Arcs of flame leapt from rock to rock in a river of molten stone sending sparks to sizzle in the sulfurous water that pooled nearby. A scaled beast paced in the steam and dark, serpent like and swift. Its hide shone with a ruby glow, reflecting the dim light. The dragon had the girth of a pony and the length of three tall men, small yet for its kind. Restless, the creature stalked from shadow to shadow, tale lashing out behind it. On the ground nearby a kobold lay prostrate amid piles of gold and gems the creature so loved. The scent of its burning flesh filled Szmaj's nostrils, a heady odor that ignited his hunger. Tempted though he was the dragon resisted his urge to devour the pathetic slave, instead trying to focus on its desperate rambling.
"The wizard that took my speaker is asking me for what?"
"B-black opals, oh god of the deeps! It wants them - needs them it says! To return the speaker!" The kobold was gasping with fright as Szmaj got closer, teeth scraping the band of leather that held the kobold's crafting tools. It was one of his lesser slaves, a maker of traps and dainty mechanical things. Too useful to eat, Szmaj thought, though one slave was surely replaceable.
The caverns above the dragon had been a hive of frenetic activity for days. Szmajul'ani was aware of great turmoil after the capture of three intruders. He did not deign to notice but kept carefully aware of the situation. It was disturbing to think how close a few bumblers got to his tiny horde.
After much debate and a little bloodshed, the kobolds had agreed among themselves to heed the powerful wizard they held helpless in their clutches. Szmaj chose not to act as it was beneath him, though it was irksome. When the first manling slew his speaker, Szmaj had demanded his slaves wreak their vengeance on the flesh of the intruders. This was disobedience, but only if it was acknowledged. The dragon settled for a detached curiosity in the whole situation. It would not do to seem too involved in the lives of his pets, and if this inconvenienced Szmaj, there was time later for fire and death. Now, however, they thrust their mess beneath his nose.
"What does the elfling want with my gems? Did it not steal enough when it took the life of my speaker?" Szmaj let hunger color his words and the kobold knew it was in mortal peril.
"It needs them to bring the speaker to life," the slave squealed, pressing itself more firmly to the burning ground. "We - we looked everywhere, but we don't have any so big." The kobold's breath was coming in choked gasps now, much to Szmaj's amusement.
The dragon gave a barking laugh, sending a hot gust of air across the slave's back, and then scowled in annoyance. "What does it have to give me for them? It seeks to steal my gems so that it can return the speaker it stole . . . does it think me a fool? And you - to come here and ask me this, do you think I am a fool?"
"No! No! Oh god of deep places and fire, you are the most wonderful and greatest of all beings! I would kill any that say different! Kill them and bring you their wealth! Please!" The kobold sobbed its incoherent praise. Szmaj let the slave go on until its voice began to rasp. It was in him to just eat this foolish messenger and let that be the reply to the rest of the tribe, but curiosity won over annoyance. The dragon had a passing acquaintance with magic but had not made a study of it. He knew nothing of the spell this elfling was preparing and his ambitious nature desired that knowledge. What magic required such odd formulae? A ghast's tongue, the coins from the eyes of a hanged man, a lock of ogre hair . . . the list went on and none of it made any sense to Szmaj, though he would never admit such ignorance.
Mind made up, the dragon swept back into his den, leaving the quivering kobold alone. "Take what is needed," the dragon commanded. He would discover what manner of spell this was, and once he learned it, the wizard would die. The thought of roasted elf flesh sent a pleasant tingle through the retreating beast and left a toothy smile on his face.
Dako sat on a much cleaner pile of furs now, a low stone table to his left stacked high with books and scrolls. In the last few days (he was pretty sure it was only a few days), their situation had changed for the better. He and Dermott were still prisoners, but their captivity had taken on a whole new aspect. The kobolds still hissed and spat, or came to stare at the adventurers, but when Dako asked for something, they did it. Mostly anyhow. His demand to be taken to the surface was met with sneers and growling laughter, but they'd brought a bathing tub and cleaner furs at least.
And the books! The wizard had no idea how a tribe of savage illiterates had managed to amass such a collection of fine magical tomes and scrolls, but they had. When he'd told them he needed his spell book, the nasty little red one that often guarded them had brought back a burlap sack stuffed with books. Dako's spell book had been tossed in with the rest, thankfully. The wizard was almost giddy with joy every time his fingers strayed to a new cover, devouring page after page of scrawling ink. A few of the books had been set aside, warded with the marks of other wizards and so dangerous to open, but most had yielded their secrets to him easily. Spells and lore only hinted at in stories, power writhing behind cautiously scribed sigils. It was the stuff of dreams.
Dermott sprawled on the floor nearby fiddling with a bowl of pixie wings. He was grinding them to powder with a jade mortar and pestle specifically provided for the purpose. The tools were almost useless to the task, too smooth to grind away the slick, delicate wings. The barbarian stared with fixed determination, tongue poking from between his frowning lips. It was a completely unnecessary task, but the wings, and mortar and pestle had been one more item to request, one more stepping stone of delay as they made their escape plans.
Each day, Dako thought up new and ridiculous things to send their captors running for, claiming he needed them to resurrect their dead priest or shaman, an older kobold they called Gniklo. The wizard wasn't sure he understood exactly, but as Dako gathered, it was Gniklo that spoke to their god, a red dragon called Szmajul'ani. Apparently, the dead kobold had been a great favorite of the dragon, lasting in his position for forty years. It didn't sound like long to the wizard, but from the kobolds' explanation, that was apparently a very long time to survive the job.
The barbarian turned to scowl at Dako. "You're enjoyin' this h'ain't ya?"
"Enjoying? No. But things seem to be going our way, so I won't complain." The wizard smiled, glancing at the pile of books again.
"Hmmph." Dermott grunted and stood, stretching his cramped muscles. He paced around their small room, checking for shadows on each cloth wall. Satisfied that they were alone as they could get, he sat down beside Dako, close enough to kiss.
The wizard squirmed over faster than you could sniff, which drew a chuckle from the barbarian.
"So, we done this song and dance long enough, yeah? When d'we make a run?" Dermott's gaze was inscrutable, though he smiled broadly.
"When an opportune moment presents itself. Till then, we keep up the masquerade." Dako tried to give the barbarian a stern glare, but it slid off the man without leaving a mark.
"It better come soon," Dermott huffed. "Jon'll be dead if'n we wait much longer. Ain't got tha patience fer it."
The wizard nodded, a chill running through him at the mention of the rogue. At his request, the kobolds had stopped torturing their companion. Dako had claimed the screaming hurt his concentration, and pointed out that should Jon die, they would be disinclined to bring Gniklo back. It had taken several hours for the kobolds to decide they would agree to his demand, but the screaming had stopped.
Dermott, concerned that this meant the beasts had murdered his friend, demanded proof that Jon lived. Ixenjaxo, the ugly dark red beast that often guarded them, brought back the rogue's severed middle finger, still warm and dripping blood, as proof. The barbarian had not been pleased. When Ixenjaxo tossed it to Dermott, the barbarian quivered, biting down on his lip so hard it drew blood. Dako was fairly certain the barbarian would make a point of killing that kobold should the opportunity arise.
"It will," the wizard said reassuringly. "We just need to be ready for it. If something doesn't come up, I'll press for an outing - some ingredient or ritual preparation. You'll see."
"I'm puttin' a lot'o trust in ya," the barbarian said slowly, reaching over to grip Dako's shoulder. His fingers tightened unbearably on the frail bones. "Ya come thru fer me an' Jon, ya'll have my loyalty ta death. If ya mess about, I'll hunt ya down in this life er the next an' make ya wish yer soul never spawned."
It hurt so much Dako was sure the bones were about to snap. He couldn't draw away though; the wizard knew he wasn't strong enough to break Dermott's grip. "I promise you, I'm doing my best. I want out too, and I can't do it all alone." The barbarian's brows drew down, lips pressing to a thin line. He studied Dako's expression, seeking confirmation. After a long moment, he let go.
"I trust ya. Yer doin' it fer yerself but ya ain't a snake. I can see that." Dermott gave the wizard a lazy grin. "Wouldn't trust ya if ya could go on yer own though. Ya'd be gone befer I could blink."
Dako frowned, rubbing at his shoulder. "Why do you always give me such a hard time? You kidnapped me, dragged me to a cave, and were going to sell me! You can't blame me for not having any affection for you. You aren't my friend. Just someone I'm stuck here with."
"Hmmm. I can see that," the barbarian agreed. "Wouldn't give ya a hard time fer just that, I guess."
Exasperated, the wizard poked a finger at Dermott's chest. "What then? What do you want from me?"
"Nuthin', I guess. Ya just piss me off. Lookin' at ya, yer fine clothes an' soft hands. Yer readin' an writin' and big words. Yer kind pisses me off. S'why I never feel bad if'n we bag one of ya and sell 'im off. Ya wouldn't lift a finger ta help someone like me, even if I was sweet as winter honey ta ya." The barbarian's words tripped over each other on their way out, a speech held in long enough that once spoken, Dermott sagged back against the furs, empty.
Dako frowned, "So you think my life was all roasts and roses? My family hated me. My father was kill - died - and I spent my whole life knowing I was unwanted, a stain on the pure family line. I was ignored, shut away, beaten if I spoke out of turn . . . why do you think I was out on my own? I was running away, you idiot. I haven't had it easy. Not for one day!"
The barbarian shook his head, a wry grin twisting his lips. "Ya think love taps an' angry looks is the worst ya can suffer? Try bein' a whoreson. Goin' ta bed hungry, gettin' whipped fer standin' in the wrong place. Wakin' up ta find yer friends froze and dead. Watchin' yer mom get beat ta bloody pulp and havin' ta eat ever' bitter minute 'cause nobody cares. If ya stand up, yer a criminal. If ya lay down, yer dead." He stood, back to the wizard, head lowered. "I'd o' killed ta have a roof on my head an' food in my belly. Ya had it easy."
The wizard wanted to argue, all the rejection and scorn heaped on him in the century he spent at home welled up in his chest until it ached. But Dermott was right. Compared to the barbarian, those were minor torments. The whining of a spoiled rich boy that wanted everyone to love him. "Well, the beating weren't love taps," Dako said, angst evaporating. He held a hand out to Dermott, "It's not worth a copper, but I'm sorry."
"What?" The barbarian turned with a look of surprise. He stared at the extended hand, delicate and soft, long fingers stained with ink and bearing only a scribe's callouses. "Ya serious?"
Dako nodded, "Yes. You're right. My life wasn't easy, but I was never afraid I would die. And yes, my grandfather wouldn't blink to see some waif stretched and whipped for disturbing a merchant. My mother might blink, but help? No. And I am as selfish as they are. I've never done anything for anyone. So you're right. I understand."
Dermott wrapped his massive hand around the wizard's much smaller one and gave it an awkward shake. "Ya don't unnerstand, wizard. But mebbe ya ain't so bad as I thought."
"Good enough," the wizard nodded, an odd warmth creeping into his chest. That was how Ixenjaxo found them as the kobold barged into their room.
"Plotting?" the creature hissed, pushing between them, tail lashing.
"Just talkin'" Dermott grinned down at the kobold.
Ixenjaxo hated that the barbarian could tower over him and it showed. "Liar! You die on my spear, see how you laugh!" Dako was afraid the creature would attack then and there, but a sibilant hiss stopped the kobold in its tracks.
"Calm yourself." Another of the scaly beasts pushed into their chamber. This one was a dusky brown with hints of red along his jaw line. He was as short as Ixen and narrow in his shoulders and chest. The kobold wore an odd, pale leather vest that hung past his knees, and breeches of the same material, all embroidered in heavy, red thread. His tail ended abruptly in a blunt, scarred nub.
Ixen's manner changed abruptly from aggressive to servile. He scooted away from the humans quickly and hunched down, bobbing a nod to the newcomer. "Yes, yes, Tichlas." It began to say something in undercommon, but the newcomer bared its teeth and Ixen stopped abruptly.
"Rude to speak in tongue our guests don't understand. You will go, Ixenjaxo. Before I embarrassed more." Tichlas pointed at the exit and Ixen fled. It was somewhat satisfying but equally frightening to Dako. This kobold was unknown and must wield some power to be obeyed, especially by a mean spirited bully like Ixenjaxos.
Dermott watched the kobold flee with a smile on his lips and death in his eyes. It gave the wizard a shudder. "What do ya want, beastie?" The barbarian asked, turning his cold gaze to Tichlas.
"To speak with wizard. I am newly returned to tribe. I came back, find a friend dead, strangers treated like kings. I want answers." The kobold shifted his gaze to Dako. His eyes were orange, lit with an inner passion the wizard could not put a name too. They scorched his thoughts, burning into his mind. Dako wondered if Tichlas was trying to read his thoughts. He tried desperately to collect himself.
"I'm . . . that is, I plan to bring back the uh- the speaker . . ." the wizard felt his mouth dry and his words evaporate someplace between his brain and lips. Their whole plan hinged on being able to pull this lie off for just a little longer, but it was hard to think under the serpentine stare.
"I see." Tichlas grinned, his sharp teeth glistening with spittle. "What you mean say is you bargained a delay in execution by promising things you not deliver."
Dermott crossed his arms, coming to Dako's rescue. "No! My master is tha most powerful an' amazin' wizard o' the clan o' amethyst elves in tha grove of a thous'n' stars. Ya question his power, ya question my honor." His chest swelled with pride and his eyes flashed. For half a second, the wizard almost felt it was true.
Tichlas began to laugh, a low throaty chuckle that held little humor. "Calm, calm soft-skin. I not expose your secret. I want be sure Gniklo not be back. You just charlatans. Szmajul'ani feast well." He turned to leave, satisfaction rolling off him in waves.
"Wait," Dako said abruptly. "Wait. What if we are? We just want to get out of here alive. That's all we wanted from the moment we fell into the underground river."
Tichlas stopped but did not turn. "Why is this concern of me?"
"Because we can do a lot of damage on our way to the afterlife, or we can slip out quick and clean with no one the wiser." The wizard took a step toward Tichlas, certain if he left, their game would end and their lives would be forfeit.
"And this matter why? I not care if you kill off useless and weak. It only make tribe stronger." The kobold turned his head enough to see Dako.
The wizard could tell by looking at him that Tichlas was interested. It was that same quivery tension merchants got during negotiations with his grandfather. In this moment, Dako could shut it down with a misstep or bring the deal to a close. He sent a prayer to Tymora for luck and plunged in. "Of course you're right. Why should it matter to you? Certainly, you have no enemies that might be unlucky enough to bar our path, no one whose discredit would benefit you . . . You are a much loved member of the tribe, with no worry for who might be standing at your back with dagger poised. My apologies - I will withdraw the request. I see now you are beyond reproach."
Dako shrugged, trying very hard to look resigned. Dermott just raised an eyebrow, understanding the gambit and waiting for it to play out. The wizard had a feeling that if Tichlas moved to leave, Dermott would kill the beast.
The kobold was quiet for several long breaths and then a smile stretched his scaly cheeks into a parody of happiness. "It could be we have common ground. Those devoted to Gniklo no see benefit of me be speaker. They with you when escape . . . so unfortunate."
Dermott nodded, a toothy smile as predatory as any the kobold could wear on his face. "Throats could b'slit, blood spilt. Ya never know. Tha' Ixen might be there too."
"As you say. Anything possible. I make some quiet question. We not speak again, I think." Tichlas left them without another word, his nub twitching. Dako waited several heartbeats after the kobold was gone, his chest tight with fear, head pounding. There was no cry of alarm nor swift death on a spear point, and after a bit the wizard began to relax.
"Nice bit o' bullshit there, wizard. I'da thought ya was a con, easy as ya played tha kobold." The barbarian patted him on the back a bit too firmly.
Stumbling, Dako replied, "I just thought of my grandfather. He's notorious for getting the better end of any business deal. Not that I'm sure we got a better end. But it's something."
"Damn right it is! Jon couldna done us better. He'll be proud of ya, gettin' us outta this jam. Might be we'll turn ya rogue by the end of it?" Dermott laughed, "I can see it now. Jon fer brains, ya fer magic and my muscle. Unstoppable! We'll head ta Luskan an' get ya trained up, make some deals on tha port. Maybe ship out. Ya ever been on tha ocean?"
The wizard shook his head, "No. Never left my town until now." When he said it right out that way, it made him feel frightened of what they were doing. What he was doing. It seemed so much bigger than he was, a small town mixed blood elf with no training, barely old enough to be off a leash.
"All tha more reason. Ya never seen nothin' til ya've sailed outta Luskan on a raidin' ship. Ever' girl in tha port'll want a piece of ya, and maybe some o' tha men. Gold flowing inta yer purse and back out agin. Tha best wine an' women an' song a man can ask fer. And a salty sea breeze ta keep ya fresh an' spry." The barbarian made a happy groan as he fell back into his pile of furs. "Ya'll love it, wizard. Ever' minute."
Dako nodded, unsure if any of that sounded good. Maybe the getting trained part. He'd heard of the Arcane Brotherhood, of course. Grandfather had nothing good to say of them, but he didn't see why that should dissuade him. Grandfather had nothing good to day about him either, so maybe it would be a good fit. Some of the barbarian's optimism infected him. It was strange to feel so hopeful when they still had the impossible to do. But there it was. Daydreams of faraway ports and magical towers filled to the brim with texts haunted his studies.