The Howling Toadstool was packed tonight, with groups in each section of the tavern all clustered together and discussing various events in their lives. One group, however, was discussing events a bit outside of their specific circle.
“That Cros guy is really something for a goblin,” a well-built man with shaggy white hair said. He wore traditional warrior garb for the region and was lightly armored. “I hear that he’s made literal war machines. The guy has no magic talent, so he builds a bunch of steam-shooting golems and they wipe out everything they catch off guard. Amazing.”
“He has to be ‘really something’ if we’re talking about him like this, Emsay,” a slimmer, fair-haired man across the table said. This man was wearing light robes with a badge that indicated he was a decent-ranked wizard, but still had a long way to go before he was considered a master of his craft. “I’m hoping those tales are exaggerated and that some well-aimed magic could blow them to pieces. If that’s not the case, then that fortress had amazingly lousy soldiers in it.”
“Lornys, please,” Emsay said, rolling his eyes. “I keep wondering how the guy did it without any use of steam elementals or any magic, just 100% pure technological ingenuity. I thought goblins were supposed to be kind of dumb.”
“There’s always the exception to the rule,” Lornys said. “I mean, you market yourself as a sturdy warrior, the muscle of the adventuring party, the mercenary with the pointy sticks. You’re certainly not dumb, though.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Emsay folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I’ll return the favor. Honestly, I think the mage ranking system in this region is a heap of nonsense. I think every party needs a mage. Even a cantrip can be useful in a pinch. They shouldn’t be looking at you and thinking ‘oh, he’s decent.’ They should be looking at you and thinking ‘this guy knows what he’s doing, let’s figure out how to make that work with what we need.’”
“You flatter me.” Lornys took a swig of his ale. “But if you asked me, you know what I think every party needs?”
“What would that be?” Emsay leaned forward again, interested.
“A healer.” Lornys suddenly became occupied with a ring in the table’s wood, tracing a finger around it. “All the muscle and magic in the world can’t save you if you’ve got something that can rip through you or blast you to bits in an instant.”
“Very true.” It was Emsay’s turn to take a drink of his beer. “So, I guess you’ll be picking up some fine ladies for our next venture, then?”
Lornys huffed, looking a bit miffed. “You know that not all healers are girls, right? Just because this is often the case doesn’t mean that it’s true. Just like how not all swordsmen are brute force, and Cros is a very smart goblin.”
“I wonder where the guy healers are, then, because I rarely see them,” Emsay mumbled. “They’re probably all locked up in the churches and whatnot.”
“Well, we’ll see who we find when we start looking for party members,” Lornys said. “Maybe we should put some fliers up. Or we could inquire with the barkeep. You know he runs a recruiting service here, right?”
“Wait, he does?”
“Yes,” Lornys said with some irritation. “He keeps a register of parties looking to recruit for adventures and mercenary work, and he matches up people that might work well together. In fact, I think I’ll go talk with him now. I’ll see if we can’t get some recruits.” With that, he got up and began to make his way to the front of the bar.
“Good luck!” Emsay chimed in, giving Lornys a mock salute.
Elsewhere in the Splintered Lands, a certain dragon was entertaining a visitor.
Selena basked on a small plateau in her cave, gleaming from the light pouring in from a hole in the ceiling. The light seemed to make her green scales all the more vivid, as though each scale was an emerald in itself. She scratched an idle design in some settled dust as she spoke to a cloaked figure. Her telepathic voice was a pleasant alto, if slightly stiff. “I understand you have a very important investigation to carry out, but I don’t quite see why you had to come to me about it.”
“Resources, my dear dragon,” the cloaked man said. “I hear you’ve been sponsoring those who can bring you one of Cros’s golems for inspection. I am willing to perform that exchange with you.”
If Selena had eyebrows, one would have arched. The ridge above her right eye did that instead. “That’s well and good, but do you happen to have one of these golems on hand?”
That seemed to catch the man off guard. “Not at this moment. I wanted to make the proposal to you first and see if you were open to the exchange.”
“Fair enough. Still, you do realize that claiming one of these golems is no simple task, don’t you? I’ve sent several people out to secure one for me, and most of them came back empty-handed. Two of them didn’t come back at all. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme.” Selena tapped her claws on the plateau, not bored out of her mind but not fully engaged either.
“Believe me, I know.” The cloaked man shifted his weight, his earlier bravado apparently falling away. “Still, I would like to try and bring you one. I believe that, together, we could crack some of Cros’s code, so to speak.”
“Perhaps we could,” Selena said with a nod. “I’ve noticed that you haven’t asked why I don’t just go out and grab the golems myself. It’s not the most common question, but it comes up when my would-be couriers fail.”
“Because I understand that a dragon can’t just leave their den without drawing some suspicious looks in this day and age,” the cloaked man murmured. “Not that that stops certain dragons from going out and doing it anyway, but I know you use discretion.”
That made Selena arch her eyebrow ridge all over again. “I put up with your charade because I understand wanting to be discrete, but now I wonder. Remove your hood.”
“Fine. I suppose I couldn’t stay mysterious forever.” The cloaked man removed his hood, revealing a pair of golden horns and flecks of golden scales along his face. “Greetings, Aunt Selena. I am Eion, son of Neo.”
That caught Selena off guard for a good second. “Come again?!” She shook her head and exhaled a small puff of smoke as she collected herself. “What has Neo gotten himself into this time?”
“Very funny.” Selena huffed. “Well, I am pleased to finally meet my dear nephew, but I do wish Neo would have told me what he was doing sooner. I suppose I set a precedent for him.”
“You have a Dragonkin daughter, don’t you?” Eion asked. “My father mentioned her briefly, but it didn’t seem that he knew much about her.”
“Indeed. Her name is Ayla. If you would like some leads on where to find Cros’s constructs, you may visit her in Brinmer,” Selena said. “She’s in a position to hear a lot of interesting information. I’m sure you’ll know her when you see her. The resemblance is clear.”
“Hopefully there’s only one red-scaled Dragonkin in Brinmer,” Eion said through a sigh. “Still, thank you, Aunt Selena. I hope I can return to you with good news soon.”
Goblins tended to either be extremely communal or extremely solitary in choosing where to live. Laaz belonged in the latter group, having made his home in a cave on a steep mountain, yet he entertained visitors more often than one would think. He had his ways of getting people past the mountain’s hazards, after all.
Today, Laaz was playing a card game with a human visitor, or a visitor that was ostensibly human at any rate. He sniffed as he set a card down on the table. “Your turn, Reseller of Souls.”
The dark-haired human in front of him rolled his eyes. “It’s just a card game. No need to use my epithet every single time.”
“Fine. Kora, your turn.” Laaz scratched his stumpy nose with a long finger.
“Very well!” Kora set a card in front of Laaz's. “I play Neutral Jelly Potion and deactivate your Eldritch Enclosure trap.”
Laaz chuckled, a vaguely pig-like noise. “You wouldn’t think a simple potion could deactivate a trap set by a dark force, but this game was designed with unusual applications in mind.”
Kora leaned on one hand, a sly grin on his face. “I must say, I do enjoy your business model. Create enchanted with magical functions, whether in conjuration, upgrading, or a direct effect, and then have the empty cards become collectibles after being used? I’m surprised you don’t have a legion of mad collectors hounding you.”
“That’s because I’m discreet,” Laaz said, drawing a card from his deck. “No one knows that I’m behind the cards or the game that sprung up around them. Frankly, considering who I share a family with, that’s probably for the best.”
“Cros, right?” Kora didn’t even hesitate, and he chuckled when Laaz took his turn to roll his eyes.
“Yes, him. That buffoon really has us deep in it now. It was one thing when he claimed he was going to make himself the next big thing in engineering, but none of us figured he’d have it in him to create war machines.” Laaz sighed heavily and shook his head. “That idiot. Nonsense like this is why I don’t bother reading his letters or storing his machines anymore.”
“To be fair, I certainly understand complicated family relationships,” Kora said. “When you’re literally a cousin of the gods, anything can happen, you know?”
Laaz made a noncommittal noise and shrugged. “If your reputation didn’t precede you, I’d still say you were making that up. This really is some strange world we live in, where our gods are alive and well and enjoying their time on the heavenly plane and sometimes show up for kicks and giggles.”
Kora shrugged right back. “I’d say splintering the land was a decent compromise for having gods that actually do something.”
“True, but it sure makes getting around a pain for anyone who can’t planewalk or teleport like you can,” Laaz muttered. “Those folks with the airships are making a killing now, for sure. I’m sure they’re richer than actual royalty at this point.”
“Wouldn’t it be interesting if, perhaps, the heads of the airship companies became the new royalty?” Kora asked.
“Call me a stickler for tradition, but I think we should leave the ruling to the statesmen and the people born to rule,” Laaz replied. “I have a feeling that, knowing you, you’ve got a scheme up your sleeve regarding this.”
“I might, I might not. We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?” Kora grinned. “You still need to play a card, by the way.”
“Fine. Heaven knows there’s no way to rein you in, after all,” Laaz said.
The card game continued from there, and the conversation trailed off...