The Black Dragon Depths
The Black Dragon Depths
story by Geoff Bottone
Nerodia was the latest in a matrilineal lineage of gorgons who had built up a long and impressive legacy around the islands of the Avathian Sea. For generations, the women in her family had slithered in and around the ruins on a remote island. After they had used their abilities to lure sailors close enough to smash their ships apart on their reefs, they would swim out to the wreckage, eat some of the survivors, and petrify the rest. What food that they could not eat themselves they carried back to their children, who spent most of their days sunning themselves in the tidepools along the shore.
Nerodia had been raised in one of those tidepools, and, as the oldest daughter of the current Gorgon of the Lonely Island, was expected to take her place not too many years from now. But Nerodia knew that this sort of life wasn’t really meant for her. She had sifted through the wreckage herself and had gorged, not on luckless sailors, but on their stores of books, scrolls, and maps. She had learned that there was a very big, very interesting world just out of view of the Lonely Island, and she vowed to one day see at least a part of it herself.
After some discussion with her family, it was decided that Nerodia’s little sister would become the Gorgon-apparent of the island, and that Nerodia would make her way to the mainland and try to find her way in the world. Her parents, of course, promised that she was always welcome to come back to the island if the world proved to be too cold or too cruel for a young, idealistic gorgon who was trying to make a new life for herself. Nerodia was grateful for their support, but, as she left the island in her little skiff and paddled toward the continent, she hoped that she would not need it.
More than a year later, she found herself in the caverns beneath the Undercity of Greyport, tormenting mid-level adventurers and stripping their petrified corpses of their valuables. It was lucrative, but it was also not much different from the life she would have lived on the Lonely Island. Plus, she had recently learned that she preferred to talk to people rather than turn them to stone.
She decided to take a leap of faith, leave the monstering life, and try to develop herself in new and interesting ways. Nerodia traveled extensively, made friends, avoided powerful adventuring parties, took some art classes, and, while heavily robed and veiled, sat in on a few philosophy lectures at the Greyport Mages’ Collegium. She found herself learning a lot and having a good time, but it wasn’t long at all before the treasure she had acquired from her dungeoning days was all but gone.
Nerodia knew all too well that money was required to survive in the new world she now lived in. With a small sigh of regret, but knowing that her hair had to eat, she returned to the depths beneath Greyport’s Undercity and started looking for a job.
During her job interview, Axtorian the Horned One, proprietor of the Black Dragon Depths, refused to look at either Nerodia or her resume. Instead, he mumbled something about how pleased he was to have someone with her qualifications on the staff and hastily assigned her to the cloak cave.
This bothered her, of course, but despite her misgivings, she took the job. It was relatively easy work and, though the pay wasn’t great, it was better than not being paid at all.
Besides, she was a smart, bright-eyed young gorgon with big dreams and big ideas. She could easily work in the cloak cave for a few months, gain some useful, on-the-job experience, and then get herself promoted to a position in the Depths of greater responsibility and prominence. All she needed to do was work hard, be punctual, treat everyone well, and get noticed. Or so she thought.
A year and a half later, Nerodia had begun to think that Axtorian the Horned one had forgotten about her. Not that working in the cloak room was necessarily bad, per se. Conversations with much of the Depths’ clientele (those capable of speech, anyway) were usually delightful, and it was by now a very rare occurrence that a guest’s cane, umbrella, hat, or outer garments ever made an attempt on her life. Even Baron von Vlazlo’s greatcoat—a semi-sentient leather and wool thing that hungered for blood and poison in equal measure—had called a truce several months prior, and while it still shuddered and undulated on its coat hook, it no longer lunged for her face.
Still, Nerodia felt that she was destined for bigger and better things. And so, one night, shortly after closing time, she ventured up to the common area of the Depths and asked Axtorian if she could, perhaps, have a raise, an evaluation, and a promotion. Not necessarily in that order.
At the sight of her, Axtorian screamed, threw his hands up before his golden, goat-like eyes, and ducked down behind the bar so that only his quivering rack of antlers remained visible.
“What in the Twelve Hells are you doing walking around without your goggles on?” he shouted, causing the rest of the staff who were busy with their cleanup duty to turn and stare at her.
The goggles that Axtorian had mentioned were a “gift” from the Depths to Nerodia, given to her on her second ever day of employment. They were a pair of ugly, cumbersome things—outdated gnomish tech refurbished with chunky widgets of clumsy, kobold make. A defect in one of the lenses made Nerodia’s vision distorted and made her look uncomfortably like a blind fish. She hated them, never wearing them unless she heard Axtorian come clop-clopping down the hall to the cloak cave.
“It’s after hours,” she said, a bit more quietly than she would have liked. “I thought…”
“There’s still people here, aren’t there?” said Axtorian, slowly rising up from behind the bar. He held a silver serving tray, streaked black with tarnish, over his face. “You could still turn any or all of them to stone, couldn’t you?”
His accusatory words and the curious stares of everyone else in the common room boiled Nerodia’s blood, albeit only a few degrees above room temperature.
“That’s not how that works,” she said. “ It’s not automatic. I have to open my second set of eye…”
Axtorian slapped one hand on the bar, while the other maintained a shaky grip on the tray.
“Now that’s hardly the point, is it? I mean, we all know that. Of course we do. That’s common knowledge. But you see, the thing of it is, not all the customers know, right? And those that don’t know will think you’re horribly dangerous, and that we’re horribly negligent for letting a gorgon wander unrestrained on the premises. You wear the goggles, right, and the customers know that you’re safe. They know that we care about their well-being. They know that the Black Dragon Depths is a quality establishment. You understand?”
Nerodia did understand. She realized, in that moment, that she likely understood it better than Axtorian ever would. She understood that if, for example, she hired a gorgon, she would treat the gorgon like a valued employee and member of the Depths’ family, and not like some unrestrained, wet-behind-their-ears adventurer who had just gotten their unwashed paws on their first enchanted weapon.
“Now, what is it you wanted, anyway?” asked Axtorian.
She told him, only to have him scoff at her.
“What? Raise and a promotion? You? You can’t even follow basic safety procedures! You keep your goggles on for six months, and then we’ll talk. Now go home! It’s after closing.”
With each coil of her hair hissing under its breath, Nerodia turned and made as dignified an exit as she could from the common hall. She was well aware that everyone was watching her leave, and so she made extra sure not to burst into tears until she had gotten back to the relative quiet and safety of the cloak cave.
Baron von Vlazlo’s greatcoat, discomfited by her distress and emotion, attempted to comfort her with a gentle sleeve pat.
The next few days brought a small amount of balm for Nerodia’s soul, as well as several new reasons for her to be upset.
One by one, sheepishly and shamefacedly, the other employees of the Black Dragon Depths made their way to the cloak cave to offer their apologies. You don’t have to wear those stupid goggles around me, they said. It was awful what he said to you, they opined. He shouldn’t have treated you that way. That was, like, paladin-level hubris, they agreed.
No one went to Axtorian about it, of course. They were all too afraid to. That stung a little, but Nerodia got it. What stung more was what came after.
The other staff members—the barbacks and the bat wranglers and the fry cooks and the interior decorators that kept the floors and tables well-daubed with slime and spiderwebs—had never really spoken to her all that much before. They worked in their realm in the main cavern of the Depths, she worked in hers, and rarely did the twain meet.
However, now that she had been as insulted and humiliated by Axtorian as she had, they felt a certain camaraderie with her, and began, by turns to unburden themselves to her. She heard all manner of grievances like a priest at confession (ugh!), from the merest slights to the most heinous of insults.
She also began to learn just how badly run the Depths really was.
“He’s always telling me to make myself prettier and he keeps all my tips,” confessed Diomedia the Doppelganger early one Korashday morning, after the last of the guests had slunk off to their barrows and boltholes.
Diomedia was one of the latest in the rotating stable of waitstaff that worked at the Depths. Nerodia fully expected them to remain for only a few months before moving on to better employment.
“And it’s ridiculous,” the doppelganger went on, “because, you know, he doesn’t care at all about making the Depths any prettier. Almost all the cups are chipped, the plates are cracked, and there’s not nearly enough of either to keep up with demand.”
“Not that there’s much demand,” grumbled Horgan the dwarf barback sometime on the next Shalnsday evening.
Nerodia had started to see the Depths’ grey-haired, pasty-skinned, constantly grumbling fetch-it man only recently. Horgan as much as told her that he made the long trip up from the storage caverns to the cloak cave to hide from Axtorian and shirk a little work.
“Night after night, I watch it get a little bit quieter in there, a little bit lonelier,” he groused. “You can feel the soul of this place slowly fading, like a lich whose left its body to seek out other, more interesting realms. I ain’t been hauling near as much liquor as I used to…when I’m hauling liquor, I mean…and most of it is slowly turning to vinegar anyhow.”
“Honestly, you’re lucky if it’s vinegar,” complained Atezza, the hawk-headed bartender, on a quiet Farnsday afternoon.
Of Atezza, Nerodia had seen very little. She had come down to the cloak cave, in part to see if Horgan was hiding away instead of doing his job, in part because she wanted to hide away instead of doing her job.
“You know how some types of alcohol are on the bottom shelf?” Atezza asked, clicking her beak disapprovingly. “Why, because Axtorian’s alcohol is so poor that he has to put a trap door under the bottom shelf to store it. It’s dreck. It’s disgusting! I hear that Daareka has mentally dominated an entire tavern in the Greyport Undercity, just so she can get some quality quaffables on her night out.”
Even Marr, the zombie janitor, had stopped by one night to give her his sage advice. He stood at the entrance to the cloak cave and said, “Graah. Raaah. Unnhg. Muuurrrr,” in as comforting and supportive way as possible.
“Thank you, Marr,” Nerodia said, smiling.
Nerodia listened to all of their complaints, feeling rage and frustration on their behalf. For the next few days, she let the anger whirl around in her head, so hot and so furious that it caused her poor snakes to become frizzy and tangled with the intensity of it. Rather than let the anger consume her—or make her bald—she eventually decided to write down her frustrations in a little notebook that she kept hidden behind the section of Lost and Found cloaks on permanent display in the cave. It wasn’t much, but it gave her a purpose.
Gradually, after pouring out all of her fury at the lack of adequate management at the Black Dragon Depths, Nerodia began to make more productive entries. It turned out, she realized, that she might have learned a few things from all those shipwrecked books and scrolls. There were plenty of things that she could do, even behind the scenes, to bring the Depths—as ironic as it sounded—back from the brink.
Diomedia swung by before their shift started to say hello, as was now their custom. They had adopted the form of a disaffected, dark-haired elf—one of the many adventurers that they had defeated and absorbed in their youth.
“Do I look like I feel?”
Nerodia chuckled at the now old joke, even as she reached for her notebook. “You do. The Baron will love it, I’m sure. Do you have a minute?”
Diomedia pulled out the small hourglass from their bodice and studied it. “I think a literal minute, yeah. What do you need?”
Nerodia opened the notebook in her hands as she used her snake hair to beckon Diomedia to come closer. “I think I might have figured out a way to get us some nicer glasses and plates, if you’re willing to sacrifice.”
“Ritually or financially?”
“Financially,” said Nerodia. “Do you think you and the other servers can keep back, say, ten percent of your tips from Axtorian?”
Diomedia shrugged. “We already have been hiding some of our tip totals from him, because he’s garbage and the pay here is garbage. Why?”
Nerodia showed her the notebook. “There’s a new customer who started coming in last week. A kobold glassblower. It turns out that she’s got a bit more of the dragon in her than most kobolds, which allows her to be her own furnace. Anyhow, we got to chatting and I think I managed to talk her into a good deal on stemware. If you all can contribute ten percent, and I contribute ten percent, that should be enough to pay for it all.”
Diomedia stepped back, so surprised at Nerodia’s idea that they briefly lost control of their stolen face.
“Hang on, what are you saying? You want us to pay for things that Axtorian should be paying for? How the hell is that fair?”
“It’s not fair,” said Nerodia, “and that’s why I wouldn’t even consider mentioning the idea unless I was willing to contribute, too, which I am. You always say that we don’t have enough glasses, and what we do have looks like the post-explosion remnants of an alchemy lab, right? Well, customers see that, too, and then they get disgusted, and then they go somewhere else. But, for a one-time purchase of new glasses, we can show our customers that we’re upping our game, and that we’re trying to improve.”
“Which means,” said Diomedia, “that they might not abandon the Depths.”
“Right! So, they’ll feel a little better about coming here. They’ll come back. They’ll bring friends…”
“More tips for everyone?” asked Diomedia, hopefully.
“That’s the hope!”
Diomedia shrugged. “All right, I’m willing to give it a try. But what are you going to do about plates? Can’t imagine that there’s too many potters down here in the deep caverns that you can hire.”
“Well, no,” Nerodia flipped through several pages in her notebook. “But I did hear from that blackguard—you know, the one with the cheerful sword—that a party of adventurers defeated some kind of scaled abomination in a cavern near the desert.”
“How does that help us?”
“Well, because the adventurers took all the treasure, but left all the scales!” Nerodia snapped the notebook shut for emphasis. “There’s probably enough of them that are the perfect size for plates. They’re durable, and they’re impervious to heat, so we can thoroughly clean them with just a dip in the magma pools out back.”
Nerodia could tell that, despite their best efforts, Diomedia was getting excited. “I like that! I do. Okay, I’ll talk to the other servers, but I’m in. We’re going to do this!”
About a week later, Horgan and Atezza stopped by the cloak cave. Nerodia could tell that they wanted to talk to her about something important, but were nervous about doing so. They spent quite a long while discussing random unpleasantries, peppered with overlong and awkward silences.
Finally, Atezza said, “the new glasses look nice. I hear we have you to thank?”
“Not just me,” said Nerodia. “It was a team effort.”
“Well, they look good,” said Horgan, scratching his hairy cheek. “It’s too bad we don’t have any better liquor to put in ‘em, but, y’know, the…whatsitcalled…plating? Yeah. The plating is really nice.”
“Thank you!” With a fanged smile, Nerodia withdrew her notebook. “I did have some ideas about the alcohol, since you mention it.”
Now that they had come to the heart of the matter, the barback and the bartender huddled in close, as much to hear her ideas as to shield her from any outside eavesdroppers.
“Go on,” said Atezza, her hawk eyes gleaming in the cloak cave’s dim candlelight.
“I was talking with Daareka. You know how she goes up to the Greyport Undercity to do most of her drinking these days? Well, it turns out, on her last visit, she met this little old goblin lady who is in charge of something called a ‘booze cart?’”
“What,” said Horgan, “is a ‘booze cart?’”
Atezza clacked her razor-sharp beak in irritation. “It’s exactly what it sounds like, you ninny. Try to keep up.”
“Don’t you start in on me, you birdbrained. Bird faced. Bird!”
“There’s no need for insults,” said Nerodia. “We’re all on the same side.”
After waiting for both Horgan and Atezza to give respectful nods to one another, she went on. “But yes, this goblin lady has a pushcart with alcohol on it that she offers for sale—relatively cheaply—to anyone who can find her. She used to do more business in the Undercity, but now she mostly works in Greyport proper.
“As it happens,” Nerodia said, double checking her numbers, “this old goblin lady is quite good at finding barrels of alcohol that just happen to ‘fall off’ ships coming into Greyport Harbor. They ‘wash up’ on the shore, she finds them, claims them as salvage, and sells drinks out of them off of her cart.”
Horgan scoffed. “No way that’s legal up there.”
“It’s absolutely not,” said Nerodia. “That’s why she keeps her tavern mobile.”
“That’s good for her,” said Atezza. “How does it help us?”
“Well, it turns out that she’s also very good at finding things that people need and moving goods around the city and the Undercity.” Nerodia flipped a page in her notebook, to where she had written down the last tidbit that “the Mindbreaker” had told her. “As it happens, she’s heard that the Greyport City Guard is looking to acquire as much posca for their troops as they can get.”
“What’s posca?” asked Horgan.
“It’s kind of disgusting,” replied Atezza. “It’s a mixed drink of water, herbs, and…”
Nerodia watched as the light of understanding began to shine in Atezza’s unblinking eyes.
At this, Horgan smiled. It had taken him a bit, but he finally put all the pieces together. “Or near enough to it!”
“Exactly,” said Nerodia, before lowering her voice to a whisper. “So, here’s my plan. After close of business tonight, the three of us are going to load as much of that low-quality vinegar we have down in the cellar on to a wagon, bring it up to the Undercity, and trade it to this goblin for as much actual alcohol as she’ll give us.”
Horgan popped his neck. “Sounds good. I’m always up for some heavy lifting!”
Another couple of weeks went by. Even in the relative quiet of the cloak cave, Nerodia had noticed the steady uptick in customer numbers each evening. It was a temporary change, she knew, but it showed that her ideas could net positive results. She was not a terrible, unskilled monster only fit for hanging up people’s outer garments. She had seen a problem, and she had fixed it—however briefly. The staff were a bit happier, the Depths were a bit livelier, and so far, Axtorian had been quiet about everything. She knew that the glasses would not last forever, and the alcohol would be gone in a few more days, but for now, all was well.
And as for the future, well, Nerodia was making plans for that, too. Not the least of which was the small parcel that had been hand-delivered to her earlier in the evening. A special, and very expensive order that she had placed with a certain kobold glassblower.
She placed the leather-wrapped bundle on her desk and began to open it. The last of the customers had gone for the evening, and so she knew that she would be unobserved and uninterrupted while she…
Nerodia screamed and all but shot out of her chair. Her snakes, startled by both the noise and by Nerodia herself, whipped around her head, hissing and spitting poison. She pushed the bundle into the back corner of her desk, where the shadows would obscure it, and whirled around to confront the intruder.
“Grrooo,” said Marr, the zombie custodian, raising a decaying hand in a clumsy, apologetic wave.
She placed a hand on her scaly breastbone, over her heart. “No, no, Marr. Please, don’t apologize. I was just…concentrating on something and I didn’t hear you come in.”
“No, no, really. It’s fine. It’s always nice to see you, Marr. How are you?”
With some effort, Marr stepped into the cloak cave, struggling to get both his semi-responsive body and the long handle of his mop through the entrance. As he did so, he said, “Guu. Mmmruuug. Praaagh. Raaarraarrraa.”
If she had been warm-blooded, Nerodia might have blushed at the effusive praise. “Oh, thank you! I’m so glad that you noticed. Although it’s not all due to me. The improvements are actually a team effort. The staff have been working extra hours and paying for things out-of-pouch to make the Depths better, and I really appreciate all the help.
“Speaking of which,” she went on, “I’ve also been told that you’ve been working really hard keeping the place up these past few weeks. Every one of the guests has noticed how dismal and eldritch things are looking recently. Damonthax the Sluglord even complemented the aesthetics of your ichor placement around the common room.”
“Quooorn,” said Marr, with a dismissive wave. “Gruba nuuub raag grrr aaah.”
“I agree,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to take pride in your work when you know that other people are also taking pride in their work, and that they’re actually invested in the success of the business instead of just lining their pouches.”
Marr made a chuffing noise that might have been either a laugh or a random expulsion of necrotic gasses. Nerodia realized it was the former when Marr brought his free hand up to the side of his head in the crude imitation of an antler.
“Aggarag braaagh raaaaah.”
Nerodia smiled. “Yes, well. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Despite its cavernous rooms and the active disinterest of its owner, Nerodia knew that it would not take all that much longer for Axtorian to both know and be extremely irritated by what was going on right under his nose. She awaited the inevitable confrontation with a nervousness that increased with each passing day. When she wasn’t checking coats and greeting customers, she rehearsed what she was going to say to him and, with slightly trembling hands, polished and repolished the lenses of her unwieldy goggles.
Marr was the one to tell her, with a furtive groan, that Axtorian was making his way from the upper office all the way down to the cloak cave. By the time she heard his goatish feet clomp-clomping in the tunnel beyond, she wasn’t sure if Axtorian had rushed over or taken his time. To her anxious mind, it felt like both.
She had just strapped the weighty goggles on over her eyes when Axtorian stomped into the room with a braying snort.
“I’ve been noticing some changes,” he began, without preamble. “When I asked around, a little birdy told me that you, of all creatures, were responsible for them.”
Facing his baleful stare, Nerodia could do nothing for a moment but dart her tongue out between her fangs. Her carefully prepared statements had deserted her for the moment, fleeing from her own mind up into the more relaxed, but still quite tangled, minds of her snakes.
“What do you have to say for this insubordination?” Axtorian demanded.
“I was…” she stopped, took a cleansing breath through her nostril slits, started again. “I know that what I did was an overreach, but I was only thinking about what was best for business here at the Depths. I don’t know if you’ve noticed…”
“I did notice!” Axtorian stamped his hooved feet on the cloak cave floor. “That’s why I’m here! I am in charge of this establishment! I am the one who makes the decisions around here! Your only job is to sit here and check cloaks and make sure no one sees your hideous face! Do you understand?”
The transition from being afraid to being angry happened so quickly that Nerodia almost didn’t notice it. Uncoiling from her chair, she brought her goggle-covered eyes level with Axtorian’s.
“And I want you to understand that you are driving this place even further into the ground than it already is!” she shouted. “Thanks to you, morale around here is terrible, the servers are practically broke, and the Depths is in such shambles that no one wants to come here anymore!”
“You should have brought your concerns to me, instead of going behind my back!” bleated Axtorian.
“I would have gone to your front if I thought you’d listen to me. I went behind your back so that you could see how easy it was to make changes, and so that you could see the results with your own eyes!”
“This is…” Axtorian sputtered, looking for the right word. “Mutiny! That’s it! It’s mutiny! Well, I have news for you, hissy, your little insurrection is over! As of right now, you’re fired!”
His words struck her like a blow. In that moment, she realized how much she had come to love the Black Dragon Depths and its employees. The lenses of her goggles began to fog up with moisture.
But Axtorian wasn’t listening. He charged on ahead. “And that’s not all. You’ll be happy to know that your actions have gotten everyone else fired as well. That’s right. The whole lot of you! You’re all canned! Sacked! I’m done…”
He was staring right into her eyes, and yet he didn’t see that the lenses of Nerodia’s goggles were clear and free of scratches and blemishes. As if they had been recently made by the finest kobold glassblower in the region.
He was staring into her eyes, and yet he didn’t see that Nerodia was slowly opening her second, scarcely visible set of eyelids.
“…be back in business tomorrow night!” Axtorian roared. “And you and the rest of this ungrateful, feckless, lazy, mutinous crew will be unemployed! Forced to loiter in the upper caverns until some novice adventures chop you to bits for their career advancement! I’ll see to it that none of you will ever work down here aga…”
Nerodia took off the goggles, tossed them in the wastepaper basket by her desk, and slithered out of the room. For her, and for Axtorian, the conversation was forever over.
“Huh!” said Atezza from her place behind the bar. She was unable to smile with her beak, but Nerodia heard the smile in the bartender’s voice. “Really? Just like that.”
Nerodia grinned. “Just like that.”
“Nice of him to ‘give’ you ownership of the Depths before he left,” said Horgan, his gimlet eyes just visible over the lip of the bar. “Didn’t think he had that kind of generosity in him.”
Diomedia, who was stacking empty glasses on the bar, turned toward Nerodia with a sardonic look. “I can’t believe it either.”
“Gnnaaaaah,” said Marr, half of his face sloughing into something not unlike a smile.
“Gather around, everyone,” said Nerodia, opening her small notebook on the bar. “I’ve been thinking of some ways to infuse this place with even more negative energy. First of all, the waitstaff keeps all their tips. Second of all, I’d like to figure out some way to give you all free memberships to the Shady Healer’s Guild. Including resurrections! Some of you pass really near to the Undercity on the way to work, and those surface dwellers are sometimes overzealous.”
“Nngng,” agreed Marr.
The assembled staff of the Black Dragon Depths pressed in around her as she outlined her plans, hopeful expressions on their monstrous faces.
While Nerodia made a lot of changes to the Depths in a very short amount of time, the one thing she wasn’t in a hurry to fix was the position that had recently opened up in the cloak cave. This was because, as she soon discovered, a stone statue of an antlered beast with wildly gesticulating arms makes quite a passable coat rack.