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God Wagon
By John L. Campbell - 2009

 

Peter awoke coughing.  In his sleep, his face had slipped below the brackish water, and now he sputtered and gasped, raising his head, clawing for air.  Hot bile and foul water burst from his mouth and nose, and he forced himself up, his back pressed against the heavy wooden bars.
Still in the pit, he realized.
Torchlight flickered above, and he squinted, shaking off sleep, peering at the light.  Sometimes there was a goblin up there, staring down at the hated human captive, sometimes dumping a pail of filth into the pit or even urinating.  Not now, though.  He was alone.
The pit was square, ten feet deep, six feet across at the bottom.  Within it was a large cage of stout timber, a single locked hatch at the top.  The pit and cage were filled with four feet of water, and it was within all this that Sir Peter of Victorius found himself for what he thought was the third night.  He'd been having trouble tracking the time. It could have been a week, it could have been the same, endless day.
Peter looked around the flooded cage.  Not completely alone, he thought, for the corpse of Sergeant Pacci still floated face down not four feet away, bloated and green.  When he'd been thrown in here, the cage had held five other men.  A soldier named Belkis or Belker, the one with the broken arrow shaft still in his shoulder, had been hauled away the same night.  Sergeant Pacci, severely wounded, who had clung to life for a day or so before dying quietly in the darkness.  A Castillian who muttered a lot of prayers and who had been taken on the second night.  An artillery captain named Vecchio who had fought so hard against being pulled from the cage that the goblins had given up and shot him in the head with a crossbow before dragging out his corpse.  And of course Lucas, the boy.
He closed his eyes at that memory, still hearing the panicked sobbing.  Still hearing Lucas, a squire not yet sixteen, pleading with him, Sir Peter, an all-powerful noble knight, to save him from his fate.  In the end they had taken the boy, laughing as they dragged him out by his hair, carrying him away to whatever horror awaited him.
Sir Peter was the only one left.  He wondered if more captives would arrive before he too was taken away.  He decided it didn't really matter.
Somewhere beyond the edge of the pit he could hear them, a group all speaking at once in their gibberish language, laughing or yelling or choking...it all sounded the same.  The firelight danced as shadows moved before it.  One of them belched raucously, and the others gibbered.
The knight gripped the bars behind him and levered his feet under him so he could stand, the water lapping midway up his chest.  He wore only the torn and bloody tunic and padded leggings he'd had under his armor.  His hands were cold and stiff, and he worked the blood back into his fingers.  Long, wet, filthy hair hung in straggles on his face, and he decided it had indeed been three days due to the growth of stubble on his hollow cheeks.  The wound in his right side seemed to have stopped bleeding - it was hard to tell in the water - but he supposed it had since he was still alive, a sure sign he had not bled to death.  It was no doubt infected.  The big bruise on his face was still swollen and tender, the point where he had struck the ground after his horse was cut from under him.
Peter thought of Annabelle, his lovely, olive-skinned bride, and how she would have fussed over his injuries.  Far away in Victorius, worried about her man.  Her father would care for her now, and that was something.  He thought of his horse, a proud and magnificent beast, bristled with poisoned arrows and screaming as it thrashed on the ground.  He thought of the men of his patrol, twenty fine and brave cavalrymen, slaughtered in the goblin ambush that had landed him here.  A twilight patrol of the pickets, back in time for supper, no trouble expected.
He started stretching and moving about the small cage, avoiding Sergeant Pacci - he had no desire for the corpse to bump into him.  He pictured it rolling over in the black water, turning its green face to him and staring with bulging, lifeless gray eyes in silent accusation.  How could you let me die?  You're a noble.  You swore an oath to protect.  You are a failure.
"Hoch!  Hoch, tok peet!"
Peter looked up to see a pair of brutish goblins at the edge of the pit, looking down at him.  One held a torch, the other a big axe.
"Hoch!  N'Acht set!  Tok peet!"  The one with the axe dropped down onto the top of the cage and unlocked the hatch.  Another pair of goblins joined the one with the torch, both with curved swords, baring their tusks in contempt at the prisoner.  The hatch opened, and the goblin gestured for Peter to climb out.  "Tok peet!"
Sir Peter sighed.  There was no sense in fighting it.  He wouldn't resist the way the artilleryman had.  Wouldn't wail like Lucas.  His war was over, he had lost.  He gripped the edge of the hatch opening and hauled himself up and out with a grunt.  The goblin scrambled up and away from him, gesturing rapidly that he should climb up out of the pit.  As he did, the four goblins encircled him, not too close, weapons menacing him.
I have no armor, no sword, and still they fear me.  That is why you will lose this war, he thought.  Though other men would have to complete the conquest.  He straightened, wincing at the pain in his side, feeling for the wound, his fingers coming away covered in blood and pus.  If the goblins don't kill me, this surely will, he thought.
He looked around.  When he'd first been brought here, he had been dazed, the journey from the ambush site to the pit a dark haze of memory.  Now he could see, but it didn't help him know his position.  The night was moonless, the terrain a flatland of semi-dry mud, burning torches stuck into the earth in places.  He saw a catapult not far away, and an earthen rampart where half a dozen goblins squatted, gripping spears and peeking over the top.  How close to the lines am I, he wondered?  He knew the range of the goblin catapults, and the troops at the rampart were keeping their heads down.  How close to friendly lines?
His thoughts were disrupted by the sharp jab of an axe handle in his lower back.
"Impah!" snarled his captor, and the other goblins flanked him, opening the direction he was apparently to move in.  He walked, stiffly at first as the blood returned to his legs.  All around him were the signs of war; stacks of supplies, piles of spears, wooden mantlets, and oh, so many goblins.  They trudged to and fro, weapons slung, moving casually and unworried.  Not that close to the lines, he decided.
Ahead about twenty yards he saw a circle of blazing torchlight, a thick crowd of goblins gathered there.  The fire reflected off dented armor and cruel steels weapons, scarred helmets and greaves, flashing off body piercings.  The crowd watched him approach, murmuring in their thick-tongued gibberish, dark eyes glittering with malice.  Apparently he wasn't moving fast enough, because the axe handle hit his kidneys again, harder this time.  "Impah! Impahhh!"
Peter resisted the urge to turn and smash his tormentor in the face.  What purpose would it serve but to hasten his death?  He asked St. Mary for her mercy and walked towards the light.  The crowd parted as he approached, the goblins snarling and growling at him, showing their teeth, a few spitting in his face.  They revealed a circular, stone-lined pit with sand at the bottom.  There was blood and hair on the walls down there.  A pile of captured Crusader weapons sat near the edge of the pit, and his lead captor prodded him towards it, gesturing at the pile.  "Ghal maraz hadaaga."
The knight understood this well enough.  I'm to be a gladiator now, he thought, stooping and examining the collection of swords, axes and spears, all battered.  He selected a sturdy-looking broadsword and hefted it, checking the weight and balance.  The gathering growled and tensed as he handled the blade, and Sir Peter allowed himself a tiny smile at their nervousness.  Don't like it much when we're armed, do you?
"In peet," said his captor, prodding him to the edge.  Peter gripped the broadsword and dropped the six feet to the sand, his body protesting and his wound flaring.  A cheer went up from the gathered goblins, and they crowded close to the pit's edge.
"Cro'K Ghee'Haad!" bellowed an unseen goblin, and the crowd roared its approval.  A goblin dropped into the pit at the other side, landing in a crouch, baring its fangs and roaring its rage.  It held a curved axe, and raised it high.  The goblin came on in a rush, crossing the pit in seconds.
Sir Peter, a veteran of countless battles at Red Saddle and the crusade, quickly sized up his opponent, saw the crude, unskilled attack, side-stepped and slashed with his broadsword.  This all happened in a blink, an unthinking combat reaction.  The broadsword eviscerated the charging goblin, who squealed, stumbled two steps past the knight, and collapsed to its knees, entrails spilling onto the sand.  It fell face first into the hot pile.
The crowd roared and snarled, goblins beating their chests and pounding each other's backs.  Coins were exchanged.  Peter had taken only two steps during the engagement.
"Nox!" cried the announcer.
Another goblin dropped into the pit.  This one wore a scarred breastplate and a dented Crusader helmet.  It brandished a spear and roared its battle cry.  Peter didn't wait for the charge.  While it was still screaming its challenge, the knight took three steps towards it and swung the broadsword in an overhand cleave.  The strike split the beast's helmet and skull in one bloody strike, dropping it to the sand.  It's the fight that matters, he thought, silently speaking to his fallen opponent.  The screaming comes after the fight.  Peter had to work the blade out of where it had lodged in the lower jaw.  The crowd roared.
"Nox!"
Behind him, a brutish goblin with cords standing out on its biceps dropped into the pit, a battle axe gripped in each clawed hand.  It snarled and advanced warily, crouched and side-stepping, not rushing straight into the attack. 
"You're learning," breathed Peter, taking his own battle stance, broadsword before him.  The overhand strike had opened the wound in his side, and warm liquid streamed down his hip and leg, the pain a throbbing burn. 
 The goblin closed, swinging the axes before it in alternating swipes.  Peter deflected one, swung his blade, had it deflected, side-stepped an axe blade, cut again, had it deflected.  The crowd roared their approval as the ringing metal bounced off the pit walls.  Peter slid to the right, nearly tripping over the body of the first goblin he'd killed.  His opponent leaped forward at the perceived slip, but Peter had fought in worse conditions than this.  He recovered, dropped to one knee and thrust.  The tip of the broadsword pierced the goblin's muscled chest just under his left pectoral, driving in half its length.  The goblin's momentum moved it the rest of the way down the blade, stopping only at the hilt.  It coughed blood and foul breath into Peter's face, then its eyes rolled up and it slumped to the side.
The crowd went wild, shrieking and pounding, a few goblins spraying urine in their excitement.  More coins were exchanged as Peter struggled to work the blade free.  His side was on fire, and his legs were tired.  Should have taken a few minutes to stretch first, he thought  He wanted a drink, and would have welcomed even the soup in the pit at this point.
"Nox!" shrieked the announcer.
"Nox, nox," muttered Peter.
Another goblin dropped in, small but wiry and quick.  It lasted a full minute before Peter cut its head off.
"Nox!"
This one was big but slow, swinging a flail with a spiked ball.  Peter cut out its right leg, and when it fell he skewered it through the throat.
"Nox!"
A goblin with a battle axe.  One cut to sever its weapon hand, another to split its face and chop off its jaw, a third to end its thrashing.
"Nox!"
Peter had started to wheeze.  His tunic was soaked red down the right side, and he heard his pulse in his head.  A screaming goblin ran into his blade.
"Nox!"  This time it was Peter who screamed the word, and the crowd shrieked with approval.
A goblin with a mace.
A goblin with a spear.
A goblin with a shield and scimitar.
Death by broadsword.
"Nox," wheezed the knight, stooped over at the waist, the tip of his sword in the sand, leaning on it for support.  Sweat streamed from his brow, and his hair hung dankly in his eyes.  His wound heaved, and his legs and sword arm were quivering.
"Nox," he gasped again, but no goblin dropped to meet its fate.  Peter straightened with difficulty to see the crowd silent and watching, unmoving.  This is where they applaud my skill at arms and set me free out of respect, he thought, and a small, crazed laugh burst out, triggering a long, wheezing cough.
Then a goblin did drop into the pit.  It was huge, much bigger than Peter, heavily muscled and covered in brutal white scars and glittering body piercings.  It wore only a loincloth, and carried no weapon.  The beast stood there motionlessly, inspecting the human.  Peter saw that on the forehead of its bald pate there was a tattoo of a single, curved tusk.  He recognized the symbol.  Raketooth, he thought, clenching his teeth and straightening.  The elite infantry of the Blood Hand Clan.  Ferocious in battle, cunning and smart, respected and feared by the human ranks.  Peter had seen them, seen what they could do, but had never faced one.
The Raketooth goblin slowly lowered itself into a fighting crouch, baring its tremendous teeth and fangs, its black eyes never leaving the winded knight.
"St. George, give me the strength to die well," Peter wheezed.  "Annabelle, I love you."  He raised his sword towards the beast.
The Raketooth moved without warning, fast and powerful.  It took two great strides and leapt into the air towards Peter.  The knight readied himself and raised his blade, but as the Raketooth came down it batted the sword to the side and landed on Peter, driving him to the sand, one huge clawed hand gripping the top of his head.  The wind was knocked out of him and the sword spun out of his hand, and Peter had only a moment to think the word "heavy" before the goblin twisted his head in a sharp snap, breaking his neck, then bit savagely into his face.
Peter wasn't alive to feel the bite, or hear the cheering.

*  *  *  *  *

         O'oska trudged up the hill towards the torchlit compound of large tents, grunting at the sentries who didn't question his approach and simply moved out of the way.  The firelight gleamed off his battle-scarred armor and weapons, his chain mail skirt a soft swish over his powerful thighs.  His companion followed several respectful steps behind.
         The hilltop compound commanded a fine view of the battlefield in daylight, but now the surrounding terrain was black, dotted only with the reddish pinpricks of torches and bonfires in all directions.  Several miles behind the hills was the black mass of Hax, fires lining the city's high walls.  O'oska grunted at another sentry and strode into a large area of packed earth, the center of the compound.  Numerous large tents were erected here, and firelight from torch poles and braziers pushed back the night.  Armored goblins of higher rank moved about in pairs or small groups, messengers carried satchels, low-ranking goblins carried out menial camp tasks.  The warlord ignored them all and crossed the open area towards the largest tent, his companion in step behind him.
         To one side of the tent was a corral of wooden poles, a cluster of twenty goblin females huddled together within, trying to sleep.  In front of the tent opening was a huge chair crafted of red wood and bones, crowned with human skulls and glittering with embedded jewels and mithril etchings.  More a throne than a chair, with four immense, dangerous-looking bodyguards standing not far from each corner.  Lesser attendants and aides stood a bit further away, ready to fulfill their master's needs.  The object of his journey sat upon it.  Stahl.  First Born of Mastif Septius, Supreme Warlord of the Nine Fist Clan, Defender of Hax.  Large even by goblin standards, Stahl rippled with muscle and exuded strength and arrogance.  His long hair was pulled back into a single, tightly-woven braid wrapped in mithril wire.  His many piercings were also mithril, and both lower tusks were capped with the same precious metal.  His breastplate, greaves and arm guards all bore Nine Fist Clan etchings, and the seven-foot-long sword resting against his throne was similarly engraved.  Stahl's prowess in combat was legendary, as was his predisposition for sudden violence.
         As O'oska approached he saw that his master was engaged with a yob of about ten years, and a captive elf male, trussed like a sow and lying on its side.  The yob stood before its father, listening intently.  O'oska stopped a polite distance away and lowered his head, saying nothing.
         "Your tusk braces will be removed tonight, LuRach," Stahl said to the ten-year-old.  "I give you this to signify the end of childhood."  The massive goblin thrust a mithril piercing through the youngster's right ear, and the yob winced but didn't cry out, to the satisfaction of its father.  Stahl sat back on his throne and pointed at the bound and gagged elf, who stared in wide-eyed horror at the goblin child.
         "Show me your nature," said Stahl.
         The yob instantly turned and advanced on the elf, hands open and tiny claws turned in, its lower jaw jutting outward amid the painful contraption of braces that had formed it thus, eyes slitted and gleaming.  The elf struggled and screamed a muffled cry, and then the yob was on him, clawing and biting savagely, blood spurting across its face, sinking its teeth into flesh and ripping, snarling ferociously.  It didn't last long, and the yob stood over the body, small chest heaving.  It tipped its head back and yowled a childish cry to the stars.
         Stahl was filled with pride for his son.  He nodded his approval at the young male, then gestured.  An aide appeared, took the yob by the hand and led him away.  It was time for the boy to enter a Drogue, the dangerous, competitive training collective where it would take the final steps towards adulthood.  A perilous time, where a quarter of the participants didn't survive.  Stahl knew LuRach would, though, not because of who his father was, but because of his natural ferocity.  As an infant, the child had systematically murdered all seven of its littermates so it could claim all the nursing teats.  Homicidal talent like that was to be nurtured.  It would be five years before Stahl would see the boy again, when LuRach would present himself to his father as a mature Bull.  The goblin commander smiled.
         Stahl lifted the huge sword from beside the throne and began polishing it with a sheepskin rag, turning his attention to his visitors.  "Come forward, O'oska."
         The warlord approached and bowed, followed by his companion, who knelt beside him, not making eye contact.  "My compliments on LuRach's passage from childhood.  He will be a fine warrior, a blessing upon your house."
         "A future Pah, no doubt," said Stahl.
         "To succeed you as Clan Lord when you become Dench," said O'oska.
         Stahl took no offense to the obvious flattery.  It was the way of things.  "Your regiment is fit, I expect?"
         "Very much so, Great One.  Only today my Worgruhn crushed a company of humans pressing the lines.  As we speak, I have two companies of Night Boars piercing their pickets to ride down a forward headquarters.  We expect to capture and destroy a fair amount of artillery."
         Stahl didn't inquire about losses.
         "Who is this you have brought before me?"
         "Praaga Jin, a sergeant of the Blood Hand Raketooth Brigade.  Tonight's champion of the Pit."
         Stahl eyed the big kneeling goblin.  His contempt for all members of the Blood Hand Clan was deeply ingrained, but they were critical to the Nine Fist war plans, and had always been so.  Ruthless war-lovers, they were the perfect instruments of death. 
         "Rise, Praaga Jin," said Stahl.  The big goblin stood and looked the Nine Fist commander boldly in the eyes.  His own clan despised the dominant Nine Fist, but Stahl was Supreme Commander and respect must be shown.  The Raketooth goblin advanced and held out his offering, the mangled head of Sir Peter of Victorius.
         Stahl took the head and examined the prize, turning it over in his large hands, nodding in appreciation.  He placed it at the foot of one of the legs of his throne.  "It is good," he said.  "Your unit is attached to O'oska's regiment?"
         "Yes, Great One."
         "And your home?"
         "Seet.  Fortress of the Blood Hand, home to the Raketooth."
         Stahl tipped his head in polite acknowledgement.  "How long at war?"
         "Three years, Great One," the Raketooth said proudly, his chest swelling, his head high.  Three years was the equivalent of several lifetimes, considering the staggeringly-high death rate of goblins on the field.  Many didn't survive their first engagement.  This Raketooth was clearly something special.
         "Blessings upon you and your Kaska, Praaga Jin.  You serve your clan well.  May you find the death you seek in glorious battle."
         The Raketooth bowed in thanks.
         Stahl gestured towards the nearby corral of females.  "For your prowess, I grant you the Pihg of your choice.  These are fine females, and none yet pregnant.  Accept this gift, and I grant you two days leave from your duties to enjoy your reward."
         The Raketooth smiled around its sharpened tusks, bowed its head, then stepped to the throne.  Stahl leaned forward and the two slapped their powerful hands together in a clench, pulling each other close, noses nearly touching, locking eyes and snarling low, deadly rumbles, a mixture of respect and barely concealed clan hatred.  Then they released, and O'oska led the champion towards the corral to select his prize.
         Stahl watched them go.  Yes, a fine example of a war-forged goblin.  He might have made an excellent bodyguard, if he could be trusted.  But he was Blood Hand, not Nine Fist, and so he could never be.  Better to use him in war, anyway.  That was what Blood Hand were best suited for.
         The supreme commander rested the big sword across his knees and gestured to a nearby goblin in a black toga.  "Bring my generals."  The aide bowed deeply and hustled off to where a collection of large, armed and armored goblins waited, not speaking to one another.  They approached the throne one at a time, in an unspoken order, stopping before their commander and bowing, each speaking the words "Great One."
         First was General Tuluk of the Blood Hand.
         "Where is Vox," Stahl demanded.
         The general met Stahl's eyes aggressively.  "His duties on the field prevent him from attending.  He sends his deepest apologies, and me in his place."
          Stahl was irritated.  General Tuluk was merely a deputy commander, and not even a first or second.  Typical that Vox Errgoth, High Commander of Blood Hand forces, would send  what amounted to a messenger rather than answer the summons himself.  An insult, but one which could be covered up by the more pressing aspect of running units in the field.
         "When you return to your master," Stahl said, "express my desire that he present himself to me, in person, in the morning.  I would meet with him privately."
         General Tuluk hid his smirk and gave an exaggerated bow.  "It will be so, Great One."  He moved towards the main tent.
         The next to approach was R'Kaff of the Hack Sling Clan, a brute in horned helmet and light armor.  He was accompanied by a Spider Shaman from the Shadowfahl forest, the commander of the 8th Doom Regiment.  As this one performed his bow, Stahl saw a fat, black tarantula climb from the sleeve of his robe, scuttle up the arm and disappear into the folds of his hood.  Stahl curled his lip.  Spider Shamans were a vile bunch, and the hatred between them and the D'Vahli Mystics - the sacred keepers of the Forbidden City and servants to the goblin gods - was deep.
         "We will be discussing your clan's less than impressive performance along the Castillian lines," Stahl warned the Hack Sling warlord.  "I am certain you will have an explanation."
         R'Kaff and his shaman moved towards the tent without reply.
         A hooded goblin, considerably shorter than the others but no less physically impressive, approached and bowed.  He had a hooked, beak of a nose, and his arms and armor were adorned with the curious, milky-red warpstone.  The Razorfang Clan mined this mystical jewel in the wastelands of the Seeche, then combined it with their own crafting skills to create impressive weapons and effects.  Sappers, engineers, tinkers...the Razorfang were another useful instrument to the Nine Fist war plan.  If only they weren't a pack of lazy cowards at heart.
         "General P'luu," said Stahl, "I look forward to inspecting your new observation tower, and this looking glass you have spoken of with such excitement."
         "All is prepared, Great One," the general said, barely able to meet Stahl's eyes.  "and we have just received another large shipment of explosive-tipped crossbow bolts for the Blood Gunners."
         Stahl didn't hear him.  Seeing the Razor Fang made him think of his brother Vorgonne, slain by the humans at the Battle of Ash.  Stahl had sworn revenge, and when it was learned Vorgonne's killers were moving through Razorfang lands, he had sent a reinforced regiment to destroy them.  The humans had eluded their just punishment along the edges of the Shadowfahl Forest, and the regiment had managed to kill only a single member of their small band.  It was a disgrace the regimental commander had paid for with his life.  Now Vorgonne was still dead, his killers unpunished and at large, and it had happened in Razorfang Clan territory.  Stahl realized he held that clan somehow responsible, and his hatred of them went deeper still.
         "The flow of warpstone weapons from Panaj to Hax has been unacceptable, General P'luu.  These warriors need those weapons to defeat the humans."
The small general fixed his gaze on his own feet.  "The Castillian presence along the Great Western Road has disrupted the movement of supplies, Great One."  The Razor Fang's response came out as a whine.
Stahl leaned forward.  "I care not for Razorfang excuses, P'luu.  Perhaps someone should be impaled as an example."  The threat hung for a moment in the silence, the small general not responding, then Stahl released him and the smaller goblin shuttled quickly towards the tent.
The remaining supplicants consisted of lesser-ranking commanders from the many specialized units on the fields around Hax; the boar-mounted battalions of the Bloodboars and Night Boars, infantry of the Worgruhn, the Raketooth Brigade, the 1st Guards (pretty boys who guarded the Nine Fist Clan City of Kurst who claimed elite status but were of little use beyond the parade ground), a variety of infantry and artillery divisions, and finally the Trann Rangers.  This last was a brigadier general representing his special-forces brethren, experts in guerilla warfare and stealth, skilled in the use of poisons.  Few in number, they made up for it in deadliness.  They were also Blood Hand Clan.
Stahl dismissed the Ranger and sat alone for a while.  His generals could wait.  Would wait.  They would lounge in the luxury of his tent,  served foul gulag by his many pride wives while they schemed and planned their petty intrigues.  He was in no hurry to hear their reports, an exercise which would consist of gathering around the sand table depicting the siege of Hax, parsing the bad news out of their storm of flattery, confident and boastful lies, and inflated kill estimates.  They would say the human lines were five miles out when they were actually three.  They would claim nonexistent successes in minor offensives, while concealing the staggering body count of their own losses.  They would whine for more supplies and weapons, when Stahl knew very well that each was hoarding vast stockpiles of each.  And there would be excuses, so many excuses.
Had his father, Pah of the Nine Fist, endured the same during his own time of war?  Had he struggled with the same lonely decisions and fears that came with supreme command?  To ask him would be to show weakness.  He longed for sound, loyal counsel, like he had received from his childhood friend S'Sach, his chief of staff, for so many years.  But S'Sach was dead six months now, cut down by a mounted charge of Lighthorse on the east fields, his good counsel silenced.  It was Stahl's fate to bear his responsibility alone.  He wondered if it was the same for the human commander.
"You wear your troubles like a yoke, Commander," said a soft voice from just outside the torchlight.  The bodyguards stiffened, caught unawares, as a robed goblin strolled towards the throne.  Dressed in black, a crimson sash belted at the waist supporting a scimitar, golden amulet gleaming in the firelight, the newcomer moved with self-assured grace.  He bore a black staff tipped with an egg shaped ruby.
"May the blessings of Khorne be upon you and your house," the holy man said, giving a deep, formal bow.
"And may you ever bask in the love of the great D'Vahli, Holiness," Stahl said, giving the appropriate response.  "I was unaware you had joined us on the field, F'Nang.  What brings you from the Forbidden City?"  Stahl nodded to an aide, and a folding camp stool was immediately brought and placed before the throne.  The old goblin lowered himself onto it without thanks, and leaned on his staff as he looked at the Nine Fist commander.
"I precede Mordas."
Stahl stiffened.  The God of Storms was on the field?  "Where is he?"
"He approaches this very night."
"Why was I not informed?" Stahl demanded.
F'Nang raised his head and fixed his eyes on the massive goblin.  "The Gods come and go as they please.  It is not for you or I to question their will.  Perhaps He wishes to see for himself why the wretched humans have not yet been chased from our lands."
Stahl bristled at the rebuke.  This priest may have been of high rank in the Forbidden City, but he knew nothing of war.  His words were a challenge which could not go ignored.
"Perhaps if you and the other mystics spent more time on the battlefield, and less in your safe, guilded halls, you would see that the humans are capable adversaries and not easily defeated."  He realized his teeth were showing, and struggled to control his hostility.
The old one shrugged.  "We mystics go where we are commanded, and Khorne is not often inclined to solicit our desires.  Mordas has come, and thus so have we."
Stahl sensed an agenda.  "And you do not know why He has chosen to bless us with his presence?"
The old one shrugged again evasively.  "I cannot say.  But I am confident His reasons will be made known to us."  The mystic smiled slyly.  "I have been instructed to summon you for his arrival.  Perhaps you can ask him yourself?"
An audience with the God of Storms?  The big goblin shuddered at the thought.  He still felt the old mystic was hiding something, and it infuriated him.  It was unthinkable for a warlord of his station to have to pry information out of an inferior, but here he was doing just that.  These D'Vahli mystics, living outside goblin clan life, enjoyed too much power.  Their insolence would be met with a painful death if committed by anyone else.
F'Nang sensed Stahl's thoughts, and let out a little more.  "Perhaps he has come as a result of the Oracles.  There was a Telling recently in the Forbidden City, and the signs spoke of an approaching danger.  A great danger.  The Telling oracle spoke of a coming event that threatened to topple the D'Vahli from their exalted places and cast goblinkind into anarchy."  He scowled.  "The offending oracle was immediately put to death for his blasphemy, of course."
Stahl sneered.  How typical.  The mystics looked to their oracles for guidance, but if the message was an unpleasant one, or one which didn't fit their political agenda, the guidance was ignored and the guide slaughtered.  How he hated these robed pretenders.
"Nonetheless," F'Nang continued, "I believe Khorne has chosen to proceed cautiously, and so has sent Mordas to ensure there can be no validity to the prediction.  I believe Mordas will use His Thunder upon the field."
Stahl took this all in.  It was not unheard-of for the Gods to involve themselves in war.  He had heard a rumor that Qual-Ka-Tesh, the God of Sun and Fire, was en-route to the Steppeskrieg Mountains to punish the upstart clan of female goblins - the Steppeskrieg - who had dared to challenge the Dench, the goblin king, and demand recognition as a new clan.  They had captured the mithril mines and were holding the flow of the precious metal hostage.  It was a distraction which had pulled his father's focus and needed troops away from Hax.  Qual-Ka-Tesh and his red dragons would no doubt make short work of the rebellious females.
"If what you say is true, old man, and Mordas intends to use His holy Thunder on the humans, I need time to plan, to marshal my forces for an offensive to exploit the attack."
The holy man leaned in on his staff.  "I will make no such demands upon our God," he said stridently, "nor will you, Commander.  Mordas will do as He wishes.  You will take advantage of His gift in whatever way you can, as time allows.  If you are not prepared to hurl our mighty forces at these interlopers, then that is your failure, not His."
Again the mystic demonstrated his complete lack of knowledge for large scale warfare.  "At least tell me where he plans to go."  Stahl didn't like the way that last came out as a plea, and liked the old one's smug look even less.
The mystic paused, drawing out the drama.  Finally he said, "The Western fields."
Stahl stood at once and bellowed loud enough for his generals to hear him from within the tent.  They came running, and when they saw the energized and angry demeanor of their commander, all pretense of casual Clan contempt vanished in place of sudden fear.  Sitting out here alone, Stahl might well have decided to execute them all and start over with a new staff of leaders.
"Gather whatever mobile units you have," Stahl ordered, "cavalry and infantry.  Forget trying to move the artillery.  Move them at once to the lines on the western field."  He slung his sword over his back, prepared to move, and his bodyguards formed up at once.  "Do not place them right on the line, but have them ready to mount an immediate offensive."
A few started to protest.  It would take at least a day to assemble their units, to arrange for supply trains, to...
Stahl silenced their thoughts with a deadly look.  "You will get them moving now."
General Tuluk of the Blood Hand dared to speak.  "When will the attack begin?  What will be the signal?"
Stahl thought of the stories he had heard about God Thunder.  "You will know the sign."
Then, with F'Nang leading the way, Stahl, his bodyguards and a collection of aides moved briskly into the darkness.  Behind him, his generals scattered to carry out their orders.

*  *  *  *  *

 

Corporal DePalma was worried about his feet.  He sat cross-legged at the bottom of the muddy trench, his weapons leaning against the earth wall beside him, his boots and socks off.  They were worse than yesterday, not just sore, but painful.  He tried to examine them in the thin moonlight, wincing when he touched the sores and blisters, but unable to discern wound from mud.  They smelled, too.
"Trenchfoot.  I've got trenchfoot."
"They smell like bad cheese," agreed the soldier sitting beside him, a kid from St. Lucius even younger than the twenty-year-old corporal.
DePalma squinted in the bad light, fingers probing, hissing when they touched what had to be infected flesh.  "Probably going to rot right off."  He sighed and started pulling on his socks and boots.  "Wouldn't that be the luck?  Live through all these battles and die from bad feet."
The other soldier chuckled softly.  "At least it would mean you wouldn't have to walk anymore."
DePalma agreed.  He'd done more than his share of walking, more than he'd ever expected to in a lifetime.  "Check the line," he said.
"I just checked it a few minutes ago," said the other soldier.
"And now it's time to check it again.  I swear, Carlo, you act like you don't know what's out there."
The soldier climbed wearily to his feet and peeked his head over the lip of the trench.  "I don't even know what I'm looking for.  Seven days now and I still don't know what a goblin looks like.  A live one, anyway."
Seven days, thought DePalma, shaking his head.  Was it possible Carlo was that new?  He decided he was.  The kid had come up as a replacement last week, fresh from the Empire, new to the war and unblooded.  There had been no activity in this section of the line for over a week.
"You'll know one when you see one.  It'll be the thing with green skin and sharp teeth trying to kill you."
Carlo looked down at his corporal with a worried look.  "Is it bad?"
"Is what bad?" DePalma said from the bottom of the trench.
"Combat.  Is it really bad?"
What a stupid question.  Had he expected it to be fun?  Probably.  He had felt that way himself, a long time ago, back when he was as green as Carlo.  He was about to go into explicit detail about just how bad infantry combat was, then decided it wouldn't do the kid any good, just scare him to the point of ineffectiveness.  DePalma held back his graphic remarks and simply said, "Not as bad as you think.  You're too busy fighting to be scared.  Just stick to your training, and your body will do the rest."
Carlo didn't say anything, and the corporal couldn't tell whether he believed it or not.  It didn't matter.  Every soldier faced their first battle eventually.  They handled it or they didn't, it was impossible to predict.  Those that didn't ended up dead.  Even the ones who handled it well ended up dead, he thought.
"I don't see anything," said Carlo after a few minutes, then slid back down into the trench.
"Then try to sleep," said DePalma.  "I'll keep the watch for a while."
The replacement immediately wrapped himself in a threadbare wool blanket and tried to doze off.  DePalma stood with a groan, shuffled from one painful foot to the other, and faced the darkness of the line.  Carlo was right, nothing to see.  No movement, nothing silhouetted against the sky, just the dark, rolling ground of the killing field between human and goblin trenches.  Not so much as a watch tower or an artillery piece or a spear broke the skyline.
They're trying to sleep, just like us, he thought, leaning his elbows on the trench lip, telling his protesting feet to shut up.  Maybe in the morning he would go out on sick call, try to see a cleric about his feet.  That would piss off Sergeant Quilla, but so what.  DePalma had been in service twice as long as the sergeant.  He never went on sick call.  He deserved it.  He also knew he probably wouldn't.  The ten men in his squad were all pretty green, none in service longer than six months.  DePalma was the only veteran, they needed him.  It would be his luck to go on the sick roster when the goblins made a push, and he couldn't let his men face that without him.
DePalma's feet protested otherwise, and he shifted position again, thinking about what Carlo had said about walking.  He couldn't remember the last time he had gotten anywhere without walking.  No comfortable rides in wagons, and certainly no horses.  That mode of transportation was for the elite, the knights and commanders and cavalry, like the mounted unit positioned fifty yards to the rear of the trench.  Nothing special, really, just a medium cavalry unit of about fifty, not the lofty Astoria Lighthorse with their plumed helmets and flashy colors.  But special or not, it made him feel better knowing they were there, some added punch should the goblins make a push.
No, for him it had always been his feet.  First from his home in Mole', a tired shitehole in the Pyr mountains where one was either a monk or a miner.  DePalma hadn't wanted to be either, so he'd said goodbye to his family and made the walk north to Eldred's Cross, enlisting as a foot soldier in the Pass Wars.  That had been a long walk, but not an unpleasant one.  The central region of Florenta was fairly level, with a temperate climate, and outdoor travel was not a burden.  He'd slept in fields and under bridges and in stables, and once had even parted with a few of his precious coins to sleep in an actual inn, enjoying the hearth and a hot meal and some good beer.  That had been a fine time.
The real walking began after enlistment, during the two week march from Eldred's Cross up to the Chalice, the Empire's central defense point at a pass in the Alps.  First through the hot and dusty Hardlands, where the days were filled with weary trudging and the nights with terror as trolls probed his column's defenses.  Then a week into the mountains, up hill every day, with rains which turned the road into a quagmire, living under the fury of bellowing sergeants and the ache of shouldering wagons out of the mud.  Finally to the Chalice itself and Trinity Company, where he was marched from place to place, defending key positions against endless onslaughts of goblins.  They never seemed to need rest, and no matter how many were killed they just kept coming.
DePalma squinted into the darkness.  Nothing.
Winter then, and not much fighting but still plenty of walking, struggling through waist deep snow, gathering hard to find firewood and scavenging for something to eat.  He had lost almost thirty pounds during the winter, emerging into Spring a scarecrow, his uniform hanging off him like a potato sack.  Then the Spring offensives, more marching, lots of running.  After they had driven the goblins from the Pass, it had been the long march into the Grimme, the lands of the goblins, and to the fields of Hax, the holy city the Crusade was sworn to retake from their enemies.  It was out there somewhere, maybe ten miles away, ringed with the most impressive force of goblins ever assembled, each determined to hold the fields and never permit the crusaders to reach the walls.
Lots of walking, and now months on the line, in the mud and water-filled trenches.  His feet had had enough.
The corporal looked to his left and right, along his area of responsibility, satisfied when he saw four or five helmeted shapes in the darkness standing and watching the line, the rest of his men presumably asleep.  Dawn was still hours away.  He'd watch for an hour, then wake Carlo and catch some sleep himself.  Breakfast would be beans and biscuits again.  He wondered if it would be hot.
Corporal DePalma yawned and watched the line.

*  *  *  *  *

         Things were in motion.  Stahl stood atop a low hill next to a crossroads, feet widely planted, fists on his hips, his staff several discrete paces away.  The road and the fields around it were filled with long columns of goblin troops, mostly infantry, all moving south under the harsh verbal and physical abuse of their leaders.  Massed bodies of warriors trudging through the darkness under blankets of undulating spear tips.  A mounted boar unit rode past in a column of two, forcing the foot troops out of the way.  It's helmeted leader lifted a sword in salute to the supreme commander as they passed, and Stahl acknowledged it with a sharp bob of his head.
         He was excited, every nerve alive.  The time leading up to battle always made him feel this way, as his blood and his natural desire for combat rose together.  Blood would be spilled this day, and he would put himself in the thick of it as he always did.  He shivered, feeling the urge to bite something, to feel the hot spurt of human blood in his mouth.
         Stahl watched the units move by, pleased that his generals had gotten the message and reacted so quickly.  He had been prepared to kill one of them - preferably one of the Blood Hand - to get his point across, but that had been unnecessary.  They were moving.  He didn't know how much of a force he would be able to throw into the gap Mordas would soon create, but it didn't really matter.  Goblinkind would have a taste of victory today.  He didn't expect a major break through, was in fact unprepared to exploit such an opening, despite the forces moving forward, but the attack could well change the complexion of the lines.  More importantly, it would provide his army with a much-needed morale boost and sharpen the fighting skills of those goblins that survived.  The losses would be tremendous, but it was of little importance.  There was no shortage of replacements.  The average female goblin produced two litters a year, up to sixteen pups per litter, and the new females were sexually mature and viable at age thirteen.  Even considering the shockingly high infant mortality rate, the goblin population enlarged considerably each day.  By age fifteen a young male could be thrown into the vortex of war, that glorious endeavor which kept their population from expanding beyond the Grimme's capacity to support them.  No, no shortage of fodder for the fields.  If each goblin managed to kill only one human, Stahl would eventually win by pure attrition.
         A figure moved slowly up the hilltop.  F'Nang stopped beside him, stooped and supporting himself on his staff.  He smelled of pepper and oil that had turned in the sun.  He raised an arm and pointed with a gnarled finger.  "He approaches."
         Stahl looked in that direction, but saw only the road winding into the hills.  For five minutes he stared impatiently into the darkness, and then he thought he saw a point of light.  Then several.  Then an unmistakable line of what could only be torches.  It grew and lengthened, approaching slowly, followed by a long section of darkness, then more torches.  Soon the silhouette of a titanic shape appeared against the low hills of the horizon, boxlike and gigantic, moving slowly.  More torches were fixed to it, though they did not reveal its nature, and still more columns of torches flanked the moving mass.  As it neared, additional columns of firelight followed in its wake.
         The commander looked at the mystic, who lifted his head and smiled broadly, revealing sharp, black and rotting teeth.  F'Nang raised his hands in supplication, closing his eyes.  "Mordas has come," he rasped fervently. 
         Stahl turned his attention back to the great column.  Even in the poor moonlight he was starting to make out the shapes.  The torches were carried by columns of troops, in the lead, on the flanks and to the rear of the object.  What could be nothing less than a thousand goblins in dirty, light-colored robes were strapped into traces, converted to beasts of burden, straining to slowly haul their load forward in ten columns of a hundred goblins each.  They pulled a wagon.  But it was much more than that.
         The God Wagon was a veritable fortress on giant wheels, eight on each side, easily fifteen feet high.  It had to be wood, he thought, for even a thousand goblins couldn't pull that much stone.  An enclosed siege tower over fifty feet high, with battlements and towers and peaked roofs where banners fluttered in the early breeze.  A rolling keep.  Goblins could be seen up on those battlements, guardians of their God's mobile palace.  High above them all, fixed to the center of the structure, was a towering golden spire.  He could feel its subtle energy from here.
         The mystic saw the shocked expression on the commander's face.  "Magnificent, no?  The God of Storms lies within."
         "You have been inside?" Stahl asked in almost child-like wonder.
         "Of course," F'Nang said with no small measure of pride.  "It is as you would expect, a palace fit for the Most Sacred Ones."
         "The troops and the pullers are...?
         "The Children of D'Vahli, of course."
         Of course, thought Stahl, curling his lip.  The religious zealots that pledged themselves to the D'Vahli and their holy men..  Foaming, eye-rolling lunatics who protected the temple and its masters, and who longed for martyrdom.  Coming from all Clans and tribes, they lived outside the clan structure, answering only to the mystics.  Troops which could be used well in the war with the humans, but whom the mystics refused to part with.  Stahl disliked them not because of their search for death - an admirable quality among all goblins, especially in battle - but for their unswerving single-mindedness and faith in something other than the race and the Clan.  Stahl gave due tribute to the Gods, as his society demanded, and it had been Khorne himself who had handed down the terrible sword Stahl carried upon his back (through a mystic proxy, of course, not in person.)  But his loyalty lay first to clan, then to all of goblinkind
The God Wagon and its great column drew closer, and Stahl began to notice changes within the ranks moving past the hillside.  Commanders and foot soldiers alike moved faster, grunting and howling, slavering, growing more aggressive.  A few units had elements of orcs and hobgoblins and even a hill giant or two thrown in, and these creatures seemed to be nearing frenzy, slamming fists into the ground, hopping up and down, gnashing their teeth.  One orc stumbled from its formation and fell to the ground on its back, thrashing, limbs in spasm, frothing and yowling.  A goblin sergeant strode over to it and pinned it to the ground with a spear thrust.  The beast thrashed still, snarling and gripping the shaft even though its wound was mortal.  Another thrust ended its torment.
It's the spire, Stahl realized.  Of course.  He had many positioned across the battlefield and in Hax proper, even one near his headquarters.  Gifts from the D'Vahli, they gave off a supernatural energy which affected monsters and lesser creatures - humanoids other than goblins - harnessing their natural fury, diverting their hatred and aggression towards goblinkind, and making them unerringly subject to the directions of their goblin masters.  It turned them into slaves for war.  Stahl had long suspected this supernatural harness was a torment to them, one which only the rage of battle could satiate, but he had never seen such a violent reaction.  The spire on the God Wagon had to be considerably more powerful than other spires, for it was even affecting his goblin troops, and that had never occurred.
Am I feeling it as well? he wondered.  The urge to bite, to rend and tear and shriek his utter dominance was strong, stronger than earlier.  Is that thing capable of driving me as well?  Instantly, Stahl hated the spire, for he alone was master of his will and destiny, not to be manipulated like a puppet.  Old F'Nang was watching him closely, and seemed unaffected.  Stahl hated the mystic even more, for he was linked to the spire in unknowable ways, and didn't suffer from it.  He wished he could bite F'Nang, simply open his wide jaws and snip his head off with one great crunch.  A trail of drool spilled over one lip, and his whole body trembled.
"Be still, Commander," the mystic said softly, softly brushing the big goblin's arm with the ruby tip of his staff.  Instantly Stahl felt the fury and tremors vanish, and he caught his breath in a great whoosh as if he had been holding it.  He blinked and looked at the smaller goblin.
F'Nang nodded.  "It is indeed powerful, but I will not let it have its way with you.  Just do not stray too far from me."
Stahl nodded.  He didn't like the idea of being forcibly tied to this old one, but he liked that enraged feeling of disconnected mental slavery even less.  He would keep F'Nang close, at least until this night's business was concluded.
As the God Wagon neared, Stahl could hear the creak and rumble of its great, slow-moving wheels.  Over this he heard the crack of lashes as drovers, seated on the face of the rolling fortress, urged on the traces of pullers.  And over all this there was a deep, humming chanting coming from both the pullers and the many troops around the wagon, all in perfect unison, all in perfect step with the chanting.  It was impressive, and a little chilling.  Such discipline!  If these troops were on the line, the human ranks wouldn't stand a chance.
The goblin units that had been moving forward quickened their pace and started detouring in broad arcs, giving the God Wagon and its spire a wide berth.  Before long the infantry and cavalry were gone, and the first column of religious troops began passing Stahl's hilltop.  The Children of D'Vahli, troops and pullers alike, wore simple, light-colored robes, no armor, and each carried a curved sword thrust through a sash at their waist.  They wore no sign of rank, and Stahl couldn't guess at how they were organized, or what their command structure was.  Beyond obeying the mystics completely, they might very well all be equal.
It took another fifteen minutes before the pullers hauled the God Wagon equal to the hill, and then they stopped without a command.  So did all the troops, and the chanting ceased.  Thousands of them stood silently, motionless save for the pullers, who stood with arms limp at their sides, staring forward, chests heaving as they rested from their efforts.
"Come," said F'Nang, starting down the hill.  "It is time for you to meet the God of Storms."
Stahl followed without a word.

 

At the rear of the God Wagon was an enormous, unmarked door of iron-hard, red rhomba wood.  As Stahl and the old mystic watched, it began to lower, linked to the wagon by a pair of chains, descending like a drawbridge.  When it hit the ground with a deep thump formed a ramp which led into a shadowy interior lit with torches.  F'Nang gestured, and Stahl preceded him up the ramp.
A high pillared hall lay inside, the floor smooth, gleaming wood, a broad stairway at the far end.  Crimson banners wrapped the pillars, and at the base of each stood a Child of D'Vahli.  These goblins were far larger and more powerful looking than their brethren outside, and over their robes they wore plate armor.  Each was armed with a huge battle axe in addition to the curved sword, and they watched the visitors approach with narrowed, dangerous eyes, tensed for combat.  Stahl's boots echoed on the polished wood as he slowly walked into the hall, the mystic's robes whispering behind him.
Another mystic, dressed identically to F'Nang, slid from behind a pillar and approached, whispering to Stahl's companion in a language he didn't understand.  This holy man kept from meeting the old one's eyes, demonstrating his lower rank in whatever hierarchy the mystics employed.  F'Nang touched the lesser goblin's bowed head, then moved past him.  Stahl followed as they approached the stairs.
"You have never stood in the presence of our gods," said the mystic, a statement rather than a question.  "Mordas respects and loves warriors, but his manner is not an invitation to informality.  Show the proper humility, for his mood is subject to abrupt change."
Stahl didn't need this holy man to tell him to show reverence to one of the D'Vahli.  A lifetime of military service had ingrained the simple discipline of showing respect to those of higher station, and demanding it from those of lower rank.  And this being a god, even the great Stahl worried that he might act like a frightened child.  He wondered if the God of Storms would look as he appeared in the many statues around Kurst, knowing that the sculptors often took artistic liberties in the likenesses they created.  He wondered if he would be strong enough to look Mordas in the eye.
They climbed the stairs, which switched back several times, revealing upper floors of dim chambers and halls, and more of the armored Children of D'Vahli, but their destination must be higher still, for the mystic led them upwards.  It was hard to believe he was inside something which moved across the land, rather than a stationary palace.
"I will make the introductions.  The rest will be upon you."
They ran out of stairs and entered another hall, this one done in black polished wood, lit only by the hellish red glow of an occasional brazier of coals.  More guards lurked in the deep shadows, watching intently.  The pair approached a set of high double doors set with silver hinges, inscribed with silver inlay depicting the symbol of Mordas, a lightning bolt over crossed swords.  Stahl took a deep breath as the old mystic pushed the heavy doors open with little effort.  They swung back smoothly and quietly.
The hall of Mordas was a high-ceilinged square of polished ebony, torches flickering along the walls where they were set in brackets.  It was bare of adornments.  At the far end was a raised platform backed by a wall of black curtains, which moved softly as if touched by a breeze.  Before the platform stood a great chair of grayish-black metal, adamantine, with no markings or jewels.  A simple throne, far less impressive than the thrones of the Dench, his father the Pah, or even his own field throne.  But it was the figure seated there that made the black chair a seat of power.
As the doors slid silently closed behind him, Stahl took in the sight of Mordas, God of Storms.  He was a goblin, his skin so black it held a bluish tint, and he was the size of a giant, bigger even than those beasts that ruled Fehirmoor in the north.  Rippling with muscle, unscarred and smooth, with massive clawed hands gripping the arms of the throne.  He looked strong enough to rip Stahl in half without a thought.  Dressed in armor made from black dragon hide, a long black cloak hung from one shoulder and cascaded across the floor.  His two lower tusks were the size of swords, formed of solid mithril (where Stahl's were merely capped), but it was his eyes which captivated.  Deep set under a heavy brow, they smoldered a glowing red.  A soft blue-white aura hung about him, the only light in the chamber other than the torches.
Mordas's right hand touched the pommel of the greatsword leaning against his throne, a weapon easily ten feet in length, gleaming mithril etched with runes, featuring a long hand grip which could only be solid ruby.
A soft growl came from the god, and it rumbled through the chamber.
F'Nang approached quickly, stopping ten feet away and prostrating himself on the polished floor.  Then he rose with the help of his staff and extended an arm towards the commander.
"High and Majestic Mordas, Lord of the Wind, Keeper of the Storm, Blood Dweller and Master of the Apocalypse... I present Stahl, Firstborn of the Mastif Septius, Supreme Commander of the Nine Fist and Defender of Hax."  The old one bowed deeply at the waist, then backed away in that position until he reached one wall, then straightened and leaned on his staff.
Mordas growled again, deep and rumbling, his red eyes fixed on the goblin warlord.  Stahl approached the throne and dropped to one knee, lowering his head - he would prostrate himself for no one, not even a god - and Mordas grinned just the slightest bit.
"Majestic One," said Stahl, "I am truly blessed to stand in your presence."
"Then do not kneel," said Mordas.  The baritone of his voice vibrated in Stahl's chest.  The commander stood erect, chin held proudly up as he met his god's gaze.  He saw an endless, unstoppable fury behind those red eyes, immortal power and rage held in check.
"I will not engage in trivial pleasantries, for that is not the warrior's way," said Mordas.  "And the status of the war is well known to me.  The Hoch are within three miles of Hax, and soon they will mount their greatest offensive."
"Hax will not fall, Majestic One," Stahl said, remembering to keep his natural anger in check at the obvious challenge.
"Perhaps," rumbled Mordas.  "I will aid you in your defense this very night."
Stahl nodded slightly.
"There is a more pressing matter," said Mordas, "a recent Telling by the Oracles.  A prophecy of Apocalypse, the end of the D'Vahli and the destruction of the goblin peoples."
"How can this be possible?  Your power..."
"A betrayer approaches," Mordas said, ignoring Stahl's protest.  "One who directs agents of destruction.  One who would see the fall of the D'Vahli."
Stahl thought of F'Nang putting the oracle to death and shrugging off the prophecy as blasphemous nonsense. It was clear Mordas thought otherwise.
"How may I serve my God?" Stahl asked.
"As you have served your people and your lands," rumbled Mordas, "with sword and blood.  You will defend Hax to the last, but more important than that, you will remain watchful for the passage of the Betrayer and her agents.  You will see them put down."
Stahl was confused.  Who was this Betrayer?  He had said ‘her' agents, a female reference.  A female?  What did goblinkind - and more importantly the all-powerful D'Vahli - have to fear from something as insignificant as a female?  What could she possibly do to topple the D'Vahli that the Gods could not stop with a mere thought?
"Silence your questions," Mordas growled, reading Stahl's mind.  "Question not the Gods."  His red eyes flared with bright energy.
Stahl lowered his head humbly, and when he looked up, Mordas's eyes had returned to their previous smolder.
"You alone are chosen by the goblin peoples.  You alone have been given the Sword of Khorne, named Champion by the Great God of War.  The Betrayer will attempt to pass, and you will stop her, or face an eternity of unthinkable pain."
Stahl nodded.
Mordas glowered at him for a while, saying nothing, his gaze piercing the goblin's soul, his mind probing.  Finally the giant, black-skinned goblin rose and turned from the throne.  "Join me," he commanded.
Stahl immediately followed as the god stepped up to the platform behind the throne and parted the wide curtain, revealing a balcony and the night beyond.  The commander joined Mordas outside and stood beside him, awed by the magnitude of his size and strength, feeling small and insignificant in his presence.  The air was cool up here, a breeze ruffling the giant's cloak.  Mordas looked out at the night, south towards the lines.  The crusaders were out there in force somewhere, waiting, growing strong, preparing for the offensive Mordas had foretold.
"My first blessing," rumbled the God of Storms, as he placed one massive palm on Stahl's head.  The commander tensed.  Mordas could rip his head off with a single twist, but he remained still.  The god growled a single word, and Stahl felt an impossible energy surge through his body, igniting every nerve, rattling his teeth and threatening to crack his tusks.  His eyes bulged, and he felt he might explode.  At the same time he felt his body changing, moving within, and then pain undreamt-of wracked his mind with white intensity.  He heard screaming, realized it was him, but was unable to hold it back.  He yearned for death and darkness, an end to the pain, but instead the energy doubled.  He was blind and mad and no longer Stahl, proud and fierce, reduced to a child who cried out and begged for the suffering to end.
Then the night returned along with his sight.  The pain faded with a crackling fizzle, and he realized he was lying on the floor of the balcony in a fetal position, the tremors in his body lessening, then leaving entirely.  Mordas towered over him.
"Rise, Stahl of the Nine Fist, for you are reborn."
The commander did as he was instructed, climbing shakily to his feet, and then he was filled with wonder.  He had grown from his original seven feet to now over ten, risen to the height of Mordas's shoulder.  His muscles had grown with him, and he felt a new strength in his body, his arms, his hands.  His breastplate had split, and he shrugged out of it, shaking off other pieces of armor which no longer fit his new, powerful frame.  It wasn't just his size and strength which had increased, either.  He knew more, perceived more.  Answers to questions which had previously eluded him came easily now.  And in the back of his mind was a dark sparkling, a humming power which he intuitively understood to be a source of arcane magic normally forbidden to goblinkind.  It called to him, begged for him to learn its ways and unleash it upon his foes.  Magic at his command.
And where he had once known himself to be a ferocious, nearly unstoppable combatant, now he knew himself to be truly undefeatable, capable of cutting through battalions of opponents with ease, strong and fast and skilled.  He had become a juggernaut. 
He looked up at his god with tears in his eyes, unable to find words for his gratitude, but the God of Storms wasn't interested in his thanks.  "You will turn your new power to the task I have commanded," rumbled Mordas, "and you will succeed, for that which has been given can be taken away.  That and much more."
Stahl understood, and knew he would never do anything to lose his newfound power.  He would do as Mordas decreed.  He would defend Hax.  He would find this Betrayer and put an end to her and her underlings.
"My second blessing," said Mordas.  He raised his arms before him and closed his burning red eyes.  The pale aura about him shimmered, then brightened, growing in intensity until it became nearly too bright for Stahl to watch.  He forced himself, squinting, feeling the god's energy washing over him.
As the aura brightened, that sparkling magic in the back of his head spoke to him, and Stahl suddenly knew how to cause lightning to stretch from his fingers.  His eyes widened as the power also instructed him in the use of fire, and disintegration, and how to move himself from place to place in bursts of teleportation.  These new wonders threatened to pull his attention from Mordas, and he forced them down.  There would be time to explore his new powers.  Right now he must attend the God of Storms.
The glow around the giant goblin brightened further, and Stahl threw up an arm to shield his eyes from the painful light.  In that moment he had a brief hallucination.  The great bulk of the God had faded, become translucent, and Stahl thought he saw another figure standing within the ghostly outline of Mordas, a smaller figure, smaller than even himself.  It was slender but muscled, skin the color of snow, the torso and long arms and vulpine face appearing both elvish and somehow human.  This figure's movements matched those of the larger ghost-Mordas, thin lips moving silently.  The vision lasted only seconds, and when the commander squeezed his eyes shut against the glare and reopened them, it was gone, and there was only the powerful mass of a giant goblin, still bathed in light. 
Mordas brought his arms up over his head, snarled a single, unintelligible word and clapped his hands together with a crack of thunder which shook the balcony.  A bolt of dazzling white energy burst from his clenched hands and streaked high into the night sky.

 

         Corporal DePalma raised his head off his arms at the sound of thunder, blinking away sleep, instantly worried that one of his men, or worse, Sergeant Quilla, had seen him sleeping while he was supposed to be watching.  It was daylight.  Or something close, for everything was lit with a bright, white light.  All around him soldiers were rising in the trench, grumbling and coughing and startled by the noise and light.  Behind them, the horses of the cavalry unit whinnied and stamped, upset and nervous.
         DePalma saw a star rising high into the sky from far in front of him, climbing ever higher, brilliant and shimmering, lighting the battlefield.  He could now make out details; broken siege engines, corpses left to rot from the last attack, remains of wagons and dead horses, goblin bodies in piles, the muddy landscape spider-webbed by old trenches.  He could see the goblin lines as well, two hundred yards away, marked by a long, winding earthen rampart.  His eyes widened as he saw hundreds, thousands of goblins spilling over the rampart, weapons waving, a howling war cry rising from their masses.
         "Assault!" he shouted, grabbing his weapons, nearly tripping over Carlo, who was only now rising.
         "What is it?" cried the young soldier.
         "Goblins, boy!  Get on the line!"
         The corporal saw that the star had reached its zenith and was now falling, streaking downward through the night with a white tail stretching behind it.  A falling star.  Falling towards him.  The goblin surge was forgotten as he stood in the trench, jaw hung open, eyes fixed on the plummeting white meteor.
         Then a blinding white flash, and the world cracked in two.  A wave of pressure and debris slammed him to the floor of the trench, and in the moment before he saw only blackness he heard the terrified shriek of horses cut short by an impossible roar.

 

         Stahl watched the star fall and impact on  the crusader lines.  There was a flash that hurt his eyes, then a glow which spread in a vast circle outward from the impact as a rushing wall of light.  He suddenly hoped his generals had followed his orders and hadn't put their troops too close to that, for the expanding circle of light meant only death.  Then a pillar of white fire and consumed earth and tiny dark shapes that could only have been men and horses and fragmented artillery shot high into the sky, turning a deep purple and blossoming into a cloud which looked curiously like a giant mushroom.  Within minutes the cloud folded in upon itself and the fire pillar crashed back down, purple clouds and vapors scattering to the wind.
         A hot wind rushed across the balcony.  It smelled coppery and burnt, and it was quickly past them.  Stahl stared in fear and wonder at the power which had just been unleashed upon his enemies.

 

         Corporal DePalma opened one eye.  The other was either gone or too sealed with burnt flesh to open.  He was flat on his back, literally pressed into the ground, and he was hurt.  Worse.  He was dying, and he knew it.  Every inch of his body screamed in pain.  He managed to lift his head a few inches. The white light was gone, but a faint glow remained, stronger than moonlight, and it allowed him to see things he would have preferred not to.
         His flesh was burnt, charred and black and sliding off the bone.  A few ribs jutted from his exposed chest, and he realized it was difficult to breathe.  His legs were gone at the knees, bloody, ragged stumps jutting out of shredded pants.  Carlo's head rested between the stumps, disconnected, blackened and staring with sightless eyes, mouth hung open in a gasp.
         Don't have to worry about walking anymore, he thought, then coughed up a gout of blood.
         Shapes were moving across the trench, sinewy dark figures leaping over the gap, or dropping into it for a moment before scrambling up and out the other side.  He heard them, speaking their gutter language, grunting and screeching, hundreds of them.  One dropped onto what remained of DePalma's chest, its leathery foot splintering an exposed rib, and the young corporal cried out.
The goblin stopped at the sound and stared down for a moment, unable to tell at first that what he stood on had once been a man.  The man-thing gurgled and spewed liquid from its mouth.  The goblin hit it in the head with a spiked club, and it stopped making noise.  Then the creature scurried up out of the trench to join its attacking brethren.

 

         Stahl watched as the aura around his god paled, then faded entirely.  Mordas leaned forward, shoulders slumped, and gripped the balcony railing, emitting a great sigh.  He seemed diminished, and when he spoke, his deep voice was a raspy whisper.
         "My final blessing," he croaked, then held a huge open palm out to Stahl.  He closed it, and when he opened it a moment later a shimmering purple orb rested upon his leathery skin.  It was a little bigger than an orange, and seemed filled with roiling, purple clouds.
         "With this you will see the approach of the Betrayer.  Use it to seek her out, and do as I have instructed."
         Stahl hesitated, afraid to touch the orb, struggling with the fear which plagued all of goblinkind, the fear of arcane magic.  But is that power now at my command, he demanded of himself?  Hewilled himself to reach out and grasp the round crystal in both hands.  It was cool to the touch, and though it was dry it felt somehow oily.  He tucked it into a leather pouch at his belt.
         Mordas's head dipped to his powerful chest in exhaustion.  "Go," he said simply.
         Stahl bowed deeply, then ran from the balcony, through the throne room, launching himself down the series of stairs, racing through the entry hall and out into the night.  F'Nang was waiting for him at the foot of the drawbridge, the nervous bodyguards clustered nearby.  The commander felt more alive than ever in his life, heart pounding, muscles aching for action, his mind racing with possibilities.  The mystic looked upon the new Stahl with wonder.
         "You have been touched by the gods," he whispered.
         Stahl seemed to notice him for the first time, and dropped to one knee before the holy man.  "Forgive my lack of faith, Holiness.  I understand now."
         F'Nang nodded and touched the commander's head.  "You truly serve Him now, as I do.  Go, great warrior.  Join your forces on the field of victory, and bathe in the blood of our enemies."
         Stahl stood, looked down at the mystic for a moment, then took off at a run, sprinting past the God Wagon and its ranks of motionless attendees, racing in the direction of the front, his bodyguards struggling to catch up.  His powerful legs carried him towards the sounds of battle, and as his blood rose and his heart quickened, he unsheathed the great sword from where it hung on his back.
         Tonight there would be a great, unbridled slaughter.
         Stahl of the Nine Fist didn't intend to miss it.

 

          
             

 

 

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