MonkeyTales – Episode 6 – “The Littlest Bugbear”
by D.J. Sylvis
Listen to the Episode Here
The Littlest Bugbear lived in a side corridor far from the heart of the dungeon, with his Mother and Father and 1d8 siblings. The dungeon lay beneath the ruins of a castle he’d never seen; in fact, he’d spent his entire lifetime living and eating and sleeping in a pile with his family in the same stony vestibule. Every day, he watched lichen grow on the walls (the same lichen that made up their breakfast, lunch, and dinner); every night he took the worst shift guarding the family’s meager pile of treasure.
(I should pause here to mention, Dear Readers, that a Bugbear is neither a bug nor a bear. It is a creature not unlike a goblin, but hairier; or perhaps a slightly smaller Bigfoot who has learned to use weapons and wear clothes. And of course, the Littlest Bugbear looked like a much smaller Bigfoot – designed, perhaps, for a knee-high forest.)
Guarding the treasure, their Father explained many times, is the most important thing in a bugbear’s life. It gives them purpose. Each night when the Littlest Bugbear was shaken from sleep by a bigger sibling, he yawned himself awake and watched over the pile of copper coins and battered weapons with a sense of pride and familial duty. (He kept closest watch on a dagger at the center of the pile; the family was certain it was a Plus and had special abilities.)
Sometimes, while he sat there in the middle of the night, he would hear voices coming from far away in the dungeon, almost inaudible beyond his family’s snores and wheezes. He was certain that Adventurers were passing nearby. He didn’t dare wake his family – they never believed in the voices – but he huddled closer to the treasure, as if somehow its allure would protect him.
One night, the Littlest Bugbear woke up far later than he was used to – and not to the usual taunts from his sibs, but to the sounds of a struggle! He sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes, and looked around. His whole family was locked in battle with a group of beings stranger than any he’d seen before. They wore metal and cloth all over their bodies, instead of relying on their homegrown protection, and they flashed bright, savage-looking swords that were much different from the tarnished ones in the family treasure pile. When they charged, they shouted in strange, unknown languages.
In a terrifying flash, he realized they must be the Adventurers he’d heard before. Creatures closer to the main pathways of the dungeon spoke of them often, but his family refused to believe they could actually exist. “It’s nothing but a tale to frighten little monsters like you,” his Father lectured any time the subject came up. “Just keep your eyes on the treasure.”
At this moment, the Littlest Bugbear couldn’t see the treasure or anything else in the room – his eyes were squeezed shut in horrified disbelief, and he crawled blindly in the opposite direction from the sounds until he found a corner and huddled, crouched in the shadows. After a moment, he thought he heard a voice inside his head:
Performing a Stealth check … creature Hides successfully.
The words didn’t make any sense, but he thought he knew what he’d heard. Other creatures spoke in hushed tones of hearing the dungeon’s Master, spectral, somewhat nasal, disembodied voice that could be heard in times of particularly crucial choices. Sometimes, they even heard a clacking noise, as if the Master were rolling bones to predict the future.
The voice faded away, and after a while the rest of the noises did as well. When the Littlest Bugbear could stand to open his eyes, the room was empty, and the outside corridor was clear as far as he could see: the surest sign that his family had been killed in the struggle. When a creature of the dungeon died, their body disappeared as if by magic, leaving only their treasure behind. It was said some creatures came back, but he’d never known this to be the case.
Of course, here the treasure was gone as well – in the hands of Adventurers, the Littlest Bugbear was certain. He sat for a while on the cold, bare floor, sobbing pitifully, repeating his father’s words, “Keep your eyes on the treasure,” until his eyes finally dried.
And now his Father was gone, and the treasure, and the Littlest Bugbear’s whole family as well. He almost fell to sobbing again, but the oft-repeated words stayed him – “Just keep your mind on the treasure.” He stood up, and as he did something fell from his hand to clatter across the floor.
When he stood up, unsure what to do next, something fell from his hand to clatter across the room. The Littlest Bugbear looked down. It was the Plus dagger, the best part of the family’s treasure pile; he must have picked it up without noticing while he crawled for safety. He looked at it for a moment, then strapped it to his side securely, making a decision.
He gathered up a few scraps of cloth and a discarded torch, then scraped some lichen from the walls into a pouch. Stepping out, he looked down the hallway to the darkness at the end. He’d never really wondered what lay beyond his home, and he wished he could avoid the thought this time. But somewhere down that passageway lay his family’s treasure, and that was everything left in his world.
The first few steps were the hardest. At the end of the hallway, the Littlest Bugbear found another corridor that looked just like his own; but it wasn’t his own. He could follow it either way, left or right. How could he make that decision without some sort of map, or instructions to consult? He paused for longer than he should, thinking perhaps the voice of the Master might provide guidance, but that did not happen.
After he’d stood a while, unsure, he saw a figure approaching from the far shadows. The Littlest Bugbear placed his hand on the hilt of his dagger, but didn’t move. As it came closer, the other creature was recognizable as a kobold – the kobolds ran things in the dungeon, and every so often they had come by the family’s chamber with a rule or regulation to proclaim, all in the name of The Dragon. Where most other creatures of the dungeon swore their fealty to the unseen Master, the kobolds served only the Dragon, and as there were so many of them, they tended to swing the balance in any confrontation. If you argued with one kobold, you quickly found that you faced a dozen of them.
The kobold seemed in a hurry, but he stopped when he saw the Littlest Bugbear. A sneer spread across his reptilian face. “What is this?” he hissed as insultingly as possible. “Did your mother mate with a halfling, Short Stuff?” A rapier hung from his belt, the razor-sharp tip dangling a few inches from his scaly calf.
The Littlest Bugbear stared. He let his hand fall from the dagger before the kobold could mistake it for a threat.
“Is your mouth too small to force words out?” The kobold leaned down, his sword swaying back and forth. “What are you doing here, runt?”
He was the cruelest confidant the Littlest Bugbear could have found; but the poor creature could hold his misfortune inside no longer. With a powerful sniff each time that mucus threatened to seep into his face-fur, he told his entire story – indeed, his whole life’s story up to that point.
When he had finished and stood dabbing with his knuckles at the corners of his eyes, the kobold straightened up. “Adventurers. That’s a sad story, Half-Dram,” he sneered. “One you’d have known sooner if your family weren’t so well hidden.”
His hand found the hilt of his sword, and he licked at his teeth with a thin, blood-red tongue. “Here’s a sadder one. If I catch you outside your hallway again, I’ll finish what they started. The Dragon has decreed that all should stay in their place, far from the center of the dungeon. No more wandering monsters.”
He grinned wickedly. “Your treasure will wind up with the Dragon, I promise you. As will the bodies of those who carry it.”
Far off in the distance, there was a sudden, strangled cry, followed by an echoing, serpentine hiss. The kobold started to run in that direction, shouting over his shoulder, “You remember what I said!”
The Littlest Bugbear watched until only the gleam of his blade was visible, then until he had fully disappeared. Then, he turned and looked back the way he’d come for as long a time or longer. Absently, he slid the dagger back and forth in its sheath while he thought, not noticing the quickly-fading gleam that surrounded the blade as he withdrew it.
He turned again. Trusting that the kobold was gone for good, he stepped hesitantly out into the corridor. He turned in the same direction that the creature had run, knowing it must be toward the center of the dungeon, and the Dragon, and the final destination of his treasure.
He continued in a straight line for as long as he could; but eventually he came to a branching and had to choose left or right, and then another, and then a third where he had to choose left, right or middle. That passageway led him through quite a few twists and turns until the Littlest Bugbear felt hopelessly lost. He wasn’t certain if he could even retrace his steps, but he was about to try when he heard a wet, slithering sound behind him, not anything like the footfalls of any creature he’d ever known. Immediately, he stopped worrying about the direction in which he was headed, and began to walk forward more quickly.
The sound came closer, and the Littlest Bugbear broke into a run. He saw a shadow in the wall, and dived for it, hoping it would be a door. It was only an alcove, but he pressed himself against the back wall, praying that the Master would allow him to Hide successfully again this time.
The slithering, slippery sound came closer, and closer. The Littlest Bugbear first saw a wavering, translucent shadow across the floor. He barely had time to wonder what sort of creature could cast such a thing before it slid into view.
It was a giant cube of a beast, shimmering slightly in the faint light of the dungeon, and jiggling as if it were made of jelly. It filled the corridor completely from side to side and top to bottom; there would have been no getting around it, had the Littlest Bugbear not found the alcove. The beast could mostly be seen through, revealing everything it had picked up in its journey. Bones, bits of the cavern floor, scraps of parchment and cloth, coins, a few small jewels …
The Littlest Bugbear leaned forward as the monster passed. There was no doubt, the beast was carrying treasure. Not his family’s treasure, but it had to be a sign. After the jellied cube-thing was safely far enough away, the Littlest Bugbear slipped out of his hiding place. He followed the trail of slime with a renewed sense of purpose.
The deeper the Littlest Bugbear traveled into the dungeon, the more difficult it was to keep from being seen. It seemed like the most dangerous creatures had clustered near the center, and it became almost impossible to avoid an encountering all of them. His size did work to his advantage, and he fled successfully into corners and behind doors, until at one near escape he slipped into a room to discover it was already occupied.
He didn’t need to wonder what the creature in the room might be; every thing in the Dungeon knew of the Beholder. It sat balancing in mid-air, watching him with every eye, the huge one in the center of its body and the dozen or so smaller, each supported on a stalk of malodorous flesh. Rumour was that each had a different magical power: that they could put creatures to sleep with a glance, turn them to stone, cause death with a glare … even hypnotize others into doing their will. Their rumoured powers were limitless.
It seemed foolish for the Littlest Bugbear to try to run, or hide. He waited to see what his fate would become. For what seemed like an eternity, the Beholder floated, watching. The Littlest Bugbear stood wide-eyed, his heart racing, unwilling to tear his gaze from the Beholder for even a moment lest it should decide that was the time to strike. He tried to make himself move a finger, or a toe, just as a test; but he was far too frightened of being turned to stone or frozen solid to venture moving.
The tension built in the room as time passed, neither of them moving a muscle, neither one looking away. Finally, just when the Littlest Bugbear thought he would scream or cry or jump out of his skin, the Beholder did something completely unexpected:
It blinked. In a ripple of lids losing a hard-fought battle, every eye blinked, and at that all the fight seemed to go out of the creature. Its many tendrils drooped sadly to the floor.
Now averting all its eyes, the beast indicated a smaller door to the side. The Littlest Bugbear passed, feeling oddly sorry for the Beholder, but not really knowing why.
As the Littlest Bugbear closed in on the center of the dungeon, his excitement overcame his fear. He could hear the unmistakable sound of the dragon’s bellow, could see the reflected light of each burst of flame – and something about them made him feel bold as an Adventurer. He ran toward the end of the corridor, just about to draw his dagger and charge –
That was when the kobold hit him from behind. They crashed to the stone floor, a ball of hissing, cursing fur and scales that rolled from wall to wall.
The kobold was bigger, and stronger, and they both knew he should win; but instead of curling into a ball and begging for mercy, the Littlest Bugbear put up a fight. He twisted in the kobold’s grip, kicking against the reptilian arms until he broke free and rolling to his feet, where he growled and bared teeth that were sharp, if not terribly long.
The kobold rose to his feet as well with a strange, hissing laugh. “So the cub has learned to fight? That won’t keep me from my promise.” His saber sang as he slid it from his belt. He pointed the tip directly at the Littlest Bugbear’s heart, leaning slowly forward, the razor point almost brushing against the dusky-brown fur.
“To be a challenge, I’d need at least two more stacked on top of you. But come on, pull your little dagger, that’ll be more fun. I don’t want it over too quickly.” He lunged, slapping the flat of the blade against the Littlest Bugbear’s forearm. “Maybe you’ll get lucky.” He laughed again, his tongue protruding slightly from between his teeth.
The Littlest Bugbear’s hand shook, but he managed to close it around the hilt of the dagger. Certain each move would be his last, he drew it from its sheath. He squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of the kobold’s fatal blow.
But the room went silent, and even with his eyes shut, the Littlest Bugbear could see more light than he expected. He opened his eyes to see that the dagger glowed white with magic
The kobold stared, tongue lolling, eyes white with fright. “That’s … that’s a Plus dagger,” he choked out. The rapier fell from his nerveless fingers.
The Littlest Bugbear didn’t have to wonder what the dagger was Plus against. He took a hesitant step toward the kobold, the dagger swaying slightly but pointed at the lizard-man’s chest.
All at once, the kobold squealed frantically in fear and ran from the room. His footsteps echoed from the cavern walls, growing fainter until the room was silent again.
A sound came from the next chamber that could have been an immense creature settling in to await its prey. On wavering legs, the Littlest Bugbear slowly walked toward the final doorway. He still held the dagger out before him, and it continued to glow like the brightest of torches.
The center of the dungeon was a single, massive room, stretching in every direction to a point beyond view. To the Littlest Bugbear, it seemed the largest thing in the world. It seemed to be the world.
And yet the Littlest Bugbear was disappointed; not in the size of the room, but in its contents. He expected it to be filled from wall to wall with treasure; glittering jewels, coins heaped to the ceiling, armories gleaming with magic. He expected riches that a thousand bugbears couldn’t have carried away in a lifetime.
Instead, the room held a few broken pieces of furniture, several splintered chests and barrels, most obviously empty, and a stack of frames with the paintings removed. A few coins were scattered here and there, as if they weren’t worth stacking into a pile together. Off to one side, a few twisted pieces of armor and some broken weapons leaned against a wall. It looked like anything but a treasure chamber; the contents looked like they had been abandoned as too meager to even bother stealing.
While the Littlest Bugbear stood there, taking in the room in all its confusing contradiction, the light from his dagger continued to shine, and the light reflected from a few of the coins closest to where he stood. He took a step closer. They looked almost familiar …
“Finally, someone brings me some light.” A booming voice echoed through the chamber, startling the Littlest Bugbear. “If you had any idea how many times I’ve asked the kobolds to pile wood together for a fire, to bring a torch, provide a conjurer who could cast Dancing Lights, for Hades’ sake …”
The source of the voice waddled painfully into view. It was, of course, the Dragon – but where the Littlest Bugbear had expected a fierce, raging majesty, this was a creature that seemed to have changed with its surroundings – it was massive, to be certain, with a wide, shining belly that dragged along the floor, and jowl after scarlet-hued jowl falling into wattles descending their neck, teeth that were long and dangerous-looking if discoloured. But their eyes were dim and cataract-ridden, like gems that had grown worn and cracked with age.
They winced with every step, as if supporting their own weight was too painful to bear. With agonizing slowness, the beast made their way to where the Littlest Bugbear stood, and leaned down, muzzle almost pressed against their chest. Their breath smelled like eggs gone bad, and mould, and medicine. “Now then,” they said, dropping to the ground with a grateful wheeze. “Let’s start from the beginning: what is your alignment?”
The Littlest Bugbear stared, not understanding the question, while the elderly beast nodded insistently. “Come now. Evil surely, but lawful evil or chaotic evil? I don’t have time for chaos at my age … and don’t even start with neutral, I don’t believe it for a minute …” They inched even closer, snuffling at the Littlest Bugbear with nostrils the size of dinner plates. “You know … I’m wondering if you’re evil at all.” The massive eyes stared at him, transfixed by the dagger’s light.
The great beast reared up, emitting a startled puff of smoke. “You’re not a champion, are you? You can see there’s nothing left, your kind has taken it all.” Their voice changed subtly to a whine. “And there’s not much point in killing me when I always come back. Why can’t you go and find a dungeon that isn’t all played out to tatters …”
The Littlest Bugbear couldn’t think of anything to say, but he lay his dagger down and held his hands in the air to show he had no intention of attacking.
The Dragon sniffed again heavily, ending with a series of coughs. “Ah, so you’re a bugbear. I’m sorry … when you’ve died as many times as I have, it wears you down. It seems like anyone who enters the dungeon comes here eventually, primed for battle with no interest in negotiation. And you know how it is, even if only one out of twenty gets a critical hit … ” They settled back on their haunches, wiggling into a more comfortable position. “Well, it’s nice to have a visitor who isn’t trying to kill me. So, young one, why did you seek me out?”
The Littlest Bugbear sat down as well. The dagger lay right before him, and he picked it up thoughtfully, turning it over several times and looking up at the Dragon’s exposed throat, only a lunge away even for a creature who was very small. He looked around at the scattered coins on the floor, still a greater treasure all told than what his family had owned previously. He sat, and looked, and thought.
And then … he told the Dragon everything. He started from the first moment of life he could remember, continued to his Mother, his Father, his brothers and sisters, their death at the hands of the Adventurers, the kobold, the cube-monster, the Beholder, the battle just outside the Dragon’s chamber – everything he had worth telling, until his high-pitched voice squeaked when he tried to continue.
Afterward the Dragon looked down over their broad, flat snout and assessed the tale and the storyteller. “So you’ve come all this way, faced all the dangers, and now you’ve reached the end of the tale. You’ve even faced down the fearsome Dragon, though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t kill me. It absolutely ruins my evening.” He paused to blow a smoke ring that rose into the room’s rafters.
“Do you know why I was confused by you before? You may have spawned as a creature of the dungeon, but the quest has changed you. Your stare, your bearing, the way your hand rests at the hilt of that dagger … these are all aspects of another type of being altogether.”
An Adventurer, the Littlest Bugbear thought unhappily, deliberately letting go of the dagger, setting it down on the floor beside him. He thought back to the kobold, and the Beholder, and other creatures he’d encountered, with an unexpected sadness.
“It’s not a dire thing, young one,” the Dragon wheezed. “You could change the whole meaning of the word. You could take vengeance on your family, chase their killers from other dungeons, other castles and keeps. In your story, you could become not a bugbear but The Bugbear, known and feared both far and wide.”
For a moment, it seemed he could hear the Master of the Dungeon one more time, whispering in his tufted ear of glories and a character sheet of his very own. Then, he heard the Dragon again, almost imperceptibly breathing one word, “Or …,” without continuing that thought.
The Littlest Bugbear stood up and walked to the scattering of coins he’d noticed when first entering the room. There was no doubting that they were from his family’s hoard. He picked a few of the coins up, jingling them together, measuring their cool weight in his hand. His other hand drifted down again toward the sheath at his side – the dagger still lying on the floor.
And perhaps this was what decided him – he looked at the glowing dagger, the dragon watching calmly from above, and the depths of the room beyond where, surely, another door led to another exit. But one by one, the coins dropped back into a pile and he turned away. He walked back toward the Dragon, picking up and sheathing the dagger, but unbuckling and laying it down to one side, along with his meager possessions and a bedroll discarded by some former occupant. From the broken furniture in the room, he began to gather sticks of wood to build into a fire.
For a while the Dragon watched, but then they quietly cleared their massive throat. “There must be other bugbears somewhere in the dungeon …” the words trailed off. The Littlest Bugbear looked up, shook his head, and continued his work. After a moment, they cleared their throat again, and rumbled agreeably. “Well, then. Perhaps we can give them a better fight next time, you and I.”
Later that night, beside the fire, the Dragon started telling their stories. Stories of a hundred lifetimes – not only of battle but romance, artistic triumph, a family somewhere long ago, of dreams even they hadn’t known they still harboured … while the Littlest Bugbear sat and listened, absorbing it all, until the only sound left was the great beast snoring with their muzzle half within the flames. And even then he sat awake, keeping guard – but his eyes were not on the coins or gemstones, but on his new friend as they slept the night through.