Large, untidy buildings were sprawled out in the vast cavern; their ramshackle appearances were reminiscent of the slums which ringed the more populated human cities. While even the dilapidated buildings were worrisome, what stood at the center of the city was terrifying in its implications—a fortress which would rival any petty lord's castle, towering over the surrounding structures. A wall which stood at least a hundred hands high protected it from the rest of the city. The castle looked to be well-built from black stone; its architecture seemed to have been pulled directly from 'Evil Fortress Magazine', with spires like spears piercing into the sky and evil-looking gargoyles guarding its buttresses.
From my perch, I could make out the shapes of hundreds, maybe even thousands of walking goblin figures. I shook my head in wonder—I had heard tales of goblin bands being seen on the other side of the mountain range, but I'd never expected this. Though, if the rumors were true, there was likely a network of tunnels which lead from this very spot to where they were raiding. I would bet anything that the goblins had been raiding for food, weapons, and equipment to help support such a host.
"Have any of you heard of a goblin city this immense? I...I don't think the world has seen anything like it in four-thousand years."
The Shield was the first to answer, "No, this would seem to be the largest gathering of goblinoids I've even heard of. Henry, you must be careful—they will have a hundred chiefs like the one we just killed, as well as dozens of goblin lords which could kill that chief with a flick of the hand. You can't afford to be careless."
"One-hundred thirty-two years ago, there was an uprising on the other side of the mountains. You see, the Kingdom which once rested there had a booming slave market. They had Orcs, Goblins, Humans, Minotaurs, and even a few giants," it cleared its non-existent throat, making sure we were all listening.
"Don't showboat, dictionary. You're a book, of course you know things," the sword interjected, still groggy from the chief's blood.
"Fine, fine," the book replied tersely, "I see you lack patience and wit in equal measure. As I was saying, there was an uprising—tens of thousands of slaves rebelled overnight, and so, too, did the Kingdom fall over night. No one is sure where all the slaves ran off to, but it is possible that a large portion of those goblins came to these very mountains."
"You're not implying that the Goblins have been here for a century, are you? Surely we'd have found out at some point, right?" I asked.
"Not necessarily, Henry. Remember, they have really only been active on the other side of the mountains. They have likely been avoiding your Empire in the interest of survival. Even fifty years ago, this city," the book sneered the word, "would have been broken by a single subjugation force. But the Empire has weakened, they are stretched too thin as it stands. Even the hundreds we saw camped in the cavern earlier would be cause for alarm, let alone all of this."
I nodded, my own worry twisting a knot in my stomach. "So what do we do? Do we try and escape? Do we still try to poison the goblins?"
"I vote on running. Caution is the better part of wisdom, Henry," the boots suggested.
"All I see is an opportunity to drink more blood," a sleepy voice commented.
"What can we do, Henry?" asked the shield, "Getting yourself killed serves no purpose. That being said, letting this potential enemy wait on your border could end up getting both you and many thousands killed later on. Sometimes the best defense is offense. But, we should only move when we have a plan."
I blinked, "I never thought to hear that from you."
"I think we should continue. We are faced with an opportunity unlike any other, Henry—we can learn more about Goblins than any scholar in history. We can dissect a Goblin Lord. We can even try to nab the King at some point and perform experiments," he sounded like a giddy child, "Think of the knowledge!"
"Fine," I said, "We'll keep moving. But I agree with the shield, we ought to come up with a plan before moving any further."
"I have an idea," the sword piped up, "How about we walk into the streets and start cutting down Goblin filth? Eventually, the chiefs will show themselves and we can drain their blood!"
I rubbed my face in exasperation. "Does anyone have any ideas that don't end up with me being surrounded and killed?"
"Why can't the new plan be the old plan?" asked the boots.
"What?" the book, shield, and I all asked in unison.
"Well," stuttered the boots, now nervous, "so many Goblins have to be drinking a lot of water. What if we poison their water sources? We could potentially bring down the city without ever lifting that freak of a sword."
"Trust a coward to look at an ocean of blood and see the only way around drinking it."
"I actually think the boots make a good point," said the shield, "This many Goblins will be drinking enough water to imply the existence of rudimentary plumbing, aqueducts, wells, and other fresh water sources. It would be the safest option."
I nodded to myself, I could now make out structures weaving throughout the city that did look like aqueducts. "Well, we'll need a helluva lot more poison. And we'll need a way to move about the city undetected. Thoughts?"
"I have a spell that can disguise you as a relatively strong Goblin. However, we are missing two material components. We need the heart of a Goblin Lord and a flawless diamond. Otherwise, we could make due with simple stealth spells. I would recommend the former," mused the book.
"The lichen on the walls is a good low-grade poison," the boots added, "These tunnels are also known to have cave toads whose poison is potent enough to kill a human with a single touch. The native peoples of these mountains used them in war for centuries."
"Now how in the hells did you know that?" I asked, "Do you need to give me your origin story, too?"
"It's not that complicated. My original owner was a thief and assassin. I picked up a few things."
"Care to explain?" I asked.
"My first owner, the person who had me created, was Thomas Bloodbane. He was an assassin who worked for the Guild of Liquidators a few hundred years ago."
"Well, I suppose that explains your host of abilities. Nearly everything you can do would be well-suited for an assassin or thief."
"Explains why you're such a wimp," laughed the sword, "You palled around with a skulking coward of a master."
"Wait," I cut in, "you don't approve of assassins? I thought the bloody work would agree with you."
"Bah," scoffed the sword, "The place of a weapon is in the thick of a brawl, with warm sacks of blood and meat surrounding you. Not stabbing some idiot in the back and running away."
"He wasn't a coward," whispered the boots.
"Assassins are sneaks and dishonorable louts," the book agreed, "They strike honorable men and women down from the shadows, not giving a fair fight to even Archmages. Curse and burn the lot of the bastards."
"I'm sensing some personal resentment?" the shield queried.
"One of my first masters was assassinated in the prime of her life," growled the book, "I didn't think I could loathe you more. You're nothing but a worm of footwear."
At the sound of a whimper from the boots, I decided that I'd had enough. "You may not respect what the boots were made for, but you have to respect them. They have saved my life a dozen times in this cave alone, I will not have them disrespected."
The boots had gone completely silent. "You want to continue your story?" I asked.
There was no answer.
"Look what you bastards have done. I hope you're proud of yourselves," I admonished.
"Actually, yes. I'm pretty happy with how that turned out, thanks," the sword replied in a cheery voice.
"No complaints here," chimed the shield.
"Frankly, I want to hear nothing from those who aid and abet assassins. His silence rings clear and sweet," stated the book.
"We'll talk about this later," I sternly told the merry band of assholes. "For now, let's just get going after those frogs, slimes, and mushrooms. We still have to ensure that this city doesn't survive to threaten my home."
I took a moment to survey the way down to the city, finding a narrow path which wound down through to what looked like a well-traveled tunnel. I decided to try avoiding the city proper until I was ready to strike. Picking my way carefully down the path, I nearly lost my footing at several points. There was loose gravel and dust to contend with, along with the relative darkness. I didn't dare to use a light spell, it would be like painting a target on my back.
When I finally made my way down to the foot of the path, I dived into cover just as a party of goblin warriors were coming out of the tunnel I had been heading towards. I let out a sigh of relief. One moment sooner and I may have been caught out.
I heard the lead Goblin saying something as they came closer.
"—da party never not come back. Big chief prolly dead to da thing." This got a shiver of fear from the eight other goblins who followed. "Dey say dat da thing has biggun knives for hands. Dey say dat da thing have teeth size of gobbo," his voice carried the pitch of an accomplished camp fire storyteller. The lead goblin turned and shouted, "It da thing!" pointing a finger almost directly at me. I ducked behind the rock I was peeking out from, readying myself to charge out and cut them to shreds. Instead, he started to cackle madly. "You gits. You think I tell you if I see biggun wolf thing? I just run off and let you gits get got."
The Goblins slowly fell back into a rough formation, having now realized the joke. Gradually, the sounds of their passage dimmed.
"It sounds like they've had run-ins with the monster we fought off earlier. Sounds like it's a regular boogey-goblin," whispered the book.
"Boogey-goblin? Is that like those old stories about boogeymen?" I asked.
"Stories? Those aren't just stories, Henry, they're fairy tales—some of the most horrible ever devised. They haunted Humankind for centuries, you should be grateful they are now so very scarce. But, I was merely making a pun. The Fae never bothered crafting a boogey-goblin. What would be the point? Goblins are afraid of almost anything as it stands."
"Blood, blood, blood," said the sword.
I looked at the sword. "Oh, please don't start that shit again. I don't need that right now."
"Why don't you go and kill something then? I'm starving."
"You literally just drank an entire Goblin chief dry like an hour or two back! How can you possibly be hungry?" I asked, incredulous.
"I'm a growing sword, I need lots of feeding."
I was going to rebuke it, but I noticed that the sword was correct. It had been growing. The blade was now about an inch longer, and seemed to have grown one or two shades sharper.
"You want to explain what's going on?" I asked the blade.
"No. I want you to feed me," the sword paused for a long moment, "Actually, if you feed me another chief, I'll tell you. Deal?"
I sighed, tired of the hoops I had to jump through for my gear. "Fine. I'll get you another chief or better. Then you'll key me in on what's going on with you."
"Blood, blood, blood, blood," chirped the sword, now significantly more cheerful.
I stepped out from behind the cover and stalked into the mouth of the tunnel. Another wave of vileness hit me on the air—it had the distinctly sweet and sickly smell of rotting flesh. I pinched my nose and continued down the path.
Along the way, I found some of the cave slime the boots had described earlier. I pulled a phial out from my rucksack and carefully collected the slime, making sure to avoid letting any get on my skin.