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Cave Dwellers

by Jason Norton

Percival hated the smell of goblins. It was decidedly distinct, as if rotten meat had been buried in a swamp then exhumed years later. It hung heavy in the cave, but he saw no evidence of the creatures. Perhaps they’d moved on. Goblin stench was that powerful; it could remain pungent for weeks in such damp environments.

Validor led the party, Jarl pulled up the rear. They were the only ones carrying torches. Percival’s staff glowed pale green, skewing the flame’s hue against the mottled walls.

Validor had almost come to blows with the cleric over the illumination. If goblins were still onsite, the spell would camouflage them, leaving the party blind to a sneak attack, Validor insisted.

Headstrong as ever, the cleric ignored him. The rest of the group was accustomed to the pair’s predictable bickering.

“Are you reading the map correctly, Jarl?” Validor asked, his annoyance palpable. “We’ve walked at least a hundred paces past the spiraled arch. We should have seen the fissure by now.”

“We dwarves are the best cartographers in the five realms. I’ve drawn more maps than you’ve read, I’ll wager.” Jarl bristled at the tall warrior. “Either the map is wrong or this portal of yours doesn’t exist.”

Tilting his torch toward the wall, Jarl ran his hands along the cool stone. Perplexed, he cocked his twin-horned helmet sideways and scratched his brow. “Maybe it’s hidden. Maybe enchanted,” he said.

“Not likely,” Percival said. “I would’ve felt it.” The boast was intentional. Percival was vastly inferior in physicality to Validor. But he was a powerful caster and strongly attuned to the inaudible “call” of the arcane. His inherent ability had saved the party from more than one mystical calamity.

Validor’s torch flickered as a breeze gusted through the shaft. “I suggest we double back. Neither Percival’s little light show nor our torchlight will last much longer,” he said. Jarl agreed, eyeing his own dwindling torch.

“Darsen,” Percival addressed the thief, who slinked in the shadows behind the group. “Can you find the portal?”

“Perhaps,” the thin man replied, characteristically terse. Likewise, he usually underplayed his proficiency. It was typical for those in his profession. Truthfully, Darsen was a master at sniffing out nearly anything someone else preferred to keep hidden.

“Map,” he said, gesturing a gloved hand toward Validor. The warrior passed his torch to Percival, hesitantly fishing the map from his tunic. Although a deft leader, Validor relinquished power abhorrently, even in such tiny gestures. Deferring to Darsen’s superiority only magnified his disgust.

Validor disliked Percival; he hated Darsen.

Validor despised thieves, and objected adamantly when Jarl insisted the group recruit the man to help recover the Earl of Glenmoore’s daughter from marauders. Darsen discovered the kidnappers’ camp, allowing his party to ambush the marauders and save the fair maiden. But when the time came to collect the Earl’s reward, Validor insisted that the thief receive the most paltry share since he’d seen no actual combat.

Darsen relented, later helping himself to the balance of Validor’s portion while the warrior slept off an intoxicated celebration in a barmaid’s bed. Though never provable, Validor long suspected Darsen’s deceit.

“This way,” Darsen said, turning south after studying the map. He moved slowly, allowing Jarl to keep pace with the torch.

“We should hurry,” Percival urged, cradling the head of the blue-black war hammer hanging from his belt. “Goblins are still in here. I sense a caster in their midst; he likely senses me.”

“Close,” Darsen murmured. Percival hoped he was referring to the portal and not to the goblins.

Halting abruptly, Darsen turned to the eastern wall. “Here,” he said, running his fingers along the fissured stone. No further evidence supported his declaration.

Validor held his dim torch upright, searching for any sign of an entrance. “There’s nothing here,” he said. “We’re wasting our time.”

“Hidden,” Darsen replied, his tactile search unfazed.

Thunk, came a sound, but not from the door.

“What was that?” Jarl asked, drawing his battle axe.

Thunk. Clink clink. Thunk. Gguuuuurrrrrllllllll....

“Goblins!” Percival shouted. “Darsen, hurry!”

The thief skittered his fingers against the wall, hunting for a clue. The rest of the group circled, their backs tight to one another in a defensive hedge.

“South. Near,” Percival confirmed, before the others could ask. Validor moved to the point, his broadsword readied for the onslaught they could all hear just footsteps away.

Suddenly, Validor felt a cold pressure beneath the middle buckler of his breastplate. It was immediately followed by warmth. He turned. It wasn’t goblins. He could still hear them in front of him. But there, a stride away, stood Darsen. He was smiling.

* * *

“You backstabbed me, Alex? Really? You suck!” Robbie erupted, swatting the metal figurine of Validor from the table.

“You had it coming,” the other teen fired back. “You disgraced me in front of the Grey Brethren! Now I’ll never be a member of the Guild,” he said, sipping his soda as he dug another pretzel from the bowl.

“That was six months ago! You’ve been planning this for half a year?”

“I’m patient,” Alex replied, nonplussed, as the other boys repressed smiles.

Robbie stood, gathering his jacket and gloves. “I hope you didn’t know about this, Doug. I was fifteenth level,” Robbie said to the game’s arbitrator. “Fifteenth level, Alex,” he repeated. “You could’ve at least had the guts to fight me face to face.”

“Darsen wouldn’t do that. I played to form,” Alex said, defending his imaginary murderer.

“He’s right, Robbie,” Percival — known to his peers at Greendale High as Steven — agreed.

“Whatever,” Robbie said, donning his coat. “I’m done with this group. I’m going to start playing with the homeschoolers. They’re dorks but you can trust them,” he said, storming out of the Taylors’ basement.

“Dick,” Alex said.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I can’t believe he’s my brother.”

Copyright © 2013 by Jason Norton

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