Episode 023 (Text): On the Wings of Love

When we last left our heroes…the HOB GOB KILLIN’ MOB busted through a blockade on the north road to the fens! Once in the fens, they were attacked by a daghdakka, a monstrous creature that almost killed Gel. After using their vial of starlight to signal for help, a group of the Yoi Kal owl-riders swooped in and carried them off to ENEBOR’s home at KAL RAMMATH…

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – In Which Nutmeg Pees on a Tree

Gel kicked Nutmeg. Nope, still unconscious. The moonshine J’estor had given the dwarf had really been some potent stuff, apparently. 

“It may have been a mistake to encourage him like that,” said Enebor. 

“Nah, he’s fine,” said Gel. “I thought we’d be in the air longer.”

They sat high in the great tree at the center of Kal Rammath. Gel had seen many beautiful sights in his life – the painted ceiling of the Dome of Cropuscle, the dying breath of a hated foe – but his first glimpse of Kal Rammath would forever hold a special light. They had come down out of the sky, grasped in the talons of the great owls of the Yoi Kal, and beheld the city of lights in the trees. Kal Rammath was a great hill on the shore of a greater lake, an island in the fens a few square miles wide. The trees here grew so tall and thick that they dwarfed any stone towers that could’ve been raised thereon; their peak canopy was yawning and vast, covering the entire hill, but below that canopy the branches grew at sparse, straight intervals, leaving plenty of room for the many platforms and flets, the bridges and ladders, the starlanterns and swaying beautiful boughs of the elves of Kal Rammath. A thousand little lights showed through the tree cover as the owls descended. J’estor guided them with great skill through a narrow gap in the canopy, and they alighted on a platform at the center of the hill. Below them, at the base of the tree, was a still, wide pool of black water – not black with sludge, Gel thought, but rather black because it was not meant to be seen through. 

“This is -” for the umpteenth time, Sister D tried to describe Kal Rammath, and failed. 

“I am glad to be home once more,” said Enebor, softly. They all spoke softly. It just felt right, in this twilit realm. 

“Augh,” said Nutmeg, sitting up quite suddenly. “Oh gods, my head.”

“Yeah, you had a log fall on it.” 

“And you chugged moonshine.”

“I think something may be lost in translation,” said Enebor. “Moonshine as we know it – this is a mystic draught, a drink meant to be sipped at times of great personal need.” 

“The only personal need I have,” said Nutmeg, “is to take a leak.” He walked to the edge of the platform and faced away from them. Enebor grabbed him by the shoulder. 

“No!” he said, his voice finally rising above a quiet drone. “No, Nutmeg. Please do not urinate into the sacred pool.” 

“Well, dammit, where can I urinate?”

Enebor sighed. “Onto the tree. Come around the other side, I’ll show you. We don’t urinate out into midair – you never know who might be walking beneath.” 

“That’s smart, dude.” 

J’estor emerged from the hole in the tree into which xhe had gone when they arrived. Xhe had an odd look on xir face. “The Starvoiced One wishes to speak with you,” xhe said. “All of you.” Xhe peered from side to side. “Where did -”

“We’ll get them,” said Sister Dondalla. 

Once Nutmeg was done, they entered the tree. Enebor led the way, his head bowed; Gel followed just behind. He was surprised at how eager he felt about this place. He’d been among elves many times, but they were always, well, city elves, elves of the Hegemony, politicians and nobles and this and that. These were elves. Maybe Elves with a capital E. Bumpkins? Maybe. Potentially cool nature magic stuff? Also maybe. 

Inside the tree was cool and dark, lit only by glowing moss. At first. Then Enebor stepped aside, and revealed the chamber at the heart of the great tree. The walls were lined with tapestries of fantastic colors and abstract patterns, all woven from a silk so fine that the threads were nigh-indistinguishable. In the center of the room was a pool of still water in a wooden basin, carved from the tree itself. And at the far side sat an elf. An old elf. Maybe even an ancient elf. Perched on a pile of pillows and cushions, dressed in robes of gossamer light. The elf’s hair was black as night, and to an outsider she might’ve seemed no older than Enebor or Gel. But Gel could tell. An elf could always tell. This was one old motherfucker. 

“Welcome,” she said. “Welcome to Kal Rammath, travelers. And Enebor, welcome back.”

“Starvoiced One,” said Enebor, and he sank to his knees in reverence. Gel stayed standing. 

“Hi there,” said Nutmeg. “We’re the Hob Gob Killin’ Mob. How’s it going?”

“J’estor told me who you were,” said the Starvoiced One. “I am Alaë, Daughter of Quetān. I speak for the stars at Kal Rammath. You have seen much, I understand, and come with tales to tell.” 

“It’s an honor to meet you,” said Gel, and meant it. “We came to bring Enebor back. But -” he looked to Nutmeg. Nutmeg nodded. “-we’re also here on the trail of the Red Hand. Of the worshippers of Daghda.” 

“I have seen the forms of the adherents of Daghda in the star-mirror,” said the ancient elf. “They walk the land now in great number. Their forms are clouded, too, hidden from me. To be hidden from my sight is to walk in the shadows of an unnatural life. If you are hunters of Daghda’s servants, you will draw face-to-face with true darkness.” 

“What is Daghda?” asked Sister D. “I understand it’s a god of some sort. But we really don’t know anything about it.” 

“Daghda. Destroyer. Unmaker.” Alaë stood, unfurling herself, and glided down to the basin of water. “I will tell you all I can, although this is the edge of my knowledge. I have lived a long time, by the measure of years, and seen a great many things, but Daghda is a primeval thing, a being from the earliest days.

“In the beginning, there were dragons.” 

Alaë produced a wand of black wood and touched it to the water. Her words spoke pictures into the basin, pictures that were more feeling than anything else, splashes of color and visual noise to punctuate her tale. “In the beginning, there were dragons. Dragons reigned over all the world. All the world, not just our piece of it. The reason for their downfall is lost to time, beyond my sight, but we know how their world ended: Daghda. Daghda was unleashed from the nine hells and given free rein over the world for a year and a day, or so the stories say. In the end, the dragons were broken, scattered; their many slaves – those who came to be our ancestors – flung far and wide. 

“Daghda…Daghda is best understood as I see it. Observe:” She held out the wand again, and the many patterns resolved. Gel recoiled. The thing in the water was – unspeakable. Were those wings upon its back, or just…tentacles? Probosci? And how many heads did it have? Innumerable, it seemed, rippling with strange life.

“Daghda is not a god,” said Alaë. “Daghda is an Un-Thing, an Annihilator. A force. A being with a hunger we cannot understand. Only the gods could contain it, and even then, once it was loosed upon the world, it ran amok. The stories say that it remains in the nine hells once again, in some great prison wrought by hellgods and daygods alike. For these hobgoblins to worship it – for anyone to worship it! – is unspeakable.” 

“And the thing we saw in the swamp?” asked Gel. “The – daghdakka?”

“Yes, I have so named it.” Alaë smiled as if at a particularly precocious pupil. “These daghdakka are spawn of Daghda, I do not doubt, torn from its being like flies from putrefying flesh. I have spent many nights of late in the art of scrying, doing what I can to determine from whence these spawn dare spring.” 

“Alright,” said Nutmeg, who was clearly getting antsy. Maybe it was his headache. “Look. I appreciate the, uh, information. But at the end of the day, we’re looking at a pretty serious real life threat. There’s an army of hobgoblins gathering in the west, with dragons and ogres and who knows what else, and the Hestor Vale is fucked if we don’t get hustling here.” 

“The Hestor Vale.” Alaë turned from the darkling water and returned to her perch atop the cushions. “I remember when it was the Kingdom of Ra-Hest. I watched the floodwaters rise. Yes, the Vale will bleed. Yet we are too few here to strike out in force. Our owlriders are dwindling. Enebor’s scouting party was not our last loss. There has been much death since your departure, Enebor.”

“Including Logellen,” said Enebor. 

“Yes, including Logellen.” Alaë stood. “Nutmeg. Gelmahta. Dondalla. I will assist you however I can. I will not, however, ask my owlriders to abandon Kal Rammath. Not with the daghdakka breathing down our necks.”

“Well…alright.” Nutmeg seemed at a loss. “Damn. I mean. Damn. I guess I was hoping for more.” 

“The tale I have told you is more than you will find anywhere else, I vow. And knowledge, knowledge of our foe, may prove more useful than a hundred owlriders.”

“Where will you go now?” asked Enebor. “I – will remain here. I hope you understand.” 

“You sure, dude?” asked Nutmeg. At the same time, Gel said: “Of course we understand.” Enebor smiled. 

“I am sure. Not out of dissatisfaction with your company – in truth, it has been an honor to travel at your side. And I am confident we will meet again. But I long for my home, friends, and for the owls, and the many lights in the trees.” Enebor turned back to the Starvoiced One. “If I may be so bold – I promised them compensation for a cart.”

“Compensation?” Alaë raised an eyebrow. “Such as-?”

“Gold would be nice,” said Nutmeg. “We had that cart for a long time. And our horses ran away!” 

“We do not trade in gold often,” said Alaë. But at seeing Nutmeg’s dismay, she laughed. “That does not mean we cannot compensate you, as Enebor suggests. You have done great deeds, and will do more, I am certain. Horses we cannot provide. Boats, though, we could offer you.” 

“Boats?” Gel snapped his fingers. “Hey, Nutmeg, you have that map you bought?”

“Yeah,” said the dwarf, rummaging through his pack, “although I feel like it’s not that helpful. Just a bunch of squiggles all over it.” 

“Those are the place names.”

“Right.”

Gel unfurled the map, which was a little oogy from being in the dwarf’s bag. He pointed. “We’re up here?” 

“Yes,” said Enebor. 

“I think we should go here,” said Gel. “Tanner’s Crossing. It came up back in Barrendell, remember?”

“I know the place of which you speak,” said Alaë. “It can be reached by the water’s course. We will provide you with swift boats on the dock. They will carry you down the shore of the lake, following the course of the river through the deep wood, to where the waters join and the Hestor swells. That current will carry you down to Tanner’s Crossing.” 

“Well, that’s more than nothing,” said Nutmeg. “But we could probably use a day or two to chill, right guys?” 

“We will be holding funerary customs for several days,” said Alaë. “For Logellen, and for the folk of Enebor’s company. There will be time for you to rest here, should you need it. Guest quarters have been arranged for you at ground level. J’estor has seen to it.” Alaë raised her arms. “You are always welcome at Kal Rammath, adventurers. Rest now. You will need all your strength.” 

Chapter 2 – In Which Gel Reflects

Gel awoke to the taste of dew on his lips. There was a lightness in the air here, a wonderful and blessed ease. He left their guest quarters – simple wooden lean-tos at the base of a colossal tree – and walked, without his armor, without his weapons, and without a destination. 

Fresh from the dewy hill the merry morn shone bright and clear. The elves of the Yoi Kal had been laboring through the night, it seemed, as soon as word of the necessary funerals began to spread. There were elves in black silk singing sad, wordless songs, laments of such tenderness that Gel had to turn away and hide his eyes. At the center of the town, near Alaë’s tree, elves had gathered in ceremonial garb, and chanted the names of the fallen at the edge of the still black pool. Those names, Gel realized, included both elves and owls. That touched him, too, and he went away with a stirred heart. 

What was it about this place that got to him? It had started in the fens, this feeling of moroseness, of introspection. But here in Kal Rammath it was stronger than ever. He was not usually given over to fits of feeling like this. Maybe it was a little latent jealousy for Nutmeg and Dondalla. He could admit that, now, to himself, far from the others. Yeah, it bothered him a little that they had great chemistry. He didn’t get into this business to get laid or whatever, but, dammit, it was nice to be loved, or to belong, ot whatever, and here he could feel the absence of that. Who, after all, would be chanting his name beside still waters if he fell in battle? No one. Nutmeg would pour one out for him, Lucy might write a wry eulogy, and then they’d move on with their lives. 

He did a little more wandering, and a little more thinking, and before he knew it, the sun was high. He went now to the great hall, a common space built around one of the trees. Here were little shrines and merchant stalls and small apartments, the hustle and bustle of Kal Rammath. To his surprise, though, most of the stalls were empty, and the few people he saw were carrying bottles of moonshine and walking with bowed legs. 

“Is this something to do with the funeral?” he asked one passerby, an elf woman with lovely dark hair and fine, elfin features. 

“The mourning is done,” she explained, smiling up at him. “It is time to celebrate their lives, these fallen of our city.” She squinted at him. “Hang on. You’re one of the, the newcomers. You brought Enebor back!” 

“That’s right. Gelmahta.”

“Tanelle,” she replied, with a little mock bow. “Want a drink?”

“I’d love a drink,” he said, and meant it. 

They slipped off to a quiet corner of the great hall, an empty merchant stall where they could sit and have a sip. Tanelle produced a bottle of what looked like moonshine mixed with something else, some sort of pulpy fruit juice. “Malatcha fruit,” she explained, pouring a little into two cups she had produced from the stall. “It’s real great for cutting the moonshine. Have you had it before?”

“Malatcha? Or moonshine?”

“Either, both, Gelmahta.”

“Gel. Neither, I guess. I mean, I’ve had other things called moonshine, but I’d wager they’re different from what you have out here.” 

“Out here? You’re not from nearby?” 

“No, no.” He sipped. Woof. That was good stuff. Real sweet and easy. “Out east. Far away.” He laughed. “Would’ve been nice to be from a place like this, though. Grow up with other elves. Close to people.” 

“You didn’t grow up close to people, then?” 

“Not exactly. I -” he paused. How much could he tell this chick? There were things about him he had never told anyone before. Then again, vulnerability sometimes really got the ladies going. This could be a win-win situation, if he played his cards right. “I was adopted, for starters. Raised by a couple of fishermen outside the capital city. Humans. They…they didn’t like me. It was weird. They liked me okay, but they didn’t want me doing anything. Going anywhere. Meeting anyone. Wasn’t until I was in my teens I knew I was an elf, which came as a bit of a shock. Not that it was bad to be an elf. Just, you know, if you didn’t know it?”

“I can imagine,” said Tanelle, who had finished her cup. “You know, if you’re not comfortable here, we can…”

“No, I’m good. So anyway. Ran away from home. Wound up working for a guy named Gangly Pete. Doing street tough stuff at first, then some breaking and entering. Then, well, I got good at killing people. Really good. Good enough that I made some nice money. Even got paid to turn on Gangly Pete, which I did. Buyer was right. Plus, I’d found a two-bit backdoor wizard who offered to do some scrying on my blood, some real shady magic stuff, to try and figure out where I came from. We never did figure out exactly where I came from. But we did figure one thing out: my fishermen parents had killed my real parents. Why, how, who knows. But they did it. So one night I went home. I went home with a pair of knives and I cut their throats.”

“Dang,” said Tanelle, who had finished another cup. “That’s crazy.” 

“You see what I mean?” said Gel. “I just – I have not felt like I belong, you know?” 

“Hey! Gel!” It was Nutmeg, rounding the corner, a bottle of malatcha moonshine under each arm. “What’s up, dude?”

“Oh, I was – just leaving,” said Gel. He was no longer super interested in copulation; he wanted to be alone again. Alone with his dark thoughts. “I’ll see you around, Tanelle. Nutmeg, catch you later.” 

Gel walked alone and sat under a tree until the sun went down. This place was beautiful, but he was going to be glad to put it behind him. It was a strange kind of beauty, a beauty like a hall of mirrors, where you know that just existing in it will diminish it somehow. Better that Kal Rammath be a pleasant memory.

Chapter 3 – In Which Nutmeg Makes a Proposition

“Okay, bye,” said Nutmeg, as Gel left. He turned to Gel’s companion, the cute lady elf with the dark hair. “You wanna fuck?”

“Absolutely,” said the cute lady elf. 

Chapter 4 – In Which Local Wildlife Lives and Dies

The next morning, the lake was beautiful. Nutmeg stood on the shore and watched a big heron or something, some waterbird, wing its easy steady way across the glassy lake. He felt renewed. Refreshed. Granted, he remembered very little of last night, but the elf liquor left little hangover, and the elf food – especially some of those fried fruit fritters, oh gods – was filling without making him feel all bloaty. He’d even slapped a little lakewater on his face and combed out some of the crumbs from his beard. Not like he was trying to impress anyone. It just felt good to look good. 

True to her word, Alaë had set them up with a boat. It was a lovely, sleek craft, with a wide, shallow hull. It was fitted with a sail, but there were also pairs of long oars set in the wales. She’d even packed it with provisions.

“Hey,” said Gel, descending the path to the dock. 

“Good morning! Are you ready to set sail?” 

“I suppose,” said Gel. “I like this place. The people here are nice.” 

Nutmeg grinned, remembering that cute elf girl from yesterday. “Fuck yeah they are.” 

“Did you get a chance to talk to that lady, Tanelle? She’s a great listener.” 

“Uh, yeah,” said Nutmeg. “Pretty much we talked, yeah.” 

“Good morning, gentlemen!” Sister D was coming down the path now, too. There was a spring in her step, and she even tipped her floppy hat to them. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I was conferring with Alaë a bit. She’s got such a breadth of knowledge!” 

“Even though she’s a heathen to you?” asked Gel. 

“I mean, technically she doesn’t worship my god,” said D. “But she’s very respectful. And she explained to me some more about Daghda, about, you know, the metaphysical aspects of our quest.” 

“Anything important?”

“I’ll tell you the highlights. I didn’t see much of you guys yesterday – did you get a chance to rest?” 

“Hell yeah,” said Nutmeg. He tossed his pack into the boat. “Let’s get going.” 

Their course had been explained to them, and seemed easy enough. They would start by heading south down the shoreline of Lake Raa, keeping the bank at their left as they rowed. Then down the Raa River, under the eaves of the dark forest, until it met up with the mighty Hestor. From there, the Hestor would carry them on out the forest to Tanner’s Crossing. 

The first day of travel passed without complaint. They glided past the reedy banks of Lake Raa under clear and sunny skies. Had they been on foot in the fens, which fell away to the east, they might’ve been beset by bugs and awful, sticky air. But the sleek elfboat carried them quickly and kept a breeze in their face. By the time night fell, they camped on the southern shore of Lake Raa, just in sight of the mouth of the Raa River. 

The second day brought them into the forest. Alaë had called it the Hagwood. It was, in truth, the same forest they’d traveled alongside when they left Witchford, a great black expanse along the Vale’s northern border. To Nutmeg’s surprise, the Raa River was wide even in the forest, a good half-mile from bank to bank. He was glad of it. There were shapes in the trees, hulking things moving quietly about their unknown business. In the places where no sunlight reached, eyes glowed out at them like lanterns from the dark, and the calls of queer beasts echoed about the trees. The upper branches grew so long and thick that there was only a narrow strip of sky in the middle of the river, and here they stayed as best they could, avoiding the treacherous logs along the banks. 

The light began to fade. Nutmeg looked to the others. They hadn’t said a word in hours, muted by the green weight around them. 

“We need to find a place to camp.” 

“Do we?” asked Sister D. “Can’t we just drop anchor, camp out here on the boat.” 

Nutmeg peered over the boat’s edge. The water was deep enough that he couldn’t see the bottom. “I don’t know. Push comes to shove, I’d rather have mud under my feet than nothing.” 

“Alright, well, check it out,” said Gel. “I think we found a solution.” 

They had come to a place where some little stream out of the western mountains came tumbling down through stone and root to join the Raa. The widening river was pockmarked here by a cluster of little sandbars and islands, one large enough to sport a few graceful elms, tall and straight. 

“Fine,” said Sister D. “I’m still not a fan of it, but I’ll live.” 

They made camp beneath the elms, hauling the elfboat up onto the sandy soil. The island was a few hundred feet across, no small thing even in the wide Raa. There was a hill at one end of the island, a mound of earth ten feet high at the top. Nutmeg made their fire at the other end of the island from the mound. He didn’t like the look of it. There shouldn’t be such a regular, noticeable embankment on a little sandbar like this. 

By night, the Hagwood was worse. From the eastern shore especially, they could all hear the hootings and howls of wild things in the wood. Shivering yeeeeees and deep basso grumbles came at irregular intervals. 

“Did the Starvoiced One have anything to say about, you know, this shit?” asked Nutmeg. 

“Nothing too specific,” said Sister D. “I mean, she had some ominous words about how the Hagwood was ‘still one of the old places,’ where ‘things long-forgotten dwell,’ but she didn’t say what specifically those things were.” 

“Well great,” said Gel. “I’m a big fan of how we keep stumbling from one insane boogeyman to another. Maybe whatever lives here will break my other sword so I can match.” 

“She made one thing clear,” said Sister D, ignoring Gel. “If we don’t bother the Hagwood, it won’t bother us.” 

“Do you think this fire counts as ‘bothering?’” 

“I hope not, Nutmeg.” 

Gel took the first watch that night, and woke Nutmeg around midnight for the second. Nutmeg sat with his back against an elm, axe on the ground beside him, listening to the symphony of the night. Squalls and chirrups and ga-goomphs and blorches, howls and cries and splashes alike. 

Wait. Splashes?

Nutmeg turned. There were ripples in the river. Something had splashed. He was sure of it. He grabbed the axe. No sneaky freaky was getting the drop on him. He could see well enough in the dark woods to watch the outline of something big moving under the water, twenty feet or so from the island. But it was moving around the island. Circling it. Circling them. He found himself wishing for a bow. He should really just buy one. A good cheap shortbow or something, didn’t have to be fancy. 

The shape moved toward the surface. There was another splash as something – a fin? A leg? – broke the water, then submerged again. He watched it pass them by, moving on toward the other end of the island. Toward the mound. He put himself between the mound and his sleeping friends. Whatever was about to happen, it would have to go through him first. The swimming shape disappeared behind the mound. There was a louder splash then, and the sound of feet stomping in the shallows. Whatever it was, it had left the water. 

As if in a dream, the scene unfolded. The thing came up the mound, cresting it, and for a moment was silhouetted against the pale light of the sickle moon. Glistening wet with the riverwater. Tall, maybe seven feet if it were to stand up straight. Two legs with great wide feet; two arms, thick as tree trunks, ending in wide-bladed claws. Skin of – chitin, insect chitin or something akin to it, plated. Four lamplike eyes glowed limpid and glassy; its mouth ended in a pair of sawtooth pincers. It beheld Nutmeg, and he beheld it. 

Then it lowered its head, and took its wide claws to the earth of the mound. It dug with uncanny silence and speed, rearranging the earth to make way for – for what? It paused about halfway through, raised its head high – then darted down. The stillness was broken by awful, piggish screams. Sister D and Gel sprang awake, scrambling for their weapons. Nutmeg just stepped back. The bug-thing reared away from the mound, a little animal in its jaws. It was some sort pig-mole thing, having clearly burrowed into this mound for safekeeping. Its predator had found it, though. The bug-thing shimmied backwards into the water, hissing with apparent pleasure as the pig-mole thrashed and squealed. 

“Alright,” said Nutmeg. “Okay.” 

“Uh huh,” said Gel. 

“We should go,” said Sister D. “Right? We should go.” 

“Honestly, nah,” said Nutmeg. “I think we’re safe. It was hunting that other thing, and it found it, and wasn’t interested in us.”

“Yeah but consider this: I’m not going to be able to sleep until we are out of this godsforsaken forest.” 

As if in answer, there came a hooting cry from the eastern wood. Nutmeg sighed. “Okay. Yeah, that’s fair. Let’s shove off, then. Hopefully no more weird shit with the local wildlife.” 

Chapter 5 – In Which The Hob Gob Killin’ Mob Gets to Work

The two-and-a-half days spent under the shadow of the Hagwood were almost unbearable. By the time they shot from the forest, they were all desperate to taste the clear air and feel the warmth of the summer sun. No more incidents like the thing with the bug monster, thank the gods, but once you’ve seen that, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s going to happen again. Nutmeg had dreamed last night of that pig-mole, shrieking and squealing as it was dragged to its watery, buggy doom. Not a fan! 

They joined up with the Hestor River in the golden haze of late afternoon. On the east bank, open farmland stretched out as far the eye could see. Green corn just beginning to turn to gold, beside low fields of beans and barley and wheat. Wildflowers grew down by the banks, blue cornflower and lacy white blooms of something else and many-petaled purple splendors of, uhhh…Nutmeg was not a flower expert, but he liked what he saw. Beauty all around. The river was wide and deep at last, flowing along at a merry pace, perfect for kicking back and letting the current ride them down to Tanner’s Crossing. Nutmeg leaned back in the boat, resting his head on the seat. Ahh. Time to breathe the fresh air, the sweet smell of growing things, the black and tarry smell of pitch smoke – 

He sat up. Sniffed again. Just as he was about to say something, Gel pointed down the course of the river, just around the bend. 

“Smoke!” 

“Yeah, I was going to say that.” 

“Well, I mean, okay.” 

“I smelled it, I mean.” 

“Guys!” 

Nutmeg was right (which meant that Gel was by proxy also right). There was smoke rising to the south, a column of thick black smoke against the sky. Nutmeg’s blood ran cold. Something big was burning. Had they come too late? Was Tanner’s Crossing itself aflame? 

“Alright,” he said. “Alright. Let’s be ready. Gel, bow up. Sister D, honestly, that sling is better than nothing. I’ll keep the boat close to the east bank. Stay low. Depending on the situation, we could sneak up on whoever’s doing the burning.” 

No debate. They sailed on, heads down, grateful for the high bank. Nutmeg lowered the sail and leaned on the oars instead. They were long, long enough that even his short, compact frame could manage a good hard pull. Gel squatted near the front of the boat, spyglass raised, crossbow at the ready. 

“It’s a barn,” he said, at length, as they came around the bend. “Someone’s burning a barn.” 

Nutmeg let himself relax just a little. One burned barn wasn’t a military target or an invasion force. It was just, well, hey, a little recreational arson. We’ve all been there, he thought. Still, no reason to think this was anything too innocent. “Anything else, Gel?”

“Yup – yup, I got em.” The elf ducked nearly prone. “Two hobgoblins sitting in the field on the riverbank.” 

“Perfect,” said Nutmeg. He leaned on the oars and guided them into the rushes. There wasn’t really a good place to dock, but hey, they could make do. He and Gel tied the boat to the roots of a scraggly little tree, and then the three of them disembarked. 

“I’ll go in first,” said Nutmeg. “You guys bring the backup. Be ready to shoot them when they run – two hobgoblins won’t stick around for long.” 

“Agreed.” 

They clambered up from the muddy bank and into the tall grass. There was no cover between them and the hobgoblins; as soon as they popped up, the hobgoblins did, too. 

“Stay where you are!” commanded Nutmeg. “Don’t move a muscle!” 

The two hobgoblins looked at each other. They were well-armed and well-garbed, dressed in boiled leather and carrying shortswords and a handful of shortspears apiece. One of them reached for a horn at its waist, a hunting horn. Nutmeg pointed. Gel shot. The hobgoblin stumbled back, a crossbow bolt embedded in its chest. And yet. And yet! Whatever furor drove these foes, it was enough for the hobgoblin to manage a single pitiful hooooooo on the horn before dropping dead. The other one turned and ran. Sister D whipped a slingstone after it, and it yelped when the stone struck home. 

Nutmeg gave chase. The hobbo was running for the burning barn, which, he could see now, was near a still-intact farmhouse. A raid? With only –

He stopped short. 

Five hobgoblin soldiers came racing from around the front of the burning barn. Another five poured out of the farmhouse, leaping through broken windows, screaming war cries and terrific barbaric yells. With the barn-goblins came a pair of great dogs, huge dogs, dogs as tall as Nutmeg, with black bristling fur and burning red eyes, baying and snarling. 

“Oh, eat my ass,” said Nutmeg. 

“Nutmeg!” shouted Sister D. “Watch out!” 

Not the most helpful thing, but okay. 

They were fucked. Utterly fucked. Ten hobgoblins – one of them armed with a bow taller than Nutmeg – was bad enough. But dogs? Nutmeg couldn’t stand dogs. And what’s worse, the hobgoblins seemed…smart? The one with the bow, the biggest fella, was shouting orders in Goblinese. His soldiers took positions at the top of the hill, planted their shortspears in the ground, and cocked back to throw. 

Nutmeg did the only thing he could. He charged. 

The first dog dove for him. He met it midair with a great stroke of the axe. It yelped in a deep, unsettling voice, and its blood steamed and sizzled on the grass. Its partner opened wide its mouth and let out a gout of fire, scorching Nutmeg’s arms and singeing his beard. “WHAT THE FUCK,” he yelled, at anyone who was listening. “Who the fuck has a firebreathing dog what the fuck!” He hacked out with the axe again. The shortspears flew then from the line of goblins. He heard Sister D cry out with pain; even Gel let out an uncharacteristic yell. Three of the spears struck Nutmeg. 

“YELLOW!” he cried. Pierre emerged from under Nutmeg’s helmet and let loose a bolt of blue lightning, za-ZAM, at the nearest hellhound. A good shot. The hellhound staggered back, smoking from every orifice. He hoped it was going into cardiac arrest. He raised the axe of Dolgatha and brought it down on the other hellhound, severing its head from its body, spraying himself with the white-hot blood of the infernal beast. 

“Help!” shouted Gel. That was weird. Nutmeg turned. He saw a strange thing. Gel appeared to be wrestling with an invisible figure, struggling on the edge of the river with a foe who was not there. Shit. Invisible goblins. Worse than visible ones. 

Sister D was with him, then, and she made sure the other hellhound was dead. The hobgoblins let loose another volley. Sister D leapt in front of Nutmeg and held her shield aloft. The priestess grimaced as the spears thudded into her shield. 

“What do we do?” she asked. 

“One of us needs to help Gel.”

“Alright, you go,” she said. “I’ve got a shield. And – hang on. This’ll take a second. Would’ve been better to do this before a fight, but providence decided otherwise.” She touched his brow and murmured a command. A shimmering light spilled forth from her hand and enveloped Nutmeg like a fatty film on a cold stew. 

“What’s this?” 

“Go with my god’s favor. He will turn some of the spears from you.” 

“Well, that’s pretty handy. What else you got in your back pocket?” 

“Later, Nutmeg!” 

“Oh, sure.” 

They waited through one more volley, and then split. Gel was on the ground, pinned down by his unseen opponent. He looked bad. Puncture wound on his shoulder, a cut across his face. Nutmeg ran fast. He sprinted down the hill. A shortspear whizzed just above his shoulder. Then another one. Then another one, in almost the same place. Sister D’s prayer was doing its thing. Nutmeg leapt and rammed into the something that crouched on Gel’s chest. The something stank of goblin. Surprise, surprise. It was wearing some sort of robe, or habit, or whatever – something big and clothy, something that gave a lot of handholds. Nutmeg grabbed tight as they rolled together down the riverbank to the muddy water of the shallows. The mud spattered his foe, and the invisible hobgoblin became a creature of muck and slime. A clammy claw grasped his throat. There was a growled word. Then pain. Pain through Nutmeg, head to toe, pain so great he saw stars. 

Good thing he didn’t need to see to hit. 

His hands found the evil magic goblin’s throat, now, and held it down in the water. The hobgoblin struggled and thrashed. But the heavy robes it wore must have helped to pin it down, because it didn’t struggle for long. 

As life quit the hobgoblin, it faded back to visibility. It was an ugly one – well, actually, Nutmeg realized, pulling it up from the water for a better look: it was, as far as hobgoblins went, kinda attractive. Delicate features, the kind he liked in a lady. He hadn’t seen many she-hobgoblins before, but this was definitely one. 

The shobgoblin was dressed in red robes and wore a mummified hand around its neck. Just like that fucko from the tower back east. A cleric of the hand. It had dropped a curved dagger in the drink, a barbed, cruel knife. Nutmeg let the cleric fall back into the water, and scrambled up to resume the fight. 

Gel was sitting up, clutching his shoulder. Nutmeg knelt by his comrade. “You alright?”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, that was bad.” 

“It ain’t over.” Gel moved to draw his sword, but winced and recoiled. “Awgh. I don’t think I can move this arm.” 

“You stay here, then.” Nutmeg retrieved his axe. “D and I can mop up.” 

Indeed, Sister D was already doing some mopping. Ten feet or so from the line of spearthrowers, a couple of the hobgoblins had descended to meet her hand-to-hand. Her shield was pincushioned with spears, and the other goblins were jeering and laughing. With a cry of “Palladius!” she swung her shield out hard, sending one hobgoblin flying. Another hobgoblin crumpled beneath her mace, its head little better than a mess of bony jelly. But there was another hobgoblin, sword drawn, lunging for D’s unprotected throat – 

Nutmeg caught the fucker midair. Took off the hobgoblin’s hand with the axe. Reversed his grip, opened the bastard from throat to navel. He kept charging. The big hobgoblin with the bow met his eyes – there was fear in that hobgoblin, fear that fed Nutmeg like manna from heaven. He sprang up the hill as the shortspears whizzed past him, and then he was on the barragers. 

O! It was like nothing else, this joy, this ecstasy at death! The hobgoblins were tough soldiers, no doubt about it, but this was Nutmeg’s hour. He cut them down like wheat before the scythe; he parried with the axe-shaft and turned their swords with his armor and before he knew it he was standing alone against the last hobgoblin: the big guy with the bow. 

“You get one shot,” said Nutmeg. “Go ahead. Take it.” 

The hobgoblin raised the bow. Nocked an arrow. Squinted at Nutmeg. Shot. 

It caught Nutmeg in the side of his neck, not far from his throat. An inch to the left, and – well, no time for that. One shot. He darted in. The hobgoblin was already dropping the bow and drawing its sword. Nutmeg broke the sword with his first stroke. Then he broke the hobgoblin. 

Chapter 6 – In Which Gel Inspects Some Weaponry

Gel sat against the farmhouse as Sister D ministered to his wound. Nutmeg stood behind her, hands on hips, arrow still protruding from his collarbone region. That invisible hobgoblin had done a number on Gel’s shoulder. Some valuable stuff got fucked with. Important tendons, et cetera. 

“You’ll probably have to sleep it off,” said Sister D, when she was done with her prayer, “but that should do most of the work. You’re up, Nutmeg.” 

Gel massaged the shoulder. Sore, but better. Thank the gods for Sister D. Nutmeg took his place against the farmhouse, and made a yelping noise when Sister D tried to extract the arrow. Gel didn’t particularly feel like watching the rest of that play out; he walked out to the killing field, to the top of the hill where the hobgoblin sergeant, the one with the bow, lay annihilated beside the burning barn. There was nothing they could do to stop the flames, but at least they’d taken out the troops. And troops these were. Real hobgoblin soldiers. Especially this sergeant. Gel knelt and inspected the sergeant’s gear. Good stuff, although clearly mass-made. The swords and armor and shortspears all looked uniform, like they’d come out of a big crate together. Gel had a vision, then, of the daggers at Benny’s Discount Hurtmakers in Dwarroway, that first day that he and Nutmeg had met. Had the blades come from Lobo Terlethian, too? Was he tied up in this? It was almost dizzying. 

Gel picked up the sergeant’s bow. This was the one thing that looked bespoke. Pliable wood – he would guess elm – with little carvings up and down the length of it. A longbow, too. Impressive. He’d fought hobgoblins a few times before, albeit only in little bandit gangs, but they almost exclusively relied on javelins and machetes, things to chuck and poke and cut. Not weapons of skill, like this longbow. 

The hobgoblin sergeant growled from where it lay, and Gel dropped the bow in surprise. 

“You’re alive?”

“Hrrgh.” It growled again in reply. Nutmeg had fucked this guy up. Splinters from its shattered sword were embedded up and down its chest. The axe of Dolgatha had rent the sergeant nearly in half at the waist. But its eyes fluttered open, and glared with yellow malice up at Gel. “Don’t. Touch. My bow.” 

“You’re a feisty fellow,” said Gel, kneeling beside the sergeant. “Hey guys! We got a live one!”

“Oh yeah?” Nutmeg strolled over, followed by Sister D. The dwarf was massaging his neck. “Hey, nice shot, dude. You almost got me there.” 

“No. Matter.” Every word brought bubbles of blood to the hobgoblin’s lips. “You die. Soon.” 

“I mean, I try to eat right,” said Nutmeg. “I could be watching my blood pressure a little better, but I don’t think I’m going anywhere soon.” 

“It’s the mister dusty, Nutmeg. You gotta take it easy on that stuff.”

“You know, D, you’re right. Thanks for looking out, mister hobgoblin.” 

The hobgoblin’s eyes flashed with hate. It looked to be drawing on its last reserves of life as it groaned out: “The Day of Doom is near at hand. The ferry-town will fall. From the castle of ghosts, the Day of Doom is coming. The Day of Doom is coming.” 

Gel narrowed his eyes. “Hang on. Clarify that. A castle? Some sort of base?” 

But the hobgoblin had spent its last breaths. The hateful rage fled from its eyes. 

“Pretty clear what we’re dealing with, I think,” said Gel. “Some sort of hobgoblin raiding platoon. A shaping operation to soften up the Hestor Vale for invasion.” 

“If they’re that well-organized…” Nutmeg looked truly concerned. “You know, when Saeverix said they had a ‘horde,’ I guess I didn’t think that meant a well-trained, well-organized army.” 

“Yeah, that was bad,” said Sister D. “I know we got caught out, but – well, that was bad. Could’ve been the end.” 

Gel held up his hand. Hey, that didn’t hurt anymore – that was nice. “Do you guys hear that?” 

They all paused. He was hearing the sound of hooves, of thundering horses. Well, maybe not thundering. Light commotion, perhaps. He led them round to the front of the farmhouse, where a dirt road led off south along the river. And coming up the dirt road were a group of riders. 

There were only three of them, to Gel’s relief. Another twelve-man fight was out of reach for them right now. Their leader, he could tell, was wearing a pretty nice suit of lamellar plates; the other two wore chain shirts and iron helmets. Humans, all three. Riding worn-out horses. “I think they’re friendly,” he said. “Or at least, you know, not goblins.” 

Nutmeg walked out into the road, waving his hands on high. 

The riders approached at a full gallop until at last they halted before the dwarf. 

“Hey guys, what’s cracking?” said Nutmeg. 

“I could ask the same of you,” said the apparent leader, the well-dressed lady in the plate armor. “What happened to the Kalamakis farm?”

“Hobgoblins,” said Gel, indicating the pile of dead hobgoblins. The woman in the armor swore.

“Chevalla’s Beard! Alright. Dammit. Tig, Busto, check the farmhouse. You folks – you killed these hobgoblins?”

“Yup,” said Nutmeg. “We’re the Hob Gob Killin’ Mob. I’m Nutmeg, that’s Gel, and Sister Dondalla.” 

“Hey.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Well met,” said the woman, clearly a little taken aback. “I’m Captain Anna Thornspur of the town guard. Tanner’s Crossing town guard, I should say. Sorry. To clarify.” 

“Great,” said Nutmeg. “I think we’ve got some stuff to talk about.” 

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