I woke up to the sound of bickering—not an abnormal experience given the company that I kept. That being said, this time struck me as odd. The voices were high-pitched, for one. While the boots could be a bit whiny at times, they definitely didn't sound like mice caught in a particularly nasty trap. The voices spoke a harsh and crude version of Common. I could barely make out what the creatures were saying.
"Trap trap trap. You see trap? Some fing here. I smell," muttered Goblin One.
"Ha! Yeah, yous smell!" What sounded to be a half dozen voices laughed in a ridiculous-sounding babble. Apparently, this represented a significant display of cleverness on the part of Goblin Two.
I slowly gathered my gear, equipping myself for the inevitable fight.
"Shut up, maggots!" This voice was a husky baritone. It sounded more intelligent as well.
"A goblin chief," whispered the shield. "We should be careful."
"Screw being careful, let's drown them in their own blood," the sword suggested.
"They haven't spotted us yet," whispered the boots, "What if we just lie low? It's smarter not to get into a fight."
"The right spell might catch their party unawares, Henry. We could hit them with a firestorm. Even a chief wouldn't be able to shrug that off."
I held my tongue, mulling over their conflicting advice.
"If they try to harm you, Henry, I'll dull their claws and break their bones with my face," said the shield, its voice ardent.
I let out a low chuckle, "Alright, let's do this."
"Dammit," muttered the boots.
"Yes!" the sword cheered, "I get to drink their blood?"
I stood in a crouch, "Sure, you little psycho. Let's do it."
I mentally prepared the 'flash of light' cantrip; I intended to use the same basic strategy I had used earlier in klilling the first squad of goblins I had found. Quietly stalking forward, I carefully avoided kicking any pebbles or otherwise causing unnecessary noise. I doubt that I even had to bother, since the goblins seemed to be making enough noise to drown out a cat caught between dying and mating.
I looked out of my nook—and found myself staring directly into the faces of three well-equipped goblins. We sat frozen for a heartbeat, before I slammed my eyes closed and yelled, "Illuminae!" A flash of light split the otherwise dim tunnel in a starburst of brightness. I was met with the satisfying sound of dozens of screaming voices. I opened my eyes and drew my blade in a hiss of steel and bloodlust.
"Muahahahaha! Cut them! Bleed them! Drink their blood!" the sword screamed between each rapid slash into the throats of the three goblins.
My left arm jerked forward of its own volition, catching a heavy blow which threw me to the side. My arm was numb with the force of the titanic blow. I looked up in shock to see the smiling face of the largest goblin I had ever seen—it stood at five feet tall and had muscles on its muscles. On its body were dozens of knotted, twisted scars. Perhaps the most notable feature of the intimidating goblin chief was the fact that it had empty sockets where its eyes would ordinarily be.
It swung a large shimmering ax in one gigantic arm, "I'm gonna eat your flesh and pick my teeth with yer bones, human!" In a thundering charge, it ran towards me. A smaller goblin had been in front of that charge, and was now bisected by the heavy ax.
I yelped, dodging to the side, narrowly avoiding being crushed in the charge. I somersaulted towards him, thrusting forward with a wicked stab meant for the brute's side. To my shock, the hulk of muscle nimbly danced out of the way of the strike, slashing down at my head with his ax. I activated the aegis ability, deflecting the blow. To my shock, the ax ripped right through the energy field and ground against the shield. I heard both a scream of metal on metal and of pain from the shield.
I dodged backwards, reaching into my bag and pulled a scroll from my rucksack. I was surprised when the book had nothing biting to say about its use. I supposed it realized that if I died, he would likely be used as goblin toilet paper. I wiped blood from my brow, smearing it on the activator rune of the scroll, aiming it towards the hulking goblin.
A crackling sphere of electricity engulfed the goblin chief; flashing lights and the crackle of barely-contained electricity lit the tunnel. I could smell burning hair and skin.
I dropped to my knees, "What in the fourteen planes of hell was that thing? Was that just a goblin chief?"
The shield sounded hurt, its voice was strained. "Yes. That was a goblin chief...if a disturbingly strong one. That weapon...it was definitely crafted by the hobgoblins. Most likely a master or grand master. We're in danger, Henry."
I nodded, pulling a red phial from my sack, draining it in one long draft. As the potion began to work its magic, the sphere of electricity slowly dissipated. To my shock and horror, the goblin was charred, burned, and in some places smoking—but the fact was that he was still standing. I swallowed heavily, my sweat going cold.
The chief raised his ax again, "I'm Balquog the Blind. It gonna be good to eat you. You strong."
I raised my sword in salute, "It will be a pleasure to drink your blood!" screamed the sword.
For some reason, the chief laughed in an uproar at this. "They say you humans not smart. I think you smart!" The chief charged forward again, swinging his ax madly as he ran. I noticed that he was significantly slower than he had been. I waited for the last possible second, dodging his blow in a fluid sidestep. I slashed the sword at his ankle, biting into his tendon. The massive goblin collapsed to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
I didn't wait to gloat, I knew exactly how strong this bastard was. I jumped, slamming my sword into the neck of the downed chief. It bit into the flesh and bone with a satisfying crunch. Blood attempted to spray, but was pulled into the sword like a vacuum. In moments, the chief was a husk of dried out flesh.
The sword purred in contentment, "That thing was the tastiest thing I've ever eaten. It had magic in its blood."
I looked at the sword, "Wait...what?"
I tried to get answers out of the sword, but found that the thing was either sleeping or pretending to sleep. No matter what I asked, it refused to say anything, but softly whispered, "Blood, blood, blood..." At least it sounded like it was having a good dream.
Still, I didn't have much time to waste—I had probably alerted the entire mountain to my presence. I pulled a soft blue potion from my rucksack, draining it in one long swallow. I felt vitality flowing into my body, the weariness of the last battle falling off my shoulders.
"Alright, let's do this," I said, gathering up the last of my camp equipment. With a snap of my fingers, the camp faded into a soft mist.
"Wait! Where are we going?" asked the boots.
"We're going through the goblins' wall. We have to keep going. Hopefully, we cause enough chaos that we can't be tracked easily."
"Of course we are," moaned the boots, "Why can't we ever just drop by a shoeshine parlor or something?"
"Getting my shoes shined won;t save the Empire. Now, enough bellyaching, let's go," I said.
I paused as I heard a pained moan escaping from my left arm. I turned my arm upward and noticed that the shield had a massive scratch across its face—I had totally forgotten that the shield had been damaged. "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?"
A strained laugh escaped from the shield. "That ax was enchanted with armor sundering...I guess this is what it's like to be sundered," it let out a somewhat dramatic cough, "Unless you carry around a master blacksmith, I don't think there is much you can do." Between coughs, it said, "I'll still protect you, master."
I sighed, "Could one of those Hobgoblin smiths help you?"
The shield stopped moaning and coughing, "You can't, Henry! They will be protected! You'd be in great danger."
"Nevertheless, would it work?"
The shield hesitated for one heartbeat too long, "No, they couldn't help."
I forced a grin, "You're a terrible liar, even when it's to protect me," I patted the shield, "I'll get you some help."
"Henry, could I suggest a spell to break the gate?" asked the book.
"I was just about top consult you on that point," I replied.
"Use 'Explosive Crash'—it should do well to break those gates without bringing the mountain down...probably."
"Probably?" asked the shoes in a quivering voice.
"Definitely probably," the book clarified.
"Good enough for me," I said, flicking to the page.
I crept through the tunnel and came back to the mouth of the cave, noting with chagrin that the traps I had set were disarmed. At least it explained how they had managed to sneak up on me.
From my crouched positioned at the mouth of the tunnel, I raised my hand towards the door. I read from the page, "Ignis Fragor!" I felt a ruby vanishing from my spell components bag, and lamented the loss of another gold piece's worth of items.
This gripe was immediately forgotten upon witnessing the astounding effect of the spell. Fire pooled in front of me, looking more like white-hot lava. The ball expanded to be around the size of a toddler, before sluggishly arcing towards the wall. I watched as the flames exploded over every inch of the fortification, consuming even the splinters as they flew. I ducked back from the heat, I could smell my own hair being singed by the intense flame.
When I looked out at where the door had been, I saw a dozen scorched bodies—they had been killed as a result of their proximity to the conflagration.
I stepped out gingerly through the slag and ash, feeling drained of nearly all of my mana. That single spell had drained me nearly as much as five fireballs. "Why didn't I just use a fireball?" I complained to the book.
"A fireball would have worked, but it tends to 'bring the house down', as it were," it replied, as if stating the obvious.
"Still, I'm not going to be casting much magic for the next few hours," I noted.
"You need to practice high-level spells. This one just happened to be specialized in breaking fortifications, and I think it did a good job."
"Fair enough," I slapped at my pants, a small flare of fire having ignited upon them. "Still, it may have been overkill."
I happened upon a few clusters of mors as I walked, collecting them raw and putting them away in my bag. The sword was still catatonic. "So," I said, "how well equipped are these goblins with enchanted gear?"
"Compared to who?" asked the shield.
"Say...against the imperial army," I suggested.
"In the Imperial Army, one can find a low-leveled enchantment on every squad leader. You may see officers wearing multiple pieces of low-level gear. Contrasted to the Hobs? Your military is fairly poorly equipped."
I sucked in a hiss of breath, "How bad is the disparity?" I asked.
"If my experience is anything to judge by, they will have four enchanted items to every one of your military."
"How do they afford to create so many enchanted weapons? Souls are a large component. Never mind the rare minerals and special spells."
"They are less...principled in their collection of souls, Henry. They are willing to sacrifice hundreds to enchant a mid-level piece of gear."
I frowned as I walked, the news of what I was up against souring my mood. Just as I was going to pose another question, I heard something on the air. It wasn't the now-dreaded sound of the King's drums, no, it sounded like...alarm bells?
My questions were answered as I rounded a corner—in the center of a large cavern was a city, an honest-to-Gods city.
I swore under my breath.