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THE GOBLIN CORPS
THE FEW, THE PROUD, THE OBSCENE
By Ari Marmell
Copyright © 2011 Ari Marmell
All right reserved.
Chapter One BRUTE CAMP
Shadows danced in languid circles around the throne room of the Iron Keep. The impenetrable walls, adorned with an uncountable array of skulls from dozens of races, seemed to shift in the fluctuating light—and perhaps they did, guided by the fickle moods of their lord and master.
Upon his great marble throne the Charnel King sat, slumped forward, weighted down by the impossibly heavy matters pressing upon his decomposed shoulders. His right elbow rested upon the arm of the great chair, and his chin was propped on one skeletal fist. Leathery flesh, only partially re-formed from the damage Ananias duMark had inflicted, was twisted into a grimace of equal parts anger, boredom, and dejection. Had Morthûl been anything resembling a human, he might have been described as ... melancholy.
Slowly, the hollow echoes of his footfalls puncturing the almost-sacrosanct silence of the chamber, Vigo Havarren approached his master.
"My lord?" The lanky wizard spoke quietly. "My lord, Her Majesty the Queen seeks an audience."
The Charnel King moved not at all. The faces embossed in the marble of the throne—dozens of hideous expressions, screaming in agony—looked far more alive than he. "I said that I would see no one. My loving wife included."
"Very well, my king. I—"
"For that matter," the Dark Lord continued inexorably, "I don't seem to recall making an exception for you, either."
"I—that is, Queen Anne expressly ordered me to seek an audience on her behalf. You've told us numerous times that, in your absence, we are to obey her as though she spoke with your voice. I thought—"
"You, Havarren, are not supposed to think. You aren't good at it." Finally, the master of the Iron Keep raised his head, staring directly at the blond wizard. "Still, you are here now. Has there been any progress?"
The mage reluctantly shook his head. "I'm afraid not, my lord. DuMark's spells have always been particularly potent."
Without further comment, Morthûl once more rested his chin on his fist and resumed the all-consuming task of staring into space.
Havarren imperceptibly shook his head a second time. Morthûl had most certainly taken his vengeance against Dororam, the monarch who had aided duMark and his allies numerous times in thwarting the forces of Kirol Syrreth. But a month and more, now, the Dark Lord's efforts had been spent in seeking the interlopers who had invaded the Iron Keep itself, the scum who had interfered with the Charnel King's ancient spell.
And for a month and more, those efforts had proved futile. Clearly, duMark had realized that his companions were in peril, had woven spells of cloaking and protection so tightly about them that even the combined efforts of Morthûl and Havarren had been unable to locate them, the many spies of Kirol Syrreth unable to unearth them.
It was all finally taking its toll. The collapse of his great spell, at what was supposed to be the culmination of all his work—combined, now, with his failure even to fully punish those responsible—had apparently sucked the heart from the Dark Lord. Morthûl had withdrawn ever further from the day-to-day aspects of ruling a land as large and strife-ridden as Kirol Syrreth. The various goblin races—unsteady allies at the best of times—were reverting to their natural rivalries. The human officers had kept the peace so far, but it was only a matter of time before their efforts must prove inadequate.
Worse still, word had just recently reached Havarren that King Dororam, enraged by the death of Princess Amalia, was assembling the armies of the Allied Kingdoms. Elf prepared to march alongside dwarf, halfling beside pixie, giloral beside human. Come the spring thaw ...
Havarren, in the process of turning to beat a hasty retreat from the chamber, abruptly stopped short. So deeply had Morthûl withdrawn, the mage realized suddenly, that there was a better than even chance he'd not yet heard of Dororam's mobilization!
Nervously clearing his throat, Havarren turned back. "Umm—my lord, there is one other matter ..."
Once more the half-naked skull tilted upward. "And that would be?"
The ancient evil listened, expressionless, as Havarren explained current events beyond the Brimstone Mountains. Even after the lanky wizard finished speaking, the Charnel King of Kirol Syrreth stared, as though he couldn't quite comprehend what he'd been told.
And then, slowly, Morthûl rose from his throne. The ancient garments draping his body fell in folds around him, delighted to be free from the confines of the marble corners. Even the profane glow seemed, ever so perceptibly, to brighten.
"Dororam seeks to challenge me? Here, in Kirol Syrreth?" A spasm of laughter racked the Charnel King's frame; dust and handfuls of squirming insects spattered across the floor, shaken from the folds of his clothes. Beneath that mocking laugh, Havarren heard clearly an undertone of fury at the hubris of a mortal who would dare stand against the Dark Lord himself.
"Come, Havarren," Morthûl commanded, already moving toward the door. "Let us see what my dear queen wants of me. And then, we have arrangements to make. I intend for Dororam to learn the folly of his actions."
Havarren nodded, falling into step behind his master. "You have a plan, my lord?"
"When do I not? But it requires careful timing. Havarren, summon my messengers. I want you to assemble a Demon Squad."
The mage nodded. "Any racial preferences?"
"No. Just make certain they're the best. I'll be asking quite a bit of them."
"Of course. And then?"
"Then? Then we see to the end of King Dororam and everyone fool enough to follow him."
Havarren grinned, a wide expression of sheer malevolence. There were certain aspects about his "employment" with Morthûl that he deeply resented, but it was nice to see the Dark Lord's old self again.
It meant that someone, a lot of someones, were going to die.
The isle of Dendrakis, from whose rocky earth the Iron Keep rose, lay secluded in the northwestern corner of the massive kingdom. Isolated from Kirol Syrreth proper by the Sea of Tears, it was a part of their homeland rarely visited by most inhabitants—human or otherwise—of that nation.
While it may have been the most important portion of the Charnel King's domain, however, Dendrakis constituted but the smallest fragment of it. Across the length and breadth of Kirol Syrreth, often in locales through which humans would dare not travel let alone dwell, goblin communities spread, a sporadic rash upon the earth. Gremlins and ogres, trolls and kobolds all made their homes here, in this last refuge from the sprawling mass of "civilization." Once, they had warred upon one another constantly, unmindful of all who got in their way. The human cities of Kirol Syrreth surrounded themselves with walls and watchtowers, leftovers from the days when any cloud of dust on the horizon could signal the advance of a goblin army.
The rise of Morthûl, centuries ago, had changed all that. But now, as whispers of his great defeat spread, the humans looked again to the horizon, awaiting the day when the growing chaos among the other races once more spilled over into indiscriminate bloodletting.
Many weeks south of Dendrakis, beyond the foul waters of the Swamps of Jureb Nahl, nestled in the shadows of one of Kirol Syrreth's many mountain ranges, sat Tarahk Trohm. An orcish stronghold, that sprawling settlement—like its twin, Tarahk Grond, so many leagues nearer the Iron Keep—was one of the largest nonhuman cities within the Dark Lord's kingdom. As such, and given its relative proximity to the Brimstone Mountains, its inhabitants were largely responsible for patrolling the nearest border.
One such patrol camped now in the thick forests just north of the Brimstone Mountains, having stopped for a leisurely noontime dinner. The sun shone directly overhead, though little of its light or warmth penetrated the canopy of leaves. Most of the broad-shouldered, bestial creatures sat around the cook-fire, laughing at crude jokes and feasting upon the slightly charred flesh of wild horses they had come across the night before. Some, more conscientious than their brethren—or perhaps simply more retentive—sat with their backs to any convenient tree, polishing their weapons with spit and old, stained rags.
And some, even in the middle of the day, stood watch.
"Cræosh! Join me by the fire!"
The orc so addressed, slouched in the bushes some twenty feet from the others, tugged his attention from the forest to glance back at his chieftain.
"I'm on watch, Berrat."
"Others can watch. Come."
Reluctantly, Cræosh straightened up. Although only about six feet in height—perfectly average, for his race—the warrior's shoulders were massive, nearly three feet across. Squinting red eyes, a sign of almost feminine beauty, peered from folds of swampy-green skin, and his shock-white hair was matted into three large tails by the careful application of mud and the blood of his enemies. A top-heavy sword, wickedly serrated, hung casually at his side, the leather-wrapped hilt permanently stained by the acrid sweat of his palms. Over hide tunic and breeches, the orc wore breastplate, greaves, and armbands that he'd melted down and reforged himself from metals scavenged across a dozen battlefields.
Casually, Cræosh wandered to the fire and slid to the leaf-covered ground, shoving a pair of smaller orcs out of his way. They glared at him, but neither felt brave (or foolish) enough to complain. With a forced grin at Berrat exposing a number of jagged yellow teeth, Cræosh ripped off a chunk of horseflesh and began to chew noisily, ignoring the sizzling rivulets that ran down his chin.
His companion returned a grin no less forced. Berrat was chieftain of his tribe, an influential figure in Tarahk Trohm. But Cræosh was widely considered to be the best choice for the position once Berrat ... "stepped down." The brown-skinned orc was determined that his rival would have no opportunities to replace him for a good long while. He had called Cræosh to join him not from any sense of companionship, but simply to keep a close watch on the warrior—and, frankly, to annoy him. They both knew it, the other orcs knew it, and there was actually a discreet betting pool among the patrol on when the one would finally challenge the other.
It would not, however, be today. Even as Cræosh raised the horse haunch to his lips for a second bite, another orc—this one black-skinned and boasting a ragged, scarred hole where his left eye once sat—dashed from the concealing shadows of the trees. "Someone's coming!" he called out before his boots had even skidded to a complete stop.
Instantly, Berrat and Cræosh were on their feet. "Take four," the chieftain commanded his rival. "Go see. I will follow behind, once these louts—" And here he took a moment to kick at a smaller orc who was gathering his gear too slowly for Berrat's taste. Something snapped, and the orc let out a pained yelp, but he did indeed start preparing a great deal faster. "—are ready to go," he concluded.
"You, you, you—and you," Cræosh gestured with the steaming chunk of horseflesh in his hand. "Follow me." Those he'd selected—including Dækek, the monocular scout—fell in behind him. The haunch of meat plummeted to the ground with a sticky plop as Cræosh broke into a distance-eating jog that he and the others could, if necessary, maintain for a day and more.
The sound of their footsteps, pounding in rhythm, was an earthquake thundering through the woods. Over a ton of orc dashed through the trees, sending small (and not so small) animals scurrying out of their path. The trees had begun to thin considerably as they moved south, and the Brimstone Mountains, though miles away, completely dominated the horizon.
"There!" Dækek shouted, as his keen remaining eye spotted the intruder. Cræosh squinted even more than usual, attempting to discern ...
"It's a gremlin!" he announced, voice harsh with disgust. "We came all this way for ..."
No, he realized, as they drew close enough to make out some detail. Not just any gremlin. This one looked as though he'd been to hell and back, and on a budget. His beige skin was bruised in a dozen places, lacerated in a dozen more, and thick blood matted his clothes. Although bald on top, as were most of his race, this gremlin had grown a full beard—and it, too, hung sticky with blood. His left tusk was missing, one of his spindly ears had been torn halfway from his head, and his right arm hung loose at his side, flapping horribly from the elbow down.
Given his druthers, Cræosh would have been just as content to ignore the gremlin's distress, if not kill him outright. But the strategically brilliant generals of Tarahk Trohm and Tarahk Grond knew that, come spring, the humans and elves and other such scum would attack. Where the gremlins quarreled, and the kobolds schemed, and the xenophobic hobgoblins drew back into Havicruess and locked the gates behind them—the orcs argued for order amid the chaos, for continued cooperation among the races of Kirol Syrreth. And so, for the sake of that order, Cræosh reluctantly went to the gremlin's aid.
Besides, someone must have done this to him, and Cræosh hadn't had a good fight in weeks!
The gremlin—barely four feet in height, and massing less than half of Cræosh's three hundred pounds—sobbed audibly at the sight of the huge orcs looming over him, though whether it signified relief or terror, the warrior couldn't tell. As though that sob had carried with it the last of his strength, the fleeing creature toppled forward.
Gruffly, Cræosh grabbed him by his tunic and hauled him upright. Cooperation was just fine, but he wasn't about to coddle anyone. "What happened?" he asked, his tone blunt.
"I—I—I, that is, I ..."
Cræosh, fast running short of patience with the little sniveler, lifted him bodily off the ground with one arm and shook him hard. A few of the orcs winced at the grating sounds from the gremlin's ruined shoulder, though they weren't especially bothered by the moans of pain that accompanied them.
The large orc dropped his arm, and the gremlin's feet met the earth with a solid thump. "Now," Cræosh said amicably, "why don't you try that again?"
"Yes, sir!" The gremlin drew himself up into the closest approximation of a military stance that his present condition would allow. "My unit and I, see, we were patrolling near the Brimstone Mountains ..."
Exactly what we were supposed to be doing. Duplication of effort, Cræosh thought bitterly to himself. If they'd all just fuckin' talk to each other ...
"Well," the gremlin continued, unmindful of the orc's resentment, "we'd just about finished our morning rounds, when Ulev—he's our best scout, you see. Well, he used to be ..."
Cræosh's jaw began to stiffen.
"Right. Umm, Ulev came running back, told us there was a small human caravan cutting through the foothills on the other side of the range. Well, of course, we all figure, hey, human caravan this far out, and Dororam's got all the armies tied down until spring, it's gotta be a merchant, right? That means stuff we can eat, things we can use or sell. So we all figure, hey, easy mark."
The large orc shook his head, the nostrils of his porcine snout distended in incredulity. "It didn't occur to you," he asked, his voice equal parts astonishment and disgust, "that a human caravan anywhere near our borders was probably well guarded?"
"I—that is, it's funny you should mention that ..."
Cræosh snorted. "They slaughtered you."
The little creature nodded sadly. "Down to the last gremlin. I'm only here now because I had the sense to run when the human I was fighting tripped over a rock. A few of the bugbears were alive when I left, but the gods only know how they're faring by now."
Cræosh snorted again. "Gods," indeed! What a primitive fucking people the gremlins are....
"We should go after them!" Dækek interjected. "Teach them to mess with Kirol Syrreth!" The others grunted their agreement.
Excerpted from THE GOBLIN CORPS by Ari Marmell Copyright © 2011 by Ari Marmell. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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