Stories of the Goblin World

GDThe Glittering Dark

Caleb tried to curl into a foetal position in the absolute darkness, but a sharp object prodded him, forcing him to roll to his knees. A guttural voice barked what sounded like an order to him in a language that he could not understand. The words sounded angry.

“Dnats dna thgif namuh!” the voice repeated.

Several more sharp objects thrust at him in a random series of jabs, though none broke his skin. He heard a rumble of deep voices in laughter, surrounding him. Caleb could not count how many of the creatures blocked his path to freedom… assuming he could find the doorway through which he had been brought into this dark Hell hole.

The objects prodding him pushed him upwards, forcing him to stand. He staggered onto first one foot then the other. Still the weapons stabbed his flesh, but not as hard now. Caleb got the impression that they were only meant to taunt him at the present rather than to nudge him in any particular direction.

The laughter continued in random bursts between grunts from his tormenters. Caleb tried to remember what had happened, as well as the route that had brought him here. He had been walking in the early morning mist, near the castle, and had discovered a strange opening to a place underground. It was a place made by men, perhaps in a time when more people could read. Posters lined the walls showing other places above ground that resembled parts of the city, before it had been ruined in the cataclysm so many generations ago.

Some of the walls in corridors had been lined with tiles and Caleb found steps that led even deeper underground. A musty smell grew stronger the further that he traveled. He had found it all very strange and had stopped at the top of a long descent where metal steps of an awkward, jagged design led deeper… much deeper. He had felt afraid then. Some instinct stopped him from going any further on his own. The pungent smell, stronger in the abandoned underground rooms, seemed wrong somehow, as if the very air around him vibrated with movement of something unseen in the darkness at the bottom of the long stairs.

He had thought that perhaps he should get some of the men together to explore further and had turned to walk back out into the morning light, when suddenly two roughly man-shaped creatures silently blocked his way. The dim light that penetrated the underground passages was just enough to determine that whatever stood before him, they were not human. They stood the height of a man, but their features were contorted and ugly, and they had large, pointed ears. A glint of green reflected from the skin of one when he moved and Caleb quickly determined that the creatures both had a dark green skin. Then he turned and found that two more of them had appeared from the long, deep stairs behind him. They had carried long, pointed staves, and Caleb assumed that those were what were poking him in the dark now.

His memory was unclear from the point when he had first seen the creatures. He had felt his entire body prickling, as if it would explode with unexpended energy, but his thoughts of bolting out of there had been expunged when the creatures attacked and grabbed him, then went running impossibly fast down the deep metal stairs into the unknown pit of darkness below. All four of the creatures carried him in what felt like a practiced formation. Caleb remembered that the ground had seemed flat when they reached the bottom of the stairs and his impression was that they were still in man-made territory. There had been almost no light, but the slightest glow from above was just enough to make out shapes and a smoothly cut tunnel at the end of the platform. The creatures had jumped off the platform and run into the tunnel, then quickly turned into some sort of side passage.

From that moment, all had been absolute darkness. If the place he had been was some remnant from a time when men had technology and mass transportation, it had been long forgotten and they had gone beyond it now. The moments had passed excruciatingly slowly while the creatures carried Caleb to his unknown destination. Oddly, he had begun to sense walls and turns, though his eyes detected nothing. He tried squirming a few times, but the hands that held him were too strong for him to move far.

The grunts of his captors and the sound of their feet flapping on the hard dirt seemed to echo off the walls ever so slightly, giving Caleb a sense of space. He worked out that he was in some sort of labyrinth of underground caverns. The stale smell he had caught at the top of the long stairs was strong here, interspersed by other aromas. One of them was of cooking meat and Caleb wondered if he was to become food for these creatures out of legend. The thought brought a new wave of panic. He had heard tales of goblins in his childhood, but had never believed them to be real. Now that he had seen the creatures, albeit briefly and in dim light, he believed that they could be nothing else. Perhaps demons, but demons would not seem so solid. These were creatures of muscle and earthiness. They had dark hair and some had golden rings in their huge ears that matched the menacing golden glow of their eyes in the darkness. Caleb wondered if the musty smell had been of the goblins themselves, just before he lost consciousness.

Then he had awakened here, in the pitch blackness, feeling himself prodded by sharp objects which he assumed were the staves he had seen the goblins carrying when he could still see them in the faint light. The low laughter continued and unintelligible words passed among the circle of unseen persecutors in the harsh language until suddenly, Caleb heard the sound of a female voice.

“Ebyam evah nuf tiw numah, sey?”

Soft hands reached inside the open neck of his shirt and stroked the flesh on his chest. Her hands felt warm against skin that had become chilled in the cool air underground. Caleb had not felt the cold through his fear, but now he became very aware of it by means of the contrast of the female goblin’s heated breath, close to his ear, and the touch of her caress. To his dismay, Caleb felt his groin reacting to her sensual touch.

God help me! he thought. He tried to control the involuntary response, to no avail. If the female intended to have her way with him right here, in front of her circle of fellow goblins, he would be helpless to prevent it. Instead, to his relief… and frustration, the hands withdrew and he was roughly shoved so hard that he fell back onto his knees. His first thought was that he was grateful for the softer dirt floor of the cavern. Hard rock or even the solid trodden paths the goblins had brought him by might have cracked his kneecaps painfully.

To his surprise, Caleb caught a glint of something white in the darkness. Even more astonishing was that he was able to determine that it was the swish of the female’s hair as she turned her head to speak to one of the other goblins in the darkness, somehow reflected by tiny points of light that glittered from the walls. Despite the seemingly complete darkness, his eyes had adjusted so that the smallest amount of light passing from one quartz encrusted stone to another was enough to at least make out moving shapes. The figure of the female seemed almost luminescent in the darkness, so that Caleb speculated that she might be albino. He wondered then how much the goblins, whose eyes would be accustomed to these dark conditions, could see in the miniscule light of the glittering sparkles.

Before he could think further, someone pinched Caleb’s nose roughly and pulled it upwards so that his mouth instinctively opened to breathe. A nasty tasting liquid was poured down his throat. It reminded him of the dirt that might be washed off of mushrooms. Caleb tried to cough it out, but he was held firmly by more than one goblin, including the one who continued to squeeze his nose shut tightly, and forced to either swallow or drown. He felt the ground spin and the darkness closed in once more, enveloping him into blissful unconsciousness.

The next thing Caleb knew was the searing pain of light in his eyes and a rough push from behind that made him fall forward onto wet grass. He was in daylight, though it was still misty. He heard people shouting in words he could understand, though he could not determine what was going on. He remembered nothing except walking in the mist, then something he couldn’t quite remember had distracted his attention. Voices he knew fired questions at him, but he could only shake his head in confusion. He did not remember who, or what, had pushed him or where he had been.

Men continued shouting and Caleb heard a familiar voice calling for the others to help dig out demons from under the ground. Caleb recognized the words and slowly began to place names with the voices, but he knew nothing of demons or why everyone had become so excitable. He only wanted to sleep.

When he awoke next, his wife was sitting next to his bed, trying to get him to eat some broth. She told him that the men in the village had gone looking for him and found him being pushed out of a hillside by a demon. The whole thing sounded nonsensical. Caleb rolled over and returned to the blissful oblivion and darkness of unconsciousness, while the chaos of inevitable destruction carried on in the waking world.

When he awakened again, he learned that a search party had happened to be in the right place at the right time to see a hideous, green creature push Caleb back into the daylight and having decided that underground caverns harbored ‘demons’, the entire village had turned out to help dig the creatures out of their dark sanctuary, never considering the possibility that they might be starting a war that could lead to the final extinguishment of what remained of the human race.

 

Le-ina’s Sorrow

Le-ina sat on a large rock just off the Isle of Apples, enjoying the dim light of dawn. It was bright to her white-irised eyes, so accustomed was she to the dark pools beneath the deep places of the earth. She shook her long, white hair and chewed a bite from the golden apple in her hand, contemplating the different sweetness it held than the meat that comprised most of her diet. Her hand dropped to her extending mid-section, above the scales that led to her double fish tails as an old memory crossed her thoughts. It had been the talk of her kind – that she had not eaten her lover.

Now there were few who remembered the human pirate who had come to the island so long ago. There had been signs that great changes were coming to the earth, so Le-ina had invoked the ability of her species to keep her pregnancy in stasis until better conditions provided an adequate environment to bring another of their kind to birth.

She splashed her double tails in the water, playing with the reflections of dappled light where the morning sun shone through the lush trees of the tropical island. The white sand where the water met the beach of the lagoon was shaded still. Le-ina enjoyed the surface of the water most before the sun glared high in the sky.

She turned her face towards the scant clouds and breathed in the fruity-scented mist that wafted gently across the water, testament to the ancient volcanic origins of the island and the sweet fruits that grew in the nutrient-rich soil. She felt the growing warmth on her exotic features and wondered at the effect that her high cheekbones and hypnotic eyes had on human men. They called her kind mermaids, or Melusine if they saw that the tails were split. Her people called themselves Kol’ksu. The double appendages, somewhat useful for shuffling on land, were what marked Le-ina as one of the psychic race of water goblins.

Her white eyes with their dark, reptilian-like slit pupil had enticed many a sailor to his death. It was the way of her people. The song lured the prey, but the mesmerizing effect of Kol’ksu eyes held them in thrall. Occasionally, one might dally long enough to know pleasure before he died.

Le-ina knew that the time had come to return to the deep places where little Talla could be born in seclusion. She had chosen the name for her spawn that morning in the dawn glow. She mentally said her goodbyes to the soft light of day and splashed into the water to find the underground tunnel that would lead to her chosen pool. There her daughter would come into the world.

She knew as a certainty that she carried a female youngling. Her mind  touched the innate thoughts of her unborn spawn and felt a strong spirit with a feminine touch. Those among the water-goblins, and even the land dwellers of the caverns who occasionally mated with the Kol’ksu, had been too many generations inbred. Females were rare, and highly treasured. It was the reason she had chosen a human to seed her offspring in the ancient manner. Le-ina already loved the daughter that she would soon know in her arms.

She swam through the tunnel in darkness, relying on her sonar-like spatial awareness to know where the rocks held sharp edges. She had travelled the passage many times and almost knew her way without any external senses at all, but her changing shape in the past month had made her cautious. The time was near – the spawn weighed heavy even in the flotation of her watery environment. Le-ina was no salmon to swim blindly from nothing more than instinct. Her youngling had a great destiny before her. It was something of which Le-ina was sure, even though she did not know the details of little Talla’s future.

The Kol’ksu hunted in schools, but they gave birth alone. So was Talla born with none but her mother to witness the horror revealed in the reflected light of the colourful stone caverns as she examined her spawn for the first time.

Though Kol’ksu spawned much more easily than land-dwellers gave birth, Le-ina had been wearied and was languishing in the hormonal euphoria of new motherhood as she cradled her newborn in her arms. The custom of the first inspection had become ingrained over many generations of deformities amongst all species of goblins. It was the mother who must first determine whether the youngling was whole and would live.

Le-ina smiled at the green-tinted, nearly white skin and the shock of white hair that marked her spawn as Kol’ksu. She looked into the white-irised eyes… and the smile fell. Le-ina saw round eye pupils where she had expected the slitted ones that marked her species. She began to wonder if the deformity would affect Talla’s underwater vision as she examined what should have been double fishtails and quickly realised that the double appendages were legs, like those of a land-dweller, ending in curled toes instead of fins. It was something that Le-ina had not anticipated, even with her future sight.

Further examination established that Talla had no gills and therefore would not be able to breathe in her natural watery environment. Le-ina felt as if something had broken inside her chest. The human pirate who had seeded Talla had given her too much of his heritage.

The custom demanded than a youngling who would not be able to survive independently must be refused by the mother and allowed to die. Though the tradition seemed cruel, it was intended to save both resources and the greater pain of losing a young one who had become known and beloved of many. But Talla was viable to live, and this gave Le-ina hope. She breathed only air and would have to swim near the surface, always. It would be Le-ina’s task to help her daughter to adapt to a watery environment. She projected a mental image of dolphins and whales to her daughter, visualising them swimming to the surface frequently for air.

Le-ina taught Talla to swim. When they joined the others of their kind, the other Kol’ksu indulged the need to keep the spawn close to the surface at all times, but sometimes Le-ina could see one or another of them looking at her sadly. Every birth amongst their kind was cause for celebration, especially a female. Le-ina knew their concern, that Talla would one day drown and bring them all grief beyond imagining.

One day the feared tragedy came too close. The Kol’ksu were going to the feed. Men were swimming in the river and meat would be plentiful. The Kol’ksu sense of the future told them that none of the men would be missed in the history of the world to come. Better yet, the incautious humans had told no one where they were going. There would be no trace of them within minutes. Their memories would be swallowed up by time.

The feed had already begun. Le-ina swam into the fray, holding Talla close as they swam together. Countless silvery bodies darted just under the surface, partially visible in the dappled light of the sun on dark water. The powerful thrusts of doubled tails propelled them through the water as Le-ina and Talla joined into the melee.

The fastest swimmers had shred flesh from bone with an efficiency that brooked no escape. The smell of blood excited Le-ina’s senses. She ripped at pieces of floating meat wantonly, her acute sense of smell and psychic facility determining which creatures in the water were other Kol’ksu and which were the prey. The mental voices of men thrashing in pain and panic as their stripped lower limbs failed them were as muted as the sounds of their screams through the water. The ecstasy of the frenzy filtered their thoughts of agony, and that moment when they resigned themselves to death, pleading only for the pain to stop. The clarity of the thoughts of the other Kol’ksu in frenzy resonated loudly in comparison.

The exhilaration from the scent of human blood took over Le-ina’s conscious thoughts. She danced within the narcosis and pure elation in the weightlessness of her watery environment – a dance of death. The thrashing of clumsy land dwellers stopped as they were quickly stripped of flesh down to the bone. Le-ina feasted with the others, instinctively passing morsels of flesh to her youngling.

Suddenly she became aware that her spawn was not moving of her own volition. They had been under water too long.

Le-ina ripped her consciousness from the euphoria of the feeding frenzy. She struggled against the passion of the feed and focused her thoughts on pushing her daughter towards the surface where she could breathe the air. There were so many others that they became momentarily entangled in a swarm of fishtails and could not see through water made dark by blood, but Le-ina’s instinctive sense of direction helped to disentangle them from the still frenzied Kol’ksu rolling euphorically in the river currents. At last they breached the surface, but Talla did not breathe.

Talla had turned bluish from lack of oxygen. Le-ina squeezed her spawn’s lungs and turned her over to slap her powerful webbed fingers across the youngling’s back. Water ejected from her mouth, but still she did not suck in air. Le-ina struggled against a wrenching in her stomach as she feared the loss that no mother could bear. She turned Talla over and breathed air into her daughter’s lungs with her own mouth pressed over that of her spawn as she projected her thoughts into the youngling’s mind, willing her to breathe.

Suddenly Talla sputtered and coughed up more of the river water that was life and breath to her mother and her people. Le-ina closed her eyes and breathed a heavy sigh of relief as she held her daughter above the surface, consciously resisting the urge to hold her close lest her embrace should tighten and smother the spawn that she realised now that she was destined to lose.

Le-ina did not need precognition to see that this would be the only warning she would get. Talla could not live in the water. It was unheard of that a mother would part from her spawn, but Le-ina could not live on land for long. They were creatures of different worlds. As much as it was against nature to part from a spawn before weaning, Talla’s life depended on a sacrifice that Le-ina knew would haunt them both throughout their long lives.

Le-ina resigned herself and sent a message to the land dwelling goblins for help. There was only one among them who was permitted to enter the enclosed space of Le-ina’s underground pool cavern without becoming meat – the one called Haghuf. Le-ina took Talla to the pool where she had been spawned to spend their last moments together in solitude as they waited.

Le-ina held her youngling, memorising every detail of her. Remember your people, Le-ina impressed on her daughter in the psychic communication of her kind. You will learn to walk like the land-dwellers and to speak in words that any might hear, but you are Kol’ksu. Visit your people in the watery places and share their thoughts, as I share mine with you now.

Le-ina knew that Haghuf would see that Talla had a good foster mother amongst the goblins. So many young ones amongst them were lost at birth. Her imperfect spawn would bring comfort to someone who had lost their own youngling.

 

Haghuf stepped carefully into the cavern through a passage opening that had stood for aeons. His expression was well controlled, but Le-ina could see that he shook slightly with fear. He looked towards the pool, unaware that Le-ina sat very still behind him in the shadows of the rocks.

“I have a gift for one of those who mourn amongst your kind.”

Le-ina’s deep, dulcet tones echoed within the enclosed cavern. Haghuf turned, startled, to see her sitting casually on a rock. He approached slowly, fearfully. Le-ina was reluctant to lay the child on the ground. Such a gesture was used to indicate a child given over to death. Le-ina intended to give her daughter to life.

“You may take her Haghuf, there is no danger for you today,” Le-ina assured him.

Haghuf visibly fought against his instinct to flee as he approached, taking the youngling that was offered to him by the predator. He looked Le-ina in the eyes as she passed the child into his arms. She saw both fear and sympathy reflected in his expression. Le-ina wondered if he was sensitive enough to feel her heart as it broke into a thousand pieces. Haghuf looked down at the youngling in his arms. Le-ina watched his eyes as confusion stole over his features.

“She is Talla, a child of the Kol’ksu. Look at her.”

Haghuf looked at the naked infant to see two perfectly formed legs kicking into the air.

“You must take my spawn. She cannot live in water,” Le-ina said formally.

Haghuf’s eyes shot back up to lock with Le-ina’s again as he suddenly comprehended the impossible decision that Le-ina had been forced to make.

“Rest assured Le-ina, she will be well cared for. I will watch over her myself.”

With that assurance, Le-ina nodded once and jumped into the water. No land dweller would see her tears. Amongst her own people, Le-ina would not be able to hide the despair that ripped deeper into her heart as she swam further and further away from the spawn that she would never hold again. She felt the deep chasm of sorrow opening indelibly within her heart as she forced herself to swim forwards, deeply into the darkest subterranean cavern that she could find, defying the impulse to turn and reclaim the child of her body and of her soul.

 

Haghuf stood on the shore alone with the youngling. She was just old enough that she might begin to walk soon. The strong muscles she had begun to develop from swimming would make the task a little easier. Haghuf remembered a female amongst the Betweeners, the goblins who lived near the surface in caverns partly dug by ancient men building tunnels, who had recently been bereaved of her stillborn male child. A female infant to care for would surely bring her some relief from her mourning.

Haghuf turned to climb the carved steps back to his own caverns, far from the ravenous teeth of the Kol’ksu. On impulse, he looked at the child’s newly growing teeth. They were sharp but thick and conical, like his own. The needle-sharp teeth of the Kol’ksu had not been passed to this young one. Haghuf wondered what insanity had driven a land-dweller to couple with a Kol’ksu, and whether the one who seeded little Talla had been eaten as was the custom of the water-goblins. It was a secret that he would never know.

Talla looked up at him with her round pupils and white-irised eyes.  He smiled back at her despite his resolve to remain detached from the abnormal spawn. He found himself entranced by some magic of her eyes and felt as if he were being drawn into them, then suddenly wrenched his attention free and back to full awareness. He vowed to himself that he would keep his promise to Le-ina and would watch over Talla as she grew. Perhaps he would even teach her to read and study the books of magic that he kept preserved. If the child retained the psychic gifts of her mother’s people, she might become a powerful magic user or even follow him as Librarian.

“I have much to teach you little Talla,” he said aloud in the silent cavern. “But for now, it is time to meet one who will be mother to you.”

He held the youngling close as he climbed the rest of the steps to the familiar caverns. He knew that Talla’s story would travel fast. He decided that he might as well start it with his own version at the next Storytelling.

 

*

Haghuf stood on the shore alone with the youngling. She was just old enough that she might begin to walk soon. The strong muscles she had begun to develop from swimming would make the task a little easier. Haghuf remembered a female amongst the Betweeners, the goblins who lived near the surface in caverns partly dug by ancient men building tunnels, who had recently been bereaved of her stillborn male child. A female infant to care for would surely bring her some relief from her mourning.

Haghuf turned to climb the carved steps back to his own caverns, far from the ravenous teeth of the Kol’ksu. On impulse, he looked at the child’s newly growing teeth. They were sharp but thick and conical, like his own. The needle-sharp teeth of the Kol’ksu had not been passed to this young one. Haghuf wondered what insanity had driven a land-dweller to couple with a Kol’ksu, and whether the one who seeded little Talla had been eaten as was the custom of the water-goblins. It was a secret that he would never know.

Talla looked up at him with her round pupils and white-irised eyes.  He smiled back at her despite his resolve to remain detached from the abnormal spawn. He found himself entranced by some magic of her eyes and felt as if he were being drawn into them, then suddenly wrenched his attention free and back to full awareness. He vowed to himself that he would keep his promise to Le-ina and would watch over Talla as she grew. Perhaps he would even teach her to read and study the books of magic that he kept preserved. If the child retained the psychic gifts of her mother’s people, she might become a powerful magic user or even follow him as Librarian.

“I have much to teach you little Talla,” he said aloud in the silent cavern. “But for now, it is time to meet one who will be mother to you.”

He held the youngling close as he climbed the rest of the steps to the familiar caverns. He knew that Talla’s story would travel fast. He decided that he might as well start it with his own version at the next Storytelling.

***

Runner

Karesyk ran. Habit dictated that he ran at top speed, and in fact doing so would get the message to the next grotto faster even though there was no real urgency to spread the news. Still, it was training. Goblins survived because they could communicate faster than men, even if sending a runner was more primitive than the technology of the surface dwellers.

Other runners would be on their way to the nearest grottos in other directions, then new runners would take the news throughout the spider web of underground grottos that made up the world of the goblins under the city of men. It would take little time for all to know that something momentous had occurred. Something that could change their world and the uneasy peace with the humans that would seek to slaughter their kind if they knew and understood the significance of the celebrations to come.

The sound of goblin feet slapping against solid rock echoed in a primitive rhythm throughout the intertwined passages of the underground tunnels. Karesyk thought of the rhythm of The Dance, the pulse of drumming that echoed the natural heartbeat of the earth. The primordial rhythm brought the goblins into ecstatic movements that entered them into the trance state that formed their spiritual connection to the planet. The act of running itself brought him to a form of trance, a euphoric sense of purpose that focused his mind on reaching his goal.

Legna was the target grotto. It was the one grotto where many runners were reluctant to go, but Karesyk was not afraid. From there, others would carry the message and Karesyk would seek hospitality and perhaps even the possibility of being chosen by a female if his timing was good. With the grottos so interbred that births were few, any visitor stood a good chance of getting chosen in The Dance.

Goblins didn’t measure time as humans did. With no sunlight to penetrate the caverns, the movements of the celestial bodies mattered only to the Betweeners who lived near the surface and to those who went above to gather food. Karesyk was one of the Deep Dwellers, although young among goblins. His bloodlines went back to the oldest of their kind, hardly showing any relationship to the humans who legend told shared their ancestry far back in antiquity. The sharp and prominent ridges on his face marked his noble ancestry, just as it would signify him as a monster to human eyes. It was just as well that his kind seldom crossed paths with men.

Instinct and old memories of the path might have told Karesyk that he neared his goal, but the smell of food took over and drew him eventually into the wide cavern where the grotto had gathered. Karesyk entered quietly, showing respect to the goblin speaking to the others gathered within. Two goblins at the entrance were dispensing food. As custom demanded, Karesyk took the bowl offered to him and nodded slightly as his body dipped for a polite undulating bow to those who offered him sustenance.

The food smelled succulent and spiced. Karesyk sat quietly and looked into the rough ceramic bowl to see a wheat porridge with fresh vegetables and a slab of unknown meat. After his run, the exquisite delicacies were a welcome feast. He used two fingers in the customary way to scoop the porridge into his mouth, sometimes dipping the meat into the pasty concoction to manage larger mouthfuls. He would be expected to speak next and didn’t have the leisure to eat slowly.

No one had turned to stare at him as he had entered, but goblins noticed any stranger. That he was one of their own marked him as a runner. They would be expecting news, if not of the nature that he brought for them. No invasion of humans threatened their world at that moment. He brought glorious news of a birth.

The other goblins sitting near him glanced to read his expression. They did not hold eye contact as that would be considered a challenge among goblins. They politely kept their inquiring gazes furtive and paid attention to the speaker who was regaling them with lessons of the movements of the planets and stars. The subject didn’t interest Karesyk. He preferred stories of his people’s history or the made-up stories that were only for amusement. But the speaker chose. Some taught lessons for the younger goblins, some told fantastic stories or lessons in history which reminded them all of why they lived as they did, out of sight of the humans.

Some, like Karesyk, brought news of events in other grottos. Karesyk’s news would be of particular interest to the goblins of Legna, as their passages led deep into the earth, into the realm of the Foringen. There were still many among his kind who feared to wander in the realms where the dark skinned goblins lived in harmony with the dragons.

The Foringen, forgers of metal, would already know of the birth. The dragons themselves would have celebrated as soon as the infant drew breath. He was whole and would live. The mother had picked up the child and suckled it, indicating that it was healthy. If the stories were true, the dragons would have been rejoicing at that exact moment.

Karesyk might have saved himself the journey if the Foringen had been willing to travel the lesser distance to the higher levels of their own grotto, but they seldom ventured into what they regarded as the cold places of the earth. Karesyk wondered how their world would have changed if the new birth had been among the Foringen, but like the other grottos, they were too inbred among their kind. Only a cross-mating could have resulted in a healthy offspring.

The speaker finished and moved to sit among the crowd. It was time. Karesyk stood and walked to the front of the room. All faces turned towards him. The goblins waited patiently, some with expressions of trepidation. A runner from another grotto may well mean news of war. Karesyk launched into his storytelling voice to calm their fears quickly. In a moment, they would have cause to rejoice.

“In ancient generations, our people traced their ancestors in common with men. But in many turnings of the earth, those who were trapped underground adapted to the conditions that the earth gave us and became as my people, goblins who are feared by the surface dwellers.

Among those who survived in the midst of us were the magicians and shapeshifters. Transformed, sometimes between one shape and another, we formed into many species. Yet all are goblins. We survive together. We watch and protect all of our kind, even those we may have cause to fear.”

Karesyk stopped speaking for a moment as several goblins shifted awkwardly in their seats. The carved rocks were uncomfortable enough, but it was the thought of what was unspoken, the vague but clearly understood reference to the water goblins who would shred the flesh of goblin and human alike to feed their insatiable hunger. Any reference to the Kol’ksu would have brought uneasiness to the attention of the listeners, even without naming them. Karesyk reached within the agitation of his fellow goblins to bring both relief and a sense of wonder to them at once.

“Legends tell us of a species of goblin that is descended of dragons. It is said that those born as winged goblins communicate mind to mind with dragons still, and that the dragons will follow the will of such a goblin.”

The room fell silent. Suddenly the goblins were rapt with attention as the story unfolded before them.

“Many thought that it was only legend until a youngling was born to the grotto of Nacibrab with rudimentary wings. Sadly, he was ill-formed and could not live.”

Karesyk stopped again, allowing his listeners to feel the grief of that loss for a moment. Any loss of a newborn among them was a tragedy to all, but that one had been especially so because of the lost potential. As the gentle sighs abated, Karesyk continued.

“I bring you news now that Nacibrab has had a new birth. The youngling is only a male, but the wings are unmistakable.”

All eyes stared widely as the implication unfolded. The goblins waited, hardly breathing.

“The mother picked up the infant and suckled him. He will live.”

The drumming started more suddenly than was usual at the storytelling. Feet pounded in applause at the news as the drums reflected the earth’s rhythm and goblins began to stand and dance. A surge of green flesh filed from the storytelling cavern to a more open cavern nearby where there was room to dance freely and to rejoice in the primal rhythm of the drums. The sound of a huon, the sweet flute-like instrument carved from bone, lilted over the steady beating of a growing number of drums. Goblin feet stamped in the ecstasy of The Dance. The Dance always followed the storytelling, but this time it was one of celebration. A new life had begun.

Karesyk joined in, dancing in total abandonment despite the exertion of his long run. The food and rest had revitalised him, but more poignantly, the raw energy of The Dance filled him with the vibrant energy that came from touching magic. The Dance was a form of magic that all goblins could share in whether they followed the ways of the magician or chose another path. It was basic and life-affirming. The glory of pure feeling, leaving all conscious thought behind as the body moved in the waves and spirals of nature’s energies that fed the soul.

Within those natural energies, Karesyk felt the sensuality of his own body and those around him. He became very aware of the few females among the grotto as they danced closer to him. The more clever males had sought to dance near to him as well, knowing that only one female would choose the visitor and the others would make choices once he had been claimed.

It didn’t take long for a female to lay her hand on his arm, leading him gently away from The Dance. Karesyk complied. He was grateful to see that she was one of the Deep Dwellers like himself. He preferred to leave his seed among his own species, although it could only improve the bloodlines of the Betweeners who resembled humans far too closely.

Karesyk was led to a small, private cavern. The bite came without the preliminaries of conversation. The female wanted to breed, nothing else was required. Karesyk relaxed into the familiar paralysis. As a runner, he had been chosen before. The tingling travelled from the tooth marks on his neck throughout his nervous system, making him hyper-sensitive to touch, yet unable to move. In his helpless condition there was nothing to do but give himself over to pleasure as the female used his body according to her own whims.

He felt the rhythm of the drums and of the earth through the rock as he lay back, eyes closed, feeling the pleasure mount until he reached the inevitable climax that would seed a new life among his people, although for a grotto not his own. Perhaps he would meet the goblin that resulted of his pleasure one day, and would know of his part in the youngling’s making.

The female finished and threw a skin over him to give warmth as he slept. Had she coupled with a male of her own grotto, she might have gone back to choose another and increase the chances of conception. With a visitor, she would not. The need for diversity in the bloodlines ruled all.

Karesyk dozed into a half-sleep as the steady rhythm of the drums continued to pound through the rock beneath him. The actual sound did not travel loudly to the cavern that the female had chosen, but the vibration through the earth would travel far, even as far as his own grotto where others danced for the same celebration. The venom began to wear off so that he could move again, but weariness took over and he turned only to shift into a comfortable sleeping position.

The awareness of the drumming and festivity within The Dance played in his near dream-state, until a sudden gust of warm breath was released against his face. His eyes popped open, Karesyk was fully awake instantly. His muscles tensed to move as his eyes shifted towards the source of the animalistic gust that could come from no goblin, but he did not move. Karesyk found himself looking up into the face of a dragon.

His mind raced. The dragons were not supposed to walk among the goblins in the cooler levels. He had teased his friends that they feared needlessly, that Legna would be like any other grotto. He had travelled here himself more than once, and never was there any sign of the creatures that everyone knew dwelled deep within the volcanic levels beneath the grotto where no goblin except a Foringen would travel.

Karesyk’s second thought was that he was not yet dead. He would have expected a quick and painful shredding from the sharp teeth that loomed above his face so closely, but the dragon regarded him as if only curious. A low rumble of sound issued forth from its throat as a single droplet of drool escaped its mouth, dripping slowly onto Karesyk’s face. The viscous liquid tingled on his cheek as if it would burn if left unchecked. He had no choice but to use the sleeping fur to wipe it off even if the movement might trigger the dragon’s attack.

To his surprise, the dragon actually moved backwards as he wiped his face and sat up in the same movement. It was then that Karesyk noticed that the dragon was not a big one, perhaps only as long as the height of two goblins of his species. It was probably not much more than a baby. His surprise was exceeded when the dragon backed out of the cavern entrance and was greeted with a rolling ball from the corridor, an item obviously procured from the human world. Whoever had rolled it was unseen behind the solid rock walls, but they had made no sound. The dragon, however, appeared to be well acquainted with the ball and began to play with it, pushing it about with its nose.

Intrigued now, Karesyk stood and gingerly followed the dragon into the corridor. Suddenly the silence of the dragon’s playmate made sense. Karesyk looked upon the dark leathery skin of a Foringen. Few of his kind ever looked upon the species, but Karesyk was beyond surprise by now. The forger saw him and mimed a greeting. The Foringen did not speak a verbal language. Their world was one of loud noises ranging from fire to the clanging of their own anvils. Their language was communicated through motions of the hands and a sort of dance of the body, completely visual in nature.

Karesyk didn’t know much of the language, but he could recognise the greeting and the dark goblin’s behaviour towards the baby dragon told the rest. The game was known between them, this chasing of a ball. Why it occurred in the mid-earth levels Karesyk could only surmise. Perhaps the ball would melt in the deeper places, or perhaps the dragon had wandered astray. Karesyk would seek someone to ask the next time he had reason to travel to Legna.

Karesyk moved away from the strange pair, bowing an appropriate greeting as he left the cavern for a passage that would lead him back the way he had come. He remembered passages well, which also made him a good runner. Now he would run again, back to his own grotto. He could not sleep where dragons walked. The next time he was met with fear from those who would not travel to Legna he would not tease them. Instead he would brag that he had been to Legna and met a dragon, but lived to tell the tale.

Karesyk found the passage he sought and began to run. He ran more swiftly than he had ever run before, feeling the vibrations through the rock as the rhythm of The Dance drove him on from the deepest places within his being. In the echoes of the caverns the drums pounded in unison with hundreds of goblin feet.

***

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