Akina trailed Ondorum across the main threshold, which he said the hobgoblins had been using to come and go. The air turned chilly and musty, with an underlying reek that flared the embers in Akina's gut—a fetid mix of blood, grease, dung, and rotting meat unique to hobgoblins. It conjured up too-fresh memories of their hideous warcries and how they'd clamber over the corpses of allies and foes alike to slaughter all in their path.
Once they left the sunlight behind, all color washed away into shades of gray. Ondorum navigated the darkness without stumbling, so she figured he could see as well as her or had some monkish sensitivity that guided him. At least he wouldn't be a liability that way.
The initial hall ended in what once might've been a large meeting chamber. Portions of the ceiling had collapsed, blocking off stretches with earth-packed debris. Side halls and chambers offered themselves on either side, while cracked columns stood in rows. A few sections of the floor had broken, gaping holes hinting at lower levels.
Akina kept a steady watch as they advanced, eager for the beasts to attack and end any pretense at peace. Sure, there was the gold to be gotten by laying them low, but this job went deeper than that for her. Since the war ended, surviving hobgoblins and their ilk had scattered to every pit they could crawl into. It was time to claim vengeance for those who'd fallen before their hordes. So many friends to remember. So many faces locked in death masks, covered in blood or ravaged beyond recognition.
"You never told me your name."
"Hm?" She roused from her morbid recollections. "Oh. Akina."
Ondorum skirted rubble. "Just that? I thought dwarves identified with their families or clans."
"We're working together to scatter a few beasts, not compare bloodlines."
"They're not mindless beasts, you know."
She snorted. "True. They're worse. They're savages just smart enough to be deadly, and there's only one way to deal with savages. Where are they, anyway? I thought you arranged a meeting."
Ondorum surveyed the chamber with a frown. "I believe your arrival spooked them. No doubt they've retreated a bit. Hopefully we can contact them and explain the misunderstanding."
"Misunderstanding? Funny way to describe raids and butchery."
"These claim they took no part in the war."
"You believe them?"
"Until there's evidence to the contrary, I try to give others the benefit of the doubt."
"How are you even still alive? You're either really lucky or—" Akina hesitated. Had that been a faint chuckle just then? A pebble clattering? She inspected the dismal chamber.
"Come out," she said. "No point in hiding."
A wheedling voice trickled over. "I hides so you not kill me."
"We won't kill you," Ondorum said. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
Akina barely sealed a Says you behind her lips.
A creature even shorter than her hopped into view from behind a pile of rocks and stood just on the other side of a set of columns. Its melon-shaped head wobbled on a spindly neck while its grin revealed dozens of needle-sharp teeth. Filthy rags draped a scrawny body.
"Hello!" it said. "Are you my dinner?"
"Goblin." Akina hunched, gripping her maulaxe in both hands. "Keep an eye out."
Ondorum glanced her way. "You fear this creature?"
"Not afraid of anything," she said. "But I'm not stupid, either. Goblins are like roaches. Where there's one, there's a hundred waiting to stick you from behind."
"Roaches!" The goblin picked up several stones and juggled them, the columns framing its display. "Loves me crunchy roaches. So tasty." It giggled. "But it just me. Me and the biggies. But the biggies no share their food and I—" The goblin's voice lowered several octaves, grating across Akina's ears.
"I am quite famished."
It flung the stones at them with surprising speed. Ondorum snagged two from midair while the third pinged off Akina's helm.
"Something's wrong here." Akina growled and stepped forward. "I'll fill your gut with—"
Pressure against her shin made her freeze, but too late. A near-invisible cord stretched across the way. Even as she backpedaled, a rumbling noise shook the chamber and the cord went slack.
Mouth wide in shrieking laughter, the goblin cartwheeled aside as the two columns crumbled and fell toward Akina and Ondorum.
They dove in opposite directions, and the crash rattled Akina's bones. She raised her head to see the toppled columns had set off a chain reaction throughout the chamber. Sections of the floor dropped away into pits. The ceiling sagged as more columns collapsed, and fresh dirt sifted down through gaps where walls had collapsed.
She looked up just as a slab as big as she was dropped from above. Akina raised an arm in pointless defense.
Ondorum appeared, standing over her with palms toward the ceiling. The slab slammed into his upraised hands and he held it aloft, teeth gritted with effort.
"Showoff," she muttered.
With a grunt, he heaved the stone away. She ignored his proffered hand and grabbed her maulaxe, using it to brace herself back to her feet. Ondorum placed a hand on her shoulder and she almost knocked it away until he pointed out wider cracks spreading through the chamber ceiling. Whatever trap the goblin had laid, it'd been thorough.
"We should make haste," he said.
"Yeah. Let's do that."
He dashed ahead while she clomped after. Rocks clattered off her helm and pauldrons, and she knocked away others. Ondorum stayed just ahead, weaving through the falling rubble. It almost looked like he knew just where the stones would fall and shifted half a second before or half a step far enough to let them plummet past.
He aimed for a wide hall at the far end of the chamber, Akina grumbled as she tried to keep up. Clumps of earth pounded into the floor, plenty enough to bury her if a collapse happened right on her head.
"Hello!" The goblin screeched as it appeared a few feet away, popping into being from nowhere to wave a claw. "Goodbye!" It snapped out a round object at her face.
Thinking it another rock, Akina raised her maulaxe to knock it aside. At the last second, she realized it glinted like glass rather than stone.
The flask shattered against her weapon. Akina stumbled back, barely closing her eyes in time as the cloud of flame enveloped her. She struck a wall and hit the floor, maulaxe tumbling from her hands. Lurching upright, she slapped herself all over to smother the droplets of liquid fire that had splattered her armor and burned like white-hot sparks on her exposed face.
She opened her eyes, stinging from the foul smoke. Flames lit the chamber in sickly yellow. She scrambled to her feet and snatched up her maulaxe, ready to bash the goblin's head in. At last, she spotted the creature grinning at her from the opposite side of a growing crack in the floor that rent the chamber in two. When she blinked grit from her eyes, the creature seemed to puff away into thin air.
As stones tumbled into the widening gap, Akina turned and threw herself through the hall's archway, where Ondorum had already taken refuge. He caught her arm so she didn't tumble down the flight of stairs beyond. A final clatter and crash announced rock and dirt blocking the way they'd come.
Once the dust cleared, Akina eyed the hall at the bottom of the stairs, little more than a tunnel cutting down into the earth. She assumed more temple ruins waited within the hillside.
She hacked against the acrid fumes lingering in the air. After clearing her throat, she cupped hands around her mouth and shouted down.
"That's it! I'm mashing every last one of you mongrels to pulp. Hear me? I'm wiping out the whole lot of you!"
Ondorum winced as the echoes faded. "We agreed to try the diplomatic approach first."
"Sorry. I forgot." Turning back to the tunnel, she hollered again. "I'll be sure to wipe you out diplomatically!" She raised a hand to the monk. "Better?"
He sighed. "You hold much anger."
"Nearly getting buried alive brings it out in me. Forget your parley. That little attempt on our lives should prove these creatures don't have a smidge of honor."
"Perhaps it's our role to show them a better way," he said. "Even if others refuse to live with integrity and honor and mercy, we should still strive for such. Otherwise we risk losing touch with our true selves. Our higher selves."
Akina leveled a flat look. "Higher selves? Was that a short joke?"
His eyes widened. "I meant no offense. I simply—"
She huffed. "What'd I say about having a sense of humor?" She lead the way down the stairs. "Besides, it costs too much."
"What does mercy cost?"
"Focus. The advantage in a fight. Lives."
"Some prices are worth paying."
"Not this one." She blew dust from her nostrils. "Sounds like you've already forgotten that I've fought more of their kind than I can count. I've seen how they really are. Every single one I killed would've returned the favor if I'd shown them so much as a speck of mercy."
"I haven't forgotten," he said. "I simply feel it's rash to judge any species as a whole by one representative, or judge any individual on the actions of others. Would you have me judge all dwarves by your example?"
She groaned. "Would you please stop?"
His brow furrowed. "Stop what?"
"Talking. It's annoying."
They emerged into a smaller, rounded room with old cracks spearing every which way through the stone floor. Several passages fed away from it, and Akina studied them while trying to shrug off Ondorum's words. Her, acting like a dwarven representative? Ridiculous. Hard enough to just be her old self, these days. Hopefully she could keep a cap on the bloodthirsty fury that kept flaring through her veins, rather than losing herself to it again. She wanted clarity when she ended the hobgoblins—cold satisfaction as she killed each one. Not like during the war. Especially not in front of this infuriating monk who clearly thought himself the lone voice of reason in a world gone mad.
A goblin peeped out from the passage on the far right. The same one, as far as she could tell. How had it gotten down there?
"You little slimespit." She shook her maulaxe. "Get over here. I got a really funny joke to tell you."
"No thanks!" Without moving, the goblin vanished.
Akina stared. Since when could goblins turn invisible? She rushed for the spot where it had just crouched, determined to corner it before it could pull other tricks.
"Wait," Ondorum cried. "I don't think—"
A loud clang halted her. She glanced behind. A circular cage had dropped from a hidden slot in the ceiling. Ondorum stood encased, looking abashed.
"That was unexpected."
He tested the bronze bars. Nothing budged. Akina went over and gave it a few good whacks, sending gongs through the chamber, but the bottom had somehow glued itself to the stone floor. Ondorum gripped the base and tried to heft the whole thing, giving up after several straining attempts that didn't so much as shift a pebble. The cracks in the floor had fractured further under the impact, but otherwise the trap appeared immovable.
Breathing hard, he sat in the center of the cage, legs folded, hands propped on his knees. "I will meditate on this dilemma. There's always a solution."
"You do that," she said. "I'll go find our little friend and have a nice chat."
She whirled to find the goblin standing just down the hall it had appeared in before. Akina tensed for it to attack with a dozen of its vile friends, but it just stared at her.
"Run out of tricks, have you? Right. I'm smearing you so thin you'll—"
Her nostrils flared, picking up the creature's stench. She'd had goblin stink rammed up her nose often enough she could pick it out of the smelliest crowd or most chaotic battlefield. A scratchy scent of urine and sour sap.
This creature emanated a muskier odor. Beyond that, its shadow looked wrong. It formed a broad pool of darkness, giving the appearance of a hunched animal readying to spring rather than a stick-limbed goblin. Now that she thought of it, how did it cast a shadow in the lightless space?
The goblin's grin went impossibly wide, even for its huge mouth. The deeper, more eloquent voice vibrated out again.
"Join me for a meal, won't you?"
Its body rippled and swelled, blocking the passage with fur and fangs.
Coming Next Week: Unwelcome guests in chapter three of Josh Vogt's "The Price Paid"!
Josh Vogt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Forge of Ashes, also starring Akina and Ondorum, as well as the web fiction stories "The Weeping Blade" and "Hunter's Folly." His first creator-owned novel, Enter the Janitor, just released, and his short fiction has been published in such venues as Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show and Shimmer. For more information, see his website at jrvogt.com.
Illustration by Marjorie Davis.