Episode 013: Negotiating the Depths (Text)

When we last left our heroes…while exploring the ancient fortress of KHADDAKAR, SISTER DONDALLA and GELMAHTA lost their comrade NUTMEG. After recovering him from the clutches of a tribe of subterranean lizard-people, they continued further into the mountain – only to be ambushed by the vengeful lizards! A mysterious group of masked dwarves rescued them – but are they really rescued? Or merely stumbling from the frying pan to the fire? 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – In Which Nutmeg is Spat Upon

The statue of the dwarf was a good forty feet tall, carved from one solid piece of rock. Its hands rested on a colossal stone axe. On the other side of the entrance hall, its twin glowered down. Nutmeg reached out a hand to touch the stone. Yup. Good, solid stuff. He licked his fingertips. Basalt, emphasis on the salt. 

“Please, do not touch the stonework more than necessary,” said Roonwild. The gray dwarf had a pained look on her face. “I worked all through the sleeping-hours for weeks to restore the edifices of Khaddakar.” 

“You did a great job,” said Nutmeg. He meant it. 

The Pukall, the gray dwarves, were leading them up through a series of foyers and entrance halls. They’d crossed through the gigantic door from the glowing caverns, marched not quite at knifepoint by the half-dozen gray dwarves. Their apparent leader, Roonwild, was not necessarily hostile. That was about as generous as Nutmeg could be. 

Gel leaned down and whispered to Nutmeg. “Who are these guys?” he asked. 

“We are the Pukall,” said Roonwild, who had no problem hearing Gel’s whisper. “The gray dwarves.” 

“Yes, yeah, we got that.” Gel straightened up. They were ascending a great staircase now; each step had a cunningly rounded edge that looked more like fabric than stone. “I’m afraid I don’t know what that means.” 

“You are a sun dwarf,” said Roonwild, indicating Nutmeg. “Sun dwarves, the Theaka, and gray dwarves are two roots of the same tree. While the sun dwarves went up, the gray dwarves delved down.” 

“Okay, that explains some of it. But what are you doing here?” 

“Roonwild!” said another gray dwarf. “We must not indulge the prisoners. Not until Alegna speaks to them.” 

“Ah, you’re right, Loopis.” Roonwild replaced her gray mask and fell silent. 

The gray dwarves led them on. No torches burned here, but there were queer blue lanterns casting cold light from carvings on the wall. The lanterns had the same light as the mushrooms from the larger cave. Distilled, somehow. When they came to a long, tall hallway lined with bas-reliefs, Nutmeg stopped again to admire the stonework. 

“Hey. Idiot. Hands off.” This time, it was Loopis who spoke. The one who, unlike Roonwild, was hostile. 

“I’m capable of looking with my eyes.”

“Yeah, well, no time. Keep moving, surface scum.”

Nutmeg rounded on Loopis. The whole company came to a halt there in the corridor. Sister D sighed. 

“Hey man. Hey. Hey. No need to be a dick.” 

“Scum,” said Loopis again. He spat at Nutmeg’s feet. 

“Nutmeg, please, come on.” Sister D touched his shoulder. “We’re not looking for a fight.” 

Nutmeg gave Loopis the stink eye. He wanted nothing more, in that moment, than to punch his new sword right through Loopis’ stupid gray mask. He counted backwards from fifteen, shook himself all over, and gave Loopis a wide, toothy smile. 

“You’re right, D. Thanks. Lead on, Roonwild.” 

His thoughts of the unspeakable violence he wanted to unleash on Loopis disappeared as soon as they crossed the threshold to the next chamber. If the great cavern of mushrooms and gems had been Khaddakar at its most primal, its most natural, this was Khaddakar as the dwarves made it: fashioned painstakingly from the heart of the mountain. This had clearly been an audience chamber. Columns marched the length of the hall, lit by veins of glowing blue goo. Doors led out, no doubt to the inner sanctums of the stronghold. His nose twitched. One of those doors led to a forge, a smithy. He could tell by the smell of burnt iron on the subterranean wind. Someone was working there. 

“Hey, Alegna, you around?” called Roonwild. She kept leading them forwards, the other gray dwarves in tow. They approached a high dais at the end of the hall, where a fantastic throne loomed high and black, wrought from raw iron. 

“She’s in the back, Roony,” came a reply. Another gray dwarf, this one a man with a long, thick beard, emerged from the shadows behind the throne. He had high, pronounced eyebrows, and wore a pair of curious goggles on his head. “Hey, guests! And not goblins this time!” 

“Can you go get her, Dumble?”

“Yeah, yeah.” 

This goggled fellow disappeared again behind the throne; Nutmeg heard locks and bolts clicking and clacking. There was an awkward, empty silence. Gel cleared his throat. Then he did it again. Then he did it a third time, very loudly. Nutmeg cleared his throat back. Gel did it again. Sister D even threw in a throat-clearing. 

“Shut the fuck up!” barked Loopis, at last. 

“Gotcha, turd,” said Nutmeg. 

“Roonwild! You’re back early!”

A new gray dwarf had appeared from the door behind the throne. She looked very much like all the other gray dwarves, save for a black tattoo across her chin and up her cheeks, accentuating sculpting her flat, broad face into something with a little more definition. She took a seat on the throne. It was just her size. 

“I am, Alegna. We caught these prisoners in the Starfield; the scale-skins were hunting them for sport.” 

“Hey, I resent that,” said Nutmeg. “It was a matter of personal revenge, not just sport.” 

“Hold your tongue,” said Alegna. Unlike the other gray dwarves, her voice was clipped and flinty. “What are you doing in the mountain of Khaddakar?” 

“We heard there’s a dragon down here.”

“The goblins said much the same thing,” said Alegna. “Before we tortured them, tore them apart, and threw their remnants down the pit.” 

“Oh, you guys have a pit?” 

“Cool.” 

“We, too, killed some goblins,” said Sister D. “Cleaned them out, in fact. They are gone from the mountain now.” 

“Is that so?” Alegna raised an eyebrow. “Well. Perhaps we’re off on the wrong foot. I am Alegna, captain of this expeditionary force. You are?” 

“Nutmeg.” 

“Gel.”

“Sister Dondalla.” 

“That tells me little.” Alegna pursed her lips. “What master do you serve?” 

“What master do you serve?”

“I’m asking the questions.” 

“‘I’m asking the questions.’” 

“Nutmeg,” warned Sister D. 

“Fine, sorry. We come from a distant realm, the Hegemony of the Nine Stars. A surface realm. Far from this mountain. And we come on behalf of the Hegemony. We are – we’re powerful warriors, elite warriors sent by the Hegemony to ensure that this dragon is neutralized.” 

“That’s really all we needed,” said Alegna. She looked pleased. “Roony, you and your squad can knock off for a bit. Take one extra rest ration this cycle. Dumble, fetch the Instrument.” She turned back to the trio. Sitting there on the black throne, she looked as much a queen as a captain. “I believe we can enter into a mutually beneficial trade arrangement, surface dwellers.” 

Chapter 2 – In Which Nutmeg Eats a Fish Head Or Two

While Dumble was out fetching the Instrument, Alegna helped them set up a few chairs in the audience hall. Once off the high dais, she was fairly personable, almost friendly. Nutmeg watched the way she worked – hauling a stone chair in each hand from the other side of the room, talking as she did, barking out the occasional order to a gray dwarf who dared look like they had nothing to do. 

One of her many commands was a call for breakfast. Was it time for breakfast already? Or did the gray dwarves run on some different cycle of meals? Whatever the case: it was like no breakfast Nutmeg had ever seen. Boiled mushrooms, served with the heads of underground cave fish, which were in turn stuffed with some sort of reddish moss. Sister D poked at her fish head. She looked a little green around the gills. Nutmeg took a bite. Not bad. Fresh. The bones in the fish head must have been reduced somehow, transformed into little pulpy bursts, like the center of a ripe berry. The moss soaked up the residual bone-juice, and gave the whole thing a lovely aftertaste. A tray of mugs had come with the food, and he washed down the fish head with a gulp of some dark, vinegary wine. 

“You like that?” asked Alegna, surprised. “I’ve only met a few surface dwellers in my life, but they rarely take to traditional pukall dishes.” 

“Never had anything like it,” said Gel, who had taken exactly one bite of his fish head. 

“Hey, I actually do like it.” Nutmeg raised his mug. “And this stuff’s not bad, either!” 

“Spiderwine,” said Alegna, knowingly. “It’s an acquired taste, but once you acquire that taste – whooee.” 

“Captain,” came Dumble’s voice. He had returned, carrying a strange, spindly device. It was the length of his arm, a long metal rod that ended in a branching explosion of perhaps a hundred filigree-fine wires. “The Instrument.” 

“Thank you, Dumble.”

“What is that?”

“Looks like a hairbrush.” 

“Gel, what kind of hairbrushes are you using?” 

“Normal ones.” 

“It’s likely not a hairbrush.” Alegna took it gingerly from Dumble. “We’ve found a lot of things in Khaddakar. Some of it had been picked over by the lizards, but most was in remarkably good shape. This, however – well, we were exploring one of the chambers to the north, and found this on a pedestal in the center of that chamber. Dumble, of course, took it as a sample, to make sure we understood it. But when we pulled it out of the pedestal, it was like pulling the cork from a bottle. A thin green mist billowed forth, and then coalesced into the form of a furious dwarf.” 

“So you activated a dwarf fart ghost.” 

“The specter killed three good soldiers before we sealed off the chamber. We believe now that it may be some sort of binding instrument, a device used to trap some malevolent spirit in that room. I can’t risk any more soldiers on it – we’re thin enough as it is, and we’ve got another two years in the expedition.”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” said Gel, before Nutmeg could stop him. “I don’t see what this has to do with us. We’re just passing through. I don’t really care if you’ve got some sort of wacky expedition or whatever – just point us in the direction of the dragon, and we’ll be on our way.” 

“Earlier, I mentioned a trade,” said Alegna. “We know where the dragon’s lair is. We’ll let you through our secure facilities to the dragon’s lair if you help us with our ghost problem.” 

The trio sat for a moment in silence. Nutmeg eyed Sister D’s plate. “Hey, D, you gonna eat that?”

“No.”

“Great.” He snorfed into her fish head. “Okay, okay,” he said, through a mouthful of moss. “I can respect a good trade. But you gotta tell us what’s up with this ghost. Does it, like, cut you open? Cast hocus pocus on you? Spook you real hard?” 

“It drained the very blood from our soldiers,” said Dumble, in as somber a voice as possible. “Left them pallid husks.” 

“Yeesh.” Nutmeg slurped a bit of moss from the fish head like it was a noodle. “Sister D, you got any ideas?” 

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe.”

“Are you a shaman?” asked Dumble. “Some sort of enchanter?” 

“I am a priestess of the god of the sun.” Sister D stretched. “But I’m also very, very tired. If you guys have a ghost for me to deal with, I’m going to need to meditate.” 

“That’s acceptable,” said Alegna. “We can offer you quarters for this rest cycle in the north wing.”

“Isn’t the north wing where the ghost is?” 

“Well, almost everything is in the north wing,” admitted Alegna. “Don’t fear. We have secured a number of chambers for use.” 

“Yeah, I could use a breather,” said Nutmeg. “Sounds good to me.” He stood up. “Got any more fish heads?” 

The captain led them out of the audience hall and into the north wing. The halls were smaller here, will doors lining the walls on either side. It felt like a barracks. It probably was. Or at least, probably had been. Maybe the elite of Khaddakar had slept here. Maybe the smith who had made Nutmeg’s axe – his sword – had laid his head in these very chambers. 

Alegna stopped at an open door. “I hope this will suffice,” she said. “We haven’t used this room yet.” 

Six stone beds lined the room, each with a little end-table beside it. A glowing blue orb hung from the ceiling by a fine silver chain. There was even a ewer of clear spring water and six cups. 

“Hey, it’s more luxurious than we usually get.” Nutmeg stretched out on one of the stone beds. 

“Wonderful. There’s a water closet in the back. We’ll come retrieve you in one rest cycle.” 

Alegna turned and shut the door. There was a clicking noise. Then a clank. And a clunk. 

“Goodnight, guys.” 

“Hey, no, hang on.” Gel stood by the door and ran his hand up and down the seam. “They locked us in!” 

“Huh.”

“I don’t trust them.” Gel set down his pack and rifled through it. “I don’t trust them one bit. They locked us in here, they told us that wild story about a ghost – I don’t like it. I’m busting out.” 

“Gel, come on.” Nutmeg propped himself up on his elbows. “I’m tired, man.”

“Tired is how you get merked.” Gel squatted and inspected the lock. “You know that asshole Loopis has it in for us.” 

“Hey, Gel, could you do me a big favor?” asked Sister D. 

“Yeah, what’s up?” 

“Can you shut the fuck up and let me rest.” 

Nutmeg threw his head back and shouted a laugh. Gel only sighed. “Fine. I won’t disturb you any further.” There was a clicking sound, and the door swung open. “I’ll see you after the next rest cycle, or when they kill and eat us. Whichever comes first.” 

Nutmeg rolled over, and was asleep in moments. 

Chapter 3 – In Which Gel Lights a Candle

The Pukall were gone. Good. Gel had a black bandanna around his neck, and pulled it up over his face. Unnecessary? Probably. But it got him in the mood. The mood to sneak. Something was off with these gray dwarves. They were clearly a military force of some sort, just like those goblins up top. Doing restoration on Khaddakar. Long term. Clearing the place out. It smelled like a shaping operation, like some sort of project to prepare the ground for a larger force. And frankly, that was their business. Gel rather liked the idea of a whole bunch of gray dwarves popping out of the ground to, say, yank on peoples’ toes or whatever their deal was. But…but…he rankled. He just rankled at their whole demeanor. Bunch of assholes. Besides, they never mentioned what was behind the south door in the great hall. Or what, specifically, they were looking for in these ghost-infested chambers. 

Might as well take a look. 

The light was low and blue. He danced from doorway to doorway, ducking his head to avoid the low lintels. Dwarves had definitely built this place. No other doors locked from the outside like theirs had; he figured the Pukall had done that themselves. Gel came to an intersection in the corridor. Voices carried from further down the left-hand branch. Two gray dwarves. He put his hand to the nearest door and pushed it open, sliding out of the hallway as the voices got closer. 

This room was dark. Fully dark. And from the old, musty air, the Pukall had not spent much time on rehabbing this place. Gel squinted, hoping his eyes would adjust. Outside, the gray dwarves were passing the door. Two voices he didn’t know – (how many of these fuckers were there?) – talking about those odd guests who had stumbled down from the surface. Something about “that fat dwarf.” Gel grinned in the dark. 

The voices passed him by. His eyes had started to adjust a little; light spilled in from the hall. There was something in the middle of the room. A vague lump, the size and shape of a human. Gel kept a hand on the hilt of his rapier; with the other hand, he fished in a belt-pouch for a firestarter. He found it, flicked the trip. In the brief flame, he saw a coffin. A coffin, standing upright, lid ajar. Was it a coffin? He flicked the trip again. Not quite a coffin. A metal silhouette. A case. Human-shaped. The lid was open. 

He took the time to light a little candle. The floor of the room, he noticed, sloped down gently to a metal grate beneath the coffin. And the coffin itself – it was no coffin. Not really. Something far worse. An instrument of torture. He opened the lid of the vertical coffin, and his fears were confirmed. Thick, brutal spikes lined the inside. There were stains on the iron spikes. A few were twisted out of position. As if knocked loose by the struggles of a victim. 

Nothing else in the room. Just the spike-lined coffin, and the metal grate to catch the leavings. 

Down the hall from barracks and bedrooms. Deep beneath the earth. Who did they put in this thing? The dwarves who built Khaddakar – who did they kill here? Why? He pressed his finger against one of the spikes. It wasn’t particularly sharp. It would take pressure to break the skin. Squeezed to death as much as impaled. He set his candle inside the iron coffin. It lit the spikes from below. What was this place, Khaddakar? What had it been? Even at its greatest, was it a hall of horrors? And for that matter, what was it now? A military force of goblins. A military force of gray dwarves. And the three of them, subcontractors for a secret government agency. He pressed his finger to the spike again, and pressed until he felt blood. Like little mountains, these spikes. This mountain of death. No wonder it was haunted. 

What about this place begat violence?

“Hey.” 

Gel spun and drew his blades. But there was no one there. Just the shadows. 

“Ah, sorry, I forgot to de-unmaterialize.” A ghostly figure wavered into being. A dwarf. Green and misty. Hairy. Dead, but hairy. 

“What the fuck?” Gel stepped back. He bumped against the iron coffin. 

“Don’t be spooked, ya fuckin mortal.” The ghost dwarf hovered a foot off the ground. He wore a smith’s apron, and his hair and beard were bound together in an odd sort of tail. “What’s cracking?” 

“…why are you talking like that?” 

“Hard to calibrate the goldurn astral voice encoders,” the dwarf explained. Gel did not feel that his question had been sufficiently answered. “Here, hang on, lemme fuckin uhhhh…there we go. Does this manner match thine expectations more properly, elf?” 

“Sure. I feel like that’s not my biggest question, though.” 

“Verily, I have questions to ask of thee as well. What bringeth an elf to the most ancient halls of Khaddakar?” 

“I’m here doing some stuff for some people. Are you dead? Are you a ghost?” 

“A ghost.” The ghost held up his hands and stared through them at Gel. “I am, ‘strewth, a phantom from the Ghost Dimension. My body lies dead ‘neath a nameless, unmarked tomb of mud and rot, gone these many years to dust. Prithee, does the Empire still stand? The last missive received spake only of the fall of the western holds – we heard no more.” 

“The Empire? Listen, buddy, I’m not really a scholar of history, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t had an empire in, like, a thousand years? Maybe?”

“‘Sblood,” swore the dwarf. “Well. I thank thee for such an answer forthright. The Pukall were far less forthcoming.” 

“Okay, so you know about them.”

“Defilers,” intoned the ghost. “My comrades and I, unsealed from our ancient rest, did attempt to speak with them. Yet they chanted foul chants at us, and some of our number became quite cross. Lokatha did, in a fit of pique most unbecoming of a Shieldlady of Vahallidar, drain the very blood from the bodies of two Pukall.” 

“Uh.” Gel had lowered his swords, and now regretted that choice. He wasn’t sure if swords worked on ghosts, but it would at least make him feel better. “So you guys can drain the blood from people?” 

“Verily!” 

“Well, cut that shit out, man.” 

“Would that I could convince Lokatha so.” The dwarf sighed, then brightened. “Ah! But I am forgetting my manners. My name is Hrothaggan, First Load Bearer of Khaddakar.” 

“Gel. I’m an elf. Listen, dude, these Pukall – they’ve got me and my friends locked up. Can you guys pretend to fuck off for a little bit so they help us out?”

“And why would we render aid unto the likes of either thou or these Pukall?” Hrothaggan’s voice was frosty. “As I see it, ye are all defilers. What was thine intent in entering this chamber, anyway, if not for the purposes of defiling?” Hrothaggan’s eyes glowed bright, pinpoints of a black and eerie light in the green mist of his face. 

“Honestly, I was just poking around. Not trying to defile stuff. I don’t even know what this chamber is for.” 

“Exquisite pleasure and pain,” intoned Hrothaggan. “O! Do I yearn for the days when I could enter the Sweet Mother, close the lid, and experience a type of brutal bliss unique to this chamber and this chamber alone. Canst thou not taste it in the rock? There is a reason I returned here. So much of my energies, my essence, hath been spilt inside these walls; I am suffused here.” 

Gel nodded. “Yeah. Okay. I get that. That makes a lot of sense. But listen, so, like I said, can we ask a favor of you?” 

“And again! Again I declaim: why shouldst thou dare demand succor of me and mine?” 

Gel racked his brain. He could appeal to Hrothaggan on physical terms – he totally understood the whole “exquisite pleasure and pain” thing. Maybe even take the Sweet Mother here for a ride. Eh, maybe not. Something else, then. Something that appealed to this dwarf. 

“My comrade-in-arms,” said Gel. “He’s sleeping down the hall from here. Imprisoned by the Pukall. He is a dwarf, a real dwarf like you, not a gray dwarf. His name is Nutmeg. He carries a blade forged by Dolgatha. Well, he had an axe with Dolgatha’s mark, but now he’s got a sword. Lost the axe in an underground river. Either way. He’s gotta be the first real dwarf to return to this place in, what, a thousand years? Maybe more? Again, not a historian. Anyway – for his sake. If not for mine, or whatever.” 

Hrothaggan wiped away spectral tears sparkling in his eyes. “Mayhaps it is the long centuries in the Ghost Dimension, but thine words have touched me in a way I did not think I could be touched. Yes, then, for the sake of this Nut Meg, I will hold council with my compatriots. What is it thou needst?” 

“We’re supposed to put a little wiggly metal thing back where the Pukall took it from, to make all you ghosts go away.” 

“Ah, the Ectoplasmic Anchor.” Hrothaggan chuckled. “Yes, of course. That which bound my comrades and I to this mountain when the dark day came. Only a handful of us remain. The others have passed from the Ghost Dimension to other, brighter caverns. Yes, replace the Anchor. I will put on a show for the Pukall. I would request that, in return, thou removest from the base of the Anchor a gemstone of peculiar proportions – surely thou shalt see it – for it is this gemstone which giveth the Anchor its power.” 

“Can I keep the gemstone?” 

“Thou mayest.” 

“Oh, that rocks. Pun intended. Hrothaggan, you’re alright, dude.” 

“We are certainly well-met, Gel the elf. Now, what sayst thou: hast thou time for a spin in the Sweet Mother?” 

“Hell yeah, dude, show me how this thing works.” 

Chapter 4 – In Which Ghosts are Banished

Nutmeg dreamt unquiet dreams. Other dwarves were gathered round him, ringing him, cheering him on. Some jeered at him. He was trying to lift a great boulder, a boulder which grew larger and larger the more he strained at it. The dwarves, all dressed in curious raiment, bellowed words of both encouragement and ridicule. Their voices, too, grew louder and louder, growing with the boulder, growing until he felt his ears and arms would break. Then the boulder fell on him, and the noise of his head hitting stone woke him up. 

He’d fallen from the stone cot to the stone floor. He rubbed the back of his head. Man, what the fuck? Just trying to get a little shut-eye, and this is what goes down? 

Sister D stood on the other side of the room. Her pack and arms were on the floor; her feet were shoulder-width apart, and her hands were raised, fingers curled ever-so-slightly. Her eyes were closed. The silver sun rose and fell with her deep, rhythmic breathing. Slowly, deliberately, she turned, moving her hands in concert with her hips. A dance in very slow motion. She wasn’t particularly graceful, Sister D; gawkish and tall. But the stillness of her body was striking. Impressive. 

“She’s been at it for a while,” said Gel, from behind him. 

“Hey. When did you get back?” 

“A little while ago. You were asleep, and she was – well, doing that.” 

Nutmeg got up from the floor and sat down heavily on his stone bed. Gel’s face had some odd red blotches on it, like someone had been poking him with sharp sticks. “You alright?” 

“Yeah, great. Why?” 

“I’m ready to go now,” interrupted Sister D. Her eyes had opened. “Had to finish my meditations.” 

“I’ve never seen you do them like that before,” said Nutmeg. 

“Yeah, well, usually I’m closer to the sun.” She smiled, donning her pack and shield, strapping her mace back to her belt. “I figured we’d going underground again, like with the Archive. I talked to some of the priests at the temple in Dwarroway. Got some tips on channeling Palladius’ energy.” 

“And it involves wiggling your fingers like that?”

“Yes, Gel. That’s what it involves.” 

“Hey, no judgement.” Gel shrugged. “I’ve known some weird martial artists in my time.” 

“Have you?” asked Nutmeg. 

“Hey, Gel, what’s going on with your face?” asked Sister D. 

The door opened. Roonwild, Alegna, and Dumble stood in the doorway. Dumble carried the Instrument; Roonwild gave them a grin. 

“Are you prepared, priestess?” asked Alegna. 

“No small talk, huh?” 

“I’m prepared,” said Sister D. 

Nutmeg did a few stretches and followed the Pukall out the door. It took ages to reach the place they sought. Corridors stretched on endlessly under the mountain, although it was easy to spot the places where cave-ins had not been cleared, or where the ancient debris still blocked the path. Until now, he had not truly understood how Khaddakar could’ve been one of the great cities of the old Empire. Now, though – now he saw. How had this place fallen? What doom fell here? 

They passed a few checkpoints, where other gray dwarves stood watch. Alegna stopped to receive a report from each of them in turn. All was quiet, it seemed. One checkpoint, positioned outside a curious hole bored straight through the tunnel wall, reported some news that made Alegna’s face sour. Where did that hole go? Nutmeg peered down it as best he could. Away into darkness. Certainly not a part of the construction of Khaddakar. Was this where the Pukall had come from? Deeper underground? 

Finally, they came to a door marked with runes in red paint. “It says ‘Keep Out, Ghosts,’” explained Roonwild. 

“Is that telling the ghosts to keep out, or telling people to keep out because there are ghosts beyond the door?”

“The second one. It’s a little clearer with the cases in our tongue.” 

“Whatever.” Nutmeg pushed past them. “Let’s get it done.” 

The room beyond was dark. For Sister D’s sake, Roonwild was carrying an orb of blue phosphorescence on the end of a metal rod; it lent an otherworldly glow to the strange chamber. Masks were mounted on the walls; detailed sculptures in brass and iron of individual dwarven faces. Some happy, some sad, all unique. And all staring at the central pedestal, where a notch in the stone sat ugly and empty. 

“Here, Sister D,” said Gel. “I’ll take the Instrument up there if you can hold off the ghosts. Nutmeg, can you help her?” 

“Sure, I guess,” said Nutmeg. “I mean, I feel like-”

“Great.” Gel snatched the Instrument from Dumble. “Go!” 

He ran for the pedestal. Sister D held her holy symbol on high. The Pukall were by the door, ready for a quick exit. Buncha chickens. Nutmeg followed Sister D. Not sure how he could help. But ready regardless. 

At least, he thought he was ready, until the ghosts arrived.

They came out of the masks. No fewer than a dozen ghosts, green and ethereal, eyes bright with ancient rage. Sister D held her silver sun high and began to chant. 

“Hold da fuck up ya freaks,” called one ghost. 

“Hrothaggan, your voice encoder,” chided another ghost. 

“Ah tits on toast, yeah, chill ya bills.” The first ghost – Hrothaggan – cleared his throat. “Verily! Now that I speak in a voice of command, I would entreat with ye, defilers, ere ye replace the Anchor!” 

“Git em!” yelled Dumble. “Go on, priestess, nail em!” 

“Hold on.” Gel had stopped a few feet from the pedestal. He held perfectly still, and looked a little scared. “Hold on. Let’s talk this out.” 

“The one called Nut Mag,” intoned Hrothaggan. “Show thyself!” 

“Oh, what, me?” Nutmeg snorted. A bit of phlegm accidentally came out. “What about me? How do you know my name? I mean, you don’t really know my name, cause it’s Nutmeg, not Nut Mag. But you’re pretty close, so it would be weird if it was just a guess.” 

“Silence!” commanded Hrothaggan. “We wouldst look upon thine countenance, fellow dwarrow!” 

Sister D turned to Nutmeg. He shrugged back at her. “Yeah, okay, whatever.” He lowered his voice. “If they try to suck my juices or whatever, zap em.” 

“I will do basically that.” 

“Okay!” Nutmeg stepped forward and spread his arms. “Here I am, ghosts!” 

“The sword,” commanded another ghost, the woman dwarf. “Show us the sword.” 

“Forsooth!” cried Hrothaggan. 

“Aight.” Nutmeg raised the blade before him, turning it so that Dolgatha’s mark faced the ghosts. “It is I, Nutmeg, wielder of…this blade, the one with Dolgatha’s rune on it.” 

“Fuckin sweet,” said another ghost. The first two shot that one a dirty look; he cleared his throat, and said, in a more ghostly voice, “‘Sblood! ‘Tis one of Dolgatha’s Armory, and no mistake!” 

“We will obey thine command, Master Nut Mag,” said Hrothaggan. “Shouldst thou declare that we must retire to the boughs of the Anchor, borne by yon elf, we shall obey.” 

“Yeah, that would actually be great,” said Nutmeg, surprised. “It’s nothing personal, guys, there’s a whole thing with fighting goblins and dragons and – you know, it’s a long story. I, uh, command thee? To fuck off to the afterlife or wherever you were?” 

“As thou speakst, so we shall do!” 

Gel replaced the Instrument in the spot on the pedestal. There was a shimmer in the air like a heat wave. The ghosts spun around the room – slow at first, still distinguishable from one another, then faster and faster, until all their faces blended together and they became one mass of green, glowing mist. Like a whirlpool they spun, and at the center was the Instrument, and bit by bit they drained down the branches, disappearing like smoke, shredded by the wind. 

“Well, shoot,” said Sister D. “You guys didn’t even really need me.” 

“Hmm,” said Dumble. “Apparently not.” 

Chapter 5 – In Which the Sound of Hammers Fills the Air

Loopis, arms folded across his chest, barred the south door from the audience hall.

“We’re not letting them in.” 

“Loopis, come on.” 

“No.” 

Alegna stood toe-to-toe with the recalcitrant soldier. Nutmeg shifted from foot to foot. It was more than a little awkward. Loopis was backed up by a half dozen other gray dwarves, although none of them looked too sure about this whole thing. 

“We’re not letting them into the forge.” 

“Hey, I’d like to check out a forge.” 

“Shut up, surface-dweller!” Loopis drew his long knife. “I won’t let our chickenshit captain sell out our secret projects!” 

“Loopis!” Alegna, weaponless, slapped aside the knife. “We made a bargain. We uphold our bargains.” 

“Fuck em.” 

Alegna grabbed Loopis’ wrist. The mutinous warrior struggled, twisting against her. Gel leaned down to Nutmeg’s ear. “Should we do something?”

“Nah, let’s take a backseat.” 

Alegna knocked the knife away. She hooked a foot behind Loopis’ ankle. She pulled back. Loopis toppled. Loopis’ companions immediately turned and pretended to be doing something else. 

“Dumble, take him to chamber sixteen. Re-calibrate him to the mission.” Dumble and a handful of soldiers gathered up the fallen Loopis. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“We certainly didn’t mean to intrude on anything,” said Sister D.

“It’s my call.” Alegna pushed the door open. “Not his. And you’ve demonstrated that you’re trustworthy. Or at least that we can make an even trade with you. The way to the dragon’s lair is through the forge.” 

And what a forge it was. 

Nutmeg stopped in his tracks. If the audience hall was big, the forge was twice its size. From the far wall, a great flow of water poured out, running in a channel down the center of the chamber. On either side of the channel, Pukall were hard at work. Some worked smelters, from which molten metal ran down stone canals. Others stood at the molds, masks over their faces, directing the flow. Still more were hammering and shaping. The clangor was terrific, a cacophony of hammer and cry and the hiss of steam.

“Awesome.” 

“Whatcha making?” asked Gel. 

Alegna and Roonwild exchanged a look. Roonwild shrugged. 

“Yeah, that’s how I feel about it,” said Alegna. “Listen.” She led them through the forge-hall, down along the channel of water. The whole hall sloped slightly downhill, letting the natural course of the stream wind its way. “We’re well aware of the dragon. Have been since we arrived, more or less. Saeverix has their lair in an underground lake, where all the rivers of the mountain meet. We’ve gone down to negotiate with them a few times, offering them any chance to leave the mountain. They have, thus far, refused.” 

“Why do you need the dragon gone?” 

“Orders.” 

“Orders.” 

“Yes, orders. We need the mountain secure. And so long as Saeverix remains in their lair, we can’t consider it secure. No matter how many lizardpeople or goblins we kill. So, well, here we are. Using Dolgatha’s forge. To make weapons. To kill a dragon.” 

“Okay. That didn’t really answer Nutmeg’s ‘orders’ question.”

“Isn’t it enough to know that we have orders? What do you know of our people? What does it mean to you if I say that Aukellian the Longtooth has sent me to secure this mountain for the great nation of Ar-Kaahaz, so that we may have a leg up on the nefarious warriors of the Yul-Thamthoth tribe of barrow elves?” 

“You know, yeah, alright. Fair. We lack context.”

“I don’t suppose you’d be interested in helping us,” said Alegna, with a sideways look at Nutmeg. “We could use some extra warriors when the time comes. And the time is coming. Soon.”

“Yeah, uh, no.” Nutmeg looked to his friends. “I feel like we don’t need that kind of risk in our lives.” 

“Watch your step,” said Roonwild. “It’s a little rough through here.” 

They’d come to the end of the forge-hall, but the water kept flowing down a rougher path. Alegna ducked through; Sister D had to bend nearly double to get beneath the rocky overhang. When they emerged from the tunnel, Alegna held up a hand. 

“Be very, very careful. It’s slick around the edge.” 

A huge sinkhole opened before them, no less than fifty feet across. The depths smelled of cold moss. The cold forge river plunged over the edge in a great torrent; from far below came the sound of splashing. 

“Man how many fucking chasms are in this place?” asked Nutmeg. 

“We’ve got some ropes set up to get down there,” said Alegna. “Saeverix lives on an island in the underground lake; they’ll see you before you see them.”

“Is it safe?”

“No,” admitted Alegna. “But they won’t kill you on sight. We’ve talked to them plenty of times. You’re probably good. Probably. I mean, mostly. No promises.” 

“I love the confidence you instill,” said Gel. 

Chapter 6 – In Which Flotsam and Jetsam Are Recovered

Gel swung down. The Pukall had set up the harnesses well – it was easy to lower himself deeper and deeper into the pit with just a few well-timed tugs on the lead rope. Sister D was doing alright for herself – much larger than the Pukall, and so in need of a few adjustments. But Nutmeg – well, the poor dwarf wasn’t doing so hot. He clung to the rocky wall of the pit, bouncing a few feet at a time before groaning and swinging back to the wall. It was rough enough that there were small handholds and footholds for Nutmeg to brace himself on, but even so: pathetically slow showing from the dwarf. Gel chuckled and slid further down. He had a good fifty feet on Nutmeg now, and the lead was only growing. 

Two hundred feet down at least. The sound of the waterfall churning against the stones below grew louder and louder. Little light shone this far down, but Sister D bore a torch in one hand as she steadily descended. Black water churned below Gel, but there was a rocky platform near the bottom, a place to land. He lowered himself down with grace and ease, and his feet touched the rock. Not long after, Sister D reached him. He helped her out of the rope harness. Her torch illuminated a wide tunnel running parallel to the river; water kept flowing, on and on, out towards some great blackness beyond. 

“Come on, Nutmeg,” he hissed. The dwarf was just barely halfway down, sliding with painstaking movements. 

“Poor guy,” said Sister D. “I’m sure he’s a little spooked after, you know, the last time he fell down a chasm.” 

“Yeah no I got that.” 

“Well, okay, good.” 

“Good.” 

It felt like hours, but Nutmeg finally touched down. As soon as his boots touched rock, he sank to his knees and kissed the ground beneath his feet. With tongue. 

“Alright,” said Gel. “What’s the plan?” 

“We need to find out how the goblins knew about this dragon, yeah?” asked Sister D. 

“Sounds right to me.” 

“Let’s play it pretty straight,” said Nutmeg, brushing dirt from his mustache. “I feel like there’s not much point in lying to a dragon. Especially one who lives all alone at the bottom of a big haunted mountain.” 

“Alright,” said Gel. “I’ll follow your lead.” 

They pressed on. The tunnel did widen, and then open completely, and the sound of the roaring waterfall became a dull background noise. The underground river flowed out, and Gel stopped at the waterline of a great black lake. It stretched on, lit only by Sister D’s torch, far and glassy. The craggy, notched walls of the cavern yawned upwards into further emptiness. Out in the center of the water, something sparkled on a little outcropping of rock. Gems? Gold? It looked like gold. Winking red and yellow in the firelight. 

Ripples broke the still water, fifty feet out from the shore. Sister D sucked her breath in. Gel did everything he could to resist drawing his swords. There was something huge beneath the surface, something long and dark and glistening. The dragon. The dragon was coming. 

When it broke the surface, Gel’s first reaction was disappointment. Sure, it was a dragon. A big black dragon, with eyes as green as ghostfire, and a curved hook to its jaw that almost suggested a smile. A pair of black wings spread out from its back, spattering them with cold cave-water. But really, it wasn’t as big as he’d expected. Maybe the size of a large horse. A really big horse, granted, but a horse nonetheless. 

“Who are you?” 

“Saeverix,” said Nutmeg, “we are adventurers from the Hegemony of Nine Stars, and we have come to ask you some questions.” 

Saeverix grinned. It was not a pleasant sight. “You are fortunate I ate today, small ones. I’m in a good mood. I will talk with you, yes. But you must pay me homage first.” 

“Homage?” asked Gel. Alegna had said nothing of this. 

“Homage,” agreed the dragon. Their voice echoed deep and sibilant. “That sword, dwarf. You carry a sword with the mark of Dolgatha.” 

“Man, what is it with everyone and this Dolgatha?” asked Gel. “I get it, he made cool stuff.” 

“You get very little, I am sure,” said Saeverix. “Have you any greater treasure to offer me?” 

“No, it’s cool,” said Nutmeg. “I’ll homage this shit.” He drew the sword and held it out hilt-first to the dragon. “I get it.” 

Saeverix bent forward from the water and, fast as a snake, plucked the sword from Nutmeg’s outstretched hand. It looked like a toy in the dragon’s great claw. “Mm, yes, very good.” 

“Listen, let me get right to the point,” said Nutmeg. “The Red Hand. Hm? Sound familiar?” 

“The Red Hand.” Saeverix was inspecting the sword, turning it in the dark. “The Red Hand. Ought I to know it? Give me a hint.” 

“There’s been a gang of goblins trying to reach you for…weeks. Months, maybe. Fighting down through the mountain. They were told – by another dragon – that this mountain was your lair. They were coming on behalf of the Red Hand.” 

“Told this mountain was my lair.” Saeverix opened their mouth, and spat a great gob of slime into the water. Where it touched the rock, Gel couldn’t help but notice, the slime ate away, leaving only dust where there had once been stone. “Hmm. Mmm. Yes. Yes. I know of a dragon who knew this. Rougarrax. We hunted together once. A glorious battle. Yes. Rougarrax. I spoke with them last only, why, it must have been a year hence. Yes, I do recall. For Rougarrax spoke of other dragons they had met, dragons of many colors, all gathering in a range of distant mountains far to the west. The Blacksmoke Hills. Gathering under the banner of a claw, or some such. Yes. Yes. Rougarrax had a comrade who was a goblin, if I recall. Perhaps that is how he heard of this clawed horde.” 

“A horde?” asked Nutmeg. 

“Oh yes,” agreed Saeverix. “Such was my understanding. An army. Of goblins, of other beasts – and yes, other dragons as well.”

“They were coming to recruit you,” said Gel. He felt sure of it. “They wanted you to fight for them.” 

“A waste of time,” sneered Saeverix. “I live a good life here in this place. I will not yield my comforts to spend my days in the company of foul-smelling goblins.” 

“They do stink, though,” laughed Gel. 

“They do!” Saeverix’s chuckle sent little waves out across the lake. “Is this all you would ask of me, adventurers?” 

“Well, I’ve got one more question, if I can,” said Nutmeg. “What’s up with Dolgatha? Why does everyone love his stuff so much?” 

“Ah, dwarf. How far you have fallen from the heyday of your kind. I appreciate the fine craftsmanship and latent blood magic of Dolgatha’s steel. Its like has never after been seen, and when this mountain fell, many of Dolgatha’s armory were scattered across the known world. Such is my understanding.” Saeverix flapped their wings, spraying them once more with water. “Is there ought else? I would retire. Speech with your kind leaves me thirsty and tired.” 

“I…” Nutmeg looked to the others. “I guess not, Saeverix. Thank you.” 

Saeverix offered no reply, save for a wave of water sent cascading their way when the dragon slipped back into the dark lake, disappearing into the cold water. 

“That wasn’t super helpful,” said Gel. 

“I don’t know.” Nutmeg scratched his beard. “We know more now. This Red Hand force has been around for a little while – over a year, Saeverix said? They’re gathering far, far to the west. I’ve never even heard of the Blacksmoke Hills. And it’s an army. Not just a criminal organization. An army.”

“It’s bad,” said Sister D. “I think we know that, now. Or at least, it’s worse than we thought.” 

“You know, good point.” Gel cast a last longing look back at Saeverix’s island. “Man. I was really hoping for some of that dragon gold. Too bad about your sword, Nutmeg.” 

“Yeah. Maybe the Pukall can make me a new one.” 

“Here’s hoping.” 

They returned to the pit and ascended. It was easier going up than coming down; the Pukall at the top were able to help, working a simple pulley system to winch the harnesses higher. Gel swung his feet gaily. Nutmeg was staring straight at the wall in front of him, jaw clearly clenched tight enough to crack a walnut. When they reached the top, Roonwild was there to help them up. 

“Find what you were looking for?” 

“Yes and no.” Nutmeg slid away from the edge. “Come on. I want to get out of here. I hope I never have to look at that damn pit again.” 

“You’re sure I can’t convince you to stay?” asked Alegna. She was waiting by the tunnel entrance. “We really could use your help. Able-bodied warriors such as yourselves – taking down a dragon requires every available hand.” 

“Nah, Nutmeg’s right,” said Gel. “Not worth the risk for us.”

“Very well.” Alegna sighed. “Come. I’ll escort you back to the audience hall.” 

She was leading them back through the forge, up the channel, when a gray dwarf called out from the far end of the room: “Hey! Check it out!” 

“What’d you find, Yungle?” Alegna shouted back. She turned to the trio. “Sometimes stuff washes down from the higher levels of the mountain. Once, we got a whole barrel of salt meat. That was a real good day.” 

Yungle waded from the channel holding something long and shining. “It’s got the smith’s mark on it!”

“Hey,” said Nutmeg. “That’s my axe!” 

“I found something, too,” said another gray dwarf from behind Yungle. This one raised a familiar backpack. “Want me to check for salt meat?”

That’s my salt meat I mean my backpack!” bellowed Nutmeg. 

“Eh?” 

“THAT’S MY SHIT!” Nutmeg was roaring now. “GIVE ME MY SHIT BACK!” 

Alegna’s eyes darted from the irate dwarf to the axe to the pack and back again. “Fine,” she said, quickly. “We will. But the Pukall do nothing for free. We will return what is rightfully yours. If you use it to help us kill Saeverix.” 

Nutmeg stood alongside the channel, fists clenched, eyes never leaving the axe. Gel looked to Sister D. Her eyes told him everything: she, too, was ready to fight the gray dwarves to get Nutmeg’s stuff back. It was a pride thing as much as anything else. 

Nutmeg turned at last to his companions. “Guys? You alright with fighting a dragon?” 

Sister D laughed, and then stopped laughing. “You’re serious?”

“I want my shit back,” said Nutmeg. 

“I’m in one hundred percent,” said Gel. “Let’s kill a dragon tonight.” 

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