August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
The Haunting of Jin's Ear - Jim C. Hines
Jig sucked the last drops of lizard-fish juice from the stick. Another few days of this, and he'd be hungry enough to eat his own arm.
Of course, it was his own fault for not telling Lurok about the carrion worm nesting in his chamber pot. Jig wasn't the only goblin who had seen the long, segmented scavenger climb into the pot, but he was the smallest, and therefore the easiest target of Lurok's wrath.
If Lurok kept chasing Jig away from meals, Jig was going to get smaller still. The threads of meat he got from discarded skewers were hardly enough to keep him alive.
Jig jabbed the clean end of the skewer into his ear. Lurok had flung a clod of dirt at Jig this morning, and some of it had lodged in his ear.
The voice came from within his ear. Jig yelped, then covered his mouth with his free hand. He should be safe here in the darkness of the old storage cave, but if Lurok found out where he had been hiding. . . .
Jig pushed the stick harder, wiggling it around. The pressure in his ear was worse, as if the dirt was expanding.
Set me free!
Jig jumped. The stick broke. A burst of green light resolved into the shape of a glowing human female.
She arched her back like a tunnel-cat. "Rescued at last from eternal imprisonment--" She spotted Jig, and her voice turned into a screech. "By a damned goblin?"
"It was an accident!" Jig backed away.
The woman was tall and slender, dressed in a heavy robe with strange, shadowy characters circling the cuffs. She rippled like an animated puddle when she moved. Jig's vision had always been poor, but the blurring boundaries of her form made his head hurt.
"I'm still in that horrid mountain, aren't I?" she asked. "Who are you, and how did you find my wand?"
"I'm Jig." He glanced at the heavy, mildew-smelling curtain hanging over the cave mouth. The woman's light clearly illuminated the mold and water damage. Would he be safer out there with the goblins, or in here with the glowing human?
His hands twitched. The broken stick flew from his grip, and the pieces hovered before the woman.
"You broke it?" She reached out, but her fingers passed right through the sticks. "You idiot! I needed that wand to break the curse!"
Jig sighed. Of course there was a curse. There was always a curse.
Before he could answer, a meaty blue hand ripped the curtain aside. "Ha! I thought I heard voices." Lurok stepped into the cave. Lurok was a true goblin warrior. His blue skin stretched tight over long, rope-like muscles. The point of one ear was torn from a fight with an ogre. His fangs curved upward, nearly touching his eyes. "I'll teach you to run off like-- What in the name of the dragon's hairy backside is that?"
Jig didn't bother to remind the other goblin that dragons had no hair, only scales.
"It's a girl!" Lurok said. "A human girl." He drew his weapon, a long club with sharp bits of metal lashed to the end.
"How very perceptive," said the ghost. "Can it also be trained to feed itself and not soil the carpets?"
Lurok snarled. His club whistled through the air, then through the ghost, before embedding itself in a crate of old leather. The ghost raised her hands, and sparks of energy danced along her fingers.
"Wait!" Jig had no objection to her slaying Lurok, but once humans started killing goblins, they tended to keep going.
Lurok swung again, this time knocking down a pile of kindling and sending a swarm of tiny spiders scurrying across the floor.
"Lurok, she's cursed!"
Jig took a pinch of satisfaction in the way Lurok jumped back. "Cursed?"
"That's correct," said the ghost. "My name is Muré. I was an apprentice sorceress. My master brought me here more than a year ago to test my power, or so he said. Instead he betrayed me, trapping my soul in my own wand in order to enslave me But he was careless. While he finished his spell, one of the mountain cats pounced on him, knocking him into a crevasse My body was slain along with his, but my spirit survived."
Her eyes brightened. Jig squinted and looked away.
"His staff might still remain," Muré whispered. "If we found it, I could use his power to break this curse. I would be free."
"Aren't you already free?" Jig asked.
"The curse still binds me to that wand. Even now I feel its pull." She studied the two goblins. "You will help me. Once I have the power of Firam's staff, I'll reward you both."
For a moment, Jig was tempted. His mouth watered at the thought of the feasts Muré's magic could conjure. Then he thought about the tunnel cats, and his throat tightened.
"If there really are tunnel cats, Jig will make good bait." Lurok chuckled. "They like to play with rats."
"Take Lurok," Jig said. "He's a warrior! He's strong and brave and stupid! Let him have the glory and the reward and the horrific death."
Muré's finger began to glow red. "You're both coming. If you don't, my wand won't be the only thing broken."
Lurok took one last swing with his club, nearly removing Jig's nose on the backswing. Flame sprang up around the tip of Muré's finger.
Lurok was stupid, but he learned from his mistakes. Eventually. "Pah. Been too long since I hunted tunnel cat anyway."
Easy for him to say. He had his club. Jig's only weapon was a stolen kitchen knife with a wobbly blade.
He should try to escape. Muré didn't need him. If he ran fast enough, he might be able to hide in the lair. Jig was good at hiding. He could--
Cold, ghostly fingers seized the tip of his ear. The broken wand floated back into Jig's pouch. "Keep that safe, goblin. Do you understand?"
Jig nodded hard, too frightened to make a sound, save one pathetic gurgle from his stomach.
Jig and Lurok walked through the dusty goblin caverns and into the obsidian tunnels beyond without attracting a second glance. At first, Jig had been worried. What would the other goblins do if they saw Muré? But Muré was a ghost. She knew how to remain inconspicuous. She refused to return to her broken wand, afraid of being trapped again, but there were other places to hide.
"You could have at least asked first," Jig mumbled.
Do you think I like it in here? Her voice came from within Jig's ear. Apparently when he broke the wand, a bit of magic had lodged in his ear like a parasite. It reminded him of the time a group of older goblins had tried to drown him in Golaka's soup cauldron. A chunk of mushroom had gotten stuck in his ear for days. But at least the mushroom hadn't talked so much.
Firam was a lecherous old fool. He tried to seduce me, but I refused him This is his punishment for that slight. I should have known. I should have insisted on bringing one of the other masters along for the test. But I was young and trusting.
Jig snorted. In the goblin language, the word for "trusting" was a variant of the word for "dead."
"Quiet," snapped Lurok. "Hobgoblins up ahead. Two guards."
I always understood that hobgoblins were cousins to the goblins, practically the same species.
"You take that back," said Jig. "Hobgoblins are nothing like us. They're...well, they're bigger."
Lurok's fingers dug into Jig's throat, stopping the conversation. "Two of them and two of us. But we have the element of surprise."
Jig peeked around the tunnel bend. A lantern hung on the wall near the arched entrance to hobgoblin territory. Green light reflected from the obsidian walls. Only the floor was dull, where years of grime and dirt formed a clay-like layer over the volcanic glass.
"They have the element of really big swords," said Jig. "Couldn't we try to bribe them?" Hobgoblins thrived on their trade with goblins. Goblins provided food, firewood, beer, and a variety of other goods. In trade, the hobgoblins let the goblins live. Most of the time.
"I've fought hobgoblins before," said Lurok.
"Wasn't that the time you came back with a crossbow bolt sticking out of your--"
"Attack!" Lurok hurled Jig around the bend.
Jig promptly stepped on his own foot and fell. He watched Lurok's boots clomp by, heading toward the hobgoblins.
The hobgoblins drew curved swords as Lurok approached. They had longer arms, faster reflexes, and stronger muscles than most goblins. Their skin was a sickly yellow tinge, but that was normal for hobgoblins. Their black, heavily greased hair shone in the light. Neither one appeared worried.
One of the hobgoblins spotted Jig. He drew his sword and walked up the tunnel, while his partner prepared to face Lurok. Jig's only hope was that Lurok might somehow kill his opponent and stab the other hobgoblin in the back.
Lurok attacked. The other hobgoblin easily parried the blow, then punched Lurok square in the nose. Lurok staggered back, and his head cracked against the wall. He fell like a rock.
Why did it have to be goblins? Muré asked.
"Help me," Jig whispered.
"You're a wizard. Get out of my ear and do something wizardly!" Jig grabbed one piece of the wand and jammed it into his ear.
The hobgoblin hesitated. He probably thought Jig had gone mad with fright. Which wasn't entirely untrue.
Keep that cursed thing away from me!
Jig continued to poke and twist until Muré oozed out of his ear. "If you don't stop them, we'll never find Firam's staff."
"Very well," said Muré. Her hands began to pop and smoke. One of the hobgoblins took a step back.
"It's working!" Jig perked his ears, listening to make sure no hobgoblin reinforcements were on the way. "Hurry and finish them off before anyone hears."
This was wonderful! Muré would kill the hobgoblins, and Jig could check to see if they had any food. If not, well, magical fire meant well-done hobgoblin meat.
"Um...." Muré stared at her hands. "I'm trying."
Jig's stomach knotted. "What?"
She waved her hands, producing more sparks, but nothing else. "My wand is broken. I need all of my magic just to resist the pull of Firam's curse. There's nothing left for summoning mystic fire or bursting an enemy's heart." She raised her hands. "Entropic sparks are a side effect of--"
Jig had stopped listening. Fast as he could, he fled down the tunnel. He made it an entire four steps before a rock smacked into his shoulder. He fell again, and his fangs gouged his cheek.
"Got him," said one of the hobgoblins.
Jig rubbed his shoulder. "Touch them!"
"I beg your pardon?" said Muré.
The closest hobgoblins poked his sword through Muré. When nothing happened, he laughed and advanced on Jig.
"With your magic!"
Understanding dawned. Muré floated between the hobgoblins and brushed a sparking hand through one's greased hair. The ends began to burn.
The second hobgoblin appeared to be as slow as Lurok. Even after seeing how useless weapons were against Muré, he still tried to stab her in the gut.
His sword passed through the ghost and into the first hobgoblin's shoulder. Jig wiggled away, out of the reach of those swords.
"Let's go," said Muré, igniting the second hobgoblin's hair as she floated after Jig. "Firam's staff is this way. I can sense it."
Jig thought about fleeing, but he would have to get past the burning hobgoblins first, and Muré could set him on fire as easily as she had them. Cursing quietly, Jig grabbed Lurok's foot and dragged him deeper into the darkness. His mouth watered as the smell of cooked hobgoblin wafted through the tunnel.
Fortunately for Jig's aching back, Lurok soon began to stir. A simple head injury couldn't keep him down for long. Goblin skulls were sturdier than most, and Lurok's head was almost entirely bone. Jig dropped Lurok's foot and collapsed against the wall. Lurok was also heavy.
"Stupid hobgoblins," Lurok groaned. "Must have jumped me from behind."
"How much farther?" Jig asked.
"Not far," said Muré. She pointed to a narrow crack in the tunnel wall. "It was through there that Firam betrayed me, as I worked to complete my test."
"What was the test?"
"To collect six salamander bladders and the droppings of a fire spider. For a spell."
"Oh." Wizards were strange.
Lurok reached into a pocket and pulled out a chunk of dried snake meat. Jig's stomach gurgled.
"Want some?" Lurok asked.
Jig nodded, drool pooling beneath his tongue.
"Too bad. I need to keep up my strength. Could be tunnel cats through there." He popped the meat into his mouth.
Jig clutched his stomach as he peeked into the crack. Tunnel cats liked narrow, cramped spaces where their prey couldn't easily escape.
"If Firam betrayed you down there, how did your wand end up in our dinner?" Jig asked. The longer they talked, the longer it would be before he had to step into that crack.
Muré shook her head. "It's hard to know exactly what's happening when you're stuck in a wand. I remember falling and landing in something foul. It smelled a bit like your friend, actually."
"Hey!" said Lurok.
"As I lay there, desperately fighting to keep my soul from being sucked into my wand, I saw Firam tumble after me. One of those tunnel cats followed us down."
Lurok nodded. "They climb like spiders, and a single blow with their paw can tear a stripe of flesh as wide as your hand."
"The last thing I remember after my rather awful death was a worm, a horrid, segmented thing the size of my arm, creeping toward me."
"Carrion worm," Lurok said. "That's probably what ate your body."
"They'll take anything that isn't metal for their nest," Jig added. Like Muré's wand. Goblins would sometimes go scavenging in carrion worm nests, bringing back scraps of treasure from dead adventurers.
"Filthy things," Muré said. "They should be exterminated."
"They're hard to kill," said Jig. "Cut them in half, and you have two shorter carrion worms. They won't eat poison, either. You can burn them, but the stench--"
"Enough." Muré shivered. "Shall we move along before you two die of old age?"
"I'm still eating," Lurok said.
Muré clapped her hands, and her fingers began to glow again.
"I don't take orders from dead humans," Lurok shouted.
Jig cringed. "The hobgoblins will hear."
"Listen to the runt," said Muré. "The next time the hobgoblins trounce you, we might not bother to save your life."
"What do you mean, trounce me?" Lurok grabbed Jig's arm and hauled him close. Jig tensed, wondering if Lurok would use his club or simply smash Jig against the rock. Instead, Lurok grabbed the broken wand from Jig's pouch. "I've had enough of this. She's stuck to that stick, eh?"
Before Muré could stop him, he flung the pieces into the crack. Muré yelped and disappeared.
"That'll show her," Lurok said, stuffing another hunk of meat into his mouth.
Seconds later, the wand returned, the pieces streaking through the air like arrows. One stabbed Lurok's shoulder. The other buried itself in his thigh. Neither wound was deep, but Lurok still squealed.
"Try that again, and I'll send them into your eyes," Muré said. "Jig, retrieve my wand."
Hands shaking, Jig plucked the pieces from Lurok and tucked them away.
"Now we go," said Muré.
Jig stared into the blackness. "But--"
She slipped into his ear long enough to shout, Now!
Jig was up and walking before she finished reforming.
The stench grew steadily worse as they walked. The overwhelming scent was of rot and mold, but Jig could also smell sulfur, as well as a faint saltiness from one of the underground rivers far below. The light from Muré reflected off wrinkled layers of black rock as they crept deeper down the tunnel.
Jig kept one hand on his gut, trying to suppress the growling of his stomach. His other hand clutched the handle of his knife.
"There," said Muré. She slipped between the goblins to investigate a wide, jagged hole in the floor. Black flies buzzed about the opening.
Lurok slapped Jig on the shoulder, nearly knocking him into the pit. "You look jittery, Jig. You're not afraid, are you?"
Jig shook his head. Why should he be afraid? It was only a sheer drop into darkness and oblivion. He stepped around to the other side of the pit. Keeping his ears perked for danger -- and for Lurok -- he peeked over the edge.
A draft of warm, fetid air greeted him. Muré had led them to a hobgoblin garbage pit. As Muré dipped into the hole, her light revealed dozens of carrion worms crawling over old bones, spoiled meat, scraps of burnt wood, as well as fouler hobgoblin filth.
"I see him," Muré cried.
Jig cringed. "Not so loud!"
"He's farther down the pit. His staff is still clutched in his hands." She flew back out. "One of you will need to climb down and retrieve my staff. I'll instruct you in the steps to break the curse. Even a child could do it."
Jig frowned. "His body is still there? I thought--"
Fingers clamped Jig's ear. "You heard her, runt," said Lurok. "Time to crawl through the filth. And try to keep your gut quiet."
Jig forgot all about his hunger as the growling sound grew louder. "That wasn't me," he said, his voice barely more than a squeak. He turned to look down the tunnel. Yellow eyes glinted back at him. "Tunnel cat!"
Lurok's grabbed Jig's arm. Jig squirmed, but Lurok was too strong. The larger goblin flung him headfirst at the tunnel cat.
He landed in a heap on the floor. The tunnel cat crept closer. Jig drew his knife. He also had his fangs, a goblin's natural weapons.
Between its teeth and claws, the tunnel cat was much better armed. Its fur was black with splotches of brown. It smelled rusty, like old mildew. Long white whiskers haloed its face. Jig could smell blood and fresh meat on its breath.
"Lurok? Muré? Help?"
"Don't worry," said Lurok. "Once the cat starts eating you, I'll sneak up and bash its brains out. That will show him."
Jig pointed at Lurok. "He has more muscle. Wouldn't he make a better meal?"
One huge paw took a swing at Jig's arm, so fast he barely saw. Jig scrambled back, but the tunnel cat seemed distracted.
"This is ridiculous," Muré muttered. "With Firam's staff, I could annihilate this creature in an instant. Instead, I'm forced to rely on goblins."
The cat's head snapped up. Tufted ears swiveled toward Muré's voice. Jig could hear it sniffing the air.
"Keep talking," said Jig. "The cat can't see you."
"What should I say?"
Jig wanted to throw his knife at her, for all the good it would have done. "Anything!"
The cat continued to track Muré. It stepped away from Jig and batted at the air, one paw passing through the ghost's foot.
The cat danced back.
Lurok crept around the side of the pit, coming up behind the cat. He raised his club.
"No," Jig whispered. "It's scared of Muré. If we leave it alone, it might run--"
Lurok attacked. His club tore the tunnel-cat's ear. "Ha!"
The cat's return swipe knocked the club into the pit, and sent Lurok tumbling across the floor, practically into Jig. With a snarl, the cat turned toward Jig.
"I'm amazed any of you goblins survive long enough to reproduce," Muré said, floating toward Lurok's groaning body.
"No, don't lead it this way!" Jig yelled.
Jig's shout must have startled the cat. With a yowl that echoed through the tunnel, it turned to pounce.
Jig screamed and dropped to the floor, covering his head. One paw tore his shoulder, and then he heard claws scraping the rock. There was another yowl, much higher in pitch.
He opened his eyes to see the tunnel cat falling into the hobgoblin garbage pit. The snarling faded as the cat bounced against the wall, then disappeared into the pit. After a while, Jig heard a faint "sploosh," followed by a piteous yowl.
"Will it be back?"
Jig peeked over the edge. "I doubt it. Tunnel cats hate the garbage pits. They can't stand filth." He sat up and tried to stop shaking.
"Good," said Muré. "Then you can climb down and retrieve Firam's staff."
"Once you're free, you'll reward me?" Jig asked. "And then you'll go away?"
"Why would I stay in such a horrible place?"
Lurok groaned and asked, "Did I kill it?"
"No." Jig looked up at Muré. "How did Firam die?"
"I told you--"
"You told me a tunnel cat killed him. But a cat would have eaten the body."
"He fell into the pit," Muré snapped.
"Where the carrion worms would have eaten him. Worms eat anything. Unless it's been poisoned."
Muré's eyes narrowed as she stared at Jig. Without warning, she laughed. It wasn't a pleasant sound, and Jig scooted back.
Muré crossed her arms and began to pace, floating back and forth over the pit. "The blathering fool deserved what he got. He was keeping things from me. Holding me back in my lessons, refusing my advances."
"You poisoned him," Jig said. "When he realized, that's when he cursed you."
"You wouldn't understand," Muré whispered.
"Why not?" Jig rubbed his ear. He could hear her words echoing in his head. "I'm a goblin. We live by two rules. Never turn your back on an enemy, and never ever turn your back on a friend."
Muré stared. "I killed him. That...doesn't shock you?"
"Even goblin children know better than to let another goblin tamper with their food." Jig yanked Lurok's pouch from his waist, eliciting a pained groan from the larger goblin "But it makes me wonder why you'd bother to reward a lowly goblin, once you're free. More likely you'd test your newly restored powers on him."
Muré chuckled. "Perhaps you goblins aren't as stupid as you seem. What can I do to convince you? What is it you want, Jig?"
Jig pulled the broken pieces of wand from his own pouch and stared at them. He could feel Muré's power tugging them.
"I'm not helpless, Jig. I will reward you. I'll test my powers on your friend, and then I'll give you anything--"
"No thanks. Anything you gave me, the other goblins would only take away." Jig took one piece of Muré's wand in each hand and drove the broken ends into Lurok's backside.
"Damned runt," Lurok cried out, trying to turn over. "I'll kill you. Rip you apart. I'll--"
Jig shoved him headfirst into the pit.
"Jig, you fool!" Muré shouted. Then she too vanished. She might have been strong enough to control a few sticks, but she couldn't rip the broken wand from Lurok's body. As he fell, he dragged her down as if a rope bound them together.
Jig's ear popped as the remnants of Muré's magic went with her.
He rose and made his way back around the pit, keeping his ears perked for tunnel cats. He saw nothing but blackness. Muré had already fallen far out of sight.
"I'm not a fool," Jig whispered into the pit. He opened Lurok's pouch and stuffed a handful of snake meat into his mouth, savoring the taste of the dry, rubbery meat. "I'm a goblin."
- END -