Let me start at the beginning.
Everyone in this group is embarrassing.
We were just hanging around the Green Mug last night and the bard, whose name is Zeno, decided that he wanted to brew a doppelbock, whatever that is, and this didn’t go over well with the innkeeper. The halfling wanted to charge him some gold per night he left his brewing stuff at the Green Mug, which was understandable but also kind of expensive.
“Have you heard the songs I’ve sung about myself throughout the land?” Zeno threw his arms out, brandishing a charming grin.
“Yes,” she said as she polished a glass, “and I’m not impressed.”
Awk turned into a squirrel. Yeah, I know. Apparently it makes him happy to do that and I guess it’s financially responsible, but if I had the choice of being me in a normal bed or curling up on some hearth stones as a lawn rodent, I know which I’d pick.
Breakfast was a tasteful affair of bacon and porridge, and one of us got an extra piece of bacon. I’m not going to name names or anything, but you can probably figure it out. Sometimes it pays to not get into beer battles. Awk had a meat issue or something, so the innkeep found a jar of brambleberry jam for him, which was nice. I’ve never had brambleberry anything, but I’m not going to just ask him to share. That would be horrifying. Maybe I can sneak some later when he’s not watching. I’m pretty sure he’s still got it on him.
Oh, the other big breakfast news was that the mayor’s still alive. Shocker, right? Zeno and I thought for sure she’d have gone to the big town hall in the sky, but no, she was at her general store, putting things to rights after the raids. I snacked on the extra piece of bacon that the innkeeper had given me for the road (sometimes it helps to look sad and waifish, even if it’s true) as we all tried not to step on damaged or displaced merchandise.
According to Miriam the mayor, this was the first time the kobolds had ever raided the village. Suddenly last night’s chaos made a lot more sense. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen local government fall to pieces at an unexpected catastrophe.
Zeno roasted Miriam about being out on an errand during the kobold attack, but it turned out that she actually had a good excuse. She’d just heard from the party that Sir Bradford, Captain of the Guard who was also missing from last night’s festivities, who also happened to be her husband, had gone exploring with.
A little less than a month ago, a paladin and a wizard came into town, investigating the magic apple and why the goblins came to possess it, and Sir Bradford had accompanied them to talk with the goblins personally.
Harry, formerly known as Mr. Horns, made a case that the goblins deserved what they’d grown, and that’s when Miriam mentioned that the all-illness-curing apple wasn’t the only thing that the goblins brought to town– they’d also, in the last two or three years, started to bring a white apple in the middle of winter. The midwinter apple didn’t cure anything, though– unless your disease was that you were tired of life.
Sir Bradford and company hadn’t been heard from since. Until Miriam got a message last night from the wizard via sending stone:
“They have taken us. It needs the partner. Do not let them. They are coming. I don’t know how much time you have.”
What’s coming? Some of the party thought it was a warning about the kobolds, but I’m not sure. Why warn the village when the kobolds basically were already there? And a partner? What the hell would this tiny village have besides the apple?
Anyway, the goblins and kobolds both come from the welcomingly named Forest of Darkness, which is right by a river that’s been dammed recently. The town’s best tracker also went with them, so any interested parties (which would be us) will need to find their own way.
Somehow, Zeno managed to coax a healing potion out of the mayor, saying that we’d find her husband for the low, low price of 100 gold each. From there, we split up into two groups: one to search for tracks and the other to interview one of the people who’d eaten the healing apple, Yewiss.
I had planned to absorb information from the shadows, which is, if you’re new, kind of where I prefer being. I had not planned on being the one to interview Yewiss, keeping my hood up the whole time until the old dude got too weirded out by it. Then I had to keep my eyes closed for the rest of the conversation to avoid having the glowing iris conversation.
Am I embarrassed? No. I’ve learned the hard way that explaining glowing eyes to everyone you talk to is 1) exhausting and 2) dangerous. People don’t like what they can’t understand. You only have to look at how Harry gets treated to see why. Or how easily they wonder how goblins could possibly have something nice.
Anyway, Yewiss said that the apple cured him the moment he bit into it. He’d had this intense pain in his abdomen and by the first bite of the apple, it was gone. The apples can cost anywhere from 60-70 gold, but a lot of villagers pitched in and bought it to help him out. From what I could tell, he seemed pretty hale and hearty for an old guy.
He mentioned that Orrend, another villager, had eaten the apple and that we were welcome to talk to him. It’s cured debilitating diseases, even things that people were scared to get because they were so contagious.
Perfect. We thanked him and moved on.
“Huh, Set can actually be nice,” Harry said.
I tsked. “Yeah, when I want something.”
We met up with Zeno and Felegum over boar for lunch (which Zeno bought with his piping earnings) back at the Green Mug. Because nothing could be more important than a beer battle, Zeno and the innkeep once again sparred over ales and a nice charcuterie board with leeks, the innkeep being very proud of her Emerald Dragon ale and Zeno continuing to tout his mysterious doppel-whatever. I’m not here for craft beverages.
The next old dude on the agenda, Orrend, had had a bad fall, broken his back, and also lost the use of his legs. But thanks to the apple’s magic, he was out tending his farm. Awk decided that he was going to poke Orrend to determine whether or not the man was actually healed, an idea whose terribleness I was so stunned by that I was momentarily incapacitated.
Harry made a valiant attempt to stop him, but unfortunately Awk was too wriggly and managed to tackle the guy. Harry yelled, “Don’t touch him!” to no avail and Zeno unhelpfully added, “We have oil!”
Like I said, I can’t believe these are adults.
After scandalizing the elderly, we headed north, following the old road. The road shifted from forest path to more packed ground and trails, and all along the way we kept finding dropped things from the night before. Maybe we should eventually have someone in the village head down there to collect the possessions. Surely they’ve got to be important to someone.
The road was lined with boulders and rolling hills, and by one of the rocky outcroppings was a rope thrown down into a pit and tied to a stone. The rope was knotted, about eighty feet long, and dropped down onto a landing with a set of stairs going down off of it. Harry descended the rope first and hid while waiting for us. Something suspiciously like “I AM THE DARKNESS” echoed up the sides of the cavern.
Zeno was next, and he tried to slide down the rope but only made it so far because of the knots. He pretended not to see Harry, who seemed very proud of his stealth. We had plenty of time to watch Harry move from one hiding spot to the next, since Awk had decided to change into a sloth for the long climb and that took a while.
While we waited for the druid, I checked our surroundings. The landing itself was sprinkled with the small bones of animals and debris, and down the staircase were human-ish footprints. Chances were this was the right track. We headed down those stairs too, and a massive citadel emerged from the darkness.
I have seen some pretty bad things. I won’t go into detail, but after a while you develop a level of familiarity with dread and instinct. This wasn’t the same danger as I was used to back home, the crush of streets and filth. This was a spectre rising in the darkness, a fortress sunken in the earth, and the nameless, wild part of me that knew when to dodge in a fight or what nights were too dangerous to go out said it had been abandoned for a reason.
There was a tower with an open door, and all the heraldry on it was so old that no one, not even Zeno who’s basically a grandpa, had heard of it before. Zeno knocked on the door, altering everything inside to our presence. I almost strangled him. Has this guy never heard of ghosts?
He gave me this look like I was being too dramatic (whatever) and then pushed open the door to reveal four dead goblin bodies, one of which was impaled on a spear and stuck to a back wall.
Yeah. Weird how I end up being right about these things.
I was going to suggest that we check to make sure this door was okay to pass through, since sometimes people will do that, put traps and guards to make things dicey for intruders. Awk and Felegum decided to chance it, and were dumped into a pit with this giant rat and another dead kobold.
Weird, you know, these gut feelings.
Helli, who’s also pretty good with locks, figured out that it was a cantilever trap while Awk and Felegum pulled themselves out and Harry investigated the goblins’ bodies. And I just sort of stood there, feeling a little superior at first and then, abruptly, redundant.
I had a goal. I needed these people to get me what I wanted. When I’d seen Helli in the fight in the village, I’d just thought she was good with throwing knives. But if there was someone else who knew how to pick locks and spot traps, then what would everyone need me for?
So yeah, maybe there was a little extra pressure when Helli picked one lock with ease and I couldn’t handle the next one. And again when I still couldn’t, even with her help. Harry tossed me a silver that he’d taken from one of the goblins and said we were even, which felt half like continuing a long joke and half like a settling of accounts.
I tapped my fingers against my rapier as we walked through hallways, past a door with a roaring dragon carved into it, until we reached a room with a kobold crying in a bedroll.
His name was Meepo and he was crying because goblins had stolen the clan’s dragon, Culcris. Personally, I have never seen a dragon, but my impression was that they were pretty big. The eight-by-eight cage definitely could have fit something, but I strongly doubted it was a full-grown dragon. Anyway, Meepo kept insisting that it was important to get Culcris back or whatever and since we’re in the habit of doing favors for everyone these days, we asked him to take us to the kobold matriarch, Yustryle.
She was about what you would expect a kobold matriarch to be, sitting atop of a throne of possessions and looking extremely old. According to her, goblins attacked the kobolds in the keep. She’d seen the adventuring party we were looking for and had led them herself to the goblins, though she’d ever heard from them again. She’d even offered to do the same for us.
It seemed like a good lead. Until someone had to ask her if her kobolds were the ones who had attacked the village.
Yustryle lifted an eyebrow, cocked her head, and said no. Were there other kobolds in the area? I didn’t know it particularly well. But Harry had already made up his mind.
“We slew your kin,” the dragon monk said, as though this would make things better.
And that is how Yustryle burned us all pretty badly with fire magic and unending kobold reinforcements surged forward. Meepo fled down and out of the hall unscathed.
“I can’t believe we did that,” Felegum said, dashing out of the way of a kobold attack.
Helli threw a dagger into one kobold and I finished it off with my rapier. “‘We?'” I spluttered. “‘We?'”
“Oh young Set,” Harry said blandly, “rivers don’t change their paths.”
It was at this point that Awk changed into a massive brown bear. I was shocked. I thought he could only change into useless things, and right away the bear knocked out Yustryle and threw her body across the room. Then he bit her. It was pretty gross, but also pretty metal.
Felegum annihilated two more kobolds with magic missiles and it seemed like we were turning the tide of the fight, until more kobolds poured out of a door in the wall. One stabbed Helli, who needed to retreat, and when one looked like it was about to get Harry, I threw my dagger into it and it shuffled off this mortal coil.
From there, it was battle and blood. Harry grappled one, Awk plowed through more as a bear, and Felegum unleashed a ray of frost. I stayed near Zeno to keep off attackers. Maybe this was what this group was missing, not another set of light fingers, but someone to stab enemies in the back. I could do that.
Or so I thought, but the kobolds just kept coming. Harry attempted to negotiate a truce and it failed. “I gave peace a chance,” he called to us across the hall.
It was at this point that Zeno seemed to slightly lose it. I thought he was just talking to himself, whispering reassurances in the middle of battle, but the more it went on, the less the whispering sounded good and the more it sounded eerie. Haunted, almost. Even his bagpipes seemed to be whispering along with him, and it made my skin crawl.
Luckily, that was all it did, because the kobold next to us had his brains fall out of his ears thanks to the sound. Then, like nothing out of the ordinary had happened, Zeno gave me a mighty yawp, and either by fear or exhilaration, I sliced through another kobold.
Awk was hurting and stymied as the bear, Harry breathed out acid and disintegrated a kobold, Felegum unleashed more rays of frost, and yet more kobolds still kept coming. Something about them suggested that these were older and more infirm members of the brood, but all of them were still willing to fight.
Meanwhile, Helli was struggling with something on the table behind us. Zeno tried to end the fight, but no such luck and I had to slice down another one attacking us. It was looking pretty grim.
And then, Awk exploded.
There was a moment of perfect stillness.
“That bear just exploded,” Harry said. “That was a bear bomb!”
In the confusion, Awk (who had become a gnome again) made some berries and offered one to the kobolds to help Yustryle. Harry persuaded the kobolds to lay down their arms, even as Felegum muttered darkly about wanting to finish them off, and Zeno trumpeted his pipes as the kobold matriarch regained consciousness and disappeared with her entourage behind a door.
“It’s really too bad that we provoked them.” Harry observed.
“We?” I said again, nearly apoplectic. “You provoked them!”
“Patience is a virtue I am still learning,” the monk replied serenely, eating one of Awk’s berries.
Felegum snorted. “It’s your fault we didn’t kill all of them.”
I grabbed my dagger from the kobold’s body that I’d thrown it into and cleaned it off. We. There was still so much of this place to get through, so much danger still lay ahead, and that one word could be the most dangerous of all.
It had been much simpler when I was stealing food and listening for stories by myself. My eyes flicked to the table behind the throne, noting the missing key by the skull.
Simpler, sure, but also a lot less interesting.
I re-sheathed the dagger, my mouth curving into a crooked smile. Maybe we’d have better luck with the goblins.