The Tarred Goat’s takeover

(This story is a brief episode in the history of Tiat, a quarter-goblin thief, who is the main character in a book series I am currently writing.)

The enormously obese proprietor of the Tarred Goat, Garren, stalked across the small room. His cruelly twisted smile sent shivers of fear and disgust down the woman’s spine. She struggled to sit up on the bed, but the shackles binding her to the wall hindered her movement.

Garren chuckled as he watched the gnome struggle. His massive bulk shook with mirth. He delighted in watching his captive writhe and squirm. He paused with every step, prolonging her misery.

From the common room came the sounds of bawdy songs, the bard encouraging participation from the drunken travelers and villagers who crowded the bar. The silvery-haired gnome cried out in desperation, hoping against hope that tonight, finally, someone would come to her aid.

The woman’s small body was barely covered by the shredded remnants of her once-fine clothes. Her eyes, reddened by tears, stared wildly at the grotesque man stalking toward her. She begged, blubbering and crying, for her dignity. When that failed, as it always did, she turned to cursing his name, his family, his ability to perform. Her ire only drew more laughter from the beastly man.

Just as Garren reached the bed, the door of the room flew open. As swiftly as it was opened, it was closed. But not before an elegant elf in midnight clothing stepped through the portal, followed by a similarly clad bald woman.

The elf flashed a smile, twice as cruel as Garren’s own, the pearly teeth stark against his flawless lavender skin. The tall man bowed sardonically toward the obese innkeeper, then swept a more courtly bow to the cowering gnome on the bed.

The elf’s companion also grinned at the portly human. Her hands slid from inside her vest to reveal twin daggers that glinted viciously in the light of the room. She turned her vibrant yellow-green eyes to the gnome.

“You’s be ready, Dreysil,” the goblin asked the smaller woman, with a nod toward the confused innkeeper. When the gnome nodded, the bald gobliness threw both daggers, striking the obese human in each shoulder, severing the tendons that allowed his arms movement. The man dropped to his knees, his screams of pain lost in the raucous noise of the oblivious drunkards carousing in the common room.

“Interesting choice, little Tempest,” the elf drawled. “Perhaps you should assist our new-found friend, while I complete the task you’ve left for me? I should so hate to see our host collapse in pain before he realizes the extent of his dilemma.”

The goblin growled, hating the name he called her, but she hastened to finish her part of the rescue. She slipped across the now-bloody floor to the gnome, where she rapidly released the locked shackles.

Then together, the two women fled from the room, leaving Garren’s further torment to Dueros.

Upstairs, in the elf’s room, the gnome cleaned herself of weeks of torture and pain, while the goblin kept watch for her bondsmaster. When the blademaster finally returned to his room, he grinned evilly at his companion and their new friend.

“The matter is handled, Dreysil,” Dueros smirked. Then he turned to the bald woman, saying, “Perhaps a warm meal would be appropriate, Tiat? Our gnome friend most assuredly needs nourishment and warmth. See to it.”

Tiat scurried from the room, but stopped short on the other side of the door. Dimly, she heard the low murmur of the elf’s voice, then a muffled reply from the gnome. Gnashing her teeth together at being left out of Dueros’ deal, the goblin thief hurried to the kitchen for food.

 

The village was abuzz the next morning. News of a takeover of the village’s largest inn set Tiat’s goblin ears burning. But when she tried to ask Dueros, the crafty elf only chuckled and continued walking, his path leading the pair far from Kalentown.

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The tyrant’s ball

The musicians played beautifully, their practiced pieces bouncing through the halls of the palace. Men in their velvet brocades and starchy linen blouses paraded through, guiding their ball-gowned women in the intricate steps of traditional dances. The full silk and taffeta skirts swished and swayed, sweeping lightly across the smooth-as-glass-floor.

The royals, a high prince and his lady, sat upon a dais, high above the crowd. They observed the festivities through jewel-encrusted binoculars, held to their eyes by servants in black crushed velvet. Murmured conversation passed between the two, decisions of life and death, the balance of the kingdom in question.

Flickering light wavered through the crowd of dancers, yellows and reds twisting and cavorting in time to the music. Painted, feathered, and jeweled mask-covered faces turned to the dais as the revelers passed, a quick bow or nod to acknowledge the royals sitting in judgement.

Beneath the plexiglass floors, four stories down, battles raged and fires burned. Cries of anguish and terror drifted into the silence of distance. Charred velvets and stinking silks drifted along in a heat-fueled vortex of air, ash flung far and wide.

With a nod, a wink, or wave of a hand, the high prince decided who lived and who flew. Soldiers moved, untouched in the crowds, to escort the lucky few. Men and women, unfit for the new order, pushed to join the battle, fodder for the usurper’s war.

In velvets and silks, cotton and taffeta, the unwilling soldiers in a tyrant’s crusade, died by the hundreds, their blood cementing his resolve, building his walls.

Birth of evil

When darkness fell, he welcomed it, his arms spread wide. His smile, cruel and selfish, was a long, thin slash across his pale face. His eyes stared blindly into the abyss, his heart thundered wildly.

As the stone was rolled across the top of his prison, he laughed. The sound echoed in the deep pit, shrill and sharp. Above, his captors shivered in their cloaks, but it wasn’t the chill of the winter air that gave them pause.

In the ebon stillness, the imprisoned man whispered, soft and sibilant words, calling forth the creatures lying dormant in the frozen earth. He coaxed the smallest, he cajoled the largest, he cooed to them all.

In the darkness, they came. Fully alive or depressingly dead, they harkened to his call. The tiniest of insects yearning for succor, the deadliest of skeletal warriors clamoring for revenge, each and every one followed his song.

The cries of surprise and clanging of pitched battle dimly pricked the prisoner’s ears. He threw back his head and cackled, picturing the scene in his mind’s eye. He lounged, leaning against the hard frigidness of earthen prison, waiting for his release.

The darkness of his prison soothed him, blanketed him in comfort. His bony fingers twitched, calling his beasts of battle to him. With terse instructions, the mad wizard directed his minions to roll away his prison door.

Rattling bones and chittering feet worked together to allow his escape. He paused, at the apex of his rise, to call to the battered soulless bodies remaining on the bloody battlefield. Up, they rose, to heed his demands.

Upon lifeless shoulders they carried their master, through the deepest hours of night, to the edge of the city, splayed out below.

The wizard called once again, ripping bones from earth. His call delved deep, below the world, to call the horrors to his side. Mingling on the hilltop, the melange waited for his signal. When it came, the horde swept down, covering the streets with bleak twilight even in the brightening dawn.

When darkness fell once more, the city of his birth was no more and his army was swollen to massive heights.

The necromancer was born.

Love’s flight

The beast spread its wings wide, using the feathered appendages to balance on the edge of the rocky cliff. The beautiful plumage gleamed in the afternoon sun, ebon to sable, the colors twined and mingled in magnificent display. The bird’s great snowy head leaned forward and down, allowing a woman in flowing robes to stroke its deadly beak.

The woman, unafraid, cooed at the massive eagle, her hands lovingly caressing the curved golden beak. Her robes, snowy as the bird’s top feathers, were embroidered in royal purple to show her high rank. Her slippers, too delicate for the rocky cliff, slipped on the dangerously loose moss on the the craggy face of the mountain.

The eagle, joined to the woman by love and empathy, swiftly lifted a massive clawed foot to steady her. Her breath shortened by the near-fall, the woman leaned against the solid bulk of her friend, feeling the bird’s own agitation against her skin.

Hearing her name called from the valley behind, the woman straightened herself. She smoothed the feathers on the giant eagle’s chest, then leaned forward to plant a motherly kiss on the beast’s beak.

“Go,” she whispered, “before they come. They would never understand. To them, you’re merely a beast to be used.”

The eagle, seeing the pain and love in the woman’s eyes, dipped its head, acknowledging her words. With a great surge, the enormous bird pushed itself off the mountain’s edge, dropping precariously low before pumping its wings in powerful flight.

Turning, the woman glided away from the eagle’s perch, drawing the attention of her husband, the king, and his men. As the men followed, she dared look one last time, over her shoulder, to see her love’s lingering flight.

Worlds collide

The object lying in the clearing was made of some sort of metal, though only close observation told Selene that. The plush, springy moss that covered the thing was inches deep in spots. Obviously it had been lying here, undisturbed for decades, at least.

The slender, nearly limbless trees towered above the priestess. She moved quietly through the green-filtered sunlight. Her slippered feet were noiseless and her thin cotton robes only swished pleasantly with her steps.

The synthetic familiar bequeathed to all higher-ranking priestesses floated behind her, at head height. Its glowing red eye roamed over the forest and its peculiar relic. Never more than two steps behind its master, it recorded everything she found and everything she did.

Circling the enormous object, Selene gasped when she saw what looked like eyes peering at her from the opposite side. They were large and round, much like the glowing red socket on her familiar. She moved closer, running her roughened hands along the edges of the eyes.

Moving her hands further out, she found a nose. Inside the nostrils, her fingers probed a fine mesh of metallic strands. In wonderment, she paused.

Selene cocked her head to the side, her mind going back over the history of the world. Her order knew much of the lore from the world, more than most, but even they were lacking in some areas. Nothing in her memory would explain this disembodied head.

She turned away from the thing, moving further into the forest, looking for more parts of the artificial being.

As she passed through the first ring of trees beyond the clearing, the eyes of the monstrous metallic head lit up, glowing a deep orange. The sensory devices implanted deep inside the head calculated Selene’s most probable path, her height and weight, her species, and innumerable other things about her, the forest, and her familiar.

All the information was projected in an invisible beam to a hovering ship, high above the atmosphere. The calculations were entered into a database, providing the keepers with more knowledge of their charges.

Selene, unaware of the machinations of the alien beings, moved further away from the head. She began speaking to her companion.

“Basch, it appears that another strange apparatus has appeared in the forest. Make sure the children are kept close. Alert the high priestess. It may be time for another cleansing.”

 

 

 

Into the fire

The bounty hunter crouched on a sandstone slab, detritus from the tumbled canyon walls. His long ears twitched. Wind whipped sand along the narrow slit of earth. Leather cap and vest did little to protect his skin from the shards of pain.

Sharp eyes peered through the sand clouds, searching the vertical village for signs of life. His quarry had slipped into the abandoned area just hours before. But the bounty hunter had lost the trail in the sandstorm.

Crackling static poured from the black box on his hip. He laid his cased rifle on the slab in front of him and reached for the com-unit.

“What,” he croaked into it. “I’m busy.”

His voice was deep but cracked, much like the canyon he found himself in. The voice on the other end was metallic, harsh and screeching.

It said, “Didja find ‘er, yet?”

The bounty hunter grunted, “Nah, she vanished into Arborga. Sandstorm’s kicking up, though. Ain’t gonna find her today.”

Above the goblin bounty hunter, a raven-haired child clung to an overhanding spar of sandstone. Her filmy, flimsy clothing provided no protection against the whipping sands. She kept herself as close to the warm rocks as possible.

When the bounty-hunter clicked off his comms, he listened for several minutes to the winds howling down the canyon. In a lull, he yelled to his quarry, oblivious to her proximity.

“You’ll not make it out here alone, girl. Nothing but bandits and criminals hiding out in the Outerlands. Best you come back with me. The Masters’ punishments’ll be nothing like what you’ll find among the outlaws.”

The girl, hovering above, shivered at the thought of the Masters. She remembered a time, long before, when she had belonged to a mother. Where she was loved and protected. But then her mother died and the Masters had come.

The wind sliced across the spar she clung to, sending dagger slices of sand across her skin. Exhaustion, thirst and hunger almost made her cry out to the bounty hunter, to ask for the mercy of death, but shrill, undulating calls from the canyon walls stopped her.

The bounty hunter, perched on his slab, snatched his gun case up and jumped from the rock. He wasted no more breath on the escaped concubine. A band of outlaws was something the goblin wasn’t prepared to take on.

The girl watched the goblin flee. She was preparing herself to die, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Her body was flung aside, across the width of the spar. She found herself looking up into the wide blue eyes of a blonde woman.

“Escaped, did you,” the woman asked, her face breaking into a smile. “And you didn’t run when you heard us coming for the man. Good.”

The girl sat up. As she looked around herself, she saw several women, all with filmy, flimsy cloth tied into their hair. Her mouth dropped open and she sputtered, trying to thank the women and trying to ask questions, but everything tangled on her tongue.

The blonde woman laughed. “Don’t worry, little one. We were all in your position, once. The Masters are terrible, terrible men.”

In a different language, one that sounded melodic to the escaped girl’s ears, the blonde woman said to her companions, “She’s healthy enough. We’ll take her to market. If the Masters want her, they’ll have to bid, same as everyone else. Bathe her, feed her, and prepare her with the euphoria oils. Then we’ll see how much this pretty fool earns us.”

The exchange

The city lights dimmed, right on schedule. Behind her, the towering fortress like tenement buildings sucked up the last of the fading light, leaving nothing for the stragglers to see by.

She stood on the central platform of the waterfall of stairs leading to the lower city. Beneath her, in the most ancient parts of town, creatures of darkness moved, living and dying in the near-endless night. Faintly the victorious cries of hunters and the shrill screams of the doomed floated up to her.

Waiting for her contact to arrive, she had time to reflect on life, history, and everything else. The countless treads above and below brought to mind a lesson learned in a long-ago history class, before such classes were outlawed. Somewhere, down below, perhaps those ancient steps and fountains remained.

The glow ball, hovering inches above her hand, changed colors. Brilliant white to dull, pulsing blue, meant her contact was nearing. She waved her hand above the orb, dimming its light further. The man coming to meet her was no friend of the light.

From the stairs below came a shuffling sound, of many feet on plasticrete. The durable building material held no heat, bore no chill, making it almost perfect for any use. Except stealth. The drawback to the plastic and cement mixture is that it carried sound, for leagues, sometimes. She thought, perhaps, that’s why the central government used so much of the stuff.

The man approaching her was disheveled, wearing cast-off vinyl clothes, in garish colors that would have clashed had they not been splashed with mud and excrement. The woman wrinkled her nose at the stench, but didn’t dare show her disdain. This man lived below. He held no compassion, no reason to refrain from reveling in her murder, if she disrespected him.

Three steps down, he waited.

She bent, scooping up the squirming bundle beside her. The greed on his face was palpable. The woman nearly felt regret at her actions. But, it was her job, what the desperate citizens of both worlds relied on her to do.

The baby started to cry, the drugs she’d used to keep it quiet until now beginning to wear away. The man snatched it from her outstretched arms. He cooed and blew in the child’s face, sending it back to silence. He tucked the bundle into a shallow carry-sack, close to his chest, then tossed a ragged, filthy bag at the woman’s feet.

A last nod at her, then he vanished into the darkness.

The woman from the upper world brightened her sphere, then let it hover over the dirty bag she tore into. Inside, remnants of the lost world: porcelain dolls with cracked faces and torn rags for clothes; chipped ivory combs, missing teeth; small, colorful stones in beautiful patterns on large pieces of pottery.

The treasures, once turned in to the government officials, would ensure enough rations for the child’s family to eat for weeks. The child, in the care of the underworlders, would, one day, become a treasure hunter himself.