“Appearances”

“Let me see those directions again.” Gondach held out a heavily scarred hand.

Darra rolled her eyes but handed over the well-creased parchment. “I don’t know why you bother. You can’t even read.” She smoothed the blue silk sash tied around her slim waist, a gift from that handsome bard she met in Avordale, the last town they traveled through. What was his name again? “I still don’t know why we’re doing this. I could be back home learning how to cast that fire spell Varian was about to teach me.” She reached over and turned the parchment in Gondach’s hand right side up.

“Treasure, Darra.” Olani said with a smirk, his eyes bulging with emphasis as he nodded in the direction Dirg had disappeared. He scratched his long thin nose and set his longsword against a tree. “Those kobolds are supposed to have mounds of treasure.” The tall warrior stretched his hands over his head, putting Darra in mind of a willow tree bending in the wind. The man was thinner than an anorexic elf.

“It is not for mere gold that we travel this way, warrior. We have a duty to perform” Dirg said drolly as he stepped into the clearing where the group took their rest.

“Yes, I understand,” Darra said, trying to head off the dry-speaking dwarf before he launched into another lecture. “Ignore me. Feel free to go back to your prayers or whatever it is you do.” She tried her most winsome smile, but the dwarf didn’t notice. That was the problem with priests. They spent too much time not paying attention to her.

“When the foul beasts were begat by the Great Evil,” Dirg began in a flat tone, ignoring the groan from the others that swept the clearing, “it became our sworn duty as beloved followers of He Who Loves All to destroy them. We must not allow any inconvenience or discomfort to discourage us from this task.”

“Of course not-” the wizard began.

“Furthermore,” he interrupted, still in the monotonous voice he seemed incapable of changing, “we owe it to the people of Avordale to repay them for their kindness.”

“Kindness? What kindness? They tried to run us out of town when…” She blushed as she realized what she’d been about to say. The people of Avordale almost ran them out of town when Dirg wouldn’t stop grabbing people and forcing them to listen to his lectures on how everyone would end up in the Great Netherworld if they didn’t repent their evil ways. Only when he’d heard about the kobold village of Y’ghub and the mounds of treasure they were supposed to have hidden away was he able to concentrate on something else. The only thing the dwarf liked better than his god was treasure.

They didn’t know if the village existed. All they had were hastily scrawled directions and a lot of rumors. No one in Avordale had ever seen a kobold, but nearly every person they spoke with insisted the creatures lived deep in the Grald Forest. Even that handsome bard-what *was* his name?-insisted the rumors were correct. So here they were, only a few days from their destination according to their directions, and they’d seen absolutely no sign of kobolds anywhere.

“If we had Baladoc here, we could send him to scout ahead,” Olani said.

Gondach glared at him and put his hand on his greataxe. “Don’t start on that again. If the little guy had stayed in the back like he was supposed to, he wouldn’t have fallen in that pit.”

“And if you hadn’t pulled the lever, he wouldn’t have had to worry about it.” Olani mimed pulling a lever. “What do you think this does?” he said in a fair imitation of Gondach’s northlander accent. “It was the lair of an evil necromancer. What did you think a lever in the middle of an empty room did?”

The larger warrior rubbed his bald head, his chainmail rattling with the movement. “How was I supposed to know?” he whined.

“Boys,” Darra said gently, “let’s not fight. What’s done is done. Baladoc had a very lovely funeral, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have mind being buried in the pauper’s graveyard.” She stood and dusted off her tan robes. “Don’t you think it’s time we got going?” Her feet ached. They’d had to leave their horses behind when they started into the nearly impenetrable forest, so the sooner they reached Y’ghub, the sooner she could get back to civilization.

“But how do we know we’re even going in the right direction? Shouldn’t we see signs of them or something?” Gondach lifted his pack onto his shoulder

She shrugged delicately. “How should I know?” She shouldered her own pack, a handsomely stitched rucksack of soft leather-a gift from a leatherworker in…well, some other town they once visited. He told her she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on and presented her with the pack, but then he tried to take liberties with her and she was forced to levitate him onto the highest tower in town. After that, he wouldn’t even look at her. Men could be so fickle.

The afternoon passed without fanfare, despite a small mishap Olani referred to as the “broken codpiece incident” involving Gondach’s axe and a mischievous squirrel.

“Is that a clearing up ahead?” Darra asked. The sun was beginning to set and the verdant canopy above them lent the forest a serene air. As the birds wound down their songs, the locusts picked up the tune. Darra wondered if the great Elven glens she’d heard so much about from Varian were as peaceful as this.

She sat on the edge of an oak tree felled from a long ago lightning bolt and breathed in the fresh air. “I could stay here forever,” she sighed.

“When are we ever going to find these little rats? We’ve been in this forest forever.” Gondach flopped onto the ground and tossed a pinecone in the air. He missed the catch and it hit him on his forehead. How he ever managed to swing an axe without losing an appendage Darra never knew.

“Would now be soon enough?” Olani asked.

“What do you–?” Darra’s eyes widened.

Surrounding them were dozens of small lizard-like creatures. Many of them carried spears sized for their diminutive statures, and all wore leather clothing in bright colors. Despite the bright colors of their clothes, none of them had seen the kobolds appear. It was almost as if magic was involved, but Darra knew that wasn’t true. Kobolds had no magic of their own.

The expression on Dirg’s face was murderous and his hands twitched as if to reach for the flail at his waist. He hated being crept up on, especially since he moved through the woods with all the subtlety of a rampaging bull.

One of the kobolds stepped toward them. This one had several gold rings around its tail and carried no spear. “Hi,” it said in a voice that reminded Darra of Varian’s pet terrier, Biscuit. “What brings you to our neck of the woods?” It’s mouth widened to show all its sharp teeth.

The four adventurers glanced at each other. What the–? “You-you speak the common tongue?” the wizard asked. Should she risk going for her components pouch? Would they notice?

The kobold barked, and with a start she realized it was laughing. It cocked its head to the side and looked at her with red eyes. “What else would we speak?”

This was not what she expected. She turned to Dirg. This whole plan was his idea anyway. But the dwarf avoided her gaze. Before she could say anything else, the kobold said, “Forgive my manners. My name is Aincenn. I’m the mayor of Y’ghub. Please, be welcome in our little village.” It looked regretful. “I’m afraid we don’t have any accommodations for larger folk. We so rarely have visitors, and for some reason, those who do come always want to kill us.” She swished her beringed tail.
Darra wanted to ask it whether it was male or female, but she couldn’t think of a graceful way to do so. That thought made her stifle a laugh with a cough. Here she was, worried about protocol with a bunch of kobolds.

“Would you care to share a meal with us and talk? You’ve come at such an opportune time.”

“Do we have a choice?” Olani muttered as he joined her, Gondach and Dirg close behind.

“Shh,” she hissed. Louder she said, “Of course we’ll join you, Aincenn.” No one stopped her when she slung her rucksack across her shoulders.

The group walked toward the clearing she’d seen through the trees. The other kobolds chatted among themselves and seemed to pay them no attention. She noted that they spoke the common tongue also; their conversations were no different than any she’d heard in her life: gossip about others (“Ibran told her he’d have nothing to do with her after she took up with Reong.”); recipes (“I find that a little rosemary in my willow bark tea aids my digestion in the morning.”); and philosophical discussions (“But when a priest does revive the dead, perhaps he’s ripping a soul from the Great Netherworld. Would that not be an evil act?”). By the time they reached the clearing, her head was spinning.

“This reminds me of that time that serving wench slipped those mushrooms into my tea,” Olani said in her ear. “Except I only saw pink-striped dragons flying out of my boots then. This is much stranger.”

Aincenn parted a bush and stepped into the clearing. “Welcome to Y’ghub,” it said. Unsure of what she’d find, Darra followed with her companions at her heels.

Even after her earlier shock, she still expected Y’ghub to be a dirty village of mud huts with refuse strewn everywhere. Her second surprise came when she entered what could easily be mistaken for a halfling town. Houses made of whitewashed wood planks ran the length of a smooth dirt road. Each house stood about the height of a man, and each had a neat green yard separated by a short fence in the front. Tiny kobolds played with balls and wooden toys in the yards while their parents watched over them.

When the group arrived, everyone stopped what they were doing and stared. Several of the tinier creatures dropped their toys and ran to hide behind their parents. “People of Y’ghub,” Aincenn called loudly, “please welcome our guests. Please know that we will provide them an appropriate welcome.” Though Aincenn’s tone was polite, even jovial, the words sent a chill down Darra’s spine.

A tiny kobold, it’s little head reaching no higher than her knee, crept around behind its parent and toddled forward. Its tail swished nervously, but it plucked a small white flower on the side of the road and advanced on them. When it reached Darra, it held the flower up to her. “You’re pretty,” it said shyly.

Charmed, she knelt and took the flower from the child. “And so are you,” she said with a smile. Her misgivings were in her mind, she thought. These creatures, for whatever reason, were not dangerous.

It stuck a forked tongue out at her. “I’m not pretty. I’m a boy.” With a final swish of its-his-tail, he ran over to another group of children and began chattering excitedly.

“That Nelach. Such a charmer. Just like his father.” Aincenn held out its arms as if in supplication. “I’m sure you must be tired. Please come this way. My mate, Gionain should have a meal ready for us.”

The kobolds who escorted them from the woods dispersed and went to their own homes. Only Aincenn led them to a house on the far end of the main road. This house was slighter larger than the rest and painted a bright red. Far to the north, Darra could make out a large black hole in the side of a hill. “What’s that?” she asked.

Aincenn followed her pointed finger. “Oh, that.” Silence followed the remark until it finally said, “Let’s discuss it over dinner.”

The door to the red house opened and another kobold wearing a bright yellow tunic of soft linen stepped out. “I heard we were having guests,” it said, showing its entire mouth of teeth. “I made a stew and a fresh loaf of basil bread.”

A kobold child rushed out from between its legs and launched itself at Aincenn. “Mother, guess what? Father said I’m going to grow up to be a warrior like Moghalach.”

“Moghalach?” The kobold child nodded and its tail wagged so hard its entire backside moved. “You’d better practice your spears then.”

“I will.” It noticed the four of them then. “Who are they?” it said in a loud whisper.
“These are our guests for the evening. Your father is going to fix you something to eat in the house while we eat with the big folk outside.”

“Are they going into the cave?” it asked, its red eyes wide.

“Hush now, and go get something to eat before I send you to bed without your dinner.”

“But I’m big enough to eat out here,” it whined.

Aincenn fixed her red eyes on it until it looked away. “Now go,” she said and it did. “Children.” Aincenn indicated the grassy lawn in front of the red house. “Do you mind sitting on the ground? I’m afraid the house is too small for most of you.”

Darra shook her head, still trying to take all this in. Olani and Gondach had dazed looks on their faces that she suspected mirrored her own, but Dirg was nearly catatonic. He kept turning around to stare at the town and muttering, “Must be magic,” over and over.

They joined Aincenn on the ground while Gionian brought out a tureen of fragrant stew and a basket of fresh bread. Everything smelled delicious, especially after weeks of rations and wild game, but she wondered what was in the stew.

As if reading her mind, Gondach said to Gionian as he passed out clean wooden bowls and beautifully carved spoons, “I thought kobolds ate rats and grubs and stuff.”

He barked a laugh. “Wherever would you get that idea?”

“It smells delicious,” Darra ventured as she dipped the ladle into the dark broth. And it did. Chunks of wild vegetables floated next to cubes of meat that she identified as wild hare. She took a sip and found it to be as tasty as anything she ever had in the finest inn. “This is wonderful.”

“Aren’t you eating?” Aincenn asked Dirg, who held his bowl and spoon limply in his hands. He towered over everyone else because he refused to sit.

“No,” he said forcefully. “I will not touch that which was made by foul hands.”

“Dirg,” Darra said between clenched teeth. “That was unconscionably rude. Apologize to our hosts.”

“They’re not hosts. They’re kobolds. Beasts begat in the Great Netherworld.”

The wizard opened her mouth to speak again, but Aincenn interceded. “No, Master Dirg is free to express his own opinions. Let us speak of other things.”

Olani and Gondach said little as they ate most of the contents of the soup tureen and over half of the bread rolls. The two warriors seemed oblivious to the strangeness of it all once the food was served.

“So how did you come to live here?” Darra asked.

“Oh, that’s a long story, much too long for a single telling. Since our time is short, I would rather tell you of our dilemma and ask for your help.”

“Our help?”

“You are the adventuring type, yes?”

Darra shared a confused look with Olani. “Well, yes. But I’m not sure what we can do to help.”

Aincenn barked a laugh, her red eyes gleaming in the fading light. “Just listen. That cave you pointed out holds our greatest treasures-”

“Treasures?” Gondach’s face brightened. “You mean like gold and gems?”

“Yes.” She swished her tail to the side to show the gold rings around it. “As you can see, we value our precious metals and would like to use them for barter, but a terrible monster has made its lair inside and we’ve been unable to reach it.”

“How much treasure are we talking about?” Dirg asked gruffly. He wouldn’t look at Aincenn, but instead stared off toward the cave in question.

“It was once the hoard of a green dragon that made its den in the area. Y’ghub the Greatest defeated him two centuries ago, and we’ve been living off his largesse ever since.”

“What’s that?” Gondach asked. “Some kind of food?”

Aincenn furrowed her brow and gave him a wary look. “We’ve lived quite simply recently, but when the monster moved into the cave, our available funds slowly ran out. Now we need someone brave and strong to go and rescue it for us. As payment we would be willing to give you as much as you can carry off with you.”

“We’ll do it,” Gondach announced. He stood and drew his sword. When no one moved, he started toward the cave. “Well? What are we waiting for?”

“Gondach, sit down,” Darra said, pointing at the ground. “You don’t even know what’s in there.” To Aincenn she said, “Why don’t your own people defeat the monster?”

The kobold bent her head. “We’re afraid.” She released a deep breath. “We sent a few of our strongest and bravest warriors in after it, but only one came back alive. Ansu was drooling and gibbering and hasn’t been the same since. He is like an infant now.”

Darra’s eyes opened wide. “What’s in there?”

“We know not. We were only able to get the vaguest description from him. He described a giant cat-like creature, black as night. It had fangs as long as my arm and dripped acid the color of blood that burned through the cave floor.”

“That doesn’t sound good.” Darra bit her lip. She was ready to say “no” and leave, but her companions’ eyes shown with an excitement that she recognized and didn’t like. “Would you excuse us?” she said to Aincenn and Gionian.

She started to stand, but they waved her down. “We’ll leave you for a few moments.” The two kobolds gathered up the dishes and carried them into the red house.

Darra signaled for her three companions to move closer. “I don’t know about this. Something seems strange.”

Olani smirked. “Seems strange? You were holding an intelligent conversation with a kobold who wasn’t trying to kill you. I’d say we just entered the Plane of Weirdness.”

“I want to get the treasure. Didn’t you hear it? All the treasure we can carry. That was real gold on its tail.”

“She, Gondach. Aincenn is a she.”

The warrior just shrugged. “But it still said we could have part of a green dragon’s hoard. Think of all the stuff we could find in there. Maybe even magic weapons. I bet they’re too stupid to recognize magic weapons when they see them.”

“I’m sure,” she said dryly. “What about you, Dirg? You’re the one who wanted to come here.”

The dwarf smacked his lips in an unconscious gesture as he watched the cave with eyes that glittered like dark gems. “If we were to take much of that treasure away from these foul beasts of the Great Netherworld, we would be doing He Who Loves All a great service.”

“Not to mention lining our pockets quite well,” Olani muttered to Darra.

“We have an obligation to dispense justice,” the dwarf added with a satisfied nod.

“Treasure, Darra. Treasure.” The wizard fought the urge to knock the cheeky grin from the skinny warrior’s face.

Before they could discuss it further, Aincenn returned. “So, have you decided?”

“We’ll do it,” Gondach said before Darra could speak.

“Excellent!” She clapped her clawed hands together once and wagged her tail excitedly. “I’ll escort you to the entrance and wait until your return.”

“What? Now?”

“No time like the present,” she said with a grin. “I have for you a provision pack.” She reached back through the open doorway and grabbed a backpack fitted for a man.

“What for? We shouldn’t be in there more than a few hours.” Too fast. Everything was going too fast.

“Always be prepared. That’s the kobold’s motto.”

“I thought it was, ‘Catch them with their pants down,'” Olani whispered.

“Hush,” Darra hissed. To Aincenn she said, “But we’ve traveled quite some distance. We could use the rest first.”

“Oh, I’m sure brave warriors such as yourselves will find this battle to be as easy as attacking a fledgling bird.”
Gondach and Dirg followed the kobold without a backward glance. Olani took a few steps and turned to see Darra just standing there. “Treasure, Darra. Come on!”

“But I’m not a warrior,” she said pitiably, but no one heard her. She grabbed her rucksack and hurried after the others. This was starting to remind her of that time Count Hebroth told them of a famous magical sword hidden deep beneath the Last Chance For Redemptions Cemetery. He had hurried them along without giving them time to think. But *he* had wanted the ghosts hidden in the crypt below to kill them for failing to retrieve the priceless diamond necklace from his ex-wife that he wanted to give to the current countess. This surely wasn’t the same thing.

The cave entrance was a large black hole, about ten feet in diameter. The angles and chips were not natural formations, and she commented on that fact, but Aincenn said it was the dragon that made the cave and hurried through the entrance. Darra was going to ask Dirg, but he was uninterested in the limestone walls. He stopped about ten feet in and waited on the others.

Aincenn’s eyes glowed eerily in the low light. “I’ve included a map to the treasure horde and a few torches in there in case you don’t have any, since I know most of you can’t see down there.” She bared her teeth, and the effect was much creepier than usual. “You are already Y’ghub’s heroes. Thank you.” She walked back toward the town.

“Wait,” Darra called, but the kobold didn’t appear to hear her. “I thought she was going to wait until we returned.”

“Let’s go find this treasure. Maybe there’s a back way out and we can just grab all of it and go.” Gondach drew his sword and started down the tunnel, Dirg close behind.

She rolled her eyes at the warrior. “Don’t you think they would’ve found it by now?”

The cave was a network of tunnels that ran in seemingly random directions. “How do they get around here without getting hopelessly lost,” the wizard cried after the fourth hour of traveling through the endless expanse of rock. “And why didn’t they move their treasure closer to the entrance?” A suspicion was starting to form in her mind.

“Because they didn’t want just anyone to go in and get it,” Gondach said as if explaining to a child.

“Didn’t we just make a right turn?” Olani asked, staring back the way they came.

“Yes. Why?”

“Because there’s rock blocking the way now.” He pointed to the last turn about ten feet back. A smooth limestone wall stood where the ten-foot wide tunnel once ran.

Darra rushed to the wall and put her hand on it. It was cool and damp to the touch. No seams showed. “It has to be an illusion. Here, hold the torch.” She handed the torch to Olani and fished in her spell components pouch. Her hands glowed as she concentrated on the spell that would dispel the illusion, but no matter how much power she put forth, the wall stayed.
“Let me try a few other things.”

She expended several spells trying to remove the wall but nothing worked. Gondach chipped at it with a dagger until the weapon broke. “It’s solid,” he said, tossing the dagger to the ground.

“How could this happen?”

“We’ll just have to go on. How much farther until we reach the treasure room?” Olani asked Dirg. “There’s bound to be a way out there. The dragon had to get in and out some how.”

He studied the map Aincenn gave them by the dim torchlight. “Three more turns and down this hall.”

Now that they were paying attention to it, they were able to see the tunnel behind them fill up with solid rock. It just appeared out of thin air. At the last fork, they stopped. “If we continue on, we might become trapped. Maybe one of us should stay here and wait while the rest check out the cavern.” Darra looked at the others. “Dirg?”

The dwarf glared up at her. “Why should I stay?” he grumbled.

She put a hand on her hip and gave him her haughtiest stare. “Because you’re the one who got us into this mess.”

His look could have frozen water, but he nodded. “Just don’t think you’ll be taking all the treasure.”

They ran until they reached a large room with a thirty-foot ceiling and stalactites that dipped down almost to their heads. Chunks of stone and pools of water littered the floor, but it was otherwise clear.

“Let’s spread out and see what we can find,” Olani said.

Darra took one torch and started on the right side of the room. The silence was broken only by the hiss of the torch flame and the occasional shuffle of feet. “There’s nothing here,” she called after she’d covered half of her side of the room.

Suddenly, Olani howled a curse that made her face heat with embarrassment. She didn’t know that was possible. She hurried over to the other side of the room. “What is it?”

“I don’t think we’re going to be rewarded for our efforts here,” Olani said wryly. He stepped aside and revealed several skeletons seated against the wall.

Tattered remnants of clothes hung from their frames. The bones were obviously humanoid and several of the skulls bore a distinctly human shape. Armor and weapons lay scattered around along with pouches and other adventuring gear. “Did you check the stuff out?” she asked.

“What, touch the bodies?” the thin warrior said, aghast. “You do it.”

“Gondach, search the bodies and see what you can find. Maybe we can find out what killed them.”

Gondach knelt and quickly emptied all pouches and packs. He found several coins, a silver ring and a small writing journal. The quill feather was chewed, and the inkpot was empty.

Darra scanned the journal until one entry caught her eye. “Listen to this. ‘The kobolds have surprised us with their generosity. They seem to be more intelligent than others of their kind and they’ve asked for our help. Seems a group of orcs took over this nearby cave and kept them from their treasure horde, which one of their ancestors took from a great red dragon centuries ago. Of course we took them up on their offer of help. We’ll grab the loot and sneak out at night with Bortric’s invisibility spell. The little beasts won’t know what happened.'” She looked up in despair. “I think we’re in big trouble.”

“I thought the dragon was green,” Gondach said.

“It was,” she said with a twist of her mouth.

“But you said-”

“Our dragon was green. Their dragon was red.”

He pondered that so long she thought his hair was going to start smoking. His eyes brightened with understanding. “So there were two dragons down here?”

“Gondach,” she screeched. “The kobolds lied.”

“About what?”

“Is there anything else?” Olani’s face was quite pale.

She turned to the next page. The writing was a barely legible scrawl and she had to squint to see it. “‘We’re almost out of food, and this is our last torch. We’ve searched and searched and there’s no way out. If anyone finds this, please take my ring to my mother in Theurgwald and tell her that I died defending a group of children from a troll. Her name is Sudagild.'” She closed the journal. “That’s the last entry.”

“We’d better go find Dirg before we’re trapped in here like these fools.”

They ran back to the place they’d left the dwarf. Darra breathed a sigh of relief at seeing him still standing there and heard Olani do the same. They shared a brief smile.

“Where’s the gold?” Dirg asked.

Darra shook her head. “No gold. Only death.” She started down the only remaining path. “Oh, please, let there be an exit,” she whispered. She couldn’t bear the thought of dying down here. “When I get out of here, I’m going to donate a thousand gold coins to an orphanage. Or maybe I’ll start a shelter for beggars and street children.”

“What do you mean, there’s no gold?” Dirg asked as he hurried to her side. “What happened to it?”

She rounded on him, fury in her eyes. “There never was any gold,” she bit out. “None. The kobolds lied. They played upon our greed and sent us down here to die. Now do you understand?”

“But that means-”

“That they’re smarter than we are.” There. She said it. She, Darra of the Elmlands, twice elected Apprentice Queen at Varian’s annual Apprentice Ball, most popular girl in her class, a great and powerful spellcaster-well, sort of powerful; if only she’d learned that fire spell before she left-was tricked by a little kobold.

The four traveled in silence for hours, possibly days, stopping only to rest or eat a little of the food Aincenn put into their pack. “At least she fed us well,” she said angrily after their first stop. The pack was filled with dried venison and hard bread and three large skins of water. The torches ran out but Darra used her magic to create a glowing ball of light, which she carried in her palm. Still, she couldn’t keep that up indefinitely, and they traveled in blackness for much of the time.

Every time they reached a fork in the tunnels, they picked a direction randomly. The tunnels filled with rock, preventing them from backtracking, so they lived with the constant fear of running into a dead end.

“This is the last of it.” Darra split the last of the meat four ways. It wasn’t enough food to feed a mouse.

Olani shook the last waterskin. “Maybe one swallow a piece.”

They ate their meager rations and continued on. A palpable air of despair surrounded them and threatened to overwhelm them. They no longer had the energy to argue about who was responsible for their troubles. Darra knew the responsibility lay with the dwarf, but Dirg insisted that she should have known something was wrong. “I knew they were trouble the minute I laid eyes on them,” he’d said so arrogantly that Gondach had to hold her back to keep her from going for his throat.

“What’s that?” Olani called out in an excited tone.

“What?” Darra responded listlessly.

“I think I see light!”

“Don’t joke about that,” she snapped.

“No, I mean it. Look.” He pointed ahead.

Could it be? It was! The four looked at each other, and with renewed energy ran toward the growing dot ahead, heedless of the rocks beneath their feet that threatened to trip them.

The closer they came, the more sure they were that they were reaching an exit. A breeze wafted through the tunnel and brought them the sweet smell of summer. By the time they reached the cave mouth, they were laughing with joy.

“Wilfhelm!” Darra said suddenly.

“What?”

“That bard in Avordale. His name is Wilfhelm.” She was going to find him and give him the biggest kiss.

“Whatever. The first thing I’m going to do is buy a fresh loaf of bread and the biggest mug of ale I can find.” Olani dashed outside and looked around. “There’s a sign up ahead. Maybe it’ll tell us where we are.”

A small dirt path led from the cave mouth toward a larger road. A sign at the intersection was made of weathered wood and its post was shoved into the ground at an angle. As they made their way toward the road and the sign, a very large shape flew over their heads.

“Was that what I think it was?” Olani asked as he scanned the air.

“‘Dragon Valley,'” Darra read off the sign. “‘Beware the dragon that roams these lands. Travel at your own risk.'” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Dragon Valley is at least two moon cycles from the nearest village.”

“What’s this?” Olani looked closer to see additional words had been crudely carved into the wood below the official pronouncement. “‘Next time, keep your greedy hands to yourself.’ It’s signed, ‘Aincenn of Y’ghub.'”