I’d totally forgotten about the goblin slaves that had been following us. Frankly it wasn’t until one of them pulled on my sleeve that I could focus on what was going on around me.
“Are we to be freed?” he asked, much braver than I expected from one as downtrodden as he. It was Ratbiter, the one who had spoken with us when the others cowered.
“Yes,” I said, looking him square in the eyes. “I will give your people the same chance I gave the last group of goblins I freed. You can go off on your own, return to your tribes if you desire. Or you can follow me. I will give you a free choice in your fate. You can work with us in some capacity, or you may decide to take up arms in our cause. The choice will be yours.”
Ratbiter looked at me confused and shook his head. “You are a very strange man,” he said. The other goblins grumbled and nodded in agreement.
The hob warriors, I noticed, were listening carefully to my words.
“We tolerate no tyranny in my company. If you deal with us, you deal square. Everyone draws wages. Everyone is fed, clothed and housed. No one will be deprived basic dignity.” I looked down the line of the warriors, catching each of their eyes. “Dignity and honor above all else.”
No one said anything until we got to the tunnels leading to the dungeons. The first room we came to was the goblins. I asked Ratbiter to go in and talk with them, tell them what I said and asked him to lead them out to the courtyard. He is a young goblin, in his prime. He studied my face for a moment, took in my armor, my holy symbols which hung across my chest and scratched his chin where a wispy bit of beard grew. I waited, allowing him to think and was rewarded with a short nod.
He huddled with the other goblins and they entered the room as a group, calling out to acquaintances and offering their deals. We went on, letting the arguing and cries of disbelief echo in the halls. One of the warriors shook his head, but there was no anger in his face — just bewilderment.
When we got to the Hob prison, I halted us and picked out the warrior who had made a move to support his squad leader, the one Bÿglar had to hold at bay with his spear. I faced him. “What is your name soldier?”
He saluted. “Gronk, Shield Breaker,” he said proudly. “er, sir,” he finished.
I smiled at him, making sure to show my teeth.
“Warrior Gronk. Inside this room you will find what remains of the Black Heart Legion.”
He blinked and the others looked on, curiosity sweeping the room.
“They are in bad shape. Does your legion have any healers?”
He nodded, gravely.
“Okay, choose two to run back and gather healers. I’d like you to lead the rest of the troop here to go in and help them as you can. Any that are ambulatory can help the others. I want every one of them out of this hole and into the light of day as soon as feasible. Do you understand?”
“Dignity and honor,” I said, “does not include putting a man out of his misery to save face. Every one of them were overwhelmed by dark magic.”
“Wizards,” Gronk said and turned his head and spat.
I turned and spat as well, which made him grin.
“They’re all jerks,” I said, clasping him on the shoulder. “I am relying on you and these men to see that those inside are treated well. They are our brothers. Let’s see them rescued in such a way that they can have some respect.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Gronk said, stepping back and saluting. “We will preserve the honor of Black Heart Legion and in doing so, safeguard our own.”
We left them to their task and the three of us; Liz, Sparkle and myself — went to find the lizard folk.
The way was worn from millennia of foot traffic. Before the lizard folk trod these halls, acolytes and worshipers came here to implore and venerate their god of choice. Heck, for all I know, lizard folk did walk these halls. There were many, many temples within this warren of catacombs. I would not be surprised to find some off-shoot of Semaunzilla (may she help Liz cope with what is to come). Walking this path made me at once scared, exultant and sad. The civilization that saw the rise of this fortress had seen the peak of humanity’s achievement. The tolerance and love that this place had once represented astounded me.
And yet, the desecration here has been profound. How many gods fell the day Abigail and her cadre slaughtered those within these walls? How long did it fester before the frogs came here? Was it feasible to consecrate these halls once more?
We stood outside the prison and hesitated. Liz looked back at me, holding her hand out for me to take. I stepped forward and she pulled me close to her, leaning her head against my shoulder.
Sparkle slipped to her other side and took her by the arm, lending her support and a kind word. Then we opened the door.
Dozens of lizard folk stood in eight different cells lining the periphery of the great room, with an open courtyard in the center. There were old and infirmed, young and wounded, but mostly they were beat down and exhausted men, women, and children who had been held captive for more than two years by callous and cruel masters.
They did not cheer when we entered the room. They knew enough of what had happened when their warriors had returned to them and when their shaman leader, Ssarwick, Liz and Jira’s father, had taken his own life. They parted as we walked in, making a path for Liz to approach her father.
None would look at her as she walked amongst them. They kept their heads bowed and by the faded colors of the rills that ran over their scalps and down their necks, they were ashamed.
Liz knelt where her father’s body lay. They had cleaned his wounds and adorned him with feathers and baubles that they had managed to keep. His staff lay across his chest, with his hands folded atop it. He looked peaceful, but worn. The years of captivity had been unkind to him most of all.
I was startled when one of the youngest children, a girl younger than Liz had been when I first met her, began to sing a throaty song that filled me with ennui. Soon the others took up the song and Sparkle moved to stand beside me and take my hand. Presently the lizard folk were pushing us forward, toward Liz, closing the circle behind us and burying us in their lamentation.