As I crept along, I noticed that the light level was gradually increasing. I came to the point where I could see my surroundings as clearly as if I were under the full moon. The ceiling above me was lit by rivers of softly glowing green crystals.
"What are those?" I asked, my voice laden with awe.
"They are luminari crystals," replied the shield.
I looked down at the shield, surprised. "I have to admit, I expected the book to answer."
The book seemed genuinely pleased at the shield's knowledge, "The shield is correct, though I'm not sure how it would know. Luminari crystals are exceedingly rare—you only find them in small veins, usually in the Dwarven mountains. It's a shame that Humanity has failed categorically in mining these stones, otherwise this would represent a significant source of income for you."
I looked away from the glittering display, suddenly aware of something I had been ignoring—a soft breeze from further along the path was clearing the tunnel of the horrid smell I'd been contending with for the last few hours. I felt everything around me suddenly became more crisp, more clear. I now noticed that the crystals above me were in fact a myriad shades of soft blue and green—the sight was truly incredible. I pulled a journal from my rucksack and jotted down a quick entry to remind me to return to this cave after it was cleared of goblins. This is a sight I knew I'd want to revisit.
I shook my head, reminding myself that I had a goal; I didn't have time to dawdle around admiring the lighting. Tucking away my journal, I made the rest of the short journey through the tunnel. I crouched at the exit, peeking my head out cautiously to get a glimpse of what lay ahead. I sucked in a breath at the sight which greeted me—a wall, standing more than seven feet tall. The fortification was made from wood and stone, shockingly well-built for mere goblins. My blood chilled when I considered the implications of the fort—it was very possible that the structure was built by slaves, or possibly by some type of goblin I wasn't aware of. I retreated back through the cave to discuss options with my gear.
"What do you think is responsible for building that wall? I have trouble imagining goblins building something even as clever as that."
Once again, the shield surprised us all by piping up first, "Those walls were built by hobgoblins. They're a subspecies of goblin possessed of a keener mind than an average green-skin. If they have enough of those on their side, I'm considerably more concerned for your safety."
My mouth was agape, "How do you know all that about goblins? And how did you know about the crystals earlier?"
"I, too, am interested in the answer to that question. I know these things based on my extensive experience in academia. How is it you came by such information?" asked the book.
"I'm allowed to know things. I don't see why I have to answer to this interrogation. The point is, you're in more danger than we thought. We have to move very carefully from here."
The boots spoke in a tremulous voice, "I think we should wait here and take a rest. We could use my stealth ability in combination with muffle to sneak past this fortification, but we need to wait for the abilities to become available again."
I looked sternly at the shield, "I agree with the boots. And since we seem to have a bit of time to kill, I think we should all hear about where you came by your information."
"Kill?" asked the sword, perking up.
"Not that kind of kill, you psychopath," sneered the book.
"Watch yourself, dictionary—remember that scissors beats paper, I can cut you surely as I cleave flesh," the sword hissed.
"Shut up, the both of you. We don't need any bickering right now," I said, silencing them both.
I walked a short way back through the tunnel, setting alarm wires as I went, carefully following the directions I had purchased in 'Traps for Dummies: Vol II'. These traps, while simple, should be able to alert me in advance of any enemies, and slow them down as well. I pulled out the book and flipped through to a page I had marked out for regular use—the spell 'Create Camp'. It was a relatively simple spell with a significant material cost of two silver coins per casting. I still considered that to be a bargain when factoring in how much weight it saved me from having to lug around.
I found a likely spot - a small clearing with a good draft - and cast the spell, "Summone Castra'. I felt my coin-purse grow slightly lighter, and sighed. A campfire appeared, surrounded by several convenient features for a camp such as this: a drying rack for meat, three bedrolls, a cook-pot, and a small basin of potable water. This would be used for drinking water, cleansing water, and of course water for cooking. As always, I was surprised by the cost to my magical reserves; I felt slightly weak and fuzzy headed.
I sat down next to the fire and set the shield leaning against the water basin. "Now, I think you owe us a story."
While the shield had no need of breath, it still sounded as if it sucked in a deep lungful of air before reluctantly saying, "Since you don't seem willing to let this drop, I guess I don't have a choice in explaining," he paused briefly, "Most assume that I was forged in the deep mountains by the Dwarven folk, but this isn't the case. I was crafted by hobgoblins, and they used luminari crystal in my construction."
I sat staring at the fire, the shock of what I'd heard still keeping me silent. The Shield of Gallad was forged by...goblins? This shield was one of the great treasures of the Empire, and green-skins had been the ones to craft it?
"How exactly did mere goblins create an artifact like you?" I finally managed to ask.
The shield sighed, "I don't really remember. My first memory was of awaking as a sapient artifact. I sat on an artificer's table, surrounded by spent luminari crystals. In front of me was an elderly hobgoblin, his back was crooked, his hair was white, and he spoke in the barking language common to the goblin people," he paused, "But he was not like any goblin I have seen since. He was a brilliant craftsman, a visionary in the art of blacksmithing and silver-smithing. Many look upon my face with awe, remarking on the silver filigree which decorates me. It was not an elf with his delicate hands, or a dwarf with his cunning crafting. No, it was a goblin who crafted me to be the perfect shield."
I nodded, taking in the import of what the shield had told me. "So," I hedged, "what can you tell me about hobgoblins? What should I expect to see that's out of the ordinary from regular goblins?"
The shield sat quiet for a moment, as if collecting its thoughts, "Hobgoblins are a remarkably clever species, if scrawny. You'll meet goblins who are equipped with fine armor, weapons, and even potions. The chiefs, lords, and especially the King will likely be equipped with enchanted gear," the shield paused, "Though nothing which rivals the quality of your gear, obviously. Being a living weapon, you're likely one of only a thousand in the Empire who are better equipped."
"If the King is equipped with such high tier gear, we should really try to avoid him at all costs," noted the boots.
"You always want to run, coward. I think tasting the blood of royalty would be divine."
"Goblin Kings are different," said the boots, "They are physically formidable, cunning, fast. They have been responsible for the deaths of more than three living weapons over the last hundred years. If we fight the King, Henry's blood will be the one drunk."
The book spoke up, bringing the conversation back towards the subject at hand. "In general, how do Hobgoblin smithing and enchanting arts measure up against Human or Dwarf arts?"
The shield sat silent for a moment, "If I had to weigh them against one another, I would say that the Hobs have better enchanting than the Dwarves, but worse than the Humans. They also have better smithing than the Humans, but worse than the Dwarves. What they really excel at is potion craft. They are equaled only by the Halflings for ability in potion craft."
"If they are so formidable," I mused, "why are they so uncommon? Shouldn't such an advanced race take its place among the rest of the civilized world?"
The book scoffed, "That, Henry, is an extremely ethnocentric question. You assume that a species which behaves differently than yours must be flawed or lesser somehow. From what we have learned about these Hobgoblins, I would say that they are following their nature. Just as Humans follow their nature by being quarrelsome and belligerent, and Dwarves in being headstrong and rigidly proud."
"Or the Dark Elves by being murderous and conniving," hissed the sword.
"Exactly," confirmed the book.
I held up my hands in a warding gesture, "I wasn't trying to be ethno...ethno..."
"Ethnocentric," supplied the book haughtily.
"Right, I wasn't trying to be ethnocentric. I just thought it was odd that a smarter, more clever, and more industrious species would be subservient to less capable species," I shrugged, "I didn't mean to sound like I was judging them."
The book barked an ugly laugh, "Don't the Humans have Elvish and Dawrven slaves? Both species could be considered to be more capable individually than Humans. That doesn't mean that they can always resist being subjugated."
I frowned, "Humans are more powerfully gifted in magic than any of the other races by far. Of course we're superior to those we enslave."
A tremulous voice surprised us all by saying, "Your people were enslaved for over three hundred years by the Voraz'un."
I had to force myself to suppress a growl at the hated name. "We were taken by surprise," I gripped my hand into a tight fist, "They assassinated my people's Arch-mages, they poisoned our wells. They fought from the shadows and overwhelmed us with sneakery and skullduggery. They were not superior to us."
"Don't you see your hypocrisy, Henry?" asked the shield.
I sighed, dropping my head in defeat. "I suppose so. Any species or people can be subjugated given the right circumstances. I will not judge the Hobgoblins too harshly."
I stood, walking over to my sleep-roll. I carefully stripped myself of my weapons and armor, placing them in oilcloth close to the side of where I would be sleeping. Climbing into the roll, I snapped my finger and extinguished the magical flame which had lit the darkened nook where I had set camp.
As I closed my eyes to sleep, I said, "I don't think less of you for being made by the Hobs. If they made you, then they are magnificent craftsmen."
I heard, "That means a lot, Henry," as I drifted off to sleep.