The goblin shivered under his cloak. It didn’t matter how powerful he became, how many godtears he consumed, the cold still gnawed at him just as it always had. Jaak wondered if he’d be eternally cold, even when a god. Sat amongst the heavens, still huddling beneath a ragged cloak. It didn’t seem a fate worth spilling so much blood for. A dose from the cauldron was needed, he thought. Fortify him against the cold, and against whatever was waiting out there in the night. There was definitely something. He could smell it. One hundred and fourteen years of toying with the reactions between herbs, liquids, and fire hadn’t dulled any of his senses—miraculously—and he could smell something rank on the breeze.
Not danger. Danger came with different smells, but something was out there. Watching. Around him, the cauldron cronies parted to allow him access to the huge pot. Its contents seethed, steaming with life, and Jaak dipped a finger into the broth. It tasted, he thought, rather like beer. He nodded at Teev, his chief chemist.
‘Fine work. Fine work. I can feel it scorching my insides clean.’
Teev bowed, modestly. Then jumped backwards as he nearly set his head on fire, drawing too near to the flames. Jaak watched as his chief alchemist frantically patted at his own head, and said:
‘Of course, be careful not to grow too pleased with yourself. Nature has a way of dealing with such self-regard.’
There was a high pitched squeal of agreement from Teev.
‘Now,’ said Jaak, as much to himself as to the goblins, ‘Let us see who lingers in the darkness, waiting for an introduction.’ He turned again to Teev, the smaller goblin’s head smouldering atop withered shoulders. ‘Stoke the fires. It needs to be boiled again, and I think it could use…hmmm…’ Jaak reached out over the cauldron and using his taloned forefinger, scratched beneath his thumb nail. Something grey and slimy dropped into the stew, sending a coil of steam into the air.
‘That should do it. I leave it to you to finish Teev. I’m going to meet… something. I’ll be back. Have the potion finished for then.’
Teev, his scalp still smoking, murmured agreement. Some of the other goblins looked up, agitated at the thought of their master leaving, but Teev knew better than to be concerned. Jaak always came back.
Drawing his cowl over his bald, vulture-featured head, Jaak walked into the forest.
The trees clustered about him, branches jabbing like accusatory fingers. But Jaak was long beyond caring about the judgments of nature. He was much too old for fear of shadows thrown by curiously shaped boughs, much too old to be nervous about the faces formed by gnarled trunks.
He felt almost lively. The potion had driven away the cold, and he felt stronger than he had for a while. Much stronger. Just as well, he thought, given he was walking into the territory of a potential enemy. Alone, too. Still, he trusted his instincts. If he’d been wrong on that front, he’d be picking up pieces of shredded goblin and trying to drag his cauldron back to shelter by himself. Probably while his own flesh knitted itself back together, slowly. Wouldn’t be the first time. He’d miss Teev, it was true. But the thing about immortality was: you got used to the dying, eventually.
As a goblin, he certainly did. How many goblins lived beyond their thirtieth spawn-day? How many outlived their matriarch, as she plucked them from the ponds with strong arms and grasping fingers? Jaak didn’t know. He did know he would change things, once a god. Reshape things, make them a little better for his people. Then he grinned at himself, at his own hubris. His people? When had he begun to think like that? Like a leader? Even to other goblins he was a source of laughter, much of the time. A crazed hermit, most thought him. Too bewildered by the fumes from his own potions to care much about anything. But here he was…caring.
The forest draped itself around him, foliage stealing across his shoulders, or plucking at his knees. He was nearly there, he knew. He could smell it. Wet fur, and iron, and burning stone. Ozone, too, and blood. Always blood when you met another ascended. Or champion? That’s what the humans called them, Jaak recalled after a moment, teasing the memory out of the strange mass of things he lumped under ‘human nonsense’.
Laughter seized him, for a moment. He didn’t know why. He usually didn’t. Yet another reason people thought him mad. Laughing into the darkness wasn’t mad though—what better way to face it? And then the darkness moved. A shape detaching itself from the thick shadows of the forest, and moving toward him. A vast shadow. A vast shadow in the shape of a wolf.
Jaak almost gulped, and he felt the laughter abate in his throat. He’d felt her calling to him, ascended to ascended. Champion to champion. And he wasn’t afraid. No. Not exactly. But he’d met a lot of ascended. He’d fought a minotaur, and a woman who tickled the chins of dragons as though they were new-born goblins, freshly plucked from the spawning pool. But this… this was different. Somehow older. Stranger.
‘You came then, goblin man.’
The voice was in his head, and he knew he hadn’t heard it. The words just appearing in his mind, as though placed there by a meticulous hand.
‘Yes’ said Jaak, pleased his voice sounded steady. He’d taken enough sips from the cauldron by now he could sound composed even as his brain tried to make its way out of his ears. Experience. It was all about experience.
‘I am Fenra. You know me.’
No question, this a statement. The words inscribing themselves in the front of his mind this time, almost letter by letter so there was no possibility of mistaking them. And Jaak did know her. The thing about the cauldron, about the amount of concoctions he’d imbibed over the course of his unnaturally long life, was how often it misbehaved. Produced unexpected effects. And sometimes, sometimes the potions showed him things. Sometimes those things were the future.
He had seen her. The wolf. But bigger than this in the vision. Vast. Like a continent of fur and muscle, with teeth like a mountain range. Breaking the world with each step. Jaak nodded.
‘I come with a bargain, goblin man. The centaur. Kailinn. She has godtears I require. You trade with her, yes?’
Again, Jaak inclined his head. The centaur was a reliable source for many of the more…interesting ingredients his potions required. Especially those with mushrooms. The mushrooms would be hard to do without, and he doubted Kailin would be much interested in continuing a business relationship after he led her to Fenra. But at the same time… the Wolf of the End Times was no meagre ally.
‘I do. And you want her brought to you, wolf?’
‘Precisely. And I will eat her flesh, and take the godtears from her.’
‘And what is in it for me?’
There was a sound from the wolf now. Not words in his head this time, but an actual noise, produced by a throat, and a maw lined with teeth the colour of sparks from an anvil. Jaak hoped it was laughter.
‘You are brave, goblin man. I will give you that. What would you have of me?’
‘Your followers must bring me the same goods from the forest that the centaurs did. I cannot risk my supply.’
‘And you will bring me the centaur?’
‘The deal is made.’
There was almost silence amidst the trees. The wolf suddenly so still Jaak thought life might have left the creature entirely, leaving behind this empty vessel. The audience was done then, the goblin knew. He made some business of adjusting his cloak. He wasn’t going to slink off, like a goblin sprog. He’d leave when he chose, and he had a question to ask first. Jaak looked up into the cavernous shadows between the outline of the wolf’s brow.
‘You’re asking me to betray the centaur. How do you know I won’t betray you, wolf?’
A silence. Then the answer spilled itself into his mind.
‘You cannot cheat the end times, goblin man.’
Jaak nodded, thoughtfully, and turned back to the forest.
Even over the softness of forest floor, the hooves had the resonance of metal striking metal. The goblins shuffled in towards him, towards Jaak. Several of them reached out, unconsciously, to touch the cauldron, as though it might protect them. Jaak felt a certain pride at that, let one of his taloned fingers caress the pitted, scarred surface. Battered it might be, but it was strong. Unconsciously, his fingers began to tap on the cauldron, mimicking the rhythm of the approaching hooves. He stopped himself, and hoped the wolf was nearby.
Kailinn emerged into the clearing the goblins had made. Jaak’s cauldron cronies did not like the trees. Did not trust them. They were used to the swamp, to the sky always above them, and to the attentions of mist and mud. The close pressing trees, the ungovernable latticework of branches, the twilit stillness… all of it made them nervous. Here, where they’d hacked away branches and revealed the forest to the interrogations of moonlight, they felt comfortable. Or had done, until the centaur strode in.
The horn erupting from her brow struck upwards, towards the moon, like a sacrificial knife held above a victim’s chest. Twin swords patted loosely at her flanks. A thin band of gold adorned her right wrist, and between the steel of her blades and the jewellery and armour, she seemed lambent in the moonlight. A worthy successor to the dead gods.
‘You called me, alchemist? You called us?’
Ah, of course, Jaak thought. She never walked alone. Not Kailinn. For all her power, she was careful. Two other centaurs moved into the clearing alongside her. Small, compared to Kailinn, but dwarfing the goblins clustered about the cauldron.
‘I did, I did. Yes.’
‘And why? Our business should be concluded until at least the next moon’s rise, should it not?’
‘Alas, no, I’m afraid not. I think, unfortunately, we have something more to discuss.’
‘Indeed?’ Kailinn’s voice was suddenly taut with threat. Her question had barbs.
‘I believe you recently came across a stash of godtears.’
He saw the centaur’s eyes flicker for a moment. A glance towards the bodyguard on her left. So that’s where the godtears were. Made things easier. Would the wolf have seen that, from wherever she was? The microscopic shift of physiognomy? How good were wolf eyes, even when blessed with the powers of the apocalypse?
‘I claimed these godtears. They are mine, and they are not to be traded for cheap baubles by the likes of you.’
‘Fortunately, madam, I’m not the party interested in acquiring them.’
And then Fenra, the Wolf of the End Times, howled from the darkness.
It didn’t take long, the battle. Fenra’s gnolls separated from the shadows, as if night was giving birth to itself. The centaurs fought, gouging with antlers and flailing with blades, but it didn’t last long. Short-snouted gnolls swarmed over their backs, claws plunging into horse flesh and human skin. Jaak had watched, and almost felt something like pity for them. Especially when he’d heard the vertebrae of horse backs crunch between bloodied muzzles.
As for Kailinn, he hadn’t expected that to be so quick. He’d expected some epic clash between equally matched opponents. But it wasn’t. As the centaur drew her blades, and began to turn, Jaak had heard…felt…the wolf near. Huge paws made the earth shiver. There was a sense of bulk, of something being brought with it, as though the wolf was dragging some great weight alongside it with each loping step.
Then it leapt. Mouth wide. Sudden scintillance as teeth shone in a mouth too filled with them, and then the wolf was past Kailinn. Kailinn raised her blades, and one hoof stretched out, as if about to take a step but instead halted, hovering in mid-air.
A noise, like the splash of water into a dry cup. It was coming from Kailin, because she no longer had a throat. Or much of a chest. There was just a mulch of blood, and bone, and above it all a pair of eyes set in half a face, trying to determine what had happened. Jaak nodded, as much to confirm he had in fact seen what just transpired to himself as anything, and gave an elaborate bow.
‘I did say I was not the one seeking the godtears,’ he said, and turned to leave. ‘Our deal is still good, wolf?’ he called over his shoulder, as he signalled the cauldron cronies to heft their burden and begin carrying it back to the swamp.
The words formed in his mind as he began to walk.
‘Our deal is good, goblin man. At least until the end times begin.’
‘And when will that be?’
‘When I choose, goblin-man. When I choose.’
As these final words scratched their way into his mind, he heard the howl begin. It spewed up and out and into the night sky, a wordless promise of fire and destruction. Jaak glanced at the moon as the howl skewered the silence, and for a moment, just a moment, was afraid.