him from the front. A dark shape catapulted out of a low branch, taking the head from one of the creatures before tucking into a role. Traps came out of the role on Jug’s other side and skewered another flanking goblin.
“Tricky blaggards,” he said, and another goblin ran from him.
The bloody melee continued, but the morale of the goblins was broken. They were, at heart, scavengers who prayed on the sickly and weak. This meal was too hard to swallow and they had no stomach for more fighting. The remaining goblins attacking Bronan’s band began to pull back. The raiders let them go. No one was seriously wounded, but they were exhausted and bloodied. Just as it seemed the action would die out another roar split the night and Bronan crashed into the retreating creatures. The retreat became a rout, weapons dropping and goblins fleeing as fast as their thin legs would carry them.
The goblin chief, furious at the defeat, charged the Swolerian. Though stronger and faster than his puny followers, he was no match for the enraged barbarian. A brief exchange of blades ensued, Bronan’s leonine strength pressing the beast back with every stroke. The goblin tried to block, but the Swolerian’s blade shattered his opponent’s and carried through to split his skull to the clavicle. The fight was over. Rage slowly bled out of the barbarian and he returned to his companions. Goblin bodies littered the ground. The band of raiders had momentarily forgotten their wounds to stare in wonder at the prowess of their leader. Though they had fought together before, none could be anything but awestruck to witness such power and fury.
Jug clapped his chief on the shoulder and gave a nod of respect.
“Good fighting, Juggernaut,” Bronan said, returning the nod.
“Should we leave you two alone?” Kinesia teased, earning a few chuckles.
After binding a few wounds Bronan called their attention.“The noise and blood scent will draw other scavengers,” he said, eyeing the position of the moon. “We will move on and find a dense stand of trees to hole up in until dawn.”