“Old Ones?” Borthul thought. Now this might be interesting.
“Old Ones?” Sir Kerensky asked. The big Ruskan furrowed his brow. “I do not understand.”
“Old Ones!” Voresh repeated. “They is what change.”
“What are ‘Old Ones,’ exactly?” Alaina asked.
“Very old gods,” Voresh said. “Live far, far beneath. Claim a place in the deep, hidden from Racha’s sight.”
“What sort of gods?” said Kerensky. “How is this explain the changes, the worsened violence?”
His Middish is execrable, Borthul thought. But he fights well, and his men seem to respect him. That’s all I really need out of a mercenary, after all.
“How does this,” Yorrin murmured from Kerensky’s side. The young man was insolent, but at least he seemed to respect his commander. Kerensky gave him a grateful looking nod.
“Old gods,” Voresh repeated. “Many racharin follow them. Live down below, forget Racha and Kila.”
“Kila?” Kerensky interrupted, confused.
Borthul cleared his throat. “Kila is another primitive deity from the earliest days of recorded religion. A deity of weather and—”
“Sky Mother. Racha is Earth Father, Kila is Sky Mother,” Voresh interrupted.
Rude little blighter. Borthul made an indignant noise, but nobody seemed to notice.
“But the Old Ones… they are neither?” Kerensky said.
Voresh bared his teeth. “Ya,” he growled. “Old Ones live below long time, older than memory. Old gods, angry gods. Racharin that follow have lost their way. Not racharin anymore. Aurin, they called.”
“The Old Ones, they live down there? I suspect you’re telling tales, little goblin,” Borthul said. “Nothing can live so long.”
Voresh cast a withering look Borthul’s way, like he was something unpleasant he had stepped in. Where do you get the nerve? Borthul wondered, seething quietly. I am a wizard, and you are nothing but an ignorant little savage.
He held his tongue. He suspected Sir Kerensky wouldn’t appreciate the insight.
“Old Ones not alive like human, racharin. This everyone knows,” Voresh said, as if it was obvious. “Live in stone. Live in spirit, not flesh.”
“I’m not sure I see the relevance,” Yorrin piped up. “You said these Old Ones are somehow at fault for why you lot have been killing everything that comes through the Underpass. How do you figure?”
“We not killing everything,” Voresh said.
Yorrin snorted at that.
Internal conflicts, Borthul realized. A religious war between the goblins?
“Aurin coming up from the deep,” Voresh said. “Many! Kill racharin and human both. They take far side of tunnels. We fight, and die, and fight more. Aurin very dangerous. Mad men, lost and broken. Racha not live in their hearts. They kill many racharin.”
Kerensky frowned. “You are saying the followers of the Old Ones are the ones doing the fighting? This explains much, but… not enough. You fight us, Voresh. You and your kin try to kill us many times already.”
“I think he’s feeding us a cart of hoseshit,” Yorrin added.
Voresh’s glare narrowed at Yorrin. “No. We kill human, is true. Kill human who enter our caves. We lose much of mountains to Aurin,” Voresh straightened his back, rising as high as his small stature would allow. “Will not lose more land to human! We protect our border!”
“So you fight us because we cross your border. Nothing more than that?” Kerensky asked, sighing. “Such waste…”
Voresh growled, annoyed. His ugly, gnarled little face contorted into a grimace. “Is enough,” he said stubbornly.
“Voresh…” said Kerensky. “You have lost many of your brethren, trying to kill us. I do not see any way this benefits you. If these other domovoy—these aurin—threaten you, then why waste lives and energy fighting us?”
Voresh appeared annoyed at the question. But no answer is forthcoming, Borthul thought to himself.
“He’s a goblin,” Yorrin offered. “It’s what goblins do.”
“Must it be?” Kerensky asked. He wasn’t looking at his small companion, but rather their slightly smaller prisoner. “We are not here to be staying, Voresh. We just want to pass through. Must we continue to fight and die in this tunnel? For nothing?”
Voresh clenched his jaw, glaring. He was silent for a long moment.
Probably too much to hope he’s considering calling a truce, but that would surely be welcome. Sooner we’re past this place, the better.
Kerensky didn’t wait for a reply. “These ‘aurin’ you speak of,” he said. “They fight your people, da? Drive you out?”
Voresh kept glaring, but he gave a brusque nod. “Ya.”
“If you let us pass, we will cross into the parts of the tunnel that they control, will we not?”
“So… let us! You need not like us, Voresh. You may even wish us to die. But we will be enemies of your enemies. Let us kill the aurin, or the aurin kill us, and in either case you will come out the better.”
Voresh cocked his head, clearly listening to Kerensky’s plea. He opened his mouth to reply.
“Company!” The gaunt fellow, Dylan, called out from the edge of their little circle.
Voresh snapped his mouth shut, looking around. Everyone else did the same. Borthul didn’t bother trying to see out into the darkness of the tunnel. He was night-blinded by the torchlights, and regardless his eyesight out past ten feet or so had been slowly fading for several years now. He waited to hear what was going on.
Anyway, the mercenaries will deal with it. That’s what you’ve paid them for, after all, he reminded himself.
Yorrin and Dylan moved to the edge of their group, bows ready. Kerensky and the Targan savage did the same with their big weapons. Alaina stayed near Borthul and the bound goblins. Borthul wasn’t sure where that damnable little girl had disappeared to. Something about her put him on edge.
“Definitely goblins,” Yorrin said. “I count at least ten coming down the main tunnel ahead.”
“Just as many behind,” Dylan confirmed. “At least they aren’t shooting at us. Why aren’t they shooting at us?”
“Him,” Kerensky said. “They do not wish to hurt their shaman, I think.”
“Aleksandr’s right,” Yorrin said. “Thank Torath for small mercies,”
“Bear not afraid of shooty little men,” the brute of a barbarian growled.
“I am,” Yorrin said. “And you would be too, if you had any sense.”
“I have many sense!” Bear growled. “Eyes, ears, nose—”
“Voresh!” Kerensky said, speaking over the idiot barbarian. “They will be upon us any moment. You can stop this.”
“He’s right,” Alaina said. “No more of your kin need to die. Call out to them. Tell them to stand down.”
Voresh set his jaw, and even before he spoke, Borthul knew what the response would be.
Kerensky, to his credit, didn’t bother arguing. He just sighed, shifted his grip on his longsword, and moved to stand beside Dylan.
The priestess was not so pragmatic. “Why?” Alaina said, pleading. “This is such a pointless waste of life. Totally unnecessary.”
“Your lives only ones to waste,” Voresh snarled. “Good fighters. Strong. But numbers always win. My brothers too many for you. Kill you all.”
Borthul heard the thwang of bowstrings, as Dylan and Yorrin began loosing arrows at the incoming goblins. He heard feral squeals of goblins in pain. He heard Bear unleash a roar of unnecessarily high volume.
And he heard Yorrin call out “More coming! Five at least!”
Too many. He saw the shadowy shapes of the first couple goblins come rushing in on either side, clashing with Kerensky and Bear. Yorrin and Dylan switched to melee weapons, and he even thought he saw Prudence pop up from a dark corner of the tunnel to join the fray.
The sound of the fighting was loud, and intense, and Borthul could hear more goblins howling from deeper in the tunnel. They were hesitating, letting their kin take the brunt of the fighting prowess of Kerensky and his men. These mercenaries were competent enough, but still… only mortal. Borthul feared their stamina and strength of arms would give out before the goblins routed. Especially given that they seemed intent on retrieving their shaman.
The need is dire. Borthul told himself. Are you going to stand here and die like an animal?
He reached into the bags of his horse and drew out a book. It was his oldest tome, and his dearest possession. He cracked the weathered spine and thumbed through the faded pages. He barely needed to look at the densely scrawled blocks of script, quickly flipping to the part of the tome he sought.
The text was familiar. It ought to be, since Borthul had written it himself. To most, it would look like incomprehensible gibberish. So it had to Borthul, once. But the Order of Gnomon had spent many lifetimes decoding the forgotten language of the Thaumati. Learning the base script was the first step to understanding their Words of Power, after all.
Borthul found his place, and began reading the text aloud. He spoke loudly, declaring each word with precision and force. It would not do to quaver, or stutter. He had written these pages carefully, deliberately. The result of years of careful study. It was the only way he had kept his sanity, and his life, all these years.
Speaking Words of Power—true Thaumaturgy—was dangerous beyond mortal comprehension. The Words reshaped reality in accordance to the will of the Speaker, but they also reshaped the one doing the speaking. Borthul had seen men driven mad, when they dabbled too deep. Wiser wizards than he had been destroyed body, mind, and soul. There was only one way to avoid such a fate. Or, if not avoid, then at least to forestall it.
Borthul kept reading from his tome. Sentence after sentence, carefully scripted and honed over years of practice. It was the way of the Order. Gnomic spells were precise things, worded to give structure to Thaumaturgic energy normally structured only by sheer force of will. A series of directions, specific dictations, and caveats. If this, then that. If that, then this.
The script would work. It always did. And it would not knock Borthul into a month-long coma, as earlier versions of the spell had done. He had honed this incantation as much as was possible. Now all he had to do was recite it perfectly.
The battle raged around him. Blades flashed, goblins screamed, and blood pooled on the smooth stone of the Underpass. Borthul ignored it all, his voice rising louder and stronger with each paragraph.
He flipped the final page. In his periphery, he saw a goblin break past the battle lines, rushing towards him, blade drawn. Borthul kept reading. The goblin rushed closer, raising his ugly, rusty sword in a high grip. And Borthul kept reading.
A feathered bolt sprouted from the side of the goblin’s neck. The creature staggered, then dropped. Borthul did not see Prudence, but he knew she had just saved his life.
He kept reading.
The last paragraph. He declared the final words, loud and clear. His voice carried across the tunnel as he shouted the final piece of the incantation.
Sudden silence reigned.
Borthul’s words echoed across the cave. He swallowed, licked his lips. His mouth felt dry. Around him, he saw Kerensky and the others staring at him in slack-jawed amazement.
Every one of the goblins had collapsed simultaneously. Not dead. Not even wounded, save whatever wounds the battle had inflicted. They simply… slept. A score of goblins, scattered about the tunnel, sleeping deeply.
“Borthul…” Kerensky said. “You did this?”
Borthul met the Ruskan knight’s gaze, and sniffed. “The Great,” he said.
Kerensky stared at him in silence for an interminably long time. Finally, he gave a slow, deliberate nod.
“Da,” he said. “Borthul the Great. A good name.”
Borthul allowed himself a bit of smugness. “You’re damn right,” he said, smiling.