The conclusion to Tabris’ and Dokurokol’s search for the Life Gem. I wanna write more about underground adventures, and hobgoblins in general. They exist mostly on the periphery, and they’re kinda too interesting to just shove to the side.
Read part one here.
Word Count: ~3200 (out of ~7200 total)
Dokurokol stood on the docks of Thunderjaw Island with her travel supplies on her back. While the orcs prepared her ship to the mainland, she stared out at the open waters. Veiadokuur’s cold, snow-peaked mountains lounged in the distance, grey triangles in the misty weather. Beyond them, to the north, the Impassable Heights stood far taller. In this air, Dokurokol could not even discern their tops. Even the water looked murky without the sun’s warmth. Every other day, the waves carried a deep blue hue and reflected the clouds. Today, though, it all blended together. The horizon towards the open ocean went on forever, and only differing shades hinted at the existence of land masses.
“How long will you be out this time” her Kilverud captain, Varn, said. Old, retired, and seasoned beyond his years, he regularly traveled from Stoneheart City to take Dokurokol to the mainland. He offered her a puff of his pipe, but she politely refused this time.
“It’ll be a long one this time, Varn,” she said. “If I’m not back I six months, stop waiting for me.” He looked down at her, pulling his lips to the side.
“You’re thinking this’ll be your last one?” he said. “You’re ready for that?”
“Indeed,” she said and nodded. “But I don’t anticipate that I’ll die. I’ll just be adventuring further into the mainland if I find what I want.”
“And if you don’t?” Varn said. Dokurokol smiled. Waves lapped against the shore and the wind rustled the leaves in the forests behind them. They heard footsteps running down the docks, paired with clanking and rattling. The two turned and saw Tabris, looking like a mule as he struggled with a massive bag on his back.
“I’m coming!” he said as he approached. “There’s room for me, right? Because I’m coming with you, Dok!” She chuckled at him and put her hands on her hips.
“Well, Tabi! First time to the mainland, yeah?” She laughed. “I’ve no need for your help, but what changed your mind?” He stopped in front of them, panting.
“You have an awful memory,” he said. “If you do find it, I doubt you’d even know. So, I’m coming along. To help you.” Dokurokol laughed and slapped his arm with a wide grin. They boarded into Varn’s vessel, and sailed away from the island.
Tabris felt unsteady on his feet. He’d only been on a boat for so long once before, when his creators took him and Dokurokol out just far enough that they’d age to teenagers. He hadn’t grown since that time—only in mind, not in body. But he could never forget the painful shredding of his connection to Thunderjaw Island—it hurt terribly, and he hoped he wouldn’t—
Tabris cried out and Dokurokol cringed. His bones turned to mush. He fell to his knees, then to his face. He panted and trembled, fisted his hands while staring wide-eyed at the deck. His breaths came out like shattering glass.
“He alright?” Varn said from behind.
“He’ll be fine in a bit,” Dokurokol said. “It’s been a long time for him, but he’ll live. Tabi, it’s just shock—get up already! The sun’s out again, and it sure is beautiful.”
The sound of his own blood drowned her voice out. But he did eventually catch his breath and wobble to his feet once more. He stumbled to Dokurokol, hugging his stomach with both hands.
“How do you do this every single time?” he said through his teeth.
“You get used to it,” she said and grinned down at him. “Sure, it hurts—but there’s the price of freedom for you.” A big wave nudged the boat and the entire vessel swayed. Tabris latched onto the mast like a cicada.
“Oh, gods above and around,” he moaned.
“Now, don’t you go down below deck ‘til you get all your breakfast out!” Varn called.
“’Til I what?” Tabris answered his own question, and doubled over. When he finished retching, Varn and Dokurokol laughed.
“Someone’s got a stomach made of jelly,” Dokurokol said. “We haven’t even been out on water that long, Tabi!”
“I—I need to lie down.” Tabris wandered below deck, flopped into a small cot, and prayed for solid land once more.
The boat ride took only two days and a night. They reached the mainland and docked in Stoneheart City. Weariness still clouded Tabris’ thoughts and sight, but he grew used to it. Now he could at least see how Dokurokol managed to leave the island for such long stretches. He wondered when his lack of energy would catch up with him and leave him helpless.
They hired a convoy to take them safely to the hobgoblin ruins, which waited just three days’ travel from the dwarven fort Dokurokol usually explored. Getting there, however, would take longer than a month. They weren’t certain just how deep into the ruins they needed to delve, either. It all bothered Tabris and left him anxious, but he saw only eagerness in everything Dokurokol did. She pushed forward through mountains and overgrown forests and even the occasional blight with enthusiasm. As they traveled, she spoke to him at length about the outside world to him, and he listened closely. It seemed that every day, he came across a plant or animal he had never before seen. He collected seeds or snips from flowers he liked, or herbs that could prove useful to his healing. Dokurokol pointed out a few species here and there to him and described their use, or warned him of their poison. Even the dangerous plants intrigued him, and he took cuts from them as well.
By the time they reached the fort, Dokurokol’s hair and beard turned grey. She was more wrinkled than ever, and her thinning hair gave way to total baldness. She insisted, though, that she kept her locks for longer than most dwarven women every could, and that she looked spritely for her age.
Tabris also changed. One morning when they awoke from camping by a clear pool in the forest, he realized that he now looked down to meet Dokurokol’s eyes. His shoulders broadened, and he remained lithe, but stronger than before. He had to relearn how to sing as they went, since his voice cracked and deepened. The sudden change in his appearance left him on-edge, but a little relieved. Now, at least, people would stop treating him like a child.
The Kilverud orcs they traveled with preferred not to go deep underground, and left them when they came to the ruins. Tabris and Dokurokol descended the massive stairway until they lost sight of the entry behind them. In usual hobgoblin fashion, the floor and walls glinted and glowed with arranged, bioluminescent fungi and moss. Long abandoned, the stuff overgrew and lost the pattern its planters originally arranged it in. The colored light shined off their faces, making them look like ghostly figures as they snuck down. The fungus gave off a sweet aroma, like overripe fruit or honey. Outside, the air groaned and echoed off the walls. A far-off rushing of water accompanied their footsteps—the only other sound in these tunnels. Giant cave bats watched them from a hundred feet above, and wondered what such curious beings were doing in their roost. Thankfully, unlike some other similarly-sized creatures, the bats did not recognize them as food. Tabris wondered what they ate to get to such a size.
Unlike dwarves, who build their cities by carving tunnels through naturally softer parts of rock, hobgoblins hollowed out space as they needed it, no matter how dense the mountain. Their forts were no different. When Tabris and Dokurokol reached the bottom of the twisting staircase, after mining through stuck gates and checkpoints, a big, hobgoblin-carved cavern greeted them. Tabris’ jaw dropped. The ceiling here was nearly two-hundred feet high. Massive pillars supported the roof, still standing in perfect condition after so many years. Even the huge, decorative carvings of hobgoblin figures had no chips or cracks in them. They looked as if they were built only the day before.
The hobgoblins had even redirected a stream, which flowed through the fortress’ middle. The main building itself—a big, square thing with spiked, conical ramparts and watchtowers—loomed beyond. For a moment, Tabris and Dokurokol both forgot that awful, ever-present discomfort in their bellies. He shook his head slowly at the vision just ahead.
“I see now what you mean,” he said, and breathed again after holding it for so long. “I see why this matters so much to you.” Dokurokol smiled up at him with squinted, twinkling eyes.
“It’s one thing to read and hear about the world and its history,” she said. “It’s another to actually live in it.” He nodded slowly. “Well?” she continued after a moment. “Shall we search for our key to real life?”
“Let’s!” Dokurokol and Tabris rushed to the fort, knowing they need to be thorough, but as quick as possible. Their energy drained from being away from home for so long, and either one of them could become debilitatingly ill and exhausted at any moment.
The hobgoblins built their fort like a maze with a seemingly illogical progression from one room to the next. Dokurokol theorized that its construction served as yet another defense against intruders. Though there were dozens of journals and even more scrolls filed away for the taking, they collected few. Instead, they focused on scouring the rooms for anything to hint at the Life Gem’s location.
After a week, the both of them tired. Getting up each day after sleeping—which did not come easy—was a task in and of itself. Only calorie-dense foods and energy-granting herbs staved off total lethargy. They took longer and longer to search, and it occurred even to Dokurokol that perhaps it was a lost cause after all. She kept her woes quiet, however.
Then, Tabris found it by accident. While she dug through an archive of records, one journal—massive, bound with chitinous leather—listed the deaths and gravesites of inhabitants of the fort. He picked it up and leafed through it casually while Dokurokol rubbed her beard at an inventory of valuable objects. Tabris found a page marked differently than the others. Instead of a rank, the individual was described as a “mascot.” An exact description of Imp—from his pointed ears, to his yellow eyes, and black horns—followed down the page. Underneath, a list of things they buried him with: His favorite chewing bone, his blanket, his bed, and his collar, with a glowing, green sphere.
“Dok,” he said, heart thumping. From the corner of Dokurokol’s eye, Tabris looked like he floated a foot off the ground, kept aloft by a flock of tiny swallows circling his ankles.
“What?” she said.
“I think I’ve found it.”
They ran to the graves at the edge of the cavern. The ceiling here was shorter, and thick lichens and towering mushrooms grew to muffle the sound from the stream. Silence left its weight in the air, and were it not for their beating, ecstatic hearts, they could easily fall asleep here. It took little time for them to find Imp’s small, but lovely, grave. His hobgoblin caretakers laid him to rest in a spot as nicely-maintained as the others. His coffin—much smaller than the rest and carved from fine slate—had a few cracks in it. A single hole on one of the corners let moss creep inside.
Their bodies filled with anticipation, but they also felt the seeds of guilt sprout and squirm into their stomachs. Desecrating the grave of a fellow angel, or demon, or however they wanted to distinguish themselves, made them hesitate, even if Imp was closer to an animal than a person.
“Well?” Dokurokol said in a hushed tone. “Why don’t you open it?” Tabris looked at her and licked sweat from his upper lip
“Why don’t you?” he said. She said nothing, and stared at the coffin.
“We’ll open it together,” she said. Tabris nodded. They both hefted their crowbars, stood on one side, and wrenched them into the crack between the lid and the case. They counted off, and yanked back in time with each other. The movement jerked the lid up and pried it off. Grit and gravel fell to the ground as stone groaned against stone. With another grunt, another shove—the lid fell from the coffin, revealing a skeleton.
Time left Imp’s body in detached, vaguely-arranged pieces. His skull tipped over and only his curled, black horns supported him. What vertebrae remained curved into a sort of loose spiral. The rest of his spine, shattered into shards. His claws relaxed against the white silk cloth resting his body, and his tail draped comfortably next to his back legs. Only his jaw conveyed an aghast expression of shock, or mirth, or anger, with its rows of sharp, serrated teeth.
In the center of the arrangement, nested between his ribs, the Life Gem. The light of their torches danced in its luster. As the flames shivered, they highlighted the gem’s swirls and patterns, and its multitude of colors underneath its green shell.
It was more beautiful than either of them could ever imagine. Just seeing it left them breathless, yet full of energy. Full of life—and full of relief.
It existed. And they found it. Their freedom, absolutely pristine and untouched for years.
Tabris nodded to Dokurokol. He gestured with his head: You pick it up. The tears shined in her eyes and landed—plit, plit—on the stone underneath her. She smiled past her grey whiskers and patted his shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said. She reached into the coffin, and touched the Gem. It cooled her fingertips. Dokurokol lifted it—and it broke apart.
The thoughts that shared their minds and hearts followed no logic. Only desperation, and confusion, and sorrow remained. The Life Gem, they knew from their research, was supposed to be unbreakable. A perfect object. Flawless in appearance and sturdiness.
Yet it broke in half.
Dokurokol stammered, tried to explain that she didn’t break it, she wouldn’t have, she couldn’t have, how could it break so easily? It must have broken before Imp died—and that’s why he died. Her tears streamed down from eyes, falling freely and mingling with her beard.
Tabris took her hand. He held it in silence for a long time, until she stopped rambling, and hugged him. He stared at the gem from over her head while she sobbed, and he hated it. It suddenly looked ugly to him, more hideous than a cruel sneer or an arrogant grimace.
Despite it all, he feared that this outcome made perfect sense for them. Their lives, after all, were jokes. Failed experiments. Magical anomalies. Amusement for the gods. Why not play one final trick?
Tabris embraced Dokurokol until she stopped her tears and her shudders. After a moment, she tugged away, rubbed her reddened eyes, and donned her armor of stubbornness and detachment.
“Well then,” she said, “we’ve found it. It’s broken, but—it could give us a lead. A, a secondary one could exist, and maybe this was the start of its path.”
“Y-yes,” Tabris said with a single nod. “You’re probably right.”
“So help me, then—let’s investigate this thing.” They took its broken pieces from the coffin and searched around Imp’s skeleton. Tabris was first to notice. He focused entirely on the shape of the gem, put its pieces back together the best he could. It formed a hollow shell, with a hole in the bottom—about the diameter of a walnut. As he opened his mouth to speak, Dokurokol’s finger traced a long-dry, green-tinted trail that crept through the coffin and out the hole in its corner.
“Tabris,” she breathed.
“It’s an egg,” he said.
They followed the trail until it dried away completely, winding and wandering through the cold, smothering dark.
Back on the surface, Tabris and Dokurokol stood next to each other. Behind them, they carried backpacks full of materials they collected from the hobgoblin fort—mostly journals, but a few works of art and relics. Each also took one half of the empty eggshell and kept it wrapped in silk for safe transport. The sounds and colors of the surface world surprised them. When a whippoorwill called out mournfully, they stopped and listened a moment. The sun hovered just above the horizon, glowing deep orange. They cast long, sloping shadows as they walked along the steep, rocky mountainside. Dokurokol panted and clutched a sturdy branch to aid her steps. Soon, Tabris took her backpack from her.
As they approached the town where their convoy waited, Dokurokol slowed to a stop. Tabris looked back when he no longer heard her footsteps.
“Dok?” he said. She stared in the opposite direction, towards the east.
“Well,” she said. “I’m off. You have a safe journey back to the island.” She shuffled away. Tabris processed her words for a moment. His ears twitched and he hurried back to her.
“Dok, wait! What—what are you doing?” he said and walked alongside her.
“I’m going to find the second Life Gem, of course!” she said and grinned. “It’s close, Tabi, I’ve got a sense for these things.”
“You can’t go,” he said, shaking his head. “Dok, you’ll die. You’re… you’re so old! We need to get home before it gets worse for you!” He grabbed her shoulder. She shoved his hand off.
“I’ll find it,” she said. “So don’t you worry about me at all, Tabi. You get home fast, though—you’re very handsome at this age for an elf, and it’d be a shame to lose that so quickly.” She laughed. He furrowed his brow and his throat tightened.
“But—you…” He saw that she carried nothing. No backpack, no blanket to rest on. No food nor even a waterskin. All she wanted was her walking stick and the clothes on her back. And he understood. He lowered his face. “I can’t stop you,” he said. She looked back at him and nodded.
“Yep. You can’t.”
“Promise me we’ll meet again, though.”
“When I get the Life Gem, I’m never setting foot on that awful place again,” she said. “I’ll be too busy living—seeing all the world and everything it offers.”
“How will I know you found it?” Tabris said.
“And if I don’t get a letter?”
“Mail gets lost all the time, so don’t sit around waiting for it.”
He pulled his lips tight and sighed through his nose.
“Well, I’m off now, for real. Goodbye, Tabi. I enjoyed your friendship very much,” she said.
“Thank you Dok. You’ve been… a superb companion, too.” He forced a smile. “I… I don’t suspect I’ll cry after this, though.”
“Oh?” she said.
“Why should I?” He spread his arms, gesturing to the world around them. “This—this is all yours now.” She smiled, wagged a finger at him, and winked.
“You’ve got it,” she said.
They walked in opposite directions. Tabris looked straight ahead at the village, and shed no tears.