When we last left our heroes…Nutmeg, Gelmahta, Sister Dondalla, and their new companion George raided the ancient keep of Caer Karnak, apparent headquarters of the impending goblin invasion! Following a narrow victory, they were given magical treasures by the castle’s resident ghost, and learned that the bulk of the goblin horde was just a few days away…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Our Heroes Set Off
- Chapter 2 – In Which Someone Cries Very Loudly
- Chapter 3 – In Which It Goes Great
- Chapter 4 – In Which They Reach the Bridge
- Chapter 5 – In Which Gel and Sister D Discuss Theological Matters
- Chapter 6 – In Which Someone Dies
Chapter 1 – In Which Our Heroes Set Off
Nutmeg picked up the stone from where it lay. A fragment of masonry from the broken walls of Caer Karnak. He held the stone in his be-gauntleted hand. The iron gloves should’ve felt stiff and cold; they should’ve been rusty and broken. But they fit to his hand like, well, like a glove. He closed his fist around the stone and squeezed. There was a popping sound. Dust trickled out from between his fingers.
“I told you they were magic gloves, dude,” he said. Gel didn’t look up. The elf was busy testing out his new sword, the sparkling, ice-cold blade he’d taken from the well-armed skeleton in the dungeon.
“Congratulations,” said Sister D. She stretched, groaning as her back popped. “Ugh. Sleeping on the ground is not a healthy habit.”
“Ya get used to it,” said George. “Where to now, then?”
“We’ve gotta stop the horde.”
“That. They’re, what, four days north of us? I’m not sure I trust Dilkus’ math, but that’s probably approximately right.”
“North’a Skull Gorge,” agreed George.
“This ‘Gorge,’” said Nutmeg. “What’s it like? How…tactically advantageous can we make it?”
“Oooooo.” George mulled, scratching his chin. It wasn’t clear if he could actually reach his chin through the tangled, wild beard, but he was putting in the effort. Nearby, Gel was taking swings and slices at the long weeds. With each whiff of his blade, bits of frozen grass flew in all directions.
After disentangling his fingers from his beard, George finally answered. “That’s where the old dwarf road goes. Goes up north through the Hagwood, then there’s a dwarf bridge across the gorge. Sturdy old thing, sure as shoes. Road keeps goin’ on from there, on and on to…well, who knows where to. But in answer to yore question: tacti-catic-ally advantaj’us? The bridge is it.”
“You’re saying: if we could stop them at the bridge, we could stop them reaching the Hestor Vale?”
“Well, leastways for a bit. You c’n get around the gorge if’n ya go up into the mountains, just takes for damn ever to get a big group through there. Or they could go all the way around the north, I suppose, come down past the old city, the swamps and fens. That’d be months. Comin’ through the mountains…might could take a week or two longer, at least.”
“Is it really worth it, going up that way?” Sister D was frowning. “What are we going to do, stop the whole army?”
“Take out that bridge,” said Gel.
“A dwarven bridge!” exclaimed Nutmeg. “I – I mean, I don’t know if we could. Thing’s probably sturdy as fuck.”
“Can’t you melt through stone, Sister D?” asked Gel.
“Not that much stone.” Sister D splayed out her hands, as if trying to appease Nutmeg. “Look, I understand, I do. The army is that way. The bad guys. But shouldn’t we, you know, save the people of Tanner’s Crossing? We have the map. We have proof that there’s a horde invading. We can convince them to retreat to Barrendell. We can unite the Hestor Vale! It’s a day or two more up to the gorge, right?”
“Ooooooee,” confirmed George.
“Right. If we can’t stall the army, that’s wasted time.”
Nutmeg picked up another pebble in his mighty gauntlets. They gave him the strength of a giant. He wondered if that had been actually magically extracted from a giant, somehow. Either way: they fit great. Real snug, without getting too sweaty. He crushed the little rock.
“We’ve gotta try,” he said, at last. “Clearly they’re on a schedule. You saw the map. If we can throw off their master plan somehow – even a little – it’s worth it. And, and, we don’t even know how big this army is. What if it’s a few hundred guys? Yeah, that’s a lot, but with time, preparation, and a good militia, we could probably stop them. If it’s a gazillion screaming hobgoblins, well, we need to know that too. Besides,” he said, tossing another pebble into the air, “we gotta test out our new toys. Right, Gel?” He crushed the pebble.
Gel brandished his icy shortsword. “I think it’s a nice plan.” He looked to each of them in turn. “Eh? Eh? Get it?”
“A nice plan. An ice plan.”
“Oh, yeah that’s really good.”
“Alright shut the fuck up.” Gel sheathed the sword. He’d found a matching scabbard in the vault, inlaid with sapphires and stamped with the sign of Caer Karnak. “Let’s get going.”
“Snow time like the present,” said Sister D.
Nutmeg, without a trace of irony or malice, laughed.
Chapter 2 – In Which Someone Cries Very Loudly
Among the treasures they looted from Caer Karnak was the glove that had once belonged to a giant. Not Nutmeg’s gauntlets, but an actual factual giant-sized glove with a crude owner’s rune carved into the leather. It was heavy, awkward, and useless. Nutmeg insisted on carrying it strapped to his backpack. “You never know,” he kept saying. Gel had to agree. He literally never knew with Nutmeg.
By the time night fell, they’d advanced well north up the dwarven road from Caer Karnak. The forest evened out a little here; less dense, less marshy, more a good honest forest. The well-made road kept the trees and ferns from completely overtaking the path. There were great sycamores here, tall and austere, gray columns stark and vastly-branching. Little animals and birds flitted from bough to bough, and there was a smell of honeysuckle in the air. Overall, thought Gel, a grand improvement over the southern Hagwood.
He agreed entirely with Nutmeg’s line of reasoning when it came to the gorge. They had to get intelligence on this army. The map and the goblin “interrogation” had been good, but so much was unknown. And wasn’t that their original mission, from Mister E? They weren’t just here on a sightseeing trip – and they also weren’t here to save the Hestor Vale. They were here to protect the Hegemony. Gel personally didn’t give two wheezy farts for either the Hegemony or the Vale, but a job was a job, and he liked the approximate structure of having a goal.
George showed them a good spot to camp, where the sycamores made an airy ceiling through which Gel could almost see the stars. There were no ghosts here, not in the woods, and he slept soundly.
Until the hour of the toad, just past midnight, when they all woke up at once.
Boom. Boom. Arrhymthic and sudden, two great thumps, as of trees falling in the woods. Then a sound that made the hairs prickle on the back of Gel’s neck: uh Huuuuuuuuuuhhhhh huhhhh huuuhhh huuuhhh. Like – like –
Nutmeg was sitting up, hand to the hilt of his axe. Sister D and George, too were at the ready. Gel nodded. “Maybe? But that -”
“No, aye, that’s right,” said George, as softly as the old goon could manage. “Cryin’. The weepin’ of the giants. It’s a rare sound, oooooeee. Good fortune to hear it. Or maybe bad fortune, I forget.”
“Is it literally a giant crying?”
“You bet your fancy little boots it is.”
“Despite my height, my feet are actually a little bigger than the normal human fee-”
“Shh.” said Gel, waving Nutmeg quiet. “Listen.”
Huh huh huhhhhh, huh huuuuuuuuh, went the distant giant. The sobs were deep and sonorous, but unmistakably mournful. Perhaps one of the saddest sounds Gel had ever heard.
“So that’s what a giant sounds like.” Nutmeg nodded. “Ok. Alright. That’s fine. Should we be, you know, running away?”
“No, there’s no fear here,” said George. “Just pick a god n’ say a prayer.”
They listened. The sobs moved through the forest. Far-off still, as though coming from deep water. Sorrow ebbed at their shores.
“Why’s he crying?” asked Gel.
“Cause all the giants are gone.” George picked up a fallen leaf and blew it out of his hand. “When Caer Karnak fell, it weren’t just the people in the castle who done died. All them giants, the Twisty Tusk clan, near all of ‘em were dead. If’n yore the last of yore kind, you’d be sad too.”
Gel considered this. They all did. There was little to be said. The sound of sorrow faded on the wind, receding as the tide. He lay back. The sycamores rustled overhead. When he could finally sleep again, his dreams were black and empty.
They set out the next morning under gray and flat clouds. The sky promised rain, and it wasn’t long before a thin mist fell around them, not so much raining as just…wetting. Gel found himself thinking of the haunted castle again. The ghost of Caer Karnak. The ghost had given them gifts – the sword, the gauntlets, the entire castle. But that ghost had also apparently killed a bunch of giants before he died. And had probably deserved to get giant-murdered, too; the humans built their dumb little castle in the middle of giant turf. Ghosts were the remains of the unquiet dead. If the humans were unquiet, were there ghosts of giants, too, in these woods? Had the crying giant of the night before been real in a physical sense, or…?
“How much farther?”
“Should be there afore sunset.” George seemed chipper, all things considered. “Sunset’s beautiful over the gorge, I tell ya.”
“How’d you come to know so much about these woods?” asked Sister D.
“Oooooooo, practice. My family line done growed up in these woods. If’n you go back far enough, I had kin at Caer Karnak. No nobles, stablehands or some such. But there’s been goblin troubles in these woods long enough. The folk in Tanner’s Crossing always need someone on this side of the river keepin’ their eyes open. Gotta know if change is comin’. And oooooooooeeeee, change is a’comin.”
“More goblins than usual, right?”
“Goblins and more.” George shook his head. “Little over a year ago now, I saw – well, I saw the damndest thing I ever did see. It was late at night, and I wasn’t sure if was really seeing what I was seeing, if you feel me. But all of a sudden the stars and moon went dark, and big shapes were flying over the river, heading to the mountains on the west.”
“Not just like large birds, right?”
“Ooooooeee,” said George. “Nosiree. Dragons.”
“Dragons plural. Four of em. Two real big ones.”
“Fuck.” Gel rubbed the hilt of his new shortsword. It had a comforting, worn feel. “Why didn’t you say anything about it before?”
“Well, just one of them things, you know? Thought to myself ‘Georgie, that there’s a bad omen and no mistake. But if’n the dragons keep to themselves, lettem keep.’ Til you folks showed up I ain’t thought more about it – why worry. But now…dragons…”
“We’ve fought a dragon before,” said Nutmeg, proudly. “Killed the crap out of it, too.”
“You mentioned as much.”
Sister D had stopped by the side of the road, and was staring at something through the trees to the west. “Hey, guys. What was the name of that giant clan again?”
“Twisty Tusk,” said George. “What’s eatin’ ya, sister?”
“That.” Dondalla pointed. Gel saw it right away. Through the trees, maybe a hundred feet off the road. Something was affixed to a great wide oak. A pair of somethings. Two boar tusks, long and yellowed. Twisted.
“Well pluck my tailfeathers and call me a bald chicken,” said George. “That’s a giant sign.”
“Let’s go meet a giant,” said Nutmeg.
“Uh,” said Gel. “Why? What possible use could that be? We’re racing against time to get to the gorge, and you want to take a detour to go meet a giant who might just want to smash us into little jellies?”
“Look, if we’re going to try and stop a hobgoblin army, I think we could use a giant.”
“Yeah, but why would a giant want to help us?”
“I’m a very friendly, charismatic individual,” said Nutmeg. “It’ll go great.”
Chapter 3 – In Which It Goes Great
Once upon a time, on the mean streets of Lone Tower, Nutmeg had played a jumping game. He and some other youths bounced from foot to foot across a little gutter, keeping their jumps on the rhythm of a chant. Tall, tall, giant man, slaps the tower with his hand, stomps the sea and kills the fish, eats his supper on a ten-mile dish. Sing-song stuff, nonsense doggrel. But it was coming back, now. Now that the promise of a bonafide giant was at hand.
Giants hadn’t been seen in the borders of the Hegemony for two hundred years. They were creatures of legend, of folktale. And it seemed that they’d suffered the same fate here, too, in the borderlands of civilization. Gone. Relics of a bygone era.
There were more markers to follow, off the dwarven road. More tusks, twisted into knots and curlicues. Easy to spot, once you knew where to look. While the trees here were close and thick, only a complete moron could’ve missed the wide trampled swathes, the places where the giant (the giant! A real giant!) must’ve brushed the trees aside like tall grasses.
He eyed Gel. The elf was fiddling with something – what was that? Oh. Oh, his toe necklace. Of course. His collection of toes.
“No, Gel,” said Nutmeg.
“You can’t take a toe from the giant.”
“I mean, I just want to remain open to life’s possibilities.”
“Why do you collect toes, anyway?” asked Sister D. “It’s the least likable thing about you, and you’re a pretty unlikable individual.”
“Ol’ Nutmeg here’s right,” said George, in an exaggerated whisper. “Best we stay amiable in this particular meet’n’greet.”
That particular meet’n’greet, as it turned out, was not long in coming. An hour or two off the road, Nutmeg’s nose twitched. A smell was on the air, a smell like – like matted fur, like unwashed armpits, and like something else, deeper and sweeter under the musk and funk. Like pine sap, like young green wood.
“You smell it, Nutmeg?” asked Sister D.
“Yeah. This way.”
Through the trees, around a bend, Nutmeg led them. Then he stopped. Dumbstruck. Was this the thing they sought?
It stood fifteen feet tall at least, thick as oak, dark brown skin covered in fine light hairs. The giant stood by the edge of a little stagnant pond, arms outstretched. Strange nets hung from its arms, nets of such fine and narrow mesh that Nutmeg took them at first for wings. The giant had its back to them, but it turned this way and that, slowly, as if guided by the breezes. A crude lean-to of tree trunk-sized logs was built on the north end of the clearing.
Nutmeg looked to the others. Their eyes were just as wide as his. He was fairly sure Gel was looking at the giant’s feet. Blessedly, it wore hide breeches, shielding them from whatever might lie beneath.
An idea had been germinating in Nutmeg’s brain since they’d heard the giant’s cries. He unslung his pack as quietly as he could and drew out the great gauntlet, the glove they’d found in the keep. It would fit this giant, he was sure. What better peace offering?
“Hello there!” called Nutmeg. He was still about fifty feet from the giant, and figured he could probably run fast enough if the big guy didn’t take a shine to strangers.
The giant turned, his nets swinging. Nutmeg reeled back. Its face – it had a face like a man, but not quite there. As if someone had gotten bored halfway through sculpting a dwarf. Wide brow, surprisingly small nose, heavy jaw. Scars lined and traced its chest, carving white paths through the hair and hide. Intentional scars, like a map, wrought with crude blades in patterns of fantastic variety.
“Drem,” said the giant. “Drem goh yak.” It had a voice like a foghorn, an arresting, sonorous tone that grabbed you by the shoulders and made you think of gray clouds on the last day of autumn.
“Uhh.” Somehow, this hadn’t occurred to Nutmeg. “I’m Nutmeg. Do you want a glove?”
“Thou’rt Nutmeg,” intoned the giant. “Who art thou, that thou darest intrude upon mine own home?”
It spoke like a character in a play, in a bard’s show, in a historical drama re-enacted centuries later.
“You speak the common tongue well,” said Sister D, approaching beside Nutmeg. “I am Sister Dondalla; that’s George, and Gelmahta. We mean no harm.”
“What thou meanst and what thou doest may well be unlike.” The giant tapped his chest with one great finger. “But since thou’rt bearers of respect and grem-ul: I am called by my people Wallaganak Ar Laww.” Wallaganak Ar Laww frowned, and it was a terrible sight. “Though it has been many a long year since more of my people didst dwell in this place.”
“Ooooooeeeeee, it’s real!” hooted George.
“Alright, be polite,” said Nutmeg. He lifted the great glove again. “Like I said, Wally, we come with an offering for you.”
“Grem-ul,” confirmed Wally, who seemed content to ignore his new nickname. “The giving of signs of faith. I have nought but the air for thee in return. What givest thou?” The giant bent and took the glove. His smell wafted down over Nutmeg; Nutmeg noted, too, just how powerful those arms were. The muscle under Wally’s hide was frighteningly active. Wally turned the glove over, and his eyes went wide.
“Kuh man do ga ramm a do ga kol.” It sounded like swearing. “Nutmeg-guest, thou bringst no ordinary gift. I did ask at first approach, and I ask thee once more: who are you?”
“We were at Caer Karnak,” said Nutmeg. “We killed the goblins there, and we’re on our way to kill more goblins.”
Wally slipped the glove on, and sighed a sigh that shook the leaves. “Kir Kar Nak. Hill of Broken Bones. This glove – it was worn by the gom mar of our clan. She led us into war there. Raised against the sky. Bringing down the thunder.”
“You were there?”
Gel, who had been loitering by the treeline, stepped cautiously closer. “What’s up with the nets, dude?”
“Gel, come on.”
If Wally was offended, he didn’t let on. “My victuals are thus procured. I turn and turn, and the nets catch the swarms that enliven this pool.”
“Midges, gnats. Cit hit rih, small and flying.”
Nutmeg had imagined that giants would be chomping on big legs of roast boar all the time, not picking bugs out of oversized spiderwebs slung from their armpits. But there was something lovely about that, he thought. Strange and lovely. “Listen, Wally – can I ask a favor of you?”
“Bringer of grem-ul: ask.” Wally bent at the waist and sat by the edge of the pool, where, sure enough, clouds of little flies and gnats and things swarmed around his head. “I have nought but air for thee, as I said.”
“We’re going to war against the hobgoblins,” said Nutmeg. “Like I said. We drove them out of Caer Karnak, but there’s an army coming across the bridge over Skull Gorge. We need to stop them.”
Wally blinked. “And?”
“Well, we could use your help.”
“Use my help.” Wally laughed, a humorless laugh. Nutmeg thought again of the foghorn. “I am the last of my people, dwarrow. I dwell alone. I livest in peace, and eateth only of the creatures of the air. When I pass, it shall be the final unmaking of we who once ruled all earth. And thou stepst from the deep wood, thou creatures of fire and steel, and calleth on my two strong arms, that I may bear stone again in strife against a foe.”
“Basically, yeah,” said Gel.
“No.” Wally rose. “I meaneth no ill will to thee, bringer of the gauntlet of gom mar, but what thou asketh of me I cannot do.”
“Why not?” Nutmeg had to keep going. No way were they taking down a bridge without this guy’s help. “We don’t need you to die, Wally. We’re going to break the bridge. Stop them that way. You don’t have to go to war or fight – not even a little bit! Just help us bust some stonework up.”
“The dwarrow-bridge?” Wally frowned. “Odd that thou shouldst mention it thus. Dost thou knoweth wherefore I came to be the last of my kind?”
“Everyone else died?”
“In my youth I was given a blessing,” said Wally. “A boon, paid in blood. I will not speak of how or where – such things are not for thee and thine. But of this blessing came my fate: I canst not perish from this earth, so long as I remain within the old wood. Once I depart these fair lands, mine own doom is struck. The gorge you speak of lieth beyond the edge of the wood.”
Nutmeg nodded. “Hey. Look. That makes sense to me, man. Honestly. I had a soothsayer tell me to beware great heights, and I can’t stop falling the fuck off of stuff. I fell down a chasm once. Broke a bunch of shit, got abducted by cave lizards – it was nuts.”
“It was,” agreed Gel.
“But my point is: fate’s what we make of it! You think it hasn’t crossed my mind that we’re going to a gorge and a soothsayer told me I would die by falling a great height? But fate’s strange. And what kinda life is it, really, if you’re stuck because of fate? Why let that rule you?”
Wally seemed to consider this. His ancient eyes were almost black, like hidden pools in the secret places of the forest. “I am all that remains of my people. In me, they livest on. I bear’st their stories upon my breast.” His voice darkened, if that was possible. “And in my living, we outlivest the interlopers at Kir Kar Nak.”
“I mean, you kinda do, but there’s ghosts there. I met one. It showed us where some treasure was. Their castle’s still there, we still have their swords – everything lives on, man! Nothing ever really dies. What’s the point in you living if you leave no mark of your living? Why bother with whatever code keeps you here when that keeps you like a ghost?”
“Besides,” added Gel, “if the goblins march down here, you think they’re leaving you and your homeland alone? Nah. They’ll burn your forest down. You in it. Might as well try to stop them.”
“Okay, you know, that’s actually a really good point,” said Nutmeg. “Thank you, Gel.”
Wally stood once more, towering over them. “In this, thou speakst at last the truth. Our backs were broken at Kir Kar Nak to keep our land free of interlopers. I turn my face to oblivion now, if that which I do keepst war from my land. Nutmeg, thou bringer of gifts, let us walk.”
Chapter 4 – In Which They Reach the Bridge
Wally loomed over them, his strides outpacing them easily. Even if he hadn’t been fifteen feet tall, he moved with an uncanny grace, as if he knew exactly where to place each step, just here between those twigs, just there aside the still pool. He’d folded up his gossamer nets – having sucked a few fistfuls of mosquitoes off them – and carried no tool, no weapon, nothing but the gauntlet Nutmeg had given him. The dwarf watched as Sister D tried to keep up with the giant, matching him stride-for-stride, even if it meant she had to vault over a low log that Wally merely ignored. She and the giant spoke together in quiet voices – well, as quiet as a giant could be. Nutmeg caught snatches of “fate” and “destiny” in what the priestess was saying.
Wally knew paths even George had never seen. Any time they’d lost by seeking out the last of the Twisty Tusk Clan was more than compensated. The promise of reaching the gorge “afore sunset” was well-kept: just when the sun touched the jagged peaks of the western mountains, the woods began to thin, and Wally held up a great hand.
“Prithee, a moment,” he rumbled. “We approach the end of it.”
Nutmeg hustled to catch up with the giant and the priestess. Looking out through the treeline, he could see the gorge at last. The land sloped away, woods giving way to scrubby little copses of poplar and beech, while the red dwarf road spilled out from the tree cover and meandered in the sun. And there, at the road’s end, was the bridge, across the gorge.
The gorge itself was wide, or at least wide enough to look intimidating – a hundred feet, bank to bank, even at its narrowest point. The bridge was well-made (of course), spanning the gorge in a thick arc, at least twenty feet wide along its length. Watchtowers of hewn stone rose at either end of the bridge. To the north, across the gorge, a small camp was gathered, hobgoblins and goblins and worgs gathered to survey the passage. And beyond…was that a haze of campsmoke in the air, as if from a thousand fires, distant? Was it?
“Bur za dim yok,” said Wally. “The place of skulls, or so we called it.”
“Doesn’t look like that many of the fuckers,” said Gel. “I mean, we could probably take them all out here and now, right? Lure them onto the bridge?”
As if in answer, a great roar came from the depths of the gorge. They heard the beating of terrific wings. It rose: a dragon. Green-scaled, flapping madly, clutching in its jaws a still-struggling mountain goat. Bigger than Saeverix had been, that was certain. The dragon circled the bridge once, flying under and over in a few lazy flaps, and then circled back to perch atop one of the watchtowers on the far side, chomping merrily on the goat all the while.
“Okay,” said Gel.
“I done said!” exclaimed George. “I done said! Dragons!”
“Well, just one,” cautioned Sister D. “But yes. That does complicate matters.”
“Eh, it does and it doesn’t,” said Nutmeg. “I’ve got an idea. Plan Gamma, full commit.”
“Nutmeg, I don’t know,” said Dondalla. “It worked – sort of – at the barricade, but this is different. You cross that bridge, you’re alone. We can’t come bail you out.”
“Is Plan Gamma the one where you pretend to be on their side?”
“Yeah, Gel, don’t you pay attention during my briefings?”
“What about the dragon, though?”
“What about it?” Nutmeg shrugged. “I mean, it’s just one dragon. In fact, if I can cause a destruction in the camp and then hustle back across the bridge, we might be able to fight the dragon alone and destroy the bridge before its buddies come running.”
“How by gum and pitch are ya plannin’ to take down the whole dang bridge?”
“Wally?” asked Nutmeg. “What do you think? I’m pretty sure the east supports on our side are a little weak – if you and Sister D work together to melt the stone and bash it to shit, we can probably make that bridge too hazardous to use.”
“Thou speakst well.” The giant had sat down, folding his long legs with ease. He was looking down at his hand, the one clad in the ancient gauntlet. “If thou canst giveth an hour – perhaps more – I shall entreat the gods to fill mine hand with thunder, as they didst at Kir Kar Nak, long ages ago. I am no gom mar, rem dul yok fin gom, but mine hands shall maketh the earth to tremble.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Gel. “Honestly! Don’t look so surprised! It sounds like kind of a plan. Nutmeg, you’re good at distractions. Sister D and Wally can work on the bridge, and George and I can rain hell down on any goblins who try to cross.”
“See? I told you I had an idea.”
They made their preparations. With the sun low in the western sky, Nutmeg set out from the forest, down the road alone. He spoke the command word, and his armor became the black and twisted plate – complete with skull-shaped helm – that he had used back at the swamp barricade. He felt very small beneath the reddening sky, approaching the towers at the edge of the gorge. He was reassured to see that his hunch had been correct – erosion and long years of neglect had left the eastern supports for this side of the bridge woefully weak. In truth, a whole army marching across the bridge might bring the thing down, but if they could help it along, well, that was a bonus.
Once on the bridge, he could see down. He chanced a single look over. Two hundred feet. Easy. Down to a narrow, rocky river, white water churning over unpleasant-looking juts of rock. Not a good place to fall.
He was halfway across when the dragon lighted from its perch and flew with unfaltering speed to land heavily on the bridge before him. It blocked his path. Wings outstretched, it reared back, towering a good twenty feet over him.
“Who dares approach?”
“Name’s Yog-Dul, of the Bonesaw Gang. We’re looking to join up, if you’re taking volunteers.”
“Join up?” The dragon sneered. “Fool. Imbecile. We have no need of petty bandits.”
“Look,” said Nutmeg, putting on his best injured-pride affect, “Rath – sorry, Wyrmlord Rath – told me I should come up this way to talk to whoever was in charge at the camp.”
“Rath sent you?”
“Yeah, we’ve met a few times before. I heard scuttlebutt he was some big shot now.”
“Well.” The dragon lowered its head. “Did he explain the nature of our force? We are no mere criminal organization. We are – more.”
“He spoke to me about -” Nutmeg lowered his voice, and looked from side to side. “About Daghda.”
“Good,” hissed the dragon. “Good. We are well met, then, Yog-Dul. I am Mazzirandus, commander of the forces of Skull Gorge. You may return across the bridge and join us at our camp.”
Chapter 5 – In Which Gel and Sister D Discuss Theological Matters
Gel watched Nutmeg disappear across the bridge. The light was fading, and the lonely dwarf was illuminated by the last ribbons of the red sun. The dragon escorted Nutmeg. Hobgoblins greeted him. They guided the dwarf into their camp, and then – nothing. He vanished behind some tents, and was lost to view. The only hint to his location was the occasional swish of a dragon’s tail poking above the lean-tos.
“Ooooeee, now whaddya do?”
“We wait.” Gel unslung his crossbow and began oiling the mechanisms. “At the very least, we ought to wait for full darkness before we leave the trees.”
From a few yards away, Wally grumbled and mumbled in his strange, ancient language, his gauntleted hand held high. Sister D leaned against a tree, watching the giant.
“Looked like you two had a lot to talk about,” said Gel.
“It just all seemed so convenient.” The priestess gestured to Wally. “The ghost – the gauntlet – the giant. Almost as if it were pre-ordained.”
“What, you think your Palladius did this?” asked Gel.
“Something did this. Something divine, yes, I think so. Remember what Alaë said? Our foes worship this Daghda, but Daghda’s not a god. Alaë made it sound like all the gods, good and evil, would conspire to keep this thing chained up.” She shook her head. “No, I don’t believe Palladius orchestrated this. I believe whatever god Wally worships is the hand behind our victory at Caer Karnak, and our fortune with the gauntlet.”
“Hey, we’re the force responsible for Caer Karnak.” Gel patted the hilts of his swords. “I mean, no disrespect to you and your religion or whatever. Believe what you want.”
“Why, Gel, that’s almost tolerant of you. We’ll make a Palladian out of you yet.”
“Nah.” He returned to the oiling of the crossbow. “So what – a giant god is on our side? All the gods?”
“No one could claim to know such a thing. It took me years of study and prayer just to speak in the name of Palladius. But – well, what I said about Daghda stands. This terrible thing – if I were the god of the giants, I, too, might take at least a semi-active role.”
Gel raised his crossbow, aiming down the sights. The bridge was nice and straight, and the watchtowers framed anyone on the bridge in a perfect little tunnel. Very helpful for the aspiring sharpshooter. “But here’s what I don’t get,” he said. “You say all gods, good and evil, might try to keep this Daghda down, yeah? Then why are there all these hobgoblins and dragons fighting in the name of Daghda?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Maybe I can.” Gel lowered the crossbow. “Follow me here. I did my fair share of snooping in the capital. When there’s a conspiracy afoot, it’s because someone stands to make some money. Or get some land. Or a nice painting. Or whatever. There’s a material benefit. Who materially benefits from, uh, the annihilation of reality?”
“No one! That’s the point!”
“Yeah, ok, fair. I guess what I’m saying is: someone must have turned these hobbos on to Daghda. Which means the Daghda is communicating with our world – spooky – or someone is advocating on its behalf.”
They sat with that for a little. Gel couldn’t help but listen to Wally’s ongoing chant; a murmur in the background like thunder chuckling in a distant sky. Were they over their heads here? Not for the first time, he thought about turning back. To the Hegemony. Familiar ground. It’s not like Mister E could hold Gel responsible for the fate of the world. Sure, he might not get paid, but life would settle back into its usual routines. He could always find work. That was kind of his thing.
“How much more time you figure?” George cut into his thoughts. “I don’t feel right, lettin our hairy friend run straight down the gullet, so to speak.”
“Gotta be patient,” said Gel. “You’ve hunted, right George? You know all about waiting and waiting.”
“There’s waitin and waitin,” the woodsman replied. “Time was, I’d’ve been lyin in the tall grass here all durn day and night, just waitin for a deer to come real close. This all, though -” he screwed up his face, quite a feat. “Wasn’t made for no soldierin’. Rangin, maybe. Watchin’ the borders.”
“We’re friends with a ranger like yourself,” said Gel. “Way out east. Back where we’re from. She hunted lizardfolk. Who do you hunt?”
“Deer, mostly. The odd goblin, o’course. Oooooeeee, I cain’t stand no goblins. Was a time, years n’ years ‘n’ years ago, when ain’t no goblin dared come down outta the mountains. Back when there was kings and queens in Ra-Hest. Granpappy’s granpappy’s granpappy’s granpappy’s day.”
“You might find it easier to just say gran-gran-gran-granpappy’s day.”
“Ooooeeee.” George spat. “I was sayin’. Back then, this ol’ Vale was one kingdom, and the dwarf roads was well-kept, and we even did some tradin’ out west and up to the north, long as the Ra-Hest patrols kept them goblins at bay. But then they say the city done fallen, Ra-Hest that was, and since then it’s been every man for hisself in the Vale.”
“Alaë mentioned that, too,” said Sister D. “Something about how she saw the floodwaters rise?”
“Sure, the flooded city. Ra-Hest was destroyed by a flood – and no natural flood, oooee, no. The Black Lion did that one, yessiree, still remembered. You ask any little babby in the Vale about the Black Lion, they’ll tell ya: he’ll get ya in the night, and -” George paused. “You hear that?”
Gel did. A crackling in the air. The pressure in Gel’s ears dropped suddenly, and he popped his jaw a few times. Sister D pointed with her mace.
Wally, the last giant, had stood and stepped down from the forest, his gauntleted hand held high over his head. Sparks danced and flashed around it. The humming, crackling noise in the air followed the giant. Wally was chanting softly to himself in an ancient tongue, eyes fixed on the dwarven bridge.
“Wally!” hissed Gel. “Hang on, dude – Nutmeg’s not back yet.”
The words had barely left his mouth when there came a tremendous explosion from the far side of the bridge, among the enemy tents. A gout of great flame burst into the sky, and the shrieking of hobgoblins filled the air.
“I think Nutmeg will be back very soon,” said Sister D.
“Yeah, Plan Gamma or whatever, here we go.”
Chapter 6 – In Which Someone Dies
Gel knelt and aimed. Thrak. His crossbow snapped off a bolt, and a hobgoblin toppled from the nearest watchtower. Thrak. The other tower was cleared.
Wally and Sister D ran together, down from the scrubby edge of the forest to the place where the dwarf-bridge met the cliffside. They were both chanting; Gel assumed they were chanting to very different gods. Wally raised his fist and, with a cry, brought down lightning like a hammer on the bridge. There was a clap of thunder like a god slamming a privy door shut, and stone sprayed from the supports. Sister D was bent to the earth, hands pressed to the hard stone, melting it away as she had at Khaddakar.
George caught up with Gel. “Oooooooeee, if that ain’t trouble!” he said, pointing to a running figure approaching the far side of the bridge. It was Nutmeg, fleeing the enemy camp…pursued, apparently, by no fewer than a dozen hobgoblins. And – yup, there it was: the green dragon, rising silhouetted from the inferno at the tents, bellowing with rage.
“You’re on the right tower, I’m on the left,” said Gel. “We pick off the goblins first. Keep Wally and D safe.”
Hobgoblin archers were taking up positions on the far side of the gorge, and already the arrows were clattering off the road around them. Nutmeg had stopped in the center of the bridge. Gel could just barely hear the dwarf bellowing something that sounded both obscene and blasphemous. He knelt, using the watchtower as cover, and set to work. Thrak. Thrak. One shot went wide; the other took down a hobgoblin archer mid-shot. He heard a bellow of pain. One of the hobgoblins had caught Wally in the back as the giant pounded lightning into the earth. George was doing his best to keep Nutmeg clear of foes, but the ranger couldn’t see in the fading light quite as well as Gel could – and even then, Gel was having trouble picking his targets.
The dragon had swept high, higher than it was worth trying to shoot. Now it descended all in a rush. Diving for Wally, and Sister D.
“No!” shouted Gel. He pivoted on his heel and loosed a bolt. It caught the dragon in the flank, and the beast veered away, screaming in that way only dragons can scream. Another scream, this time from the bridge – Nutmeg had thrown a hobgoblin off, and was laughing as he carved his way through another two hobgoblin soldiers. The falling hobgoblin took an eerily long time to hit the bottom.
The dragon returned, skimming across the bridge now. With one claw it swatted at Nutmeg, sending the dwarf reeling back, teetering close to the precipice. A hobgoblin made to push him in. Gel put a bolt through the hobgoblin’s throat. But the dragon – where – it had flown past him, and George’s feeble attempt to shoot it went wide. With another terrible scream, it let loose a jet of greenish steam on Wally and Sister D. Gel watched with horror as Wally’s flesh bubbled and melted; Sister D stumbled back, hands pressed to her face, a soft glow bathing her in healing light.
“Change in plans!” shouted Gel. “I need to keep that dragon off them. George, you keep working on Nutmeg’s goblins.”
Lightning filled the sky, and Wally let out another tremendous yell, spraying chunks of rock the size of Gel’s head from the cliffside supports. Gel let off a bolt at the dragon, but the beast was going high, staying out of reach while preparing for another dive. If only – wait. Yes, he could get a vantage. There were stairs running up the outside of the watchtower, leading to the parapet at the top. A dash, and he’d have the height he needed.
Gel made a break for it, scrambling up the stairs. The dragon had returned to Nutmeg on the bridge, but Nutmeg stood alone now, surrounded by the corpses of hobgoblins, and he gave the dragon a terrific slash across the belly with his axe. It screeched and wheeled away again – and then banked, turned back, and shot straight for Gel’s tower. He was halfway up, facing the dragon. Nowhere to go.
It stalled in midair, snapping out to bite him. Teeth the size of wagon axles struck the stone beside him. He dropped his crossbow, drew his new shortsword, and stabbed out, catching the dragon just beneath its eye. Frost licked the wound, and the dragon thrashed away, nearly taking Gel’s new sword with him. The great wyrm flapped madly, trying to catch its midair balance again. Gel regained his crossbow and put another bolt near the stab wound.
The bridge groaned. Stone splintered. Wally raised his fist one last time. Gel realized with a kind of awestruck dread that Wally had no fewer than twenty arrows feathering him. Some in places that looked fairly important. The dragon lunged out and, once more, jetted a blast of corrosive air at the giant and the priestess. Wally took the brunt of it. He didn’t even blink. Maybe he couldn’t anymore. Another thunderclap, simultaneous with the lightning that smote the cliffside. The bridge groaned again, and a great crack burst its way nearly halfway down its length.
“Nutmeg!” called Gel. “Get the fuck off!”
“You got it!” The dwarf sprinted for the southward side – and then stopped. The dragon was perched on the bridge, even as the structure crumbled, barring Nutmeg’s way to safety.
“Kill it!” shouted Gel. He sent another bolt into it; George plunked another arrow. The dragon, though, like Wally, seemed possessed of some terrible resilience. It snapped out at Nutmeg. The first time, it missed, and Nutmeg slashed out wildly with the axe. Then the bridge gave way.
The stones cracked and began to plummet. Nutmeg stumbled. The dragon caught him in its jaws. Gel, mind clear, eyes fixed on the wyrm’s weakest point, struck it with a bolt at the base of its neck, just as it raised its head to swallow Nutmeg whole. It roared in pain. As soon as the jaws loosened, Nutmeg writhed, springing up, bloody and hell-raged. He moved in a way that Gel did not think was possible, and brought his axe down in the center of the dragon’s skull. The dragon’s claws scrabbled mindlessly against the crumbling stones, but it was far too late to take flight. With a final twitch that sent Nutmeg soaring, the dragon died, and fell.
Nutmeg, too, fell, disappearing into the depths of the gorge.