Sneax and Elaina went to collect on a debt for Draks, but found more than they bargained for. Luckily for them, they met Nathaniel, a half-fire elf mercenary, and his companion Maleeka, a giantess of unknown origin. But it turns out that Nathaniel works for Draks as well, and that he's in Wanderhaven to take Sneax to Ellesburg, a tiny timber town lost in the hinterlands of the Kingdom's northern frontier. Sneax soon finds herself on a ship with her new companions, her friend Elaina far behind.
But that's only the beginnings of Sneax's problems. Soon she and Nathaniel realize that the so-called "deal" Draks worked out is really more of a rescue mission. They and their companions soon find themselves heading north, into the trackless wilderness in search of the goblin bands who've been raiding the local logging settlements, cutting off the flow of valuable timber to the heart of the Kingdom far away.
Sneax is nearly killed in her very first battle, and that's only the beginning. Trekking north, they find an abandoned logging camp and a pack of worgs stalking their trail...
If you're wondering, this chapter is my favorite part of this particular story. All things considered, that almost certainly means that everyone one Earth who's not me will find it utterly indecipherable.
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 3: The Priest of Loki
Sneax floated in a sea of darkness. She was weightless and cold, dimly aware of a star shining far off in the distance. That star was warm and inviting, but hands like steel gripped her and held her in place. She heard the sharp, mocking laughter of a god. She blinked and saw stars, belatedly remembered to breathe.
A voice spoke in the distance. “I think I’ve got her…”
Figures swam into view, red and muddy-green. Blurry and indistinct.
“Sneax? Can you hear me?”
Sneax blinked again, and pain exploded behind her eyes. A man with a weirdly pink face and red-streaked hair slowly came into focus. An ugly woman with ruddy green skin stood behind him looking worried.
“Nathaniel?” Sneax said. “I’m so cold…”
Her eyes closed again, and darkness consumed her.
When Sneax next awoke, it was dark. An endless canopy of stars glimmered overhead, and a campfire crackled merrily nearby. Its warmth spread gloriously across Sneax’s body, though her limbs felt stiff and sore. She tried to sit, found herself swaddled tightly in blankets, and only slowly managed to wriggle free.
“Ah. You’re awake.”
She looked over and found Nathaniel looking at her expectantly.
“Yeah,” she said, “is that a surprise?”
He shrugged. “Let’s just say that it wasn’t a certainty. But I think the god of mischief likes you. Are you hungry?”
Sneax didn’t answer immediately. She’d come a long way from the docks of Wanderhaven, and she’d very nearly died. It was a lot to take in. She wondered suddenly what Elaina Emboo was doing. The thought made her feel cold and alone.
“I felt him, you know? I felt him inside of me. I know his name.”
“I’d have been very surprised if you didn’t,” Nathaniel replied. “But it’s over now. You don’t need to dwell on it. You don’t… owe him or anything. You don’t belong to him.”
“I…” Sneax began. “Are you sure?”
Nathaniel turned away, sat staring into the fire. “I’m sure. The favor he granted was a favor to me. It’s my debt.”
“Then I owe you.”
Nathaniel shook his head but couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of his voice. “No. We both work for Draks. That’s always been true. We’re in this together.”
Sneax was quiet.
“Come on,” Nathaniel said. “You should eat. You’ve lost a lot of blood, and even with the aid of my patron, you’ll still need food to regain your strength.”
Nathaniel passed her a bowl. There was some kind of stew inside along with a lacquered wooden spoon. The stew’s meat was tough—it had been made from the dried beef in their trail rations—but there were potatoes and some kind of field greens in it, and it was plenty hot. Sneax was surprised to find that she was ravenous, and she was glad for an excuse to avoid conversation. Nathaniel seemed content to hold his peace as well, and for a time they passed the evening in contemplative silence. Eventually, however, Sneax finished her supper. Soon the silence started to feel oppressive.
“Where are Maleeka, Zelda, and Quiver?” she asked at last.
“Zelda and the dog are out scouting the area,” Nathaniel said. He made vague motions with his hands in the direction of the far tree line. “They’re off looking for tracks and doing whatever it is that forest elves do with themselves when they’re in a forest. I gave her a few stitches, but the two of them bolted almost before I finished setting their bandages. Maleeka’s asleep.” He smiled. “She’s good in a fight, is our Maleeka, but she’s not much in the way of company.”
Sneax wasn’t sure how to answer that, and another long moment passed. A chill breeze blew softly across the clearing, but the only sound was the crackling of the fire. Sneax couldn’t help feeling restless. She sensed that something was bothering Nathaniel as well. Whatever it was, she knew that she owed him more than a stony, impersonal silence.
“You sounded bitter before. Are you mad at Draks? For sending us here?”
Nathaniel drew breath, started to speak, but let it go. A beat passed, and he continued staring into the fire, clearly considering what he wanted to say.
“I’m not mad that he sent us here,” he said finally. “I’m mad that we’re out here risking our lives, and that it might not even be important. He sent us here casually. I don’t think he had a clue what we were walking into. I doubt he even cares.”
“That’s not what Billy Braven said.”
“Draks Darkmore doesn’t give a fig for Billy Braven, I assure you. It’s entirely possible that we were meant to strong-arm Braven, get what we needed, and sail away just as the goblins put Ellesberg to the torch.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I’m not sure that I do either, but it is possible.” Nathaniel sighed. “Truth is, I don’t know what to think. He’s my father, did you know that?”
Sneax’s mouth fell open.
“It’s true. Draks met my mother when he was a newly made ship’s captain in the Fire Islands’ merchant fleet. Did he buy that first ship? Was it plunder from some fire elf raid? Was he himself a pirate? I’ve no way of knowing. But I do know that he spent those early years, the ones right after he got that ship, sailing the seas of the Known World, pushing the boundaries, slowly building the network that is his empire today.”
“But you didn’t grow up in the Fire Islands,” Sneax said.
Nathaniel shook his head. “No. My mother is a Norglander, from a little fishing village on the southern coast. Why my father decided to stop there, to raise a family…? I wonder if even he knows.
“Regardless, he wasn’t around much when I was growing up. His occasional presence in the village made my mother a pariah, and when I was born, it got worse. I was allowed to play with a few of the village kids when I was young, but as I grew older… No one wants their daughter to marry a half-fire elf bastard, you know? My mother was forced to leave, and my father arranged for me to go to the Imperial Sentralian Military Academy.”
Sneax was confused. “But you don’t even worship the Twelve! How can you join the Legion of the Red Lord if you don’t—?”
“Yeah, that was the problem,” Nathaniel agreed. “That’s why I got thrown out. Not because I wasn’t good enough, but because I’m a half-fire elf mongrel and a Norglander. I couldn’t perform the Legion’s religious rites. Mars wouldn’t answer my calls. And as it happens, the Sentralians are serious about being consecrated to the Red Lord, so…” Nathaniel again shook his head. “I just don’t believe in the Dii Consentes. They’re not my gods. I couldn’t fake it.”
“So what happened?” Sneax asked.
“In desperation, I appealed to one of my mother’s gods. To Loki, the lord of tricks, father of lies. I wanted him to help me fool the testers, so I could stay at the Academy. Loki did help, but the testers caught me using his help later to cheat a different series of tests, and well… Let’s just say that I was lucky to get out of there with my skin intact.
“It seemed like a joke at the time, pledging myself to the trickster, but it’s real enough now. Loki is a jealous master, and among Norglanders, it’s not enough to just worship the whole pantheon like you do in the Kingdom. I’m Loki’s servant, but it doesn’t change anything. Not really. I’m still stuck on a mission at the edge of the world for a father who may well consider the whole affair nothing more than a way to keep me out from underfoot while he figures out what to do with me next.” Nathaniel smiled, but it was bitter. “It really is a joke, you see? That’s why Loki is my perfect patron.”
“But if it’s all a joke, then why am I here?” Sneax asked. “Your father likes me. At least, I think he does.”
“You’d know better than I. Why does Draks do anything?”
“Yeah. That’s what Elaina Emboo said.”
“Your friend is a smart girl.”
Sneax nodded. “I’m beginning to realize that.”
Sneax awoke the next morning to find Maleeka tending the campfire and Nathaniel slowly climbing out of his bed roll. The sun was a pink promise beneath the edge of the horizon, the air bitingly cold but clear. The trees at the edge of the clearing stood silent, a black wall behind which lay the numberless legions of the area’s goblin tribes.
Sneax stood, rubbed her arms to warm them, and then pulled her blanket around her shoulders before heading over to the fire. “Good morning, Maleeka.”
“Hup,” Maleeka replied.
“I quite agree.”
Maleeka didn’t exactly smile, but her expression was still more than Sneax might have expected.
Sneax made herself busy around camp. She put on tea, found oats for her pony, rolled up her bedroll, and was about to put on breakfast when Zelda came trotting out of the forest with Quiver trotting at her heels. The pair hit the clearing but never broke stride, literally running all the way up to where the group had built its camp the day before. Zelda finally slowed as she reached the circle of warmth created by the campfire.
“There must be... three thousan’ goblins... up there...” she said, breathe coming heavy. “I counted… at least… five separate tribes.”
“Slow down,” Nathaniel said. “Take it easy. You’re safe now.”
“I don’t know if anywhere is safe,” Zelda said, finally catching her breath. “I’ve never seen so many goblins in one place.” Quiver lolled at her feet and collapsed, panting in satisfied canine exhaustion at the edge of the fire. Zelda herself looked like she’d been run nearly ragged. Dark circles stood under her eyes, and her skin gave off steam in the cold morning air. She glistened with sweat.
Sneax went back to her pony and pulled a blanket from her bedroll. “Here,” she said, handing it to Zelda. “I expect you’ll need this in a minute.”
Zelda took the blanket and pulled it over her head like a shawl, letting the ends drape loose around her shoulders. “Thank you.”
“Tell me exactly what you saw,” Nathaniel said.
Zelda took a breath, visibly gathered her thoughts. “They’re camped about a half day’s march north of here. It’s not a clearin’; near as I can tell, they’re just camped in the woods. I saw several different tribal banners.” Zelda shrugged helplessly. “It’s an army. Ain’t never seen anything like it.”
“What do you think they’re doing?” Sneax asked.
Zelda looked at Sneax like she was some kind of particularly idiotic child. “They’re massing for a raid on Ellesberg, I expect. Gettin’ ready to wipe out the town once and for all.”
“But… what can we do?” Sneax asked.
“Nothin’,” Zelda replied. “We don’t stand a chance. Ellesberg don’t stand a chance. Not against that many goblins.”
“Leave that aside for a moment,” Nathaniel said. “What else did you see?”
“Well, it was weird. The worgs and goblins, they’re not together so much as they’re just co-located. In the same general area, but not in the same camp. Each of the tribes has its own space, and that goes for the worgs as well.”
“Makes sense,” Nathaniel replied. “How else do you keep that many separate tribes together? If they’re all on top of one another, there’s bound to be in-fighting. But if you give each group its own area…”
“I didn’t see any signs of infighting,” Zelda said, “but I expect you’re right.”
Zelda looked down, dropped her voice low, like she was telling a secret. “I saw some of the missing lumberjacks. In their own camp, but… with the goblins.”
“What?” Sneax cried. “But that’s—”
Nathaniel cut her off. “How many?” He didn’t seem surprised.
“Just a few,” Zelda replied. “Not even a handful. But they were walkin’ around like they had the run of the place. That means something to you, don’t it?”
“It might,” Nathaniel said. “I’ve been thinking about that wolf we saw yesterday, the one leading the worgs. The small one. How it shrugged off four arrows to the chest and more. I struck it myself, and that was a killing blow.”
“Yeah,” Sneax agreed, “that was crazy. Like fighting the stupid wererats back in Wanderhaven. Stupid rats just won’t stay down.”
Zelda looked at Nathaniel, surprise evident on her face. “You think…?”
“It would make sense,” Nathaniel said. “There are no political niceties amongt worgs. They recognize an alpha. What if, in this case, that alpha is a werewolf? What if it were using its control of the worgs to gain control of the goblins as well? Such a thing could happen, could it not?”
“I guess…” Zelda replied. She sounded skeptical.
“But how does that help us?” Sneax asked. “I mean, we can’t take on worgs and goblins and werewolves! You’d have to be crazy to try that.”
“All knowledge is power,” Nathaniel said. “If we can somehow take out the alpha werewolf…”
“Another would step right into its place and become the new alpha,” Zelda said.
“So really,” Sneax said, “what you’re sayin’ is that in addition to the five tribes of goblins and the gods alone know how many trained wolves and worgs, we have to take on a werewolf pack, too. That about sums it up?”
“Easy Sneax,” Nathaniel replied. “As I said, knowledge is power.”
“Is that the wisdom of Loki?” Sneax replied. “‘Cause from where I sit, this particular knowledge feels like a death sentence.”
“‘A fool considers the direct approach alone,’” Nathaniel quoted. “‘There are more ways to victory than just the Way of the Sword.’” He smiled. “That is from The Wisdom of Loki.”
Mother of Hades, Sneax thought. What have I gotten myself into here?