by Glenn Bresciani
Part 1 appears in this issue.
The midday sun is directly above when I descend into the well, sunshine warming the top of my head, even when I reach the bottom. I can’t see my employers, so I’m guessing they’re hiding inside the tunnel.
I have guessed correctly; the Stealth-stabber’s voice comes from the narrow strip of darkness that is the tunnel entrance. “What do goblins have to talk about?”
“The usual stuff: their feelings, their fears. Goblins aren’t much different to humans.”
I notice the streaks of mold on the damp walls. Hopefully, it’s non-toxic.
“Buggah that! Ya should’ve stabbed ’em all in the head with a sword. That’s what they’re gonna do to us when we leave.”
The Magic-maker clears his throat. “The goblins will be of no concern once we have Shellefen’s dagger. I can use it to blast us out of this castle.”
Ah, I was wrong about the Magic-maker. He isn’t in the tunnel; he’s standing beside me, hidden by an invisibility spell.
I remove my backpack, dropping into a crouch so it’s easier to open.
“You gave us your word that you could pacify a troll,” says the Magic-maker. He must be pacing as I could hear the pebbles crunching under his boots. “Trolls don’t speak. How will your Sociomancy deal with that?”
“There are other ways to communicate,” I say, using a flint striker to spark up some tinder from my tinder box. “I can see that you’re both feeling frustrated. My talents must seem unusual.”
I introduce the small flame to the lantern’s wick. Light flows through the tunnel entrance, exposing the Stealth-stabber. His sword is drawn, hostility etched into his frown.
A roar reverberates along the tunnel. The Stealth-stabber flinches, balances on the balls of his feet, ready to flee. I can only hear the Magic-maker’s whimper.
Leaving my backpack on the floor of the well, I enter the tunnel, my lantern pushing back the darkness. “The troll will make a lot of noise when I approach it. Don’t be concerned; it’s just being territorial.”
The Stealth-stabber grabs the sleeve of my tunic as I walk past him. “Make sure ya lead the troll into an open space. It’s the only way I can remove the dagger.”
I nod, attach a smile to the gesture.
“And don’t aggravate the troll. I don’t wanna see those gems on the dagger gettin’ scratched. They’re worth a lot of money.”
“You’re not removing the gems!” shouts the Magic-maker.
“Go,” says the Stealth-stabber with a sneer, letting go of my sleeve. “Tell the troll I said hi.”
Twenty feet into the tunnel, I notice an adventurer, their broken corpse sprawled across the floor, their broken sword beside them. The head is missing, either bitten off, or pulled off — I can’t tell which.
Another ten feet along the tunnel, the circle of lantern light reveals a four-way intersection.
The troll’s roar blasts out of the tunnel I am facing, and I move forward. The tunnel is eight feet high and three feet wide. I only mention this because the troll is eleven feet high with the same width as a cart.
The tunnel connects to a massive rectangular room. My lantern light illuminates only a small portion of this extensive space, with smashed wood littering the floor. The wood could have been anything from furniture, to barrels, or boxes on shelves. Whatever it was, it has gone to rot, providing fertilizer to a colony of drab mushrooms.
I stride forward; the lantern light smashing through the darkness like a battering ram. The room is a graveyard for dead adventurers and their swords, each corpse a failed attempt to win Shellefen’s dagger.
The sword blades start to rattle. The floor is vibrating! I feel the quivers through the soles of my boots.
I hear the troll’s movements, like a wet bear skin rug being dragged across a stone floor. I stride forward until the lantern light collides into a wall, the light exposing another tunnel.
The vibrations intensify the moment I step into this tunnel, wobbling my calf muscles. A thunderous roar has my ears ringing from now until tomorrow.
I pass a side passage, tighter than the tunnel I’m in. I will nominate this passage to be my emergency exit, should I fail to calm the troll.
Finally, that confrontational moment that has killed dozens of adventuring parties is upon me. The troll drags itself into the circle of light, its bulk so tightly packed into the tunnel that it may as well be declared a wall. Its flat face is pressed into its square head, sharp teeth framed by curved tusks. Those clawed hands, big enough to wring my body like a wet rag. The ringing in my ears may have muted the troll’s roar, but I still feel its breath, as hot and muggy as a humid summer day.
How is it that such a large creature can fit into a human-sized space? The secret is in a troll’s ability to dislocate its bones.
The troll has relocated its shoulder blades to a forward position, decreasing its shoulder width. All of the bones that make up the ribcage are flattened and separated, giving it an elongated torso. Its legs are limp and bendy like cooked noodles. Clawed fingertips pierce the floor, the troll dragging its wobbly, rubbery mass through the tunnel with its hands.
Mesmerized by the troll’s ferocity, I wonder what would be worse: having my head bitten off by the troll’s pointy overbite, or having my face pushed into the back of my skull by one whack of the troll’s blockish head.
I hold the wineskin above my head, give it a vigorous shake. There’s no need to speak; the troll understands the language of wine.
The sloshing liquid is loud as I walk backwards along the tunnel, heading for the spacious room. The troll goes wherever the wine goes, its cooing laced with desire.
Passing the side passage I had spotted only moments before, I glimpse rainbow fragments glittering along the troll’s left ribcage. The glitter that has caught my eye is light reflecting off the gems adorning Shellefen’s dagger.
Trying to appease a hostile troll by offering it wine, what am I thinking? What if the troll doesn’t like wine? Or it isn’t thirsty? What if the troll drinks only white wine and all I have is red wine?
The truth is that I already know this troll won’t kill me. In fact, I know everything there is to know about this troll. After all, I’m the one who wrote its behavioral plan.
You see, each Sociomancer is assigned a zone. My zone is this forest. All the monsters who reside in this forest make up my caseload. My role as a Sociomancer is to study them, to learn their personalities and document them, so they can be used as a guide during my social interaction with each case.
This troll, who is case number thirty-nine, will bully humans or humanoids until they hand over their coins. It will then proceed to the highway and approach a heavily armed merchant caravan, to purchase a flagon of wine.
One day — hopefully in my lifetime — the people of the kingdoms will ditch their swords in the grass, leaving them to rust, and embrace Sociomancy. Under the guidance of a Sociomancer, the people will talk to goblins, walk with ogres, or play with trolls, welcoming all monsters into their communities. That is my dream. That is why I chose Sociomancy.
The troll screams in pain, a sound charged with more rage than its belligerent roar. Behind the monster, I spot the Stealth-stabber, his feet wide apart, keeping himself balanced as he pushes the blade of his sword deeper into the troll’s side.
With alarming speed, the troll drops its shoulders and head low to the floor, raising its buttocks to the same height as the Stealth-stabber’s head. A shriek of surprise is muffled as two pillows of flesh grip my employer’s head.
The troll clenches its buttocks, shattering the Stealth-stabber’s neck and skull.
Having neutralized the threat behind it, the troll can attack the threat directly in front of it. Oh, for Mahla’s sake! That would be me.
I flee, to distance myself from biting teeth and slashing claws, but — as always — the troll is faster. One slap of its hand sends me airborne, my body gliding out of the tunnel and into the spacious room. What goes up must come down and, when I do, I’m engulfed by pain the same way fire engulfs a log that has been tossed into a bonfire.
My lantern shattering on the floor is a worry. My wineskin flip-flopping across the floor is a relief. The wineskin didn’t burst; I still have wine to calm the troll, but how will I find it without a light?
In the darkness, the vibrations I feel along the floor have stopped. I shudder, listening to bones wriggling inside the troll, the pop, pop, popping of joints reinserting themselves into sockets.
In this room, it has ample space to walk freely, to swing its arms about, to kill me if I don’t hurry up and find that wineskin.
I crawl in circles, my hands moving faster in every direction. All I can feel is cold, damp flagstones. I clench my teeth against the agony burrowing through the torn tendons in my wrist. The troll’s feet pound the floor only a few feet away.
My fingertips brush the wineskin’s strap. There it is! Where did it go? It was right here? It must be over there. If only I had a light.
I hear humming, with a melody that is bright and breezy. A sudden burst of light, as if the sun had dropped out of the sky to join me in this adventure.
The Magic-maker stands beside the troll, the light radiating from a ball he holds high above his head. With his other hand, he reaches for Shellefen’s dagger, yanks the blade out of the troll.
The Magic-maker backs away from the troll, drops into a fighting stance.
“Feel the power of Shellefen!” he shouts, pointing the dagger at the troll the same way he would a wand. He is triumphant, and so he should be. He has the dagger, he has the power. If Shellefen’s dagger could blast a griffon out of the sky, imagine what it would do to a troll.
I drop to the floor, shield my eyes with my hands. No way will I allow my eyeballs to be melted by a magical blast.
The Magic-maker gasps, his voice trembling. “What? No!”
I look up to see dainty lights radiating from the gems set in the dagger’s handle. The lights shift and pulse like a rainbow trapped in a kaleidoscope. I wouldn’t say the dagger’s magic is lethal, but it sure is pleasing to the eye. I can’t stop looking at it.
The rainbow swirl loops in on itself, the pattern is relentless. I can’t tell if the colored lights are expanding to fill my vision or the pattern is pulling my mind towards the dagger. What I do know is that I’m captivated by the rainbow dazzle, but not in an enthralling way, more of a terrifying way, as if I’ve been strapped into a chair of torture. I have no control over my mind or body.
At the edge of my peripheral vision, I glimpse the troll lunging at the Magic-maker, its lower jaw dislocating so a human-sized head can fit into its mouth. Shellefen’s dagger slips out of my employer’s fingers, clatters on the flagstones. The Magic-maker’s headless body teeters on wobbly knees before collapsing next to the dagger.
I’m back! My mind, it’s mine once again. And my mind is screaming at my body to move, move, MOVE! Away from the troll before it pulverizes my innards with one slap of its hand. I stumble sideways, the troll’s fist striking the space where I stood only a heartbeat before.
I glimpse the wineskin, dive for it.
The troll roars, stomps after me, raising its foot to squish my prone body under its heel.
Kneeling before the troll, I offer it the wineskin.
A grunt of surprise hijacks the troll’s fury. It lowers its raised foot, sniffing the half-gallon of wine I hold in my hands, the corners of its mouth curve upward, forming the shape of delight.
The troll snatches the wineskin out of my hands, squats in front of me, squeezing the wineskin to shoot a dark red stream into its mouth.
I leave the troll to it, slowly backing away from the monster, moving towards the Magic-maker’s corpse. The troll is too focused on the pleasure of fine wine to concern itself with me, so I needn’t worry as I kneel to retrieve Shellefen’s dagger.
What an amazing weapon! This Shellefen was a genius.
A dagger blasting magical energy — Ha! What’s the use of that if a sword-wielding enemy dodges the attack? All it takes is one swing of a sword to kill a magic-maker.
Shellefen’s solution was to enchant her dagger with hypnosis magic, to hypnotize any threat that threatens her life with a sword. Hypnotizing her foe gave her the option either to stun them long enough to slash her dagger across her attacker’s throat or to suggest that they do something other than attacking her.
It’s just a shame Shellefen had to find out the hard way that trolls are resistant to her dagger’s hypnosis.
What’s even more of a shame is that many adventurers have risked their lives — no, lost their lives — questing for this dagger, believing that it would grant them the power to knock dragons out of the sky or blast a king off his throne. This dagger is much more powerful than that, more powerful than the most imaginative adventurers imagining of power. A power to subvert an attacker’s mind, to divert their aggressive thoughts in the opposite direction, to convert a person’s ill will to good will.
Hmm... I feel it is in the best interest of all the kingdoms that I should be the one to keep Shellefen’s dagger safe, to prevent such powerful magic from falling into the wrong hands.
I slide the dagger’s blade into my belt, retrieve the glowing ball. Hopefully, it will have enough magic left in it to guide me out of this dungeon and back to the well.
I hurry out of the room just as the troll grunts with disappointment, probably due to having sucked the wineskin dry.
Copyright © 2020 by Glenn Bresciani