The darkness stirred, and a piece of it detached, thundered across the long dank chamber, and stopped at the front door. As a clawed hand yanked a lever, every steel cog in the opening mechanism protested. Visitors were rarely welcomed. And it showed. The great tower inhaled and drove lurking things for the shadows as crisp mountain air refreshed the corruption within. A sliver of gold morning light sliced through the gloom, and Golgoth the World Strangler squinted and hissed.
His skin had the same gray green pallor as week-old chicken soup and his eyes glowed like that of a nocturnal forest cat. The sun was absorbed by Golgoth’s ebony boiled-leather armor. Inky scale mail hung from shiny black shoulder plates, and a long flowing cape flapped in the breeze; he liked when it did that. The new owner of Drýlic Castle was much like the structure itself: tall, looming, and frightening to behold.
Show some teeth. Fill his breeches.
The delivery-man’s pants stayed unfilled. He stood there—quite still—until Golgoth spoke.
“Forgive the delay, I’ve only just moved in, and I’ve yet to hire minions.”
Stand up straight! Dark lords don’t hunch.
The heavy-set courier scratched his hairy face and yawned. “I have a parcel for … Gordon the Worm Stranger?”
Can’t you read? What could a ‘worm-stranger’ possibly be?
“Close enough. Do you need me to sign?” asked Golgoth.
“Just mark the parchment here.” The man handed over a quill and proffered his wrist.
Golgoth pierced the courier’s skin with the pen’s tip and scrawled a signature on the cream-colored scroll in blood.
“Oi! Not so deep, mate!” cried the courier.
Calm yourself, you sack of stinking innards.
“Begging your pardon,” Golgoth said.
“I mean, you’re not the only evil wotsit on me run today. I’ve yet to hit Borgon the Blood Eater and Shagrath the Shit Stirrer, or some frigging thing. I don’t want to bleed out before I get home.” The courier sucked at the wound.
Can’t he see how pissed off we are?
Golgoth spoke. “Once again, I am very sorry.”
“You want my missus thinking I’ve been diddling about at the vampire bordello?” said the courier.
“Is that… Would she really think that?”
Must remember to visit the vampire bordello.
“You have no idea, mate. You really should think about someone else for a change. Villainous turd!” The man threw a cloth-wrapped package at Golgoth and turned to climb into his carriage.
Make an offering. Seems appropriate.
“Look, I think I have a bandage somewhere, if you’ll just let me—” began Golgoth.
The man pivoted and thrust a sausage finger in Golgoth’s face. “You know what? I’ve had a hell of a time getting up here, and I’m in a shitty mood, so I’m going to tell you what I think!”
Dazzle me, you mental giant.
“Please feel free,” bid Golgoth.
“You sit up here on your throne of human bones, or whatever, and you hatch your evil plots and then what? A village is destroyed, or a princess taken hostage, and everyone just has to deal with it?”
“Not all of the bones are human.”
“You’re what? Over six feet tall? Able to summon the elements to do your bidding?” the courier asked.
“There are some elf skulls and a dragon femur at the back, which look quite good.”
“Why don’t you use your talents to help out a bit? There are people like me who work sunup to sundown to put bread and ale on the table. There are shit-covered street-rats out here who drag their starving arses about, begging for coin, receiving naught but spit for their trouble. What do you do about it? Sacrifice them to ancient demons? Burn their homes?”
Golgoth paused for a moment before speaking. “We all have a job to do.”
The courier’s face screwed up. “Yeah, well yours is rubbish. You are rubbish. So ugly, I bet you’ve never felt a woman’s touch.”
“I touch women all the time,” Golgoth shot back.
“When you throw them in the dungeon? Not the same thing, mate.” The courier thrust his thumbs between his belt and his belly.
“This is surprisingly harsh feedback, I must say,” said Golgoth.
So, we’re just going to take this?
“It’s been a long time coming. We common folk have had enough of you and your kind. Take your diabolical schemes and your evil fortress and shove them up your spotty arse.” The courier made to leave once more.
Golgoth stared at the writing implement in his hand. The nib was still wet with blood. “Just one more thing?”
Golgoth’s eyes rolled back, and he recited words in a voice that sounded like stone on stone. The ginger-haired delivery man winced, clapping his hands over his ears. The dirt path erupted volcano-like, and serpentine hands rose from the debris. Ruined faces with yellow eyes followed; rotting tongues hung limply from slack mouths. The courier’s screams could scarcely compete with the growling and snarling of the horrors that dragged him beneath the earth.
Moments later, all trace of him was gone.
The man’s horse bolted down the mountain path as Golgoth tore open his parcel. “Oh good! My new cookbook!”
The dark lord cracked his new tome, quickly finding the page on making stock. He caressed the thick high-quality paper before hanging a hefty cast-iron pot over the fire and filling it with water. He squeezed a sprig of rosemary between his fingertips and inhaled the savory aroma—an aroma quickly defeated by the sharp sting of brimstone.
Shit-sticks! Not now!
Warty green hands dusted off a tailored, wine-colored coat, and the gremlin adjusted the spectacles perched on his pointy nose. He stretched a wing, shook his tail, and scrawled something in a large, leather-bound codex. “Golfgob the Warg Straddler?”
“Golgoth the World Strangler!”
“You sure? That’s not what it says here,” said the gremlin.
“How do you not remember my name, Nuck Nuck? I attended four out of your five weddings!”
Nuck Nuck squinted at Golgoth over his glasses for quite some time before burping and picking his crooked teeth.
Golgoth sighed. “Will this be a long visit? I have stock on the boil.”
“Simmer down, sweetheart. I come to check on your progress,” said Nuck Nuck.
“Enjoying Drýlic, then? Belonged to Delwyn the Disemboweler, until she was hung for cooking some of Queen Mircella’s children. Don’t see what the fuss was about—she only ate the ugly ones.”
“They were all ugly. Most Northlanders are.” Golgoth pulled his brigandine back and scratched at his crotch. “It’s a fine keep. Not too draughty. Lots of space.”
“Right you are. I’ll let the Housing Department know they’ve nailed it.” Nuck Nuck wrote something with a pen made from a preserved human finger. “Look, I’ll get right to it—you’ve been a bottom-tier member of the Dark Lord’s Guild these past—let’s see—thirty-eight summers! Tut, tut. Not good at all, Golfgob.”
“Well, while we at the D.L.G. are happy to embrace those with malevolent leanings—even if they lack motivation—that’s quite a long time without quantifiable results, me old mate. We’ve let it slide for so long due to your humble beginnings, but it’s getting silly now, old cock. What evil plots have you hatched? Anything on the boil other than stock?” The gremlin stuck a finger in his ear and twisted it.
I will not be shaking your hand when you leave. “Let me think.” Golgoth picked up a beef bone and tapped it against his forehead as he whistled a jaunty melody. “I fed that monster-hunter to a wyvern and her babies that time.”
Nuck Nuck flicked through the pages of his book. “That was nine summers ago! Anything more recent, or are you living in the proverbial?”
“And there was the whole to-do over that situation that culminated in the… You know what? Moving house took ages. Before that, I took some personal time. Granted, it dragged on for longer than I expected.” Golgoth paced up and down like a caged werebear. “I’m grateful that the guild chose to reinvigorate my efforts with new digs, but I’ve yet to settle in.” His eyes grew wide. “I haven’t been pulling my weight. Is that what you want me to say?”
The inspector picked through a bucket of root vegetables with wart-covered digits. “Don’t get defensive. I’m not here to point fingers.” You’re too busy digging your earholes with them. And thence onto my veg, you filthy bastard.
“I’ve been sent to give everyone a much-needed nudge in the gonads. That’s all. Gadzooks, this kitchen’s fancy, isn’t it? A dark lord could get very distracted in a place like this.” The gremlin knocked over a jar filled with spoons, tongs, and other utensils. “Maybe less time roasting meat and more spent roasting people, eh?”
Golgoth winced. “I’m working on a few things. Just give me some time.”
“We just want to see you make some progress and drag your evil arse up to the next level.” The gremlin slammed the codex shut and shuffled toward Golgoth. “You don’t want to be scaring kiddies and burning villages for the rest of your life, do you?”
Golgoth’s face froze. “Why would you say that?”
“Look. Tier two opens up some lovely new spells. Real nasty stuff. And I know you like it nasty.” Nuck Nuck flapped his leathery wings and shot up to Golgoth’s eyeline. “The guild knows you’ve been a naughty boy. Using a spell of damnation, and all.”
The gremlin slapped a hand over Golgoth’s open mouth. “Don’t worry about it. No one’s getting a spanking. That’s a fifth-tier spell. You enjoy that. Just promise me that you’ll be open to any new opportunities that might drop into your lap. You might just find yourself climbing the ladder quicker than you expected. And you don’t want that other thing coming to light, do you?”
Golgoth tensed up.
“We can confiscate anything we consider to be … contraband.” Nuck Nuck floated to the ground and wiped his hand on his breeches.
Golgoth spoke through gritted teeth. “I’m sure you’ll be in touch.”
“You can count on it. Happy whisking, or whatever the fuck you’re doing.” The gremlin pulled a phial from his pocket and drank the murky liquid within. He disappeared with a blast that knocked a large pan off its hook.
“I’M MAKING STOCK!”
Golgoth stirred the bubbling liquid as he sprinkled it with salt. The addition of meat was interrupted by the sound of vigorous thudding. He rolled his eyes and shuffled toward the cook’s door that sat north of the kitchen.
More thudding—this time with added gusto.
Golgoth rubbed the base of his left horn. Will these interruptions never stop? This better not be those door-to-door monks again. I wish I’d never taken that bloody pamphlet!
He undid all locks and latches and pulled the thick door open a crack. “Yes? Is this my meat order? I’m expecting fresh quails this time!”
The woman at the door held a heavy looking bag with one hand and nervously patted her thigh with the other. “No quails, I’m afraid. I’m Wenlic. The agency sent me?”
“Is that a question?” asked Golgoth.
“No. Sorry.” The woman pinched the tip of her nose so hard that tears welled in her eyes.
She was neither remarkably tall nor particularly short. Her facial features weren’t unpleasant but neither were they what most would deem pretty. Her eyes were the color of her hair: a kind of woody brown. Her tresses seemed unruly, as though they were trying to escape the ribbon used to tie them back. Golgoth wasn’t sure how to feel about the woman and his thoughts turned back to his bubbling pot.
Wenlic spoke again. “They did send me. I’m here about the job.” She dumped her leather bag on the ground and pulled out a document. She proffered it to Golgoth, who waved it away.
“Which one? The night-soil job? You’re a little small and … a woman,” said Golgoth, peering back at the hearth.
“No, not that role,” said Wenlic, wrinkling her nose.
“No, not that role, My Lord and Master,” Golgoth corrected.
“Oh.” Wenlic struck her left cheek.
Slapping your own face? Too bat-shit for my taste. “If you’re wondering how you’re doing—it’s not looking great. Maybe go back to the agency and tell them I want someone less like you. Also, tell them I’m overdue for a good Night Soil Man. The peak of the mountain is about to breach the rim, if you know what I mean. Good day.”
“No!” Wenlic shouted.
“No, My Lord.”
“And Master,” Golgoth added.
“And Master,” repeated Wenlic.
“You’re quite peculiar. Normally, I like that sort of thing, but not in a member of my staff. Then again, maybe you’re just a thick-o. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“With all due fear and fealty, I’m neither. I’m hardworking, and I have some really solid organizational skills.”
“Is that right?” Going down swinging, eh, scrapling?
Wenlic looked up at Drýlic’s imposing walls. “You bought this place, am I right? You didn’t commission its construction?”
“It was purchased on my behalf. What of it?”
“I’m guessing you step on a lot of toes in your line of work? What I mean is, you’re no stranger to angry mobs or knights errant who would trade your head for coin?”
“Just what are you getting at?” Golgoth snapped.
“You lack the basic security features required by any dark lord worth his salt.”
“Now, listen to me!”
“I just strolled up the side of the building and knocked on the service door. You have no portcullis, no drawbridge, and nothing to deter the pitchfork-wielding set at all!” said Wenlic with growing passion.
“What would you suggest, seeing as how you’re one of the world’s leading authorities?” asked Golgoth.
“Heads on spikes? Maybe a beast or two roaming the grounds? A House-Giant wielding an iron hammer? Anything would be better than nothing,” said Wenlic.
Golgoth opened his toothy mouth to speak but nothing came out. He pulled at his bottom lip and paused a moment. “You’re absolutely right. Of course, I had always meant to put something in place, but I’ve just been so busy moving all of my stuff in. You never really know how many skeletons, suits of armor, and stuffed animals you own until you have to move them. You seem to know a thing or two.”
“Thank you,” said Wenlic.
“So, you’re here to be my Personal Assistant, then.”
The woman nodded enthusiastically.
“Makes sense.” Golgoth looked Wenlic up and down. “I asked for someone who was not too…”
Wenlic tried to coax the rest of the statement with her eyebrows. Nothing came. She looked down over her modest bust.
Golgoth pushed sultry air through his nostrils and looked out across the snow-capped peaks of Lyfthelm. “I’m a bit stuck for help right now, and you’re clearly going to be all stubborn about it, so how about this? You’re on a trial basis, and we’ll reassess at week’s end.” And don’t make me feed you to the dirt.
The woman’s whole body shuddered. “That’s great! You won’t regret it, My Mord and Laster!”
“Calm down. Let’s not punish the art of communication. Come out of the cold, then.” Golgoth waved the woman indoors.
Wenlic looked around. “May I say, this is just lovely.”
“Is it?” Golgoth’s face screwed up. “I was going for oppressive and devoid of hope.”
“Oh, it’s that too. Very bleak, My Lord.” Wenlic swapped her carryall from her left to right hand with a grunt, then Golgoth snatched it off her.
What is in this thing? Try to look muscular.
He threw it under the wooden island table in the middle of the kitchen. “You’ll get that back after the tour. Do you own any better clothes?”
Wenlic ran her hands over her brown kirtle and forced the merest hint of a smile. “What would My Lord … and Master prefer?”
Golgoth pulled the stock pot off the boil. “Black. I want you in black. Also, you’re quite skinny. I’d like to see more meat on your bones.”
Her gaze fell to her booted feet.
“You’ll need strength and physical fortitude. Evil is not the easy path that folksy wisdom would have you believe.”
“I could dye my clothes black. This job—should you choose to keep me—will allow me to eat better. I’ll be stacking on weight in no time,” said Wenlic.
“Not too much. Don’t want you struggling to climb the stairs. There are an awful lot of stairs.”
A flash of something crossed Wenlic’s pale features. “No. I’ll keep an eye on the food intake.”
Golgoth moved briskly from room to room with Wenlic in tow. He pointed out the main areas: throne room, dining hall, interrogation chamber (the blood grates would need to be cleaned regularly), and various other amenities. In the name of efficiency, he encouraged his new subordinate to use all secret entryways, save one. He ran his fingers over the door’s thick steel. “This chamber is only ever to be opened by me. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Wenlic nodded, tucking a stray lock of mousey hair behind her left ear.
“You want to ask me what’s behind it, don’t you?”
“No.” She shifted uncomfortably. “Yes.”
“An empty wineskin. Unbaked bread. Sun unrisen and words unsaid,” said Golgoth with a distant look in his eye.
“Do you?” Golgoth asked.
“Not really. No.” Wenlic pinched her thigh through her skirts.
“That makes you want to know even more.”
“I’ll keep a lid on my curiosity, My Lord and Master.”
“Good. That’s all I wanted to hear.” Golgoth brought his face to Wenlic’s. “I am something of an artist when it comes to the delivery of exquisite agonies.”
Her eyelids drooped, and she sighed like air was being squeezed from her.
“Plus, you’ll never find the key. Just give up now.”
Dust rained from above, and a dull thump followed a guttural groan. Golgoth locked eyes with his assistant, and her gaze (to her credit) did not veer toward the door. His lips retracted like curtains revealing a full cast of teeth. “And we’ll have a look at the dungeons tomorrow, I think. Time for a spot of lunch?”
Golgoth placed a silver plate before Wenlic. On it was an arrangement of steamy sautéed winter vegetables, roasted meats (crisp at the edge and blushed at the center), and a rich, dark sauce that smelled of mushrooms. The grumbling of her stomach echoed through the dining hall. “It’s not much, I’m afraid. I’d forgotten I was expecting company.”
Please, gods, let the food be good.
Wenlic’s gaze swung up and rested on a wooden sculpture that almost touched the rafters. Buffed to a glossy sheen, it was the precise likeness of her host—its great hands placed firmly on its hips and its head thrown back in a maniacal cackle.
“You like that piece?” he asked. “I had it commissioned. Made from a single trunk of world-tree wood. Took twenty-three kobolds as many weeks to craft,” said Golgoth.
“This is the most handsome plate of food I’ve seen in some time, My Lord.”
Golgoth swallowed. “Your mother was not skilled at cookery?”
The woman shook her head.
Big surprise. A bloodline devoid of creative flair.
“Why are you so nervous?” he asked.
“Pardon?” said Wenlic as she interlaced her fingers.
Golgoth leaned on the table. “You’re edgy. Shaky. Are you frightened?”
“Not as such, Sir.”
“You punish yourself. Why do you do that?” asked Golgoth.
“Habit,” replied Wenlic.
“No. Your parents—did they abandon you?”
Wenlic was silent.
“Were they strict? Too hard on you? Refused to buy you a winged bloody horse? Speak, woman!”
“Let’s start with your mother—unskilled in the kitchen. She was distracted by other things? Making coin? Getting drunk? Did she have a secret lover?” demanded Golgoth.
Wenlic picked at her plate with her knife. “No. She died when I was very young. Plague took her.”
Good work, big mouth.
“I see.” Golgoth fidgeted. “Your father?”
“He went later.”
“A living father is not always so great.” He spat on the ground and Wenlic noted it. “You’re an orphan, then? Albeit an older one.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that. You’re right.” Wenlic stroked the hot wax of a candle.
“Where did you grow up?”
The woman played with her food.
“I mean no harm. I simply wish to know those who work for me.”
“Smalewic, My Lord.” A loud crack from the fireplace underlined the statement.
Golgoth raised an eyebrow and blew air through pursed lips. “Smalewic. It’s—”
“Rebuilt now. As best it could be.” Wenlic tilted her head as she stared straight back at her master.
“It is? I haven’t been that way for some time,” said Golgoth.
“You may have heard that it was burned. Must be ten summers ago now.”
“Yes. I h-had heard that.” Golgoth took his seat at the head of the table. “And you want to be in my service. Why?”
“Magic, My Lord,” Wenlic answered.
“I’m drawn to it. Taunted by it. It might sound silly, but I need to be around it.”
“Not silly at all. It is a surprising answer, though. I believe we agree on that point. Magic—it's like music. It’s—”
“It’s lustrous clothing for an ugly world.”
“Yes. Yes, you’ve summed it up beautifully,” said Golgoth.
Wenlic began eating, taking only small bites like a cautious mouse. Golgoth followed suit, seeming to have lost his appetite. Little sound was made other than knife scraping and wine slurping. At the meal’s conclusion, Golgoth leaned back in his iron chair and lit a clay pipe. Plumes of smoke hid his face. Only his glowing orange eyes were visible, like signal fires on a distant hill.
Wenlic stood and began the long walk to the far end of the table.
She is a ship, engulfed by fog, relying on my steady beam. How frail she is. Come, bask in my brilliance, little waif.
Wenlic held out a hand. “I’ll take our dishes to the kitchen, My Lord.”
Golgoth recalled Wenlic’s reaction as he showed her the room that was hers alone.
The scrapling’s face lit up when she saw her four-poster bed. Soft little finch. Does she sleep naked?
Golgoth climbed to the top of the rear tower and threw open the eyrie door. He lifted his riding cape from its iron hook and wrapped it around his broad shoulders. A long bulky shape hung from the rafters. It began to stir. Huge wings appeared as the creature stretched and arched its back with a shriek.
Golgoth stroked its head. “Easy there, Screechy. Time for a little hunting, yes?”
Screechy mewled and licked its black lips.
“Be a good boy for Daddy, and we’ll have you back to bed in no time, hmm?” Golgoth kissed Screechy’s ear.
The giant bat dropped to the floor, crawled to the window, and there it perched, looking over its shoulder. Golgoth strapped an ornate, leather saddle to Screechy’s back and jumped on, clicking his tongue. Powerful legs pushed off from the sill, and Golgoth’s stomach lurched as they fell. As the great beast’s wings unfurled, together they soared into the night under a flaming red moon.
Screechy and Golgoth coasted across the slopes of Mount Godholme and over the snowy white blankets of Lyfthelm. Golgoth closed his eyes as the icy wind stung his cheeks; it was both pleasure and pain. When he lifted his lids and looked down again, they had just passed Icehearth, the city that hugged the curve of Frozen Bay.
The rooftops remind me of iced treats. Used to make them by the dozen. Not much call for that now.
Screechy squealed as if responding to Golgoth’s thoughts.
“You wouldn’t like my frozen concoctions. Not enough insects for your taste, my little scratchy-face.”
Golgoth leaned left and Screechy banked southeast toward Sudorcastel, the Elderland’s southernmost kingdom. The Hold of Gold was a sight to behold—or so said those who’d seen the inside. All knew of Sudor’s wealth and prosperity: the wildly expensive banquets; the chambers filled with coin; the jewel-encrusted throne. There was also talk of the Sudor King’s love for family. Some said he doted on them more than was natural. Others suggested the opposite—claiming the princess’s mother had met an untimely death at the end of his blade. It didn’t help when certain courtiers maintained she was too ill for public appearance. Either way, Golgoth cared little for ale-house gossip. What bearing did the doings of entitled royals have on him and his stronghold?
Golgoth glanced furtively to the north. He caught sight of Smalewic’s edge, and his eyebrow began to twitch. “Over there, Screechy. Take us down to the inn near Sudor. Not too close, boy.”
The bat dropped out of the sky, slowing above the forest with a flap of his wings. He wrapped his talons around the branch of a beech tree and hung upside down. Golgoth flipped onto the thick grass below and crouched like a fox. Then he eyed his surroundings, listened for movement, and sniffed at the air. His pointed ears wiggled as he locked onto a sound not far away—the sound of someone unsuspecting and vulnerable.
A stocky figure loped and staggered away from the Edge O’ The World Inn. It sounded in pain.
Is that meant to be singing? I should have brought bread to stuff in my ears. Shit-sticks. No one else around. This tone-deaf drunkard will have to do.
Golgoth snatched the man into the shadows with the speed of a striking snake, then examined his victim. What manner of man is this? he wondered, rubbing his left horn.
The merrymaker stared up at his captor with a vacant grin. His eyes were far apart. Very far apart. He sported a hump on his back and it made one arm sit higher than the other. Golgoth buried his fingers in the folds of the man’s tunic and pulled him up to face level. His eyes rolled back as he called the things of the Underworld.
No one came.
A wolf howled in the distance, and several more answered, but the ground remained still.
Golgoth’s eyes snapped back into place. “I’m sorry. Have a good evening.” He turned to leave but couldn’t; the hunchback was tugging on his cape.
“No go,” the man said, shaking his head.
“What?” asked Golgoth.
“No go. We be friends now!”
Golgoth snatched his cape from the man’s thick fingers. “I don’t want or need friends.”
“You are tall as a tree. I like your horn-head.”
“Thank you? I have things to attend to before sunrise, so, if you’ll excuse me…”
“What things? I help you with things!”
“Do you even know what I am? How close you came to—” Golgoth massaged his temples. “What’s your name?”
“People call me: Hey, you stupid-face! and Get away from me, you ugly-head!"
“What is your given name?” asked Golgoth.
“My mama called me Atolic.”
“Atolic. Do you know what your name means?”
“No,” said Atolic.
“Probably for the best. You have a mother, so clearly you have a home to go to?”
“Mama said I was dangerously dense, so I live in a working house now. It is pretty good there. They do not beat me as much anymore and they let me go to the drinking place sometimes. So long as it is the one what is furthest away.”
“Okay. So, you like it there, then? Even with the beatings?” Golgoth asked.
“Good-o.” Atolic abruptly shook his head. “Actually, no. If I am honest, I do not really think it is that good.” Atolic jammed a thumb into the skin of his brow and made a stirring motion.
Golgoth looked out into the inky forest, back at the twisted man, and rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Well, goodnight!” Golgoth began to make his way toward Screechy, until he heard footfalls that mimicked his own. “Time for you to go home, son.”
“You are my father? Mama said my dada was an ale-house boar!”
“No! Also, what your mother said was either metaphorical or just cruel. In this instance, son is a term of endearment. Do you even know what that is?” asked Golgoth.
“A word or phrase expressing fondness?”
“Well, yes. Very good, Atolic. Your grasp of the common tongue aside—you’re not coming with me!”
“I can help you do adventures!” said Atolic.
“No, Atolic! No adventures. Go home!”
“I am not a dog. I like dogs, and I would someday likes to own one, but I am not one!” Atolic slowly folded his arms over his chest, thrust his nose in the air, and staggered off in the vague direction of town.
Golgoth looked for his mount, but the beast was nowhere to be seen. “Screechy? I know you can hear me, you big-eared buffoon! Where are you?” Golgoth walked in circles with his eyes fixed on the sky.
“Did something spook you? I know. You ate too many leafhoppers and you feel sick! Come down and I’ll rub your tummy.”
“Bugger off, then, you glorified rodent. Don’t bother coming home!” cried Golgoth.
He fixed his cat-like eyes on the ground as he weaved through the trees.
Are there no hour-glass mushrooms in this ridiculous forest? Gods, how I hate fast-travel. But walking sucks even more. Don’t suppose I’ll find what I need for a way-potion anyhow. Bloody blast-caps are probably just out of season. Shit-sticks.
Golgoth began to wonder if his night was likely to get worse, when it did just that. The worsening came in the form of a bird-like thing—cruising in for a landing and collecting Golgoth’s body along the way. It hurt quite a lot.
The darkness wriggled, rolled about a little, then coughed before sitting up. Golgoth the World Strangler rose to his feet and looked for whatever had bowled him into the forest basin. A big eagle-like head split the sea of swirling mist. It was followed by the tail of a lion. The creature reared up and it became clear that the eagle’s head and lion’s behind belonged to the same beast. It flapped its feathery wings, conjuring eddies in the murk, and let out a piercing cry.
A gryphon! Far from home too. What is it doing out here?
The chill of winter gave way to summery warmth as Golgoth moved deeper. A glade opened up and columns of iridescent faeries spiraled toward a body of water at its center. The winged folk skipped across the lake’s surface before dissevering like an explosion of sparks. Centaurs cantered about the water’s edge. Goat-legged satyrs played tuneful pipes, and merfolk leapt into the air before plunging into the deep.
Golgoth—evil incarnate and Scourge of the South—shook like a leaf. Seated on a throne-shaped rock on the far side of the pool, sat a woman. Her eyes were as the brilliant green gems found in the mines of Farcorner. Her lips were as glossy, plump, and pink as the exotic fruits from lesser known parts of the Eastwud. The curves of her body were like the pathways that lured travelers to their doom in the perilous Vanguard Mountains. Pixies styled her golden tresses, adorning her with berries and heart-shaped leaves. Dryads sang in achingly beautiful tones as water sprites bathed the woman’s milk-colored feet, smiling as they worked.
Gods and the Great Ascension! Who is that? Terrible. Beautiful. How can I live another moment without her?
“That is the princess of Sudorcastel. Gyldenlocc. She is prettier than anything.”
“Yes,” Golgoth answered without looking for the commentary’s source. “Atolic? You were meant to head home.”
“Well, I did not. I come here sometimes,” Atolic replied.
“To watch a princess bathe?” asked Golgoth.
“You are doing it too.”
“Me too. I got lost,” said Atolic.
Golgoth’s glowing eyes dropped. “I feel like I shouldn’t be here.”
“I feel like that sometimes too. I do not think she minds the attention though. Just do not go too close.”
“Does she do this each night?” asked Golgoth.
“Each night that I have come.”
“How many times have you come? No, don’t tell me.” The glade fell dark, and Golgoth looked around frantically. “She’s gone! Where has she gone?”
“Finished now. She has been escorted back to home by the pixies and other things. What is wrong? Are you not done wanking?” asked Atolic.
“Wanking? I was not wanking!” said Golgoth.
“Oh. I thought you was wanking.”
“Good-o. Sometimes I do wanking,” said Atolic.
“Can you please stop saying wanking!”
A shrill scream sent magical creatures bolting in all directions.
Golgoth wriggled his fingers, and ice crystals appeared—forming a long translucent shaft. The frigid structure bent back and a single iota of shimmering blue fell groundward, a thin thread trailing behind it. The result was a bow formed of pure ice, and Golgoth drew back its string as a straight, sharp arrow materialized from the tips of his black claws. He stood perfectly still, and Atolic crouched quietly.
The distressed cries continued, and Golgoth loosed his arrow into the void. Something fell. Golgoth darted into the trees, followed by Atolic.
It was a scene of blood, pain, and death. The hunchback touched a hand to the earth. “The dark forest feasts on blood tonight.”