She heard them before she saw them.
“...Bones be cracked, flesh be stewed"
“We be goblins! You be food!”
Shalelu’s lip curled in a half-conscious snarl at the song. She crept closer, slipping from the forest to a knot of gnarled old pear trees that the farmer, or more likely the farmer’s great-grandparents, had planted by the house. Under the tangled branches, heavy with ripe fall fruit, she peered at the singing goblins.
The barn was already burning. Judging by the height of the flames leaping from its blackened roof, the farmers must have brought in the fall hay, and it was now blazing merrily behind a ring of dancing goblins. At least there weren’t any screams. Any animals in the barn either had escaped, or were already dead.
The fire’s grip was closing around the farmhouse, too. Burning arrows studded the roof. The eaves were smoldering, the wooden shingles beginning to glow from beneath like a red dragon’s scales—and even as Shalelu tried to assess how much longer the house had, she saw the curtains twitch before an upstairs window. The brief round shape of a face peeked out through the glass. It vanished almost as soon as it appeared, but it was enough to tell Shalelu that someone was inside.
Well, that tore it. Not that she needed much of a push where goblins were concerned.
Smoothly, with the ease of long practice, Shalelu broke from the trees and shot the first goblin. Even before her first arrow hit, she had another flying. Two goblins fell, one clutching at an arrow in his red-gurgling throat, the other with a feathered shaft sprouting from her eye.
She shot a third before the rest reacted. As the third goblin fell, his screech cut off by the arrow bisecting his windpipe, the survivors spotted the elf. A frozen instant passed between them. Shalelu felt a flashed hope that the goblins’ cowardice might drive them to flee, even though she stood alone—but no. Their wavering morale caught and steadied as the biggest goblin leaped toward her, brandishing a rickety but sharp-edged dogslicer.
“Brave, brave warriors! Warriors of the Mosswood! Kill this elf! Kill her!” the big goblin howled. As a battlefield speech, Shalelu felt it was uninspired, but whatever it lacked in creativity, it made up in volume. Certainly the goblins seemed to think it did the trick, because they all came rushing at her in a shrieking, knee-high mob of red eyes, needle teeth, and swinging dogslicers, simultaneously absurd and deadly earnest.
The shouting champion at the head of the mob was the most ridiculous of them all. She wore a decapitated toy horse’s head impaled on her spiked helm, with puffs of woolly stuffing flapping around her enormous ears. Her cloak was as green and moldy as any other Mosswood goblin’s, but she’d trimmed it with dogs’ tails: poodles’ dirt-stained pompoms, curly blond spaniels’ plumes, a mastiff’s grizzled stub. Another tail hung from the pommel of her dogslicer.
It would have been a mistake to dismiss the goblin as a joke, though. People died for such mistakes. That toy horse’s neck was smeared with real blood; those tails had been collected from real dogs, and some of them looked like they’d been big and fierce. The grisly kneecaps that served as the goblin’s pauldrons were real flesh and bone, and from their ragged edges had probably been chewed off human legs. Maybe live ones.
That was the danger with goblins, Shalelu thought. You laughed at them, thinking they were stupid and big-headed and preposterous, and then they slashed your ankles and pulled you down and cut your throat before you realized that they were, actually, serious as murder.
She wondered whether someone had made that mistake with these goblins. They’d been in a fight recently. Several were limping or favoring wounded sides and limbs. One looked like he’d narrowly dodged a spell; a burn scar streaked black across his forehead. But the goblins had survived, which meant maybe whoever they’d fought hadn’t.
A small mystery. If she survived, maybe she’d try to solve it.
First she had to survive.
Shalelu aimed past the charging champion and shot two more goblins, wounding the first and felling the second. Then the champion was on her, and Shalelu had to skitter back, slinging her bow behind a shoulder and drawing her shortsword. She feinted and retreated back toward the farmhouse. The fire was spreading, and she didn’t have long to save whoever was in there.
“Uruvuu Kneebiter will wear your head!” the big goblin crooned at Shalelu, sweeping her dogslicer low.
“Uru-who?” Shalelu snorted, straining to sound nonchalant. That goblin was faster than she liked. “Do you fancy yourself one of the big heroes? Should Vorka and Ripnugget cower and whine at your name?”
“They will!” Uruvuu hissed, and leaped.
The elf kicked at the goblin, but to her astonishment, Uruvuu jumped over the kick, grabbed her leg, and bit her, sinking her filthy teeth into Shalelu’s leg just above the knee.
“Get off!” Shalelu slashed down at the goblin, hacking one of Uruvuu’s grisly pauldrons in two and cutting a deep gash into the champion’s shoulder. Uruvuu just lifted her head and grinned up horribly, her teeth dripping red.
“I’ll eat you,” the goblin snarled, and bit Shalelu again.
Shalelu swore furiously. She couldn’t get Uruvuu off her leg. If it had just been the one goblin, Shalelu could have made short work of her — but there were far too many of them, almost a dozen, and not just Mosswood, either. She spotted warty Licktoad goblins and tattooed, reed-wearing Brinestumps, and wondered: what are they all doing together? The tribes did not easily ally.
But the question seemed to float far away, untethered to the violence on the ground. Shalelu was losing too much blood, maybe going into shock. She slashed at a leering goblin and ripped his abdomen open, spilling his guts wetly into the barn’s blowing ashes, but still there were too many, and still Uruvuu was gnawing at her knee. Is this how it ends?
Overhead, the farmhouse window slammed open. Strange pale leaves floated down. No, not leaves, Shalelu realized, even as she cut another goblin’s throat so savagely that its head flopped backwards, limply, over the gouting stump of its neck. They were pages. She recognized the illustrations.
Pages from Erastil’s Book of Common Prayer, ripped out by the handful. Someone had drawn crude goblin faces in thick, sweeping strokes over each one. The ink was still wet enough that the faces stuck lightly together when they kissed.
But they drifted apart, falling, and when they came down over the fight, the goblins broke apart in total pandemonium. “The words! Words! Stolen out of our heads! You see them! Take them back! The cursed words! Burn them!”
Frantically the goblins grabbed at the ink-smeared pages, thrusting them into the barn’s blaze. They forgot about Shalelu entirely, each one vying to grab and burn pages of precious, stolen words. Even Uruvuu shrieked in terror, blood bubbling through her teeth as she elbowed her kin aside to snatch up her own pages.
Shalelu cut down another two goblins in the confusion. Then the rest, realizing that they were outnumbered—or, at least, were now facing Shalelu with odds no better than six to one, which seemed to count as “outnumbered” to them—fled, screaming, from the bloodied elf and the still-falling rain of pages around her.
“Thanks,” Shalelu called up to whoever was in the farmhouse. Her leg felt like murder. She pressed a wooden wand against the wound, gritting her teeth until the magic flowed forth to heal her. Then, testing her weight gingerly, she looked up to the window. Already she could hear the goblins shouting and arguing as they tried to regroup in the wood, and see the red reach of flames spreading across the roof. “You’d better come out. We need to get to Sandpoint before they come back.”
More than safety, Shalelu wanted answers. This attack was unusual. Fractious rival tribes allied and attacking humans far outside their normal territory. Champions striving to make new legends for themselves. She’d been hunting the local goblins for years, and she’d never seen them cooperate like this.
Something strange was afoot. And whatever it was, this was just the beginning.
About the Author
Liane Merciel is the author of novels including Pathfinder Tales: Nightglass and Hellknight, Dragon Age: Last Flight, and others. She has written for Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. At present she is trying to find a way to shoehorn a(nother) carnival of face-eating ghosts into a story.
About Rise of the Runelords
Rise of the Runelords was the very first Pathfinder Adventure Path, and its legacy—be it the cruel comedy of goblins and ogres, the iconic seaside town of Sandpoint, or the sinister presence of the Runelords themselves—can be felt to this very day. Rise of the Runelords was the first Pathfinder Adventure Path to be compiled into a single hardcover volume, and later this year it will be the first Adventure Path to join the ranks of the Pathfinder pocket editions! Rise of the Runelords has never been more affordable!