Akina stood rooted, a peculiar chill dousing the embers in her gut. Could it be possible? Could these creatures truly want to handle things in a civilized manner? Ever since leaving for the war, she'd only ever encountered them on the battlefield, knowing full well they sought her death as much as she theirs. What if Ondorum was right? What if these hobgoblins hadn't participated in the fighting and were just victims of circumstances? Could she damn them for the actions of others?
The job would be done either way, so long as the hobgoblins left and didn't bother anyone in the region again. Nothing compromised the mercenary band's reputation, and Akina guessed Nigarl would let her take a few "trophies" as proof to satisfy the locals.
She studied the desolate chapel as all these doubts whirled through her. Then her gaze rested on Ondorum's guileless expression and a cold flame kindled in her marrow.
"Maybe." She kept her voice as flat as possible. "First, I got a question."
Nigarl bowed her head. "Ask."
"Why didn't you tell Ondorum about the barghest earlier?"
The hobgoblin leader blinked. "What?"
Ondorum looked at Akina askance. "I don't understand."
Akina watched the hobgoblin reactions carefully. "Why leave him in the dark about such a nasty critter if you knew it was lurking?"
The monk frowned. "That would have been helpful, yes. We might've been more prepared."
"The beast came and went as it wished," Nigarl said. "We had no idea it'd be around or if it was off on its village hunts again."
"Hunts?" Akina echoed. "The reason Falcon's Hollow finally scrounged up the funds to hire our band was because of the latest raid you all," she swept her maulaxe at the warband, "made against an outlying settlement. Half the place burnt down, at least ten dead. Far more damage than a single barghest could make."
"There's plenty other than us attacking the countryside these days," Nigarl said. "No proof my band did anything."
"No proof it wasn't you," said Akina.
The hobgoblin leader snarled. "This is pointless. We're blamed for every mishap, and now we have an army of mercenaries set on us."
Ondorum showed the warband leader an open palm. "Not an army. Merely a dozen or so." He looked to Akina. "Unless you have reserves waiting at a distance?"
Akina stared back at him. "Anyone ever mention that you talk too much?"
The monk grimaced. "My old masters occasionally noted that flaw in me, yes."
"So they remain above while just the two of you came to visit?" Nigarl shifted her furred cloak, considering. "How... civilized. Will they send down a couple more if you don't return soon enough?"
Akina tightened her grip on the maulaxe. "Why wouldn't we return? After all, you did want to handle this all nice-like, hm?"
Nigarl grinned toothily while her warriors edged closer.
Ondorum glanced between them. "Is this the point where I admit their intentions may not have been entirely peaceable?" he asked Akina.
She nodded, keeping her eyes on Nigarl. "About time."
Nigarl snatched up her dagger and whip and jumped back. "Kill them."
Akina and Ondorum went back-to-back as the hobgoblins attacked. Three charged Akina. She struck out, sending one reeling. Another cut in with twin axes. She caught them across the maulaxe haft and struggled to throw him back. He leaned all his weight in and roared in her face.
Akina bellowed back with all her might. The hobgoblin lurched as if she'd struck him, and she used the slight opening to kick into the side of his knee. The joint snapped and he staggered. A swipe of her axe-edge slashed his stomach wide.
She jumped over the body and closed the gap between the third. He wielded a broad blade and hacked at her wildly while she beat him back. Her breaths came hot and fast, strength fueled by the furnace in her gut that baked her from the inside out, blood and marrow bubbling.
Images blazed through her mind. Ashen skulls. Leering goblins. Dead dwarves staring at a cloudy sky. Settlements reduced to cinders. Each added fuel to the fury until she fought within a storm of raging flame.
The hobgoblin came in with a desperate two-handed strike. She bashed the sword aside and then whirled around to sweep the axe-edge across, cleaving the creature's hands off at the wrists. The hobgoblin stared at his bloody stumps until another blow sent his head rolling.
Fuming, she turned to find another victim to chop into kindling. Across the chamber, Ondorum fended off four hobgoblins at once while Nigarl watched from the side.
The monk shifted among them as he had with her, twisting this way and that to let mortal blows bypass him. Then his feet rooted and he took their blows with open palms and flicks of his elbows, absorbing and deflecting even the most jarring hit.
One hobgoblin tried to stick him in the side. As the blade slid past, Ondorum clamped onto the hobgoblin's wrist and dragged him along. The warrior stumbled and ended up stabbing the fighter on the opposite side. A club whistled at Ondorum's head, and the monk ducked, letting the blow smash into the chest of another opponent.
Nigarl unspooled her whip and lashed out. The thong coiled around Ondorum's waist. When she yanked, barbs tore across his midsection and upset his balance. A hobgoblin cracked a club across his side. Ondorum tried to right himself, but two warriors grabbed his arms and clung tight. One bit into a bicep, while a third aimed a cleaver at his skull.
Akina cleared the distance in a heartbeat, leading the way with her helm. She took the hobgoblin in the side and his chest crumpled beneath her assault. Heaving the dying creature aside, she spun and swept the maulaxe hammer on the nearest hobgoblin's foot, shattering bone.
Ondorum's fist connected with the back of the hobgoblin's head and the snap of her neck resounded through the chamber. The other two turned to flee. Akina struck one down with a backbreaking hammer blow. Ondorum's kick swept the legs out from under the other, and a stomp crushed the creature's neck.
Shrieking curses, Nigarl raced for the hall. Ondorum leaped into her path, ducked a swipe of her dagger, and thrust a palm into her chest. The blow staggered her back halfway across the chamber. As she shook off the daze, Ondorum stepped aside and bowed to Akina, palms pressed together.
Akina grinned fiercely and lumbered toward the surviving hobgoblin. Nigarl snarled and struck. The whip snapped around the maulaxe handle, but Akina let it be yanked from her grip. Nigarl stumbled, not expecting her to relinquish the weapon so easily. In that instant, Akina sprinted over and plowed into the hobgoblin leader. Icy pain lanced through her shoulder as the dagger plunged in.
The hobgoblin screamed as Akina bore her to the ground. Akina grabbed a fistful of her snarled hair and wrenched. Nigarl's scalp tore loose and she thrashed, but Akina planted a punch that bounced the hobgoblin's skull off the floor.
Fists blurred as she turned Nigarl's face into an unrecognizable mash of bone and flesh. She didn't stop until a hand settled on her shoulder. Still caught up in the frenzy, she turned and struck—but her fist impacted only Ondorum's palm, and the force behind the blow flowed away.
Panting, Akina shook her head, trying to gather herself. Her gauntlets dripped gore. Ondorum watched her, looking concerned.
She rose, then reached back and yanked Nigarl's dagger out from her shoulder, ignoring another wrench of pain. She flung the blade aside and forced herself to square up with the monk.
"I'm... you shouldn't have seen... I mean..."
She stumbled as the last fiery wisp of strength burned out, leaving her with bones made of lead and muscles that couldn't have squashed a fly. Ondorum caught her arm and helped her remain standing.
After retrieving her weapon, it took them several hours to find a way back to the surface, doubling-back from dead-end passages and collapsed chambers. When they emerged into the fading sunlight, the ruins appeared empty at first. Then someone shouted, "They're back!" and mercenaries emerged from around the courtyard.
Durgan and the gang gathered around them, clamoring for answers. Akina sat on a stone and let them bandage her shoulder as she spun out the main thread of events. Ondorum accepted a salve for his wounded arm and waist, but deferred further aid, insisting he'd heal soon enough.
Once she caught everyone up, Akina studied the clearing. "Figure we can camp here and head back tomorrow to collect my pay."
"Your pay?" Durgan echoed.
"I did most of the work, after all." She nodded at the monk. "Some goes to him, though."
Ondorum shook his head. "I leave any share to your companions."
She grinned. "Oh, take a little credit, won't you?"
His shoulders drooped and he smiled sadly before bowing and wandering over to a corner of the ruined courtyard. Akina exchanged looks with the band.
"Give us a few minutes, hm?"
She joined Ondorum where he'd taken up a meditative pose along one wall. Laying her maulaxe down, she tried to imitate the posture but couldn't get her stubbier legs to cooperate. Finally she grunted and just sat back against the wall.
"What's gnawing your gristle? We got out alive, didn't we?"
He spoke without opening his eyes. "I'd hoped to resolve the situation more amicably."
She chuckled. "Funny thing. So did I."
He peeked at her sidelong. "You wanted to spare them?"
"Hell no. Glad to see them gone and glad we were the ones who ended them. But you were so committed. I felt bad seeing all that effort defending them go to waste."
"Nothing is ever wasted," he said. "There's always a lesson to be learned."
"That so? What do you figure's the lesson here?"
"That I have much more to learn about the world and the nature of its people than I'd imagined." He sighed. "It is... disheartening at times to think how far I have yet to go."
They fell silent for a while, watching the band prep a rough campsite and gather firewood. Before weariness could sink too deep into her bones, Akina roused herself.
Ondorum's crystalline eyebrows rose. "Pardon?"
She tugged her helm off, letting her coil of braided hair fall loose, her trademark platinum streak shooting through the otherwise dusky blonde strands.
"My family name," she said. "It's Fairingot. We hail from Taggoret."
"Fairingot." He tugged at his chin as he eyed her. A smile teased his lips. "Fitting."
She scoffed and waved him off.
"Isn't Taggoret a bit north of here?" he asked.
"Sure. But we're heading south once we collect our bounty."
"You're not returning home, then."
"Not until I'm good and ready to."
"When will that be?"
Akina studied the head of her maulaxe, thumbing a nonexistent blemish. "When people stop paying us for what we're good at. Rumor says there's plenty of work down near Almas." She glanced over. "Figure you could come with us."
Ondorum crossed his arms. His sleeves tugged back, revealing ridges of purple crystals along his forearms.
"Why would you want a fool of a monk as a companion?"
"I don't think you're fool." She shrugged at his dubious look. "Not a total one, at least. But you've got some fine skill. I don't admit to being impressed too often but... I'm impressed. Besides, our band could use someone who doesn't just jump into every mess without considering other ways to clean it up first." She studied him from the corner of her eye, trying to gauge his reaction. "And you could use us in return."
"Use you? How?"
"How long you been traveling alone?"
He clasped hands, considering. "A long while."
"Think that's a good thing, being all by yourself? You may have a ways to go, but you don't have to go it alone. You said it yourself earlier. You're looking to learn from new experiences. Get some new perspectives."
"You're offering yours?"
She waved at the others. "Ours. We're not a bad lot. A little scruffy, sure, but earnest. And if you've got something against coin, I'll just hold your share until you figure out what you want to do with it."
He flexed his jaw as if chewing on the idea.
"Tell you what," she said. "I'll throw in a few tales of my home to sweeten the deal."
"That'd be for you to figure out."
He grinned, an expression Akina realized she quite liked on his stony face. "Will you teach me any dwarven jokes?"
"Most jokes I know aren't fit for proper company—especially for anyone trying to be all polished and perfect."
"If my sense of humor is lacking, perhaps I can fix its faults by rounding it out."
She clapped him on the arm. "Might be hope for you yet."
"There's always hope." He lifted his chin, voice firming. "No matter how far one wanders, you can find your way again. You just have to follow the right path."
"If it's a simple matter of paths..." She pushed up to her feet and offered a hand. "How about we see where this one leads, hm?"
After the briefest consideration, he clasped her hand in his. "I've a feeling it will take us many interesting places."
Coming Next Week: The further adventures of Radovan and Count Jeggare in a sample chapter of Dave Gross's new novel, Lord of Runes!
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.