Chapter 1

 

You ever see those old-timey movies about jail? Guys in striped suits with big heavy iron balls and chains shackling their ankles? Yeah, me neither. But I’ve seen the clips posted online. This place was sort of like that. Only, what those movies don’t tell you about being in jail is how boring it is: the sheer tedium that’s involved with sitting in a jail cell with no one to talk to. My cell is exactly 52.2 inches long and 29.7 inches wide. If I walk over my straw bed, that’s 12 paces to walk the perimeter. I can walk that perimeter five times in a minute. You know how I figured that out? I am so unbelievably bored waiting in this cell that I actually counted my steps and timed it.

 

It’s been three weeks since the guards found me standing over the prone figure of a goblin. He was missing a couple fingers at the time, so I totally understand why the guards put me in jail. But that doesn’t make time pass any faster.

 

I was told by my barrister, which is a fancy word for lawyer in the city of Trinitarian, that my trial would start any day. That was two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been waiting in this cell trying to keep from going stir crazy. I don’t have any other prisoners around to talk to, and the guards only come to feed me. So, I exercise, practice my spellwriting forms, and think.

 

I think about my friends, who were also arrested by the city guards. I haven’t had a chance to see or talk to them since I was put in here, so I can only hope they’re doing better than I am.

 

I also think about how this all started. It seems like only yesterday that I woke up in the middle of a forest and was greeted by my fairy guide, Mary. She told me that I’d died on Earth and been reborn on Terra, a world that is governed by laws that are a lot like the rules in the RPG video games I used to play. I was rather skeptical at first, but when a blue screen pops up telling you your stats, it’s hard to stay an unbeliever.

 

Name: Armon Ellington       Age:    19

Level: 5                                Class: none

Exp to next lvl.:  886            Titles: none

Unspent Stat points: 5                                

                                               

Health:           65                    Mana: 91

Stamina:        87                    Mana Regen/Min     1

Stamina Regen/Min 3.25        Health Regen/Min    0.525

                                               

Str:      18        Int:       22

Dex:    19        Wis:    12

Con:    21        Cha:    13

                                               

One handed Damage: 4 - 5 (Unarmed)

Two Handed damage: 6 - 7 (Unarmed)

Defense: 3

                                               

Skills                                     

Alchemy: Novice 5

Animal Care: Novice 8

Aura Projection: Novice 9

Blacksmithing: Novice 5

Carpentry: Novice 4

Climbing: Novice 3

Construction: Novice 4

Cooking: Novice 9

Craftsmanship: Novice 5

Crystal Programming: Novice 2

Firestarter: Novice 2

Haggle: Novice 2

Herbalism: Novice 8

Knife Mastery: Novice 3

Listening: Novice 4

Lock Picking: Novice 3

Logging: Novice 5

Magical Aura: Novice 9

Magical Engraving: Novice 5

Mana Control: Novice 9

Mining: Novice 3

Observe: Novice 4

Repair: Novice 3

Search: Novice 7

Shield Mastery: Novice 8

Sleight of Hand: Novice 4

Sneak: Novice 7

Spear Mastery: Novice 7

Unarmed Combat: Novice 7

Workhorse: Novice 4

           

Abilities: Darkvision, Thrust, Shield Bash, Aspect of the Kobold 1                                         

Spells: None

Arcane Symbols Known: light, dark, water, fire, earth, air, force, self, life, death, remove, and directional symbols.            

 

Looking at my character sheet, I can’t help but laugh. I spent weeks in this little town, Restrain, training my butt off and learning about how this world works. Together with Mary and my best buddy Vrax, a kobold, we killed monsters, explored a dungeon, leveled up, and raised our skills. Heck, I even went on a date with a pretty hot redhead warrior lady, Sonya. I met some really kind people that trained me and took me under their wing. I made lots of friends and even helped out a tribe of kobolds. They made me part of their family, and Vrax officially became my brood brother. It was a good time in my life that I really didn’t appreciate at the time.

 

Then the Imperare Empire came and took over the dungeon town. They killed or imprisoned just about everyone who wasn’t human. Sure, my little group was able to save some people, but we couldn’t save the kobolds. The Empire believes in a humans-first philosophy and either kills or enslave anyone who isn’t. Vrax, and I ran as fast as we could to help the tribe, but we were too late. By the time we got there, everyone was gone. The soldiers killed most of the kobolds, even the unborn eggs in the tribe’s hatchery, and the few who weren’t dead were taken as slaves by the Empire. Vrax’s wails of sorrow still haunt my dreams, and I remember crying my eyes out over body of the kind kobold elder whose last breath was spent begging me to save the kobolds that were kidnapped.

 

So, of course, we went to the Imperare Empire to find and rescue them. We were thankfully able to rescue the citizens of the dungeon town that were taken, but the kobolds were already gone. The only clue we had to where the kobolds had been sent were some accounting books. Unfortunately, they were written in code, and we went east to Monstrum to get help from a connection.

 

Only, that connection was also a friend of the Empire, and he sold us out. He laid a trap for us that my team survived--unlike our attackers--but just as we finally got the location of where the kobolds were being kept, the guards showed up.

 

So, here I am. Pacing. Stripped of everything in my inventory and wearing prison rags. Thinking. Pacing. The kobolds are in Attilius, a city smack-dab in the middle of the Imperare Empire, while my friends and I are still here in Monstrum. We’ll find them. That’s my mantra. Save the kobolds . . . Save the kobolds . . . Save the kobolds. And then kill the bastards who took them.  

 

___________

 

The next day, I’m sitting on the stone floor of my cell, my eyes closed, mentally drawing the spellwriting symbols I know when I hear the sounds of boots approaching. As the boots stop in front of my door, I get to my feet. Several times, the guards have thought they’d have a little fun by playing ‘beat the half-breed.’ While I’m actually human, I currently look like I’m the offspring of some human lizard mating. I gained an ability from the magical ceremony that bonded me to the kobold tribe called [Aspect of the Kobold] that grows scales over my skin, giving me added natural armor. It’s an ability I used to get across the border and blend in with the monster races in Monstrum, but it still makes me a target for people who hate anything to do with humans.

 

Instead of a guard, however, my lawyer is standing there when the thick wooden door opens. My lawyer is a thin bird creature of some kind. He has large, bulging, yellow eyes and speaks through a hooked beak. His patchy white feathers show purple skin beneath, and his long, taloned fingers poke out through his official black barrister robes.

 

He squints at me and clucks his tongue before saying, “Well, aren’t you a mess? Here, I’ve been working tirelessly trying to gather evidence for your trial today, and you can’t even be bothered to get cleaned up? Tsk, tsk.”

 

“My trial is today? The last I heard, it was supposed to be weeks ago. Where have you been?”

 

The bird man waves his thin, long fingers in the air, dismissing my questions. “Oh, I’ve been busy. Didn’t I just tell you? Besides, what does it matter to you when your trial is? You’ve had a nice quiet vacation here in this cell, while I worked my poor feathered body to the bones.” Then seeing me standing there, fists still raised for a fight with the guards, he points to me and states, “Violence will get you nowhere in Monstrum, Arman. Now, let's get going, or we’ll be late.”

 

I quickly lower my fists, walk toward the door of the cell, and tell my lawyer, “My name’s Armon, not Arman.”

 

The barrister just shrugs as if it doesn’t really matter one way or another. Three guards in pressed dark-blue uniforms are waiting outside the door of the cell with thick chains in their hands. I look at them for a moment and wonder if I can take them all before someone raises the alarm. Unfortunately, the silver collar around my neck prevents me from accessing my mana or using any abilities, so I reckon any fight would be short. Deciding against it, I hold my arms out, and the guards attach ankle and wrist manacles with chains running between them. When they’re done, I try to walk, and I find that I can only take small half-steps. I guess that’s to make it difficult for prisoners to run away.

 

One of the guards pokes me with an end of a nightstick and motions for me to follow the other guards. I shake my head at the clanging, scraping noise I make while we walk. All I need now is a nightcap, and I can play the part of Jacob Marley in this year’s Christmas Carol. I can’t help but squint to adjust my vision to the light from the barred windows built high up into the hallway walls. We walk down a passageway and turn a few corners before passing a large chamber where they keep the rest of the prisoners. The sudden increase in noise deafens me for a moment as I hear a grating cacophony of shouts coming from the groups of inmates to my right and guards on the left grumbling to each other about the unruly prisoners as they fill out reports. I was never told why I was taken to a private cell and isolated from everyone, and I sort of miss the quiet now.

 

As we pass through the center of the building, the other prisoners start to chant. It’s so low that I don’t notice it at first. Then, as the rest of the prisoners get in the spirit, I can make out what they’re saying: “Dead lizard walking. Dead lizard walking.” The noise fades away as we exit the building, and I’m led to the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The guards toss me up onto the wagon and then secure my manacles to the floor before letting me sit on the bolted-down benches. The three guards all remain in the back of the wagon with me while we travel through the city.

 

It’s a short fifteen-minute ride before the wagon stops and the process of unchaining me from the floor of the wagon is completed. The guards laugh heartily as they also toss me out of the wagon, and I land painfully face-first on the hard stone of the paved road. My chains get tangled up, making the manacles on my wrists and ankles cut into my flesh as I yank on the chains to try and straighten them. It takes me a few minutes to get back on my feet, and the moment I do, the guards prod me to start walking.

 

I only get a quick glance at the buildings around me, but I recognize that we’re in front of the courthouse in Trinitarian, a multilevel stone structure with large pillars in front that support a slanted roof. There’s also a statue of a tall orc woman wearing flowing robes. She’s looking straight forward while she holds a thick book titled ‘Law’ to her chest and raising a sword vertically in front of her. The imagery makes me wonder if she is supposed to be defending the law or getting ready to execute judgment on its behalf. One of the guards prods me with his nightstick again, and I get the hint that I should keep moving up the stairs to the courthouse.

 

It’s not easy walking up the stairs with the chains around my ankles only allowing me room to make little half steps. I have to hop up some of the steps, and the entire group has to wait for me as I make my way up the broad stairway. I see my lawyer perched at the top of the stairs, an impatient look on his beaked face. I don’t feel any pity for him, though. He’s made me wait weeks, so he can wait a few extra seconds. The feathers along my lawyer’s neck stand on end, and he clucks his tongue once before turning away, and the five of us walk inside.

 

As we pass through the wide-open double doors, I notice the dark oak wood paneling on the walls and the hardwood floor. The decor tries to give the impression of great age and majesty. People in dark barrister robes are everywhere. Some talk in groups; others are walking quickly towards some important appointment. There’s a quiet yet frantic energy everywhere. To me, it seems like my chains rattle too loudly, like I’m making a ruckus at church during mass. I feel like every lawyer turns my way as I pass, accusing me, judging me.

 

We turn right at a set of doors, and the guards double-check my restraints before we walk through them. My lawyer leads the way into a courtroom with me shuffling in behind. A wooden railing separates the half of the room with chairs for the audience and the official courtroom. Beyond the railing are two large desks, one on the right side with another birdman lawyer and one on the left side. As we walk past the railing, my lawyer and the other birdman, whom I can only assume is the prosecution, greet each other.

 

“Hello, Sam.”

 

“Hello, Ralph.”

 

Wait, my lawyer’s name is Sam? I don’t think it bodes well that my lawyer never cared enough to even bother telling me his name the few times we’ve met.

 

As soon as my lawyer and I are sitting at the desk on the left, the guards lock my restraints to the floor beneath the table. The rest of the room looks just like you’d expect if you’ve ever watched a lawyer show. There’s a four-foot empty space between the lawyers’ desks and the raised desk where the judge sits. Next to the judge’s bench, there’s a slightly-overweight troll bailiff that’s watching the room.

 

My lawyer still hasn’t told me anything about what to expect in the courtroom, so I ask him anxiously, “What’s going to happen now? I’ve never been arrested before, much less been in court.”

 

Sam looks down his beak at me and replies with an annoyed tone, “I don’t have time to describe the legal system to you. Just do what I tell you, and everything will be just fine.”

 

I hear someone yell, “All rise for the honorable Judge Jody.”

 

I look around the room, and everyone is getting up from their seats, and I quickly do the same. Then a door behind the bench that I mistook for normal wood paneling opens, and a short figure wearing dark-black robes walks through. I recognize the judge as a goblin, though it looks rather funny with the powdered wig on its head. The goblin has short ears that barely poke through the white wig, so I think that the judge is a male. Judge Jody climbs a short ladder behind the bench and into the seat behind it. When he’s done, we’re looking up at him behind his elevated desk.

 

Once the judge is seated, the troll bailiff yells out, “You may be seated,” and everyone sits down.

 

Judge Jody looks through a stack of papers and then down at both lawyers. In a surprisingly deep voice for a goblin, he says formally, “Will the accused stand?”

 

My lawyer stands up and pulls on my arm, indicating I should do the same. I was just standing, then they told me to sit, and now they want me to stand again. Come on, make up your mind. Still, I get to my feet.

 

The judge continues: “In the case of Jaxson Miltonha versus Armon Ellington, Armon Ellington is accused of kidnapping, assault, and torture. How do you plead?”

 

Sam replies just as formally, “We plead guilty, your honor. The prosecution and defense have come to a plea agreement in which my client assumes full responsibility for his actions and has agreed to two years’ hard labor.”

 

Not able to believe what I’m hearing, I blurt out, “What?!?! I do not plead guilty! I was only defending myself after being attacked!”

 

My lawyer pulls on my arm and hisses in my ear, “Shut up, you idiot. If the case goes to trial, you face up to ten years in jail. Take the plea deal!”

 

I pull my arm from the birdman’s grasp and address the judge directly: “Pardon me, your honor. My, uh, barrister never asked me about any plea deal, nor did I ever agree to one. I plead not guilty to all charges.”

 

The judge looks at both lawyers and asks, “Is this true, gentlemen? Was the accused not consulted when agreeing to a plea?”

 

Sam gives me a dirty look but quickly assumes a falsely-humble tone when speaking to the judge. “Well, your honor. My caseload is so large that I hardly have the time to speak to every single criminal I represent. This seemed like such an open-and-shut case that I thought the accused would be overjoyed to only get a two-year sentence. I thought I was being kind by not forcing the traumatized victim to go through a trial.”

 

The judge scowls at my attorney. “Well, it seems like your client has a different opinion on the matter. We’ll be entering a plea of not guilty on the record and moving forward with the trial.” Addressing the prosecution, he continues, “Are you ready to go to trial, counselor?” The prosecuting attorney glances at my lawyer and nods that he’s ready. The judge nods back and says, “Since Mr. Ellington has obviously not had the good fortune to speak to a decent barrister, I’ll explain the proceedings for his benefit. First, both sides will give their opening statements and then present their evidence. Then, based on this evidence, I will decide if the accused is guilty or innocent. Are there any questions?”

 

I raise my hand, and the chains on my wrist jingle. Judge Jody points at me, and I ask, “I noticed that the person accusing me of the crime is not present in the courtroom. Don’t I have the right to face my accuser?”

 

“Yes, it is unusual that the damaged party is not present.” Addressing the prosecutor, the judge asks, “Where is the plaintiff?”

 

The prosecutor bobs his bird neck once uncomfortably and answers, “Oh, well. You see, your honor, I didn’t think there was any need for my client to appear in court. I thought that the defense and I had already come to an agreement on a plea deal.”

 

“Well, it seems like you were mistaken. You will produce your client by the end of the day, or I will dismiss all charges. Now, let's get this trial started.”

 

With that statement, the trial for my freedom begins. The prosecution’s opening statement portrays me and my friends as a group of hooligans out for revenge against an innocent and dedicated professor. According to the prosecution, we kidnapped the professor and held him against his will in his home. Then we snuck in our gang of ruffians and tortured the poor goblin for days. It was only after a large fight broke out, and we attacked each other, that the guards were called, and they found us trying to murder the only witness, Professor Miltonha.

 

My own attorney doesn’t paint a much better picture. He tries to portray me and my friends as poor, misguided urchins only looking to rob Professor Miltonha. However, when he came home early and caught us, we foolishly took him hostage. It was then that we supposedly called our gang leader, and it was he who tortured the professor, not us. We were simply accessories.

 

Frustrated with the narrative being constructed here, I nearly shout, “Your honor, I object to the statements of both the prosecution and defense. What they’re saying just isn’t true!”

 

The judge looks down at me with a patient look. “Son, I know that this is a bad time for you, but you will respect the procedures of this court and sit quietly. I promise that you will have a chance to tell your side of things shortly.”

 

I close my mouth and try to remember that this isn’t the world I came from. The judge is right: I need to respect the way things are done here. I can’t alienate the one person in this room who seems to care about the truth.

 

In the meantime, the prosecution calls its first witness, the guard captain who found everyone that night. After swearing to tell the truth, the captain reads the report he wrote and tells the judge what he saw.

 

Without any emotional embellishment, he says, “We were notified by the neighbors of a disturbance earlier that evening. When a single officer was dispatched to the scene, he found a large battle and called for backup. By the time more officers arrived, the entire incident was over. All we found were the armor, weapons, and loot bags of six individuals on the first floor. When we investigated the screaming coming from the second floor, we found the accused and his group standing over a kneeling Jaxson Miltonha.”

 

The prosecution brings out the other guards, who all give similar testimony. At one point, the judge, getting tired of hearing the same testimony over and over, asks the prosecution to bring out Jaxson Miltonha himself so that he can hear his direct testimony. The prosecuting attorney tells the judge that he is unable to locate the witness but that he’s sure he’ll find him before the end of the day.

 

My attorney doesn’t seem to have any witnesses lined up. At all. Which is not surprising, considering that he’s never asked for my side of the events. Sam tries to tell the judge that he has no witnesses, but I insist on telling my side of things. The judge allows me to take the witness stand, against my lawyer’s advice, and I swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A notification prompt pops up after I do so.

 

You’ve sworn an oath to only tell the truth while giving testimony. All parties will be notified if you fail to do so, and appropriate penalties will be applied.

 

Well, that’s a great way to make sure witnesses don’t lie under oath. I dismiss the notification and begin my tale.

 

“You’re honor, it all began when the village I was living in, Restrian, was attacked by the Imperare Empire. One of the many horrid things that army did was kidnap the non-human citizens of that village and a group of kobolds with the intent of selling them off into slavery. My friends and I went into Imperare territory and rescued the kidnapped Restrians but found that the kobolds had already been sold off. Our only clue was the coded accounting books there. I learned about Jaxson Miltonha from my mentor, Lilliandra, and requested his aid when we finally made it to the college city, Trinitarian, where Jaxson worked as a professor.”

 

Ralph, the prosecuting attorney, objects. “Your honor, the accused is stating facts not entered into the record. I ask that his statement be stricken.”

 

“No, your honor. I can prove that we hired Jaxson.” I change the permissions on my notifications and show the court the quest notification from when we made a contract with Jaxson for ten silver in exchange for his decoding work.

 

The judge looks over the notification then taps his gavel and says, “I rule that evidence be entered into the record showing that the accused did enter into an agreement with Jaxson Miltonha for decoding work.” Then, turning to me, he says, “Please continue your testimony.”

 

“Two weeks later, just as we’d agreed, we meet with Jaxson to get the information he promised. Unfortunately, he was not at his office, and we found a note to meet him at his home. I didn’t think anything of it at the time since I was sure lots of people worked from home. However, when my friends and I arrived, we were ambushed by gnoll mercenaries and defended ourselves.” I look up at the judge and continue, “Your honor. I admit that we used force to get the location of the enslaved kobolds from Jaxson, but those kobolds made me a member of their family. Would you have done any different to save your family?”

 

The judge considers my words for a moment. His brow furrows slightly, and I see a slight nod of his head. However, his words show his determination to be impartial. “What I would or would not do in that situation is not germane to this case. My only concern is determining the truth of the situation and applying the relevant laws.”

 

I can only lower my head, disappointed at the tone in his voice. I’d hoped to have at least one person on my side in this courtroom. At least that anxious knot in my stomach has gone away, knowing that I’ve finally gotten to tell my side of the story. The prosecution, however, doesn’t let me off so easily. He grills me on each detail of my statement. Everything from what I was wearing the night of the supposed ambush to my relationship with the kobolds and why I’d be trying to find them. It’s that last bit that gets me into trouble. You see, since I’d sworn I’d tell the truth, I’m forced to describe the events that led to my being adopted into the Red Claw Tribe. Everything. Including the bit about me getting the [Aspect of the Kobold] ability and the fact that I’m really human.

 

The prosecutor leaps to his feet after I finish. “Your honor, I would like it entered into evidence that the accused has freely admitted to using a magical ability to look like a non-human and enter our kingdom. No doubt his intent was to murder Professor Jaxson Miltonha from the outset.”

 

The judge nods and orders, “Let the record show that the accused has admitted to using a magical ability to transform himself into his current appearance with the purpose of crossing the border into our kingdom.” Then, turning to me, he asks, “Young man. Would you please deactivate your ability please?”

 

I nod. I’d known that the Monstrum Kingdom was founded as a refuge for the races that weren’t human and, with the exception of special diplomats, have a no-human policy because of their war with the Imperare Empire. But I never expected the reaction I get when I deactivate my [Aspect of the Kobold] ability.

 

As the red scales that cover my skin painfully recede, there are gasps and screams from the crowd watching from behind the wooden railings in the court. One man starts to yell something about dirty humans and has to be escorted out of the room while another woman just faints. Several reporters that looked bored till now run out of the room, no doubt planning on delivering the breaking news about the human who infiltrated the kingdom of Monstrum. After banging his gavel to bring the court back to order, Judge Jody releases me from the witness stand.

 

Walking back to my seat, I try to reactivate [Aspect of the Kobold], if only to stop all the dirty looks I’m getting. But the silver collar around my neck heats up as it blocks the ability. As I sit, my lawyer turns away, refusing to even look or speak to me anymore.

 

Not having any other witnesses or evidence prepared, my attorney instead rests his case. As does the smug-looking prosecution.

 

Then the judge stands as he reads out his verdict. “In the case of Jaxson Miltonha versus Armon Ellington, on the charges of kidnapping, assault, and torture, the accused is found not guilty by reason of insufficient evidence.” I can’t help but leap up from my seat and cheer when I hear the verdict. The prosecution doesn’t look so smug now.

 

However, my elation is short lived. The judge continues solemnly, “However, as evidence of an additional crime was also presented to the court, I find that I must also rule on the charges of unlawful immigration and falsely identifying as non-human.” He looks directly at me and sighs wearily. “While I applaud your efforts to help those oppressed by the Imperare Empire, I cannot overlook the laws you broke, Mr. Ellington. I’m sorry, but I must sentence you to the minimum amount of two years in a kingdom-run work camp.” With that, the judge bangs his gavel once more and leaves the courtroom.

 

I’m in such a daze after hearing the verdict that I’m only partially aware that people all around me are asking me questions as I’m escorted back to the wagon by the guards. We ride back to the prison in silence, and while sight of a human being escorted through prison causes some uproar, I’m hardly aware of it. Even when I’m pushed into my cell, the only thought I can think of is, ‘Why am I going to jail if I didn’t do anything wrong?’

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

While my trial had taken weeks to organize, the swift hand of Monstrum justice had me on a wagon bound for the work mines the next day. I’m told by the guards that my win in court forced the prosecution to drop all charges against my friends Mary, Vrax, and Kitsune. They’re scheduled to be released tomorrow, and while I’m happy that they’ll be free, it’s disheartening that I won’t have a chance to see them. It’s still a bit unreal that I’ve actually been convicted of a crime and am being sent to some kind of work camp as punishment. On earth, I’d never even gotten so much as a speeding ticket. I’d honestly thought that, after hearing my side of the story, the judge would let me go . . . or, at worst, simply throw me out of the country. But at least I have the comfort of knowing that my friends are free.

 

The trip to the mines will take two weeks.  There are three other humans who are being transported with me, but none of whom will talk to me. I name them Larry, Moe, and Curly--not because they resemble those fine comedians but because it makes me chuckle every time I think of the three slapping each other and running around like mad men. Also in the wagon is a creature with yellow skin and a long, skinny nose that looks like a goblin’s that had been stretched on a rack. He says his name is Meno and that he’s a hobgoblin.

 

Most of the trip is pure tedium. Though the others ignore us, Meno turns out to be a pretty good storyteller, and the two of us eventually get around to talking about what brought us here. After I finish my tale, Meno stares at me and asks, “So, you traveled across a kingdom disguised as a lizardman, killed a bunch of monsters, and beat a goblin professor half to death all just for the chance to maybe help some kobolds?”

 

I shrug. “Yeah, basically. I mean, they are my family.”

 

The hobgoblin shakes his head. “Well, now I’ve heard everything. A human making some monster folks family instead of killing them.”

 

I think I hear one of the human prisoners mutter something about being a ‘race traitor,’ but when I turn to see who said it, none of them are looking my way.

 

I turn back to Meno and ask, “What did you get convicted of?”

 

Meno laughs. “Kid, don’t you know that everyone in prison is innocent?”

 

I can hear the guards driving the wagon laugh at the statement, and even the three humans chuckle. Meno leans forward, smiles, and says, “I was accused and convicted of robbery and assault. Though, the charges were bogus.”

 

Larry, Moe, and Curly snicker, but Meno ignores them and continues with his story. “I was walking along the road, out for a late night stroll, when a fellow wearing a black skin-tight suit and mask ran past me. He dropped a bag when he bumped into me but ran off before I could tell him about his lost property. So, there I was, looking through this bag for some hint at the fellow’s name when the city guards found me. I tried to tell them that I just found the stuff, but they didn’t believe me. The next thing I know, I’m in court watching this overweight government official identify me as the person that robbed him.” Meno sighs like he’s used to the world kicking him around. “I’d already had two things going against me. One, I’m a hobgoblin, and we don’t generally have the best reputation. Two, they caught me with the stolen goods. Add to that the identification by that squinty-eyed slob, and that’s three strikes. So, I was convicted of robbery.”

 

The two orc guards laugh at the story, and one of them adds, “Don’t forget about the assault charges, Meno. Tell him about how you got those.”

 

The hobgoblin smiles, and I see that he has dark-black gums and that he’s missing several sharp teeth. “Oh, well, that happened when the fat government official came to gloat after I was convicted. It seems that some special items were stolen but never recovered. He threatened to have me beaten every day while I was at the mine unless I told him where it was.” Meno puts a hand to his chest and puts on his most innocent expression before continuing, “Now, not having committed the robbery, there was nothing I could tell the gentleman. However, I was right mad at being falsely convicted. So, I whispered a little something to the gent. When he leaned towards the cell bars to listen better, he instead found my hands around his throat.”

 

The orc guards laugh again and one adds, “He made the guy turn purple before the guards could pry Meno’s fingers loose.”

 

Meno, now with a contrite expression on his face, says, “I fully recognize that I shouldn’t have tried to strangle the fellow, but the poor man got his payback for falsely identifying me as the one who robbed him. It turns out the ‘special items’ were a bunch of letters from the guy’s mistress. Only a week later, the letters mysteriously turned up in the hands of the guy’s wife, and she divorced him and took all his money.”

 

Everyone except the humans laugh at the end of the story. Though he seems pretty easy going, I think the moral of that story is that Meno is not the kind of hobgoblin you want to get on the bad side of.

 

The rest of the trip passes quickly enough. As prisoners, we’re chained to the wagon most of the day with two breaks for bad meals and restroom breaks. We sleep in the wagon at night, still chained to the floor. Wash, rinse, repeat for two weeks.

 

The guards dump all of us prisoners at the outskirts of the mining site after removing our manacles and chains. Unfortunately, they leave the collars around our necks that prevent us from accessing spells and special abilities.

 

The five of us, now alone in the forest, just look around for a while. It’s hard to believe that we’ve just been left in the middle of the woods just outside a mine.

 

One of the prisoners, Moe, says, “Well, I don’t know about you losers, but I’m not going to work in some stupid mine if I don’t have to. No one’s looking, so I’m making a break for it. Who’s coming along?”

 

I’m tempted to follow him. After all, I can’t exactly wait two years to reunite with my friends and rescue those kobolds. As if reading my thoughts, Meno puts a hand on my shoulder and shakes his head. In a low whisper, he says, “Don’t fall for that trick. I’ve spent time in places like this, and they don’t give you this much freedom if they think you have a chance of escaping.”

 

I consider Meno’s words carefully, but if there’s even a chance that I can escape and meet up with my friends, I have to take it.

 

I join the stooges as they run off into the forest, the three calling Meno a wimp for not taking a chance to escape.

 

The four of us run through the forest, the underbrush scratching my legs through thin prison garb, for about twenty minutes before I hear a familiar clomping sound behind us. I turn my head to see a large figure clad in dark leathers on an even larger horse riding towards us. I yell, “They found us!”

 

The stooges turn and see the rider. Moe’s eyes go wide and he cries, “Every man for himself!” as he veers sharply to the right. The other two follow his lead and run off in different directions, and I suddenly find myself running alone. A quick glance back shows me that the rider has not changed course and is still galloping in my direction. I pick up my pace and feel my lungs start to burn as I get a burst of speed, but my race for freedom is short lived. I hear a loud growl off to my left somewhere and then I am suddenly tackled by a blur of fur.

 

My head hits the ground with a thud, and I see stars. When my vision clears, I’m staring up into the panting maw of some kind of large cat. Its face is so close that I can count the number of deadly-looking teeth it’s preparing to eat me with. I close my eyes and hope that the end will come swiftly when a voice calls out, “That’s enough, Felix. Let him up. You can go play with the others while I take care of this one.”

 

I turn my head towards the sound of the voice and see the guy who was chasing us. Only, now that he’s closer, I can tell that he has dark-green skin and sharp-looking tusks protruding from his mouth. His greasy-looking black hair is tied back away from his face in a series of braids. He has a coil of thick rope in one hand and a long, wicked-looking knife in the other.

 

The large, tan feline standing over me sniffs hotly before moving away. Obeying the orders of it’s master, it bounds away to find the other prisoners. As I watch it go, I realize that the beast looks just like an extra-large cougar.  

 

As I get to my feet, the large orc walks closer to me, and I take a step back unsure of what he plans to do. The orc stops and speaks in an almost bored tone, as if he’s given this speech too many times.

 

“Every single batch of new prisoners always has a few who think that they can escape. Well, now you know different. You’re going to go to the work camp, but I’m going to give you a choice as to how you arrive there.” He raises the items in his hands for me to see it better and then says, “I can use the rope or the knife. Which do you choose?”

 

I sigh wearily, thinking that maybe I should have listened to Meno after all. I put my wrists together and say, “The rope please.”

 

The orc nods and grins, revealing yellow, broken teeth. He only says, “Good choice,” before tying up my hands with one end of the rope and then leading me back to his horse, where he ties the other end to the saddle horn. He takes me back to the very spot I ran away from, and I’m surprised to see Meno still sitting there.

 

The orc guard unties the rope from his saddle and orders, “You continue walking down that road until you find the miner’s camp. If you don’t cause any more trouble, I doubt I’ll ever see you again. But, if I do, you won’t get the rope next time.” Without waiting for a response, the guard gallops away, no doubt intending to round up Larry, Moe, and Curly.

 

Meno helps untie my hands, and while he has an ‘I told you’ expression on his face, he’s kind enough not to voice the sentiment. Once my hands are free, I rub my sore wrists and dust off my clothes, and the two of us walk down the dirt path deeper into the forest towards where we’ve been told the work camp is.

 

Meno and I walk for an hour before the forest starts to thin, and we can see the camp in the distance. Just then, we hear a scream, and the orc guard on horseback comes riding out of the forest, dragging Moe and the others behind him. The large cougar just behind, batting at the stooges as if they’re toys.

 

The orc on the horse pauses in front of me and Meno. “Ha. These boys didn’t want to surrender as peacefully, so they got a less pleasant ride back. Now, head down the road to the mine and report to the foreman there. He’ll get you set up with a place to sleep and work.”

 

After that, he cuts the rope dragging Larry, Moe, and Curly and rides back into the forest. After a brief but longing glance at its lost toys, the cougar turns and leaves with the ride.

 

Larry and Curly grumble about the indignity of the situation as they untie one another and help Moe get untangled from the rope and back to his feet. Once that’s done, the five of us walk down the dirt road to the mining camp. It’s a short walk to a series of empty cloth tents. I’m wondering where everyone is when I hear someone shout out, “Hey, you the new prisoners?”

 

I turn and see a thin, grey-haired elderly human sitting on a rock. He’s wearing grey clothing and has some type of bird on his shoulder. Not seeing anyone else, I walk over to him, and say, “Hey. Yes, we’re the new prisoners.” I hold out my hand and continue, “I’m Armon. We’re looking for the foreman. We’re supposed to report to him. Do you know where he is?”

 

Ignoring my proffered hand, he nods knowingly. “Yup, thought as much. Was told to wait here for you. I’m Birdie. They call me that on account of my way with my feathered friends.” Pointing up at the black, red-eyed, feathered raven on his shoulder, he continues, “This here is Missy.”

 

Birdie looks at me expectantly, and it takes me a second to realize what he wants me to do. I look at the black bird, smile, and politely say, “Uh, hello, Missy. Nice to meet you.”

 

Birdie nods once and pets the bird. “Missy says it’s nice to meet you too.”

 

Moe pushes past me and grabs the man roughly by his shirt. “Oh, enough of this stupidity, old man. Just tell me where the foreman is, and I won’t beat you.”

 

A dangerous glint enters the old man’s eyes, and the bird on his shoulder caws menacingly.

 

Meno, standing to my left, leans in and whispers, “You don’t get to be an old man in a place like this without being able to take care of yourself.”

 

Birdie points past the camp and says, “The foreman is that way. Feel free to go anytime.”

 

Moe frowns at the old man once more before releasing him and walking off in the direction he was given. Larry and Curly follow behind him.

 

When the three humans have walked out of earshot, Birdie just shakes his head and slips something sharp-looking back in a pocket. He says, “Those three are going to be trouble. If I was any younger, I’d have . . . Well, that doesn’t matter.” He looks at me and Meno and nods once. “At least you two are polite. You’d be surprised how much trouble that will save you here. Follow me, gentlemen.”

 

The old man gets to his feet and leads us past the rows of single-occupant cloth tents to a much larger one that houses large wooden crates. Birdie moves past the wooden desk that occupies the front of the tent and starts to riffle through the crates. He returns and places two cloth packages on the wooden table that separates us and him and tells us, “Here are your tents. One for each of you. Once you get them set up, return here, and I’ll give you the gear you check out for mining.”

 

Meno laughs when he takes his tent. As the two of us walk away from the desk, I ask him, “What’s so funny?”

 

“Those three idiots are going to have to come back here to put up their tents and get their mining equipment.”

 

I laugh when I imagine their faces at finding that they have to make the trip between here and the mine again.

 

I look around the campsite for a place to setup my new accommodations. I see an empty space on the perimeter of the camp and make my way there. I clear the ground of any debris and lay out the contents of the cloth bundle. It consists of a large cloth tarp and some wooden poles, and it takes me a little while to figure out that the poles all connect together to form an A-frame. Once the poles are assembled and secured to the ground, the cloth tarp goes over it. I’m quite proud of my tent, even if it does look a little lopsided.

 

You’ve erected a simple tent. While sleeping or resting in your tent, you receive increased regeneration to your mana, stamina, and health.

 

I dismiss the notification and turn around to see if Meno needs help putting his tent up, only to find that, not only has he already finished putting up his tent, but that he’s only a few feet away from me. He’s standing outside of a pristine-looking, non-lopsided tent, smiling at me.

 

The lean hobgoblin walks over, inspects my work, and then lightly kicks one of the poles holding it up. One entire side of the structure collapses, and Meno tells me with a smirk, “I think your tent needs a bit more work. Need some pointers?” I sigh frustratedly and gladly accept his help. I mean, sure, I can build a whole tepee from scratch, but putting a tent up properly is apparently beyond me. Guess that’s what happens when your parents die before they can take you camping. Meno points out that the tent poles have to really dig into the ground to stop them from collapsing, and he suggests digging small pits for the poles to sit in and surrounding the base of the poles with rocks that will add stability. It only takes a few minutes to get the structure up again.

 

Once the structure is complete, I get a notification telling me that my construction skill has gone up to Novice level 5. While it’s nice that erecting a tent counts towards the skill, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly useful thing in a mining camp. With the tent erected, the two of us walk back to Birdie, get our mining equipment, and walk off towards the mine.

 

It’s a fifteen-minute walk over hill before we get our first look at the mine. Instead of being somewhere dwarfs dig into a mountain full of magical ore, I find a rather a deep pit in the ground. The mine is set in a large circular pit, which looks like it’s at least one-hundred feet in diameter. There’s a dirt path that winds its way down along the perimeter of the pit to the work area. Down there at the bottom, I see a single tent erected, and there are groups of men pushing carts on rails full of rocks around. They dump the rocks onto a heap then push the now-empty carts back down the track and disappear into the mining shafts.

 

Meno and I make our way down the path into the mining pit, and I laugh when we pass Larry, Moe, and Curly walking in the opposite direction with angry looks on their faces.

 

Down here, everything seems so much larger. I can hear the sounds of picks striking rocks, the grunts of men as they push carts, and the crashing sound of rocks as they’re dumped. Several men look up from their work as Meno and I walk past them, heading towards the tent. I can see some prisoners point to us and say, “Fresh meat.” At the tent, we find a short, pot-bellied, green-skinned orc. He’s one of the shortest orcs I’ve ever seen. He’s only wearing a leather harness around his chest and a metal skullcap, and he is sitting in a tall chair meant to raise him up to eye level.

 

As we approach, he turns and looks at us with beady eyes and a cruel smile. “Well, it’s good that you two finally decided to join us. I had to send the other three newcomers back to camp because they forgot their mining gear.” I have to stifle the laugh that threatens to escape my throat. The short orc frowns at me and raises his voice. “I’ll have you know that I expect you to work hard every day. There will be no shirking of duties in this camp. Do I make myself clear?”

 

I glance over at Meno and see that he’s adopted a submissive posture: shoulders lurched, head tilted downward, and eyes downcast. I imitate the hobgoblin, hoping to just get started with work. I really don’t want to start my prison term in the hole--or whatever it is they call solitary confinement here. I risk a quick glance up and see the short orc smiling, pleased at his ability to put others in their place. A part of me wants to punch the smug-looking creature, but the more rational part realizes that would not be in my best interests long term.

 

“Well, now that we have that settled,” the orc states in a calmer voice, “why don’t the two of you start working in mine number four. The daily goal for that tunnel is ten tons of ore. Head over there, and the boys there will show you what you need to do.”

 

Mind the Mine

You’ve been given the mandatory task by foreman Creed to help the team in mine number four haul ten tons of ore today. If the mine team fails to complete this task, their food and water rations will be reduced. If they produce more than the required amount, then they will receive additional rewards.

 

Reward: Normal food and water rations. Additional rewards based on exceeding minimum quotas.

Penalty for failure: Reduced food and water rations.

 

I don’t see an option to accept or decline the quest, so it must be automatically accepted. The foreman goes back to watching the prisoners work, and I figure we’ve been dismissed. Meno and I back away from the tent and turn towards the mine shafts. There is a wooden sign above each with a number, and we make our way to mine number four after crossing over a set of tracks. The shaft is about six feet tall, and its entrance is braced by a thick set of rough timber. A set of metal rails is anchored to the hard-packed ground and leads out of the mine to a dumping area. Before we can enter, though, we hear a voice call out, “Watch out, you dang blasted fools!”

 

I turn to see a mining cart coming towards me with speed, and I jump out of its way. The troll pushing it barely glances at Meno and me before yelling, “If the two of you have been assigned to mine number four, follow me!” The troll doesn’t wait for us to answer and continues pushing the cart. Meno and I do our best to jog after the fast-moving troll. We follow the green brute through the twists and turns of the tunnel until we pass an orc guard armed with a spear. The troll and the cart come to a stop soon after, and I see a group of sweaty and dirty men swinging picks at the walls. Each strike of the tool makes a loud clang, and some of the wall falls down. The troll grabs a tool that’s leaning against the wall and glances at Meno and me. “You two know anything about mining?”

 

I shake my head and see Meno do the same. The troll nods as if expecting the answer. “Then you’re on pick up duty till you learn.” He points at two goblins carrying buckets. “Do what they do.” Then, without another word, he walks down the tunnel and starts working.

 

I watch the two dead-eyed goblins walk behind the miners and use shovels to scoop the rocks off the ground and put them into large buckets. Once one of the buckets is full, a goblin comes up to the cart we’re standing by and dumps the contents of the bucket into it. He glances over at Meno and me, and there is a small spark of curiosity in his eyes for a moment. But then, as if the effort of asking a question is too much extra work, he shakes his head slightly, says nothing, and goes back to work.

 

Meno and I each put our pick along the tunnel wall, grab a shovel, and start to use them to pick up the rocks near the miners. While crouching to avoid the high swings of the miners and their tools, we scoop up then dump each shovel full of dirt, rock, and ore into a small nearby bucket until it’s full. Then, as instructed, we carry it to the ore cart and dump it in. The shovels and buckets aren’t particularly heavy for my strength score of eighteen, and I think I’m doing pretty well until I notice that the goblins are dumping three buckets for every one that I am. I grit my teeth and am determined not to be outdone by the smaller creatures.

 

I pick up the pace and start to feel a greater strain on my system. My chest starts to hurt, and my breathing gets rougher as I inhale the dust kicked up by the mining. Sweat stings my eyes as it streams from my brow. The muscles in my back scream for relief as I lean over repeatedly to scoop up rocks and fill buckets. I quickly check my stamina and find that it’s already down to a quarter of its maximum. It’s not the weight of the tools I’m using that drains my stamina. It’s each little repetitive act. I decide to rest and recover my stamina. It takes about fifteen minutes, and then I start the whole tedious cycle again. Two hours of scooping up rocks and hauling, a fifteen minute break, and then back to shoveling. I try to empty my mind to the tedium of tasks, but that doesn’t work out well either. I almost lose an eye from the backswing of a miner’s pick I didn’t see coming, and I’m extra careful to watch where tools are being swung after that.

 

When I hear a loud whistle, I’m confused for a moment. Everyone around me stops what they’re doing and starts to walk out towards the surface. I realize that the whistle must signal the end of the work day. I drop the shovel and get in line but am pulled out by the troll. He points at the dropped item and tells me, “Don’t forget your tools. You have to turn them in each day and check them out the next. There would be hell to pay if the foreman found out you didn’t return everything you checked out. He doesn’t like to have anything that can be turned into a weapon out of his control.”

 

It takes a moment for the advice to sink into my tired mind. I guess that makes sense. Can’t have a camp full of prisoners armed with tools when they’re not working. It might give them the idea that they can take the guards. I walk back to where I dropped my shovel and lean down to grab it. My legs and back are so sore that I’m only able to stand back up with a groan and ache. Before I get back in line, I remember to also grab the pickaxe I was given by Birdie. I don’t doubt there’s some kind of punishment for leaving your issued tools behind.

 

The sun is starting to set as I exit the mine, and Meno is waiting for me outside the entrance. We walk together back to the camp, and I enjoy the small breeze that cools the sweat soaking my shirt. The number of miners that walk back with us is staggering. There’s a veritable stream of weary and haggard prisoners with metal collars covered in dirt and dust. Everyone lines up to turn in their tools, and after turning in my equipment, I’m rewarded with the completion of the quest I was given.

 

You’ve completed the quest ‘Mind the Mine.’ You will be rewarded with your normal ration of food and water.

You receive 5 XP.

 

While I’m pleased that my team made quota, I’m even more pleased to get in line for some food. The food, it turns out, is a thin stew with small chunks of vegetables of some kind and bits of unidentified meat. It smells like sweaty gym socks, but I’m so hungry I don’t really care. I also

get served a cup of water and a rock-hard roll of bread. There are no benches to sit on, so everyone sits in front of their tents or eats in groups on the rocky ground. Meno and I decide we’d rather sit in front of our tents, but when we get to them, we find that they’ve been knocked down.

 

I suspect Larry, Moe, or Curly had something to do with it but don’t see them around anywhere. Who I do see is a large, seven-foot-tall, broad-shouldered, human with a shaved head approaching us. He’s followed by none other than Larry, Moe, and Curly, who seem to be his new lackeys. The big human looks at me, then at Meno, and holds out his hand and tells us, “Give me your food, fresh meat. Rules around here say new prisoners have to pay tribute their first day. So, hand it over.”

 

I suspect that there isn’t any such rule, and I’m rather hungry. I look down at the food and realize that, even though it’s not much, I’m more than willing to kick someone’s ass to keep it.  However, Meno has already beaten me to the punch. Literally. With a joyful grin, he’s somehow managed to put his food on the ground, punch the tall chrome-domed human in the throat, and follow it up with a swift kick between his legs. There’s a sickening crack, like walnuts being broken by a nutcracker, and the large brute whimpers and crashes to the ground, holding his groin. Man, Meno wasn’t kidding when he told me that hobgoblins were the brutes of the goblinoids.

 

The guards show up a few minutes later and ask what’s going on. I’m ready to tell them that the giant human tried to steal our food, but Meno cuts me off and says, “No problem here, sir. This guy just slipped and fell.”

 

When the guards ask the human for his side of things, oddly he says the same thing: that he just slipped and fell. The guards give each other knowing looks and walk off. Larry, Moe, and Curly help baldie crawl away.

 

When I ask Meno why he didn’t let me report the guy, Meno’s just says, “Tattle tails don’t last very long in prison. That’s a rule you need to learn right now. No matter what happens, you don’t go snitching to the guards. You handle your problems yourself.”

 

While Meno and I sit in front of our collapsed tents and eat our meals, I realize the truth of what he says. There’s a saying on earth, ‘Snitches be bitches that get stitches.’ When I tell Meno about the phrase, he laughs and agrees with its validity. Especially here. Having never been to prison before, I can only draw upon my experiences watching movies. But, in every movie, you have to show that you’re strong, or other prisoners will try to take advantage of you. As I finish the last bite of rock-hard bread, I wonder if I’ll get blacksmithing experience when I make my prison shank.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

The next week is a repeat of the first full day. Get up, eat, work all day, eat, sleep. There were only slight variations in days.

 

For instance, one day a goblin tried to take my food. I was so tired from work that I’d hardly noticed when the goblin walked up to me and made the demand. By the time my weary mind processed what he’d said, the creature had already escalated his threat by brandishing a jagged homemade knife. “Give me the food, and you can walk away with all your dangly bits intact,” he threatened.

 

Part of me just wanted to give him the food rather than commit another act of violence, but a larger, more cynical part understood that, if I were to give this guy my stuff, I’d be giving things to someone everyday I’m here. I looked the dirty goblin in his beady little eyes and said, “No.” There was neither malice nor anger in my voice, only the firm resolve not to be taken advantage of.

 

The goblin snickered and, with a surprising amount of speed, lunged at me with his shiv. Unfortunately for him, I’d trained in unarmed fighting with faster and stronger opponents. I took a step to the side, turned my food tray, and flung it, dinner and all, at the goblin. He was blinded for a fraction of a second, just enough to throw off the aim of his stab. I pivoted on my left foot, turned my body clockwise, and watched as the knife went sailing past. My right hand snaked out and grasped the goblin’s overextended wrist and squeezed. The goblin cried out in pain and was forced to drop the knife. A swift follow up kick to the goblin’s guts not only knocked the wind out of the creature but also the will to continue to fight. He didn’t even try to recover his shiv, instead running off while cradling his arm to his chest.

 

I dismissed the notifications for the fight, knowing that no experience would be given unless someone died. I remember shaking my head at the stupidity of it all as I picked up the broken food tray. For being a bully, the goblin only got injured. For defending myself, all I got was going to bed hungry.

 

Near the end of my second week, a new prisoner arrives in the mine. A tiny kobold with an artificial silver arm comes strolling into the mine camp one morning like he’s going on a picnic. He doesn’t speak to anyone, just goes straight to the food line and gets some grubs. No, really. Today’s breakfast is grub worms. Not the most appetizing of meals for me, but it’s a treat to have live wiggling food for some of the non-humans. Still, seeing another member of the reptilian race makes me happy and reminds me of all the good times I’d had with Vrax and his tribe. When he sits down with his food, I go over to say hello. As I get closer, I see that he is a rather odd-looking kobold. Well, I guess that’s not a fair assessment since I’ve only known one tribe of kobolds. But he definitely looks different than the Red Claw Tribe. Still, being two feet tall, he’s the shortest adult kobold I’d ever seen. Some of the youngest children in the Red Claw Tribe were taller than him.

 

As I watch him, I see that his scales are a champagne color but have a rust-tinted pattern that almost appears to shift as he moves. Unlike Vrax, he does not have horns. Instead, his left arm stands out as his most memorable feature since it’s silver and covered in runic script. It’s not until I hear a metallic clink as he picks up a spoon that I realize that it’s actually made out of some type of metal. He turns towards me as I approach him, and I note that his tail twitches nervously. I stop a few feet from the newcomer and hold out my red hands, palms out, to show that I mean him no harm. I say hello in Reptilian. The use of his native language surprises the tiny kobold, and he puts down his bowl of grub worms.

 

Speaking in Reptilian himself, he says, “Welcome, stranger. Where did one such as yourself learn the exalted language of the kobolds?”

 

“Oh, I’m actually a member of a kobold tribe myself.”

 

Looking surprised again, he gestures to a space on the ground near him. “Take a seat and regale me with your tale. I just have to know how a human came to be one of my people.”

 

I sit down and consider lying. After all, he’s a stranger. Yet, there is something in his eyes and posture that makes me want to trust him.

 

“I came across a tribe of kobolds near a city named Restrian. They were being forced to steal from the local farmers by a large brutish troll. Instead of killing the tribe, as the local farmers wanted, I instead decided to help the tribe. Knowing that the troll’s regenerative ability would make any direct attack ineffective, I helped them dig a large pit filled with oil and sharp stakes. After several nearly-fatal attacks by the troll, we were able to lure him into the trap. He laughed and laughed about how we’d only made him mad by making him fall into the pit and impale himself on the sharp stakes. He stopped laughing when we lit the oil on fire and burned him alive. I recall hearing the troll’s frantic screams and cries for mercy. My instincts were to try and help him even though he’d just been trying to kill me, but a single look at the watching tribe put that thought away. Every surviving member had come out to watch their enemy burn. I was later told that the troll had not only murdered all the hunters that tried to fight him, but also made everyone watch as he pulled their legs and arms off.  The tribe was so grateful for my help killing the monster that had been terrorizing them that they made me a member of their tribe.”

 

After hearing my tale, he shakes his head. “Stupid trolls. They think they’re so big. They’re always trying to push the little guys around.” He slaps my back with his tail in a friendly gesture. “But you showed him that kobolds can fight back! I like you, human.”

 

Then using his tail like a third hand, he takes little grubs from his bowl and pops them into his mouth like they’re popcorn. “I’m Token, though some folks call me Saint Token.” He holds out his metallic hand, and I shake it, noting the surprising warmth radiating from the limb.

 

“Nice to meet you, Token. I’m Armon. I like your arm, and I’d love to hear the story about how you got it.”

 

Before he can say anything else, the horn signaling the start of the work day sounds, and everyone in the camp moves to drop off their bowls and utensils before heading towards the mine. Token nods to me. “Perhaps another time. For now, I must be off to talk to the foreman about which mine he wants me in.”

 

Token walks away towards the food tent, finishing his meal along the way. I get up off the rocky ground and head towards the mine for the usual work day. Recalling the conversation, I remember that it took place entirely in a language that’s tied to my [Aspect of the Kobold] ability. I hadn’t realized that some of my abilities and skills could still be used even if I have this collar on my neck. With a bit of hope rising in my chest, I try to activate the transformative part of [Aspect of the Kobold] but am unable to grow scales. While part of me is disappointed that I can’t activate the ability, my heart beats faster knowing that not all my skills and abilities are shut down. I’ll just have to go through my list of skills to see what still works.