Episode 010: Northwest Passage (Text)

When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG and GEL went on an insane rampage through the streets of Dwarroway. When the dust settled, organized crime was shattered, and half the city was burning. More importantly, though, they discovered a curious connection between organized crime and the mysterious stronghold of KHADDAKAR. On the orders of MISTER E, their government handler, they set out with SISTER DONDALLA, heading for the little town of TRUMAN’S DELL, where they hope to learn more about this enigmatic fortress…

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – In Which Stories Get Straightened

It was just before noon on the twenty-second day of the third month of the year. They were thirty miles west of the Hegemony border, five miles out of the last trading post. Nutmeg had never seen so many trees in his life. Tall, dark pines, thick green boughs blotting out all light. The hills and rocks rose on all sides of them. On their right, the great Serpent Mountains towered close to the road, never more than fifteen miles from the highway. The smell of the pines, the cool fresh mountain air, was like a refreshing balm. It was good for him. He could feel that in his lungs. 

Pierre sat on his shoulder. Nutmeg scratched him behind the ear. The little blue lizard cooed with pleasure. Nutmeg licked cherry pie filling from his mustache. Mmm. Still fresh. 

“Nutmeg, that’s disgusting,” said Sister D. She rode beside him, breastplate flashing in the sun, her red-and-orange robes bright against the pines. 

“It was really good pie!” Nutmeg flicked the horse’s reins. “Not my fault I’m a messy eater.”

“It quite literally is,” said Gelmahta. He rode a pony, and he looked a little tall for his steed. “Small wonder that lady kicked us out of the inn.” 

“You’re all so judgemental.” Nutmeg patted Pierre. “Not like this good little dude. He loves me unconditionally.” 

They’d been on the road a week. Once past the immediate suburbs of Dwarroway, all trace of the Hegemony had fallen by the wayside. Inns and trading posts were their only comforts. And even then, the pickings were slim. That cherry pie had been such a welcome relief. He just had to save a little bit. They passed another dwarven milepost, a low column of red stone still carved with the runes of the old empire. Not a hundred feet down from the milepost, though, someone had added a whole new sign, a crude wooden one with squiggles that were probably written language. 

“Truman’s Dell, five miles,” read Sister D. 

“Thank the gods.” Gelmahta stretched. “I was never much for horses.” His pony snorted and tossed her head. “Yeah, you heard me.” 

“Alright.” Nutmeg let Pierre slip back into the saddlebags. “Let’s get our story straight before we hit the town. What did we decide on again?” 

“Was it traveling circus recruiters?” 

“No, Gel,” said Sister D. “You keep trying to get us to be traveling circus recruiters, and we keep telling you no.” 

“Your loss.” 

“It was miners, Nutmeg,” the priestess said. “Specifically, miners looking for places to prospect in the Serpent Mountains near Truman’s Dell.” 

“Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Right. I’m Allspice Hooper, land surveyor.”

“I’m a priestess traveling with you to keep you safe.”

“Sure, that’s fine.” 

“I’m Gaston Figaro, elite assassin and former professional miner.” 

“Gel.” 

“Fine. Gaston Figaro, professional miner.” 

“Who ever heard of an itinerant professional miner?”

“Hm. Fair point. Maybe I’m your executive assistant.” 

“Yes!” 

Their stories thus straightened, they set out again. 

They turned north in five miles, off the dwarven highway and onto a dirt track, just wide enough for two carts to pass each other uncomfortably. Truman’s Dell sat in a wooded vale between two tall peaks, shaded by the black mountains and lined with fir and pine. Here, beyond the pale of the Hegemony, the old barbarian ways held strong. No small apartments or stone castles: wooden longhalls, fifty of them at least, crammed every which way like toothpicks in a bucket. 

A pair of carved wooden poles marked the edge of town. Two human men in leather and steel stood beneath the poles. They looked like father and son, or close enough. Prominent foreheads, dark hair, the same weary look in both their eyes. 

“Sorry, travelers,” said the older of the two. “We’re closed.” 

“The uh, you, what?” Nutmeg dug a finger into his ear. “Sorry, it sounded like you said ‘we’re closed.’”

“We are!” insisted the younger one, who couldn’t have been much out of human pubescence. 

“We’re not coming to stay. Just passing through.” 

“We’re prospectors,” added Gel, helpfully. 

“No exceptions, folks.” The older man did look a little sheepish, almost apologetic. “Sorry. Rules are rules, and for the time being, Truman’s Dell is closed.” 

Nutmeg looked to his companions. They were just as dumbfounded as he felt. “We’ve been on the road quite a while. Can you at least give us a reason? Tell us what’s going on?”

The men exchanged a look that lasted just a little too long. “We aren’t supposed to, ya know,” said the younger one. “That’s what the Head Jack said.” 

“Well, sure, but these nice folks are owed something. There’s orders and there’s orders, Jym.”

“A man after my own heart,” Nutmeg agreed. 

The fellow sighed. “Look, my nephew’s right. I oughtn’t even give you the time of day. But that just don’t sit right with me, by gum, so here’s how it is. My name’s Edwyrd, by the by. This here’s Truman’s Dell.” 

“Charmed, Edwyrd,” said Nutmeg. “My name is Allspice Hooper, land surveyor and prospector.” 

“Real pleasure, Mr. Hooper. Here’s how it is. We’re under orders to not let anyone into the town. There’s been an attack, you see. Goblins in the mountains. It’s a whole problem with them. Demanding things, you know. And we can’t send for help.”

“Why not?” asked Sister D. 

“Cause they’ll kill Samsyn and Margyret!” declared Jym. 

“Now, they may even be watching the town,” said Edwyrd, in a low, conspiratorial tone. He chanced a look to the high hills on either side, where the trees grew thick and dark. “Never can tell. So it’s best if you go, you see. Otherwise they might kill the hostages they took.” 

Nutmeg looked to Sister D and Gel. This was a bit of a pickle. They could probably skirt around the town, try and find some small path up into the mountains, and look for Khaddakar off-road. But the maps had been pretty clear: the way forward was through Truman’s Dell. He didn’t relish the idea of getting involved in some local goblin raid thing, though. They had a lot on their plates already. 

“Well done, Edwyrd,” said Gel, trotting his pony forward. “You’ve passed the test.” 

Nutmeg gave Gel a look that said “what the flying shit are you doing?” but the elf paid him no heed, and continued. “You see, we’ve been summoned – in secret – by your Head Jack.” He leaned forward in the saddle and lowered his voice. “We are not, in fact prospectors. We are trained assassins, traveling undercover, and we are here to rescue your hostages.”

“Harry would’ve told me,” said Edwyrd, but he looked doubtful. “Would’ve told me to keep an eye out for ya.” 

“Would he?” Gel’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “You know how secret this has to be.”

Edwyrd scratched his chin. “It don’t seem likely.” 

“If we were ordinary prospectors,” said Nutmeg, “could I…do this?” He barked the command word, and his armor transformed before Edwyrd’s eyes. Gone were the simple clothes of a working man. Instead, he now wore red-gold burnished bronze, shining in the sun, nicely complimenting his hair and beard. 

“He has a point,” said Jym. 

“Alright, look.” Edwyrd glanced from side to side. “We’re probably being watched, so put that fancy stuff away. But you should at least talk to the Head Jack. Dunno if  you’re pulling my leg or not, but you’re here now, and you did that, and,” he lowered his voice, “we could use the help.” 

“Fuck yes,” said Nutmeg. “Lead on, my mans.” 

Chapter 2 – In Which They Make the Acquaintance of Head Jack Frost

The air smelled of woodsmoke, and not in an “oops, we burned down half a city” way. Nutmeg found the place much to his liking. It was the right sort of rustic. He’d been to depressing little burghs, places with no past and no future. There were more than a handful of towns in the Hegemony that had been built to strip the ore from the land, or farm the soil down to gravel, or whatever, and when the work was done, they were left as sticks and bricks and little else. But Truman’s Dell? It kicked ass. Everyone was wearing plaid. 

Ed and Jym led them to one particular longhouse, conferred with a guard outside, and then gestured for the trio to enter. Nutmeg dismounted and stretched. Gel groaned and popped his back. 

“Ed! Jym! How ya doing, boys?” 

The Head Jack was appropriately dressed. From his large leather boots to his large, leathery face, the man wore red plaid. He had one foot up on a rough-hewn wooden stool, and he sipped foamy beer from a hefty wooden mug. 

“Harry, hey, howdy!” 

“Oh, ya brought company.” The Head Jack set down his mug and extended a hand. “Pleasure to meet ya folks. Name’s Harry Frost.”

“Allspice Hooper. Good to make your acquaintance.” 

“Gaston Figaro, professional assassin.” 

“G-Gaston, come on.” 

“Pardon me now, fella,” said Frost, digging a finger into his ear. “Didja say you’re an assassin?” 

“Here to help with your little…goblin infestation,” said Gel, meaningfully patting his swordhilts. 

“Ah, jeeze,” said Frost. He sat down heavily. “Ah, jeeze. This ain’t good.” 

“Did you tell these folks to come here, Harry?” asked Edwyrd. 

“What? No, never. Ya know my thoughts on the whole situation with Samsyn and Margyret. Those goblins’ll kill ‘em deader’n a beaver in a gum-nail trap. Ah, jeeze.” 

“Listen,” said Nutmeg, quickly, before Gel could say anything else, “we may have exaggerated somewhat. But we’re here now, and we were pretty visible at the gates, and you might as well ask for our help. Because we’re willing to help you out of your jam.”

“Just outta the kindness of your hearts, hm? And ya don’t even know what our ‘jam’ is, proper.”

“Let me see if I can take a flying guess here,” said Nutmeg. “Goblins arrived in the mountains recently, took some hostages – some people you like. They demand food and supplies from you all, in exchange for keeping the hostages alive and not sending for help. Bout sums it up?” 

“Bout sums it up,” admitted Harry. “Look. I don’t doubt ya mean well. But if’n they’ve seen ya, they’re hustling back to the Lone Peak sure as shootin, and Samsyn and Margyret are done for.” 

“The Lone Peak?” asked Sister D. Harry bowed his head respectfully. 

“Sun’s blessings on ya, ma’am. Yeah sure, the Lone Peak. North of town. Pretty sure they’re holed up there.” 

Edwyrd interrupted. “Harry, for my two coppers, I’d say we ask for help. The dwarf has some magic suit of armor -” and here Nutmeg changed the armor once more, into a gillysuit of vine and twig – “and, well, they’re here. You know? We might as well.”

“You have a price?” asked Harry, tiredly. 

All three of them spoke at once. 

“No,” said Sister D.

“Tell us where to find Khaddakar,” said Nutmeg. 

“Ten thousand gold,” said Gelmahta. 

“Hmm,” said Harry. “Khaddakar, you say?” 

“No, I said ten thousand gold.”

“Hush, Gaston, let Harry talk.”

“Thank ya, Mister Hooper. Khaddakar. Sure, I’ve heard that name. Lots of folks in town have. Old legends. Old. Tell of the caves in the mountains north of here, ya know. Say the caves never end, just go deeper and deeper. What could ya want with that?” 

“That’s our business.” Nutmeg studied the lumberjack’s face. An honest man. Trustworthy.

“I bet it is,” said Harry. “Well, I tell ya. Our interests are aligned, ya know. Old Aydry on the north side of town, insists on calling the Lone Peak ‘Khaddakar.’” 

“What a lovely coincidence.” 

“So, the gold,” said Gel. 

“Gaston.” Nutmeg clenched his fist. Gel was going rogue a little too often. “No gold necessary, Mister Frost. Any chance we can stock up – torches, rope, food, booze – on the house?” 

“Ah, sure,” said Frost. “We had a delivery set for the goblins tomorrow. You ‘uns can take it. But I gotta ask you get movin. Now, if possible. Like I said, those goblins are probably headin for the Lone Peak like polecats with burning tails, if you get my meaning.” 

“I don’t know,” said Gel. “Gaston Figaro’s services don’t come cheap.” 

“Alright, that’s enough of that.” Nutmeg grabbed Gel by the arm and dragged him backwards. “We’re going to make preparations. I assume you have a map? A guide? Something?”

“Oh, sure,” said Frost. “We got some surveyors’ maps. I’ll get ya a copy. Although there’s no substitute for talking to Old Aydry. She used to stomp all over Lone Peak in her lumberjackin’ days. Did a bit of spelunking, too. Tell ya what. You go swing by her place. It’s on the way out of town. I’ll have the stuff sent to ya there. Ya might have to travel through the night tonight.”

“I work best on a good night’s sleep,” insisted Gel, shaking loose of Nutmeg’s grip. 

“Oh sure, well, ya see, it’s like this.” Harry Frost’s voice turned cold. “The three of ya put all of Truman’s Dell in danger when ya showed up at our gate. And instead of leavin or mindin your business, you stuck your nose in and put two of our good friends in danger. I figure the least ya can do is ride through the night to save their lives. We clear?” 

Sister D stepped in. “Clear as sunrise, Head Jack. We appreciate your aid, and we will fulfill this quest that you have given us. We will bring your friends home safely.” 

“Yeah, okay.” Frost rubbed his temples. “Ah, hey. I’m gettin a headache from all this. Ed, Jym, you mind showin our friends the way down to Old Aydry’s place?”

“Oh, sure,” said Ed. “You take care of your head now, Harry. I know the winter played havoc on your sinuses.” 

“Oh, you know how it gets when the air pressure falls,” said Harry. 

“I can’t believe I’m the one who gets told not to talk,” grumbled Gel, already propelled by Nutmeg out the longhouse door. 

Chapter 3 – In Which Eggs Come Up Naturally in Conversation

On the road out of town, under beberried rowan trees, sat the little cottage of Old Aydry. Not a longhall like the others, but a plain, loggy cottage. The woman sitting by the fire outside – an old woman, face lined by years and probably woodworking or whatever hobbies people around here had – waved. “Visitors!” she squawked. “You’re late!” 

“Late?” Gel turned to look at Nutmeg and Sister D. “Are we late?” 

“What?” Nutmeg was huffing. The climb from the lower town had been a little more strenuous than the dwarf was used to, apparently. He’d wanted to ride, but Gel had insisted they walk. Any more time on horseback and Gel was going to break his own back just to put himself out of his misery. 

“You’re late,” confirmed Old Aydry. “Tea’s getting cold.” She poked a kettle, which hung from a spindly metal arm over the coals of the fire. “Well, not cold. Less new.” 

“Okay, cool, yeah.” Gel sat next to the fire. Old Aydry reached a hand out from the plaid blanket covering her lap and poured Gel a cup of steaming tea from the kettle. It smelled of lavender and mint, calming, easy flavors. She poured them each a cup. Gel watched Nutmeg tip a little something from his flask into the tea. 

“Sorry we’re…late?” asked Nutmeg. 

“You are,” she reiterated. “Knew you’d be coming. Knew it six days ago. Should’ve been here yesterday.” 

“Well, I didn’t realize we were on a timetable.” 

“Of course you are!” she declared. “A little more than a year remains – not much, not much. Drink!”

The tea was boiling hot. Gel let the steam tickle his lips, but didn’t drink. Nutmeg choked and spluttered, having tried to gulp half his mug in one go. Sister D met Gel’s eyes and they tried not to laugh. 

“Harry mentioned Khaddakar,” said Gel, while Nutmeg fanned his tongue. “Said you might know something about it.” 

“Khaddakar!” Old Aydry cackled. “Yes, yes! The forge! The depths! The old ruins!” 

“The whoseywhats?” coughed Nutmeg. 

“Khaddakar. Oh, yeah, I’ve been down those tunnels. At what they call the Lone Peak. A whole city used to be down there. I saw part of it once, a great hall, deeper than anyplace else I’ve ever been. There’s dark things in the mountain, I tell you, dark dark things. Worms that loathe the light of day; wriggling slimy things that grow best where the air is cool and black.” 

“Sure,” said Nutmeg. “That stuff rocks. How do we get there?” 

“It was my granpap took me there,” she mused, ignoring his question. “Oh, granpap. Took me hunting on the slope of Lone Peak, and we found the big door. ‘Little Aydry,’ he said, cause that’s what people called me before I was Old Aydry, ‘Little Aydry,’ he said, ‘this was once the home of many dwarves, back during the days of their empire, long ago.’”

“Granpap sure was into broad exposition,” said Gel. 

“That’s right.” Old Aydry continued, slipping into the memories of Little Aydry. “A day’s walk north of the family cabin, this cabin right here. You can see the peak for miles around, but the switchback up the mountain takes a sight to find. Old dwarven roads are long buried now. Gotta use your eyes. And your nose.” She gave Nutmeg a pointed look. “He used to throw eggs at me,” she said. 

“Who, Nutmeg?” 

“What? No. My granpap. Used to throw eggs at me. Tell me ‘Little Aydry, life’ll always be throwing eggs at you. Best learn to dodge em when you’re young.’ Wise man, my granpap.” 

“No kidding,” said Nutmeg. “Listen, guys, if it’s a day’s walk from here, we gotta roll now.”

“Eh,” said Gel. “You didn’t really take Head Jackoff seriously, did you? We can camp tonight if he won’t put us up somewhere nice.” 

“You’re late already,” said Old Aydry. “You need to move faster.” 

“Yeah, hey, glad we circled back to that,” said Nutmeg. “What do you mean? Never really got a clear answer there.” 

“Oh, I can see this and that, then and there,” said Aydry, waving her gnarled hand. “Saw you’d be here. Questing for Khaddakar. I’ve seen many things.”

“Shit yeah, can you do cool fortune-telling stuff?” asked Gel. He loved fortune-tellers. They always had fun things to say. 

“Strictly speaking,” said Sister D, “fortune-telling is, well, it’s not really reliable. On the rare occasions that Palladius grants visions of the future, they arrive only to the most devout, and almost always couched in obtuse visual metaphors.” 

“It ain’t Palladius what grants my sight,” said Old Aydry. “It’s Death.” 

“Oh, well, in that case.” Sister D huffed. “Hogwash.” 

“Hogwash?” Old Aydry squinted at the priestess. “You’ve tasted death, sister. More than once. More than they know. And you’ll taste it again. You’ll be immersed in death before your days are done; you’ll see so much death that the skies run black and the sun turns cold.” 

“Now you’re just trying to be mean,” said Nutmeg. “Leave Sister D alone.” 

“You.” Old Aydry turned on Nutmeg with a sudden savagery. Gone was the harmless old crone. This woman was someone altogether more frightening. “You, too, have tasted death. You will again. Beware great heights, and the clammy fingers of the grave.” 

“I mean, that’s pretty non-specific.” Gel finished off his tea. “You got anything for me?”

“You want specific?” Old Aydry raised both hands in an ooga-booga gesture. “Naked you lie, and the knife rises high, and plunges down to taste your blood.”

“You almost had a good rhyme going there,” said Gel. “You done? I think we’re done. We don’t really need those supplies Lord Jackoff mentioned.”

“I think we absolutely do,” Nutmeg started to say, when Edwyrd and Jym came up the path, hauling a few large bags behind them. 

“Hey, Aydry.”

“Oh hey there, Ed, Jym. Good to see ya.” 

“Likewise, ma’a-” 

Young Jym was interrupted by a crashing sound from the bushes near Aydry’s back door. Gel sprang to his feet. He ran to the corner of the house. He drew his crossbow from its holster on his back. He peered around the logs and timbers. There. Rustling away into the distance. Something green. Bipedal. Moving fast. 

Goblins. 

He took a shot, but the little fuckers were nigh-impossible to hit in the dense thickets. He counted three, maybe four. Should’ve smelled them on the wind. Nutmeg should’ve smelled them. It was Aydry’s strong tea. Damn fool woman. 

“Okay, now we have to leave,” he said, returning to the fire. Nutmeg and Sister D had distributed the goods from Ed and Jym. 

“They’ll know you’re coming,” cautioned Aydry. “I told you you were late.” 

“If they get there before ya, they’ll seal the mountain up tighter than a-” 

“No colorful metaphors needed,” interrupted Nutmeg. “I understand. It’s a race.” 

Gel eyed his horse. Gods dammit. He’d have to ride. This was going to play hell with his back. 

Chapter 4 – In Which a Furious Chase Ensues

Nutmeg ducked under a branch. And another one. And another one. The tangled, hoary woodlands north of Truman’s Dell were not the ideal place for hot pursuit. Fucking goblins. They gotta ruin everything. He could’ve lingered with Old Aydry for hours. Fortune-telling ruled! He might’ve liked some more specificity. Beware great heights, and the clammy fingers of the grave. Yeah, no shit. Great heights were extremely scary as a default state. 

A terrified squirrel tumbled from an alder bough as the trio whipped past. Nutmeg dug his heels in, and Piggles – (he had settled on this name) – darted forward. The goblins were still just in sight, every once in a while, between the trees. They were on foot. That wasn’t necessarily a boon to the pursuers. There was a small track to follow, a goat track or something, but overgrown with ferns and trees and shrubs and just genuinely a shit ass place to try and hunt goblin prey. 

They rode hard. They crashed over little streams. The horses stumbled down screes. Pine needles and dead leaves flew around them. The smells of the woods were overwhelming – sap and rot, sweet mountain air. Through it all came goblinstink. They rode and rode, and the woodland spilled out around them. 

The horses were foaming and Nutmeg’s thews were aching when the trees began to thin. Gel spurred his horse ahead, eagerly hurtling to the end of the woods. They burst at once from the treeline, and the world opened up, and Nutmeg nearly reined in to stop and appreciate the scene. The Lone Peak – it must have been the Lone Peak, that was all it could be – towered in the distance, splitting the sky like a jagged knife. A single plume of smoke rose from some unseen chimney in the cliff. The sun was just starting to set, and red light washed the slopes of the Peak. An open field lay between them and the crag, and the goblins were sprinting pell-mell through the tall grass. 

“Kill em!” shouted Nutmeg. He leaned down and urged Piggles forward. Gel was trying to get his crossbow off his back. Nutmeg watched with a kind of resignation as Gel fumbled, dropped the crossbow, and then toppled from the saddle as he tried to catch it. His horse whinnied and tossed her head, and stopped to crop at the grass. 

“Fuck’s sakes.” Nutmeg patted Piggles’ neck. “Up to us, bud.” Sister D was far behind. She’d probably stop to help Gel. Gods dammit. The four goblins were halfway across the field. They were clearly making for a path up the mountain, a place marked with skulls on spears. Piggles gave it his all. Nutmeg had a plan. Daggers. Daggers in each hand, landing on goblins, stabbing, so on. Easy peasy. Over the open ground, Piggles was gaining. Easily. 

One of the goblins stopped, panting, and raised a horn to his lips. The sound of the horn was unpleasant, a rank toot. But it echoed off the crags and juts. 

Nutmeg rode the goblin down. He leapt from Piggles’ back and landed on the goblin, hard. Bones crunched. He snapped the horn in half and stood on the goblin’s chest. The other three kept running – oh, shit, damn. More goblins emerged from an unseen hole in the face of the Lone Peak. Goblins with longbows. A few hobgoblins among them. They all nocked, drew, and loosed as a unit, like some sort of perverse goblin hit squad. Arrows flew down, arcing out toward Nutmeg. They all landed short, thudding into the grass like very sharp raindrops thirty yards from Nutmeg’s head. But the message was clearly sent. 

“Alright, fine. Fuck it.” Nutmeg stepped off the goblin he’d pinned. “You’re coming wi-” 

But he hardly had time to speak when the goblin scrambled up, turned, and ran, despite the many broken bones it had suffered. It ran past the line of arrows, where more were thudding down now. It ran and ran, and then, in the arms of its comrades, it hobbled up the mountain trail. 

“Balls.” 

“Yeah, that’s not great.” Gel had reached him, on foot. The elf squinted down the sights of his crossbow. “I think I could hit one of them at this range. Maybe. It’s a long shot.” 

“Don’t bother.” Nutmeg brushed grass stains from his breeches. “Where’s Sister D?” 

“Chasing down my dumbass horse.” Gel sighed. “Alright. Backup plan?”

“I don’t think we have one.” 

“No, I know. It’s time to think of one.”

Another batch of arrows struck the field. The goblins were shooting a little further now; the arrows were only ten yards away. 

“First things first: let’s get the fuck out of here. At least out of bowshot.” 

It was not a dignified walk back to the treeline. Nutmeg thought he heard the goblins hooting and hollering. He loathed them. Stupid little green dudes. They sucked. Sister D gathered up the horses and met them back by the trees, just as the sun disappeared behind the western hills. Without the daylight to warm them, the night was cool, and the mountain breezes were rising. Nutmeg sat heavily with his back to a cedar. It looked like the Head Jack had sent them with some sausages and cheese – not bad stuff, all things considered. They chewed tough sausages in silence, without a fire. 

Nutmeg, more ravenous than his peers, finished first. He fished around in his pack until he found the familiar round lump: the crystal ball, the Dwarven seeing-stone. He held it up. The gold mist swirled and danced in the dim light of the waning moon. “Khaddakar,” he said, quietly. The mist shivered and faded, and they saw the Lone Peak. And the door, the great door they had seen before. Now, though, goblins were returning through the great door, slapping one another on the back and laughing. They processed in, helping their wounded comrade. Then the door slammed shut with a finality that seemed serious even in the little crystal ball. 

“What should we do?” asked Sister D. She was watching the ball too, mesmerized. 

“Well, couple options. There’s this door. Seems hard to get through, definitely being watched. Probably murder-holes or something there.”

“We don’t know that,” said Gel. 

“Yeah, but come on. It’s a dwarven stronghold. The front door probably isn’t easy.”

“Any other entrances?” 

“I’m sure there are.” Nutmeg stood and peered out at the Lone Peak. “Something as old and big as that should have a few back doors. I doubt they’re easy to find, though, and if we go crawling around the mountain, we’ll get picked off like flies.” 

“There’s some sort of campfire up there. If there’s a chimney, we could climb down it.” 

“Probably a good idea,” said Sister D. “We need to get in there as soon as possible. With every minute that goes by, those two captives are in more and more danger.” 

“Oh yeah.” 

“Haha woops.” 

Nutmeg patted the cedar behind him. It was sturdy wood, thick and living and strong. Thicker than steel, in fact. An idea was sprouting like a seedling. “Gel. Shoot a bolt at this tree.” 

“Shoot…a bolt. At the tree.” 

“Please.” 

“That is the magic word,” admitted Gel. He raised his crossbow, loaded, loosed. It thudded into the cedar, buried head-deep in the living wood. “You owe me a few coppers for the bolt.”

“Fine, no problemo. Listen. I’ve got an idea…” 

Chapter 5 – In Which Nutmeg’s Idea Is Put To the Test

“You have to actually tell us the idea, Nutmeg, you can’t just say ‘I’ve got an idea’ and stare into the night dramatically.” 

“Oh, yeah, sorry, zoned out there. Here’s the plan.” 

He detailed his plan. Gel had to admit – it sounded like it could work. It wasn’t great, but the priestess was right: time was of the essence. The human hostages might have valuable intelligence on the goblins in the mountain. And in Gel’s experience, rescued hostages were often good sources of reward money. It would be nice icing on this adventure cake if they were able to rescue the humans. 

Nutmeg’s Dwarven axe was different. It was special. It held an edge like no other blade, even as it hewed through cedar and pine. Gel’s job in the assembly line was rope-related: the larger cuts had to be secured to the smaller ones, and they all needed arm-loops and hand-holds for easy transport. Nutmeg worked like a madman. The sound of hacking and hewing thundered on all through the night. Sister D had to take a sleeping draught to commune with her god or whatever it was she did while she slept. But she had an important part to play in the plan, and that meant she had to commune. 

Gel wasn’t a super outdoorsy guy. He preferred the canyons of stone and glass, the dark alleys and the narrow side-streets. But this? This was nice country. Not too many bugs, good smells in the air, cool at night and warm in the day. Could be okay to stay around here for a while. In fact, it’d almost be a shame to go underground when the sun rose. 

He turned to watch Nutmeg fell his third tree. The dwarf had stripped to his breeches, and sweat glistened on his chest hair. He swung the axe hard, and it bit nearly halfway through the tree before he drew it back for another stroke. Thud. Thud. Thud. “Timber!” shouted Nutmeg, grinning from ear to ear. The young pine toppled, crashed to the ground. 

By the time the sun rose, Nutmeg’s creations were ready. Sister D emerged from the deeper woods where she’d laid her head and stopped, gaping openmouthed at the siege equipment. 

“One night?” she asked. 

“It’s easy,” said Gel. “Nutmeg’s a tough motherfucker.” 

The dwarf blushed. He honest-to-gods blushed. Granted, it wasn’t easy to tell, with his bushy beard, but Gel was an excellent judge of facial expressions. 

In truth, the dwarf’s creations were crude, ugly things. Tall chunks of tree, six feet each, with littler wooden segments hanging loose as smaller shields on either side. 

“They’re a little heavy,” said Nutmeg. “Gel did a good job spreading out the holds, to keep the balance a little easier. But it’s going to be a hard morning. You ready with your spells, D?” 

“Prayers, and yes.” She cracked her knuckles. “Shall we?” 

Gel struggled to lift his wooden shield. It was monstrous. He was a fit dude, but this was obscene. Sister D held out her hands and chanted a prayer, words like notes of graceful music. A joyful strength filled Gel’s arms, and he saw a light settling around Nutmeg. “It won’t last forever,” said the priestess, “but it should get us across the field.” 

Her prayer helped, but Gel was still out of breath by the time they were halfway to Lone Peak. He lowered the shield to look out and up. Nutmeg was leading the way. No goblins on the peak yet. None at all. He paused, caught his breath, shouldered the shield again, and was off. 

At the base of the peak, where the skulls were mounted on spears, the dwarf stopped. Gel was grateful. Nutmeg pulled out the crystal ball and spoke the word; the mountain door above them shimmered into view. “Alright. No gobbos yet. Let’s get as high up as we can.” 

“How are we getting through the door?” 

“Sister D’s got it.” The dwarf raised his shield and started up the switchback trail. Gel brought up the rear. It wasn’t easy. The shield was a hard burden to bear. 

They were a hundred feet up when the first arrow whizzed down. It clattered off the rocks near Nutmeg. “Did the door open?” called Gel. 

“No!” Nutmeg replied. “I think they’ve got arrowslits or something.” 

“Alright, alright, we got this.” 

Thukthukthuk. 

The arrows came hard and fast. The floodgate had been opened. Gel’s shield shivered under the impacts. They were making progress up the switchback still, but only a few feet at a time, arranging their triple cover as needed, turtling their way up the mountain path. After what felt like several hundred tiny stops, Gel knelt behind his shield, propping it up against a boulder, and drew his crossbow. He’d gotten a look at the arrowslits now. They lined the wall leading up to the door, and there were a few adjacent to the door itself. He peeked out. At least a dozen slits, but only half were manned. Good. He darted back behind the shield; an arrow split the air where his nose had been a moment before. He loaded the crossbow and visualized the rock wall. A dozen slits. Six manned. They popped up and down to loose their shots. He heard the rhythm. Each archer had a rhythm. Thud. Duck. Nock. Stand. Loose. Thud. Duck. Nock. Stand. Loose. Thud. Duck. Nock. Stand. 

He swung out and shot. He could’ve done it with his eyes closed. The bolt flew through an arrowslit. A goblin screamed on the other side. 

“Oh, fuck yeah!” Nutmeg charged up the path, shield held before him. Sister D followed. Gel strapped his crossbow to his back and followed them, arms shaking. His muscles were meant for subtler work than this. They were in the final stretch now, though. Running parallel to the slits. The door was set back in the wall after a long, narrow path. No avoiding the arrows there. Out of the corner of his eye, Gel could see the front of Sister D’s shield. It looked like a pincushion. The wood was splintering. The shield wouldn’t last much longer. His was probably in no better state. An arrow struck it, and the tip came jutting out centimeters from his brow. 

Nutmeg was at the door now, kneeling behind his shield. Sister D propped hers up alongside his, using the side panels to brace them together. Gel tripped. His shield tumbled away. Pain lanced up his leg. Shot. Gods dammit. He crawled to the shield. Another arrow hit him.

“Gel!” Nutmeg looked to Sister D. “Get through the door. I’ve got him.” 

A third arrow buried itself in Gel’s side. The pain was white-hot. And who knew what diseases might be living on goblin arrowheads. Gross little fucks. Awful stupid bastards. If he died like this, it would be an absolute shame. 

Nutmeg was there, then, standing astride Gel, his shield held high. “Can you walk?” he asked. 

“Kind of.” Gel crawled along, dragging his shot leg behind him. “Cover me.” 

“Done.” Nutmeg flexed and raised Gel’s fallen shield. In each hand, he held a six-foot, six-inch-thick log. The guy was a beefcake. “How are you doing, Sister D?” 

“Almost there,” she said. Her eyes were closed, and her hand was pressed to the stone of the door. “Palladius,” she intoned, “hear me. Let your heat flow through your servant. Let your hand be my hand. Let the fire of the sun spill from my fingers. Palladius, hear me.” 

“Does this usually work?” called Gel. 

“Hush,” said Nutmeg. “You want to try shooting them through the slit again?” 

“Doubt I can.” Gel gritted his teeth. Spots were dancing before his eyes; the pain was incredible. Were Nutmeg’s arms shaking, or was the whole world just wavering now? 

“Palladius!” called Sister D again, her voice louder. “HEAR ME!” A light grew at her fingertips. “Let your heat flow through your servant!” The light grew. “Let your hand be my hand!” Gel could hardly even look at the priestess; the white-hot light of a forge burned bright where she touched the stone. “Let the fire of the sun spill from my fingers! Palladius! HEAR ME!” 

He heard, apparently. 

When Gel could see again, when the afterimage of the priestess faded from his eyes, Nutmeg was dragging him through a hole in the door into a little foyer beyond. Sister D knelt just inside the door, cradling her hand. The stone had been melted. Melted. Melted like butter. 

“Hey, can I get a drink?” asked Gel. 

“I’ve got you.” Sister D shook her hand; smoke rose from the fingertips, although the flesh looked unburnt. She drew a red draught from her pack and passed it to Gel. He tipped it back. The three arrows squelched out of him. Most of the bloodflow stopped. It would take more than that to get him back to full fighting force, but this was good enough for now. 

Which was fortunate, given the goblins. 

Nutmeg had dropped the shields and drawn his axe. Three goblins and two hobgoblins – bigger, meaner fuckers – came piling out of a well-hidden door in the side wall. That way arrowslits lay. 

“Sister D, you good to fight?” 

“Frankly? No.” The priestess was pale, and her hand still smoked. “Sorry.” 

“No worries. Gel?” 

“Good enough.” Gel drew his rapier and his shortsword. The goblins were armed, too, each with a machete. Gel twirled the shortsword. It wasn’t a big space. This was close-quarters. He’d have to be careful. And quick. 

“Hey, quick question, before we get started,” said Nutmeg. “Who’s your boss? What’s going on here?” 

“Die, scum!” bellowed one of the hobgoblins. He darted forward, machete raised to hack at Nutmeg. Gel stepped in and put the point of the rapier in just the right place. The hobgoblin impaled himself. 

The three goblins jumped on Nutmeg. He threw them off, whirling his axe as best he could without catching it on the walls. The remaining hobgoblin recovered his pal’s machete and advanced on Gel, both blades high. Gel put his foot back, ready to catch his weight. The hobgoblin swung down with both swords. Gel parried with the shortsword, letting his back foot take the impact. He jabbed out with the rapier and nicked the hobgoblin in the thigh. Close to the femoral artery. Not close enough. The hobgoblin kept one machete pressed against the shortsword; with the second, he tried to push forward. Gel’s back leg gave out, and he stumbled down. He caught another good cut with the rapier, but it was too close for the long blade. As usual. He made an exaggerated jab, and when the hobgoblin went to parry, he dropped the rapier, put both hands on the shortsword’s hilt, and drove it up like a spike. He left the ground with the force of his jump. The pain in his leg was ferocious, but who gave a shit? He put the shortsword through the base of the hobgoblin’s jaw. 

By the time he recovered his rapier and turned to help Nutmeg, the dwarf had resolved his goblin-related difficulties. Two lay bisected, one vertically, one horizontally. Nutmeg sat on the third one, grinning ear-to-ear. 

“As far as plans go, I’d rate that a moderate success.” 

“Could’ve been better.” Gel gestured for Nutmeg to move. “Give me this goblin.” 

“Oh, shit.” Nutmeg stood, laughing. “Listen, goblin dude, you are in for it now.” 

Gel didn’t give the goblin time to respond. He stabbed him a few times in fleshy, non-lethal places, relishing the sound of its screams. “Listen up, you little fuck,” he said. “I was not expecting to get shot with arrows this morning. So you can understand why I might be frustrated. I assume you speak the common tongue? If you understand me, nod.” The goblin nodded. “Fantastic. My buddy here asked you some questions. Who’s your boss?”

“Forg,” the goblin said. No trace of resistance in this little guy. “I report directly to Clawbearer Forg.” 

“Clawbearer?” 

“He bears a Claw,” said the goblin.

Gel cut off one of the goblin’s toes. “Rimshot. You’re so funny. See this toe? You give me another answer like that and I swear to every god ever, I will eat your toe in front of you. Now. What’s going on here?” 

“I only know a little!” the goblin insisted. “Forg got in touch with my clan leader, asked for some soldiers. I’m a good shot, agreed to go. We’re holding this stronghold for him. And some of the guys check out the deep caves, but I’m not part of that team.”

“What team are you a part of?” asked Nutmeg. 

“Arrowslit team.” 

“That’s a bullshit answer,” declared Gel. “Check it out.” He popped the bloody toe into his mouth and chewed. It wasn’t great. He spat nail and swallowed. The goblin stared at him. So did Nutmeg. So did Sister D. 

“Gel,” said Nutmeg, carefully, “I feel like you were really just looking for an excuse to eat his toe.” 

“Whatever.” Gel flipped the shortsword in his hand and held it above the goblin. “We good?” 

“Yeah, I guess so.” Nutmeg sighed. “There’ll be more knowledgeable goblins in the cave.” 

“Wait!” Sister D held out her smoking hand to stop Gel. “What about the human prisoners?” 

“Oh, them?” The goblin chuckled. “Yeah, we figured we’d kill them today. They’re probably dead now. That’s what those villagers get for trying to stand up to Clawbearer Forg.” 

Sister D stood, unhooked her mace from her belt, and murdered the goblin. 

“Yeah, like I said back in Dwarroway,” she said, shaking gore from the mace, “I missed the moral clarity of this. Let’s save those hostages.” 

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