Tale of the Fox

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This article contains information and lore exclusive to Hearthstone, and is considered non-canon.

Tale of the Fox is a story about the greatest adventure of Marin the Fox.

The story is told by Russell the Bard.

Characters

Major Supporting Mentioned

Text

Part 1

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“Tonight’s tale is about highest adventure and deadliest danger! It’s about heroes and villains, treacherous traps, hideous monsters, and—of course—treasure beyond imagination!”

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The Bard’s voice cut through the din of the tavern as he spoke. Players laid down their cards, diners set down their forks, and Harth Stonebrew leaned against the bar, grinning. All eyes were drawn to the man standing before the hearth. The usual raucous laughter and friendly banter came to a halt as a hush fell over the tavern. Soon, all that could be heard was the crackling of the fire, and the subtle, mesmerizing melody that emerged from the Bard’s instrument as he played.

“A group of seasoned adventurers once delved into catacombs deep, in search of the fabled axe, Woecleaver! These heroes trekked through miles of mineshafts and tunnels chipped into the rock by busy kobold hands. They endured hardship, overcame dozens of deadly traps, and laid low scores of vicious monsters . . . but in the end? They failed, and hired someone else to get it!”

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There were some wry chuckles from the audience, but the Bard was quick to speak over them, “This is the story of the man they hired. An adventurer’s adventurer, slicker than a greased murloc, and twice as slippery. A rogue, a thief, a treasure-hunting vagabond—and a hero! Of a sort. You may know him as Marin the Fox! And if you don’t? Well, by the end of my tale, you will!”

At the mention of Marin’s name, a chorus of cheers went up. A tale about Marin was always worth the listening.

“Let us set the stage. We join our hero deep in the catacombs. . . . “

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Marin stepped into a large, stalactite-studded chamber and found that the path ahead was slashed in half by a deep chasm. The roar of an underground river could be heard far below, and mist rose from the depths to add a ghostly cast to the clusters of glowing blue crystals that sprouted from the walls. Lava oozed from a boarded-up hole in the wall of the cavern, lending the cavern a ruddy glow and mingling a sulfurous stink with the sweeter scent of water. Marin idly wondered how the planks blocking the molten rock avoided burning to cinders, and considered his options.

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Fortunately, a bridge forded the river-carved rift ahead. Unfortunately, it was a knotted assemblage of fraying rope and weathered wooden boards hanging precariously over a dizzying drop. And there were no hand rails. Of course.

It didn’t look promising, but poison gas had flooded the only other route Marin was aware of, and backtracking would take hours. From the looks of the hastily-blocked lava tube, this path might not last much longer, either. The catacombs were like that—a little different every time you returned. And Marin returned often.

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While the lure of riches was always enough to provoke a dungeon run on its own, this one had a special purpose. An old friend had asked Marin for help retrieving the legendary axe, Woecleaver. He recalled Oakheart’s words from a few days ago. . . .

“The Guild needs that axe, and we just can’t find the blasted thing. Aye, we spent weeks searching the catacombs and turned up nothing but kobolds and more kobolds. Everyone knows you’re the best, Marin, and I need your help. So, what does ‘the’ Fox say?”

"The Fox says, ‘How much does it pay?’"

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Turns out it didn’t pay anything, but Oakheart had heard a rumor that Woecleaver was stashed with another treasure, one Marin had been after for some time—a large chest said to contain items of particular interest. Marin had agreed, and now here he was, faced with a marvel of kobold “engineering.”

The ropes groaned and the “bridge” danced drunkenly underfoot as Marin gingerly committed his weight to the splintering wood. The chasm yawned below, distressingly visible between the wide gaps in the planks, and a breeze whistled upward from the depths to tug him this way and that. With every nerve-wracking step, he tried his best to not imagine the bridge abruptly dropping out from beneath him.

As he neared the middle, a group of kobolds sprang from the tunnel entrance Marin was creeping toward. An ambush! Though, thankfully, not a very effective one—the kobolds revealed themselves too early and just stood around in plain sight. Still, there were several of them, and only one Marin, halfway across a decaying bridge that could give out at any moment. Not an ideal situation!

One of the kobolds was larger than the rest (which isn’t saying much), and this one sported a crown with an actual lantern in place of the typical kobold candle. The miniature monarch was rather more rotund than his fellows too—no doubt there were culinary benefits to being king.

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The crowned kobold said something to one of his followers, then prodded it forward onto the swaying bridge. The additional weight was enough to make the fraying ropes groan in a most alarming way. Marin gritted his teeth.

The small kobold wrung its paws, puffed up its chest, and spoke, “Y-you. You Adventurer. . . .”

Confronted by a fully-armed hero who was much larger up close, the kobold forgot its lines. At a loss, it fell back on the classics. “You no take candle!”, it squeaked, then scampered back to the safety of its fellows.

The crowned kobold rubbed a paw across his face in exasperation. “I be King Togwaggle!” he shouted, his voice echoing oddly in the cavernous space. “These is being MY tunnels! YOU be dropping treasures now!”

Marin arched an eyebrow. “There’s a snag in your plan, your Highness. You see, I don’t have any treasure yet. How about you let me by, and I’ll go get some. Then we can have a do-over on my way out?”

Several of the kobolds saw the wisdom in this suggestion and nodded happily, candle flames bobbing. Their king, however, was not so easily convinced. Togwaggle’s eyes glittered malevolently. “If you not be dropping, kobolds be taking!” he shrieked, fist raised, “BE SUMMONING THE GOLEM!”

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The audience gasped. Tavern chairs squeaked as patrons leaned forward, hanging onto the Bard’s every word. There was a long pause as the spell broke, and then someone asked, “Well?! What happened next?”

“Telling stories is thirsty work, friend. Think I’ll be taking a short break,” the Bard winked in reply. He dragged a large cauldron across the tavern floor. Scrawled across the black iron in white paint were four words: ‘HUZZAH FOR THE TIPPER’.

Part 2

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“When last we left Marin, our intrepid hero was in quite the predicament: stranded on a failing rope bridge over a deep chasm, with his only path forward blocked by unfriendly kobolds. To make matters worse, there were strange, new magics afoot!”

The Bard began to play a fast, tense melody on his lute, the strings singing of danger. “The Kobold King demanded a golem, and his minions obeyed. Huge, yellowed candles on their heads dripped melted wax and they began to chant. . . .”

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King Togwaggle grinned in wicked satisfaction as his waxmancers cast their spell. Hot wax ran in streams from the candles they wore atop their heads, but the candles did not shrink. Instead, seemingly endless runnels of wax wormed their way to pool together unnaturally. Marin watched with mounting concern as the wax flowed together into a humanoid shape a full head taller than himself. Finally, the suggestion of a face appeared, with lit candlewicks for eyes. Burning eyes fixed on Marin, the golem took a step onto the bridge.

“A candle golem. Of course. I don’t know what else I was expecting from kobolds.” Marin muttered.

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Togwaggle cackled in delight. “You no take this candle, stupid adventurer!”

The old ropes creaked like a rusty hinge as the bridge sagged under the golem’s weight, and Marin was convinced he heard something snap. He backed away as the golem advanced. He’d never imagined that the simple-minded kobolds had been cooking up spells like this! But he had no time to ruminate on kobold ingenuity; he needed to deal with the golem quickly—the bridge creaked and juddered with every step the waxy monstrosity took.

Marin drew his sword as the golem lurched toward him, slashing experimentally when it came into range. His blade passed through the warm wax of its body with little effort, but the wounds left by his blade closed almost as soon as he made them. The kobolds let loose a ragged cheer.

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The hulking wax golem reached out to grab Marin with its blocky hands. Marin dodged easily—the golem was clumsy and slow. But it was relentless. Marin cut it a dozen times, but the golem kept coming, its candle-flame eyes glowing brightly in the gloom.

It had eyes! That gave Marin an idea. He waited a breath, and let the golem get close. As it swung its arms out to grab him, Marin ducked into the golem’s embrace. At the other end of the bridge, the kobolds whooped and hollered, thinking that the foolish adventurer had made a fatal mistake.

If the golem was capable of expecting anything at all, it wasn’t expecting that. It overreached, its massive arms passing harmlessly to either side of the adventurer. This close to the thing, Marin could feel its unnatural warmth, and the smell of burning candle wax was overpowering. Before it could close its arms around him, Marin took a deep breath and blew. The candle flames in the golem’s eye sockets guttered out, releasing thin tendrils of smoke. It reared back in surprise, blinded and its prize forgotten—just as Marin had hoped. The kobolds groaned in disappointment.

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Marin took advantage of its distraction to sheathe his sword and slip over the edge of the bridge. His stomach lurched as he swung down and dangled from one of the fraying ropes, the depthless chasm seemed to reach up and grasp at his boots. He swallowed and worked his way past the groping, flailing golem, careful not to get his fingers stomped as he edged past. He forced himself to give it a wide berth before levering himself back up onto the tortured span with a sigh of relief. He wasn’t far from the kobolds now. As he stood to face them, he drew and leveled his sword at the creatures. Time to say something dramatic and intimidating!

"Huh. . . . Do you hear that?"

Marin felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. He faintly heard an unnerving, dissonant babbling, as if from many mouths, echoing from the tunnel behind the kobolds. The kobolds exchanged expressions of horror. In all the excitement of cheering for their wax champion, they’d neglected to listen for other dangers. “Feral gibberers!” King Togwaggle gasped, fleeing to the bridge and leaving his subjects behind without a second thought.

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The kobolds scrambled after their king, pushing past the adventurer onto the bridge in a mad dash to escape whatever was coming. The other end of the bridge was still blocked by the blinded golem, so they huddled behind Marin for protection, evidently forgetting their previous conflict in the face of a greater threat.

Marin rolled his eyes, working to keep his balance as the kobolds jostled him. “Are you serious? This isn’t going to work, you candle-tipped nitwits! The bridge can’t hold us all!”

The bridge agreed. It had bravely withstood the weight of a full-grown man and an overgrown candle monster. It had even put up with Marin’s gymnastic antics. But the weight of a party of quaking kobolds plus a golem and a hero was simply too much. The ropes released a long, crackling groan.

“Hold on!” Marin screamed. He dropped his sword and scrabbled for something to grab onto, but he was too late. The ropes beneath the golem gave way, cracking like a giant whip, and they all—adventurer, kobolds, and golem—plummeted into the murky blue glow of the chasm.

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“They’re not dead.” The Bard told the wide-eyed audience. “Some of you look very concerned. I just wanted you to know that they live through this. The river isn’t as far down as it seems, and it runs deep.” The Bard chuckled, “Who kills the hero halfway through the story?”

He propped a boot on his black iron tip cauldron. “Now, that doesn’t mean all is well and good. Not at all. Things are about to get interesting.” The Bard smiled mysteriously. “I’ll just rest my voice a bit—I’m a little parched—and then you’ll find out what I mean.”

Part 3

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The Bard plucked at his lute, playing notes that conjured an eerie foreboding from its strings. Delighted that the tale teller’s break was at an end, the tavern’s denizens gave him their rapt attention as music filled the air.

“Now, as I was saying, the misty depths of the chasm disguised how far down the river was. Quite a drop, no doubt, but not lethal. Marin was flung into that chilly tumult, tumbled and tossed, soaked to the bone. He caught a breath whenever the river would allow as it sped him through tunnel and chamber, ever downward—as all rivers run—deeper into the catacombs. The river spent its strength and grew sluggish and shallow enough for our hero to drag himself ashore. . . .”

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The tumultuous trip downriver had been quite a ride, so Marin allowed himself some time to cough up a few buckets of water and catch his breath. He assessed the damage (wounded pride, some bumps and bruises), then got his bearings.

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The river had deposited him on the edge of a cavern blooming with huge, glowing blue and purple mushrooms, and the air was thick with the rich, slightly acrid scent of them. He’d heard of such places—groves of glowing fungi with strange properties scattered throughout the catacombs—but he hadn’t had much occasion to explore them. The feared Fungal Lord Ixlid was rumored to frequent such places, which Marin felt was an excellent reason to avoid them.

As he crept among the oversized fungi, one of the mushrooms uprooted itself and toddled in Marin’s direction. It was almost cute, but Marin hadn’t remained in one piece all these years by trusting appearances. He kept his distance and tried to shoo it away.

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“Surely you have better things to do? Vital mushroom business, perhaps? Over in that direction?” Marin said, hoping to dissuade the odd, squat creature’s approach.

The mushroom creature looked up at him as he spoke, and tipped its head to the side quizzically. It paused for a heartbeat, then it let loose a deafening, skull-piercing, shriek. The sound hit Marin like a physical force, and he stumbled away from it, wincing and clutching his ears.

Such a cacophony was sure to summon unwanted attention! Plugging his ears, Marin fled from the noise into a nearby tunnel, pursued by its shrill echoes.

As he put more distance between himself and the creature, the noise finally faded. Eventually, whole minutes passed in blessed silence. Marin allowed himself to breathe, thinking that perhaps he’d gotten lucky, and that the abominable shrieking somehow hadn’t attracted any passersby after all.

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"Avast, ye tunnel lubber!" came a call from the tunnel behind him.

He was wrong.

Whenever Marin entered the catacombs, he expected to be surprised. Even so, the place still managed to catch him off guard from time to time. A kobold swaggered down the corridor toward him, waving a cutlass and dressed head to toe in the regalia of a ship’s captain. One of his hands had been replaced with the head of a mining pick. His captain’s hat bore a candelabra’s worth of lit candles, and more were woven into his whiskery beard, wicks burning.

Marin crouched into a fighting stance as the outrageously dressed newcomer and a motley assortment of equally eccentric followers approached. The kobold gave Marin a once-over with a delighted expression on his ratty face and sheathed his cutlass. “Well snicker me whiskers! Ye be a fellow pirate!”

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Marin didn’t understand it. For some reason, strangers mistook him for a pirate all the time, despite the fact that he’d never set foot on a boat larger than a canoe in his entire life. Still, there could be an advantage in playing along. The kobold would surely know the area, and Marin might get an opportunity to “replace” some of the useful tools he’d lost to the river.

“Yes. Uh. . . aye. I’m definitely a pirate. Starboard! Yo ho, poop deck, rum, and so forth!”

The kobold narrowed his eyes and nodded, as if considering the wisdom of Marin’s words, then broke into a gap-toothed grin. “I be Captain Candlebeard. Welcome to the crew!”

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Candlebeard gestured expansively with his pick-hand to the ragtag assortment of outlandishly-dressed kobolds that filed up behind him. None of them looked the least bit like a pirate, but that didn’t seem to bother Candlebeard.

“Back to the ship, ye scallywags! Mind the violet wurm burrows to the larboard side!”

The crew of “pirates” marched their way from fungal forest through a procession of corridors, the natural stone tunnels they traveled eventually giving way to timber-supported mine shafts. Candlebeard happily spouted nautical nonsense at Marin all the while, and it was obvious that Candlebeard knew even less about real piracy than Marin did, which left Marin wondering how the kobold had adopted the pirate persona to begin with. The answer soon became clear.

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They emerged into a mined-out cavern—it was like a hub, with several smaller tunnels gaping in its walls. The space was dominated by the imposing bulk of a derelict pirate ship, resting at an angle against the cavern wall. Clusters of burning candles cast flickering light from its railings and masts, and the windows of the captain’s quarters glowed fitfully from within. Its ghostly tattered sails and a moth eaten black flag (painted with a candle and crossed bones, naturally) stirred in a steady draft. Marin couldn’t begin to guess how the ship had become interred here, deep underground and miles from the ocean.

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Candlebeard led them aboard and into the captain’s quarters. Very little of its former grandeur remained and there wasn’t much furniture: a captain’s table with a throne-like captain’s chair, and a weathered treasure chest. A map pinned to the wall caught Marin’s eye. There was a large dragon drawn on it, and Marin had seen a similar map before. He suspected that it charted a path to the lair of Vustrasz the Ancient, the most powerful and cantankerous dragon in the catacombs, famed for both his temper and his treasure hoard.

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Candlebeard thrust his cutlass at the image of the dragon in the center of the map.

“Ye joined the crew just in time!” Candlebeard announced with a manic gleam in his eye. “We’re going to pillage a dragon treasure!”

“. . . .And we need bait!”

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“Alas, poor Marin, always going from the cauldron straight into the flame.” The Bard lamented. “And when it comes to Vustrasz the Ancient, I mean flame quite literally. But don’t you worry, Marin is a sharp one, and we’ll soon find out how he handles Captain Candlebeard!” The patrons cheered, thumping their tankards on tables and stomping the floorboards.

The Bard peered into his tip cauldron and appeared a little crestfallen. “But not that soon. Time for a break!”

Part 4

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The Bard began by playfully plucking out a sea shanty on his lute. “Marin had, quite by accident, joined the crew of a mad kobold captain who intended to relieve an ancient and unusually angry dragon of its treasure.”

He chuckled, and the music picked up in tempo. Every patron in the tavern felt their heart swell, and they stomped and clapped in time with the music. The Bard’s fingers danced on the strings, and he sang a song of flashing blades and swashbuckling heroics.

“But while the avarice of the candle-covered captain spoke to Marin’s soul, his role for Marin in the caper was not to our hero’s fancy. The only answer? MUTINY!”

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Bait? Marin didn’t much like the sound of that. The time for playing the part of dutiful crew member was at an end. Quick as a scorpid’s sting, Marin grabbed the hilt of Candlebeard’s cutlass with one hand, then delivered a ringing right cross with the other as he pulled the blade from its scabbard.

Candlebeard staggered, clutching his snout in pain and groping for a cutlass that was no longer there. Finding that he’d been disarmed, the kobold pirate tried to flee, but Marin was far too quick. He flipped deftly over the kobold’s head and intercepted him with the point of the blade. Candlebeard raised his paws in surrender “Well, I’ll be scuppered.”

Marin swept his newfound blade into an elaborate duelist’s salute and addressed the “crew”. “Listen well, you piratical candle-heads! This is a mutiny!”

“I’m in charge, now!” He leveled his blade at Candlebeard. “Throw this one in the brig!” The crew milled around anxiously, adapting slowly to the sudden change in leadership.

“WELL? GET TO IT, YE BILGERATS!” Marin howled. The crew jumped and rushed to obey, bundling Candlebeard out of the room as he heaped an impressive array of curses on them.

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Marin grinned and began looting the room. He didn’t intend to stick around while his orders were carried out. His stint as a pirate only had to last long enough to snatch the map and whatever other loot he could find among Candlebeard’s belongings.

Moments later, Marin left the pirate ship behind, new cutlass tucked into his belt, map in hand, and a glowing satchel he’d found hanging over his shoulder—something about it made him suspect it was larger on the inside than it was on the outside.

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He picked a direction, rolled up the map, and started moving. He stuffed the map in the satchel, but felt an obstruction. Odd—it appeared empty when he’d liberated it. Rifling inside, he gathered up a fistful of soft fabric and. . . his hand disappeared! An invisibility cloak! A delightful surprise, and an even greater treasure than the satchel! Gleefully, he swept the cloak around his shoulders, flipped up the hood, and faded from view.

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As he traveled and the terrain changed from natural caverns to finely worked white stone corridors, Marin reflected that the catacombs had a kind of geography to them, with perils to match. The troggs had established a kingdom here, a tangled lair of giant roots full of furbolgs grew there. Delve deep enough and you might even find a dragon. Speaking of which, after some twists, turns, and a few secret passages, he’d finally arrived at the glowing portal that should take him to his destination. Marin steeled himself and stepped into the light.

His stomach did somersaults as he passed though the portal. He emerged in a realm of giants. . . . if the giants had picked up and moved on eons ago, but forgot to turn off the lights.

Enormous white pillars lined a hall so large it could swallow a small castle with room to spare. Ornate geometric bas-reliefs crafted from an unfamiliar metal adorned the walls, and some of the elaborate stonework glowed mysteriously from within. There were alcoves, some containing figures that could be guardian statues, while others housed luminous figures that looked like constellations.

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Marin noted a tension in the air, like an approaching thunderstorm brewing, and the hairs on forearms stood up. He felt like a mouse creeping through an abandoned manor, hunted by an unseen cat. Marin shuddered. Given the choice, he always preferred to be the cat.

It made sense that Vustrasz had made his lair in the former abode of Titans, though. This was one of the few places in the catacombs with space to spare for a venerable red dragon. The lair wasn’t far, according to the map. Marin just needed to climb a device that appeared to be an animated model of the celestial spheres, and clamber through a window. . . .

The peaked window looked out over a vast chamber—even larger than the hall he’d just left—and Marin found himself dazzled by reflected, golden light. The chamber was piled high with gold coins, sparkling gems the size of his head, ornate arms, armor, and countless other precious treasures. Marin blinked, dazed both by greed and the lustrous beauty of it all. He picked up a necklace with an enormous ruby pendant, admiring the way the gem caught the light before putting it on. This was the very shining stuff every dungeon delver’s dreams were made of!

He fought the impulse to take a running leap into a pile of coins. For one, he knew from experience that swimming in coins was rather painful. But also, Vustrasz the Ancient, known for his fiery breath and equally fiery temper, was slumbering peacefully on a pile of riches in the center of the chamber.

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Marin was also disappointed to note that Vustrasz was not the hoard’s sole occupant. King Togwaggle was overseeing a swarm of kobolds, who were quietly affixing ropes to a monolithic treasure chest. Rotten luck that the bloated little monarch had survived, let alone shown up to steal from the very same hoard Marin was trying to rob.

And yet, the Kobold King’s presence might provide a useful distraction. . . .

Enjoying the benefit of invisibility, Marin spoke confidently, “Hey Togwaggle. I found that treasure you were looking for.”

Togwaggle gasped and peered about. Recognition blossomed on his face. “Stupid adventurer!” he hissed. “You is being too loud, be waking dragon and killing us all!”

“Us? I doubt it. You and your lot? Seems likely!” Marin strolled closer to the dragon’s head and raised his voice to a shout. “Ancient Vustrasz! I am your humble and virtuous servant, Marin the Fox! Wake and heed my warning!”

The huge dragon stirred, shifting on his bed of coins. The kobolds began desperately heaving at the ropes. Togwaggle wailed, “Human is crazy! Be getting treasure and be going, fools!”

The dragon stirred, but did not awaken.

Marin tried a different tack. He flipped the hood of the cloak back, rendering himself visible, and thumped on the dragon’s snout. “Hello? Vustrasz! Thieves! There are thieves in your treasure hoard!”

The dragon’s great golden eye snapped open. Marin had heard that red dragons were wise, and among the least likely to roast humans on sight. Nonetheless, he was painfully aware of his proximity to a set of jaws that could snap him up in a single bite. The dragon’s huge pupil contracted and fixed on Marin, who smiled and pointed helpfully in the direction of the kobolds.

The dragon heaved himself to his feet, sending gems and coins flying while Marin took cover.

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“Thieves! Wretched looters!” the dragon roared. “You will pay for your greed!” The kobolds scattered in terror. The dragon bounded to the chest, clasping it in his claws, and loosed a torrent of flame at the fleeing kobolds.

“Yes, that will do nicely,” Marin thought. He hummed happily, to an accompaniment of shrieks, roars, and flame. He strolled the vast hoard, dropping choice pieces of loot into his satchel, which, it turned out, was in fact bigger on the inside! He was about to make his getaway when he spotted something that stole the breath from his lungs: the unmistakable form of Woecleaver, peeking out of a tall mound of gold coins! He couldn’t believe his luck!

It wouldn’t take the dragon long to finish off the kobolds, but this was a risk worth taking. He had to go for the axe! But hiking through a mountain of treasure is harder than you’d think. Mere steps before reaching his destination, Marin heard the whoosh of vast wings and an enormous red-scaled bulk filled his vision. Vustrasz had landed—right between him and the axe.

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“Thank you for your timely warning, little man,” the dragon’s voice boomed. He craned his great head down to look Marin in the eye. “You are unusually honorable for one of your kind. Why, you’ve barely stolen anything at all.”

Marin stood dead still as a drop of sweat trickled down his brow. The dragon was toying with him.

“Oh? What is this?” Vustrasz reached out and plucked the satchel from Marin’s shoulder. He dangled the bag between two huge claws with surprising delicacy and shook it. It jingled. The dragon cut a slit into it with the flick of a claw. They both watched an improbably long stream of coins, gems, and other treasures pour out of the bag.

“I’ll just be going, then?” Marin squeaked.

“I think you should.” the dragon rumbled, and began to take a deep breath.

Marin flipped up his hood and popped out of sight, his disappearance catching Vustrasz by surprise. The dragon missed, and blasted the spot Marin had just occupied with a jet of flame.

“Show yourself, wretched thief!”

Marin did not show himself. Instead, as he ran, he snatched up a shield, tossed it face down onto the coins, and leapt on top of it. As if he were sledding on snow, he rode the shield down the sloping mound of treasure.

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The shield betrayed Marin’s location though, and he heard a deafening roar as Vustrasz let loose another great gout of dragonfire. With miraculous timing, Marin clutched the corners of his cape and spread it like a sail to catch the blast wave as it arrived. Even so, the force of it nearly knocked Marin off of his feet. He fought desperately to keep the shield beneath him as the wave of searing air propelled him ahead of the flames with incredible speed.

With a combination of skill and luck, Marin guided his shield clear across the hoard and through an open doorway—one blessedly too small for the dragon. He shot out of the opening like a cork from a bottle, riding the skidding shield across the smooth stone floor. When his makeshift conveyance lost momentum, he leapt off and ran till he was out of breath. Then he ran some more. Then he crawled for a while, and hid. Once he was sure that the dragon wasn’t in pursuit, he allowed himself to stop and marvel at his luck. He was singed and largely loot-free, but still alive. After running up against a dragon? That was a good day.

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He hadn’t been entirely successful in his mission, but Marin consoled himself with the fact that this wasn’t the end of the adventure. Quite the contrary—it was just the beginning! Time to head back to the tavern to gather Oakheart and the rest of the guild. The kobolds, the catacombs, and that glorious, glorious treasure would be waiting.

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The Bard took a deep bow as the tavern erupted into hearty cheers. He basked in the appreciation, but soon enough, it was back to business as usual: card games resumed, drink orders were placed, and friendly laughter could be heard all around.

Satisfied, the Bard packed his instrument in its worn leather case. It was good to see happy people, and he loved to spin a yarn here. The crowd was always warm and the brew was crisp and cold. Now to count the night’s take!

He peered into the cauldron and, for the first time ever in his career as a troubadour, was struck speechless. He reached inside, and from among the gold, silver, and copper, retrieved a golden necklace with an enormous ruby pendant. His eyes darted over the bustling tavern crowd, but of course, there were no clues as to who left the jewel. The Bard began to chuckle.

Then he laughed. He laughed long and loud.

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