This is me, Ferdia Mac Osteir, late of the Paradise of the Seven Yews, late of the living lands and soon to fasten hands with my only pal Dearg. Drink with me.
Althion the Dwarf is practically a stiff and Morgan’s merry ravens are croaking his name, as my aunt used to say. I sit at his bedside in a hostel full of Gnolls, waiting for help that will surely not come. Dearg stands at the door, holding a lamp. He wants me to join him. But I have not yet finished this drink.
This is how it happened.
I have been a grave-digger seven years, which is long enough to see strange things but not long enough to forget them. Sometimes in these graveyards, bodies are lifted by a certain hag or a gentleman necromancer and they are put in a cauldron. Later, I pass them in the streets, my former clients, and their eyes and lips are sewn shut with black cords. It is very disconcerting to see them like this. Dearg used to say, When I die, cremate me.
Dearg was a guy that we Danaan call a filidh, but everyone else calls a crazy person. He would talk to the tomb stones and shout in his sleep, yet he was my pal. We worked the graves together, digging them deep then guarding them while we sit under an iron lantern. It is so cold on certain nights that my teeth clatter like hammers, but Dearg sits in his rags, making love to his doll, who is the crescent moon, with his songs and riddles.
Then he up and died. The Rat Pox twisted his fingers and frothed his lips. They cremated him, just as he wanted, and his ashes went up to the moon, his doll.
But his soul, well that is another story.
When Dearg turned up at the graveyard one moon-randy night, I quit my job at once. I took myself to a cousin who is a surgeon for the Brotherhood of Fingers and asked for a job as a look-out man and bribe-collector. There is a dignified career in the Fingers if you do not need your lips sewn shut, if you take my meaning. But then Dearg is there too, looking up from a storm drain or down from a balcony, or following me down twisting alleys, pad-pad-pad his bare feet slapping.
All of which discourages me greatly and makes me re-think my career again.
Ferdy, you ask me, why do you not go to the Clerics of the Tuatha or the Priests of St Charn? For a small consideration, they will return the dead to their proper place. This is very true, but I do not want my friend Dearg to lie bound in an iron cauldron or be taken by hell-hounds to the Hall of Shades. I merely wish him to stop following me with that insistent expression on his kisser.
So I am sitting one day in Mindy’s where they serve a cheese cake which is greatly to my taste, and a Swampy the Elf is there, recruiting guys for a dungeon proposition. This I am very reluctant to do, for only a sucker goes into a dungeon looking to get rich when the Cracked Mirror will offer seven to four on the turn of a Shibolbo card. But Dearg is sitting across the table from me looking at my cheese cake, which was also greatly to his own taste, and suddenly I am not hungry any more.
“What do you know about the Hobgoblin Occupational Army?” Swampy the Elf asks me in the interview.
I tell him that the Hobgoblins are gentlemen that you do not want to get sore at you for any little thing, because they have come from the Dark and loathe and despise the Light, as everyone in Merkabar knows, and want to march up to the city walls, which they will do one day, if the gods do not order things differently.
“We are going to recon-oyter the Hobgoblin Occupational Army in Stonehell,” Swampy the Elf tells me.
If a was a wiser guy I would leave the table at once and never come back to Mindy’s, even though the cheese cake in Lucky’s is less to my taste, being too dry. But I guess I am not a wise guy, because I say to Swampy the Elf, “OK Boss!” so there you are.
There are three of us, Swampy the Elf and Al the Dwarf and myself, and we travel to the Stonehell Dungeon where everything is arranged very nicely. The Orcs are polite to us and the Kobolds smile their crooked smiles and shows us to some stairs going down to the second level and Swampy the Elf says to me, “There you are.”
There you are, indeed.
Swampy the Elf gives me a lantern with shutters and I creep ahead down the steps, because of course and Elf and a Dwarf can see in the dark like cats but my peepers do not see anything unless I un-shutter the lamp. But Luck is a lady, because there are torches downstairs and Hobgoblins guarding more stairs, which must be to the third level.
Swampy the Elf thinks about this proposition and decides we will ambush the Hobgoblin sentries, which we do. Swampy the Elf is a killing gentleman and makes the last Hobgoblin sing like a canary about the pass words and the fortifications to the north. Then he ices him in a very firm way. I am told to hide the stiffs down below in a room with a big pool of water.
I am feeling now like a Citizen in the Brotherhood of Knives, who can walk into Mindy’s and take any table they like, making guys get up and give them their seats, even though they have not yet finished their cheese cake.
Because this is a recon-oyter and not a raid, we go to the south and search many empty rooms. But always we find that the Hobgoblins have been there first and taken all the figs and dates, if you take my meaning.
Then Swampy the Elf decides that we will go west and then north, so as to go around the Hobgoblin Occupational Army in a way that comes at them from the side where they are perhaps not watching out so carefully and with such fierce attitudes.
And I say, “Good idea, Boss!” because since I am working for Swampy the Elf I do not see Dearg following me or hear the slap-slap of his bare feet, no not even once.
It is my experience in life that when things are going good, they keep on going good until they start to go bad and then they go very bad indeed. So bad that a guy winds up wishing he had never had the good stuff, if only the bad stuff would go away.
There is another Hobgoblin Guard Post and Al the Dwarf shoots one dead with his bow but the others come at us in a very determined manner. Swampy the Elf has thought about all the angles, because he is a person who has fought in the Warden Rangers and knows red work from blue, if you take my meaning. But sometimes Luck is not a Lady, like when the Cracked Mirror offer you seven to four on the turn of a Shibolbo card and you have counted the cards very carefully, but to yourself and without moving your lips, and you figure that the Aces are not in the deck and you put all your scratch on the table, but then the card turns over and there is an Ace where an Ace should not be. On occasions like this, it is best to kiss goodbye to your cucumbers and leave quietly and promise yourself that you will not play cards again, but instead read holy scriptures and live an upright life.
Which is to say, Al the Dwarf’s arm is broken and it is his fighting arm, so that now he cannot swing his sword or fire his bow. We are more than somewhat concerned about this. But Al the Dwarf is in high spirits and says he can fight with his other arm. Swampy the Elf thinks about this and decides we will keep going, one and all, which in my opinion is not a very wise decision but, because I am not very wise either, I say, “Good idea, Boss!”
There are two times when it is best not to be putting chips on the table and one is when you cannot afford to and the other is when you can. Now we are searching in many strange rooms and finding many curious things, but what we are not finding is any scratch. What is more, my ears are hearing a slap-slap-slapping sound of bare feet following us. All of which makes me more than somewhat discouraged.
Soon Swampy the Elf is discouraged too, for a big pile of Green Slime has dropped on his precious cloak and eaten it and I throw our lantern on the slime to burn it. So now Swampy the Elf has no magic cloak and Al the Dwarf has a broken arm and for light we must use my torches, which are smoky and cause me to cough.
Then in a big room of pillars we meet with Giant Hound Spiders and these monsters are like dogs and they attack the weakest guy, which is Al the Dwarf on account of his broken arm. Poor Al gets his noggin cracked and falls down like a stiff. It is only five to four that he will live.
So we decide to take back our chips and kiss the dolls good night and quit this place, like good citizens, and there you are.
There you are, indeed.
All of this time, the Hobgoblins have not been sitting in Mindy’s eating cheese cake, if you take my meaning. Perhaps they have found the stiffs that I stowed down on the third level or perhaps the Kobolds have tittle-tattled to them, even though they said they would not.
So I am carrying Broken-Bones Al and Swampy the Elf goes ahead with his cats-peepers and discovers that the Hobgoblins have blocked the way back. Now Swampy the Elf takes this news very hard, indeed I have never seen a guy so sore about any piece of news that did not involve the turn of a Shibolbo card or a promise from a beautiful doll. Swampy the Elf thinks to himself and decides that we will not say ‘How do you do?’ to the Hobgoblins, but we will go to a new area of the dungeon and look for a staircase up to the first level that he found once, that might be to the north and to the east of here, if his map is right. And there you are.
I am not liking these odds very much but I say “Good idea, Boss!” because there are no other ideas.
We head north, one and all, into the old Asylum and let me tell you that the mood is not congenial. I am carrying Al on my back and he is growing heavier all the time. The inmates have written messages on the walls with disturbing points of view. When we arrive in a big room with painted murals, I have to rest a moment and set Al on the floor. The wall paintings show a vast crowd and I have to rub my peepers because there in the crowd is Dearg, grinning back at me with his particular expression. Swampy the Elf can see someone in the crowd too and he is particularly discouraged by it.
Now I can hear my old pal’s footsteps hurrying behind us and I am too weary to carry Al, so Swampy the Elf takes up the burden and I carry the torch. I feel sure that, if we do not discover this staircase soon, we will all have to find another world in which to live.
But find the stairs we do and even rattlebone skeletons do not cause us to take one step backwards nor out of our way. We arrive back in Kobold’s Korner, just as Swampy the Elf predicted.
Anyway, this is about all there is to the story, except that Al the Dwarf is still stiff and still, with a dent in his noggin the size of soup bowl and no way to get him out of here safely, what with Swampy the Elf and myself being exhausted.
“Listen to this, Ferdy,” says Swampy the Elf, “I’ll go fetch help and you stay and nurse the Dwarf.”
He gives me fifty Gees to bribe the Kobolds and promises he’ll be back in 24 hours with a rescue team and I say, “Good idea, Boss!” because my thoughts don’t come out straight no more.
This dungeon hostel is more than somewhat filthy and the only other guests are Gnolls, who I figure intend to creep over and eat Al and myself both, once I fall asleep. So I sit through the night with my teeth clattering like hammers and Dearg sits next to me in his rags, singing his riddles and making love-songs to this new doll of his.
Dearg says she’s not up in the sky, like his last doll the Moon, but down in the ground, deep down underneath us.
Dearg says there’s a wound in the world down there that’s growing all the time and she sits in the middle of it, smiling.
Dearg says we’re going to go together, soon, down the staircase to the second level, then the third, then deeper down, to take a peek at his new doll.
I tell Dearg it’s a good idea. We will go together and soon. But first let me finish this drink.