Episode 020 (Text): Into the West

When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG the dwarf, GELMAHTA the elf, and SISTER DONDALLA the human priestess have been working as contractors for the government of the HEGEMONY, stamping out evil wherever they go. While returning from a vacation in the sunny south, the trio encountered a lone elf, ENEBOR, who had been nearly killed by outriders of the RED HAND HORDE, a mysterious threat on the fringes of the Hegemony. The trio defeated the Red Hand scouts and returned to the city of Dwarroway with their new companion…

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – In Which There is an Argument About a Goat

There was a new meatball sandwich stand across the market square from the Tenth Column. Nutmeg just had to try it. Those halflings made incredible meatballs. These were goat meat or something, some weird, cheapo cut, but the taste came from the garlic, the cheese, the fresh grassy parsley. He sat on one of the marble benches outside City Hall and burned his mouth over and over trying to eat his fresh meatball sandwich. Mm. Mmmph. The halfling street chef had laid some chunks of soft cheese over the piping red sauce and meatballs, and it came away in gooey strings as Nutmeg took a powerful bite. Omph. Oh gods. So good. Incredible. 

The city council was in session. Nerds in well-embroidered robes hurried to and fro, carrying sheafs of paper, scrolls, big slabs of slate with chalk inscriptions, and, sometimes, jugs of wine and water to keep the councilors supplied. Late fifthmonth was on the world, and here in Dwarroway the heat of summer had come. There were workers everywhere, too, heading to the north side of the city to continue the long, unending work of rebuilding after the fires. It’d been nearly three months since the rampage, since the day the Duke had died. The city was regrowing. He’d visited the condo site that morning with Brotto Balderk, Land Barrister, while waiting for Mister E to be done with Enebor. The construction was coming along – “another two months,” promised Brotto, “and we’ll have fully rentable apartments, and you and me, buddy, we’ll be two rich dwarves!” The skeletal frame of the first building stood tall, and the foundations looked solid. 

They’d been back for two days now. Most of that time was waiting for Mister E. He’d caught them right when they arrived to town, before they’d even finished tacking up at the Tenth Column. “Good,” he’d said. “You’re here.” No hello, no how ya doin, just “good. You’re here.” Then the debrief, then the orders, then yoinking Enebor away, and then…waiting. And waiting. The debrief had given him a lot to chew on, though. Like a meatball. 

Mister E’s black-suited army of special agents and top-special-super-secret agents, etc etc, had combed through the Duke’s writings, through Forg’s journals, through some pilfered correspondence and the minutes of the city council, and come to one conclusion: 

Go west. 

“We know City Councilor Lobo Terlethian is heavily, heavily involved in – in whatever this is,” Mister E had said. “We know this. There’s plenty to worry about here in the Hegemony. But right now, there is a clear and present danger in the west – this Red Hand. Based on the codes we broke, it seems that Lobo has been using the Duke, and then by proxy again Khaddakar, to supply weapons to the Red Hand. He wants this organization strong and militarized. That’s…well, that’s scary. The Hegemony is strong. The Hegemoniac Army could be mustered. But if you want the straight dope: the High Council is at odds over everything. Nine voices singing nine different songs. The chances of getting a united front against even an invading army are…slim. And besides. There’s someone between the Hegemony and the Red Hand: the Hestor Vale.”

“What’s the job, then?” Gel had asked, sounding bored. Nutmeg could read his friend, though; Gel was intrigued. 

“Go west. The cities and towns of the Hestor Vale are not united in any meaningful way, but right now they’re the only thing that stands between the Hegemony and whatever is about to burst out of the Blacksmoke Hills. At the absolute minimum, we need to know what’s coming. But – well, to speak frankly: do whatever you can to stop the Red Hand. You’re on your own for this, I hope you understand. It would not do at all to have the High Council find out we’re sending Hegemony agents to act as a paramilitary force in foreign lands. That cuts both ways. I can’t offer you much help – but I can give you a long, long leash. I don’t care what you do, as long as you keep the Hegemony safe. Understood?” 

“Hey, shut the fuck up!” They’d all turned to the window. Sister D peered out. A pair of humans were arguing out in the street. “I think they’re arguing about a goat,” said D. 

“He’s my goat!” bellowed one of the combatants. 

“For the sake of Gahaladon’s droopy left nut,” said Mister E, “please shut the window.” 

“Right, ok.” 

“I’m kind of invested in the goat thing, though,” said Nutmeg. 

“Yeah. Whose goat is it?”

“Please. As I was saying – you – no, wait. The Hestor – no. What was I saying?”

I BOUGHT THAT GOAT FAIR AND SQUARE!” No window-shutter in the world could keep that out. 

“You don’t care what we do, as long as we keep the Hegemony safe,” said Nutmeg. “Right?”

“Yes. Thank you.” Mister E indicated Enebor, who was nodding off in the corner. “New contractor?” 

“Nah, funny story there-” Nutmeg relayed the funny story. 

“Fascinating.” The way Mister E’s eyes had glittered – even now, days later, eating his fantastic meatball sandwich, Nutmeg felt a chill wind. “Enebor. I would ask that you come with me to my headquarters to debrief. I’m sure we have valuable information to exchange.” 

Enebor had looked at them questioningly, eyebrows raised, as if to ask is this cool

“Don’t sweat it, Enebor,” Nutmeg had said. “This guy’s cool. How long you think it’ll take, Mister E?”

“A day. No more. Enebor, take my hand.” The elf had taken Mister E’s hand, and then, with a word and a wave, they were gone, yoinked into the ether, presumably vanishing back to whatever bureaucratic hole Mister E crawled out of. 

And then they were gone, and they still were. Nutmeg finished his meatball sandwich and shook himself all over, spraying the little flecks of red sauce all over the bench. It was nice, he had to admit, to have some downtime. Gave him time to think. Time to think about a lot of stuff. Sister D was off at the temple, probably staying up all night sweating for Palladius or whatever. Gel was…somewhere. Doing something dark. Gel had helped him write a letter to Lucy yesterday, which was nice. He assumed Lucy was having fun studying ancient books. But there was a part of him that thought it would be really swell to have Lucy with them on their journey to the west. If only because – well, what if they didn’t come back? Some or all of them? These Red Hand bozos were dangerous. He hated to admit it, but they were. Khaddakar had nearly been his end. Saeverix the dragon had nearly been his end, and this Red Hand horde was supposed to have multiple dragons. Plural. Things could get hairy. 

But nah. Nah. It would be fine. Kind of a nice chance to get away from Dwarroway and the Hegemony, honestly. He’d liked the feeling of returning after a long absence, of seeing the ways the city had changed and the ways in which it would never, ever falter. It was almost – although he had literally no experience in this regard – like being a slightly absent parent. Oh, look, while I was gone you learned to walk! And build condominiums! That was nice. The work of actually putting up the planks on the condos was not particularly interesting to Nutmeg. 

A great bell rang, and the city council session ended. The staffers came rushing out, racing each other to the bars. Then came the councilors themselves, surrounded by bodyguards and clerks and hangers-on. A druid. Some guy who looked like a skull-faced warlock. A waddling halfling. A golden-haired elf woman – wait. Wait, he knew her. 

“Hey, Yanna!” he hustled over. Yanna Goldtress, proprietor of The Shaft. Where Gel and Nutmeg had done their stakeout, caught Roscoe the halfling, who led them to the Dark Duchess – what was she doing here? She didn’t have many aides, just a droopy-looking city guard and a nervous little gnome clerk. Yanna froze, then did a double-take, then smiled. 

“Oh – Nutmeg! Hello, yes. Long time no see.” 

“Yeah, we’ve been doing stuff. How ya doing?” 

“Busy.” She waved a hand. “You know, this city councilor work is nuts.”

“Hey, big congrats! Mind if I walk with you?” 

“Not at all.” She gestured to her aides. “Humbert, Lila, this is Nutmeg. He’s -”

“Important.”

“Sure, that works.” 

They walked through the square, heading for Yanna’s shop. “So you’re an elected official now?” 

“I have you to thank, in some ways. That whole burglary thing. You know – there was this, I don’t know, secondary state being set up before the elections. A bureaucracy of criminals. And I just didn’t want to see that continue! I wanted to, you know, not get burgled! There’s a couple harsh anti-crimers on the council – Anga Firebell, Delvetica Theng – and I met with them just before the election. They encouraged me to run, I did, and hey. Here I am.” She grimaced. “For all the good it’ll do. Lobo’s got this thing on lock.”

“Lobo Terlethian.” 

“Yeah. He’s got a couple buddies on the council, but more than that…I don’t know. Everyone’s just too chickenshit to go hard against him. Myself included.” 

“What, because he’s rich?” 

“Rich, yeah, but – but also this sense about him. You know? Just a guy who everyone really, really wants to make happy. There’s this thing – we were going to vote on it today, but it got delayed again – licensing out some of the construction contracts to the Smith’s Guild on one of the northside projects – it’s a whole thing. Lobo doesn’t like the Guild, so he’s picking and picking at this. He’s not even disagreeing with the licenses really, he’s just making these procedural arguments, asking these hypotheticals. We came out of there with less certainty than we went in with. Depressing, Nutmeg. Not what I wanted from this job.” 

“Hmm.” This Lobo. What a guy. On one hand, arming a hobgoblin army in the distant west, with the help of major organized criminials. On the other hand, spending his days on these picayune little local politics issues. 

“Saw your buddy Gel last night,” said Yanna, changing the subject. “He was, uh, looking for more product.”

“You gave him a good deal, right? That stuff came in handy.” 

“I mean yes, but – well, I am an elected official now. I need to keep a tight profile.”

“Are you kidding?” Nutmeg snorted a laugh. “You think Lobo Terlethian worries about that shit? Come on. If anything, this is an asset! You’re connected to Gel and I now, and we’re highfalutin Hegemony agents! The exchange of favors for favors – baby, that’s how it works!” 

It was Yanna’s turn to say “Hmmm.” They exchanged a few more pleasantries and then parted ways. 

When Nutmeg got back to the Tenth Column, Enebor was waiting. 

Chapter 2 – In Which Enebor Falls Over

Gel clicked his tongue. Bloodhoof nodded as if she understood the complicated emotions conveyed in Gel’s click. Dwarroway was behind them, the Hestor Vale ahead. Sister D’s horse – whatever its name was, who cared – was pulling the cart. Enebor had shamefacedly explained that he did not know how to ride a horse – “only a mighty owl,” he admitted – so he was riding in the cart with the food and the tents. Nutmeg rode at the fore, Pierre the blue lizard perched on his shoulder. 

Enebor was weird. Weirder than usual, anyway. He’d been kinda cool once his wounds had been treated; a little stiff, a little distant. He seemed to have a code of sorts, a sense of morals and judgement that was not exactly related to what Gel might’ve considered “laws.” He kept picturing the way the Yoi Kal elves had stood so haughtily over the slaughtered halflings. Couldn’t blame them, granted, but still. Gel had enjoyed being the only elf around with a weird, violent streak. 

But that was before Mister E had spirited Enebor away. On his return, the owl-less owl-rider had been…shell-shocked? Silent? Weirder than usual. That was certain. 

“Yellow!” said Nutmeg. Pierre cocked his head. Gel chuckled. 

“Whatcha doing?” 

“I’m gonna teach him how to shock people on command.” 

“About time he started pulling his weight.” 

“We love him.” Nutmeg scratched Pierre behind the ears. “But yeah, Pierre, we’re a gang of dangerous warriors. You gotta step up.” 

Pierre made a little croaking noise in his throat. 

“And that’s the code word you chose? ‘Yellow?’” 

“I think it would be extremely funny.” 

“Fair enough.” 

The wind picked up a little. Thank the gods. They were following the dwarrow-road, the dwarf-road. The Dwarroway. Built in the days of the dwarven empire, spanning…well, spanning the known world. Nutmeg had bought a map of the Hestor Vale at a general store before heading out of town – it wasn’t a good map, per se, and included some really questionable choices when it came to scale and distance. But bisecting the Vale was the dwarf-road, and, according to the map, it continued on out the other side, bending north towards the heartlands of the ancient empire. It was a strange thought: this road they were on, this road of permanent red stone and metal, spanned more realms than Gel might ever live to see. 

“Guys,” said Sister D. “Look.” 

They looked back towards the cart. Enebor had nodded off. Again. He’d slept most of the day away already, and looked now as deep in sleep as he had when all of his bones were broken. 

“That’s not normal,” said D. “Trust me.” 

“What do you think it is?” 

“Whatever Mister E did, I guess.” 

“Something sinister and icky.” 

“Could be.”

“Where does Mister E work, anyway? He mentioned his headquarters.” 

“The capital, I’d assume,” said Nutmeg. “I mean, he recruited Lucy and I in Lone Tower, so maybe there, but…eh, I don’t know, he’s a gubmint bigwig.” 

“Does it ever bother you,” asked Sister D, “that we really don’t know anything about Mister E?”

“Only a little,” said Gel. “Money’s good. Jobs are consistent and interesting. I’ve had worse employers.” 

“Oh yeah?” 

“Yeah. Got hired once by a farmer outside the capital. Told me it would be a three-night guard job, preventing a burgulary while he moved some…unsavory products on and off his property. Turned into four weeks of nightmare. Going up against some crime bigwig, apparently, someone who wanted the raw stuff the farmer was moving. I killed a good three dozen would-be-thieves. And would you believe it, the guy wanted to pay me the same rate.”

“Yikes.” 

“Yeah. So I shot him.” 

“Gel, I wish you wouldn’t tell me these stories. Quite damning.” 

“I didn’t say I killed him.” 

Nutmeg leaned in. “Yeah, but…?”

“Yeah.”

“Ha ha I knew it.” 

They camped that night on a rocky outcrop, overlooking the road, where a grove of cedars provided cover for the evening. The Serpent Mountains rose behind them, dramatic and stark. Nutmeg had suggested riding for Truman’s Dell and spending a few days there catching up, but they’d all agreed it was best to keep riding. The trip would be long enough without additional stops. 

Nutmeg fried up a few eggs and melted some cheese and they ate it all over toasted brown bread. Sister D sang a song she’d learned before going off to temple, a simple little ditty about picking berries from the bushes in the spring. All was going well until Enebor keeled over. 

“Is he ok?” Nutmeg did not get up, but he at least sounded concerned. Sister D leaned over the fallen elf. 

“He’s – he’s fine. I think. Just passed out. Here now, he’s coming to.” 

“Apologies,” murmured Enebor. “I – did not intend to fall asleep. I apologize.”

“You okay, dude?”

“I do not know.” The golden-haired elf rubbed his eyes. “I feel not myself.”

“Man, what did Mister E do to you? I thought you guys were just debriefing!” 

“Mister E. Yes, the man in black. He took me with him to – to some place. And then we came back. You said it was several days?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Not at all,” said Enebor. 

“Hmm.” Sister D held out a hand to the elf. “Enebor – I may be able to help.”

“As you healed my body, so you will heal my mind?” That brought a rare smile to Enebor’s lips. “Dondalla, I trust you. What is to be done?” 

“Lie back.” Sister D knelt over Enebor. She glowed in the firelight, her robes and armor limned ruddy as a hearth. The elf closed his eyes, although this time that seemed to be by choice and not through force of exhaustion. At least not just through sheer force of exhaustion. Dondalla spoke a few words, and a radiance blossomed from her fingertips like the first promise of dawn. Enebor twitched a few times. He frowned. Dondalla, too, had her eyes closed and was frowning. MIrroring his expression. As if she was living a little bit of Enebor’s life, just to find out what was knocking around in that elfin noggin. 

Then she gasped. She stopped chanting. She toppled to one side. Nutmeg caught her. Enebor was twitching more now, thrashing on the ground. Gel watched. 

“Hold him still,” gasped Sister D. “Gel, hold him still.” 

“Oh, ok.” Gel knelt and pinned Enebor’s arms to his sides. There was strength in those limbs still. Much respect, thought Gel. Probably took a lot of good physical conditioning to ride those owls all the time. He must have had a fantastic workout regimen. 

“What was going on in there?” asked Nutmeg. The priestess leaned back, stretching and blinking like she’d just woken up from a long, long nap. 

“Gods.” She smacked her lips. “Tastes weird. A rarely-used prayer. One we use to detect wounds of the mind, not wounds of the body.”

“And?”

“At first there was nothing. No obvious wounds. And then…” she frowned. “It was as if there were holes. Imagine you were looking at Enebor, standing bare before you-”

“Hah. Birthday suit elf.” 

“-standing bare before you. Imagine that he had, in the center of his chest, a great and empty hole. No gore, no blood, no viscera – just a grayed-out place where the body had gone away.” 

“Yikes. That was in his mind?” 

“Yes. Yes. The strangest thing. I’ve seen nothing like it before.”

“Can you fix it?” 

“Maybe. It would take…a day.” 

“A day?!” 

“Yes, Gel, a day. It’s not an easy thing to do. It took weeks for him to fully mend his broken bones. This is a more specific wound, and I can focus on it for an entire day, but nonetheless: a day at least.” 

“Makes sense,” declared Nutmeg. “I say we do it. Gel, you and I can go hunting or fishing or something.” 

“Hunting? Like for food?”

“I mean, yeah.”

“Hm. I only hunt for sport.” 

Sister D held up her hand. “We’ll check with Enebor in the morning. But assuming he says yes, I will meditate on the correct incantations and energies tonight. This is…an esoteric practice. We are fortunate that I have been spending time with the new High Priest in Dwarroway – he has had many good things to share.” 

When the others had gone to sleep (or “deep meditation,” which, come on, it was just sleep) and the fire had burned down to dark coals, Gel sat up under the summer stars. The constellation of the Hare was rising, forever caught in a running leap. He watched Enebor’s chest rise and fall. This handsome elf with his badly-battered brain. What had Mister E done? 

And could he do it to them, too?

Chapter 3 – In Which Pierre Faces Danger

Under the dawning light of day, the elf lay out upon the grass. Sister Dondalla stood over him. She’d stripped down to her shift; the silver sun hung free against her chest. Out of her armor, she was a smaller woman. There in the ring of cedars, she knelt beside Enebor and drew some little glass bottles from her pack. One by one she unstoppered them, smeared some of the oil or ointment therein on the elf’s brow, his heart, his hands, the center of his belly, even –

“Is that necessary?” asked Nutmeg, as Sister D applied some goop to a rather personal area. 

“I’m afraid it is,” she said. “Or rather – it’s safer this way. Lucy could probably explain it better than I can, but there are…energetic places on the body. Places where the currents of soul and life and magic dart and dance a little easier. I’m anointing him on those places. I told you: esoteric.” 

“Hmm,” said Nutmeg. He watched her continue the work. She was bent entirely to the task, praying long incantations over each anointed place on Enebor’s body. It was hypnotic, mesmerizing. The unction of Enebor took the better part of the morning. It was only when the sun was high that the priestess sat back on her haunches and breathed a long sigh. 

“You done?” asked Gel. He’d been wandering the ring of cedars, apparently bored senseless. 

“I am,” she said. 

“For real?” Nutmeg was surprised. 

“Well, done with the beginning part. That was preparatory work. Now comes the ritual itself.” She took a few deep breaths. “It is crucial that I not be interrupted. For anything. I will be one with Enebor’s soul. I will be performing deep hagioscopy. My gaze through the narrow window must not be broken.”

“You got it.” Nutmeg knelt next to her. This felt kinda serious, so he chose to take it seriously. He set his axe before him. “I swear on Dolgatha’s axe, you will be guarded.”

“Aw, that’s nice,” said Sister D. She sat with her legs crossed and closed her eyes. In a quiet voice, she began to chant.

Palladius, O sun

Through a window narrow

Comes the shaft of light

Guide me 

There is no shadow you

Cannot pierce

There is no dark you

Cannot remove

Palladius, O fire

Through the mortal chimney

Runs the heat of blessed day

And me

She continued on. High overhead, the sun beat down, and the day grew warmer by the minute. Spring had come to its end; summer was now here, even in the cool foothills, and the land rose green and lush to meet it. Nutmeg left Dondalla in the clearing and went to the edge of their little ridge. The outcrop looked down on the red road below, cold gray stone cutting up from the land like a broken bone from a twisted leg. It was hard to not feel the age of the world, out here, far from hearth and hall. The rising earth was a reminder, too of the ones who had dwelled here in ancient days. In the days of the dwarven empire. Nutmeg knew precious little of the empire – only what Lucy had imparted, and what he’d gathered from their treks to the Archive and Khaddakar. But that was enough to know what could have been here, thousands of years ago. He pictured a caravan of dwarves passing by on the long, straight road, singing songs that had been long since forgotten, dressed in raiment strange and lovely. And beneath the road – beneath the road, were there other roads, deep ways the dwarves traveled from stronghold to stronghold? 

On the streets of Lone Tower, it had never mattered much to him that he was a dwarf. It just meant he was tough and good with stone and shorter than some assholes but taller than others. But on their journeys so far, they had come up against the high-water marks of the ancient dwarven empire. When it meant something to be a dwarf. When dwarves ruled all the known world, or at least the parts that mattered. Now…now dwarves were like him. Without clans, without families. As far as he’d seen, anyway. Not many dwarves in the Hegemony. Were there more out west, this way they were going? He was pretty sure Lucy had told him the heart of the dwarven empire had been far to the northwest of the Hegemony, by leagues and leagues. How far? Would they see it? 

“Nutmeg.” 

“Ah!” He jumped. Gel was really close behind him, nearly whispering in his ear. “What the fuck, man, I was reflecting!” 

“We’re being watched.” 

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. No, don’t look around!” said Gel, as Nutmeg started to look around. “Some weird beastmen or something. Can you smell ‘em?” 

Nutmeg took a deep breath. The ancient, pure stone of the road. The fresh, lovely smell of the cedars. And under it…

“Phaw.” He spat from the ridge. “Yeah. Musky. Not sure what that is. You think they’ll make a move?” 

“Hard to say.” Gel peered up into the hills, where the trees grew close and thick. “Queer foes out here in the borderlands. But we gotta keep D clear.”

“Yeah, I don’t want her getting stuck in Enebor’s deep places or whatever.”

“Are you feeling jealous?”

“Jealous? Me? Of – of what? The way Dondalla oiled up his – okay, yes, maybe I feel a little jealous.” Nutmeg sighed. “Just been thinking, though. Not a lot of dwarves in our part of the world. Maybe I should find a nice she-dwarf, pop out a few kiddos, propagate the race. Bring the empire back one hairy baby at a time.” 

“You know the dwarven empire, like, enslaved a bunch of people, right?” 

“Well. Okay. I meant metaphorically.” 

“Shh.” Gel pointed up into the brush. “See?” 

A flash of fur in the bushes. Something large – well, something tall. Tall and skinny and covered in fur. 

“If they were smart,” said Nutmeg, standing, “they would wait until nightfall.” 

“That’s a big if.” Gel drew his swords. “Let’s get closer to D. I don’t want to leave her unprotected.” 

They made their way back to the center of the grove. Dondalla was still chanting, her voice rising and falling like wind in leaves. Now, though, it seemed like she was chanting automatically, her body sounding the words without her mind present to guide it. It was an eerie, hollow effect, and made the hairs stand up on Nutmeg’s neck. 

Two more hairy things loped through the bushes, just hidden by boughs and bracken. Nutmeg cursed. “There’s a couple of em.” 

“Yeah, well, there’s a couple of us.” 

“Are we a couple?”

“I mean, yeah.”

“Cool.” 

The horses were hobbled close by. Bloodhoof whinnied and stamped, nervous; the restlessness spread to Daybreak and Piggles, who tossed their heads and rolled their eyes. They smelled it too. The musk. The scent of hairy things in the undergrowth. Big hairy things. Pierre, perched on the cart, looked very small and scared. Nutmeg motioned for the lizard to jump to him, and Pierre crawled up to sit nervously on his shoulder. Nutmeg brandished the axe. 

“Hey! We know you’re there!” he called. “Fuck off and die!” 

“Concise,” said Gel. 

“Brevity is the soul of -” 

Nutmeg could not finish his aphorism. No time. Not with the beastmen bursting from the trees, howling and running on a loping fourfoot pace. They had bony, ribby bodies and the heads of wild dogs; their fur was spotted and mottled, and they carried crude daggers of sharpened stone. Four of them. Splitting up. Two apiece. 

Easy. 

Nutmeg had time enough to feel the world slow around him. Who was he? Who was he now? He was many things – dwarf, warrior, government contractor, casual drug addict, luxury condominium developer – but in that moment he was only Nutmeg. And Nutmeg was angry. The rage filled his hands with strength. He strode forward. He met the dogmen. The first leapt at him and tackled him back, pinning his arms down. The axe fell useless to the grass. The dogman snapped down with slavering jaws. Nutmeg let him try. Once. Then he craned his neck up and bit the dogman in the neck, deep enough to feel some important throat-organ between his teeth. He tore and ripped, and the beast gurgled and fell away, twitching. It dropped its little dagger, and Nutmeg picked it up, spitting foul gore. The other dogman was running at him, feinting to one side – dogmen can feint? – and Nutmeg pointed at the hairy brute.

“YELLOW!” he shouted.

Pierre crackled. Nutmeg felt all his hairs rise with the surge of electricity as Pierre gathered it up and then za-ZAM sent it forth, a bolt of blue lightning in the heart of the dogman. The beast fell dead. Pierre chirruped happily. Nutmeg rubbed Pierre’s head. “Ya did great, buddy,” he said. 

Nutmeg turned, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Gel had his rapier buried in the heart of one dogman and his shortsword in the guts of the other. With a twist he freed both blades and finished his enemies. The elf bent, wordless, and took a toe from the dogman’s hairy, manlike foot. 

“It’s nice to get a little practice,” said Nutmeg, spitting out yet more gore. 

“Yeah, I gotta stay sharp. Good to see Pierre pulling his weight.”

“He’s a tought little guy! Right, Pierre?”

Pierre croaked.

Gel narrowed his eyes, looking Nutmeg up and down. “Did you – did you bite one?” 

“That’s not important.” 

Chapter 4 – In Which Enebor Remembers Everything

Enebor remembered everything. 

He and Dondalla came out of the trance late that night, gasping and flailing for succor. Nutmeg kept the fire going. The dwarf had insisted that Gel brew some tea for the ritualistically comatose duo. A little annoying. Gel was above such things. Granted, he made really good tea. And now Enebor sat huddled under a blanket, sipping his tea, while Sister D scarfed down some late dinner. 

“The man you call Mister E. He took me with him. We – we appeared in some dark place. A hall. Lined with chairs. Chairs behind metal bars. He – he asked me to sit in the chair. He was with me and we talked. He asked me questions, many questions. About the Yoi Kal. About the Hestor Vale. There was much I could not tell him, and more I would not, for the safety of my people. And then -” Enebor’s face twisted. “I cannot say how, but I was – I was bound to the chair. A cap of metal came down upon my head. And this Mister E, he, he. He was inside my head.”

“I saw the memories,” said Sister D. “It’s true.” 

“Inside your head?” Gel set down his own cup of tea. He felt sick. “Poking around in there?” 

“Yes. Searching. He looked through my life. Through my memories.” Enebor flushed. “Things I would rather have forgotten. And things I would not have told him. He wove spells then, wove them over the places he had touched. I think he wanted me to forget that he had been in my mind. But now I remember. I remember everything.” 

“Gods.” Gel shivered. “Enebor, that’s – that’s fucked, man. That’s awful. That’s despicable. It’s a breach of trust.” 

“What was he looking for?” asked Nutmeg. 

“The Red Hand. The secrets of the Yoi Kal. Daghda. The Daghdakka.” 

“What’s that last thing?”

Enebor grimaced. “I – it is not for me to speak of. It is a name given to a nameless thing by the Starvoiced One of my tribe, and thus a hallowed topic.” 

“You can’t tell us even a little bit of it?” 

“Nutmeg,” said Gel, “come on. The guy had his brain violated, I feel like we should give him some privacy. Not ask the same stuff Mister E was asking. If we needed to know it, Enebor would tell us. Right?” 

The other elf nodded slowly. “I…suppose. I am troubled. Deeply troubled. I trusted you. And you gave me to him.” 

“Listen, we didn’t even know he could do that. Honest,” said Gel. “I’m not sure I’d have agreed to work for him if I did know.”

“Really?” asked Nutmeg.

“Yes, really. Look, Enebor, what he did to you was wrong. I can promise you this: we’re not going to fuck you like that. We’re here to help you. We’ll get you home, back to the tribe, and then you never have to deal with the Hegemony’s government again. Deal?” 

Enebor looked to each of them. “Let it be so agreed,” he said, at last. “You have saved my life. You have saved my body, my mind. You guarded me in my time of need. These bonds of blood  mean more to me than your words.” 

“So what’s the game plan?” asked Nutmeg. “We need to get you home. I feel like that’s more important than the mission Mister E gave us – although, granted, we should still probably follow through on that. Sounds like there’s more at stake than just preserving our working relationship with a bureaucrat.”

“The swiftest way home…I am not certain.” Enebor sipped his tea. “I came this way on the wings of my owl, do not forget. The road is strange to me. But I can give this path: the city of Barrendell, at the heart of the Hestor Vale, should be our lodestar. From Barrendell it is due north to the fens I call home, by the old Witchroad. We have but to get close enough and my people will find us.”

“To Barrendell, then,” said Gel. “Get some sleep. You’ve earned it.” 

The others rested. Even Nutmeg fell into a deep and stuporous slumber. Gel, though, stayed awake. He had meant what he said. If Mister E could look into their minds – anyone’s mind – and leave no trace…he could’ve done it to them already. And that place he took Enebor – was that the heart of the bureau they served? Was that the cold and austere office of power? 

They could go west. Take Enebor home. Check out this Red Hand shit. But after that…Gel watched the stars. There was plenty of time to decide his path. Plenty of time. 

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