Chapter 2: The Legend Hides a Secret, Poorly
"They are awfully short, aren't they?"
The Seer of Eilistraee looked down at the three adventurers standing before her. The gnome seemed competent enough, and the kobold had an undeniable zest for heroism, but as for the goblin…
She approached said goblin cautiously, not wanting to frighten the obviously skittish creature. Skittishness was not a quality the Seer particularly wanted in her savior, but she assumed her goddess had a reason for sending this most unusual of specimens. At least, she fervently hoped so.
"Hello, Grovel," she said soothingly. "I am the Seer." Grovel was staring at the ground, shaking like a leaf. "Please, Grovel, do not be afraid. You are among friends here."
A snort came from the back of the temple. Nathyrra elbowed the snorter in the side, but he didn't feel the poke through his green plate mail. His ice blue eyes narrowed as he stepped forward. "With all due respect, Seer, you know I don't believe in your visions. I have never questioned your convictions before now, but in this instance I feel I have no choice." He took a deep breath. "Do you honestly believe that the one who will save us from the Valsharess is this… goblin?" He nearly choked on this last word.
The Seer hesitated before she responded. She quickly glanced at Grovel, who was fiercely shaking his head "no". She closed her eyes and silently offered a brief prayer to Eilistraee before turning to face the questioning tiefling. "I have faith in my goddess. I only ask you to have faith in me, Valen. Can you do that?"
Valen looked down like a scolded child and muttered, "Yes." Nathyrra elbowed him again, and thinking he needed to repeat himself, shouted, "YES!"
The tiefling's booming voice echoed off the temple walls. Deekin dropped his quill in surprise. Grovel fell to the floor and covered his head with his skinny arms, moaning something unintelligible. Tree Branch opened her eyes for the briefest of moments (they had, of course, been closed in meditation) and satisfied there was no immediate danger closed them once again. The Seer eyed Valen narrowly. "We heard you the first time, Valen."
Valen tried to explain that he was responding to Nathyrra's prodding, but the Seer had returned her attention to the moaning goblin. The tiefling turned to fix Nathyrra with one of his fiercest glares, but Nathyrra, being the cunning drow she was, had already hidden back in the shadows. Valen spun around looking for her, garnering snickers from Deekin, who quickly found himself the recipient of the warrior's angry eyes instead.
While this silent drama unfolded behind her, the Seer knelt beside Grovel and gently uncurled him from his protective ball. "Now, Grovel," she began seriously, "I have explained our predicament to you. You know we need allies, and you know we need to crush the alliances of the Valsharess. Which course of action do you plan to take first?"
Grovel continued to moan a little longer, and then he looked the Seer straight in her endless silver eyes and said, "The temple floor is very dirty, very very dirty, yes. Grovel can clean it for you, yes, yes, yes. Much better plan than yours, yes, very much better. Grovel not kill the Valsharess, no, no—OWW OWW OWW OWW OWW! NO MORE POKING, STOP THE POKING, NO, NO, NO!"
Grovel began bouncing from foot to foot, screeching at the top of his weak little lungs. Deekin rolled his eyes and tugged on Tree Branch's cloak. "Umm… Boss?" The druid opened her eyes and took in the scene before her. "Boss should explain to drow about Stupid Goblin's deal with Crazy Mage, maybe."
Tree Branch sighed in agreement and walked over to the goblin, seizing his tiny shoulders to stop his jumping. "Grovel, repeat after me: 'I will kill the Valsharess.'"
"But Grovel not want to kill the Valsharess, no—OWW, POKEY POKEY, STOP! Okay, fine! Grovel will kill the Valsharess!" Grovel froze, waiting for the pain to return; when it did not, he collapsed into Tree Branch's arms.
Tree Branch dropped the goblin unceremoniously to the ground, turned to face the Seer, and said, "Grovel is under the power of a geas. He must kill the Valsharess, or Halaster the Mad will kill him. He is…" she glanced at the prone creature on the floor, "less than enthusiastic about this arrangement. That is why I am here, to ensure he survives long enough to keep his end of the bargain and restore the balance of power to the Underdark. You have my word that we shall either succeed in our quest or perish in the attempt."
Normally such a statement would be said in such a way as to express the speaker's confidence in the former result, but not so with Tree Branch. She seemed indifferent to the prospect of perishing, rather too indifferent, the Seer thought. "We are grateful for your assistance in this matter, surfacer," she said. "I think it best, however, if Nathyrra and Valen join you as well. To provide extra assistance."
Tree Branch shrugged. "It makes no difference to me. Grovel?" She nudged him, not exactly gently, with her foot. The goblin did not move. "I do not think he will object," said the druid. She looked at their new companions. "We will depart as soon as our leader is sufficiently recovered."
"'Our leader,'" repeated Nathyrra with a smirk. "How do you feel about taking orders from a goblin, hmm Valen?"
Valen scowled. "I feel sick to my stomach."
"Ooo, really? Deekin feels that way, too. Did Goatman eats some of that nasty bread over there? Deekin does, and Deekin thinks that not be such a good idea, maybe. This one time, Old Master eats some bad pie—Deekin's old master be scary white dragon, by the ways—and Old Master, he says…"
Valen stared at the kobold, and then he handed his massive flail to Nathyrra. "You'd better hold on to this for a while," he told her through gritted teeth. "All of us will be safer if it is in your hands."
Tree Branch was unhappy. She hadn't seen the sky in days, and she could barely remember what a cool breeze felt like. She didn't dislike being underground, per say—earth is an important part of nature, after all—but she liked to balance her time beneath the surface with time above it.
And this place wasn't even what being underground was supposed to feel like. She frowned at the tall, intricately designed buildings around her. After spending so much time in Halaster's meticulously crafted dungeons, she longed to be surrounded by natural rock. No, Lith My'athar was far too polished.
"Tell me, Nathyrra," she asked the drow woman beside her, "is all of the Underdark so… urban?"
Nathyrra laughed. "Far from it, I'm afraid. Once you leave the city gates you will find the Underdark at its bleakest, most barren, and most unforgiving."
Tree Branch smiled her slightly off-putting smile. "That sounds wonderful. I hope we can go there soon."
Nathyrra and Valen exchanged raised eyebrows over the gnome's head, but they were soon distracted by the sound of high-pitched shrieking.
"AHHHHHHH!" screamed Grovel and Deekin. They streaked past the others in a tiny humanoid blur; tight on their heels was a herd of stampeding rothe. Bringing up the rear was a very angry herdsman, shouting a continuous stream of curses in drow. Valen and Nathyrra jumped into the fray to try to control the creatures. Tree Branch merely sighed and closed her eyes, retreating from the chaos that threatened to overwhelm her. The rothe, perhaps sensing her innate connection to nature or perhaps disgusted by the smell of gnomes, gave the meditating druid a wide berth. Deekin noticed this and dove for his boss's ankles, wailing his Doom Song at the top of his lungs.
Grovel was not as observant as his kobold cohort and found himself running straight at one of the temple walls. He turned around and desperately pulled out Enserric. "You ugly cows stay away from Grovel, yes, yes, yes!" he shrieked, brandishing the tiny blade with all the authority he could muster.
The rothe seemed mesmerized by the sight of the glowing sword, but Enserric himself was less enthralled by his adversaries. "I refuse to be taken into battle against these subterranean cattle! This is beneath me! Put me away at once, you useless goblin!" Fortunately for the vain blade, the herdsman was able to corral the now-docile rothe, and Grovel shoved the whining sword back into his belt.
Once all the rothe had been subdued, the herdsman marched up to Tree Branch and hissed, "You need to keep a tighter leash on your pets, gnome."
Tree Branch opened her eyes, surprised to see the drow standing before you. "And you are…?" she asked in confusion.
"I am the drow who owns the rothe your stupid servants let loose!"
"Ah, I see," replied Tree Branch, her interest in the man now gone. "I feel I should inform you that you are mistaken about many things. First, I have neither servants nor pets. Deekin and Grovel are creatures of their own free will, and it is not my place to dictate their actions, however foolish or dangerous they might be. Second, the rothe you speak of also have wills of their own, and they do not like to be kept in that pen of yours. They find it highly unnatural, and I find that I agree with them. If you are looking for an apology from me, you will not be receiving one." She closed her eyes again, signaling that the conversation was over.
The drow herdsman waved his arms in frustration for a few moments in a remarkable imitation of a bird attempting its first flight before finally spitting at Tree Branch's feet. Since Deekin was still curled tightly around said feet, he found himself with an eyeful of drow saliva. "Yuck!" he said as he tried to rub it away. "Nasty Drow Man needs to be learning some manners, Deekin thinking."
"I will not be spoken to in such a tone, especially not by a kobold!" screamed the herdsman, and he kicked poor Deekin in the head. Grovel snickered at this, carefully hiding his face with his hands, but stopped the instant Tree Branch's eyes snapped open. The druid intoned a few quick words and kneeled with her palms flat on the ground. Grovel heard a low rumbling and instinctively jumped into a nearby barrel. Unfortunately for the herdsman, he did not possess Grovel's keen survival skills and screamed in shock as the ground beneath his feet opened up to swallow him whole.
Tree Branch stood and brushed off her hands. She noticed Valen and Nathyrra staring at her and said simply, "He was disrupting the balance of this place." She breathed deeply and nodded in satisfaction. "This city is much more harmonious without his presence."
Valen's eyes narrowed. "You don't make many friends, do you?"
"No," Tree Branch agreed. "That is by design." Valen seemed on the verge of saying something more, but Tree Branch turned around. "Where is our fearless leader, I wonder?" she asked the air.
Valen looked at Nathyrra. "Is she being sarcastic?" he asked uncertainly.
"I honestly can't tell," Nathyrra answered, just as uncertainly. The two watched as the enigmatic druid pulled Grovel kicking and screaming out of his safety barrel and set him on the ground. The goblin proceeded to wander off in the direction of the river, away from the now aimlessly grazing rothe. Nathyrra glanced back at them as she and the others followed the goblin, wondering what the Seer would think of their savior's first step toward saving them all.
Grovel kicked at a rock, sending it scurrying down the path. The winged elf sitting on the ground nearby looked up briefly before returning to his examination of the burned book Deekin and Nathyrra had brought him. They had given it to him in exchange for a broken mirror shard, and the shard now resided in Grovel's anxious hands.
The forlorn goblin looked around him, wondering when the others would return. He had chosen to visit the islands first because it kept him farther away from those scary rothe-cows. That stupid kobold had wanted to get closer so he could sketch them for his stupid book and ended up setting them loose in the process, and Grovel had no desire to see them again any time soon. Their trip across the river had been mostly uneventful, though Nathyrra and Valen had had to stop Tree Branch from jumping in the water a few times. Grovel generally liked his druid protector, but she was undoubtedly odd about rocks and rivers and such. A very strange woman, indeed.
Once arriving on the island, they had visited a creepy old palace populated with drow-spider things that Grovel felt certain Halaster would have loved to bring to Undermountain, and there they had learned that they needed to find five pieces of a broken magic mirror. The group had decided to split up, hoping that would help them find more of the shards before a rival drow dressed in red (Grovel couldn't remember her name, but he was sure it was something ominous sounding.). Valen and Nathyrra had been reluctant to leave the others to their own devices, and given Deekin's habit of calling Valen "Goatman" the tiefling had quickly claimed Tree Branch for his partner. They had headed west, Nathyrra and Deekin had headed east, and Grovel had been left in the middle to guard any shards the others brought back. The number of shards had been stuck at one for quite some time, and Grovel was starting to worry. He kicked at another rock, but unfortunately he misjudged the size of this stone and stubbed his toe. The elf merchant dispassionately watched the screaming goblin hop around for a while before returning to examining his illegible book.
The pain in Grovel's toe finally subsided, and the goblin sat down to rest from the exhausting physical effort involved in hopping. He pulled Enserric out of the tiny sheath he had managed to fashion for it, and the sword immediately yelled, "Why do you yell so much, you irritating creature?! Yelling is bad for adventurers, it attracts unwanted enemies and other—"
"Shut up, sword," muttered Grovel. "Grovel just wants to watch you glow. Grovel finds glowing comforting, yes, yes, yes."
Enserric was taken aback, though there was no way for Grovel to see that. "I am not a candle for your amusement!" he sputtered. "I am a weapon of great power, and I demand to be treated as such!"
Grovel rolled his eyes and shoved the sword back in its sheath over much protesting. He picked up the shard again, and noticing it had some soot on it from being in a burning library, he frantically began cleaning it with a rag he kept especially for this purpose, all the while watching closely for any sign of his companions. Grovel scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, and still his friends did not appear. He found himself yawning in spite of himself. "Grovel not fall asleep, no, no, no. The others will be angry with Grovel if they find him sleeping, yes, yes, yes, especially the one with the horns, oh, yes. Grovel must stay awake!"
Desperate to find something to stimulate his brain, which was surprisingly harder than it sounds, Grovel put the now shining mirror shard aside and pulled out something that he hadn't shown any of the others. It was something he had found in Undermountain, long before he had met Tree Branch and Deekin, and he had kept it with him ever since. It looked like a rock, but it was lighter than any normal rock of its size. It also glowed with a faint red light, which was why Grovel was convinced it was magical. Grovel had not been able to determine if the rock had any powers besides glowing, but he found himself extremely reluctant to part with it. In fact, he was quite confident that he would rather die than let someone take this rock from him, and Grovel was not a goblin who threw his life around lightly. He stared at the softly glowing light and felt himself begin to relax. He blinked a few times, and all his worries seemed to melt away…
"AAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!" screamed Grovel as he opened his eyes to see a drow woman bending over him. It took a few moments for him to realize that said drow was the nice Nathyrra, not the evil scary lady he had seen in his dreams. Unfortunately, it took him a few moments longer to make this realization than was healthy, and he promptly passed out.
"Grovel?" Nathyrra asked, concern clearly written on her face.
Deekin poked the goblin's foot. "Stupid Goblin forgets to breathe whiles he screams, Deekin thinking. He shoulds be fine soon, Drow Lady," the kobold said reassuringly.
Nathyrra stroked the poor goblin's head for a moment, and then she noticed something grasped tightly in his tiny hand. She tried to pry the item loose, but as soon as she tugged at it, Grovel snapped straight up. "No, no, no!" he shrieked at Nathyrra. "This is Grovel's rock! No one's but Grovel's, no, no, no!"
"Okay, okay, Grovel, it's yours, I won't take it," Nathyrra said quickly. "Now, are you feeling alright? Are you hurt in any way?"
"Grovel not hurt, kind lady, no, no, no. Grovel just had bad dream is all, yes—STOP POKING GROVEL'S FOOT, NASTY KOBOLD!" Deekin responded by sticking his tongue out at him in a most immature manner. Nathyrra took a deep breath, summoning all the patience she possessed to deal with these two, but she was mercifully spared from facing this great challenge alone.
"Look!" cried Deekin, pointing in the distance. "Boss be back!"
Tree Branch had indeed returned, a very grumpy Valen following close behind. "Good, everyone is here," said the druid briskly. "The tiefling and I found two mirror shards. How many did you two find?"
"We found two as well, but the avariel queen told us she gave the last shard to Sabal," Nathyrra replied.
Tree Branch seemed undisturbed by this news, but she so rarely appeared disturbed by anything that it was truly difficult to say how she felt about it. "I did not expect our task to be quite so easy," she said simply.
"Easy!" cried Valen. "Please, my lady, explain to me what about this adventure has been easy! We spend an eternity running around a mad wizard's tower, with you continuing to cast spells even though they were clearly not working properly, and then I get cursed by a fanatical priest of Talona and am forced to fight a ridiculous assortment of pathetic creatures to prove my worth to his worthless goddess! How is that easy?!"
The gnome was not moved by this outburst. "In response to your first complaint, I was of course not going to stop casting spells. I am a druid; I cast spells as part of my combat style. And I would not expect you to notice, but some of them did work properly. Temporarily turning you into a squirrel was a small price to pay for mortally wounding that deluded apprentice." (The thought of Valen as a squirrel prompted a brief "heh, heh, heh," from Grovel which was quickly silenced by one of the tiefling's patented icy glares.) "In response to your second complaint, you were under no obligation to participate in the priest's trial. Since you clearly had no respect for his goddess, you could have just killed him and taken the antidote from his dead body. That is what I would have done if I were you."
"Then why didn't you?" Valen asked in exasperation. "You could have saved me a lot of pain!"
Tree Branch looked at him in confusion. "It was not my place to do so. You had made your choice, and the battle was yours to face alone. I was not about to get involved in something that did not concern me."
Valen stared at the woman in disbelief. "Gets used to it, Goatman," Deekin offered helpfully. "Boss never involves herself in things unless you asks her nicely."
Tree Branch gave the kobold the tiniest of smiles. "That is not entirely true, Deekin. I have also been known to respond to direct orders and violent threats, from time to time." She returned her gaze to Valen and crossed her arms. "Regardless, this argument is pointless. We have all the mirror shards we are capable of finding, so we should return to the palace as quickly as possible."
She began to walk off in that direction, but Nathyrra called her back. "Wait, Tree Branch, I think something is wrong with Grovel."
Tree Branch walked back to the goblin and peered at him closely. "He appears to be perfectly healthy to me," she assessed. "Well, as healthy as he ever is. We must accept that he will never be in prime physical condition, I am afraid."
"No, that's not what I mean. He woke up screaming and said he was having a terrible nightmare. He actually passed out."
"That is hardly a novel occurrence, Nathyrra," said Tree Branch, attempting a wry smile, which failed miserably. "He usually resumes consciousness after a few minutes have passed."
"But that's not what happened," Nathyrra said, lowering her voice to a whisper. "He was out cold, but as soon as I tried to take something out of his hand, he woke up instantly alert. He wouldn't let me see or touch whatever he was holding, saying it was his rock, only his."
The stoic druid actually raised an eyebrow at this news (only one, of course; two raised eyebrows were reserved for only the most earth-shattering information). She kneeled next to Grovel and asked him, "Are you feeling alright after your nightmare?"
"Yes, yes, yes, Grovel is in tip-top shape, tippy-tippy-top," the goblin muttered, even faster than normal. "Grovel is fine, just fine."
Tree Branch's eyes narrowed. "Do you want to tell me about this rock of yours, Grovel?"
"No, no, no! That is Grovel's rock, not yours, not yours!"
Tree Branch continued to watch him closely as he attempted to shove the rock into his belt without being noticed. When enough time had passed for him to feel confident that he had succeeded, the gnome said, "Very well, Grovel. Since this is not a problem, I expect never to hear about it again, yes?"
"Yes, yes, yes!" Grovel nodded manically.
Tree Branch stared at the goblin a moment longer, and then stood up. "I am satisfied the goblin is fit to travel. Let us be off."
"Yay, yay, adventure time!" Grovel cried with a show of forced happiness. He raced ahead of Tree Branch and skipped down the trail toward the avariel palace. Nathyrra followed closely, not convinced by Grovel's act. Valen frowned as the others walked away. "I do not trust that goblin," he said under his breath.
"Deekin not trusts him either, Goatman!" Deekin exclaimed. "Havings suspicions about Stupid Goblin, being frustrated by Boss's unheroicness… More things uniting the two brave adventurers! Deekin can't waits to finds out what else he and Goatman has in common!" He flashed the tiefling a toothy grin. Valen stared blankly back; his voice was tightly controlled as he yelled, "Nathyrra! I need you to take my flail again…"