The Bard began by playfully plucking out a sea shanty on his lute. “Marin had, quite by accident, joined the crew of a mad kobold captain who intended to relieve an ancient and unusually angry dragon of its treasure.”
He chuckled, and the music picked up in tempo. Every patron in the tavern felt their heart swell, and they stomped and clapped in time with the music. The Bard’s fingers danced on the strings, and he sang a song of flashing blades and swashbuckling heroics.
“But while the avarice of the candle-covered captain spoke to Marin’s soul, his role for Marin in the caper was not to our hero’s fancy. The only answer? MUTINY!”
Bait? Marin didn’t much like the sound of that. The time for playing the part of dutiful crew member was at an end. Quick as a scorpid’s sting, Marin grabbed the hilt of Candlebeard’s cutlass with one hand, then delivered a ringing right cross with the other as he pulled the blade from its scabbard.
Candlebeard staggered, clutching his snout in pain and groping for a cutlass that was no longer there. Finding that he’d been disarmed, the kobold pirate tried to flee, but Marin was far too quick. He flipped deftly over the kobold’s head and intercepted him with the point of the blade. Candlebeard raised his paws in surrender “Well, I’ll be scuppered.”
Marin swept his newfound blade into an elaborate duelist’s salute and addressed the “crew”. “Listen well, you piratical candle-heads! This is a mutiny!”
“I’m in charge, now!” He leveled his blade at Candlebeard. “Throw this one in the brig!” The crew milled around anxiously, adapting slowly to the sudden change in leadership.
“WELL? GET TO IT, YE BILGERATS!” Marin howled. The crew jumped and rushed to obey, bundling Candlebeard out of the room as he heaped an impressive array of curses on them.
Marin grinned and began looting the room. He didn’t intend to stick around while his orders were carried out. His stint as a pirate only had to last long enough to snatch the map and whatever other loot he could find among Candlebeard’s belongings.
Moments later, Marin left the pirate ship behind, new cutlass tucked into his belt, map in hand, and a glowing satchel he’d found hanging over his shoulder—something about it made him suspect it was larger on the inside than it was on the outside.
He picked a direction, rolled up the map, and started moving. He stuffed the map in the satchel, but felt an obstruction. Odd—it appeared empty when he’d liberated it. Rifling inside, he gathered up a fistful of soft fabric and. . . his hand disappeared! An invisibility cloak! A delightful surprise, and an even greater treasure than the satchel! Gleefully, he swept the cloak around his shoulders, flipped up the hood, and faded from view.
As he traveled and the terrain changed from natural caverns to finely worked white stone corridors, Marin reflected that the catacombs had a kind of geography to them, with perils to match. The troggs had established a kingdom here, a tangled lair of giant roots full of furbolgs grew there. Delve deep enough and you might even find a dragon. Speaking of which, after some twists, turns, and a few secret passages, he’d finally arrived at the glowing portal that should take him to his destination. Marin steeled himself and stepped into the light.
His stomach did somersaults as he passed though the portal. He emerged in a realm of giants. . . . if the giants had picked up and moved on eons ago, but forgot to turn off the lights.
Enormous white pillars lined a hall so large it could swallow a small castle with room to spare. Ornate geometric bas-reliefs crafted from an unfamiliar metal adorned the walls, and some of the elaborate stonework glowed mysteriously from within. There were alcoves, some containing figures that could be guardian statues, while others housed luminous figures that looked like constellations.
Marin noted a tension in the air, like an approaching thunderstorm brewing, and the hairs on forearms stood up. He felt like a mouse creeping through an abandoned manor, hunted by an unseen cat. Marin shuddered. Given the choice, he always preferred to be the cat.
It made sense that Vustrasz had made his lair in the former abode of Titans, though. This was one of the few places in the catacombs with space to spare for a venerable red dragon. The lair wasn’t far, according to the map. Marin just needed to climb a device that appeared to be an animated model of the celestial spheres, and clamber through a window. . . .
The peaked window looked out over a vast chamber—even larger than the hall he’d just left—and Marin found himself dazzled by reflected, golden light. The chamber was piled high with gold coins, sparkling gems the size of his head, ornate arms, armor, and countless other precious treasures. Marin blinked, dazed both by greed and the lustrous beauty of it all. He picked up a necklace with an enormous ruby pendant, admiring the way the gem caught the light before putting it on. This was the very shining stuff every dungeon delver’s dreams were made of!
He fought the impulse to take a running leap into a pile of coins. For one, he knew from experience that swimming in coins was rather painful. But also, Vustrasz the Ancient, known for his fiery breath and equally fiery temper, was slumbering peacefully on a pile of riches in the center of the chamber.
Marin was also disappointed to note that Vustrasz was not the hoard’s sole occupant. King Togwaggle was overseeing a swarm of kobolds, who were quietly affixing ropes to a monolithic treasure chest. Rotten luck that the bloated little monarch had survived, let alone shown up to steal from the very same hoard Marin was trying to rob.
And yet, the Kobold King’s presence might provide a useful distraction. . . .
Enjoying the benefit of invisibility, Marin spoke confidently, “Hey Togwaggle. I found that treasure you were looking for.”
Togwaggle gasped and peered about. Recognition blossomed on his face. “Stupid adventurer!” he hissed. “You is being too loud, be waking dragon and killing us all!”
“Us? I doubt it. You and your lot? Seems likely!” Marin strolled closer to the dragon’s head and raised his voice to a shout. “Ancient Vustrasz! I am your humble and virtuous servant, Marin the Fox! Wake and heed my warning!”
The huge dragon stirred, shifting on his bed of coins. The kobolds began desperately heaving at the ropes. Togwaggle wailed, “Human is crazy! Be getting treasure and be going, fools!”
The dragon stirred, but did not awaken.
Marin tried a different tack. He flipped the hood of the cloak back, rendering himself visible, and thumped on the dragon’s snout. “Hello? Vustrasz! Thieves! There are thieves in your treasure hoard!”
The dragon’s great golden eye snapped open. Marin had heard that red dragons were wise, and among the least likely to roast humans on sight. Nonetheless, he was painfully aware of his proximity to a set of jaws that could snap him up in a single bite. The dragon’s huge pupil contracted and fixed on Marin, who smiled and pointed helpfully in the direction of the kobolds.
The dragon heaved himself to his feet, sending gems and coins flying while Marin took cover.
“Thieves! Wretched looters!” the dragon roared. “You will pay for your greed!” The kobolds scattered in terror. The dragon bounded to the chest, clasping it in his claws, and loosed a torrent of flame at the fleeing kobolds.
“Yes, that will do nicely,” Marin thought. He hummed happily, to an accompaniment of shrieks, roars, and flame. He strolled the vast hoard, dropping choice pieces of loot into his satchel, which, it turned out, was in fact bigger on the inside! He was about to make his getaway when he spotted something that stole the breath from his lungs: the unmistakable form of Woecleaver, peeking out of a tall mound of gold coins! He couldn’t believe his luck!
It wouldn’t take the dragon long to finish off the kobolds, but this was a risk worth taking. He had to go for the axe! But hiking through a mountain of treasure is harder than you’d think. Mere steps before reaching his destination, Marin heard the whoosh of vast wings and an enormous red-scaled bulk filled his vision. Vustrasz had landed—right between him and the axe.
“Thank you for your timely warning, little man,” the dragon’s voice boomed. He craned his great head down to look Marin in the eye. “You are unusually honorable for one of your kind. Why, you’ve barely stolen anything at all.”
Marin stood dead still as a drop of sweat trickled down his brow. The dragon was toying with him.
“Oh? What is this?” Vustrasz reached out and plucked the satchel from Marin’s shoulder. He dangled the bag between two huge claws with surprising delicacy and shook it. It jingled. The dragon cut a slit into it with the flick of a claw. They both watched an improbably long stream of coins, gems, and other treasures pour out of the bag.
“I’ll just be going, then?” Marin squeaked.
“I think you should.” the dragon rumbled, and began to take a deep breath.
Marin flipped up his hood and popped out of sight, his disappearance catching Vustrasz by surprise. The dragon missed, and blasted the spot Marin had just occupied with a jet of flame.
“Show yourself, wretched thief!”
Marin did not show himself. Instead, as he ran, he snatched up a shield, tossed it face down onto the coins, and leapt on top of it. As if he were sledding on snow, he rode the shield down the sloping mound of treasure.
The shield betrayed Marin’s location though, and he heard a deafening roar as Vustrasz let loose another great gout of dragonfire. With miraculous timing, Marin clutched the corners of his cape and spread it like a sail to catch the blast wave as it arrived. Even so, the force of it nearly knocked Marin off of his feet. He fought desperately to keep the shield beneath him as the wave of searing air propelled him ahead of the flames with incredible speed.
With a combination of skill and luck, Marin guided his shield clear across the hoard and through an open doorway—one blessedly too small for the dragon. He shot out of the opening like a cork from a bottle, riding the skidding shield across the smooth stone floor. When his makeshift conveyance lost momentum, he leapt off and ran till he was out of breath. Then he ran some more. Then he crawled for a while, and hid. Once he was sure that the dragon wasn’t in pursuit, he allowed himself to stop and marvel at his luck. He was singed and largely loot-free, but still alive. After running up against a dragon? That was a good day.
He hadn’t been entirely successful in his mission, but Marin consoled himself with the fact that this wasn’t the end of the adventure. Quite the contrary—it was just the beginning! Time to head back to the tavern to gather Oakheart and the rest of the guild. The kobolds, the catacombs, and that glorious, glorious treasure would be waiting.
The Bard took a deep bow as the tavern erupted into hearty cheers. He basked in the appreciation, but soon enough, it was back to business as usual: card games resumed, drink orders were placed, and friendly laughter could be heard all around.
Satisfied, the Bard packed his instrument in its worn leather case. It was good to see happy people, and he loved to spin a yarn here. The crowd was always warm and the brew was crisp and cold. Now to count the night’s take!
He peered into the cauldron and, for the first time ever in his career as a troubadour, was struck speechless. He reached inside, and from among the gold, silver, and copper, retrieved a golden necklace with an enormous ruby pendant. His eyes darted over the bustling tavern crowd, but of course, there were no clues as to who left the jewel. The Bard began to chuckle.
Then he laughed. He laughed long and loud.