Imagine a place where every stray fear manifests before you.
Imagine Jig the goblin stuck in this place.
I ended up cutting the entire Shield of Shadowstar bit, but I’m quite fond of Jig’s struggles to survive as various terrors from previous books come back to haunt him…
Jig was home. The muck fires cast a cheerful green light through the empty lair. The smell of smoke and goblin sweat mixed with the mouth-watering odor of Golaka’s cooking. All around him was good, solid stone. No moon, no stars, no thrice-cursed trees. “Hello?”
He didn’t expect an answer. Everyone was either at Avery or on their way back. What would Grell think when she and the others arrived to find Jig had beaten them here? She’d likely smack him with her cane for making her take the long way.
It’s not real, Jig.
“You pushed me!”
Not precisely. The temple, even the image of Tymalous Shadowstar that shoved you off the edge, those are little more than props. I needed you to leave the reality I had constructed for you.
Jig scraped a claw along the wall. Tiny beetles scurried away. “It looks real to me.”
Jig, the temple where we spoke was an island from your realm. We gods aren’t mushrooms in the universal layers of your ogre dessert. We are the layers, shifting and floating and drifting past one another. Only when you left my temple did you truly enter–
“You ate me?” Jig shouted. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
To his credit, Shadowstar sounded mildly embarrassed. Something like that, yes.
Jig picked up a rock and threw it across the lair. It hit the far wall with a loud crack. “Did that hurt?”
It doesn’t work like that. You–
“Fine. I’ll find a bigger rock.”
Find the shield.
“It’s here? In the lair?” Jig picked up a larger rock and slammed it against the floor.
Oh, the pain. The agony. Do you feel better now?
Actually, he did, a little. “Why does everyone hide their mystical artifacts in my lair?”
It’s not your lair. This place responds to your mind. You exist among the stuff of raw magic now. You can create the shield, if your will is strong enough. Whatever you most want, the deepest desires and fears of your heart, they shape your reality.
Jig thought about that for a while, then looked down. “I have new boots!” They were even better than his old blue boots. These were dark red, with silver swirls down the sides, and a steel shell over the toes to protect him when he was fighting the crowds at mealtime. Or playing Toe-Peg, for that matter. Smudge scurried onto his left boot and rubbed the shiny leather with his forelegs.
Anything your heart desires, and you conjured new boots?
“My feet have been cold. And I have blisters.” Only he didn’t, not anymore. He wiggled his toes and grinned. “Wait, are you saying the only thing I have to do to get this shield is to want it?”
It would be, if you could truly believe it to be that easy. Remember, this place responds to your heart and mind. Your desire for . . . new boots was pure. Is your desire for the shield the same? Concentrate, Jig. Believe, and make it so.
Jig shook his head. “It’s never that easy. There are monsters to face, warriors and dragons and–” He stopped talking as Shadowstar’s words truly began to sink in. “Uh oh.”
You’re an idiot, Jig.
Loud, drunken laughter echoed through the cave. At the same time, Smudge seared the shoulder of Jig’s cloak.
“Where is that miserable, lying runt?”
“Captain Porak?” Jig’s voice squeaked. Porak had been his first captain, sending Jig out to guard against adventurers while Porak and his friends got drunk and gambled. Porak was dead now, but this place didn’t seem to realize that.
“There you are!” Porak smashed through the door of Golaka’s kitchen, and Jig yelped. He was pretty sure Porak hadn’t been able to do that in real life.
Your fear makes him stronger.
Bigger, too, from the look of it. Porak stood taller than any goblin Jig had known, large enough to best even a hobgoblin. He carried a large axe in one hand, and a stick of barbequed boar in the other. He took a huge bite of boar, then flung the rest of the meat to one side.
Smudge darted after the meat. “Coward,” Jig muttered. He reached for his sword, but found only that useless kitchen knife.
Porak’s grin widened. He ran a greasy hand through his ragged, dagger-cut hair. Old blood stained his leather armor dark blue around the belly and by the throat. “Come here, Jig. I want to go fishing for lizard-fish, and I need a scrawny worm like you for bait!”
“Now would be a good time for me to find that shield,” Jig whispered.
Nobody’s stopping you.
“He’s stopping me!” Jig stared at his knife. Maybe here, this might actually work. He drew back and threw as hard as he could.
The knife flew straight and sure, striking Porak square in the chest . . . at which point it broke into several pieces. Porak started to laugh.
Jig ran. Out of the lair, deeper into the tunnels, toward hobgoblin territory. There wouldn’t be any hobgoblins here. They were all at Avery. Jig concentrated, trying as hard as he could to believe that. No hobgoblins. And somewhere in these tunnels was the shield that would protect him, if he could get past whatever other monsters protected it.
You don’t learn, do you?
“Dung!” No, there would be no more monsters!
It was too late. Water splashed Jig’s legs. To his delight, his new boots appeared to be waterproof. Unfortunately, his trousers weren’t. Cold water soaked his thighs. Where was he? He couldn’t have reached the lizard-fish lake so soon.
An orange glow illuminated a huge mound in the water, and Jig’s innards turned to ice. He tried to turn and run, but his legs wouldn’t obey. “Straum.”
The dragon’s long, sinuous neck slid through the water without a sound. Golden eyes the size of Jig’s head narrowed as Straum drew close. “Jig Dragonslayer.”
Jig cleared his throat. “Just Jig, please,” he squeaked.
The dragon’s laugh sent waves washing over Jig’s boots. He tried again to back away. This time he made it an entire step before the wet sand shifted, and he fell on his backside.
“I remember you, little goblin.”
Naturally. The dragon was smart. He wouldn’t forget what Jig had done to him. Porak either didn’t remember or didn’t care. He had always liked to torment Jig. But Straum, he would want revenge.
Porak. . . . “I brought you a gift, Straum.”
A tongue like a red serpent lashed out. “A gift? Is it a chamberpot? I used to have such an exquisite collection.”
Jig shook his head. He swiveled his ears, listening to Porak’s footsteps. He would catch up any moment now. “No. It’s a snack.”
“There you are, Jig! I’m going to–” Porak skidded to a halt in the sand and stared at Straum. “Where’d that dragon come from?”
Jig’s belief shaped this place. Jig closed his eyes. No matter what else, he had always believed, down to the very core of his being, that Porak was an idiot.
“Jig’s mine, dragon!” Porak shouted.
Jig flattened himself to the wall as Porak charged. Moments later, Jig was racing back up the tunnel. In the edge of his vision, he saw the dragon’s tail slip around to smack Porak in the back. Porak staggered toward Straum’s mouth. There was a burst of flame, and Porak’s well-cooked body fell neatly into the dragon’s jaws.
Jig kept running. He heard the clank of metal against rock. That would be Straum spitting out Porak’s axe. Would Porak be enough to satisfy a dragon? Maybe Straum wasn’t hungry.
Do you really believe that? Shadowstar asked.
“Thank you, little goblin.” Straum’s voice echoed through the tunnel. “And now I find myself in the mood for dessert.”
Jig was panting by the time he made it back into the lair. He knew Straum shouldn’t be able to follow. Straum had been trapped deep in the mountain, too large to escape through these tunnels. There was no way for him to reach Jig.
That was what he knew in his mind. But his fear was another matter. If Jig truly believed he was safe, he wouldn’t now be searching for a place to hide.
He had used the dragon to destroy Porak, but what was powerful enough to destroy a dragon? The pixies might have been able to do it, but pixies came in swarms. If Jig conjured them up, he would never be rid of them.
This would be so much easier if he could find the shield first, and then fight the monsters.
The air stilled as Straum’s body squeezed into the lair, blocking the draft from the outside. His wings broke chunks of obsidian from the entrance. The dragon opened his mouth, and his belch reverberated through the lair.
“I may eat you raw, goblin,” Straum said. “You goblins lose too much flavor when you’re charred.”
Flavor. As Straum smashed the rest of the way into the lair, Jig spun and raced toward the kitchen. A heavy wooden door blocked the kitchen area, held in place by a kind of black mold which clung equally well to wood and stone. Jig slipped inside and yanked the door shut behind him.
“Hey!” Golaka spun away from her cauldron, her stirring spoon spraying Jig’s chest with gravy. “The only ones allowed in my kitchen are those who make the food, or those who are the food.” She bared her teeth. “And I know you can’t cook, little Jig.”
Jig slumped against an old barrel full of smoked bat wings. Golaka was here. Of course she was here. She had always been here, for as long as Jig or anyone else could remember. “There’s a dragon in the lair.”
Unfortunately, Golaka was nowhere near as stupid as Porak had been. She wiped her sweaty face on her apron, then glared at Jig. “A dragon, you say? And who do you think could have led a dragon to our lair?”
“Porak?” Jig bit his cheek. He could tell she didn’t believe him. The bone-numbing whack of her spoon against his skull confirmed it.
“Porak couldn’t lead a carrion worm to a corpse,” Golaka snapped. “Besides, Porak’s dead.”
Straum saved Jig from having to answer. Huge claws punched through the door and ripped it from the frame. Straum squeezed his head inside.
Golaka smashed his nose with her spoon. “I’m betting you’re not here to help cook, either. Does anyone appreciate how hard I work, keeping this lot fed? The warriors always want fresh meat, but how often do they get off their bone blue behinds to go hunting? And Grell needs her fire-spider eggs to help clear her sinuses. My eyes are too old to be plucking spider eggs from a web.”
Every sentence was punctuated with a hammer-blow to Straum’s snout. Jig crawled around behind the cauldron and peeked over the top.
Straum’s nostrils widened, and Jig could see the glow of dragonfire. But before Straum could burn Golaka the way he had burnt Porak, Golaka shoved her spoon all the way up his right nostril.
Rock exploded in the entranceway as Straum yanked his head back.
Golaka followed him out into the lair, still shouting. “Oh, they send me the occasional assistant, but they never last. They’re always running off to do more ‘interesting’ things. Excitement. Adventure. You want adventure? Try cleaning a year’s worth of ogre grease out of my cauldron!”
Jig sat down and warmed his hands on the fire beneath the cauldron. There was nothing he could do. His beliefs ruled his place, and he certainly knew better than to think he could make any difference at all in a fight with a dragon.
The real question was whether he believed Golaka could. Straum was a five thousand year old dragon, with huge teeth and claws and firey breath, not to mention the magic he had mastered over his long imprisonment below.
But Golaka was . . . Golaka. And Straum had scattered rocks and dust throughout her kitchen.
So Jig wasn’t at all surprised when, a few minutes later, he heard Golaka shout, “Get out here, you worthless runt. And bring the big knife. You led this beast to us, so you can be the one to carve him up.”