"There!" Akina thrust her maulaxe out, pointing to the craggy ruins on the hillside. "Told you I smelled hobgoblin stink. We'll have our pay by morning."
Durgan sniffed the crisp air as they emerged from the woods. "Dunno how you do it, Kina. I can't smell a thing beyond all this pine."
One of the other mercenaries, a shaggy-haired human with a notched lip, belted a coarse laugh. "I betcha it's 'cause dwarves got such big sniffers, y'know?"
His mirth died off as Akina turned and glared at him from under the brim of her iron helm, which had been fashioned in the shape of a ram's head with curling horns. The rest of the band stepped ever so slightly away from the would-be-jester. Their number included a dozen human men and women, a half-elven swordsman, and a gnome whose crimson hair flared up like the flames he often conjured. Most, like Akina, wore mismatched leather and iron armor while carrying assorted blades, hammers, shields, and bows. Not the prettiest lot to wander the land, but Akina cared more for getting the job done well than in style.
She tapped the side of her nose. "Be glad I'm distracted by the killing that's coming. Otherwise I might've taken that personally." She returned to eyeing the ruins. "Right. Let's figure our approach."
Durgen scowled. "You leading this band or me?"
"You make all the contracts and collect all the pay. That's a heavy burden to bear. I'm just trying to lighten your load." She grinned. "If we work in slow, we can hopefully take down any scouts before they raise an alarm. So long as we—"
"There's one!" A man jumped forward, crossbow raised, and loosed a bolt.
Akina cursed as a hobgoblin darted through the shadows of teetering columns. The bolt clacked off stone, wide afield. Clad in jagged armor, the hobgoblin loped along on muscled legs and ducked into a walled courtyard.
She growled at the archer. "Shattered stones, Gherb! What've I told you about being so jumpy? Bastard wasn't even in range. You want to lose your share?"
Ignoring his muttered apologies, she tromped ahead, the band falling in alongside. On the surface, the ruins appeared as a jumble of worked stone with toppled pillars, sagging arches, and overgrown paths. Gray-green moss slicked many surfaces, while shrubs and a few trees poked up through the mess. A number of weathered carvings peeked out from the few walls that remained standing; some looked recently defaced, likely when the hobgoblins moved in.
They reached the spot the hobgoblin had bolted from. Akina scanned the area, noting a few crude barricades of spiked branches and piles of gnawed bones. A couple of dark thresholds at the far side of the courtyard suggested entrances to deeper levels.
"Figure they've dug in," she said. "We should scout around, see if there's a back door or two they might scuttle out of."
"There isn't. I've already checked."
The mercenaries rounded on the source of the voice, but nobody appeared. Several worn statues of robed figures sat on nearby pedestals, backs to the group.
"Magic?" Durgan nodded to the gnome. "Piquwit, can you sense anything?"
"No magic," said the same voice. "Merely myself."
One of the statues rose and faced them. Not a statue, Akina realized, but a man in a dusty robe that blended with the rest of the rubble. He'd been sitting so still, he might as well have been made of stone.
When he lowered his hood, though, she corrected herself on both points. Not a man... and maybe he was made of stone. His gray skin had a rough texture, while his hair hung a few shades darker, looking like rows of chiseled granite. Odder yet, where most folk had eyebrows, rows of purple crystals glinted in the sunlight above malachite-green eyes.
"Who're you?" She squinted. "What are you?"
"He's one o' those that's got a bit of mud in their blood," Durgan said. "Whaddya call them?" He clicked his tongue. "Oreads. Yeah. A touch of the earthy elements somewhere down the line."
Earthy elements? Akina reconsidered the strange person. He did have a solid bearing, and she had to look hard to catch a hint of him breathing under the robe. Her mind jumped to assessing potential weaknesses. Did he bleed like other fleshy folks? Would the axe edge of her weapon work best if he proved a threat, or would it be better to go at it with the hammer side? Would he pound down to dust?
He smiled and bowed. "I am Ondorum. Apologies for interrupting, but I didn't wish for you to proceed without knowing the full situation."
"Uh... thanks?" She shook away the violent thoughts. "What situation?"
Ondorum pointed at the inner ruins. "A small hobgoblin warband has claimed this place as their hideout."
"We know," Akina said. "That's why we're here."
His flinty gaze roved over the band. "Ah. You are sell-swords."
She bumped one shoulder up, indicating the maulaxe propped over it. "Swords... bows... clubs... axes... We don't like to limit ourselves."
"I'd request restraint in this instance." Ondorum nodded to where clawed footprints disturbed the earth. "I was speaking with their second-in-command. He calls himself Skurl."
"And I call him fair game. You talked to that beast?"
Fine lines cracked his placid expression. "They're just trying to survive. They've been amenable to civilized discussions so far." He looked aside. "Though I did have to rebuff several attacks before they allowed for negotiations."
"You're trying to make peace with hobgoblins? What are you, some kind of priest?" Aside from her brother's service as a cleric back in Taggoret, Akina held little patience for priests. They always viewed the world from such skewed perspectives, trying to make people conform to their gods' ideals.
"I come from a monastic order that follows the enlightened teachings of Irori." He pressed open palms together. "While I left my temple under unfortunate circumstances, I continue to pursue perfection in all things, traveling in search of new experiences and deeper wisdom. This seemed a good opportunity to offer these troubled creatures the chance to follow a higher path."
She ratcheted her initial estimation of him from potential threat down to naive fool. "Don't you know we just got out of a war with hobgoblins and their kind? They slaughtered thousands!" She ground her teeth as a long list of the dead squirmed through her mind. "This lot's been raiding around Falcon's Hollow for months."
He folded arms across his broad chest. "Of course I'm aware of the battling. But these claim they held no part in it. And, as you said, the goblinoid armies have been routed. Isn't post-war the perfect time to attempt more peaceful solutions?"
She stared. "You're one of those mad monks, aren't you? Look, go back to staring at your bellybutton, if you've got one, and let us do our job, hm?"
She moved to lead the band into the ruins, but stopped when he planted himself in her way.
"I insist you reconsider."
This time, Akina let the fury simmer in her stomach, an enlivening heat. "Move or I'll make you."
Durgan coughed. "I'd back off while y' got the chance, monk. She don't give warnings too often."
The slightest grin tweaked Ondorum's lips. "Consider your warning appreciated but unnecessary."
"Right." Akina hefted her maulaxe and charged.
At the last second, the oread swiveled on a heel. She bulled by, checked her rush, and tried for a backhand swing. He shifted so it swept past less than an inch from his robe. A few hoots went up from the mercenaries at the near miss.
Growling, Akina let the heat at her core churn like boiling water. She sped up, not bothering to arrest her swings. He continued to dance around her, feet sweeping patterns in the dirt, nimbly dodging, bending and swaying just so. With every whiff of her weapon, Akina's hits went a little wilder, the flames inside her blazed brighter, singing her bones.
She raised the maulaxe over her head. "Hold. Still!"
As she brought it down, he went motionless. The maulaxe slammed into the earth right between his feet. He stepped on the head, planted a hand atop her helm, and used the brace to flip over and behind her.
Akina released her maulaxe and spun, fist lashing out to drive into his gut. He blocked the strike with an open palm. The force of the impact knocked her back a step, as if she'd punched a granite statue. He didn't so much as quiver.
The recoil stunned her just enough that the rising flames inside her snuffed back to embers. Akina shuddered, realizing how close she'd been to losing control. She focused on sucking cool air into her lungs, forcing her bloodlust back down before it overwhelmed her—as it so often did these days. She avoided glancing at her companions, knowing even the slightest smirk or snigger would send her barreling back into the fight.
Instead, she retrieved her maulaxe and leaned on it, casual-like, as if his showing her up meant nothing.
"Listen," she said through a forced smile, "you ever try making peace with other monsters before?"
Ondorum nodded. "I've done so with a pair of trolls that were assaulting caravans and also with a band of orcs attacking a monastery."
"Yeah? How'd that go?"
"They had to be destroyed in both instances. With the trolls, I was able to keep collateral damage to a minimum." His posture drooped slightly, like a mountainside threatening an avalanche. "The orcs, however, killed many and destroyed much before they were eliminated."
Akina studied the monk closer, sensing more to that confrontation than the monk wished to reveal.
Ondorum seemed to notice her attention and firmed up. "They were dealt with. No longer a threat."
The mercenaries murmured among themselves.
Akina cleared her throat. "If you aren't lying about all that, how about getting paid good coin to put that skill to use here? Could give you a share in the work."
"I live simply," he said. "Never needed much coin. The people I've saved have often been willing to donate food and shelter until I moved on."
"But you care about saving people, right? And sounds like every time you've tried to do that with just words, it's all gone to hell."
His lips turned down at the edges. "I admit I've succumbed to discouragement at times. That is one of my numerous flaws. This land is a violent one, and many do not respect anything but force. Yet the path to perfection is never without its stumbles." Ondorum mused in silence for a few moments. "Were you hired to kill the hobgoblins, or simply to ensure they don't attack Falcon's Hollow and its lumber camps any longer?"
Akina raised an eyebrow Durgan's way.
The mercenary captain shrugged. "Technically? The second one. Killing's just always been the easiest way for us to see it done."
Ondorum fixed back on Akina. "A bargain, then. Skurl had just delivered word that their leader would meet me within the ruins and discuss terms of a peaceful withdrawal. If you join me, they may recognize leaving without further violence is their best choice. You can complete your contract without having to shed any blood."
"You're kidding," Akina said.
"I'm quite serious."
"Hang on," Durgan said, stepping in. "You want me to just let one of my folks wander in with you? You'll be outnumbered and cut off if they come from behind."
Ondorum glanced at the mercenary leader. "You believe she cannot handle the challenge? Very well. I swear I will keep her safe."
Durgan spluttered as Akina made fists.
"I can handle myself," she said.
"I'd rather send a few extra folks down with you two," said Durgan, regaining his composure. "Just in case."
"If you give a show of force," Ondorum said, "the hobgoblins would likely respond in kind. I fear bringing even one extra might disrupt the accord I've made."
"You're going in anyways," Akina said. "Whatever we do, you're still planning to just... talk."
She pressed a fist to her forehead. "Unbelievable." She glowered at nothing in particular for another moment, then huffed. "Fine. We'll try it your way first. I'll watch your back so long as you watch mine."
The monk bobbed his head as if this had been a foregone conclusion.
"Why not?" Durgan asked acidly. "What's the worst that can happen?"
Akina scowled. "Never ask that." She waved toward the ruins. "Lead on, oh perfect one."
"Perfection remains far outside my grasp," Ondorum said. "It's often a lifelong pursuit."
She sighed. "Priests and monks. None of you ever have a sense of humor."
"Humor, eh?" Durgan snorted. "Your idea of a joke is yanking the ears off a goblin and making him choke to death on 'em."
She blinked up at him. "What's your point?"
Ondorum bowed, then began striding for the ruined courtyard. As he headed off, Akina and Durgan exchanged a knowing look. Wouldn't be the first time they'd used the ruse of peace talks. The monk's parley effort would let her get to the hobgoblin leader, split his skull, and rout the rest straight into the hands of the waiting mercenaries.
They'd be swapping blood for gold soon enough.
Coming Next Week: A delve into ancient ruins in the second chapter in 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.