When we last left our heroes…GEL, NUTMEG, SISTER D, and INGA returned from the jungles victorious over their hateful scaly foes. While celebrating their victories, they spied an owl-riding elf tumbling from the sky. Now, having found the fallen elf, they seek to avenge him and his comrades – against the forces of the mysterious Red Hand…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Gel Roots Around In His Backpack
- Chapter 2 – In Which Nutmeg Implements His Plan
- Chapter 3 – In Which Religious Proselytizing Continues, Sort Of
- Chapter 4 – In the Black Mountains
Chapter 1 – In Which Gel Roots Around In His Backpack
Sister D sat in the cart with the battered elf, her hand resting on his head. The golden-tressed foreigner was asleep now, thank the gods, although his rest was fitful and disturbed. Nutmeg was leading them, riding at the fore atop Piggles, spyglass in hand, eyes to the western horizon. The rain was holding off. Good. Gel hated the thought of trying to hunt these Red Hand goobers in the rain.
The elf – Enebor, he called himself – had ranted and raved all night. And it had been a long night. They’d patched up the worst of his injuries, but he was pretty fucked. Pierced here and there with arrows, but more importantly he’d shattered bones in his arms, legs, and chest when he made his crash landing in the field. It was a miracle he was alive. And only Sister D’s dedication was keeping him there.
They were searching for a watchtower. An abandoned watchtower off the road by a good ways. That was where the Red Hand had holed up, according to Enebor. His desperate story had come out in gasps of lucidity between the darker, stranger ravings about something called Daghda. Gel got the gist of what Enebor was talking about. The Yoi Kal had finally tracked the mysterious raiders and chased them off the road, hounding them – until, that is, they reached the watchtower. There, the Red Hand raiders turned and rained hell upon the Yoi Kal, killing most of the owls in the first salvo of deadly arrows. Enebor had only survived by luck, and even then. Even then.
“He can’t have flown that far,” said Nutmeg. “Did he mention any other landmarks?”
“No.” Sister D murmured her millionth prayer; Enebor sighed, and his fits subsided. “Do you see anything, Nutmeg?”
“I’ll look at the top of the hill,” said the dwarf. They were coming up a little grade, in the shadow of a scraggly knoll. “We want to be careful. Can’t let on that we’re coming.”
“Absolutely,” said Gel.
“In the ideal version of this, we kill all but one of them before they even know we’re there, and then we do unspeakable and cool torture stuff to the last surviving guy for intelligence gathering purposes.”
They came to a halt and, together, Gel and Nutmeg ascended the hill. On foot. Crouching down.
Gel crawled on his elbows to the crest of the hill, only drawing his crossbow from its straps across his back when he found a decent position. Both he and Nutmeg had their spyglasses out. He had some idea of what he was looking for. Inga had been helpful on that front. She’d provided a long – long, long, long – local history of the watchtowers and the forts and the this and that and whosit and whatsit. Long-to-the-nth-degree-story short: a hundred and fifty years ago, in the waves of immigration from Folkor, when the halflings made their thousand-mile marches to escape the gnome kings, some of them had set up their little towns and settlements wherever they damn well felt like it, including in some pretty stupid places. The industry and bustle of halfling workers was no match for the dangers of the wilderness – goblins, ogres, even manticores and griffons in those days, before the frontier highway was more secure. According to Inga, the towers were all that remained of these half-baked attempts to raise life in the woolly wilds.
And hey: there it was.
Nutmeg’s instincts had been good. They both peered through their glasses at the watchtower across the plain, rising from a grove of scraggly trees. It was a squat little thing, round and fat, probably shaped much like the halflings who had built it. Gel grinned at the thought. Stupid fat halflings.
“Alright, let’s go,” said Nutmeg, putting his spyglass away and crawling forward. Gel shot out a hand and stayed the dwarf.
“Whoah there. We need to surveil this place. Did you see any goblins?”
“Well, I didn’t. Where was it?”
“On the roof, dude, take a look again.”
Gel looked again. No goblin.
“Nutmeg, I don’t see shit. It might not be the right tower. Even if it is, we need some sense of scale. Of numbers.”
There was something in the dwarf’s eyes that made Gel’s words catch in his throat. A look of – of whatever had popped up back in the jungles. But then Nutmeg sighed, and lay back down, spyglass returning to his eye. “No, you’re right, Gel. Besides, I’m cooking up a plan. I think I’ve got a good idea here.”
They watched for the better part of an hour, although Gel took a break to check on D and Enebor. The owl-rider was laid out and snoozing when Gel returned to them. D looked exhausted.
“Find the tower, Gel?”
“Yeah. We’re gathering intel now. How’s the patient?”
“Look, I won’t lie: he’s pretty fucked up.”
“And you don’t say ‘fucked up’ often, so I know you’re serious.”
“He broke almost every bone in his body when he hit the ground, and he had a half dozen arrows in him before that. And the arrowheads – nasty, nasty work.”
“No, I know. Made by cruel hands, that’s for sure.” A thought occurred to him. He went to his pack and sifted through the shit, looking for the little package from Yanna Goldtress. Sister D watched him, but mostly she just leaned back in the cart and looked like shit. Poor kid. She’d been working on the elf like there was no tomorrow.
“Daghda,” she said.
“No, Daghda. What Enebor was saying. Daghda.”
“Yeah. You said you don’t know that name. Some goblin tribe leader, maybe.”
“Maybe.” She lifted up her sun-hat and scratched her stubbly head. “Maybe. It – gah. It rings a bell, you know? Like something that might’ve come up once, maybe, in passing.”
“Some minor deity, could be,” offered Gel. He found what he was looking for – the vial of barrowelf’s whisper. “I mean, it’s a little weird. Given, you know, all the evidence, I assumed this Red Hand stuff was more to do with organized crime. Again, given that they’ve been organized criminals.” He frowned. “But then again – there’s the thing with them looking for the dragon. Many dragons. A horde of goblins, beasts, dragons.”
“It’s the dragons that give me pause,” said Sister D. “I mean, I’m not a dragon expert, but I imagine it can’t be easy to ‘recruit’ a dragon to a horde of goblins. Saeverix certainly seemed reluctant. Maybe this Daghda connects the goblins and the dragons somehow.”
“Yeah, maybe Daghda has one really big red hand because of a shellfish allergy.”
“You’re full of good ideas.”
“Don’t I know it.” He waggled the vial of barrowelf’s whisper. “Alright. I gotta check on Nutmeg. He said he had a plan, and you know that could go either way.”
Chapter 2 – In Which Nutmeg Implements His Plan
It had been a strange couple of days. Strange week. Strange – no, he could stop at week, that was enough for now. Nutmeg felt as though there were a half-dozen little Nutmegs riding around in his skull, each vying to be the one at the helm.
Why not give a new one a shot?
He’d been cooking this character up for a while now. Consciously or not. Inspired by the zeal of Sister D, the earnest and bright missionary fervor. Still didn’t have a name yet, but not all his many facets had to have different names. He spoke the command word at the crest of the hill, and his burnished breastplate became a flowing robe of gold and white, emblazoned with a red sun. The red sun wasn’t technically part of the Palladian canon, as he understood it, but maybe it would appeal to these Red Hand goobers.
“This is a terrible plan,” said Gel, not for the first time.
“He’s not wrong,” admitted D. “Nutmeg, I just don’t understand why you think this will work.”
“I mean, it’ll either work or it’ll be funny, and I win either way.”
“Or you die. Get obliterated by hobgoblin arrows like Enebor’s entire squadron.”
“Well, I mean, that just ain’t gonna happen,” said Nutmeg. “I’m far too cool.”
He set out down the hill, letting his friends vent their helpless protests. Whatever, you know? It was a lovely day for a walk. He whistled a little tune and wandered toward the tower.
The halflings who had built the tower long years ago had also, it seemed, tried to lay a road. Or at least cut a path. There were cobbles here and there, leftover from the building of the tower and thrown down to start the unfinished road. Crows called, and one hopped along in the undergrowth not far from Nutmeg, cocking its head and quorking.
At least three hobgoblins in the tower. He was sure of that. He’d seen them through the spyglass, patrolling on the roof. They looked like Forg, from Khaddakar. Big, shirtless goons with red hands patterned on their chests. He kicked a stick – no wait, that wasn’t a stick. It was an arrow, a stray arrow that must have fallen just short of the owls of the Yoi Kal. If that arrow had caught Enebor center mass – ah, but no time to ruminate on that.
Another arrow appeared, a few feet away from Nutmeg, thudding into the dirt. He stopped. The tower was still a few hundred feet away, shrouded by the wild little trees around its base. No hobgoblin was visible. But someone had shot that arrow.
“Hello?” he called. “Does anyone live here?”
“BEGONE,” came the reply, in a hoarse, menacing voice. “This place is ours.”
“I come in peace!” said Nutmeg, raising his hands. He’d thrown his cloak over the axe on his back, and hoped that would be enough to fool them. “Have you heard the good news?”
“The good news!” he shouted. “Hey, it’s really hard to talk like this, can I come closer?”
There was silence. Then: “very well! Proceed to the ring of trees!”
He proceeded. The trees, he realized now, were apple trees, grown wild and woolly. “That’s far enough!” called the voice. “Who are you?”
“Have you heard the good news?”
“What is this good news? Speak quickly, and then be gone.”
“We oughta kill him now,” came another voice, a little quieter, from inside.
“The good news of Palladius! The sun has risen and today is blessed! I am but a simple pilgrim, bringing the word of Palladius to the frontier lands!” He had a whole backstory, but figured it would be best to let that come up organically.
“Oh.” The voice almost sounded disappointed. “Do you have gold and silver on you?”
“Only what I need to sustain me,” he said, a little more quietly.
“I said only what I need to sustain me.” He smooshed his words together.
“For fuck’s sake,” said the voice. “Hang on.”
The sound of tromping inside. Then, a door opening; another, then the front door swung wide.
A hobgoblin stood there in the doorway, dressed head-to-toe in a thick red robe. Nutmeg winced at the many, many intricate little scars spiderwebbing across the hobgoblin’s face – that had to have been done intentionally, and had to have hurt. Around its neck, it wore a human hand on a leather thong, petrified and mummified.
“You have one minute to explain yourself,” the hobgoblin said, “before we kill you and take all your belongings. If we find your explanation satisfactory, we will only take all of your belongings. And probably your tongue. And if you try any funny business, my colleague up there will put an arrow through your stupid skull.” The priest – definitely some kind of priest – gestured up to the second-floor window. Another hobgoblin leaned out, brandishing a longbow. Nutmeg hoped Gel was watching.
“I am but a simple traveling priest,” said Nutmeg. “My name is – Eggbert.” It came to him so easily. He was a natural at this, apparently. “I seek to convert all I meet to the light of Palladius, god of the sun – have you heard the good news?”
“A priest,” sneered the hobgoblin. “Fool that you are, you have come to me. Daghda guided this, I have no doubt, to give me yet more sport.”
“Daghda?” Nutmeg cocked his head. “What’s Daghda?”
“Indescribable,” said the priest. It raised one hand, the other clutching at the human hand around its neck. “I have heard enough. No god but Daghda. No worship but my own. Perish, dwarf!”
The fingers of the mummified hand clenched into a sudden fist. Nutmeg staggered back. Something was inside him. Grabbing at his organs. Squeezing his lungs. His lungs. He gasped for breath and staggered down. Eggbert was going down. He’d barely been born.
“What in the fuck-” The priest turned. The choking sensation stopped. There was the cracking of many brittle branches, and then a thump. The hobgoblin with the bow had fallen from the window and was snoring soundly beneath the apple trees. One of Gel’s bolts was in his shoulder.
Nutmeggbert did not waste time. He gasped the command word and his armor was revealed. He tackled the Red Hand priest, who managed a stifled bellow before Nutmeg clamped a hand over the hobgoblin’s mouth.
The priest struggled and writhed; the hand flexed and twiddled as if in sympathy. Nutmeg took his fist like a hammer and pounded down, again, and again, until the priest lay still. Probably alive. Hard to say. No time to think about that now – there were arrows from above, and a pair of hulking hobgoblins storming out the front door. Nutmeg drew his axe. An arrow struck him in the arm. He flexed until the shaft snapped. “Come on, dickasses!”
More arrows from above. He twisted and juked as he ran to meet his foes. Gel would take care of him. Gel was watching over. If Eggbert’s god was Palladius, Nutmeg’s god was Gel. The hobgoblins at the door had broad-bladed machetes, sharpened on both sides.
One circled left as the other ran to meet him. Nutmeg watched their movements. They had a little plan, these doofuses. The one on the left was fast. Coming in hard. He saw their game. Lefty baits him into a left feint, then Center butchers him on the straightaway. He ignored the left feint and threw himself bodily at Center. He stopped short. Dug in his heel. Pivoted on the back foot. The double feint. Lefty wasn’t ready. The axe whirled, an arc of steel between the molecules of air. Lefty fell apart, bloody and ragged. Nutmeg’s other foot left the ground; he let the swing carry him in a full circle. Center got it next. The blade caught his arm mid-swing, and the machete fell useless to the dirt. With a practiced check, Nutmeg twisted the axe vertical and swung up, bisecting the hobgoblin’s head from beneath.
Another pair of hobgoblins had fallen like chunky rain from the window above, pierced by Gel’s bolts. One was asleep like the first fallen goblin, but the second was limping towards Nutmeg, face twisted in a rictus of pain, machete drawn. Nutmeg dropped the axe and picked up both machetes from the fallen hobgoblins. He caught the first awkward slash with ease. Knocked the machete away. Kicked out the broken leg from under his wounded foe. Held both machetes to the hobgoblin’s neck. Sliced.
Nutmeg ran to the door of the tower and shouted: “Anyone else want the good news?”
Chapter 3 – In Which Religious Proselytizing Continues, Sort Of
“Nutmeg, I’ve got to say, I’m still not a fan of that whole thing.” Sister D leaned up against one of the apple trees. She’d brought Enebor and the cart up to the tower; it was decided that they would spend the night within the old ruin. Nutmeg was tired, apparently. He got shot like a dozen times, but the freakish dwarf hadn’t even noticed. Gel was sitting with his back to a tree, polishing the lens of his spyglass. Worked pretty well, that thing! He’d gotten a few good bolts off at a long, long range.
“What?” asked Nutmeg, who lay sprawled in the dirt, munching on some cheese. “I was exploring my more religious side, you know? It was nice to get in that mindset.”
“I do feel like there was some mockery in your portrayal, though.”
“Well, hey, sorry, whoopsie.” Nutmeg picked up a pebble and threw it at their prisoner, hanging in a complicated rope contraption from the apple tree. “Hey. Hey fucko. Wake up.”
Gel had taken some pride in tying the knots that kept the Red Hand cleric swaying from the branches. It wasn’t a hanging or anything – they weren’t into that. But Sister D had been convinced that there might be some danger in giving a cleric of an unknown god access to the soil beneath his feet. Long argument aside, they’d figured out a good way to sort of hog-tie the priest from a strong, weighty bough.
“Hey,” said Nutmeg, again, throwing another pebble. “I said wake up, my bitch.”
“Yeah, dude, yeah.” Gel set the spyglass aside and walked to their dangling prisoner. “Good morning, sweetheart.”
“I go to my god with a bloody smile,” growled the priest. “Begone from me. Let me die.”
“Uh uh, man,” said Nutmeg. “Give me that good stuff. You know I’m exploring my religious options. What does the Church of Doug have to offer me?”
“Daghda,” hissed the priest, and even Gel felt some chills up and down his spine. “Daghda. I worship Daghda, and Daghda repays me. In this life, or the next.”
“Straight answers.” Gel poked the hobgoblin. “Where’d you guys come from?”
“West. The great black mountains of the west. Long have we traveled in search of new allies. And fleeing from the talons of the lowly elves.”
“Witnesses to what?”
“The Red Hand,” he gasped, as if in ecstasy. “The herald of Daghda’s coming. Dragons taking wing over the black mountains.”
“I feel like we’re not getting anywhere,” said Sister D. “What is Daghda?”
“My god.” The hobgoblin licked its lips, looked to each of them in turn. In the waning light, its battered, bloody face was a terrible death mask. “Daghda came at the end of the beginning. In the beginning, the dragons reigned, until Daghda came and unmade the world. Then came the dwarves, and so on, and so on, and so on. But now. But now! The herald is here! The Red Hand! And Daghda will come again!”
Gel did not like this. Not one bit. He drew his dagger and removed a toe. The priest shrieked.
“Think we’re getting anything else out of him?”
“I dunno.” Gel inspected the toe. Gnarly, horny nail. “Seems like we’ve got a wandering group of radical terrorists, fringe gang from the larger organization out west. Not sure we’re getting much more.”
“Kill me!” shrieked the priest, perhaps picking up on the tenor of their conversation. “Kill me! Kill me! Send me to Daghda!”
“No,” came a hoarse voice. Enebor. The elf. He was sitting up in the cart. “Leave him in the ropes. Let him rot.”
“He’s gonna keep us up all night,” said Nutmeg. “I need my beauty sleep. I mean, thanks for the input, Enebor, much appreciated.”
“Nah, hang on, I’ve got this.” Gel had a few doses of barrowelf’s whisper left. He coated the tip of his dagger and jabbed the priest in the shoulder. With a few more suicidal shrieks, the priest faded to a deep, grim coma.
“Alright.” Gel sighed. “Now what?”
“Back to Dwarroway,” said Nutmeg. “Check in with Mister E.”
“I would like to request your assistance,” said Enebor, in a weak voice. He sipped from a borrowed canteen. “I am far from home. Alone. Without my steed. I owe you a great debt. My life is yours. But should your path carry you west, I would ask that you escort me to my home.”
“Of course,” said Nutmeg.
“Really?” Enebor raised an eyebrow. “I – did not expect you to be so…accommodating.”
“Hey, you’re in the shit, man,” said Nutmeg. “We got ya. We do have to go to the city of Dwarroway first, though.”
“Is it a safe place, this city?” asked Enebor. “I – do not spend a great deal of time in highly populated places.”
“Yeah it’s totally safe. Nothing to sweat. You’ll love it.”
Chapter 4 – In the Black Mountains
She plucked the strings of the harp with idle, wandering fingers, choosing the notes at random. The third act of the opera was missing…something. Something. The paean to Daghda’s ferocity was the centerpiece of the act, but the following aria was lackluster. Not a strong enough melody to carry the energy of the paean. Best to wander across the strings, let the winds carry the new melody to her mind.
High above the world, here in the black mountains, Orlai could find some measure of peace. Some. The days were full of plans and training and recruiting the many, many bloodyminded wild young hobgoblins from the lower tribes. They had united nearly all the major clans, yes, but there were always holdouts, and always more work to do, and always something. It was only here, high in Daghda’s Kirk, in the light of the moon, that she could finally make some progress on her songs. Perhaps – perhaps something in the aria drawn on the booming war-drums. Contrast the soprano’s lilt with the thunder of great battles.
“Orlai. You are still awake.”
She hadn’t heard him come in, but there he was. The door stood open, the hall beyond wreathed in shadow, and there he was. Dressed head-to-toe in colorless robes, his face hidden. She knew why. No false modesty there. He’d strolled the ancient caverns naked as could be. But if the guards had realized who was coming to visit her, they might’ve wasted his precious time with worshipful bleatings. It was hard for him to walk unmolested among the faithful.
“Lazar. You surprised me.”
“I didn’t know you could be surprised, Orlai. How goes the opera?”
“It goes. How was the east?”
“Good.” His voice sounded strong. She’d always loved his voice. Lazar would’ve made a good singer, if he chose. Instead – well, he hadn’t chosen this. He’d been chosen. “Our path is clear, I believe. The time is at hand.”
“Is it? We’re short…a few dragons, at least. We’ve heard little from the giants of the far north…Lazar, I don’t know.”
“I do know. And it’s time.” He unwound the robe, baring himself to the moonlight. Red and scaled from head to toe, eyes as bright as ancient stars. Daghda’s chosen, Dagdha’s champion. He was unmistakable and profound. This scion and warrior.
“Does this mean I’ve got to leave the Kirk?” Orlai pouted. “I’m not done, Lazar, I was busy. And you know, this place has grown on me. I thought I’d miss the canyons, but you’ve certainly made this place habitable. I appreciate the window-view, by the way.”
“You will have to leave.” He hardly seemed to hear her. Unsettling in his single-mindedness. “For a time. You know your job. The Red Hand has five claws, and you, most lovely of them, have quite a role to play.” He smiled, and fixed his gaze on her. She shivered and turned away. “Are you not a performer, Orlai?”
The hobgoblin nodded. “I am. And I am yours, Lazar. Until the end.”
Lazar raised a single red claw and plucked a low string on the harp. “Beyond the end. Beyond. This is not the end of the world. Just the beginning of the next.”