Content warning: Discussion and consideration of suicide. Trauma.
Spoilers for the D&D module "The Sunless Citadel".
I was dead tired when we created characters for a short adventure. The DM asked for a name for my druid, and I replied, "Jolevius" (Joe-Levy-us) so that those of us with very little brain wouldn't have to try to remember which character was mine. In a battle we almost didn't survive, we killed most of the goblins in the fortress. The kobolds whom we had helped were able to retrieve their cherished dragon, which mouthed, "Help me" on its way by us.
Jolevius and Anogh stood in front of Yusdrayl, the kobold queen.
Anogh finished presenting the tale and its evidence. They knelt, a key resting upon their upturned palms. "The guardians of the dragon priest's tomb have been dispatched, and you may safely explore it. The answer to the riddle is 'stars,' and there is a secret passage to bypass the spiked pit, leading from the west wall of the south room. We hope that the opportunity to study the tomb and these relics pleases you."
Yusdrayl took the key in a slow, graceful motion. "We thank you once again for your service. What do you wish in return?"
Jolevius stepped forward. "I share your enthusiasm for dragonkind, and would humbly request a chance to study the beautiful dragon which you, in your wisdom, are keeping here. I would be honored to pay tribute to her." A glitter in the kobold queen's eye caused Jolevius to hurriedly retrieve an odd cloth doll from her pack. "This doll has no monetary value, but it is crafted in the style of the winterlands. It may bring comfort, joy, and docility to the heart of a white dragon."
Yusdrayl paused in apparent consideration. The two adventurers guessed that she did not want to appear eager, but had made her decision the moment that they had mentioned docility. "I will permit it. An exchange of insights will benefit us all." She pointed to one of her guards. "Accompany them to Calcryx. Stand by... To answer any questions they have." There was, perhaps, a hint: And to make sure they know you're watching.
"... And when you do shed scales, do they retain their original firmness indefinitely? What about their opacity?" Jolevius was on her third parchment of notes, while Anogh translated her questions into Draconic.
Calcryx played along, clearly confused and increasingly impatient. "They, um, get harder, but more brittle, I think..." The dragon trailed off.
The guard let his already glazed eyes wander. With a word and a gesture from Anogh, he stumbled back against the wall and slid to the ground.
Calcryx lifted her head. Her widened eyes darted back and forth between the door to her cage and the adventurers. Her tail swished eagerly, like that of a hunting cat.
Jolevius shook her head firmly. "No." She laid aside the parchment, opened her pack, and continued to speak, pausing between sentences to allow Anogh to translate.
"We are not releasing you." She slid the cloth doll into the cage. "This doll is stuffed with enough poisonous mushrooms to kill a dire bear. You have a choice. You can tear it open when nobody is looking, and suffer a painful end, but at least it's an end. Or you can keep the doll, and hang on to the knowledge that you can use it to escape any time you want. Let that knowledge make you strong. Once you embrace your mortality, nobody can truly hurt you. Harden yourself. Be clever. Become something that they cannot hold. Be patient, but do not pass up opportunities. Yusdrayl has a sense of honor; you can use that against her. Goodbye."
The light of hope in the dragon's eyes died. "I begged for your help. You, who were stronger than the goblins who were stronger than my captors. And all you offer is my death?" Calcryx waited for Anogh to translate, then hissed, "I have nothing left to lose. May your skin peel away, and may you trip on your viscera."
Jolevius held the small dragon's hateful gaze. "No. You will know when you have nothing left to lose. Only after that will you be free." She waited for Anogh to translate, then turned away, carefully packed her parchment and quill, and left without a backward glance.
Anogh gently shook the guard awake. "Hey, sorry that was so dull. I almost fell asleep with you. We're done here." Anogh glanced toward the dragon, but could not look it in the eye. They took a deep breath and a sigh, then followed their companion out.
During their short rest, Jolevius asked Andre to teach her some goblin: Not enough to understand the language; just a bunch of random phrases. "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." "Where is the latrine?" "We hired the man to feed us and all our family and friends." "I know who gave you your good looks." "The pen is on the table of my aunt." And so on. She studied, and jotted down further notes on the parchment.
Silent amid her companions' victorious chatter on the way out, Jolevius looked around the main battle site, then picked out a goblin scimitar as a memento.
Once the group had claimed their reward in Oakhurst, Jolevius went shopping. She returned to the Ol' Boar Inn with a small backpack and some more rope, rations, and other gear. "Gifts for my niece: She's an aspiring adventurer. My sister will not approve... Too bad."
Between the last few mouthfuls of their parting meal, she told her companions, "I enjoyed working with you. If you want to do it again sometime, find me in Blackford Crossing. I have stuff to do now." She took her leave.
At dusk two days later, a disheveled goblin woke in the woods. She could smell her own stink. Maybe today, it would be safe to return home. It didn't feel safe, but hunger encouraged her to risk it. She blinked her bleary eyes, and slowly made out a humanoid shape, sitting silently, watching her.
The lanky folks all looked the same, but there was no mistaking the clothes. The goblin noted her own lack of panic. Her captors, her interrogators — the killers — were three days later than they might have been. They had given her three extra nights of life: Three nights of grubbing for sustenance. Three mornings of thanking the roots and rocks and insects for impeding her sleep. For delaying, for a few minutes, the screams in her head.
The goblin rose. The tall one, still seated, tossed a backpack which landed at the goblin's feet. It rang with the jingle of coins, and the clank of solid equipment. The backpack was followed by a gently lobbed scimitar. The goblin picked it up, taking a curious second to register that it was her own weapon.
The tall one spoke in the goblin's own tongue. The accent was awful, but the grammar sufficed. "We killed all your friends and family." There was silence while the goblin internalized the confirmation of her fears. The tall one continued. "The man in Oakhurst who hired us is named Clyde S'Dail." It looked over the goblin, assessing her, deciding something. "My name is Jolevius of Blackford Crossing." Those words sounded choked, though the hard expression had not changed.
The tall one left swiftly, gliding through the forest as if the underbrush were deferently making way.
The goblin sniffed, scenting food in the backpack, but ignored her watering mouth. She shouldered the pack, swung her sword once, and hurried in the other direction.
She had almost made it. Clever planning is not a white dragon's forte, but she had tried her hardest, just like she had every time. It had been her last possible gambit. Two kobolds were dead, and one other would curse her name every time the weather changed.
Yusdrayl was most displeased. According to two guards who did not notice that Calcryx had awakened, the kobold queen had ordered that the dragon be cooked for the next night's feast.
Calcryx was now chained inside her cage. She almost wished that Meepo were still alive. She had no pity for him, but her new trainer was less doting, and much harder to fool. Her years of attempts had only made him more vigilant.
She felt no despair. Her final plan had failed. She would die, but that was no end. This existence could not be conceived of as living.
The druid had told her, "You will know when you have nothing left to lose. Only after that will you be free." Calcryx had memorized those words long before she had understood them. She had grown numb toward her sycophantic captors. Their behavior unrewarded, their servitude had faded into mere caretaking. She had since gone cold even toward herself. Now, she could look upon her raw wounds, and note impassively the pain that they caused. The throbbing aches could not move her. She felt as though she could amble through a bonfire if she were so inclined, pausing occasionally to savor the smell of her own charring flesh.
Calcryx looked over to her cloth doll. There was, after all, one gambit left. Not an escape to death, for that was coming either way. Rather, she conceived a way to make them pay. To make them all pay! At least, all the kobolds. The adventurers who had earned her wrath would never face it, but that was the least of life's cruelties.
She would eat the mushrooms when the kobolds came to get her. She would betray no hint of pain while the toxin suffused her. She would stay awake and alert until they killed her. Then, they would unknowingly consume her poisoned flesh. Nothing about this plan could be called "good," but it would do. At peace, Calcryx sliced the doll open in a single, careful swipe, spilling its contents onto the cage floor.
She scowled. Amid the hard, withered mushrooms sat a flask of oiled leather. Draconic calligraphy adorned both sides. After reading it once, and again to make sure, she understood how to reconstitute the powder inside to create an acid that could dissolve steel in a matter of minutes. She glanced at her water dish. There would be more than enough for a chain link and the cage's lock.
The dragon pondered. "You will know when you have nothing left to lose. Only after that will you be free." She froze as the second meaning of these words hit her.