The goblin's head morphed into a humanoid skull with a piggish nose and enormous, bat-like ears. Milky eyes fixed on Akina as fangs filled a slavering maw. The beast's body expanded and hunched over, bristling with fur until it resembled an enormous wolf with clawed hands instead of forepaws.
Akina recognized the creature for what it truly was. There'd been enough of them fighting alongside the goblinoid hordes, devouring corpses, acting as scouts or battlebeasts.
"Barghest!" she called to the monk, for whatever good it did with him being trapped.
If he replied, she didn't catch it, for the barghest's yowl resounded through the chamber. It lunged. Akina stepped in to meet it head-on, but the beast vanished in midair.
At the monk's shout, Akina spun just in time for a claw to smash across her helmet. Vision blurred, and she went to one knee. The barghest gnashed at her, but she lowered her head and surged up, her iron ram horns slamming into its face. She rose, following through with a hammer blow that caught it under the chin and flipped it backward. She planted a hand and shook off the rattling impact.
"I have it!"
She raised her head. Ondorum had reached through the cage bars and caught the barghest around the chest. It scrabbled at him, but the same bars kept it from doing anything more than snagging his robe. Its attempts to tear his grip away with its claws proved equally futile. Ribs crunched and the beast's cries pitched higher.
It vanished again. Ondorum's bear hug collapsed around empty air. Akina turned a circle, expecting another ambush from behind. But the barghest failed to reappear, and the immediate stink of it faded.
"Stones and bones, where'd it go?" She turned her maulaxe to poise the sharp edge. "Cowardly beast."
"A sorcerous creature?" Ondorum turned in the cage to eye the chamber.
"These things are nasty tricksters," she said. "Some think they're a kind of goblin demon."
"I'd not doubt it." He knelt and pressed palms to the cracked floor.
"What're you doing?"
He closed his eyes, face set in concentration. "Listening for the creature." One eye cracked open to peer up at her. "Haven't you ever tracked enemies through the vibrations of their steps on stone?"
"Of course I have! I'm a gods-damned dwarf, aren't I?" Embarrassed that she hadn't thought of it first, Akina stripped off a gauntlet and knelt to put her hand to the floor, keeping her maulaxe ready.
"You needn't bother." Ondorum stood. "I sense nothing. However, I believe I have a solution to my imprisonment."
"Oh?" Akina pointedly kept her hand on the stone, though in truth she didn't feel anything either.
"I shall attempt to rejoin you as quickly as I can. If you encounter any of the hobgoblins before then, please try to remember our bargain."
Ondorum raised a hand, palm open, then pounded it down onto the floor, dropping smoothly to put all his weight behind it. The cracks in the stones spread. Then he did it again. And again.
All at once, the floor beneath him crumbled. He caught her eye just as the floor fell away, dropping him into darkness.
Akina gaped for half a second before a scraping echoed up from one of the passages leading deeper into the ruins. A choked snarl made her grin.
Weapon ready, she stalked down the passage, brushing aside draping moss and thick spider webs. The barghest's smell strengthened as she went, reinforced by the click of claws on stone and occasional angry rumblings.
She paced through multiple rooms coated thick with dust, with dark niches and ceilings stretching out of sight. Who had the temple's original builders worshiped? Impossible to tell with so many of the original decorations and icons worn away or defaced.
As she crept into a wider room, a fresh wave of stink made her nose hairs bristle. Close. Very close. In fact, with its disappearing trick, the beast could be right on top of—
A weight slammed into her back. Akina hit the ground as the barghest screeched in her ear. Foul breath gusted over her and claws raked armor. Gripping her maulaxe tightly, she rolled as hard as she could, flinging the creature away.
The barghest gave a vile smile as it recovered and leapt at her. She cocked the maulaxe, but it reached out with foreclaws and grabbed the handle to stall the blow. It tried to wrench the weapon away even as it snapped fangs at her face. Akina wrestled the beast back a few steps, its fiendish strength nearly a match for hers.
Keeping one hand on the haft, she punched out with the other. Her fist connected with the barghest's barrel chest, right where Ondorum had crushed it earlier. Yet where the oread's fists had bruised and battered, the iron edge of her gauntlet just thumped against the creature's flesh and stopped, as ineffective as if she'd punched packed earth.
The barghest snarled and tried to yank the maulaxe away again.
Akina bared teeth in return. "Mine."
She let herself be pulled closer, then grabbed the shaft with both hands, jumped, and planted her feet on the barghest's chest. She kicked off, shoving the barghest away while keeping the maulaxe tight against her chest. Her back struck the stones, and she rolled upright just as the beast lunged in. She dodged and whipped the maulaxe out so the hammer side slammed into the barghest's ribs with a satisfying crackle.
Howling, the barghest fell. Akina leapt over its kicking paws and brought the axe edge down. The beast's writhing threw off her aim, and its unnaturally tough hide turned the blow so that instead of severing an arm, the blade simply gouged a shoulder.
Black blood spurted from the wound. The barghest arched hard enough to throw her off and scrambled free. One moment it stood just within reach. The next, it disappeared and popped back into being across the room, glaring at her from near a dark doorway.
"You are an annoying snack." Baring its teeth, the barghest floated off the floor a few inches, favoring its wounded side. Akina considered this new trick. Must've been how the creature ambushed her from above.
It started to move toward the passage. She hurried after, but knew she wouldn't reach it before it did its vanishing trick again.
The instant it crossed the threshold, however, a pair of clasped fists smashed down atop its skull.
Ondorum stepped into view, dustier than before but little worse for wear. The barghest yowled and scrabbled up at him. The monk evaded the snapping maw with a shift of his weight. A kick swept the beast's leg out from under it, and as it stumbled, Ondorum came down with an elbow that struck its spine with cracking force.
The barghest collapsed. Akina halted her charge to watch as Ondorum laid into the creature. He responded to its wild gnashing and slashes with precise palm strikes and kicks, until the beast's attacks began to slow.
At last, the barghest's twitching paws stilled. Ondorum watched it, fists cocked at odd angles, waiting to ensure it remained down. Then he glanced Akina's way and straightened, tucking arms into opposing sleeves.
Akina scowled. "Damn you to Hell. That was mine."
He eyed the mangled corpse. "If it's any consolation, I left the ears on so you could yank them off."
She stared at him until he smiled.
"That was a joke."
"And a piss-poor one! Don't you know better than to snitch another's kill?"
He appeared puzzled. "The beast won't hurt anyone again. Does it truly matter which one of us ended its life?"
"When you're a mercenary, it does. With Durgan, the more you kill, the bigger your share. Doesn't matter if you wound a creature. If you don't drop it, it isn't yours to claim."
"An interesting approach. I can see how it might motivate greater effort in battle."
Akina plodded over to study the barghest closer, but couldn't see anything worth carving off as a trophy. "Figure this at least makes you think twice about showing the hobgoblins any mercy."
Ondorum tilted his head. "Should it?"
"They obviously sent this beast ahead to take us out. Bet they didn't even let you know it was skulking around, hm?"
He frowned. "They failed to mention its presence, true."
His expression troubled, he headed deeper into the ruins without further argument. Akina followed, hoping she might finally be getting through to him. They worked through decrepit chambers, edged past pits, and left nothing in their wake but darkness.
Finally, as they moved down a long hall, Ondorum paused and pointed ahead. Beyond a spacious archway, shadows flickered from unseen flames and guttural voices reverberated in the distance.
"Right," she said. "We go in quiet, see what their layout is and—"
Ondorum tucked his shoulders back. "Hail, Skurl! We come to meet your leader. Will you honor our agreement?"
Akina closed her eyes briefly, biting her tongue to keep from unleashing a few choice curses. Hobgoblin voices rose in an argumentative flurry before another slashed through the air and quieted the rest. After a long minute, several hobgoblins strode into view. They wore ragged furs, leather scraps, and bits of battered armor. Each held axes or swords, and one with longer-than-average tusks had filed them to deadly points.
They stopped just out of reach. The foremost, a male with scarred splotches across his skin, squinted at Ondorum before his scrutiny shifted to Akina.
"So you're one of the mercs they sent to kill us?" he rasped. "I've fought tree stumps that were more dangerous."
Akina tensed, but Ondorum stepped between them.
"Hold." He nodded to the speaker. "Skurl."
The hobgoblin's lips peeled back. "Monk. Why bring another with you? This wasn't what we agreed."
"She indeed represents the mercenaries hired to eliminate your band. However," he raised his voice over the hobgoblins' growls, "she has agreed to meet with your leader to see if a peaceable resolution can be reached, as we discussed."
It took most of Akina's self-control to not attack then and there. She reminded herself that if she killed these right off, it'd give their leader a chance to flee.
At last, Skurl gestured with a blade. "Come."
The hobgoblins retreated into their lair. Akina turned to Ondorum, unable to believe that the creatures expected them to just blindly follow. Yet the monk strode forward through the arch, head erect, shoulders square.
She stared at his back, tempted to let him reap the consequences of his naiveté. Yet a part of her grudgingly admired his fearlessness and confidence. After a moment, she sighed. Let no one claim she ever left another to face enemies alone.
"Crack and shatter me for a fool," she muttered, hustling after.
In the room beyond, the hobgoblin camp looked like an underground chapel with arched ceilings, rows of broken stone benches, and a dais at the end of the main row. The place was littered with refuse piles, guttering fire pits, and bundles of gear tucked into the corners—stolen, Akina assumed.
Five more hobgoblins waited beyond the first three. As Akina and Ondorum entered, she checked to ensure the beasts remained off to the sides, not blocking the exit. All had the glowering look of warriors sullen from a lack of violence, and their armor appeared cobbled together from random salvage. One particular hobgoblin, a female, stood in the center of the room. Taller than most, she held the bearing of one used to command.
Once the pair stopped, the leader shuffled forward, bowlegged and wary. Clad in black armor and swathed in sable bear fur, she carried a long dagger in one hand and a barbed whip in the other. Her tusks had been capped in silver, and copper rings pierced her ears, nose, eyebrows, and forehead.
"I am Nigarl," she said, voice somehow grinding and gurgling at the same time. "From the noise you caused above, I'm guessing you finally put down the barghest. Thank you."
Akina's eyebrows rose. "You're thanking me?"
"That troublesome beast has hounded us for months, demanding we provide meals and tormenting us when we refuse. We thought we'd shaken it when we came north, but then caught it snuffling around here, thieving, pouncing on us from the dark. I lost two good fighters to its claws, and another to the traps it sets. I've heard it's also been attacking settlements in the area and leaving us to take the blame." She eyed Akina meaningfully. "I hope this monk has made it clear we just want to be left alone."
Akina gnawed a lip. "You really want to do this peacefully?"
Nigarl crouched and laid her dagger and whip on the floor between them. Straightening as much as her round-shouldered figure allowed, she showed empty palms.
"Will you give us that chance? Will you let this be settled without more death?"
Coming Next Week: Monstrous negotiations in the final chapter 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.