Grog took a large swig from his mug—a bucket with a handle—and slammed it onto the table. His belch shook the unused cutlery. “More food! More ale!”
“Uh, excuse me, Master Strongjaw, sir.” Laina, the soft-spoken, middle-aged woman who served as cook for all of Greyskull Keep, appeared at his elbow.
The mountain of Goliath looked down at her, still sitting. A single, tiny thought burbled to the front of Grog’s mind. “Oh, right.” He gave half a bow and half a shrug. “More food! More ale! Please?”
“I’d love to dearie, but you’ve eaten the larder.” Laina gestured to the piles of empty platters dripping with grease, gravies, and bones.
Grog scratched his head. “You mean, there’s no more food?”
“I could prepare you a nice salad,” the cook offered.
Grog sneered at the mere mention of vegetables. “That’s Keyleth food.”
“Well, I’ve sent a boy to the butcher for more meat,” she explained, “but I probably won’t have anything ready until supper.”
Frowning, Grog tipped the dregs of his mug into his mouth. “At least, there’s still ale.”
Laina let out a little cough. “We’re out of that too.”
Grog looked from side to side as if expecting to find the room filled with casks. “How can we be out of ale?”
“Sir, you’ve been eating and drinking for four days now,” Laina informed him.
Grog’s brow furrowed. “Is that a lot?”
“Yes, sir it is,” she nodded.
Grog looked down at his empty mug and his eyes peed.
“There, there Master Strongjaw,” Laina consoled the mighty Goliath. “Here, Erwin’s got a bit of sherry stashed about. It’ll tide you over until the lads come back from the brewery.”
“Alright,” sobbed Grog. The cook ducked out of the room and came back with a decanter of light-brown, liquid that put the Goliath in mind of the time Trinket ate those awful berries. Laina poured the entire contents of the glass container into his mug which filled it about a fourth of the way up. Grog eyed it suspiciously. “You’re sure this is ale?”
“Wine, actually,” she clarified.
“Oh so juice then,” said Grog. Keyleth said juice was good for you. He drank it in one gulp, feeling smug about how healthy he was now.
“Why don’t you run along?" Laina gently shooed him from the room. "I’ll let you know when supper’s ready.”
Grog stood up from his chair and wandered upstairs to where the bedrooms were. He approached Scanlan’s, checking the doorknob for a sock or for any rocking, both of which, the gnome had explained to him, meant he should not come a’knocking. With everything clear, he a’knocked. “Scanlan?”
There was no response. Just in case, he knocked louder. “Scanlan!”
Still no response. Scanlan was out. He passed by Vax’s room, because screw him and tried Keyleth’s, knocking more gently, because it was Keyleth and she liked soft, gentle things like flowers and armadillos. “Keyleth? Are you in there?”
There was the sound of breaking glass.
“Oh shoot!” came a muffled response. Footsteps approached and the door swung open a crack, with Keyleth behind it. “Grog. Hi.”
“Hello,” Grog responded, he tried to look past her into the room. “What are you doing?”
“I was working with my new alchemy set,” she told him with a strained smile.
“Can I help?” he smiled.
“Oh. Well. You know, it’s really more of a… druid thing, you know,” Keyleth stammered.
“Like salad?” asked Grog.
“Yes. It is exactly like salad. Hey, I know. Why don’t you go see what Scanlan is doing?”
Grog’s eyes lifted to a spot above the druid’s head. “Why is your room smoking?”
Keyleth glanced up to find a red fog billowing out from behind her. “Sorry, got to go.” She slammed the door on Grog. “No, no, no, no, no.”
Grog turned away and sighed. But then he saw Percy’s door was open. Percy never left his door open and Grog was never allowed in Percy’s room for stupid reasons like “privacy” and “safety.” He walked over and pushed the door open. “Percy?” No response. The room was empty. “Yes!” Grog hissed to himself as he leapt inside.
Percy’s room much as Grog had found it days ago when he had barged in: Papers and books covered the ground, the desk, the bed, all available surfaces. The sheets were unmade. A half-eaten breakfast tray gathered flies on the nightstand next to a broken clock which had been gutted like animal. Grog understood. He hated clocks too. Except the ones with cuckoos, they were funny.
Grog took this rare chance to look around Percy’s things. He tried on one of Percy’s jackets which ripped all up the back and was hastily thrown under the bed. There was a fancy handkerchief on the bed monogrammed with the letter “L”—L for Percy. He blew his nose in it like a fancy person, then waved it around, slinging snot all over the room. Fancy people were gross like that. Next, he picked up a handful of papers, turning them over to admire the little marks. “Yes, yes. Very good,” Grog said in his best Percy impression. Suddenly, like a pent up fart, Grog had an idea. He went over to Percy’s desk and rifled through the drawers pulling out paper, a writing feather, and a bottle of ink. Clutching feather, he and jammed it into the ink bottle, which shattered, and began to scribble.
How are you? Is your temple done yet? Things are bad here. The people who killed Percy’s family showed up and are vampires. Vax almost died. That was funny. Tiberius killed an old woman and everyone hates us. We are going to go to Percy’s home to kill the vampires, but everyone’s being slow and there’s nothing to kill yet. Also, we’re out of ale. When are you coming back? Can you bring ale?
The goliath admired his handiwork. The squiggles were very squiggly and his frowny face stick figure really summed up the tragedy of the situation. He crumpled the paper into a ball and headed back downstairs.
“That was my personal property,” echoed the plaintive cries. “You had no right.”
“One of the masters needed it,” Laina chided. “And besides Erwin, it won’t kill you to go without for a day or two.”
The elderly halfling steward. “I don’t know what you are implying. I am very responsible…”
Grog’s thundering footsteps interrupted the servants’ argument. Laina leapt at the opportunity. “Master Strongjaw, what can we do for you?”
“Where do I go to get a letter delivered?” He showed them the wad of paper. Laina and Erwin exchanged looks.
“Give it to me, Master Strongjaw.” The halfling reached for the note. “I’ll take care of it.”
Grog withdrew his hand, protecting his masterpiece. “No. No. I can do it myself.”
“Really Master Strongjaw, I should…”
Laina cut across the steward, whispering, “Let the poor dear mail his letter. It’ll get him out of the keep for a bit.”
“Oh very well,” grumbled Erwin. He turned back to Grog. “You’ll find Farouk’s Messenger Service in the Promenade between Duncaster and Dragonscale Road.”
“Right, right,” Grog nodded. “And where’s that then?”
The halfling sighed. “Do you know the Silken Cushion?”
Grog smiled. “Yeah.
“How do you know about the Silken Cushion?” asked the cook.
“I’ve...you hear about these…places,” answered Erwin with a blush. “Just go down that street til you see a green sign.”
“Green! Right. I know Green,” Grog clapped the aged steward on the back, nearly knocking him to the ground. “Thanks.” And with that Grog bounded off to mail his letter.
“Eels! The freshest eels in all of Emon! Pulled straight from the harbor this morning! You’ll find none fresher!”
“Pickled cockatrice feet! All the way from the fens of Lollehndam. Cures acne, asthma, arthritis, all ailments with beginning with ‘a.’ Don’t ask me why. I’m not a healer.”
“Glass orb snow displays! Memorialize your trip to Emon with replicas of the city painstakingly crafted within glass spheres and magically filled with snow. Just give it a shake and…”
Crash! The cart of semi-magical baubles flipped end over end as Grog entered Abadar’s Promenade.
“Uh, sorry about that,” Grog said. A small snowstorm sprung up from the broken enchantments, covering the road in frost. It made the goliath giggle.
The halfling seller rounded on his knee. “You think this is funny? This is my livelihood this is!”
“Uh,” Grog had apologized, but she was still yelling at him. He thought about what Scanlan might do and reached into the bag of holding. “Here?” He put out a half giant-sized handful of gold.
The woman seemed unimpressed. “What? You think you can throw money at me and that makes it alright. This isn’t about gold. This is about principles.”
“All right then.” He went to put the coins back.
“Now wait just a moment. I didn’t say, I wouldn’t take it…” She scooped the gold out of his hands and into her hat. “But just so you know, it’s not about that!” She put the now jangling hat back on her head. “You…be more careful.”
“And pick up my cart.”
Grog bent down and put the cart back to rights. As he did, the last surviving glass display fell out and shattered on the cobblestone road. “Er…”
"AAAAAAAAAH!" The bases of broken snow displays bounced off the barbarians back as he made a hasty retreat.
There were many signs in the Abadar’s Promenade. Grog checked them all for “green.”
“Brown. Brown. Brown,” Grog said to himself. “Blue and yellow. Red. Brown again. Um…” He paused at a turquoise sign, staring at it for a full minute before moving on without a word. “There! Green!”
Grog sprinted to the door underneath the correctly identified green sign that, unbeknownst to him, read, “Farouk’s Messenger Service.” A youth in a green hat carrying a green satchel exited the building.
“Hey! You!” Grog bellowed at the poor teenager.
“What? AH!” the girl screamed at the arrival of a muscular giant with a warhammer strapped to his back. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“Do you deliver letters?” Grog asked.
“Er…yes?” she answered, slightly uncringing.
Grog stuck out his hand and showed her his handiwork. “This is for Pike.”
The messenger took the wad from Grog. This was not her first crumpled ball letter. The messenger service dealt with all types. “Uh, do you have an address for this Pike?”
“Address?” Grog repeated.
“Do you know where she is?” the girl simplified.
“Oh right, address,” Grog nodded as if he had known all along. “She’s in Vasselheim.”
The messenger stared at him. “Anything more specific.”
“The temple in Vasselheim,” Grog said proudly.
The youth sighed heavily. “You want this delivered to Pike in ‘The Temple in Vasselheim.’” She got out her sheet. “Letters to Vasselheim are two gold apiece.”
Grog opened his purse and looked at the gold coins. “Two. Yeah. That’s...uh…” He held out a few coins and stared at them in concentration. He pushed a single coin forward on his palm. “One…” Beads of sweat formed on his brow.
The girl reached out and slid another coin toward her. “Two.”
“I knew that,” Grog said handing her those coins.
The messenger slid the coins and the letter into her satchel. “I’ll make sure this gets on the next sky ship to Vasselheim.” With that, the teenager walked off to make her rounds, leaving the goliath in the middle of the city.
“Writing’s not so hard,” Grog boasted. He looked around. He was now in the heart of Emon’s marketplace and as luck would have it, within spitting distance of one of his favorite pubs “The Thirsty Owlbear” so named for having alcohol for the thirsty and owlbears for fighty. And right then, Grog was in the mood for both.
It was barely afternoon, so the bar was quiet except for a few old-timers arm-wrestling at the bar. An elderly half-orc threw handfuls of sawdust on the floor in anticipation of the vomit and blood and ale that would be spilled later. That's the kind of place this was. Grog's kind of place.
An older dwarf woman spitcleaned mugs behind the bar. She nodded to the goliath. "Grog. How goes it?"
"Thilda," he answered as he took a seat on one of the wider stools. "An ale and keep them coming." He threw a gold coin on the rough wood of the bar. This was answered a moment later with Grog-worthy mug of ale. "Say Thilda. You were an adventurer back in the day?"
"Aye, until I took an arrow in the leg," said the barkeep. "And the arm. And three in me chest. Still cough up blood sometimes. Battle of Darkhelm Chasm. Now that was a fight."
"Did you ever go up against anything...weird?" Grog asked.
Her brow furrowed. "How weird?"
The barkeeper laughed. "Vampires? No I can't say I ever fought vampires."
"Oh," Grog frowned. "Don't suppose you know any good vampire fighting advice?"
She thought for a moment. "Have you got a shovel and a pickaxe?"
"What’s that good for?" he asked.
"There's an old dwarven saying, 'Any problem can be solved with a shovel and pickaxe.'"
Smiling, the goliath threw back his drink. "One more and then I'll be ready to wrestle—" he counted out on his fingers, getting lost after one. "—some owlbears!"
"I'm afraid you'll have to talk to the damned monk about that," the barkeep grumbled.
The barkeep nodded to the four-foot deep fighting pit on the far side of the bar out of which a round cheery face seemed to levitate. Grog stood up from his barstool and walked over to the pit. The gnomish bald figure was not floating, but standing, perfectly balanced, atop a three foot staff.
“He’s been here all morning,” she called to Grog. “Something about looking for an honest man. Or woman. Or orc. He went on rather a long time listing off races.”
The gnome opened his milk white eyes and stared at a point just to the left of the near giant. “Hello.”
"Why are you standing on that staff?" Grog asked.
Atop his post, the gnome shrugged. "Why are you standing on the ground?"
The goliath's eyes went crossed and his head went all hot. That was too much thought for him. With a quick gulp of ale, he pressed on. "You're a monk?"
The gnome switched legs, though barely moved to do it. "I am."
"Do you know Earthbreaker Groon?"
"Can't say that I do," the little man replied.
"Oh," said Grog. "Cuz, he's a monk too."
The blind gnome chuckled. "Not all monks know each other."
"Yeah," Grog agreed. "Look, I don't suppose you could teach me a little something?"
The gnome reached down and climbed down the staff landing with a small hop in the dirt of the pit. "You could learn many things. Peace, serenity, how to move like the wind, dance between shadows—" he gave a wry smile. "—rip the still beating heart from the chest of an enemy and show it to them before they die."
"Yeah!" cried Grog.
"Travel east to the far reaches of Wildmount," the gnome instructed. "Find the Eyes of Selune in the Nightsky Monestary and learn all that they have to offer."
Grog let out a little belch. "I was kind of hoping you could just, you know, show me something here. You know—" he did a little one-two punch in the air. "—something that might help against vampires."
"Oh, is that all?" said the monk. "Sure thing. Come on down."
Grog hopped down into the pit while the gnome limbered up. Tiny pops came from his back, neck, and fingers as he bent and stretched. "So," grinned the gnome, "let's teach you balance."
"Balance?" the goliath laughed. "I think I've got balance down." He stomped his feet.
"Can you stand on top of your weapon like this?" The monk climbed to the top of his quarterstaff and stood there on one foot while he bent the other over his knee in a faux sitting position. "You try?
Grog took out his firebrand warhammer, a single piece of duergar iron, and set it, hammer down, onto the ground. The end came up to his thigh. He lifted his right leg and, hopping, tried to put his foot on the pommel. "One sec." He dragged the weapon over to the edge of the pit and climbed out. From this angle he could get on top of it more easily. He stepped onto the warhammer and then off of the ground. "See, I can...wha!"
"So...balance," said the gnome, hopping down.
Grog picked himself up. "Oh come on. You're teeny compared to that staff.”
"Lesson one," the monk replied. "Balance is not fairness. Now—" he stretched his hands toward Grog. "—try to hit me."
The eight foot tall, six hundred pound goliath looked down at the old, blind gnome who didn't even come up to his knee. "Are you sure about that?"
The gnome lowered his guard. "If you don't think you can, I'll put one hand behind my back."
Grog let out a warrior's laugh. "All right then." And with that he swung down at the tiny gnome. The fist connected and the monk flew backwards into the wall of the pit. Something went crunch.
"Are you okay?" Grog asked.
The monk wobbled to his feet. "You are bigger than I am. You are stronger. When you hit me—" the tiny figure spit a mouthful of blood into the dirt. "—it hurts. Also, you can see me and I can't see you." He took up his fighting position. "Hit me again."
"That's all right. I think I've got it," Grog replied.
"Hit me again," said the gnome.
“Yeah! Hit him again!” The old men at the bar were watching now and laying bets.
Still, Grog felt kind of sick at the idea of hitting the gnome again, so he tried that "tack" stuff his friends always went on about. "Look why don't we just go have a drink?"
"That works," smiled the monk. He walked and brought the heel of his foot down hard on the goliath's toes. It took a minute for the pain to reach his brain, but finally Grog bellowed. "Ow."
"Hit me again," demanded the gnome.
"I don't want to," growled Grog. The gnome nodded and brought another fierce kick down onto the barbarian's feet. Something went pop that definitely should not go pop.
"Stop that!" Grog shouted.
"Make me," the monk said. Grog reached down to grab him, but the little guy ducked underneath his arms and this time full-on punched the half-giant's foot. A white hot pain filled Grog's sight and it was all he could do to keep from going into a rage.
"I thought you were blind?" Grog said confused.
"I am," grinned the gnome as he pulled his staff out of the ground. "But you are loud and obvious. Most people are." He smacked the staff onto Grog's toes. "Balance."
Grog lunged for the monk, but the tiny figure weaved away and whacked him on the foot. The goliath and his toesies were ready for payback. With a roar, he went punt the gnome. The tiny man sidestepped and swept up with his staff, pushing Grog's leg higher than he’d intended. Grog tipped over and fell flat on his back. The blind man sidled up to him.
"You are bigger," said the monk. "It is awkward for you to fight someone my size. It leaves you open to attack.” The staff whipped down onto the goliath's nose with a crunch. "Balance."
Grog scrambled to his feet as the gnome darted off. He wiped the warm blood pouring from his nostrils onto the back of his hand and grinned with savage delight. "Fine. You wanna play?" He picked his fallen warhammer up from the ground. "Let's play."
The barbarian charged the monk. The old gnome simply smiled as his opponent bore down on him. "There is of course one way in which all are equal," he said. Grog wasn't listening. He was in the midst of battle and glory. He raised his weapon above his head, ready to turn the blind man into mayonnaise.
"Balance," said the gnome. Everything went black.
Grog tasted ale. It was delicious and almost took his mind off the horrible throbbing he felt somewhere in his body. At first, he thought it was his head. Maybe he was hungover. He'd never been hungover, but the others said stuff about their heads hurting when they drank, so maybe that's what this was. And someone was pouring the hair of the dog down his throat. Though it didn't taste like dog, but really good ale, which Grog appreciated. Dogs could taste pretty nasty.
After a moment, he realized it wasn’t his head that hurt, but some much more important equipment. Grog checked to make sure everything was intact.
"You shouldn't do that," called a pleasant voice. The goliath opened his eyes to find the monk not quite smiling down at him. "You'll go blind."
Grog tried to answer, but his words were replaced by a groan. The gnome nodded. "That's okay. Drink this." He felt around on Grog’s face until he found his mouth and poured a second mug of ale into him. As it trickled down his throat, the ache subsided and the goliath was able to sit up without throwing up.
"You all right Grog?" asked Thilda as she arrived with a third glass of ale. She handed it to the monk who uncorked a small red potion, poured it inside, and handed it to Grog.
Grog threw it back, now almost feeling like he hadn’t just gotten punched in the nuts. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
"It's the one thing that unites us all," said the monk. "From the lowliest gnome to the grandest of dragons. Everything's got genitals."
Grog's brow furrowed. "What about ladies?"
The dwarf barkeep guffawed. "Trust me, even for a woman, it don't feel great to get punched in the nethers. Matter o’ fact, that's how I won this bar."
With a few false starts, the barbarian stood up. There was a strange feeling behind his eyes...like a burp, but in his head. He was pretty sure it was learning. For the second time in one day, he felt like Percy. "Thank you," he said, leaning into one of those monk bows.
That's when he saw it: the firebrand warhammer laying underneath his feet. He was standing on his weapon.
The gnome smiled. "There are some things we cannot change. I am small. You are big. I can't reach the top shelf. You can't balance on a thin piece of wood. So we come at these problems in our own way, using what we have and who we are to conquer the same challenges. That is balance."
Grog nodded. "And if that don't work...everything's got gentles."
The monk laughed. "Yes, everything's got gentles. Even vampires."
Grog left the bar feeling confident—after a quick stop at Mason & Maison General Store to pick up a shovel and pickaxe—that he was ready for anything the Briarwoods might throw at him. He headed home with purpose, though without being particularly perceptive.
“Commemorative porcelain plates! Each one-of-a-kind, hand-painted plate features an image of a hero from Emon’s glorious…”
Grog arrived back at the keep a half hour and several handfuls of gold lighter to find Vax just getting back from doing Vax things. The rogue stopped upon seeing the bloodied goliath. "Hey there big guy. You look like shit. Where have you been?"
"Learning," Grog replied.
"Oh yeah?" asked the half-elf. "Learning what?"
"Balance," he grinned and punched Vax in the gentles.