I pulled the cork from the last of my health potions, draining it in one thirsty gulp. I grimaced at the taste, but sighed in relief at the immediate effects. Bones popped back into place, wounds stopped bleeding and closed. Gitlog did the same, pounding down two red phials in quick succession. He sighed, slumping against the wall.
The room was warm, surprisingly so. I noticed the forge fire in the center of the room was lit. The fires were low but intense, throwing off steady waves of heat. I wondered where the billows were to feed oxygen to the fire, and wondered if there were some kind of magical device filling that purpose. I shook my head and leaned further into the brick wall.
"We got lucky," I said.
Gitlog nodded slowly. "We got lucky."
"Why is he so strong? How is he so strong?" I asked.
"He's a Goblin Lord," replied Gitlog, simply.
Heph pulled up a chair, sitting down and facing Gitlog and I. "As you know, all sentient creatures gain experience and power when they kill a worthy opponent, right?"
"Of course," I replied.
"It's a little different for Goblins. We gain the same benefits as anyone else when we defeat any other sapient or sentient creature, but we gain more when we defeat another Goblin of higher or equal rank," he explained.
I shifted slightly, making myself more comfortable against the cold wall. "Why don't the Goblins just arbitrarily grant the rank of Lord to weaklings and have stronger enemies kill them? Wouldn't that allow you to rapidly make them stronger?"
Heph stared at me for a long moment, until I began to shift uncomfortably. "I thought Humans were supposed to be at least somewhat clever, or do you simply fall short in the brains department?"
"Let me kill him, Henry," came a groggy voice from next to me.
"Maybe later," I told the sword. I turned back towards Hep. "I was just asking. No reason to get nasty. I don't know much about your people, remember? It's a mark of wisdom to ask questions that might sound daft without worrying about sounding dull."
Gitlog coughed, then spoke up. "Agreed. Heph, stop bein' such a cunt." He turned and looked at me, his breathing still somewhat labored. "The King does 'av the power to name some pissant Gobbo a Lord. In doin' though, he'd lose the power it required t'get him up to snuff. Bein' a Lord isn't some title like it is fer Humies. The difference between each class is real. A Lord to a fodder Gobbo is like a Dragon compared to a babe of a Humie. No King has made a Lord in livin' memory, though they've made Chiefs many times."
"What about the intellect difference?" chimed in the book.
"What 'bout it?" asked Gitlog.
"Well, frankly speaking, most Goblins are idiots, simpletons, morons, mentally impaired-"
"You're belaboring the point, get on with it," I chided the book in response to the pointed glares from both Gitlog and Heph.
"My point is, low-ranking Goblins are basically children—Gitlog is, at most, rather dull—and I also noticed that Blacksteel was downright intelligent. Why is there such a distinct difference in intellectual standing? Is intelligence also linked with rank?"
Heph nodded. "When you become a Chief, you undergo a physical metamorphosis; it's akin to a Human child maturing into a teenager overnight. You're still stupid, but not quite so stupid as you were previously."
Gitlog seemed to think for a long moment before his features settled into a deep frown. "Gitlog ain't dull. I'm one'o the smartest Gobbos around."
Heph and I shared a knowing look before I turned to look at the wounded Chief. "Of course you are, big guy. Of course you are."
"Panderer," hissed the sword.
"He's just being polite," defended the boots.
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but I agree with the paper cutter," said the sword.
"If I'd known just how chatty the equipment of yours was, I never would have said anything to get them to speak. Can't you order them to be quiet?" complained Heph.
"Unfortunately, they don't have an 'off' rune," I sighed.
I pushed myself to my feet, groaning at the pain still present in my limbs. "I feel like I could sleep for a year."
"Ain't got time. They'll be comin' after us," Gitlog said as he pushed himself up, following my lead, his heavy armor plate clanking as he did. He looked haggard and broken. His armor was cleaved in a dozen places, worst of all where he took the ax wound in the side. As I watched, his wound stitched itself closed. Magic lines connected disparate pieces of skin and flesh, then drew together. Soon, there was nothing but dark green skin, slightly coated in blood.
I took in the forge properly, noting a distinct lack of dust or any signs that the forge had ever stood empty. The forge fire looked as if it had been steadily burning for days—no sign that it was in its restarting cycle. I recalled the smith back at the Assembly telling me that if a forge fire were allowed to properly die, it was a multiple day process to get them going again. Moreover, I couldn't see any coal, wood, or other fire source.
"What are you using to fuel the fire, Heph? I don't see anything that burns."
Heph smiled, stood, and walked over to the forge. He picked a pair of tongs from a nearby workbench, then stuck them into the forge. He pulled out an orb which glowed with elemental fire.
I gasped, taking a step forward. "An inferni core? Where did you get those?"
"I didn't," said Heph. "My grandfather did. They were taken from the plane of fire on an expedition lead by the Goblin King. They are second only in quality to dragon flames in producing the finest equipment."
"So they actually hunted and killed fire elementals? There are maybe only two in the Empire who could equal this forge in quality, then. How did you keep yourself from this place? Your other forge was fine, of course, but this is truly magnificent."
"This place is greater than I deserve. I don't want to use this forge until I'm worthy of it. Or I guess if the need is great enough," said Heph, his voice low.
Well," I said, "not only is the need great now, but I think you're more than worthy."
He turned on me with venom in his eyes. "What would you know of such things, Human?!"
I held up my hands defensively. "You helped to mend Vellen, that is no simple feat. Do you think anyone but you could have achieved such a miracle? Do you honestly?"
Heph took a step back from his anger, thinking for a long moment. After a lengthy pause, the Hob looked up. "No. I think maybe a handful in all the world could have completely fixed Vellen. I take your point, Human."
Gitlog walked forward and placed his hand on the Hob's shoulder. "Coulda' told you that myself. Yer the best smith anywhere'n the mountain."
Heph nodded, and stood tall at his full meter and a half of height. "Get that armor off, Gitlog. It's just as likely to harm you as protect you at this point. You'll both need to bring me metal if I'm going to be doing work for you."
"Wait," I said. "Where do we stand, Gitlog? Are we working together? If so, to what end?"
Gitlog pulled off his spaulders, then worked at untying the leather bands holding his curiass together. "I lost m'castle. Blacksteel and his lot have killed my army, looted an' likely burned everythin' else to be found there." He sighed, placing the breast and backplate of his armor down in front of Heph. "You want peace, long peace for Humies, right?"
I nodded. "That's my goal. Your people represent a huge threat to mine. The Living Weapons and the Order of Archmages would be the only thing standing between your armies and our people. There was a time when those odds would favor us, but those times are slipping away. If Blacksteel is a good example of how powerful your people can become, I need to guarantee that they won't be a threat to mine."
Gitlog nodded. "Sounds bout right. We all look out for our own. How bout we work together?"
"How do you mean?" I asked.
"I wanna be a Lord. More, I wanna be King. If Gitlog is King, then Gitlog can make peace with Humies s'long as I rule."
"So you want me to help you to get stronger, help you kill a Lord, and then help you usurp your King?" I asked.
"Yeah, pretty much," said Gitlog.
"Would you swear a blood oath?" I asked.
Gitlog's eyes sharpened into daggers. "You think I'ma liar?"
I shook my head. "Would you trust me without a pact? Something to bind us? What's to stop me stabbing you in the back to make myself stronger?"
Gitlog smiled, his razor teeth glinting in the warm light. "Not so stupid, eh? Fine. A blood pact'll seal our deal."
I pulled out the sword, shrinking it down to the size of a dagger. Gitlog held out his forearm, I did the same, touching mine directly next to his.
"By this pact, I swear to assist Gitlog, Chief under the Mountain, in ascending from the title of Chief to that of Lord, and from Lord to King, so long as he abides by his terms honorably and faithfully. By my blood, bone, and name I swear," I intoned.
"By this pact, I swears to make peace between Humies and Gobbos, excepting in self defense or defense o'other Gobbos. I'll help him in survivin' in the mountain and give any aid I can. S'long as Henry abides by the pact, I'll do these things. By my blood, bone, and name I swear," Gitlog chanted.
With the words said, I slashed across both out forearms. Our blood mingled together, some of mine seeping into his body, and some of his entering mine. With our pact sealed, our forearms began to stitch themselves shut.
"Well," I said. "The bargain is struck."