Dungeon Monsters and Tavern Tales

Assassin Vine

Assassin Vine from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

I stepped back and shook out my fist. I hadn’t meant to hit the old biddy, but she made me angry, berserker angry. She slumped at the rough-hewn table, a hand to her bloody nose.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “But I need those beans.”

 “And I told you I don’t have anymore.”

“You expect me to believe a wizard would give all of her magic beans to an idiot like Jack?”

She glared from under a tangle of grey hair. “I’m an herbalist, not a wizard, and Jack is a nice boy.”

Yeah, my cousin, Jack seems nice, but he’s a shit, and dumb as a haystack. Ever since the whole beanstalk thing he’s been insufferable. That’s why I needed the beans, to rob the damn giants blind and put Jack in his place. I looked around the shack. No self-respecting wizard would live in such a hole. “Look, just one or two beans. I brought you two cows. Jack only gave you one.”

She poked a bony finger in my direction. “I don’t need any more cows. “

 I gritted my teeth and towered over her. “Take the cows, give me the beans, or else.”

She straightened her shoulders. “Fine. The beans are gone…” she lifted a hand to placate me. “I have some vine seeds in that drawer,” she said, pointing. “They should do, but they’re slower growing.” She looked me up and down. “Give them five years to hold your weight.”

“Five years!”

She shrugged. “Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Just get the hell out.”

I took them. 

I planted them. Five years ago.

Today I climb that vine and make Jack look like a chump. I stop at Grimm’s Ale House for some liquid courage on the way. The bartender Bill Gruff hands me a tankard of ale.

 “Hey, it’s Jack’s cousin,” calls someone at the back of the bar. “How’s The Giant Killer?”

 I try to keep my cool as my metal breastplate clangs against the solid oak bar. “The moron chopped down a vine,” I say. “The fall killed the damn giant.”

“Well, if you want to get technical,” says Bill, the bartender. 

I do. I do want to get technical.

“And where did this rumor of giants living in the clouds come from,” I continue. They lived at the top of the fucking cliff. And they never bothered us until Jack and his damn vine.”

“I heard it was a beanstalk,” says a guy further down the bar.


Bill fills a round of glasses then says, “So what’s with the metal petticoat?”

I smile. I motion Bill closer and drop my voice.  “I’ve got a vine too and I’m going up tonight. I just want someone to know what happened, just in case.”

Bill shakes his head. “Can’t leave well enough alone, can ya, Georgie.”

“Hell no. I’m bringing back something better than a filthy goose and a stupid harp.”

It’s an hour of rough going to get to the base of the cliff where I planted my seeds five years ago.  I gape in awe. The old woman didn’t lie. Vines, the thickness of my thighs, full of red-tipped leaves, twist up the face of the cliff as far as the eye can see. My heart pounds. I step forward and grasp the vine.  This is it. Vindication.  Finally, I’ll get the respect I deserve.

Wait. The vine writhes. Tendrils whip out at me. Hey! They wrap around my wrists and ankles, drawing me in. I struggle. Larger vines loop around me pinning one arm to my chest. I scream. Bones! I see bones amid the leaf litter.

The vine cuts off my windpipe. I can’t breathe! I yank at the vine. It grows tighter. Darkness…closing in.

Damn that… little… old… la…


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Basilisk from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

Arron, the elf ranger held up a hand to stop his companions as he led them along a trail through the grasslands. He squatted next to a broken stone shaped like half a human head. 

“There may be a ruined temple nearby,” he said, examining the grey ear, cheek, and eye that held an uncanny, realistic expression of fear. “Judging by the fineness of the carving, it must be Elven.”

His three companions, two humans and a halfling, exchanged looks and rolled their eyes. A few paces later they found an old sword, beautifully crafted, but tarnished. “Elven,” said the elf. 

“Judging by the fineness of the blade,” mumbled the others hiding their smirks as the elf handed it to them. Aaron flushed, but pretended not to hear.

A half dozen more steps brought them into a clearing littered with broken statuary, weapons, and gear, some shining in the sun, some half covered in dirt and rust. Beyond, a cave opened into a dark cliff.

“By Moradin’s short and curlys!” said Joplin the halfling bard, “this is a basilisk lair! Don’t look!”

The others froze, trying simultaneously to look around for the basilisk and not look at anything. They retreated quickly into the tall grass they had just left.

The tall human wizard crinkled his brows. “Can we just go around?”

“No,” said the elf. “The basilisk might be anywhere. If we stumble across it we’ll be sure to meet its gaze. We’ll be turned to statues.”

“Fine Elven statues,” quipped the halfling tossing her dark hair. “Then we’ll be basilisk kibble.” She frowned. “We need to draw it out so we know where it is.”

They all turned to look at their well-armored fighter, who shook his head vigorously. “No way.”

The halfling patted him on the arm, since she couldn’t reach his shoulder. “I have an idea. Does anyone know if a basilisk needs to see to turn something to stone?” The others shrugged.

A half hour later their fighter stumbled into the clearing blindfolded. He held a sword in front of him and shouted obscenities-to give himself courage as well as draw out the basilisk.

A sibilant croak came from the cave. The lizard, eight feet long and powerfully built, moved awkwardly on its eight legs into the clearing. Its eyes locked on the fighter. The halfling, quietly as possible, strummed her mandolin and cast a spell by singing a rendition of Three Blind Mice, except of course, with basilisks. The creature stopped its advance on the fighter. It screeched and shook its head, rubbing its now blind eyes with its paws.

The wizard sent blazing magic missiles into the beast. The elf, across the clearing, shot a barrage of arrows. The fighter swung his sword in the direction of the screeching, not daring to remove his blindfold. The basilisk thrashed its head and body, turning in the direction of the arrows still thudding into its side.

The arrows stopped. The creature took two more steps, then collapsed dead onto a stone torso.

The halfling and wizard emerged from the grasses. 

The fighter ripped off the scrap of material and looked around. “Where’s Arron?”


A week later, the bard, the wizard and the fighter took their usual spots at the corner table of the Cask and Flask.

“How’s the Stone to Flesh spell coming?” Joplin asked the wizard.

“Slowly. I’m still searching through old scrolls, looking for the right incantation. I think I’m close.”

“No hurry,” said the fighter, grinning.

A stranger wandered over, admiring the life-size stone figure next to the table. “Not something you see in most taverns. It’s quite detailed. Elven, I see.”

“Judging by the fineness of the carving,” said the other three in unison.


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Centaur from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

Hooves clopped on hard-packed dirt as a stranger made his way into the town of Dry Creek. He was tall and broad, with sharp cheekbones, sun-leathered skin, and flint-hard eyes. He wore a hickory longbow slung over his shoulder and his ammo in a quiver across his back.  

Townsfolk on the main street skittered away when they saw him coming, ducking into shops and homes, slamming doors, bolting locks.  

He drew up in front of the Boot Hall Tavern.  

A man with a badge eased out. “’Fraid you’ll have to move on, Hoss. ’Less you want to be strung up. Your kind’s not welcome here.”  

“You know what I want, lawman,” said the stranger.  

“Reckon I do. Don’t mean you’ll get it.” The lawman put a hand on his double-action crossbow.  The stranger looked around and spotted men with bows and crossbows around every corner.  “I guess ya want to do this the hard way,” said the stranger. “Bring ’em to the wall in two hours’  time, or my boys will tear up this town. There won’t be a stone left standing.”  

As the stranger turned and clopped back out of town, the lawman’s jaw tightened.  

Two hours later, the lawman slowly approached the stone wall that marked the town’s territory. He had his crossbow in hand and behind him, hidden among the standing rocks, were his men and their horses. Beyond the stone wall stood the stranger, alone, bow in hand. But the lawman knew that Hoss could have dozens of his men sitting behind the wall, waiting for a signal to attack.  “You bring ’em?” said the stranger.  

The lawman nodded slowly. “How do I know your boys won’t tear up our town if I give you what  you want?”  

“You have my word.”  

The lawman laughed. “What good’s the word of a centaur?”  

The stranger shifted his weight on his hooves. “There’s a lot of folk here today that don’t need to die. What do you say you and I finish this?”  

The lawman liked his chances. He was the fastest draw in the territory. He’d put down more outlaws than any other lawman alive. Still, a centaur took some killin’.  

“’Less you don’t care about your men,” said the stranger, loud enough for the men to hear.  The lawman narrowed his eyes. The last thing he needed was a bloodbath.  

He lifted his crossbow pointing it at his opponent. “Have it your way.” The centaur did the same.  Their grips tightened.  

Then the lawman called, “Draw!”  

The lawman’s hand flicked to the quiver of bolts on his back and slung a bolt into his crossbow. He pulled the trigger a fraction of a second later, but the centaur was faster. An arrow thudded into the lawman’s chest and he flew backwards to the ground.  

“Now release them!” growled the centaur to the hiding men. “We won’t let you string them up just for crossing the border.”  

Two young centaurs, bruised but otherwise unharmed, hurried toward the wall on unstable colts legs.  

“Pa,” they cried as the stranger helped them over the wall.  

“Run!” said Pa, and the three centaurs bolted away from the wall, hooves flying.  “Where are all your men?” said one of the youngsters, glancing back at the wall. 

“I was bluffing,” said Pa, knocking another arrow. “I don’t have any men. Now run!” 


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Dragon from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

One night a bearded old man in a raggedy long coat knocked over his Elven wine as he sat in the corner of Adam’s Apple Ale House. A barmaid of twenty went to help him. She was the loveliest girl in the land, with golden hair, dawn-fresh skin, and exotic, almost unearthly eyes.

“Again Tobin?” she said with a sad smile as she wiped up. “Let me help you to your room.”

Tobin leaned on her as they climbed the stairs. “I hear you refused the Duke’s son today, Aurin,” 

She shrugged under his weight. “He has knocked-knees and speaks with a lisp.”

“He would have showered you with gold and jewels. You’d never need work again.”

Her eyes shone as she narrowed them. “I intend to have all that, without the lisp,” she said. 

He sat on a narrow cot in a tiny room and she helped him off with his coat. “Beware hubris,” he told her. “Pride and arrogance made me the broken old man you see today. I was once a great wizard—“

Aurin pshawed, “You, a great wizard?”

His eyes unfocused, his face grew sad. “I had wealth, power, and… love. I lost it all from hubris.”

“Love? Now that’s a story I want to hear,” said Aurin, reaching for the satchel Tobin wore across his chest beneath his coat.

He twitched away. “Another time, my dear. Leave me be.”

Next morning Aurin set breakfast in front of Tobin and sat down across from him. Her eyes twinkled. “Tell me about this love of yours,” she said.

Tobin sighed, and hesitated. Aurin frowned. “Come now, I’ve cooked, cleaned and taken care of you for a year. The least you owe me is your story.”

He nodded. “Ages ago, I was head of the wizard’s guild in Hanover. I was powerful then, and haughty. I fell in love with a woman nearly as beautiful as you, but my hubris pushed her away, into the arms of my rival-another wizard, as powerful as I.” He shook his head. “Jealousy makes a man do terrible things. I destroyed him and his castle, and I killed my love in the process.”

 Aurin shook her head. “How could you have killed such a powerful wizard?”

Tobin hung his head. “I couldn’t, he was too well protected. But I had the power and skill to create an Orb of Dragonkind, and with it I controlled a dragon. I sent the dragon to destroy him in his tower.” He shuddered.

Aurin gasped. “What happened to the orb?”

Tobin’s hand went to his satchel.

Aurin’s eyes widened. “It’s a bag of holding, isn’t it? Another dimension. That’s why I couldn’t sense the orb.” Her face fell. “Oh Tobin, I’d hoped that I was wrong, that it wasn’t you.” Then Aurin’s form began to shift and slide, growing in size, filling the room. Her soft skin hardened into golden scales. Leathery wings sprouted from her shoulders. Her torso elongated. Still she grew. 

Tobin cowered under the table as the ceiling and walls exploded into dust and debris. The golden dragon towering over him gave a shake and a catlike stretch. 

“Why didn’t you destroy the orb and release her after she did your bidding?” demanded the dragon.

“How could I?” said Tobin, trembling. “She would have come after me and killed me.” 

“So you left her trapped by your spell amid the wizard’s moldering castle grounds.”

Tobin struggled to his knees. “I did. What else could I do? I’ve spent my life in obscurity, hiding, moving from town to town in case she ever found a way to free herself.”

“Oh, I know,” said the dragon. "She's trapped there still."

The giant claws closed around the old man’s torso. “Come Tobin,” said Aurin. “It’s time to go see my mother.”


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Earth Elemental

Earth Elemental from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

A bent old man, dressed in rags hobbled into the tavern. He put two coins on the bar and asked for a bowl of the mutton stew cooking over the fire and a crust of bread. He sat at the far end of the long and crowded bar, hunched over his bowl.

“Haven’t seen you before,” said the man on the stool next to him. “Did you come in with the Duke’s rabble?”

The old man shook his head as he spooned stew with knobby, arthritic fingers.

“You heard the goings on over at the dark keep?” asked the barkeep.

The old man shook his head again.

“Unbelievable,” said a man with one eye bandaged. “The duke’s forces had the Lich Queen’s fortress under siege for months but we couldn’t breach the walls. So the Duke brought in a wizard.”

“Came in here twice,” said the barkeep. “Arrogant young know-it-all if you ask me.” 

“I don’t remember asking,” said the old man in a clipped voice, shifting in his seat.

The barkeep scowled, then disappeared into the back.

“Well, that wizard,” said One Eye, “He summoned an Earth Elemental.” One Eye shook his head. “You should have seen that thing stroll from the woods like it hadn’t a care. Twenty feet tall if I’m a day old, made of rock and wood and who knows what.” He shook his head, his one eye distant. “Thing battered at the fortress walls till the ground shook, hour after hour. Made good headway too. Bowmen in the fortress filled it with arrows till it bristled like a porcupine, but it paid no mind.”

 The barkeep came from the back with his hand on the shoulder of a young, tow-headed boy. The boy squirmed and the barkeep shoved him toward the doorway. “Now do as I tells ya!”

One Eye went on. “Then the men and creatures in the fortress hurled pitch on the beast and lit it a blaze. The monstrosity noticed that! It howled and raged and went berserk.”

“And that,” said the man on the seat next to the old man, “is when that little worm of a wizard lost control of it.”

The tavern went quiet for a moment. The old man dropped his spoon into his bowl.

“We tried to fight it, but who can stand against a howling, twenty-foot hulk of rock and flaming logs? It took out a third of the Duke’s forces before we destroyed it. Broke our siege.”

“Horrible!” the old man said, shaking his head. “And the wizard?”

“Fled,” said One Eye.

“Duke put a hundred gold piece bounty on his head,” said the man on the next seat.

The old man whistled. “I could use a hundred gold pieces. What does this wizard look like?”

“Young man,” said One Eye, “fresh from the wizard’s tower. Dark hair, dark blue robes.”

There was a commotion outside and the tow-headed boy entered, followed by nearly a dozen soldiers in the Duke’s livery. 

The barkeep pointed to the old man, who fled for the far window with more alacrity than one would have expected for a man of his years. One Eye and the man on the next seat rose in surprise.

The soldiers caught the old man halfway out the window and hauled him back in. They hustled him toward the door, holding his arms tightly. One of the guards tossed a pouch to the barkeep which chinked when he caught it.

“A good wizard,” shouted the barkeep to the old man as they hauled him away, “would have disguised his voice as well.”

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Frost Worm

Frost Worm from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

Frost Worms are massive, frost-covered creatures native to cold reaches that dig through snow and ice in search of food. They generate their own heat, allowing them to stay active in extreme conditions. They will follow adventurers back to their camps and attempt to devour the whole party.

Killing one leads to fame and glory. Below is a poem inspired by such a beast.


Frost Worm

Iced silence trembles

Gaping death erupts skyward

Sinking beneath snow

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Griffon from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

MacAllister and few of his comrades in the Duke’s forces stood at the Saddle and Sword Tavern drinking. It had been too long since their last break in battle, and they were drunk with freedom and Dwarven ale. He was guffawing at an off-color joke when the tavern went silent. He turned toward the door.

A tall, elegant woman entered clothed in a fur lined velvet cloak. She looked beautiful the way a sword is beautiful – cold, hard, and dangerous. She headed straight for Mac. It wasn’t hard to spot him, he knew, standing a foot taller and wider than any man there. His friends joked that his great-grandmother had bedded a giant. Who knew? Maybe it was true.

 “Your Excellency,” he said, dropping to a knee when she stopped in front of him.

 “I’m in need of your services.”

A titter of laughter fluttered around the room. She silenced it with a steely glare. Mac followed her from the tavern.

As they hiked up a hill west of town, she handed him a sword from under her cloak. He tossed it spinning in the air and caught it, testing its balance and weight.

“Careful!” she said. “It’s a magic blade. It will cut anything.”

“And what will I be cutting with it?” he asked, eyeing it respectfully as they crested the hill.

The duchess put a hand on his arm to stop him as something huge, and lightning fast lunged at him. He leapt backwards into a crouch bringing up the sword, but the creature stopped short three feet from them. Mac’s heart pounded. 

The duchess had not even flinched. “It’s chained,” she said. “I want you to kill it.”

Mac stared in wonder. The griffon shrieked with something between an eagle’s cry and a lion’s roar. Its muscular feline back legs catapulted it skyward, its claws leaving gouges in the earth. Its golden wings, wide as a house, beat at the wind, raising a cloud of dust and leaves. A chain from the rock of the hilltop to its back leg snapped taut. The creature cried again as it thrashed. It dropped back to earth with the dangerous grace of a lion and hissed at them, wings spread. 

It was the most magnificent thing Mac had ever seen. It weighed at least five-hundred pounds. Its majestic eagle head held golden eyes that while full of rage, were intelligent.

Mac edged right, keeping clear of the trampled earth and shrubs where the griffon could reach. Inside that circle lay the bodies of at least eight or nine soldiers, brothers-in-arms, shredded. “And those blokes?” said Mac, pointing the magic sword.

“Were not up to the task,” said the duchess. “Well,” she said when Mac was silent. “Are you going to kill it? Or should I find someone else.”

“It would be a shame,” said Mac, admiring the rippling muscles, shimmering feathers, and regal air of the creature.

“You’ll be well paid.”

Mac glanced at the duchess. Paid? Since when was a soldier paid extra for doing his duty? He noticed the griffon was focused on the duchess, the hatred in its eyes palpable. “And how will killing it win us the war?” he asked.

The duchess laughed, “War? My dear boy, griffon wing is said to be delicious.”

The griffon screamed and launched toward the duchess. Mac screamed and launched toward the griffon, sword raised. The magic sword really could cut anything. The chain rattled to earth.

More screams joined the griffon’s. As Mac hurried down the hill, magic sword in hand, he wondered if duchess was said to be delicious too.

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Hell Hounds

Hell Hounds from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

The door to the Spotted Dog swung open and a broad-shouldered man collapsed across the threshold. The noise in the tavern died away as the man crawled forward a few feet leaving a trail of blood.

The barkeep was the first one to reach him. The injured man looked up at him and murmured, “I’m sorry,” before his eyes rolled back and he went limp.

“Son,” said the barkeep to his eldest as a crowd gathered, “run to the temple and get help.”

The boy nodded and took off.

Men carried the limp body to a cot in a back room and a few minutes later, Berrick a cleric from the temple of Heironious arrived. 

“His name is Killik,” one of the men told the cleric. “He went east with the last scouting party two days ago.”

Killik lay, unconscious, breathing heavily, his bloody clothes in shreds, his skin blistered with burns, torn, and ravaged.

“What could have done this?” asked one of the bystanders in hushed tones.

“I’ve no idea,” said Berrick. He laid his hands on Killik and prayed to his god. Heironeous’ power filled him and tingled through his palms into Killik. Blisters faded and skin knit itself back together. The only signs of his horrible wounds were blood-soaked tatters of clothing.

Killik opened his eyes and looked up at the folk gathered around him. He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head violently. “No! No! So many!”

“Easy, easy,” said Berrick. “You’re safe now. So many what? What did this to you?”

“Get them out.” said Killik, weakly, tears filling his eyes.

Berrick looked up at the nearly twenty people crowded into the small room and they retreated back into the main part of the tavern.

“Now,” said Berrick gently, “can you tell me what happened?”

Killik’s voice shook. “Hell hounds.” 

“By Heironious’ bolt!” said Berrick. “The Lich Queen must have summoned them. How many are there?”

“I don’t know. Too many. We fought, but, but, they set men on fire. They cooked our paladin in his armor. We killed so many. We thought we had won, but more came. And more. They overwhelmed us…” his voice gave out and he lapsed into tears, hands covering his face.

“You’re safe now,” said Berrick, trying to calm him.

“I can still see those glowing red eyes.” Killik looked up at the small window filled with the orange-pink glow of sunset. “Oh god!” he said, struggling up to sitting.

“You need to rest,” said Berrick, 

“No. You don’t understand. I couldn’t do it! I was too weak,” said Killik.

Berrick shook his head. “No one could defeat them alone. You did the best you could.”

“No, I should have died out there. I should have let them kill me. I was the last one left.” Killik looked into the gathering dark outside the window. He grabbed Berrick’s arm squeezing hard. “I couldn’t do it. I should have killed myself.”

“Don’t say that. I understand your grief, but—“

“You don’t understand,” said Killik, his face haggard.

Then the howling began.

“I led them here.


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Jackalwere from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

Ballentine leaned across the table at the Hound’s Head tavern toward the tall, handsome stranger. “You’re lying. That tale is as tall as an oak and just as nutty.”

“By Moradin’s Hammer, it’s the truth,” said the stranger, hand to chest.

“So you’re telling me that you had a Jackalwere in your party, adventuring for weeks, and none of you knew? There’s no way. I would have known.” Ballentine leaned back, sure in his superior skills.

“How would you have known? They’re shapeshifters. They can look just as human as you.”

“But I bet they smell like the dogs they are.”

The stranger’s eyes narrowed slightly as he stared toward at the rowdy table behind Ballentine for a moment. Then he shrugged. “None of us noticed any smell.”

“So what did this supposed Jackalwere call itself,” asked Ballentine, crossing his arms.

“Jack,” said the stranger with a rye smile.

“And that didn’t make you suspicious?”

“I know a dozen Jacks.”

“So how did he manage to take out the rest of your party?”

The stranger stared again for a moment, as he’d been doing all evening, perhaps collecting his thoughts, mused Ballentine, or making up his story. 

“Our thief disappeared first, a week in. No trace. We searched, but, well, Jack was our ranger. I’m sure he led us in the wrong direction. The second week our cleric disappeared just as mysteriously. Snacks, I suppose, for the snake in our midst.”

“The cowardly cur, you mean. If I’d been there…”

“I’m sure you would have known immediately,” said the stranger with a half-smile. “It was a week later, twilight, the moon was already up when he attacked the rest of us. Thank Moradin I was rear guard or I might be dead too. We were covering rough, rocky ground. Jack and our paladin were in the lead, three more of us following. I came around a tall stack of rocks and saw Jack with his hand on our paladin’s shoulder, just talking. Then our paladin dropped, like a sack of sand.” The stranger’s eyes refocused on Ballentine. “Did you know jackalweres can put people to sleep with just their gaze?”  

“Of course. Who doesn’t know that?” said Ballentine, lying.

The stranger raised his eyebrows but went on. “My two companions ahead of me rushed to our paladin’s aid. I thought he was ill perhaps. We still had no suspicions. But as I stood staring Jack seemed to shimmer, or blur, or well, I don’t know how to describe it. Suddenly there he was, magnificent, head of a jackal, body of a man, drawing his wicked scimitar and smiling. It took a few moments for my brain to take it in. I knew this guy. We’d fought together. Theo and Archie were kneeling over our paladin. They never really had a chance. Though Theo put up a good fight.”

“Supposing I believe all this,” said Ballentine, “Why would the hound want to travel with a bunch of humans? 

“There’s protection in numbers,” said the stranger. “It was a safer way for him to travel. Not to mention the fresh food. I think we delivered him where he wanted to go.”

“Where were you headed?”


Ballentine suddenly noticed the tavern had gone very quiet. He looked around. The barkeep and the patrons were all slumped on the tables. The hair on his arms stood on end. He looked back at the stranger, who smiled as he seemed to shimmer.


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Kraken from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

The Three Sheets Tavern flowed with ale the day the Augustina anchored in port. Captain Miller raised his tankard to salute his crew. “To the bravest crew ever to sail the blue! We’ve seen the worst Davy Jones can dredge from the depths and lived to tell the tale!” 

The crew cheered and raised their mugs. “To Cap’n Miller!” they cried.

The men were recalling their heroic deeds when an ancient man with a pinched face, knife-sharp nose, and eyebrows like tufts of seagrass hurried into the bar with an air of excited anticipation. He wore a long robe and carried an enormous red book. “Captain Miller?” he called out.

The captain, red-faced from ale and pride, pumped the old man’s hand as if to empty the bilge. “What can I do for you, my good sir?” said the captain.

“Captain, my name is Warrick, a wizard by trade. I’ve made it my life’s work to study the monsters of the depths and I heard about your encounter. I was hoping to hear the tale.”

The crew cheered again, though a few of the locals in the bar gave a nearly inaudible groan.

“I do believe I could be prevailed upon to once more recount our adventure,” said the captain.

The wizard took a seat, opened his great book and produced pen and ink as the captain began.

“It happened two weeks ago. We were off Cape Doubtfire with clear skies, a steady wind abaft our beam, running at ten knots when we, quite literally, ran into the beast.”

Warrick nodded, scratching his pen in his book almost violently.

“First there was this thump and shudder, as if the Augustina had run aground in open ocean. Then storm clouds formed instantly out of pale blue sky. Up the thing comes, oozing onto the aft deck, ripping and tearing oak beams like twigs. Tentacles rose into the sky–”

The wizard raised his quill. “And how long would you say the tentacles were?”

“Forty feet at the least!” the captain exclaimed and the other crew members nodded. 

Warrick gave an excited little gasp and applied himself to his book.

The captain continued. “It seemed as though there were a hundred sinuous limbs. We fought like lions, me with my sabre and ax, my crew with any manner of weapons.”

Here the captain shook his head sadly. “Men were seized by those snaking tentacles and stuffed into the beast’s maw, weapons and all. We battled for hours. I lost a dozen men, and nearly the Augustina as well-the creature rending it like a paper toy. Our quartermaster, well, two tentacles grabbed him at both ends and played tug o’ war. No one deserves to go out like that.” Captain Miller and the crew shuddered.

“Yes, yes, excellent,” said the wizard, scribbling excitedly in his book.

The crew grumbled and Warrick looked up at their faces. 

His cheeks flushed. “I mean, tragic, of course,” he said trying to hide his enthusiasm, “I didn’t mean… well… did the creature survive?”

“My crew and I managed to kill the thing in the end,” said Miller puffing his chest. “Now tell me, Sir, have you ever heard such a tale?”

The wizard sat back in his chair. “No indeed, Captain. I’ve been studying the kraken for nigh on fifty years. I’ve learned where they live, I’ve divined their origins. Now I’m trying to discover their breeding grounds.” He closed his great book. “Captain Miller, you and your crew are the only men I’ve ever heard of to have encountered a baby kraken.”

The bar was still for a half dozen heartbeats. Then Captain Miller sloughed off his captain’s coat and handed it to his first mate. He headed for the door.

“Wait! Captain, where are you going?” called a crewman.

He paused in the doorway. “Inland,” was all he said.


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Lich from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

“She Walks in Horror”

By the Dread Lord Byron

She walks in horror, like the night

Of clouded climes and staring skies;

And all that’s worst of dark and wight

Meet in her aspect and her eye:

Thus harrow’d to that terror’s blight

Which hell to gaudy day defies.


One shade the more, one wraith the less,

Had half impair’d the nameless greed

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or gravely darkens o’er her face;

Where thoughts savagely sweet express

How vile, how dire their swelling-seed.


And on that skull and o’er the brow,

So hard, so black, yet eloquent,

The smiles that rend, the eyes that glow,

But tell of days in godhood spent,

A mind at war o’er all below,

A heart whose hate is malcontent.


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Minotaur from Dungeon Monsters & Tavern Tales

Mathilda's scored, dented and bloodied armor clanked as she climbed up onto the barstool at the Field Day Tavern. The dwarf's head and arm were swathed in bandages. She nodded to the barkeep. "Two of your finest ales, Bill."

When they were set in front of her, she slid one over in front of the empty barstool next to her. She lifted her mug to the bartender. "To absent friends."

"To absent friends," returned the bartender, sipping from his own cup as Mathilda tipped the pint down her throat.

"So you took the job," said the barkeep once he'd set another pint in front of the dwarf.

"Pay was too good to pass up," said Mathilda.

"Dangerous ones usually are. Looks rough."

"You should see the other fellows," grinned Mathilda. Then she sobered. "This was the worst yet. Evil is on the rise. Good for business, hard on friends."

"So, let's hear it…"

Mathilda settled on her seat and rolled her mug around in her hands. Besides clobbering evil and dwarven ale, there was nothing she loved more than spinning a good yarn.

"The four of us set out, Tiny, Joplin, Rift and I, about this time last month. Made it to the Foggy Hills in good time with the Autumn winds at our backs, but we didn't have a location for the entrance to the labyrinth. Took us better than two weeks to find a way in. Never did find the proper entrance. One stormy night a sink hole opened below us. We scrambled and fought as the ground turned to liquid and swallowed our camp whole, an avalanche of mud dropping us into the middle of the maze.

There we were, in the wet and the dark. The place was littered with bones and weapons, smelled of rotted death, and we had no way back up. The only way out, was through.”

Mathilda beckoned for more beer. She glanced at the lone mug of beer in front of the seat next to her and sighed.  Then she looked around the room. She had the attention of the whole scattered company. She could have been a bard, if she didn’t like clobbering so much.

“We lit a few wet and sputtering torches and Tiny scouted ahead through stone-lined corridors. The noise of the sink hole had, of course, attracted the attention of the inhabitants. There were bellows and shouts coming from all around us.” She took a sip, letting that mental image sink in for her listeners.

“Then, with a roaring bellow, the minotaur comes hurtling—“

The pub’s door banged open, making everyone jump. The minotaur took up the whole doorframe. He had to duck and turn his gleaming horns and shoulders sideways to get through the door. One bicep was heavily bandaged. He wore a pair of axes on his hips and a round shield on his back. He stalked toward Mathilda, his heavy steps vibrating the wood floor. He reached the barstool next to her, pulled it back, and sat down.

“Ho there, Tiny. What took you so long?” said Mathilda.

The minotaur shrugged, picked up the ale, clinked glasses with Matilda and threw the drink back. The bartender poured him another.

“As I was saying…” said Matilda with a slight scowl at Tiny for the interruption. “Tiny comes barreling around the corner in a barrage of spears. Fell voices screamed behind him. We braced ourselves—“

“Bugbears,” said Tiny. “Lots. Killed ‘em.”

“Ohhh,” murmured the gathered folk, turning back to their drinks.

“Damnit, Tiny!” said Mathilda. “Sometimes I don’t know if you’re half bull or half ass.”

Tiny gave her a bovine grin.


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Pip stood in the ruins, exhausted. He had finally been given his first mission as a cleric of Heironeous—deliver a vital message to Sir Huxley at the temple in Cambria—only to find that temple destroyed. Ruined. Obliterated. He had one task, and he couldn’t even get that right. 

Beyond a smoldering half-wall he spotted a sign for the Blue Turtle Inn. He would eat, sleep, and tomorrow head home with the sad news. What else could he do?

At the inn he found a crowd of men talking heatedly in a corner. Some were injured, many smudged with ash and blood. One clutched a silver lightning bolt holy symbol. Pip hurried to them.

“Thank Heironeous! I thought everyone had been killed!”

The men were startled, but the eldest smiled at Pip. “Thank god! Not everyone, apparently.”

“I was sent from Briarwood with a message,” said Pip. He gave the eldest the scroll he’d been given.

The man read the scroll then tucked it away. “You haven’t read this, have you?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Sir,” said Pip, pleased and relieved to have accomplished his mission.

“Call me Sir Huxley, son,” he said, glancing around at his men. “A group of nagas attacked us. They’ve taken over a temple north of here. We plan to go wipe them out before they can do any more evil. Your arrival is fortuitous. You were sent by god to help us with our mission. It is your destiny.”

Pip thrilled with pride at the notion that he had an actual destiny. His hunger and weariness were forgotten. “I’m ready, Sir! I’ve been waiting for this day. How soon can we leave?”

A half-day’s travel brought them to the ancient, partially ruined temple of Hextor.

“Stay close,” Sir Huxley told Pip as they crouched in the bushes, watching. 

Pip nodded. He trembled with fear and weariness. Sir Huxley’s men spread out, slinking closer to the building. Pip’s trembling increased when two nagas slithered from the temple, scaled bodies glittering in the sun. At a signal, Huxley’s men attacked. In moments the air filled with fireballs from the nagas and arrows from the men. One naga fell, but more appeared. As Sir Huxley rose to his feet the closest naga focused on him, mumbling some sort of spell. 

“No!” shouted Pip. He summoned an owl, inches from the naga’s face. The owl attacked, ruining the naga’s spell. Sir Huxley rushed the naga, plunging his sword into the creature’s chest. After that the battle became a blur to Pip. His only cogent thoughts were, thank Heironeous, I saved Sir Huxley, and I do, I do have a destiny.

Later, almost too weary to keep his feet, but flush with adrenalin, he found himself with the rest of the men rushing into the temple’s inner sanctum. He clutched his dagger in his raised fist and shouted, over and over, “By Heironeous’ might!” as nagas fell under his companions’ swords.

At the far end of the chamber stood a black stone altar, painted and caked dark red with dried blood. Above it, the air shimmered and wavered in a circular area four arms wide. 

“What is th—“ Something smacked Pip on the back of the head. He fell next to the wounded body of a deep green naga. The naga looked at him, yellow eyes slit by black pupils. The creature said weakly. “We are guardians. We were… trying to prevent…” The naga’s breath hissed out and his eyes went blank.

Two men grabbed Pip by the arms and dragged him toward the altar. 

Pip struggled. “Sir Huxley! What’s happening?”

“My name is Waldron, high priest of Hextor. I said you were sent by god. I didn’t say which one,” said the man Pip had called Sir Huxley. The men lifted Pip onto the bloody altar. 

“We didn’t mean to kill all the acolytes at Heironeous’ temple,” said Waldron. “We needed the blood of one true follower of Heironeous. We thought our plans were doomed, and there you were.” “Blood?” croaked Pip.

“Of course,” said Waldron. “How else do you open a gate to hell?”

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Feather clouds swept pale blue sky. The river glittered in the sun and burbled as Layton cast his fishing line from a ledge along the water’s edge. After a year of adventuring, it was good to be home, safe, a mile from his favorite pub, fishing for bass.

“No way,” said his best friend Amalie, as she threw her line out. “You did not backstab a beholder.”

“I did, thanks to an invisibility spell. You should have come with us. Honestly, I don’t know how you stand the boredom around here.” He gestured around. “Nothing ever changes.”

The druid screwed up her face. “It’s been far from boring. And why would I want to spend time with people every day? No thank you.”

There was a tug on his fishing pole. He set the hook, seeing a flash of red in the water. Could the salmon be running already? His mouth watered at the thought.

A grizzly bear rose suddenly to its hind legs five paces to his right. “Bloody Boccob!” Layton shouted. He leapt backwards, but his ankle caught in the ivy vines and he fell on his backside. “Gah!” he shouted as he tried to kick his foot free.

The bear charged, black mouth gaping.

Layton rolled into a ball as the beast lunged for him. An owlbear leapt over Layton, crashing into the grizzly. The two behemoths rolled in a pile of fur and feathers into the river. The grizzly bellowed at the owlbear, who screeched back. They rose to their full heights, towering eight feet over Layton as they tore at each other.

He tugged the ivy loose from his foot, rolled to his feet, and took off.

Layton ran—not like a bat out of Cerceri, nor like a frightened kobold, but like a rogue, quickly, carefully, watching where he put his feet so he didn’t fall. He looked around for Amalie, but thank the gods, she must have already fled.

He flicked a glance back. The owlbear was ten paces behind and the grizzly only a few paces farther back. Tripping now would be deadly. He studied the path ahead and ran The Tankard and Spittoon.

“Idiot!” he cursed at himself. Standing in the vines had been stupid. Of course bears would be after the salmon. Another look back showed that the grizzly had given up, but the owlbear had gained on him. He put on a burst of speed.

The tavern was only two hundred yards away, but a stitch pierced his side. He gritted his teeth and ran through the pain.

Gasping for air, his pace slowed. The owlbear let out a screeching, growling intermittent noise. A roar of triumph?

Layton was so close to safety. But he stumbled on a loose stone. He hit the ground just short of the door of the pub. Drawing his knife, he rolled to face the owlbear. He would die fighting.

Instead of attacking, the owlbear shimmered. The screeching growl turned into peals of laughter.

Amalie stood before him, holding her sides. She was scratched, bleeding in places and completely naked.

“You should have seen your face!” she said, wiping tears of amusement from her eyes.

Relief and chagrin flooded him. He got to his feet panting. “Nice trick,” he said, shrugging off his coat and handing it to her. “Gives new meaning to the phrase ‘bear naked.’”

“Been boring here, huh?” she said, grinning as she slipped the coat on. “I think you owe me a beer.”

They opened the tavern door together.

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Pixies at the Tavern
                   Song lyrics by Joplin

Pixies three from Tweedle Dee
went down to the Duck and Goose.
They came for the ale,
they came for the wine,
and they let their arrows loose.

They bent their bows at their human foes
and put them all to sleep.
They tasted the beer,
they sampled the wine
while their hosts made not a peep.

From Tweedle Dee in the big oak tree
with a “hey” and a “ho” and “ya don’t say so”
the Pixies came and now they won’t go
back to the old oak tree.

The folks nearby, with a worried eye
watched their kinfolk snore.
“We’ll hire a male,
to get back our ale,
and show those pixies the door.”

So they hired a mage for an exorbitant wage
who went to the tavern door.
But the pixies were singing,
and dancing, and winging,
And the mage, he wanted more.

From Tweedle Dee in the big oak tree
with a “hey” and a “ho” and “ya don’t say so”
the Pixies came and now they won’t go
back to the old oak tree.

Now the mage is drunk as the proverbial skunk
and the pixies are having a ball.
The townsfolk are crying,
and some of them sighing,
“we’ll get the pub back when they’ve drunken it all.”


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She sauntered into the Motley Falcon on legs that wouldn’t quit. The dame had big eyes and a body that would make even a gnoll take notice. She sat down across from me in the back corner of the bar— my office, as I like to call it.

“My name is Miss Wanderlust. Please, Mr. Hart, can you help me?” 

She sounded like trouble, but then, I like trouble. My name is Seymour Hart. I’m a rogue, though I’ve been called worse, usually by gorgeous dames walking out of my life. My trade is solving problems for people, and I’m the best in town. “Tell me what happened,” I said.

“Someone stole my grimoire. I found this.” She set a scrap of cloth on the table—dark blue with part of a star in one corner. 

There was only one man who wore robes like that, and the wizard was one tough customer. It wasn’t like him to leave a clue behind.

By coincidence, I’d happened onto an anti-scrying amulet just days before. Coincidences make me nervous, but this one would get me past the wizard’s magical defenses.

“I can get your spell book back,” I said, “but it’s going to cost you.” She gave me a sultry smile as she pulled out her ample purse.


The night was dark and stormy. The amulet got me into the stone tower, past the wizard’s wards. I searched the lower levels. No luck. The only place left was his lab. I pulled out an invisibility potion I’d bought with the dame’s platinum, plugged my nose, and swallowed it. 

I cracked the laboratory door open. The wizard was there, at his workbench, absorbed in something that smelled like a dead rat rolled in day-old seaweed. I scanned the room and spotted the grimoire on a cabinet. If I was lucky, I could get in, nab the book, and get out without the wizard being any the wiser.

But I was never lucky, and so far, this case had been far too easy.

I slunk across the floor as silent as I was invisible. Just as I reached for the book, a pea-green quasit, ten inches tall popped into view a foot from my hand. I held still, not daring to breath. 

The little devil scanned the room with an odd looking glass. As it turned to me, it screeched. It leapt onto my shoulder, biting and clawing. I knocked it away. The quasit winked into invisibility again. I felt the imp’s poison spreading fire through my shoulder. 

The wizard spun in alarm. Here in his own lab, he must have a hundred different spells that could fry my bacon. His hands wove the air as he muttered an incantation. I pulled my dagger and lunged before he could finish his spell. We struggled, but with a twist of my torso and arm, I plunged the dagger into his chest. The wizard coughed blood, his eyes widened, then he slumped to the floor. 

I leaned against his workbench, pain spreading through me along with the quasit’s poison. I needed a cure poison potion, and fast. I plowed through the wizard’s collection of bottles, searching furiously for the potion that would save my life. 

There was a cackle behind me. It was the quasit. It sat on the cabinet waving a cure poison vial in its sickly green claws. It winked at me, and once again disappeared. 

That’s when the truth hit me.

I hate being set up—especially by ten-inch green imps. The little devil had arranged it all. It had stolen the spell book and left behind the scrap of fabric that framed the wizard. It knew the dame would come to me for help. Finding that anti-scrying amulet had been way too convenient. The quasit planted it and waited for me to find it. The demon made sure the wizard discovered me so I’d be forced to kill him. The damned fiend had used me to free itself from its master, and now it was cleaning up loose ends—like me.

I fell to my knees.  How could I have fallen for it?

I can’t believe the devil made me do it.


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Shadow sat at the bar in the Nowhere Tavern swirling her glass. The mead was just part of her cover. She needed to be sharp tonight. The rest of her disguise she called Plain Jane—mousy brunette—not so ugly that no one would talk to her, but not pretty enough for people to notice. Shapeshifting into this disguise, she’d learned, allowed her to go anywhere nearly unseen.

A slovenly guy on the next barstool was chatting her up, blissfully unaware of how dangerous she was. She didn’t need her mind-reading abilities to know he was drunk and horny. Nodding only enough to be polite, her real attention focused on a table behind him, across the room, where two men sat in a heated discussion. She’d been sent to kill one of them.

The man on the left, Felazeel, owned this seedy tavern, and most establishments that catered to the town’s underside: gambling joints, drug dens, brothels, fight rings… He also owned councilmen and magistrates and was eager to buy more. He was spreading his influence, his pocketbook, and his waistline. Shadow had encountered dozens of ambitious men across far-flung cities, but rarely had she tasted such avarice and evil as radiated off him. That evil had brought him to the attention of her master.

The man he argued with kept his hood up, hiding his face. He sat ramrod straight, out of place in this lowlife bar. She didn’t need to see his face since she had followed him here. Trumin was one of the few town leaders who refused to be bought. His usual emotional broth of righteousness, compassion, and thoughtfulness now dripped with anger and embarrassment. Master had told her that Trumin’s son had gambled away an astounding sum at one of Felazeel’s establishments. Trumin had come to pay off the debt. It was not going well, since Felazeel wanted more than money.

Shadow batted away the hand of the drunk as she contemplated the arguing men. One good, one bad. Master wanted the good one dead, but which one did she want dead? The thought sent a tingle through her skin that made the unseen fur on the arms stand on end. In twenty years she had never considered disobeying Master.

He was the rakshasa whose web of influence and power touched every leader in every city in the region. Nothing happened without him knowing or controlling it. As his most cunning assassin, she was his tool of control. Here and now, Master would determine whether good or evil ruled the town—unless she made a different call. 

The volume of the argument between the two men increased and Trumin rose. He threw a fat purse that chinked like gold onto the table, then headed for the door. Felazeel grabbed the purse. After a few moments he followed Trumin outside, as did Shadow, leaving a few coins on the bar.

In the cool night air, Shadow sent out her senses along the cobblestone alleyways. Trumin had gone right, Felazeel left into the darkness.

She relaxed into her natural form, a breeze ruffling her dusky fur and tickling her whiskers. She smelled anger, fear, and greed in the wind. Now that the moment for action had arrived she purred with excitement. She slid her knife from its sheath, her heart beating loudly with anticipation. She turned to the right, but then stopped.

Why should she doom this town? Why feed Master’s greed on the backs of the people? A heady cocktail of power and fear swept through her. She could be the one determining the course of history.

She turned to the left. Disobedience to her master would bring a death sentence, but Shadow was more capable and dangerous than anyone Master could send after her. She stopped again.

She shook with quiet laughter. Too long she had been the shadow that Master cast, but at night everything was shadow.  Perhaps it was time for a new master. She knew where he would be tonight, and after all, his throat would cut as well as any other.

Shadow fingered her knife and padded along on bare, silent feet. This was the part she lived for.


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Shield Guardian


Insufferable, thought Kal Zeel, the wizard of Warrick, forcing his face into a look of bland concern as he eyed the elf, Elonde. I’d like to wipe that snide expression from his smug face. He’ll pay for his superior attitude, as soon as I don’t need him anymore. 

Elonde stood with an arrogant tilt to his head. Kal hated everything about him—his tall, lithe figure, his handsome face, his supercilious replies to questions. But the elf was a genius—a master smith, a maestro of the hammer and forge, the only one capable of what Kal wanted done. Elonde was being paid extremely well for his services.

“I only wondered if tightening these gears might make it less susceptible to vibration,” said Kal. “It must be invulnerable.”

Elonde all but rolled his eyes. “Nothing, not even gods are invulnerable.”

Kal ground his teeth, “Indestructible then.”

Elonde gave a long-suffering sigh and explained as if to a child. “Tightening those gears would result in binding up the ratchet wheel and the main spring, rendering it inoperable. It is perfect the way it is.”

On the workbench in front of them lay a vaguely human-shaped conglomeration of oak, granite, and bronze put together by Elonde’s craftsmanship and Kal’s magic. Its bronze breastplate stood open, revealing layers upon layers of clockwork mechanisms, surrounded by and infused with magical signs and sigils.

The culmination of a decade of work and hope, this was the proper helpmate and servant of a wizard of Kal’s standing—a shield guardian who would do his bidding without thought.

“We shall see,” said Kal, closing the bronze breastplate and locking it in place. He took his amulet in hand and said, “Rise.”

The shield guardian, noiselessly and with surprising grace, rose to its stone feet, towering over them. Kal ran it through a series of commands, his heart racing with joy and triumph.

“As I said, perfect,” said Elonde. “And it will last for centuries.”

Kal gave an evil smile, pointed at Elonde and said, “Kill!”

The shield guardian stepped toward Elonde raising a giant stone fist. Elonde pulled an amulet from his own pocket and cried “Stop!” The shield guardian froze.

Elonde turned to Kal with a mocking expression. “I anticipated your treachery.”

“As I knew you would,” said Kal. “I simply needed to know where you kept your amulet.” He gave a whistle and six men holding crossbows appeared in the doorways. Seconds later, Elonde lay dead and Kal picked up the fallen amulet. A shiver of delight and vindication swept through him. “Clean up the mess,” he said to the men, and “attend me,” to the shield guardian.

It was a comfort to have the bulk of the guardian just behind him, following every command.

As he sat at dinner alone in a back room of the Dragon’s Breath Inn, he regarded the shield guardian with pride and satisfaction. 

Until he noticed a slight and familiar tilt to the helmet that formed the guardian’s head.

“Guardian, straighten your head,” he snapped.

As the guardian complied, Kal swelled with dread and indignity. 


The shield guardian had no face—no mouth, no nose, no eyes, only gears and mechanisms behind a bronze visor. So why was Kal absolutely certain that as the guardian obeyed him, it had rolled its eyes?


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Aiden and I slam into the door of The Last Man Standing Tavern. We pound on the door. “Let us in!

Let us in!”

The troll, twenty yards off, lopes through the woods toward us, screaming. It’s so fast! And the claw Aiden cut from it, not half an hour ago, has already regrown. “Shit!” Then I see another troll turning our way. “Shit! Shit!”

Aiden pounds. 

“Do the knock! The secret knock!” I cry.

“Shit!” says Aiden. He pounds on the door three times quick, two slow as the troll closes on us, brand-spanking-new claw outstretched. I huddle back against the door, sword in front of me, so when someone yanks it open, I fall on my ass into the tavern. Two burly men drag us out of the way and slam the door in the troll’s face. They bolt it just as the troll thuds against it, screaming. We know the door, as well as the rest of the place is magically warded. It can’t get in.

Aiden, still on his feet, raises the severed claw and gives a shout of triumph. The place erupts into cheers. 

Climbing to my feet, I stand, hands to knees, trying to catch my breath after our run. “Thank the gods.” 

The troll gives up, or at least the thudding stops. I look around. The patrons are a rough looking bunch, hard, scarred, and battle ready. A burl-wood bar runs all the way through the room. Aiden swaggers to the bar and slaps the troll claw down. “I believe that means I drink free tonight.”

The bartender nods, takes the claw and tosses it into a barrel. “It’ll get you beer.”

The Last Man Standing is not just a bar; it’s a rite of passage, a test of courage, a proof of manhood, and feckin’ stupid. It’s in the middle of nowhere in troll territory. People die trying to get there for no good reason. So when my best friend Aiden wanted to go, I objected, strenuously. But somehow Aiden always seems to get his way.

A few hours later, after the blindfolded archery contest and the dwarf tossing trials, Aiden is seriously tanked. I’m paying for my beers, so I’m well behind him. I’m jawing with an elf at the bar when Aiden stumbles over to me. 

“Have you heard? If you bring in a head you get whiskey instead of beer. All night long!” says Aiden. 

He wavers a moment, then shoves his tankard into my hands. “Here, hold my beer.” And before I can stop him, he unbolts the door and heads back out into the forest.

“Shit,” I say again.

“That guy’s likely to get you killed,” says the elf with not the least concern.

“I know,” I say, drawing my sword from the scabbard. “But friends don’t let friends die drunk.”


Twenty minutes later I’m still searching for Aiden, hoping to find him before he finds a troll. Aiden strolls unsteadily from behind a tree, clutching a severed troll head by the stringy green hair. He holds it up, grinning.

“Uh,” I say, “You know those don’t need to be attached, right?”

“Wait. What?” slurs Aiden, wobbling. He looks at the head. “You mean…”

The eyes open and narrow at him. The mouth opens in a soundless scream. A troll body, headless, except for a little round nub, comes crashing through the woods directly for us.

“Shit!” says Aiden.

“Here we go again,” I say, running.


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It was a chill, overcast night. Campfires dotted the darkness as far as the eye could see. The dwarf Mathilda, and her friend Tiny, sat near a fire wishing they were at the Field Day Tavern. They were surrounded by men, women, elves, dwarves, and all manner of creatures willing to fight in the Duke’s name against the undead army that would arrive tomorrow. 

Mathilda grimaced as her knife bit into her forearm. She, like many others, was carving the symbol of her god into her skin. They all hoped that doing so would prevent the Lich Queen from resurrecting their bodies if they fell during tomorrow’s battle. They weren’t afraid of death. They were terrified of coming back to life and killing their friends and comrades.

“Enough,” said Tiny, the minotaur, examining the hammer and anvil outlined in blood on Mathilda’s arm. “You may need that blood tomorrow.”

“Just make sure if I die, to take my head off,” said Mathilda.

Tiny gave a bovine chuckle. “You’re so short, how am I supposed to reach?”

Mathilda grinned. “Given how short I am, imagine where my teeth will be if I come back.” Tiny laughed and crossed his legs.


The next day the undead army arrived in the midst of storm and fury. Mathilda met them with hammer raised and Tiny at her side. “By Moradin’s will!” she cried as her hammer reduced a skeleton skull to powder and zombie brains to mush. Tiny’s axes whirled, neatly removing heads and dropping bodies. They fought on, but the dead pressed forward.

As Mathilda tore her hammer from the remains of a zombie’s head, a vampire lunged toward her. His rapier slipped under her arm, past her metal breastplate, piercing deep. She tried to call out to Tiny, whose back was turned, but blood bubbled up instead of words and she fell to the gore-soaked earth. Her breath rattled out, and stopped.

But then Mathilda rose again. When she looked down she saw her blank-eyed body beneath her. Dead.

By Moradin’s Beard, I’m a ghost! To her horror, her body twitched and climbed to its feet. 

No! her mind screamed. Her zombie lurched into the side of a leather-clad elf, clawing and biting. Her zombie bore him to the ground, mauling him, then rose to its feet again. It turned toward Tiny’s exposed back. 

No! No! No! She tried to push Tiny out of the way but she passed right through him. She screamed, trying to warn him. He didn’t hear her. 

She shoved at her zombie. And it turned. Not a lot, but enough to attack the human fighting at Tiny’s side instead of Tiny. When her zombie rose again she tried another shove. This time the zombie lurched back toward the army of the dead. 

With a little practice she found that wherever the zombie’s face was pointing, it went. She could control it! Was it because of Moradin’s symbol she’d carved on her arm? She didn’t know.

Yards away the zombie of a hill giant lurched into the Duke’s men, grabbing, crushing, scattering bodies. The men stabbed at its legs and stomach with swords, but the creature didn’t even notice. Mathilda faced her zombie toward the giant. She had to reorient her zombie a few times, but she steered it near. The zombie giant paid no attention. Timing it carefully, Matilda shoved her zombie between the giant’s ankles as it raised a foot. The giant missed its step. Off balance, it twisted and fell, slamming to earth. The Duke’s men swarmed it, hacking the giant’s head from its body. Mathilda cheered. 

Then her body, arm hanging lose and broken, got to its feet. Mathilda thrilled. By Moradin’s Might, I may be dead, but I’m not out of this fight yet! And she pointed her zombie in the direction of the Lich Queen.


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He and his brothers had journeyed for days and nights across the dry wastes from the Queen’s castle. Early one morning, hungry and weary, they entered the high city walls of Middleford. When they reached the cobblestone town square the inhabitants, busy setting up the morning market, greeted them with shouts. Amid the havoc he saw her dropping a pail of water she had just drawn from the well. All else was forgotten.

She was perfect, cheeks as smooth and pink as rose petals, tipped red by the cool morning air. Her deep eyes, the blue of a spring sky, glistened with dew when she saw him. Her lips, full and luscious, parted to reveal a neat string of pearl teeth.

Suddenly nothing else mattered. She was his destiny, his all, his Eternal One. They were meant to be together forever. He swept toward her, but perhaps he was over bold. His timid love fled, her skirts and golden curls bouncing.  How sweet, how adorable she looked as he followed her around a corner and up an alley.

At the end of the alley she came to a door under a sign depicting a tankard of ale. She pulled at the door handle. With a thrill he thought that perhaps she meant to lead him to her boudoir, but the door wouldn’t open. She turned to him.

As he approached slowly, gently, he noticed she was trembling. Her bosom heaved and tears coursed down her cheeks from the strength of her emotions. She must feel it too, must know they were meant for each other.

But she was as shy as she was lovely. Her eyes darted right and left and she made to flee from her destiny again. So he sang to her his special song. And his love held still, rapt, captivated by his voice. He drew near her, his tentacle caressing her delicate cheek. He felt her heartbeat, rushing and flaring, the blood pounding under her skin.

Tenderly, he kissed her.  He felt her body shudder and knew she would be his. In a day’s time, maybe less, they would be together. Already her useless golden curls were beginning to fall out. Soon they would be replaced by tentacles. Those tiny ears would stretch into proper wings and the unnecessary body would wither and fall away. Together, they would be complete.

He heard a noise behind him and turned. Then he saw her and forgot all about his Eternal One.

Her cheeks were as silky and dark as cocoa, her eyes the color of cinnamon. She was his world, his day and his night, his…


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One spring morning the door of the Bandy Squire banged open and two men carried in an injured man on a makeshift stretcher. “Where’s the cleric!” called one of the stretcher bearers. “We need help.”

A woman in chain mail rose from her mug of ale and hurried toward them. Locals swept drinks off a table and they set down the stretcher.

The cleric found a faint pulse. The injured man wore bloodied leather armor and a wooden club at his waist. His hair and beard were long and tangled. One leg was badly crushed, a number of ribs broken, and bloody welts crisscrossed his body.

“We found him under the big oak outside of town,” said a stretcher bearer as townsfolk gathered.

“Druid, I’d guess,” said the cleric. She laid one hand on his chest and with her other, clutched the silver, lightning bolt amulet that hung around her neck. She raised her eyes. “Glorious Heironeous, grant your humble servant the power of your grace to heal this mortal.”

Welts faded and his skin knit back together, but his mangled leg did not change.

The patient took a deep breath and opened his eyes. He gasped in pain. The cleric squeezed his shoulder. “Easy,” she told him. “Don’t try to move. You were badly injured. Can you tell us your name?”

“Eldrich,” said the man, through gritted teeth. “I was riding Minerva when I was thrown.”

“Your horse did this to you?” said one of the bystanders.

He shook his head. “Minerva is a wyvern.”

The crowd gasped. “You fell from the sky and lived?” said the Cleric. “Then indeed your god loves you, though your mount may not.”

“It wasn’t her fault,” said Eldrich. “Another wyvern, large and aggressive, came out of nowhere. It knocked me off Mini’s back with its tail. It grabbed Mini’s neck in its jaws. As I fell I saw her struggling to get free. I don’t know if my Mini yet lives.” His eyes filled with tears.

“Have faith,” said the cleric, “and rest.”


One chilly fall daybreak, Eldrich lay in his bed contemplating the daily pain of rising and making breakfast. It didn’t seem worth the effort. Nothing did. Without Mini he was just a broken man, shuffling through his days. He was considering never rising again when he heard a familiar rhythmic rush of wind in the small forest glen outside his door.

Minerva’s wing beats, landing!

He grabbed his quarterstaff and hauled himself and his useless leg out of bed. He hobbled to the door and flung it open. Minerva roared in greeting and Eldrich limped to her. “My girl!” Her body was painfully thin and her tan and green scales dull and scarred here and there, but she was alive.

Mini folded her giant wings, pulled gently away from him, and went to the edge of the forest clearing. She looked back over her shoulder at Eldrich and gave a birdlike chirp. He hobbled toward her, leaning on his quarterstaff. She moved off again and looked back at him.

Eldrich nodded. “Lead on, Mini, I’ll follow as best I can.”

The next two hours were torturous. Mini was too weak to ride, so Eldrich’s leg screamed in pain as he followed her. Often Mini would return to Eldrich so he could lean on her scaled neck as he hauled himself through the forest. She helped him along as best she could. Only his joy at having her back and his curiosity as to where she was taking him kept him going.

Exhausted, they entered a small clearing. Eldrich gasped. He wrapped his arms around Mini’s lithe neck. “None of us can deny nature, can we girl,” he said. He turned back to the four squabbling wyvern babies nestled among broken egg shells and fallen logs. “I guess you two weren’t fighting after all.”


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Eliza Farley swung into the saddle in the courtyard of the Lion’s Breath Tavern. Mounted guards waited to escort her to the castle. 

The sun lay gentle on fields bursting with barley, hops, and potatoes. The crops and the land were flourishing, but each hut and homestead, each village she passed appeared just a little bit more rundown than last year.

It was to be expected. With the new Earl and his administration there were many costs to be covered. There were roads and aqueducts to repair, troops and personnel to pay. As one of the top tax collectors, Eliza knew money had to come from somewhere. Each year she worked a little harder to pry it from the hands of the people.

She had done her duty. So she was unsure why she was being called to the Earl’s presence. Was she in trouble for her sometimes extreme methods of applying pressure on those who didn’t wish to pay? Or was she to be rewarded for meeting her quota? 

The little caravan wound its way through town to the castle gates. Eliza was escorted into the castle, up many flights of stairs, and into a dimly lit chamber. 

Next to a bed the size of a small island stood the Earl. Eliza dropped to a knee. “Lord Alford.”

“Shhhhhh. Nap time,” said the Earl, finger to lips. He motioned Eliza to rise and pointed to the bed. 

Among the covers and pillows lay a golden-haired child of about four—little Lady Leena. “She’s an angel, my Lord,” whispered Eliza. 

“She’s more precious to me than all the gold and jewels in the land,” replied the Earl, ushering Eliza out of the room. 

“How may I serve you, my Lord,” said Eliza once the door was shut.

“Walk with me,” said the Earl, leading her down columned halls and through bejeweled archways.

“It grieves me to tell you that our Treasurer is dead.”

“My condolences, my Lord,” she said, trying to hide her excitement. So it was a job interview.

“You come highly recommended as his replacement,” said the Earl.

They spent the next hour discussing her accomplishments, methods, and philosophies as tax collector as they wandered the castle. Finally the Earl stopped and turned to her. “Do you have children?”

“Yes, my Lord. A boy of eight.”

He nodded. “Good. Then you will understand. Our last Treasurer did not. For that he had to be… removed.”

Eliza stifled a gulp.

Little Lady Leena came skipping down the corridor and took her father’s hand.

“Done napping already?” said the Earl. “Then we shall show our new Treasurer the treasure room.” The girl squealed with delight. Eliza wished she could too. The child ran ahead of them down the hall.

They followed.

“She is a very shy child,” said the Earl. “We’ve had trouble finding friends for her. Certainly, as a mother, you’d agree friends are very important for a girl her age.”

“Of course, my Lord.”

He pulled out a key and unlocked a heavy metal-clad door and swung it open. Inside, a few torches glittered off mounds of gold and silver coins and chests of jewels. Among the riches, xorn frolicked, stuffing their mouths with shining morsels. Eliza shouted, and turned toward the Earl, expecting him to call for help. His face remained unmoved. Lady Leena ran forward, giggling. “Her friends,” said the Earl. “Your job is to keep them fed.”


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As dawn turned the sky to pale steel, the duke stumbled into the remains of a tavern. One brick wall still stood, rubble and corpses littered the ground amid broken casks and barrels.

“What a waste,” said the duke. Then he looked out over the battlefield, scattered with gore and the bodies of the dead. Though to be fair, over half those bodies had been dead before the battle ever began. He shook his head. “What a tragic, horrible waste.”

The duke, covered in blood -most of it not his own- wavered from exhaustion. He found an unbroken bottle and knocked the top off with the sword still clutched in his right hand. He drank the burning liquid deeply. He knew he should be rallying his men, preparing for the next onslaught, but it could wait until he caught his breath.

Rubble shifted and the duke spun, raising his sword. A young woman rose from behind the ruined bar. Dressed as a barmaid, she was lovely, though smeared with dust and dirt, her dress torn in places that drew the eye and made the heart race.

“Please, kind sir, help me,” she said.

The duke narrowed his eyes. Those rips were a little too convenient.  He sighed. “Give it a rest,” he said. “I know it’s you.”

The figure shimmered and there stood the lich queen. Her cloak was in shreds, her body spattered with blood and gore, and part of her skeletal arm was missing. She, however, did not look at all hurt or tired, she looked terrible and powerful.

“Hello, My Love,” she said.

“Don’t call me that,” he said. “It was a lifetime ago.”

The living half of her face smiled- the skull half was always smiling. “My Hate, then. It’s so hard sometimes to tell the difference.”

“Did you kill my wife?” he asked.

She gave a harsh laugh and stepped toward him. “No, My Hate, her appetites killed her. Why would I, when she was so good at making you miserable.”

He raised his sword, though he barely had the strength left to use it. “Because I chose her.”

The lich queen’s lips muttered and her remaining hand sculpted the air in front of her, calling forth her power. A red glow enveloped her hand and the Duke stepped forward, drawing back his sword to swing before she could finish her spell.

Then a sound, somewhere between a hiss and a chitter made both of them turn.

A creature, at least eight feet tall, part insect, all demon, sidled around the broken wall. Out across the desolate battlefield more followed, dozens, hundreds.

The Duke’s sword arm dropped. It was over. He hadn’t the men left to fight this army too.

The lich queen’s voice was harsh. “I wouldn’t have thought you capable of allying with demons.”

He turned to look at her. “They’re not with you?”

Her eyebrow rose. “Indeed they are not.”

They’d steal our lands while we’re at each other’s throats,” said the Duke.

“I forbid it,” she said. “These lands are ours.” The lich queen released her spell at the yogoloth and it erupted into a ball of red flame. The creature hissed and screamed and died.

The duke grinned at the lich queen as he raised his sword, strength and determination flowing back into him. “To me, men! Attack the yogoloth!”

The lich queen raised her arm as well. “My beautiful minions, rise again, and fight alongside your living brothers!”


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There once was a zombie named Ted,

Who thought he was better off dead.

He spent all his time

In the loops of a vine,

’Til Jack came and took off his head.



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