It took Zeno an uncomfortably long time to get all the thorns from the bramble monster out of his cloak, so I decided to catch a lizard.
You might be wondering, why would I, a person who hates nature and loves to share that I hate nature, go through the hassle of stalking a lizard as it was running away on its hind legs through the rocks by our campsite? You’re not wrong.
Let’s just say that I’m planning ahead. No one else seems to be thinking about what’ll happen if we succeed– which is fair, since us failing has seemed much more likely at times– and I want to be prepared. Enter the lizard.
I scooped him up, secured him in a jar with some leaves and sticks, and he basically just chilled out with me as we went back down the cliff and headed through the citadel to confront the goblins.
“Guys, can we please just kill them?” Felegum stepped cautiously around the caltrops. “Please?”
“No!” Awk hopped up. “Everyone down here is just hungry!”
“Then give them some rat.”
Harry looked through his supplies. “I have some rations! Good meat, dry bread. Sits well.”
Weirdly, the goblin we found actually accepted Harry’s food. Well, the meat part anyway. I think the goblin had a name but I forgot it, mostly because I was amazed by how quickly they ate the meat. Harry asked if the goblin liked Derrnen, which was an emphatic no. Dude killed their old leader and forced the goblins to act strangely.
“What happened to the old leader?” Harry asked placidly.
“Cut our old leader in two, then threw the halves into the pit.” The goblin spat. “He is a big fighty guy.”
“Okay, that’s helpful.” Felegum shrugged. “At least he’s not a caster.”
The goblin agreed to take us to Grennel, their matriarch. She was with Derrnen, which meant walking through a practice range with discarded arrows everywhere and goblins milling around.
“Someone keep a hold on Awk,” Harry called out. “He has a tendency to get handsy.”
Awk looked like he wanted to say something about Helli, but didn’t. The rooms we passed through were a glorious collection of trash and knickknacks, and as we walked deeper into the goblin sanctum, Felegum became more and more uncomfortable. “Guys, they’re surrounding us. Guys?”
“It’s probably fine,” Harry said as we entered a nice room with tapestries and a giant pit. “Probably.”
The pit glowed with an ominous purple light.
“Okay.” Felegum lowered his voice. “Fine. Let’s just play along since we’re going the passive way.”
Derrnen was pretty forthcoming about how he’d forced the goblins to steal Calcryx, held the dragon for a ransom the kobolds would never be able to pay, and taken control of the goblin colony. On top of that, it seemed like the other adventurers who we were supposed to find had gone down the glowing pit. Or had been forced down the glowing pit. It didn’t particularly seem clear, but it did seem menacing.
What did seem clear was that the tree with the apples we were after was also through the pit. Derrnen didn’t seem amenable to us going down there, but then Awk cried out that they’d “disturbed the balance” or whatever and everything went to hell.
Derrnen said that that was very much their intention and we were all hard at work trying to avoid falling into the pit in the ensuing fight.
Sidenote: apparently, hobgoblins are different from goblins. I didn’t know this before and I’m never going to admit it to anyone.
Anyway, Harry and Helli went to work stabbing the hobgoblins, and the goblin matriarch Grennel joined the fight, seizing an opportunity to throw off the hobgoblins who had ruled over her brood by attacking Derrnen with a circle of light. Awk called forth some weeds to entangle people, which was alright, except that they also got Grennel, which seemed less good.
Zeno made a farting noise from his bagpipes, which was somehow inspiring to Harry, who grappled heroically with one of the hobgoblins. Then Derrnen raised his morningstar, spoke some weird incantation, and ordered Grennel to command her goblins to aid him.
“She fights with us!” said Harry, and in true monk fashion, went in for a headbutt. “I exude calm and smack people with a stick.”
Derrnen collapsed under the weight of the headbutt and Harry made a growling noise at him.
This, however, did not stop Grennel from being mind-controlled. She called for her brood and a pillar of light appeared over Zeno, crisping him slightly.
“Sunburn, darlings.” The bard waved it off. “Nothing to worry about.”
Felegum’s magic missiles finished Derrnen off– or so we thought, until the hobgoblin fell and a red shape came out of it and took control of the next hobgoblin. “He’s got the red slither inside him!”
“Eww,” said the bard.
And then the goblins attacked Meepo and threw him into the pit. Awk made an attempt to catch him before he fell, but the kobold flopped out of his grasp and down beyond the darkness.
Suddenly every plan I had turned to ash. “Meepo?”
“You are a shitty bear!” Harry yelled.
“Please get more proficient at moving your bear body!” Felegum called from a corner.
In his defense, Awk tried to throw a hobgoblin into the pit, but that didn’t work either. Zeno jumped over it, but then a new hobgoblin tried to throw him into the pit. Luckily, Zeno managed to hold on because we could not count on Awk-as-bear to rescue him. Then a second hobgoblin, this one with eyes the same red color as the slither, tried to push Zeno in.
“Like water!” Harry cheered as Zeno resisted this attempt too.
I quietly moved over to the hallway door and closed it, preventing more goblins from coming inside. Grennel took advantage of the pause to heal the hobgoblin with the red spirit inside of them, and Felegum covered the hobgoblin who Awk had tried to push into the pit with acid.
The acid bubbled along the hobgoblin’s armor and limbs, and then their hand melted off and they too fell into the pit.
That guy is a lot more metal than I thought he would be.
Then out of nowhere a spear hit him in the chest and a hobgoblin with glowing red eyes laughed.
Harry leapt over the pit and headbutted the hobgoblin.
“You’re my hero, Harry.” Felegum said around the spear.
Harry bowed. “Like water, bitches!”
Meanwhile, I was still at the door trying to keep it shut when to our surprise we discovered there was a second door out of which goblin reinforcements were coming.
“Set!” Zeno yelled from the pit. “You’re supposed to hold both doors!”
“You could’ve helped if you’d stop falling into the pit!” I grunted, wedging myself against the door, only to be slammed back when a goblin contingent outpowered me.
Felegum covered the hobgoblin that now housed Derrnen in flames, Awk tried to maneuver in his bear form, and then Zeno, demonstrating an impressive amount of skill to both hang onto the railing and also manipulate bagpipes, whispered in that strange dissonant way he does and brain juice started coming out of the hobgoblin’s ears. I’m sorry, I don’t really know a better way to describe it. It too was metal, but almost too metal.
With that, the hobgoblin collapsed and the red spirit shot up into the air, hovered there in a creepy outline for a moment, and then flew down into the pit.
Helli and Harry tried to punch the ghost, but sadly neither had an effect.
As a gesture of peace, Felegum offered to wipe the rest of the acid off Grennel, which she accepted gracefully. In contrast, bear-Awk peed down the hole.
“Meepo is down there, you know.” I wiped blood off my arm.
Grennel didn’t seem to mind terribly much about the acid and secured a rope for us, which was nice of her. Apparently beyond the pit was this place called the Grove, where both the apples were from. Grennel warned us that the apples could be dangerous if not “handled properly” (aka covered with a cloth before touching).
Interestingly, the goblins didn’t seem too pleased about having Calcryx around either, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot. “If we vanquish Derrnen, can we get the dragon?”
Grennel shook her head. “Many have tried. You surely can’t.”
“Well, we’re gonna.” I waved it off. “So, the dragon?”
She caved. Never let it be said that the teenager was not an effective negotiator. I grew up bartering for a lot back home, but this was the first time I’d ever bartered for a dragon. Felegum talked to Calcryx and apparently the dragon was also a teenager and kind of a dick. Whatever. I didn’t barter for a nice dragon.
Meanwhile, Harry had stumbled upon the Goblin Shopping Network.
The Goblin Shopping Network was pretty much a giant pile of detritus and other semi-useless items, potentially hiding other, maybe-useful items. Enamored of the caltrops we’d run into on the way into goblin territory, Harry asked to buy some and the goblin running the store was able to find a number of them, just…without a bag.
Harry tried to find a bag, got nothing, and then asked if there was anything magical in stock instead. The pile smelled pretty bad, but I had to respect his tenacity. You just never knew in situations like this.
The goblin didn’t have magical things, but he did have some books: Tales of Ptarmagin the Wise for Felegum and A Story of the Dragon of the East for Harry. Everything cost one gold, which was out of my price range, so I checked on my lizard instead. I guess I’d forgotten to put air holes in the jar (oops), so it was looking a little peaked, and I hastily added some breathing holes for it to last.
In the meantime, the goblin was able to find a bag…except it had no holes. Zeno bought it (of course). Upon purchasing it, he discovered that there were definitely things inside of it, but whenever he made to cut it open when a knife, the goblin he’d purchased it from got very upset. Then he bought a grappling hook and had it thrown at him from the bowels of the pile. I was kind of envious, but also didn’t want my lizard jar to get busted.
“Can I get…ball bearings?” Harry asked.
“Oh no, not again.” I sighed. “Dude, they’re not going to have a bag.”
Harry shrugged, and then the goblin threw a bag of rocks at him. “These aren’t ball bearings!”
“Two gold!” The goblin yelled obliviously.
“I don’t want them!”
“I do.” Awk picked the bag up.
As we left, the goblin offered us one last piece of advice. Well, Zeno, anyway.
“Do not,” he said, “put holes in bag with no holes.”
Zeno accepted these terms. “I’m going to play a jaunty tune.”
“Oh no,” I said. “Remember what happened the last time you played a jaunty tune.”
Meanwhile, Felegum went back to talk with Calcryx again. “Guys,” he said, “that dragon is really pissy. Like, he is a bad dude. He wants to kill the kobolds even more than I do. I don’t think he’s going back.”
“Yeah, me neither,” I said. All part of the plan.
“I’m going to go roll a gold coin to the dragon.” Awk fished around in his pockets.
“Ooh, big spender.” Felegum said.
Harry wasn’t paying attention and Awk couldn’t speak Draconic, so neither of them really heard what Calcryx said, but Harry did have some opinions. “I strongly suggest we do not attack the white dragon now.”
“We’ll put him on our to-do list.” Felegum agreed. “He’s got a decent hoard for a little dragon. He’s doing alright.”
We took a break, even though I didn’t want to, and then once again made our way back to the tapestry room. Grennel greeted us. “Farlyne runs a good shop. Ah, I see you bought the bag with no holes.”
“Yeah,” Zeno said, “it seems like there’s something in it–“
“Don’t,” she repeated, “open.”
From there, we threw a rope down the hole to begin to investigate. Harry was originally going to go down first, which made complete sense– send the one member of the party into the darkness who couldn’t see in the dark. I sighed. “Let me do it.”
“If it please you, young Set.” Harry said graciously.
And so I climbed down the rope into the pit. The mist was only five feet thick and the grove below was thick with the twinkling lights of fungus, an earthy, damp smell, heady with decomposition. I didn’t see any bodies down there, but I did see dark shapes moving around, so we elected to untie the two ropes we’d tied together and send people down in pairs. Me and Harry were first.
It turned out that the moving shapes weren’t Meepo or the hobgoblin that we’d dispatched, but skeletons armed with garden rakes and also a few twig beasts again. I had really had it up to here with the shrubs, and so I was especially pleased to kill one right off the bat.
Awk, as Awk does, decided to forgo the rope altogether and leapt down the hole as a bear, just as the bramble monsters merged into one.
“I hate forests,” I muttered.
Awk unleashed a savage double claw attack on a skeleton gardener, Harry breathed acid on it, and once again headbutted it to smithereens. Helli appeared and tried to punch the bramble monster, but no luck. I skewered the second skeleton with my rapier and then Zeno mounted the bear.
“Ugh! I’m so annoyed at these. The last one interrupted my wonderful song,” the bard said, readying his pipes in the direction of the massive bramble monster. “This one needs to make like a tree and get the fuck out.”
The bramble thing visibly wilted and then Awk swept in for the kill. It separated back out into two separate monsters, one of which Helli killed. Felegum frosted a mushroom instead of a skeleton, and Zeno managed to destroy the last skeleton while riding on top of bear-Awk who was trying to buck him off.
As the head of the last skeleton sunk into the dirt and disappeared, Zeno dismounted with great aplomb.
“I’d like to point out,” Felegum said, “that the two ropes were my idea.”
Seeing no leads on Meepo or anything else, we settled in for another break and I caught some bugs for the lizard. Awk told me that my lizard was upset and asked if he could see the little guy, but I know better. Just because I’m a teenager doesn’t mean I can’t smell bullshit.
And it certainly doesn’t mean I’ll forget who dropped the one thing we promised we’d protect.
(s/o Fledgling Editor Muñoz for his service in the perpetual war against typos)