2975 words (11 minute read)

Chapter 1 (Draft)

It was a warm, sunny day that greeted the teens as they left the goblin’s dining quarters for the last time.  Birds sang to each other cheerfully, and a low buzz floated in on the breeze from the direction of the town’s apiary.  After escaping from the dwarven fortress in which Crackrock and his followers had set up camp, they had made a beeline for Egglebert’s home, the home of the Bonecrusher clan.  Of the six (including Egglebert himself), only Chuck had come out reasonably unscathed from the ordeal.  Allison’s powers were better at healing life-threatening wounds than fixing up aches, pains, and the effects of being manhandled cross-country and chained for days in a dank cell. As such, the friends made the most of Goblin hospitality, staying several long weeks before finally feeling up to pressing on toward the East and their quest.

Finkelbert, the tribe’s chieftain, met them in the town square, a sad smile upon his face.  During their visit he had spent quite a bit of time in their company, sometimes brainstorming with TJ about how to get home and how they had gotten to this world in the first place, sometimes just playing host to heroes that had literally saved his tribe from certain destruction.  He was going to miss not only their company but also their protection, as news of Crackrock’s defeat and the friends’ role in it had already begun to spread.  With their new allies, Clan Bonecrusher was no easy nut to crack.  The Chief knew, however, that the humans’ destiny was not to live their lives out among his tribe of goblins. 

“So friends,” he began, “it is now the time for travel, and the time for farewells.  The Bonecrushers are sad to see you go, but we wish you the best of luck!”  At this, the goblins who had wandered over to see what their chief was up to burst into a cheer.  This subsequently drew more goblins over, who began cheering as well, and it was some time before quiet was restored.  Chief Finklebert seemed unperturbed by the outburst, just bobbing his head and smiling, as if he had expected it all along.  Perhaps he had.  When silence returned he motioned to the side and Egglebert approached the group with arms laden, many of the items of it glinting in the sunlight. 

“Brought what you asked of me, I have,” said Egglebert to the chief, giving him a slight bow.  Though the most powerful wizard in the tribe and married to the Chief’s sister, in public he acted like any other member of the Bonecrusher clan.  He spoke in the human tongue for the sake of the five, none of whom could understand the goblin’s own grunting language.  Like most of the clan, his command of the common tongue of the Humans was imperfect, and the friends often shared smiles over this vocal similarities to Yoda, the Jedi Master. The chief nodded his thanks, and returned his attention to his guests. 

“The service you have performed for us, both in helping rid us of the Kobold menace and in returning our Egg to us, is truly great, and I and my kin have expressed our gratitude to you on more than a few occasions.”  There was a smattering of applause at this, but the irritated glance he gave to the crowd silenced it much more quickly this time.  “We now will express our gratitude in a more tangible manner.  At the beginning of your quest I promised you shinies if you came to our aid.  I think you will find our gifts shiny, indeed!”  Turning back to Egglebert, he reached out and took five small purses that hung by their drawstrings from his brother in law’s thumb.  He handed one to each of the friends saying, “Our hills, and therefore our clan, are not rich in gold.    Despite that, I believe these should see you well provisioned for your journey.”  While the others all tucked the purses into their belts, Chuck hefted the pouch, trying to gauge its weight and listening for the clink of coins.  Not hearing much beyond a dull clacking, he loosened the drawstring and tipped the purse over into his hand, despite the stern glare he received from Allison.  It wasn’t gold and silver coins that spilled out, but gems, both cut and raw.  A grin stretched across his face, and when he looked back at Finkelbert he saw a twinkle in the goblin’s eye that mirrored the light’s refracting through the stones in his hand.  Not rich in gold, indeed, but the wealth contained in any single one of those bags would have been enough to set them up comfortably for the rest of their lives. 

“While the contents of those pouches will keep you fed and sheltered, we also have gifts for you that will keep you alive!”  Draped over Egglebert’s arm was a shirt of shining metal rings, forged together so tightly that it looked more like cloth than armor.  Despite its apparent bulk, the chief easily lifted it and held it at arms’ length to appraise it.  After looking back and forth between the shirt and Jimmy several times, he finally nodded his head and declared, “That ought to fit.”  In a softer voice, he added, “more or less.”  He handed it to the large man, who was looking at it somewhat askance. 

“You sure about that?”  Jimmy looked doubtful that it would get over his shoulders.

Chief Finklebert bobbed his head and said with a grin, “More or less!”

Shrugging, Jimmy slipped his arms through the shirt, then raised them to let gravity do the work of pulling the mail over his shoulders.  Just as the little Goblin had predicted, it did indeed fit, more or less.  Jimmy moved his arms up and down and twisted his torso back and forth several times to gauge what the armor would do to his freedom of movement.  He then stepped back a few paces, drew his massive sword from its sheath, and proceeded to go through a series of thrusts, cuts and parries as the assembled Goblins looked on.  He slid the sword back into its sheath, slung it across his back, and nodded his approval before stepping back to where the group was standing.  “Thanks a ton.  This is pretty slick.”  Finklebert raised an eyebrow at Jimmy’s choice of words, then shrugged and turned for the next gift.

Addressing Stu, the chief said, “An archer, I think, could use different tools.”  Taking a set of silver bracers from Egglebert, he stepped forward and strapped them to Stu’s forearms.  The metal was intricately worked with images of men hunting a large stag, firing arrows as they chased the animal through the woods.  Squinting, it seemed to Stu almost as if the figures were moving and the arrows actually flying across the metal, though never quite reaching their felling target.  Aside from the obvious protection the metal plates provided, he could tell that his already considerable skills with bow and arrow were magically enhanced to superhuman levels.  Combined with the enchanted bow, he was possibly the deadliest archer alive.  With an embarrassed blush, he gave an awkward bow in thanks, clearly distracted by the bracers’ etchings.

To Allison, Finklebert handed a pair of scuffed looking boots and said with a smile, “I’ve heard that you aren’t exactly the quietest member of your group when walking in the woods?  These ought to help with that.”  Allison blushed at the boys’ snickers and took the offered gift, immediately sitting down to take off the shoes she was already wearing.  She slipped the new ones on, and while appearing old and beaten up, they felt soft and snug on her feet.  She stood up and tentatively took a few steps.  She didn’t feel any different, but then the Bonecrushers’ main plaza wasn’t really the best place to experiment.  If they did work as advertised, though, she knew this was a wonderful gift.  Of the five, she was the least experienced and the only one whose character hadn’t taken points in the Woodcraft skill.  Even TJ, the bookish wizard, could move quietly when he needed to.  She scooped Finklebert up and gave him a big squeezy hug, followed by a kiss on the top of his head, to both his surprise and his delight.  “Thank you so much,” she exclaimed after putting him back down.

The chief then presented TJ a golden ring set with a large ruby.  Around the central stone were a half dozen diamonds.  Four shone brilliantly, each worth a small fortune by itself, and two had a smoky appearance.  The Chief gave no explanation, glancing first at Egglebert and then at human expectantly.  TJ turned the ring over in his fingers, several times squinting at this or that aspect of it as his mind went through the massive catalog of lore he that had flooded his mind over the past weeks.  After a couple minutes of examination, he looked up at the Chief with a raised eyebrow and said, “Az’karnor?”  Finklebert grinned and Egglebert actually clapped his hands in delight.

“Told you he would know, I did,” the younger Goblin crowed in his off-kilter manner.

TJ slipped the ring on his finger and said with a bow, “Thank you, this is a fine gift.  I have read more than once about these rings, and I never expected one to be hidden away here among your people!”

“Hidden away, it was not,” Egglebert said, and wiggled the fingers on his left hand.  “Told you, I did.  Great and powerful wizard, I am.  Travelled many years, I did.  Slew great monsters, I did.  Great treasures, I found.  Found this out, Crackrock did!”  He let out a giggle and pointed a finger at TJ with a pshew noise. 

TJ laughed at this and replied, “Crackrock surely did discover how great and powerful a wizard you truly are!  Thank you for giving me this ring.  I would refuse, but I think I will need its power before our job is done.  Instead, I will treat it as a loan, to return to you when next we meet.” 

The two goblins exchanged a glance and Chief said, “We also look forward to the day that you will return to us,” though he sounded less than optimistic.  After a reflective pause, his face brightened back up and he said, “And now, we wish you the best of luck.  This is only the beginning of your journey.  May the rest of it be quick, safe, and successful!”  The assembled goblins again let out a cheer and then dispersed to attend to their daily activities. 

Looking around in confusion, Allison said in a stage whisper, “What about Chuck?  Didn’t you forget him?” 

Chief Finklebert blushed slightly and he glanced toward Chuck, who broke the awkward silence by saying, “Oh, you know me.  A big bag of jewels and stuff?  That’s more than enough!.”  He flashed a grin and added, “And anyway, if you remember, I’m the one who saved all of your bacons.  You’re the ones who need the extra help, not me.  As far as I’m concerned, we’re all square, the Bonecrushers and me.”  Finklebert looked visibly relieved.

“OK, if you say so, Chuckles.”  Allison didn’t look convinced. 

“I do,” he replied ending the discussion. 

What the others didn’t know was that he had already received his gift from the tribe.  The day before, when the rest of the group was out and about mingling or exercising or doing whatever, the Chief had taken him deeper into the mountain’s tunnels than he had ever before visited – or even realized existed.  Eventually they arrived at a small room filled with alchemical equipment.  Steam rose from bubbling beakers set over charcoal braziers, and a goblin Chuck didn’t recognize was hunched over a table, extracting a clear fluid from an alembic – two glass vessels connected with a tube for distilling liquids.  Chuck and Finklebert waited patiently in silence, not wishing to disturb what they knew could be a dangerous process.  After several minutes, the goblin looked up with a grin.  Hopping off his stool, he strode towards them, holding a small vial of the fluid in his hand. 

Chuck looked enquiringly at it, and the goblin said simply, “Watch.”  He unstoppered the vial, dipped a p]pin into it, then reached into a cage where a small furry chinchilla-like creature huddled.  Taking the squirming animal in his hand, he pricked it lightly with the pin and placed it on the ground.  The creature, sensing freedom, took two rapid hops towards the exit before collapsing with a twitch and going still. 

Chuck observed, “That’s a nice display, though I feel sorry for the little furry thing.  He was kinda cute.  I’m not quite sure why you brought me to see that,” he said with a shrug, before continuing.  “There have got to be easier ways to rid yourself of vermin than going around poking them with needles.”

“You’re not fooling anyone,” replied Finklebert with a dismissive wave of his hand.  “You know very well why I brought you here to show you this.”  Chuck remembered the crow – Egglebert’s wizard familiar – that had led him to where his friends had been held.  To gain entrance to the Kobold fort (and rescue his friends) he had to rely on the skills he had learned in his previous career as a guild-trained assassin.  The crow had obviously reported back what it had seen, and Chuck mentally slapped his head for not having thought of it before.  Oops. 

With a sigh, Chuck countered, “Ok.  Even so, why did you show me that?”  He picked up the creature and gave it a quick glance before saying, “It’s not like I don’t have options that do that already.  Maybe it’s a little faster than what I currently use, but not much.”  He casually tossed it toward a nearby table, and was surprised to see the goblin alchemist jump, arms outstretched, and to catch it before it landed.

“Because,” the unnamed goblin said after he had gently laid the ball of fur down back in its cage, having apparently studied the Human tongue with Egglebert, “yesterday, poisoned that one was.”  He gestured at a second cage, where another floppy eared furry thing was munching away happily at some carrot greens.

“No way,” Chuck said, reaching into the cage to retrieve the one he had just thrown.  He inspected it more closely this time, checking for any signs of life.  There was no heartbeat.  No breathing.  Its eyes had dilated.  It was well and truly dead. 

“Way,” the Chief assured.

“That….is truly amazing.”  His mind raced thinking of potential uses.  “How long?”

“Depends on the dose, according to our friend here.”  The alchemist bobbed his head, happy to turn the discussion back over to someone with a better grasp of the the language.  “As few as fifteen minutes, as long as four days.  That one should be awake within two hours or so.”  He nodded at the ball of fluff in Chuck’s hands.

Chuck replaced the dead-yet-not-dead animal and took the offered vial from the alchemist’s hand with newfound respect.  He mentally calculated how many human doses he could get out of it: not that many.  “Thank you very much.  I am grateful.”  After a moment he added, “Any chance in your telling me how you made it?”

The two goblins exchanged a quick glance before Chief Finklebert said, “Nope.”

With a good natured grin, Churck replied, “Didn’t think so, but figured I’d ask.  I’ll take good care of this.”  He gave the vial a little shake before tucking it into a pocket on his vest.  The two retraced their steps back out and then parted ways, the Chief headed to do chiefy things, and Chuck to put his prize away in the special case reserved for those sorts of tools. 

So while Chuck had already gotten his thank you gift, it wasn’t something he was particularly interested in sharing with the rest of the group.  Rather, he was happy to keep quiet about it and pretend that the money he’d received was all the reward he needed.  Maybe it would have been easier to share his secret skills with his friends, but the cautious nature of his new persona made him hold it back for the time being.  Assassins rarely had good reputations.

The goblins had no horses other than the gigantic draft horses built more for pulling plows than carrying people, so the friends had to set off on foot.  This suited all of them but Stu and Jimmy anyway, since the two were the only ones with any experience riding a horse.  Back in the real world they had all read enough stories about erstwhile heroes riding horses for the first time and then having trouble walking for a week.  When they reached the palisade gate, they all turned around for one last look before leaving.  XXXXXX

“Wow, total déjà vu feeling right now, isn’t it?”  Allison remarked.  It hadn’t seemed that long ago since they had set out from another camp, off to do battle with the great foozle to the east.  Of course before, it had just been a game.  And before, there had been six of them instead of only five.  The others murmured their agreement and they all turned and walked into the rising sun, wondering what was in store for them next.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2 (Draft)