Episode 028: Recruitment Drive (Text)

When we last left our heroes…THE HOB GOB KILLIN’ MOB rescued NUTMEG from the chasm, with a little help from SISTER D’s god. After laying WALLY the giant to rest, the gang returned to Tanner’s Crossing to warn the people of the town about the impending invasion. Following a meeting at MAYOR WISEMAN’s house, NUTMEG and GEL head to the inn for a little R&R…

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – In Which Nutmeg Loses a Fight

The crowd at the Red Apple was a lively bunch. Gel looked around the room. Yup – he and Nutmeg were the only ones in the place who knew about the impending doom. George had gone off with Anna to catch up on old times or whatever, and Sister D had followed Brother Darn to his chapel to begin preparations for the evacuation. That left Nutmeg and Gel at the bar.

Nutmeg was arguing with the barkeep. The dwarf was trying to convince the beleaguered proprietor that they could just put the drinks on Mayor Wiseman’s tab, since the Hob Gob Killin’ Mob were honored guests of the town council. Since there was no proof of this honor forthcoming, the barkeep had only Nutmeg’s word to go on. And that, apparently, was insufficient. 

“Nutmeg, come on, let’s try to unwind a little.” 

“Unwind? With what this lout is charging for drinks, I better be able to unwind the fabric of reality itself.” 

“Yeah, yeah, ok. Listen. Hey. We need to talk about the wizard.” 

“The -” Nutmeg’s face went from huh? to oh. very quickly. “The wizard. Yeah.” 

“Look, I stole some of his letters, correspondence, stuff like that. Check it out.” Gel produced the papers he’d kept under his coat. Nutmeg shrugged. 

“Hope those aren’t the ones I peed on.”

“No, no no no, no, different ones, different ones. I’ve been reading through them.”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Yeah, why?”

“In my old line of work, this happened to be something I was hired for several times. Information-gathering, you understand.” 

“Professional snoop. Got it.” 

“Look, the point is – some of these are diary pages. Diary pages where he mentions his unrequited love for Captain Anna Thornspur.” 

Nutmeg sputtered into his beer, sending foam spraying up into his mustache. He wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. “That’s – oh, gods. Creepy? Pathetic? I don’t know what to do with that.” 

“Well, look. We obviously can’t show our faces at Sendivogius’ tower. But we also don’t want anyone else talking to the wizard, in case he mentions the very hairy dwarf who terrorized him a few days ago.” 

“Yeah, and?”

“I’ve got this hat he gave me,” said Gel. “I can use it to make myself look like anyone else.”

“Ohhh. Ohh man. Wow. Hah.” Nutmeg laughed, then laughed harder. “Hoo! Yes. That’s good. That’s good stuff.” He chortled. “Yeah. Good. Alright. We’ll take care of that first thing.” 

Gel looked over, down the bar. The townies were out tonight. Nutmeg wasn’t wrong about the drink prices, either; the Red Apple was raking it in tonight. Lot of money flowing. Lots of money to be taken. He looked over at Nutmeg again. The dwarf had stripped down from his breastplate, and wore a sleeveless shirt. His muscles bulged and flexed as he chugged his next flagon. Gel nudged Nutmeg. 

“Hey. You want to make fifty gold?” 

“The last time someone asked me that in a bar, it turned out to be an employment opportunity in an industry i wasn’t particularly interested in.” 

“No no. For real. I’m thinking – punching contest.” 

“Punching contest?” 

“Punching contest. You trade punches until one person taps out or is conked out. You let them punch first.”

“Come on. No one’s going to want to take me on. I’m way too buff.” 

“You underestimate how drunk and stupid people can get.” Gel stood and raised his tankard. “Red Apple! Step right up and go blow-for-blow with a bonafide dwarven hero! It’s five gold to play; twenty gold pieces to anyone who can land this dwarf on his ass!” He produced a bag of gold from his belt and jingled it midair like an exclamation mark. “Who’s up first?” 

A line of beefy farmers formed almost instantly. Nutmeg shrugged. “Hey, guess you were right.” 

“Of course I’m right.”

Five farmers punched Nutmeg, and five farmers went staggering away, clutching their chest and muttering about how it “wasn’t worth it.” Gel advised them each in turn to visit Brother Darn, who had a guest priestess in from out of town and would be able to heal their broken ribs. Nutmeg raised his eyebrows, quaffing another tankard. “Twenty-five gold so far. You said fifty.” 

“We’ll get there, give it time.” 

A woman sidled up. She had long, dark hair, tied back in a ponytail, and her eyes flashed with wry humor as she asked “Mind if I give it a go?” 

Gel looked her up and down. “Five gold, lady.” 

“Done.” She reached into a clearly-bulging coinpurse and picked out five gold pieces very carefully. She was dressed head-to-toe in black – simple clothes, but, Gel realized, clearly tailored and well-made. She kind of looked like somebody. “Alright, dwarf, here comes.” 

She squared up – a good boxer’s stance, Gel noted, the stance of someone who had some training – and delivered a clean hook to Nutmeg’s jaw. The dwarf actually winced. “Not bad,” he said. “Try this on for size.” Nutmeg lashed out. A fist like a hammer caught the lady in the gut, and she whoofed out her breath, doubling over. But then she straightened up, stretching her back. 

“You’re something,” she admitted. “That’s no joke.” 

“How the fuck are you still standing?” 

“Maybe you’re slipping,” she said. “Ready for the next one?”

“You’re not done?”

“I’m not done until I get my twenty gold pieces.” This time, she raised her leg and shot out a kick for the center of Nuteg’s chest. The dwarf wasn’t ready, and stumbled back, but didn’t end up on his ass. He growled, and wasted no time in returning the blow: another wild punch to the lady’s midsection. Again, she took it, and again, she stayed standing. She wasn’t having fun, though.

“Gods almighty,” she wheezed. “Not sure I can do another one of those.” She turned to Gel. “Listen. I don’t even see the twenty pieces. At least put it on the table so I know I’m not getting my insides churned for a scam.” 

“Fair enough.” At this point, Gel felt like he should give her twenty pieces just for giving Nutmeg a hard time. That alone was good entertainment. He counted twenty pieces out and set them on the bar in four neat stacks. “Still playing?” 

“You bet.” Surprising, given that she looked to be on her last legs. “Here it comes, dwarf.” 

This time, though, when she swung, she stopped, jerked her arm back, and instead touched Nutmeg with a single finger, right in the middle of his forehead. She spoke aloud a word of mystic power. The dwarf seized up. All his limbs froze. He teetered backward, paralyzed head-to-toe. When he hit the ground, there were gasps around the bar. 

“That’s cheating!” exclaimed Gel, but he was talking to thin air. The woman had snatched the twenty gold – plus her original five – off the bar, and was already at the door. She looked back over her shoulder and winked. 

“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes!” 

With that, she was gone.

Nutmeg, once he had regained control of his muscles, spent the rest of the night stewing in the corner. 

Chapter 2 – In Which Gel Borrows Nutmeg’s Breastplate

Captain Anna Thornspur, to her credit, took great notes. Or so Nutmeg assumed. She was doing a lot of writing while he talked, and when she read it back to him, it all sounded right. 

“Human female, early middle age, dark hair, dark clothes of fine make, able to perform magical spells, absconded with twenty-five gold pieces belonging to you.” 

“That’s it. Ring any bells?”

“Nope.” Captain Anna shut her book. “Look, Nutmeg, I’m sorry to hear you got ripped off. But given what else we have to take care of this morning, this is low on my priority list.” 

“No, I totally understand,” said Nutmeg. The town hall/tollhouse/barracks/courtroom was bustling with activity, now that the word was out about the impending invasion. Panic-stricken townspeople lined up to be counted and shuttled out on wagons, while volunteer militiafolk were being issued whatever spare armaments were lying around. “Just, you know, if you see her, slap a quick arrest on her so I can get my money back. It’s a principles thing.”

Gel was waiting for him outside. “Did she recognize the lady?”

“Nah. Come on. Let’s go visit our wizard friend.” 

Gel was clad in Nutmeg’s breastplate, which fit very badly. He wore the mystic hat of disguise, stolen from Sendivogius the wizard. They’d worked out a foolproof plan together. It literally couldn’t fail. Gel held up a piece of parchment with their pre-invasion to-do-list written on it. “Ok. First Sendivogius. Then Aberthol the druid. Then check on Sister D. Then help Anna set up barricades and stuff.” 

“Honestly, it’s nice to have a little structure to our day.” 

“Absolutely.” 

The day was sweltering, a humid, muggy, sweaty summer day. Great thunderheads loomed in the west, but the sky over Tanner’s Crossing was nearly cloudless, the sky a punishing blue. They passed the general store, where the shop owner was busy hammering up boards over the windows. She nodded at them as they passed. “Morning.”

“Hey.”

“Hi.” 

Once they’d passed, Gel turned to Nutmeg. “Uh. Why would she bother putting boards over the windows? I don’t think that’ll stop the horde from stealing her, you know, fishing poles or whatever she sells.” 

“People gotta assert control somehow. Feel safe. If that’s what it takes to not go crazy, well, you know, whatever.” 

Gel scratched his chin. “Maybe I’ll, uh, visit the place tonight. Must be some good stuff left in there. To requisition. For the defense of the town. Obviously.” 

“No that’s a good idea, write it down on your to-do list.”

“You’re not supposed to write crimes down, Nutmeg.” 

“I wouldn’t know.” 

They left the town proper, heading up the little road. Nutmeg stepped aside as they came in view of Sendivogius’ tower. “Alright. I’m gonna lay low here. You do your thing.” 

“Uh, I need you to change the armor for me.” 

“Oh, right.” Nutmeg placed his hand on Gel’s chest, where the breastplate hung awkwardly. It was both too big and too small for the elf, but when Nutmeg spoke the word, it shifted, becoming an exact copy of Captain Anna Thornspur’s uniform and armor. 

“Alright, you do your thing.” 

Gel spoke his command word. The hat of disguise shimmered. Waves spilled out from it, down Gel’s body, like a mirage in the distance, or heat from forge-born steel. As the waves passed, Gel’s face changed. His hair changed. The shape of his body changed, ever so slightly. And then Captain Anna Thornspur stood before Nutmeg, looking a little rough around the edges but otherwise just as she’d looked not an hour ago, back in town. 

“Did it work?”

“Yeah, but you gotta do something about the voice.”

“Oh. Uh. I’ll try. How’s this?”

“Yikes. That’s worse, somehow. Just go really hoarse or something, say you were shouting orders all morning.” 

“Okay.” Gel’s impression of the Captain improved, marginally. “Here goes nothing.” 

Nutmeg followed Gel at a safe distance, scrooching down behind the shrubberies. What if the wizard wasn’t even home? What if he’d booby-trapped the tower, spooked after getting home invaded by two crazy burglars? Okay, one crazy burglar and one normal burglar. A wizard really ought to have some booby-traps in place, frankly. Rube. He deserved to get home invaded. 

Gel rapped on the front door, hard. “Sendivogius!” he called, in a truly strained impression of the Captain. “It’s Captain Thornspur!” 

There was a long, long silence. Gel looked back at Nutmeg. Nutmeg shrugged and mouthed just wait, just wait. Gel shifted from foot to foot. 

Finally, just as Nutmeg was about to get up and head back to town, the door opened, just a crack. Nutmeg couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but Gel disappeared inside with the wizard. After what felt like an eternity – probably about ten minutes – the door opened, and Gel emerged once more, still in disguise, with Sendivogius waving tearfully from the doorway. 

“Thank you, Captain!” the wizard was saying. “Thank you! I can’t wait to see you tonight!” 

“Yes, well, keep it down,” said Gel. “Goodbye, Sendivogius.” 

Gel hustled past Nutmeg, and Nutmeg slipped out and followed. 

“Uh, dude? Gel? Hey? What’s – hey, wait up – what’s going on?”

“Give me a moment.” Gel spoke the command word and re-Gel-ified himself. “Augh. Weird. Augh. Ok.”

“…??” Nutmeg gestured vigorously. “And…??” 

“Turn off the armor first.”

“Not until you tell me what went on. Did you smooch him? Did he try to smooch you?” 

“No. Not really. No.”

“That’s not a definitive ‘no.’”

“It’s a ‘no.’ Look. He agreed to give us some serious firepower. Turns out he kinda knows what he’s doing with all that magic stuff. Just wastes it on, you know, hats and books. But he’s going to need one ingredient in particular.”

“Yeah?”

“Gold.”

“Gold?”

“Gold. About ten thousand gold pieces worth of gold.” 

“That’s a lot of gold.” 

“Yeah, well, I promised it to him. Tonight. By the river. He said he knew a spot down from his tower, along the riverbank, where the moonlight hits the water just right and dapples it in a way that reminds him that true love is real, and one day will come to him, and he can’t wait to show it to me.”

“You know, I’m almost starting to feel bad for this guy.” 

Chapter 3 – In Which Aberthol Demonstrates His Power

Gel left his cloak and mask back at the Red Apple, and rolled the sleeves up on his tunic. It was so damn hot, especially after spending what felt like several lifetimes in Nutmeg’s breastplate. How the dwarf lived every day in that veritable oven, he had no idea. At least out here on the ferry, crossing the Hestor, there was a bit of a breeze to lift his hair and air out his pits. When he was quite sure Nutmeg wasn’t looking, he inspected the gem he’d stolen from Sendivogius’ house. The wizard had been too enamored with the Thornspur glamor to notice the twinkling amethyst disappear from the pile of research materials he’d been carrying. Long ago – long ago – Gel had a teacher, someone to show him how best to take things that belonged to other people. That teacher had given him a rule: if you can make them look away, you can do anything. Gel had spent his whole life learning how to make people look away. “Get them all horned up” was a new approach for him, but it seemed like a promising field of play. 

Nutmeg and George were talking by the rail of the ferry, chatting like old pals. The woodsman was returning to his hut, insisting that he and his dogs would survive best on their own, unburdened by civilian wagon trains. He’d promised to show them the way to Aberthol, too, this mysterious druid who dwelt in the woodlands across from the town. 

Gel pocketed the amethyst. Probably wouldn’t find a good buyer for it until they were back in Barrendell. Or even Humber. Barrendell was about to be overwhelmed by refugees, after all. Tanner’s Crossing was the first entry point for the horde, but everything they’d learned from the maps, the dragons, the goblins, all pointed to a great tide of blood sweeping up from the Hestor, lapping against the walls of civilization. There were a half-dozen little villages between Tanner’s Crossing and Barrendell. Most were no doubt even less well-defended than Tanner’s Crossing; this town had the advantage of the river. Still, when it came to hard assets like the amethyst: better to have it. For a rainy day. 

When the ferry touched the west bank, they stepped off together. George shook each of their hands.

“Ooooo, it’s been a gen-u-ine pleasure working with you fellas.” 

“George, likewise.” Nutmeg slapped the old ranger on the back. “But I doubt this is goodbye.”

“Yeah, you’re a real survivor,” said Gel. “You’ll be fine.” 

“That’s not what I meant, actually,” said Nutmeg. “I was thinking – maybe we come back across, one last time, do what we can to slow the horde down in the woods?”

“Ooooooooeeeeeeeeeee,” exclaimed George. One of his longest ooooeeees yet. “Now that sounds like a real good time to me.” 

“We’ll talk about it.” Gel wasn’t so sure it sounded like a ‘good’ time, but it did at least sound interesting. “Which way to this druid?” 

“Aberthol. Follow the riverbank south. Look for the standing stones. Should jump right out at ya.” 

Gel raised an eyebrow. “Metaphorically or literally?”

“Ya never know, with druids.” 

They took George’s advice. This side of the river had a few farms here and there – farms at which George promised to forewarn – but by and large this was wild country. Particularly to the south of the road, where the druid dwelt. Keeping the river to their left, they followed the bank as best as they could. The undergrowth was thick: holly and yew grew wild and free under the beech and alder, while the carpet of spurge underfoot was nearly covered by waist-high ferns. Spiders had made webs everywhere, it seemed, and Gel could see why: the riverbank swarmed with midges and gnats. Nutmeg did a great deal of swearing and flailing at the little bugs. 

“It’s as bad as Inga’s jungles,” the dwarf grumbled. 

“Not even close. Feel like licking any toads?” 

“Not particularly.” 

“Maybe a little of that new dust?” 

Nutmeg turned and scowled back at Gel. “I gotta be careful with that stuff. Sendivogius was…I mean, that could’ve been risky.”

“Is that how you survived, though?”

“Survived?” 

“The fall, dumbass. In the chasm. No way you should’ve lived through that.” 

Nutmeg shrugged. “Like I said, I’m really cool.”

“I can accept that premise. But also did you do some drugs?”

“Yes.” Nutmeg sighed. “Yes.”

“Okay, cool, just wondering.”

“What, no judgement?”

“What, do I look like Sister D? Come on. You do you. I’m just trying to take inventory of the best ways to turn you into a deathless killing machine.” 

“Much appreciated.” The dwarf stopped and pointed into the trees. “Hey. Hey, standing stones, right?”

Indeed: standing stones. A ring of monoliths in a clearing not far from the roadside, thirteen in all, perhaps ten feet tall apiece. Shapless. Vaguely pointed. 

“Yo!” shouted Nutmeg, strolling into the ring of stones. “Mister Druid! What’s up, man!”

There came no reply. Gel followed Nutmeg into the ring, but kept a hand on his icy sword. He didn’t like the way the woods sounded louder in the ring, or the way the light got greener the further into the circle you went. He was just about to tell Nutmeg that maybe they should’ve stayed outside the suspicious ring of giant rocks when there was a crackling noise, a noise like ice splintering in the winter. Then, from a shining crack in one of the stones, a figure came. 

A man, a human man, tall and worryingly skinny, dressed in a robe of green moss and wearing a crown of celandine and mugwort, stepped from the stone. He held his hands high. “Ahoo!” he cried, and snapped his fingers, and a butterfly burst forth in midair, flapping away on brilliant wings. “Yahey!” he shouted again. Another snap produced a spray of wildflowers blooming from the side of a nearby alder tree. “Uhhuuya!” and another snap sent a swarm of gnats spiraling in a complex, clearly intentional pattern. 

Thus introduced, the druid pointed his index fingers at Nutmeg and Gel. “Who dares enter my circle?” (Of course, in his thick accent, it sounded more like “c’hoo deares entare my cearcall?”) 

“Hey, you must be Aberthol.” 

“Some do call me Aberthol!” agreed the druid. For emphasis, he produced a single feather from his own ear. “But you leave my question unanswered! Who! Are! You!” (“Who! Air! Yew!”)

“I’m Nutmeg, and this is Gel. We’re the Hob Gob Killin’ Mob.” 

“Not much of a mob, are ye?” 

“Well. I mean. We have open membership. And some of our members are off on other errands.”

“I feel like this is beside the point,” said Gel. “Mister Aberthol, we’re here to ask a favor of you.” 

“A feaavorrrr!” The druid practically screamed the word. “Och, that’s bold and brassy of ye! You wear the trappings of the so-called ‘civilized’ folk, and then when you’re caught with your pants down you come scurrying to us who knows best and always have!” In a fit of pique, the druid spat on the ground. The gob of phlegm turned into a frog and hopped away. 

“We haven’t even said what the favor is,” said Nutmeg. “Are you aware of the Red Hand? The goblins – and worse – to the north?” 

“Petty wars!” Aberthol waved a hand with such dismissive force that Gel almost turned around and went home. “We Keepers of the Thirteen Circles of Thirteen have duties far greater than some goblin war!” 

“It’s not just goblins,” said Gel. “It’s Daghda.” 

At this, Aberthol finally seemed to calm down. He regarded them both with a look that was two parts surprise and one part complete lunacy. “It takes a very bold man indeed to say that name in this holy circle, elf. What do you know of…Daghda?”

“These goblins worship it. They’re fighting in its name. And they mean to sweep all through the Hestor Vale, burning and reaving as they go. You’re right in their way, man.” 

“Daghda…” Aberthol seemed lost in thought. “Well. And they’re coming this way?”

“They’re attacking the town in a little less than a week.”

“I could care one drippy shit for the town,” said Aberthol. “Town. Feh! Who has need of towns when the celestial roof is all the roof we need?” He held up his hand as if to stave off any further discussion. “No, but if these goblins worship Daghda, I have heard all I need. We Keepers of the Thirteen Circles of Thirteen are sworn to nae interference in the matters of politick and war, but I believe an exception may be made when such spirits are involved.” He paused. “What was the favor you wanted of me?”

Gel tried his best impression of a winning smile. “Well, I mean, it kinda sounds like we’re on the same page now. But we were hoping you could contribute some sort of magical aid to the stand we’re going to make on the river. We can’t stop the whole horde here, but we can leave them bleeding.” 

“We might stop them, though,” said Nutmeg. “I mean, it’s possible.” 

“Nah, no way.” 

“Don’t undercut my confidence, dude.” 

“Whatever.” 

“I will do as you ask of me!” declared Aberthol, who appeared to have basically written them out of his scene entirely. He gestured as he spoke, sending grass and flowers and seeds and shit splooging out all over the circle and generally making a verdant mess of the place. “Yes! Yes! I shall speak with my fellow Keepers of the Thirteen Circles of Thirteen and vouch for our participation in a great war against the being known only as…Daghda!” With a final flourish, an entire murmuration of starlings swept up from the trees around them, taking to the sky and spelling out the words “Fuck Daghda” before disippating entirely. 

“I like this guy’s energy,” said Nutmeg. “Aberthol, you’re alright.” 

“YES! I am!” 

“I think it’s cool if we leave, right?” said Gel. “I swear I’m allergic to something he’s shooting out.” 

“Yeah, yeah, okay. See ya later, Aberthol. Really cool meeting you. Big fan.” 

Chapter 4 – In Which Several Vases are Broken

The house of Harmel the lamp oil merchant stood on the south side of town, surprisingly, close to the warehouses. A fence ringed the house, protecting it from…well, probably from people like them, Nutmeg admitted. It was a nice house. A stately manor. Several servants stood outside, milling about aimlessly. 

“You really think we can get ten thousand, cash, off this guy?”

Gel shrugged. “It seems likely. Some bigwig oil merchant? He’s bound to have some stashed away.”

“Excuse me,” said one of the servants nearby, a half-elven man in his twilight years, “but are you…the Hob Gob Killin’ Mob?” 

A thrill ran up Nutmeg’s spine. “Yes! Oh wow. That’s cool. Yes, that’s us. Why?”

“So, it’s true, then?” The half-elf gestured westward. “There’s, you know, some kinda army?” 

“Um. It’s one hundred percent true.” Nutmeg narrowed his eyes. “Who’s been saying differently?”

“Harmel himself,” said the half-elf. “Right. I figured. Alright, folks, let’s pack it up. Master Harmel can take care of his own damn self.” With that, the servants hauled out en masse, leaving the front gate wide open. 

The front door was closed, but not locked, and in mere moments they were standing in the foyer of Harmel’s very nice home. A decorative table was centered in the room, displaying a very nice set of antique elven vases. There was a rug on the floor made of fine thread, thread Nutmeg could swear was from the Hegemony back home. There was also no sign of Harmel, although there was a flight of stairs disappearing up and around a corner from the foyer. 

“Why is nobody just hanging out by the door? We keep having to announce ourselves like a bunch of chumps.”

“We need a herald.” 

“We do.” Nutmeg cupped his hands. “Yo! Harmel! You in?”

“Good gods,” came Harmel’s raspy drawl from the top of the stairs. “Hold on just a minute there.” The merchant appeared a few moments later, dressed in what was clearly a lounging robe. “Ah. Mister Nutmeg. Mister Gelmahta. To what do I owe this dubious pleasure?”

“You don’t have to say the ‘dubious’ part out loud, it’s in the subtext. Were you taking a nap?”

“I was, in fact. They say that quick, short naps taken throughout the day empower the mind and leave one prepared to handle the vicissitudes of whatever may come.” 

“Yeah, well, ale does the same thing. Look, man, you gotta start packing up. You’ve got a lot of treasures to get out of here.”

“Is that was this is about?” Harmel raised an eyebrow. “I had a feeling. This whole ‘army’ thing, this nonsense about the bridge – you’re trying to steal our valuables, aren’t you? Trying to get us to abandon our hard-earned treasures all so you can loot and pillage and take what you want? Well, I ain’t falling for it. I ain-”

Nutmeg picked up one of the elven vases. Harmel raised one hand, clutching the railing with his other. “Come on now, come on! No need to start looting. I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Oops.” Nutmeg dropped the vase. It shattered into a million billion little bits. Harmel gave a yelp. 

“Nutmeg, you’re supposed to say ‘oops’ after you break the priceless vase.” 

“Ah, shit, you’re right.” Nutmeg picked up another one. “Let me try again.”

“No!” wailed Harmel. “Alright. Please. Good gods. I’m a simple merchant of lamp oil and lamp oil accessories. I’ve promised the oil to the town. What more could you want from me?”

“Give me ten thousand gold,” said Nutmeg. 

“Ten – ten thousand?” 

“Yeah, cash. In gold pieces. Or the equivalent value in solid gold bars, if you prefer.” 

“I – why – I” Harmel spluttered. “Ten thousand represents a significant percentage of my annual profits, boys.” 

“Oops,” said Nutmeg. He dropped the next vase. It shattered. Harmel clutched at his chest. Gel sighed at him. “Ah shit, that’s right. I did the oops first again. Okay, one more try.” He picked up a third vase. 

“No! No. No. Alright. Okay. Hang on. Let me call for a servant, they can bring out the gold.”

“Oh, yeah, they left, dude. They’re all gone. But you could just tell us where you keep your gold and we can get it for you.” 

“No, no, no. Thank you. No. Why…why do you need ten thousand gold?”

“If you must know,” said Gel, “it’s for the wizard Sendivogius to make something for us. A weapon.” 

“A weapon. All my wealth – my oil, my gold – turned to tools of war.”

“Not all your wealth,” said Nutmeg. “Some of it is just turned to little bits of porcelain or whatever.” He set the third vase back on the decorative table. “We’ll wait here. Ten thousand, buddy.” 

It took Harmel the better part of an hour to haul the bags of gold up from whatever basement vault he kept them in. Mostly out of laziness, Nutmeg had to assume. There were only ten bags, and they didn’t even weigh that much. He and Gel split the load between them, and turned to leave. 

“Wait!” Harmel seemed a little desperate. “Listen, I’d like a written receipt or something. Just…just to have on hand in case this all blows over and I’m out ten thousand, plus the oil.” 

“A receipt?” Gel looked like his eyes were going to goggle right out of his head. “The apocalypse is bearing down on us and you want a receipt?

“No, that’s fair,” said Nutmeg. “Savvy businessman.” He paused. “Gel, you’re going to have to do the honors.” 

The elf sighed. “Yeah. I figured. Alright, Harmel, get me some paper or something, dipshit.” 

Nutmeg supervised the accounting process. Once Harmel was focused on matters of coin and business, he became a much more agreeable, conversational guy. The merchant was a merchant to his core, it turned out. His lamp oil was refined from oilrock dug up in the Hammerfist Holds, and he’d struck a pretty good deal with the dwarves therein. The profit ratio was a beefy twenty-two percent. Nutmeg was starting to understand exactly why Harmel was so salty about the disruption of the trade markets: this guy was making coin hand over fist. 

“Listen,” said Nutmeg, when they were wrapping up, “I can’t promise anything. But your lamp oil hookup is still quality. You should go straight to Lord Carlan Marth in Barrendell with this. See if you can get a good supplier deal up there. Tell him the Hob Gob Killin’ Mob sent you.” 

Chapter 5 – In Which Sendivogius Shoots His Shot

Gel stood by the bank of the Hestor once more. Night was falling, and the stars were coming out. The thunderheads in the western sky had blown apart, scattered to pieces by the wind, the same wind that brought a blessed coolness to the end of the day. It certainly made it easier to wear the breastplate, at least. It was strange, wearing Anna Thornspur’s skin, her armor, her whole affect. He’d infiltrated many, many places over the years, and had even cooked up some pretty nifty little disguises. But never something this…magical. Never something this powerful. There was real potential here for doing crimes. 

“Captain Thornspur?” A wavering, familiar voice wafted down from the path leading up to the wizard’s tower. Sendivogius. 

The wizard was lighting his way with the tip of his finger, on which sat a glowing thimble. Gods, this guy had a knack for knickknack. 

“Yeah, Sendivogius, I’m down here.” 

“O, my captain,” said the wizard, beaming from ear to ear. “I am so glad.” He looked from side to side. “Did you – those burglars I told you about – did you happen to -”

“Didn’t learn a thing about them. Unfortunately. Could’ve been related to this whole horde business, though. I hear they’ve got dwarven mercenaries in their employ.” 

“Oh dear. Oh dear.”

“But hey, hey, focus up. The gold. We have it.” 

“The gold! Ten – ten thousand?” Sendivogius lowered his finger to inspect the sacks on the ground. “That’s funny, I thought there’d be more bags.” 

“Gold is surprisingly compact,” agreed Gel. “So, this necklace. You still think you’ll be able to make it?” 

“It will be lovely. A work of art. Fit to grace the neck of a queen. Or a captain.” He smiled so guilelessly, so hopefully, that Gel almost felt a pang of conscience. Almost. 

“Yes. That’s wonderful. Thanks so much, Sendivogius.” Gel-as-Thornspur gave the nebbish wizard a pat on the hand. “Here. Let me help you get the gold back to the tower.” 

“I’ve cleaned up the kitchen, if you’d like to stay for a nightcap.” 

“Sendy – can I call you Sendy?”

“Please!”

“Sendy, really, I’d love to. And you should keep asking me.” Because that would be funny, thought Gel. “but right now, I’ve had one of the longest days of my life and I really just need a good night’s sleep.”

“Of course.” Sendy sounded sad. “Of course.” 

They got most of the bags of gold on the first trip. Gel couldn’t help but notice the candles flickering on the kitchen table, the freshly-swept floor, the one spot of horrible jam that the wizard had missed. They parted ways on the banks of the river, Sendivogius gamely hauling the last three bags himself. It was only when the last light of the thimble had vanished from view that Nutmeg finally rolled out from behind his bush. The dwarf was doubled over with laughter. 

“Oh gods. ‘Sendy.’ Oh gods. That’s amazing.” 

“Okay, sht up, dipnut.” 

“Incredible intelligence work, Gel. You’re a real super-spy.” 

“Look, I know you’re being sarcastic, but I do think this has some serious practical applications for our work back in the Hegemony. Mister E should’ve set us up with these as kits.” 

“Fair point. Want to grab a bite to eat?” 

“I’d like that. Probably no more barfights, though.”

“Unless I see that hussy who cheated and cast a spell. Then I get to hunt her like a game animal.” 

“Totally.”

“Oh, and Gel?”

“Yeah?”

“You can drop the Thornspur disguise now.” 

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