When we last left our heroes…the HOB GOB KILLIN’ MOB arrived in Tanner’s Crossing, a town under assault by the forces of the Red Hand. Captain ANNA THORNSPUR assured the party that a friend of hers, GEORGE the woodsman, could lead them to the hideout of the Red Hand in the nearby Hagwood. While killing time, Nutmeg bought and sampled some powerful drugs, which led him and Gel to commit unspeakable crimes against a poor, defenseless wizard. Now, the party sets out in search of George…and the haunted castle of Caer Karnak…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which They Meet Six Dogs
- Chapter 2 – In Which They Meet Morty
- Chapter 3 – In Which They Meet a Manticore
- Chapter 4 – In Which They Meet a Minotaur
- Chapter 5 – In Which They Meet a Wizard
- Chapter 6 – In Which They Meet a Ghost
Chapter 1 – In Which They Meet Six Dogs
Nutmeg found it comforting to be on the dwarven road again. The long dwarven road that went all the way back to the Hegemony had come to a point at Tanner’s Crossing, ending at the remnants of the old dwarven bridge. But now that they had crossed to the western bank, the road picked back up again, red and bright, of glimmering stone. All the same road. That was a comforting thought, kind of. Near the town there was a brewery, some fields of barley, farmhouses – evidence of civilization. It wasn’t long beore that fell away behind them, though. The road was little-traveled, clearly, and within the hour they were pointed right at the western expanse of the dark, menacing Hagwood.
“We gotta go back in there, huh?”
“Maybe it’s nicer out here. Fewer bug monsters or whatever.”
Captain Thornspur’s directions were clear: follow the red red road to the fork by the old gnarled oak, where a dirt path turned off north. That was George’s road. That was where they could find him.
“What do we know about this joker, anyway?” asked Gel. They were nearing their dozenth old gnarled oak tree.
“Crotchety wilderness dude?” said Nutmeg.
“That’s what it sounds like,” said Sister D. “Captain Anna spoke highly of him. Said he’s why she didn’t have to patrol as much on that side of the river.”
“Alright, that sounds-”
Nutmeg stopped. His nose twitched. He smelled it on the wind. Sniff, sniff. Wet dog.
“What’s wrong, Nutmeg?”
Before Nutmeg could answer, the still summer air was broken by baying. A whole pack of hounds, by the sound of it, loose and running. Aroooo they went, as a unit, sounding the call of the hunt.
“I know you’re scared of dogs – maybe you oughta take some, you know, halfling marching powder?”
Nutmeg glared at Gel, but stepped back, reaching for his axe. Probably not a good idea to get too high today. He was still feeling a little logy from yesterday. The dogs were getting closer, though. A lot closer. Sister D met his eyes. She must’ve seen…something, because she raised her holy symbol and murmured a few words of prayer.
“Gonna zap a puppy?”
“Only if I have to, Gel.”
Then, as one, the pack of dogs burst from the undergrowth. Half-a-dozen big black hounds, arooing and ruffing and baying at such a great volume that it sounded almost like a choir of trumpets.
But they were not attacking, not per se; just circling them. The dogs howled, but it seemed like they were satisfied with trapping their quarry on the road.
“Ladies! Please! Dougling! Smorth! Maria Theresa! Catch-Up! Pinkerlane! Sally! Heel, girls, heel, damn ya!”
A very different sort of hunter was baying now. The dogs were followed in undergrowth-bursting by a grizzled dude with silver hair and a beard so wild it looked like it could be hiding another dog for use in emergency situations. He was clad in buckskin and leather, and looked as if he’d been born that way. At his command, all six dogs sat back on their haunches, panting. He surveyed them, squinting with one keen eye. “Alright ya reprobates, what brings strangers like you to my road?”
“Your road?” asked Gel, incredulously. “Pretty sure it’s not yours, dude.”
“Well if that’s the attitude, we can let the dogs decide.” The woodsman’s eyes gleamed.
“No, no, no, cut that out.” Sister D stepped in. “Are you George?”
“Yeah, I’m George,” he said, pronouncing it like “jrrr.” “Who’s askin?”
“Friends of Captain Anna Thornspur,” declared Sister D.
George’s whole demeanor changed. His shoulders relaxed. Some of the lines went out of his face. The dogs, sensing their master’s chill vibe, followed suit. Some lay down in the dirt. One started scratching its face furiously.
“Well, well, well, well, well! Li’l Anna’s friends! Haw haw haw!” He laughed and slapped his knee hard enough to send up a cloud of dust. “I’ve knowed Anna since she was knee-high to a goblin. If she sent you to me, she must’ve had good cause to do so. What’s the trouble?”
“Goblins,” said Nutmeg, “of the ‘hob’ variety.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em.” George spat. “Like flies lately. Comin’ out of the Blacksmoke Mountains, or my name ain’t George.” Again, he just sort of made a “jrrr” noise.
“We obtained valuable intelligence,” said Gel, “which leads us to believe that they have a foothold base at a castle in the forest here.”
“Caer Karnak,” offered Sister D.
“Oooooee! The haunted castle!” George’s eyes glittered. “And Anna wants me t’lead you folks there, then?”
“Well, yore in luck. I hate these fuckin’ goblins, and I’ve had hankerin’ to go on the offensive for a few months now. You folks any handy with those fancy weapons you’ve got?”
Nutmeg unsheated the axe. “This is the Axe of Dolgatha, an ancient dwarven smith, imbued with the strength of a thousand dwarves or something. We’ve killed a dragon. Also we’ve killed a lot of hobgoblins already in our careers. Also we killed one of the evil hellspawn that serves this hobgoblin army. And some ogres.”
“I mean, look, if we go down our entire resume, we’d be here all day,” said Gel. “Here. Maybe this’ll answer your question.”
Gel pulled an apple from his ration-bag and threw it high into the air. It was lost to Nutmeg against the bright, unyielding sun. Gel never hesitated, though. As soon as the apple went skyward, he whipped out his two-handed crossbow, cranked it back, loaded, and shot.
“Hold out your hand,” he said to George.
Plunk. The apple landed, pierced through by a bolt, in George’s outstretched hand.
“Well butter my beard and call it breakfast,” declared George. “And I thought I was handy with a bow. Come on then. Let’s get goin’.”
Chapter 2 – In Which They Meet Morty
George proved to be just as capable as he seemed. After sending the dogs home – something they could manage entirely on their own – he led them off the main road and up the long-abandoned dwarven path into the Hagwood.
Gel had been leery of re-entering the savage forest. A strange place with strange inhabitants. But if this was the way to the hobgoblin fortress, well, there was nothing for it but to do it. And George knew where they were going. For a time they followed the old dwarf road, overgrown as it was by creeper and fern, but it wasn’t long before he pointed to a narrow path just off the road, a deer track that Gel would’ve totally missed if not for the woodsman. “That’s the Caer Karnak road,” George said. “Or what’s left, anyways.”
“What is this place?” asked Nutmeg. “What should we expect?”
“Used to be a gen-u-ine castle, couple hundred years ago, my grandpappy’s grandpappy’s grandpappy’s time. Back when this all was a kingdom. The woods weren’t so thick, then, and folk still used the dwarf road for tradin’ and travelin’ and all manner of things. Some noble family built the castle. Tryin’ to expand the kingdom. But then the kingdom done fell, and the nobles were left flounderin’ on their own. And as it turns out, they done built their castle right in the ancestral heartland of the forest giants.”
“Well why’d they go and do a thing like that?”
“No accountin’ for taste,” said George. “Anyways, legend has, the giants waited and waited until a great big thunderstorm rolled up. Then they came down from the north with boulders and trees and hootin’ and hollerin’ and they done tore down the walls of Caer Karnak and killed every last man, woman, child and donkey in the place. Most the giants died, too, ya know; ain’t hardly any left. I know these woods better’n anyone, been up to Skull Gorge more times’n I can count, and I ain’t seen but one giant, and that was a scrawny little fucker ‘bout three years ago.”
Gel looked up and about himself. The woods here were thick and dark. He had studied the map of the Vale well enough to know that the woods were not, in fact, infinite, but it sure as fuck felt that way. They just kept going. It felt wrong to build a castle here. Hubristic. Spitting in the gods’ eyes.
“They say you c’n hear the screams still,” said George. “At night, when the winds pick up an’ the cold fog comes creepin’ through.”
“I mean, I assumed as much,” said Gel. “It’s not a haunted castle without ghosts.”
“We have nothing to fear from the dead – or undead,” said Sister D. She touched her holy symbol. “The light of Palladius will cast out all revenants, as wind clears the morning mist.”
“Fuck yeah,” said Nutmeg.
Most of the day passed them by. Around midday, they paused to eat a meager meal, sitting on moss-covered logs beneath the impermeable verdure. Sated, they carried on. In the late afternoon, they came at last to a little bridge over a flat, stagnant creek. The air stank of marshy growth and wood-rot; not far from the bridge, a traveler’s cart lay upended in the muck. Gel squinted. Yes, there was something shiny beneath the cart. Someone had lost something nice here.
“Careful now,” said George, apparently reacting to Gel’s piqued interest. “That ain’t nothing you want no part of.”
“I think it is, actually.”
“Nope.” George picked up a thick stick and tossed it at the cart. It was a good throw. The stick landed with a thwack, then rolled down into the water.
A moment passed. Then, all at once, something rose from the creek. Only for a moment, but it was there nonetheless. Something long and scaly, with fins like a sea-serpent and – more than one head? How fucking deep was this creek? Then the beast was gone, and only ripples remained.
“That’s Morty,” said George. “Bog hydra. Livin’ here for years. Sharp li’l guy. Like to set traps.” George pointed across the bridge. “He won’t bother us if we stick to the road, though. Come on. It’s across the bridge, then up a hill for a ways. We’re almost at Caer Karnak now.”
They crossed the bridge single-file, keeping a wary eye out for Morty. There were some bubblings and burblings, but Morty, apparently, was predictable enough for George.
The last leg of the journey was a scramble up a hillside. No track here. Or rather, there was a track, but they could all see the fresh wooden stakes laid along the roadside to impale unwary travelers. Goblins. This was definitely the place. They moved more slowly now, just creeping up the hill, following George as he cleared a path. Gel could’ve run atop the fallen leaves and never made a noise, but it was taking Sister D and Nutmeg everything in their power to not sound like a tinker’s ensemble. George and Gel paused near the crest of the hill to let the other two catch up. The air was a little clearer here, near the top; less pressing than the forest below. Gel only had a moment to enjoy it, though. Sunset was bringing a thin green fog, an eerie mist that was not entirely natural.
“Good fortified position for a castle,” he said, mostly to distract himself.
“Ayup,” said George. “There’s a reason the giants all died trying to take it. And ya can’t march an army against this place.”
“Just a strike force,” said Gel. “Good thing we’re in town.”
Huffing and puffing, Nutmeg and Dondalla joined them. Together, they scrambled up the last little way to where a great tree had fallen, providing low cover from which to peer out at the castle beyond.
The sun had nearly set, and the green mist was thick upon the forest floor. There were fewer trees up here near the castle, but clearly the Hagwood was beginning to reclaim its turf. Jagged and black the castle rose. Of the three towers it had once had, only one was still fully intact, looming silhouetted and sharp. The front-most tower, by the gate, was a ruin of rubble and shattered stone. Great blocks of stone lay scattered hither and thither around the castle. Among them, like bare bushes in the winter, were bones. Huge bones. Ribs big enough to build a cart from, a skull the size of Nutmeg’s belly. Giants’ bones. Yellowed with age and riddled with moss: bones.
“The gate is definitely guarded,” said Nutmeg. “See the spikes?”
Gel nodded; he, too, had seen the fresh stakes, like the ones on the road below. “What are you thinking, then?”
“Wait until it’s fully dark, go around the side, maybe…maybe the second tower?” Nutmeg indicated the half-collapsed tower along the southern wall. “Might be climable. What do you think, Gel, can you scale it?”
“I can scale anything.” Gel slipped his rope and pitons from his bag. “Just say the word, and -”
“Gods!” swore Sister D, suddenly. She pointed with a trembling finger. “Look!”
There in the window of the second tower, a figure had appeared. Illuminated by a greenish light. Tattered robes dancing in the sudden wind. A chill crept down Gel’s spine. Maybe this place really was haunted. And if it was – had the goblins allied themselves with the ghosts? What was going on?
A high-pitched wail came from the tower. AaaEEEEeeee it keened, like the voice of the wind shearing through trees. AaaaaEEEEEeeeeee.
“Okay, fuck that,” said Nutmeg.
Chapter 3 – In Which They Meet a Manticore
Nutmeg’s teeth chattered. He wasn’t cold. He could admit he was a little spooked. More than a little. A lot spooked. This ghost shit – all he wanted to do was beat up some goblins. Stomp on their heads, hit them with his axe, throw them off walltops: the simple things. Ghosts? Man, damnit, why ghosts? Ghosts were hard to hit.
He watched Gel slink across the field of bones toward the tower. The elf had seemed totally unfazed by the ghost, but it was hard to say if that was just an act or not.
“I should’ve gone,” said Sister D, again. “I can banish ghosts and ghouls – I ought to be there, too.”
“We’ve gotta let him check it out,” said Nutmeg. “That’s literally what he’s good for.”
George had taken out his trusty longbow and strung it, testing its pliability in the humid air. He, like Gel, seemed only mildly concerned. Nutmeg hoped the old man would be up for a fight. He hoped, mostly, that it would come to a fight.
Gel had reached the base of the tower, against the southern wall of Caer Karnak. The ghostly light and eerie wailing continued unabated. Was that some hoarseness Nutmeg detected in the ghosts’ voice? Could ghosts get hoarse? Not something he’d wondered about until now. Gel was barely visible, a black shadow against the black stone of the tower. But there he was, sliding up inch by inch, climbing the crumbling masonry, silent as, well, as a ghost.
The elf had almost reached the tower window. Closer, closer, ever-quiet. George plunked at the string of his longbow. It sounded like an orchestra in the stillness of the night. Sister D had one hand to her mace, and the other pressed to her silver sun. Closer, closer. Gel had reached the tower window. The elf paused, and they lost him for a moment, so still was he.
Then he moved. Fast. Sudden. Striking like a snake. He sprang up and tackled the ghost backwards. The ghost’s last wail petered out. The figure was gone from the window. There was nothing, for a moment. Then:
“Heeeeeeellllllpp!” wailed a goblin.
“Aw, fuck,” said Nutmeg. He pointed to the tower. “Alright. D, can you get up the rope and into the tower to back him up?”
“Good. George, follow me.”
“Where we goin’, young buck?”
“Front door,” said Nutmeg. He stood from the log and charged.
No time to figure out exactly what had happened. No time for that. The goblin’s scream would definitely alert anyone in the castle to their presence. Nutmeg could only hope they would move on the tower, and leave the front gate unguarded.
He charged past the wooden stakes. Beyond was a courtyard, and then the keep, with the two towers rising from its bulk. Goblins were scrambling into action, running back towards the keep, where a door stood open. Nutmeg halted in his tracks, pressing himself against the stone wall. The plan had worked. Or rather the “plan” had “worked.” The goblins – and a few hobgoblins – were heading for Gel’s tower. Leaving the courtyard unprotected.
A figure stepped into the doorway. Tall, muscled like a gladiator, with the head of a snorting bull. “Come on, you louts!” shouted the minotaur. “Ghost’s fucked up!” On the minotaur’s chest, Nutmeg could see the mark of the Claw – a Clawbearer. One of those guys.
Nutmeg waited until the last goblin had entered the keep. Gel and Sister D were on their own. They’d have to figure it out. He turned the corner and entered the empty courtyard, axe in hand. George had caught up to him, and followed close behind.
“What’s the play?”
“I’ll kick the door open, you pop an arrow through. When they try to rush back out, they’ll have to come single-file. Anyone who gets past your arrows is mine.”
The courtyard was an absolute shambles; there had once been stables leaning up against the north wall, but they were wreckage now. There were more giants’ bones here, too, and a few boulders that looked as though they’d come flying over the walls. He picked his way over to the door. Someone was shouting within – Intruders! Intruders! Gel needed help, fast. “Ready?”
“Uh, no,” said George. “No – look out!”
From the top of the tallest tower, a shadowy form took flight. Great batwings spread against the starry sky. What was it? An awful thing that shot from the heavens, landing atop a boulder in the courtyard. The body of a lion. The head of a man. The wings of a dragon. And a great tail, lined with sharp spines, each dripping black, gooey poison.
“MANTICORE!” shouted George.
“Ah, yeah, that’s right, it was on the tip of my tongue,” said Nutmeg. He hefted his axe. “Come on, you ugly fucker. You want to die?”
In a rough approximation of speech, the manticore said “You – will be- chewy.” It raised its tail and flicked. Three spines shot out at Nutmeg. He batted them away with his axe. George drew back and loosed an arrow; it caught the manticore in the shoulder. The beast spun and dove for the woodsman, aided in its progress by the great wings. George turned tail and ran for the ruined stables.
Behind Nutmeg, the door swung open. A handful of goblins sprang out, brandishing scimitars.
Things were not going according to plan.
Chapter 4 – In Which They Meet a Minotaur
Gel stood over the fallen goblin. “Aw, man,” he said, wiping at the phosphorescent goo in which the goblin had been soaked. “You got gick on my drip, dude.”
The goblin, dressed in tattered rags, smeared head-to-toe in greenish glowing fungus or something, looked Gel straight in the eyes. Gel had tackled the little fucker down a spiral staircase. He knew it couldn’t have been a real ghost. He knew it.
“Don’t scream, man,” said Gel. “We can do thi-”
“Heeeeeeellllllpp!” the goblin wailed.
“Dumbass,” said Gel. He thwacked the goblin in the head with the butt of his shortsword. From outside the tower door, he heard a shout: “Hey! Someone’s in there with Dilkus!”
Gel hustled back up the stairs. He hadn’t needed a rope to get in – the tower had been rough enough to climb. Had Nutmeg heard the goblin’s scream? Oh, yup, he did – there he went, running for…the front gate. Except Sister D was – oh, shit, okay. Gel unrolled his rope, fixed it to the stones, and let it hang down from the tower window. D could get up that, probably.
He turned back to the door just in time to see it open. A hobgoblin stood in the entryway, brandishing a scimitar. Gel had his shortsword out; no time for the crossbow. He sprang back down the stairs, crying “Die, shithead!” The hobgoblin parried once, twice, and then missed. He cut the goblin’s throat and grabbed the scimitar from its limp fingers. It wasn’t a real replacement for his rapier, but it would do for now. Another hobgoblin entered. This one carried a shield, too. Big fucker. It forced Gel back up the stairs with the sheer strength in its limbs, and, over its shoulder, called “Intruder! Wyrmlord, we have an intruder!”
The hobgoblin stopped shouting, suddenly, when a bolt of searing light burst from the upper floor and through the hobgoblin’s head, leaving a hole the size of a wagon-axle in the hobbo’s brain. Gel looked up. Sister D stood in the window, one hand to her holy symbol, the other pointing at the hobgoblin. Her pointer finger smoked.
“Nice,” said Gel.
“Multiple intruders!” shouted the next hobgoblin, already bulling past the bodies of his fallen comrades. Then, another shout, from farther away: “MANTICORE!” That was George. Shit.
“You and me, D,” said Gel. “You ready?”
“Get behind me,” she said, affixing her shield to her arm and hefting her mace. “We will show these goblins the meaning of death.”
“Is that, like, a reference to the fake ghost thing?”
“Yeah that’s kind of what I was going for.”
Dondalla raised her mace high. “Palladius! Give me strength!” She charged down the stairs, overruning the hobgoblin in the doorway, forcing her way into the room beyond. Gel followed, his heart soaring. D had that effect.
His heart stopped soaring when they entered the keep.
No fewer than a dozen goblins and hobgoblins waited beyond the doorway, in a wide, open room that looked like it was half barracks, half mess hall. In the middle of the room, ringed by his loyal goblins, towered a minotaur, bull-headed and snarling, wielding an axe of black iron.
Sister D wasted no time. She waded in, glowing mace held high, battering away at any goblin in reach. Gel surveyed the scene. Two other exits: one to the intact tower, the other leading out into a courtyard, where – yup, that was Nutmeg, probably George too, and whatever dangers they faced. High rafters in this room, wooden beams perhaps eight feet above the floor. Gel jumped on a little table near the door, then launched himself forward, stepping on a hobgoblin’s head in his ascent. He plunged his scimitar into the wooden beam – it caught, thank the gods – and with all the strength he had, he pulled himself up into the rafters. There was room enough between the beam and the ceiling for him to stand fully, and he did. He lept to the next beam, then the next, making his way toward the center of the room.
The minotaur’s axe interrupted him. The beast bellowed and hacked at the rafter beneath Gel’s feet. Gel wobbled and fell to his knees. The axe swung up for him again. He parried with the scimitar, beneath the beam, then with his shortsword, knocking the axe away as the minotaur tried in vain to hack the beam out from under Gel’s knees. He missed one parry, and the beam jolted again. He fell prone, face pressed to the wood. Without looking, he swung the scimitar wide. It connected with the axe mid-swing. Good. He stabbed out with the shortsword, praying. It met something. The minotaur bellowed again, this time with an anger for which Gel was totally unprepared. He drew the shortsword up and struggled to his feet. The minotaur was wobbling, holding out its hands unsteadily, because – ah. Yup. That’ll do it. A big hole right in the top of its head.
Gel swung down then, landing astride the minotaur’s shoulders. He threw the scimitar end-over-end, catching a goblin in the back. With his free hand he held on tight to the minotaur’s horns, wrapping his arm around the beast’s head. With his sword, he stabbed out again and again, down at the goblins around him. “Die, you fucks!” he shouted. “Die! Die!” He laughed as a terrified goblin, attempting to flee from the tottering elf-mounted minotaur, tripped and impaled itself on its own sword. “Death!” cried Gel.
“Gel!” Sister D was panting, surrounded by dead and dying goblins. “The tower! The door! Watch out!”
He dismounted and spun in one fluid motion, letting the minotaur crash dead to the ground behind him. He was a god of death, he was darkness itself, and no piece-of-shit goblin was going to sneak up on –
A bolt of lightning shot from the tower door. It struck Gel in the chest and threw him bodily backwards, across the whole room, and out the door to the courtyard beyond.
Chapter 5 – In Which They Meet a Wizard
Nutmeg grabbed the last goblin and held it up like a shield. The goblin shrieked as three more of the manticore’s spines juddered into it. Worse than arrows, those things. He tossed the goblin aside and shouted a challenge at the manticore. The big ugly fucker was pawing at George, trying to swat at him through the rubble where the woodsman hid. With its tail, it held Nutmeg at bay, launching volley after volley of the spines. Nutmeg picked up a dagger from one of the goblins and threw it as hard as he could at the manticore’s nearest wing. It caught the membrane and left a small hole; the beast turned and screamed in a too-human voice at him.
Then there was the sound of thunder, and a dark shape hurtled out the open door of the keep. Gel. The elf lay on the cold stone landing, his body smoking and smelling faintly of ozone.
“Are you dead?”
“Okay, cool.” Nutmeg turned back. The manticore was charging – no, it wasn’t charging. It was taking flight.
It was going to get away.
“NO,” he shouted. Nutmeg sprinted after the monster, which was gaining speed, trying to take wing. Just as its paws left the ground, Nutmeg reached a giant’s skull, lodged in the ground like a boulder. He vaulted off the skull, his axe raised high. He swung at the peak of the leap.
He landed hard on the other side. There were two thuds: the soft sound of the manticore’s head hitting the earth, and a much louder crash as the twitching body tumbled down.
“Well shit my pants and call me a baby,” George exclaimed, popping up like a gopher from the ruins of the stable. “If that ain’t the dangest thing I’ve seen.”
Gel wheezed something from the landing. Nutmeg returned to his friend’s side. The elf looked pretty fucked. “What was that, Gel?”
“HELP!” It was Sister D’s turn to shout. Nutmeg was never one to leave a lady in distress. He ran to her aid.
Gel had been essentially correct. A bugbear, to be more precise, a super-goblin, dressed in red robes inlaid with fine silver chain. When Nutmeg entered, the goblin was directing yet another bolt of lightning at Sister D’s shield, which splintered and shook under the mystic assault.
“Absolutely not,” said Nutmeg. He lunged with the axe. The wizard turned to face him, and the lightning struck him full on. He gritted his teeth. It tickled. A little. Then he put the axe in some important places. The rest, he did with his hands.
Chapter 6 – In Which They Meet a Ghost
“You know, that guy might’ve been important,” said Gel, looking down at the absolute ruin Nutmeg had made of the wizard.
“I mean, yeah, he had lightning bolt powers. I don’t fuck around with wizards, man.”
Gel squinted at Nutmeg. Was he making a joke about Sendivogius, or…? No, no, it seemed like the dwarf was serious. Gel let it go.
“Good gravy Marie.” George stepped into the keep, gingerly avoiding treading on any goblin corpses. “Y’all sure made a damn wreck of the place.”
“It does seem like we should’ve left someone alive,” said Sister D. She offered Gel a potion, which he quaffed in a single sip. Some of the burn marks on his skin disappeared, and that jumpy stuttery feeling in his heart eased up a little. “Perhaps they kept written records here.”
“There is someone alive,” said Gel. “The ghost.”
“Gel,” said Nutmeg, gently, “I think the ghost wasn’t real. Right? It was just a goblin in a funny suit?”
“Yes, dumbass, I know – the goblin’s alive.” Gel stepped back into the broken tower and dragged the fallen, phosphorescent goblin in by the foot. The goblin groaned.
“Dilkus?” asked Gel.
“What did you call him?”
“That’s his name. Dilkus. Isn’t that right, Dilkus?” Gel knelt over the goblin, who was blinking back to consciousness. The little green-skinned dude looked from side to side, taking in the carnage. At the sight of the dead wizard, he gasped.
“Ooooh! Ooohuh! You killed – you killed Wyrmlord Rath!”
“Oh, shit,” said Nutmeg. “That was the Wyrmlord?”
“I surrender! I surrender!” cried Dilkus, holding up his hands. “I’ll tell you anything! Everything! Just please let me live!”
Gel held his shortsword to the goblin’s throat. He wasn’t inclined to leave any survivors, but if the goblin had some info to share, well, so be it. “Speak,” he said. “What were you doing here?”
“Me? I was acting! I was a ghost! I was the best at doing the ghost noises, so I was the ghost!”
Gel sighed. “Not just you. The Wyrmlord. All of you. What were you doing here?”
“Oh.” Dilkus seemed put out. “Preparing for the Day of Doom. Waiting on the army.”
“Where’s the army?”
“The Wyrmlord had a map!” Dilkus pointed to the tower room from whence the Wyrmlord had come. “In his quarters!”
Dilkus – still glowing – led them into the Wyrmlord’s office. Sure enough, there was a big wooden table, pockmarked and weathered by age. Spread across the table, pinned down by daggers, was an animal skin, tanned and painted with a crude map of the Hestor Vale. Scribbles in red paint – arrows and symbols – were overlaid on various points of the map. Some sort of writing.
“What’s it say?” asked Nutmeg.
“It’s in Goblinese!” said George. “Cain’t none of y’all read Goblinese?”
“For a Hob Gob Killin’ Mob, you sure ain’t effective at counter-intelligence, are ya?”
“Can you read it, George?”
The woodsman squinted. “I think that says, ‘Cow.’ Or ‘Burn.’”
“Hey, Dilkus!” Gel tapped the map with his sword. “What’s all this say?”
“I’ll tell you if you pay me,” said the goblin.
Nutmeg guffawed. Before Gel could strike the goblin for his impudence, the dwarf had pulled out a gold piece from his purse and tossed it to Dilkus. “Cheeky little dude. Yeah, take it, whatever.” He pointed at the map as Dilkus pocketed the gold. “This here. That’s this keep, right?”
“Yes,” said Dilkus. “We were in service of the Wyrmlord here to prepare the area for the invasion. The army is coming! From…here!” Dilkus tapped a spot a little above the keep, to the north.
“Skull Gorge,” said George. “There’s an old dwarf bridge over the gorge there. Army must be comin’ down the foothills north of there, then shootin’ on over the bridge and through the Hagwood.”
“When?” asked Gel. “When will they be here?”
“Told to expect them in…” Dilkus counted on his fingers. “Three days.”
“What are these other markings, Dilkus?” asked Sister D. The goblin pointed at the towns on the map. Each one had been marked with a label. Dilkus read them out, and Gel felt his blood run cold at the matter-of-factness of the little goblin.
“‘Not worth burning.’ ‘Save some halflings for T. to eat.’ ‘Good plunder, according to S.’ ‘Marrowmonger.’ ‘Expect heavy resistance – wait for spawn!’”
“Lot to think about.” Nutmeg patted Dilkus on the head. “Listen. I’m willing to let you go while we have a little discussion here.”
“Alive?” asked George, with some surprise.
“Yeah,” said Nutmeg. “One goblin, loose in the wild. Besides, I have some terms for Dilkus. One: fuck off forever. You leave this part of the world, you never look back. You ever set foot in the Hestor Vale again, I will find you and eat you.”
Dilkus nodded frantically. “This is most generous!” he exclaimed. “You are kind to show such mercy!”
“Yeah, yeah. Second condition: you gotta pay the toll to get out of this tower.”
“One gold coin.”
Gel snorted a laugh. Dilkus’ face fell, but only for a moment. He willingly handed Nutmeg back the now-goopy gold coin. “Thank you, o masterful warriors! Thank you!”
“Get outta here,” said Gel. “Shoo.” Dilkus did not wait to be further bidden from the bloody keep. The goblin fled out the door and off into the night.
“You think that was wise?” Sister D raised an eyebrow at Nutmeg. “I think he might’ve known more.”
“Eh, I think Nutmeg was right,” said Gel. “If he knew important stuff, he wouldn’t be dressing up as a spooky ghost every night and hooting out a window. Besides,” he said, crossing the room, past the table, to a writing-desk and shelf just out of sight under the stairs, “I think there’s more than enough to read here.”
“Fair,” said Sister D. “I-” She stopped. She was staring at George. Gel turned to George. George was pointing. Gel followed George’s finger.
A true-blue actual factual mother-fucking ghost.
Hovering there in the bloody keep, amid the bodies, was a bluish figure, indistinct, misty, wavering like smoke in a high wind. It turned to them, and Gel beheld a young man in the prime of his life, clad in fine armor, wearing a glittering sword. On the breastplate was the sign of a tree crossed by a pair of spears, and the man’s hands were guarded by mighty iron gauntlets. The ghost smiled at them.
George started to sputter. “A g-g-g-g-g-g-”
“Spirit,” agreed Nutmeg. “Hi, spirit. I’m Nutmeg, this is Gel, Sister D, George. What’s cracking?”
The ghost smiled wider. It opened its mouth to speak, but all that came out was a sound like soft spring rain on grass. Then it drifted closer, and closer again, passing carelessly through the stone around the doorway. It drifted right through George, who shivered and wriggled with the passing chill. The ghost stopped in the center of the room, standing inside the table. It looked at them each, smiling all the while – a kindly smile, Gel thought, or at least the smile of a ghost that was feeling good right now. Then it looked down at the floor beneath its feet. With a sudden whoosh, it dropped through the flagstone at its feet, disappearing into the earth.
“Ok,” said Gel. “Alright. We’ve seen ghosts before. That’s not crazy. Right? We’re cool.”
“Hang on,” said Nutmeg. “I think he was showing us something.” The dwarf bent and scooted under the table. “Yup!” he said, fumbling at the flagstone. “It’s loose!” With a groan and a heave, the dwarf lifted the stone aside. Below –
“A ladder,” said D.
“Ghost dungeon,” said Gel.
“Ooooooeeeeeeee,” said George. “Well tickle a beaver and call him a dog. I never. Shoot.”
“Let’s go!” said Nutmeg. “Ghost man looked happy!”
“Y’all go on ahead,” said George, eyeing the hole in the ground like it was about to swallow him. “I’m stayin’ where I can see the sky.” He stalked out to the courtyard, muttering something about “crazy ol’ haints.”
“Alright,” said Gel. “Let’s do it, then.”
They descended. Sister D led the way, holding her mace out below her as she climbed. Her holy enchantments were still imbuing the mace with a honey-colored light, and the long dark shaft was illuminated well-enough to see the mossy floor below. It was a natural cavern, or had been, once, long ago. Stone walls shaped the cavern into three little alcoves, each shielded from the central chamber by a set of rusty iron bars. A skeleton lay slumped against the bars of the nearest alcove. What chainmail or armor the skeleton had once worn was now in shreds around it, rusted into nothingness. It wore a pair of mighty gauntlets, though, untouched by the ages, inscribed with runes and carvings in the black iron. In one hand it still clutched a sparkling shortsword. Literally sparkling, Gel realized, as his feet reached bottom and he approached the skeleton. The sword was glittering with white motes of light. He touched the sword, and found it ice-cold.
“What is this place?” asked Sister D, holding her glowing mace aloft.
“A vault,” said Nutmeg. “The castle vault. It’s – oh, shit, Gel look out.”
Gel looked up. The ghost was back. Floating over the skeleton. It gestured to the sword, smiling at Gel. Smiling in a cool way, not in a “ha-ha-foolish-mortal” way. Gel pried the shortsword from the grip of the iron gauntlet, and took the hilt in his hand.
There was a flash of blue light. Laughter, and the sound of soft rain on summer grass. Then the ghost was gone, and the sword glowed blue.
“Gods,” said Gel.
“I think the ghost gave you a sword, bro.”
“I think you’re right.”
Nutmeg inspected the bars of the alcove closest to them. “Hm. There’s a lock here. I could probably bash these down, but-”
“Yeah, I’m on it,” said Gel. He set the sword down gently. Guess he’d found a replacement for the rapier. He slipped a lockpick from a hidden pocket up his sleeve and fiddled with the lock on the bars. It was tough, complex – high-quality stuff. Beyond the bars, there were a handful of strongboxes, each bearing the same coat of arms as the ghost had worn on his breastplate, the tree with crossed spears. He pressed. Yes, there it was – a hidden tumbler, near the back, meant for a special key. Or a lockpick in the right hands. The lock clicked open, and the bars swung back.
Thank the gods, the strongboxes were unlocked. Gel set to work at the other alcoves as Nutmeg rifled through the boxes. The second alcove contained a bookshelf and little more. Sister D flipped through a few and shrugged. “History. Family history, of Clan Karnak and how they built the castle. Et cetera, et cetera.”
“Someone might pay for that,” said Gel. “We should keep it.” He swung the last one open. One great ironwood chest sat against the back wall. Gel could hardly keep himself from salivating. Treasure. Honest-to-gods serious treasure.
“There’s like four thousand gold pieces back here,” called Nutmeg, from the room with the strongboxes. “I mean, some of it’s silver and stuff, but yeah I’d say four thousand.”
Gel didn’t answer. He swung the lid of the treasure chest open.
There were only a few things inside. He lifted them out one-by-one. A necklace of giants’ teeth on a silver chain. Yoink. That was his now. A gigantic glove, clearly belonging to an actual giant, marked with a crude carving of two twisted horns. And last of all: a wooden stick. A stick. That was it. Gel held it up to the light of D’s mace. It was pretty plain, all things considered. Nice enough – white oak, carved and twisted in such a way that the stick looked almost like a living thing. It was longer than any magic wand Gel had ever seen, but not long enough to be a walking stick.
“Wait,” said Sister D. “Hold on. I think – I think I know what that is.” She held out her hand. “May I?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” said Gel. Sister D took the stick and murmured a few words of prayer. It glowed, faintly, a pure white light that made Sister D’s glowing mace look like a cheap candle. She gasped.
“What is it?” asked Nutmeg. He came strolling over, holding a piece of paper in hand. He was also now wearing the gauntlets from the skeleton. Sister D held the stick aloft.
“It’s a lifegiver’s touch,” she said, reverently. “I’ve only ever heard about this in stories. I thought – well, I never thought I’d see one in the flesh. Blessed by powerful gods. Maybe even touched by Palladius himself.”
“What does it do?” asked Gel.
“It can bring the dead back,” said Sister D. “Once, and once only.”
“Dang, that could be handy,” said Nutmeg. “You better hang on to that.” He waved the piece of paper around. “Can someone read this and tell me if I can wipe my dick with it or not?”
“Give me that,” said Gel, snatching the paper away. He stopped short. “Oh, wow. No way.”
“What is it?”
“Nutmeg, this is the deed to Caer Karnak. I think we’re the legal owners of a castle now.”
“It’s about time we got something for our troubles,” said Nutmeg.