Henry squinted as he strained to observe the goblins walking through a clearing on a hillside about 200 yards away. They were small and green with huge ears and long noses. Henry judged they were about three and a half feet tall. He actually didn’t know what they were exactly but their general appearance made “goblins” seem appropriate.
Jason whispered, “What do we do?”
Henry frowned and whispered back, “Well, we don’t know for sure they’re hostile. For all we know they are peaceful and just look funny to us.” Right about that time, a few more goblins emerged from the trees leading an old man, a young woman, and a little boy through the clearing. The prisoners were chains and it was obvious that all of them were in rough shape. A goblin holding a spear brought up the rear and prodded the young boy to walk faster. “Oh hell,” Henry quietly cursed.
Jason looked resigned, “You know, if we are actually going to survive in this place we shouldn’t get involved.”
“But we’re going to get involved anyway, aren’t we?”
Henry was conflicted. He really didn’t want to die. He was also extremely tired and still adjusting to the situation. He’d already had a full weekend, then he practiced sword drills with Jason before getting zapped to Ludus, and he just hiked through the woods for an hour. He had a suspicion that whatever Dolos did to get them here took a lot out of him too.
Unfortunately, there were some things he knew he couldn’t walk away from, certain things he couldn’t tolerate because he had to live with himself as long as he was still breathing. His moral code was pretty clear on the situation but he also had his friend to think about. He paused and asked Jason, “What do you think?”
Jason scratched his chin, his tall, lanky frame seemed to sway gently in the slight breeze. “Well, those people obviously need help. I’ve never even been in much of a real fight, but I know a good reason for fighting when I see it. Plus, I know you want to go help those people and there are worse ways to die than doing something right with a friend.”
Henry was touched. He’d been hanging out with Jason a lot the last few years, especially after his divorce. It was nice to know that their friendship meant as much to Jason as it did to him. Plus it spoke volumes that Jason was willing to watch his back. They were in a ridiculous situation, they were probably both in shock, but Jason’s inherent goodness and integrity was steadfast. Henry wished he was that good of a person.
“Okay, let’s move over to that clearing. Try to walk as quietly as possible. While we head there, look for straight sticks or small trees we can make into spears.”
Jason pointed at their polypropylene practice weapons, “Will these do us any good? I’m pretty good with a long sword but I’m not that great with a spear.”
Henry shook his head, “No, those goblins or whatever had metal weapons. Metal will cut right through this stuff,” he punctuated his point by easily cutting into the guard of his training sword with his machete. “Our HEMA armor should help a bit, though. I mean, I’d rather be wearing steel but this stuff beats a t-shirt.”
Jason nodded glumly and after hiding the useless training weapons in a bush, the pair started moving through the forest towards where they’d seen the goblins. While they walked, they fashioned a few makeshift spears using the folding knife from the duffle bag.
Henry noticed that some of the foliage was unlike any he’d ever seen before. Sunlight from the greenish blue sky slanted through trees and lighted on a bush with pretty pink flowers. He suddenly halted and put an arm out to stop Jason too. Jason looked at him questioningly, but Henry just shook his head.
Henry wasn’t quite sure why he stopped and he wasn’t getting any clues from just staring at the bush so he grunted, motioning Jason to follow him in a path around the flowers. Henry’s hunches were useful more often than not. He was damn sure not going to ignore his gut on a strange planet while moving towards a fight.
When the two men reached the clearing they’d seen the goblins and the prisoners in, they discovered that the creatures had been following a well-worn trail. Henry knew that if he and Jason were smart, they’d scout the area around them, do a few days of recon, and formulate a plan of attack with at least 20 other people. However, not only did they not have backup, all they had for weapons was a cheap machete and a handful of sharpened sticks, most of which were being carried by Jason.
The situation sucked. Not for the first time, Henry wished he could just walk away from helping other people in terrible circumstances. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it, though.
He was having serious doubts they were going to survive after attacking the goblin creatures. He and Jason had only been on another world for a couple hours! He was thinking about telling Jason they should just turn back until he saw the human footprints in the soft dirt. He squatted down and bent closer, yes, he could see blood. At least one of the prisoners was hurt.
Henry steeled his resolve and felt the strange but familiar calm he always experienced in combat or car crashes, car crashes that most definitely were not his fault. Definitely not his fault, that was his story and he was sticking to it. He gestured Jason over and whispered, “We have to be really quiet now while we follow this trail. For all we know, they have a camp a few dozen feet away.”
Jason nodded, “Do we have a plan?”
“I don’t, do you?”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Jason sighed.
Both men began slowly, carefully following the trail through the woods. They walked for about fifteen minutes when the path began to snake around a hill. Henry got a bad feeling as they approached a blind corner around a rock outcropping and motioned Jason to be careful. Jason nervously nodded and readied one of his makeshift spears in one hand, the rest held under his other arm. As they creeped forward, Henry began to smell a new, acrid odor under the normal, loamy scent of the forest. In two more steps, they came upon a goblin relieving itself against a tree just off the trail. The goblin turned its head as the two men rounded the bend. It was hard to tell who which party was more surprised, but Jason acted first.
With a grunt of effort, he whipped forward his long arm and more by luck than skill, his makeshift spear went right through the goblin’s neck. Dark ichor welled up from the terrible wound and the goblin fell to the ground, trashing around, its eyes dilated and its mouth open while trying to scream. The goblin’s loincloth flipped up and Henry amended, Ah, it’s a “he”, not an “it”.
Henry stepped forward quickly to end the goblin’s suffering with his machete. When he turned back, he saw Jason staring at the goblin in sick fascination for a full five seconds before throwing up. Henry left his friend alone while he got himself back under control and began checking the goblin’s gear with clinical detachment. The goblin was a mess and smelled horrible, but Henry had seen worse.
Along with the loincloth, the goblin was wearing a crude vest that looked like it was made of deer hide. The goblin also had a small bag with bit near-rancid, dried meat and a little stoneware water bottle corked with wax. For weapons, the goblin was carrying a flint spear and a long, bronze, seax-style knife. Henry thought there was a possibility they’d killed the goblin that poked the little boy in the clearing. “Serves the little motherfucker right,” he muttered.
He turned around and saw Jason was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and looked a little green, but was pulling himself back together. Henry tossed him the long bronze knife and kept the flint spear for himself.
“I’m sorry,” Jason whispered. He didn’t look at the goblin and kept his eyes on the trail. “It’s really dead, right?”
Henry nodded, “Yeah, it’s dead. Don’t worry about it— your reaction is pretty normal. You’ve never even gone hunting, have you?”
Jason shook his head, “No. I think what really bothers me is that we don’t even know if we are the good guys here. We might have just committed murder.”
Henry shook his head, “No, for better for worse we’ve decided to war on these things. It’s true we’re in a new place and this is pretty intense, but it was obvious that those people we saw needed help. Putting chains on people and wounding children with weapons is a pretty good sign that these creatures are the bad guys.”
Jason nodded thoughtfully and examined the bronze knife. “This thing is pretty crude but it actually has good balance.”
“Good, maybe you can throw it then. I know you like throwing knives.” Henry nudged the dead goblin with his foot. “This thing didn’t have any armor but we can’t be sure that will be the case ahead.”
Jason nodded and the two men began following the trail again, adrenaline making their hearts beat wildly. They pushed forward like this for another five minutes before the trail ended at the entrance to a creepy cave. Two skulls sat on the ground on either side of the entrance and they could see a torch sputtering a few steps inside. There was a faint, animal-like smell coming from the mouth of the cave.
Jason looked at Henry with a question in his eyes and Henry briefly considered what they should do. In the end, he couldn’t think of anything clever and shrugged. With that, both men entered the cave, weapons at the ready. Henry thought it was strange that the goblins didn’t have a lookout posted. He cocked his head and listened while the torch cast shadows against the wall next to him. He thought he could hear something in the distance. The little bits of noise he caught made his hackles rise.
Henry and Jason continued deeper into the cave, the slight smell they first encountered kept growing worse the deeper they got. The cave eventually turned into a natural tunnel, and the noises ahead bounced around them in disconcerting ways. A torch lit the midpoint of the tunnel, and Henry could see torchlight coming from where it looked like the cave started to open up again. Henry and Jason got low and moved forward cautiously until they could see into the room ahead.
The scene they were greeted with was horrific. The room opened up before them and its floor was actually a few feet lower than where they were crouching down, a natural ramp leading from the tunnel down into the room. The old man they’d seen in the clearing was lying in a heap against the wall next to the copper chains the prisoners were transported with, a bump on his head and blood leaking from his temple. The woman was being held down by two goblins while a third was cutting off her clothes with a stone knife as she screamed, her voice weak and desperate. Every time she tried to struggle, one of the goblins casually hit her in the face with the back of its hand. The little boy…
Henry swallowed. He’d seen some terrible things in war and working as an EMT, but it always hit him hardest when kids got hurt. What he was seeing now… he knew he was going to have nightmares. The boy that he and Jason had seen the goblins leading through the clearing was dead and two goblins were butchering him like he was an animal. His blood spread in an enormous pool on the floor in an area that seemed to be a dug out as a fire pit.
Henry noted in a detached sort of way that the goblins probably butchered things in the fire pits while they were not lit and then built fires to burn up the offal.
One goblin that was bigger than the others and wearing crude bone armor stood by the fire and yelled at the other goblins. Henry figured he was the boss goblin. He counted a total of six goblins including the boss in armor; all appeared to be male. Henry glanced at Jason and saw tears in his friend’s eyes. He had a feeling that Jason was no longer conflicted with the morality of killing goblins.
Henry held out a hand and Jason gave him one of the crude, green wood spears. He held up three fingers, then two, then one, counting down. Jason’s eyes were wild, but his shoulders were square and his jaw was set. For the second time that day, Henry felt honored to know his friend. He knew they might die in the next few minutes, but he felt deep pride in the course of action they were taking. He was damn sure not going to walk away from blatant evil like this, and he respected his friend’s courage in joining him.
As soon as Henry’s fingers all made a fist, both men jumped up and attacked, their yells blending with the screams of the woman on the floor and the chittering of goblins.